A ROUNDED MAN in a lived-in sweater, and permanently in need of a shave, Roar has lived on the Lofotens all his life. Like most islanders, he is a man of the sea. Though you wouldn’t think it to look at him, he runs, what was once described as ‘the best hostel in the world’ in The Times. Perhaps it’d be more accurate to say he lets the hostel run itself.
More out of neglect than style, Roar’s long, dark hair hung just below his shirt collar. He was telling me he also worked as assessor of damage to boats for insurance companies. With his dry sense of humour I couldn’t be sure if he was joking. He looked more like a Viking sort of man, who might damage boats for a living.
Few visitors at the hostel manage to stay long without being drawn into the self-ordering anarchy. No place for loners, it’s impossible not to join in. For many, that’s the whole idea of hostelling: you sweep and I’ll clear the table.
But there are always those, who force themselves to go against the flow, however strong the current and, on occasion, I’m proud to admit having been amongst their number. But this was not such an occasion. Only one Norwegian man in the bunk opposite to mine fought the urge to join in. He seemed to spend all his time aboard his bunk reading a newspaper. It might’ve been assumed he was on the run from someone, or somewhere. Maybe even both. Whatever, it was obvious he wanted to be left alone.
The large old-style communal kitchen, and shortage of cooking facilites, made it difficult not to share space, spice and other ingredients essential to communal living. Residents gathered each evening to cook, taking turns. Many shortenend the process by making meals from pooled foodstuffs. And once on the refectory table, an information market grew amongst the assembled diners, where travel experiences and tips were traded eagerly between the mainly German, French, Norwegian, and American wanderers. Not to leave out we minorities from other corners of the globe.
Hiro came from Japan. He’d been travelling over Europe for two years and still had plenty of places left to see. He liked to try a bit of everybody’s food, sometimes having three or four small meals each evening, as though he was at a tapas bar. Nobody seemed to mind, as there was always something to left for allcomers.
Mark, was an Australian in his forties. Working in the oil business on rigs and ships, he’d been travelling for most of his adult life. Though based in Thailand with his Thai family, when he wasn’t working or travelling, he still found time to spend part of the year his mother’s in Adelaide.
A good part of his travels had been in the Far East and Asia. He had journeyed through China and Mongolia, and visited Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, as well as much of Indonesia. He told me he was in Romania just before the fall of Ceaușescu and his wife. We got to know each other through sharing a meal.
As I washing up afterwards, a young Israeli told me he was a journalist taking some time out for travel. I found the idea quite strange. Most writers and journalists wouldn’t think of themselves as taking off time to travel. The job involves observing life, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing.
Later that evening, a woman turned up with a small child in tow. Eva and Datian were on holday from neighbouring Finland. A very lively, little boy, Datian wanted to climb into the rowing boats and play everywhere he shouldn’t and definitely needed watching. Introducing herself to Mark and I, it was obvious she wanted to find relief in a bit of adult company for a change. Datian told me he didn’t like the hostel as it was too old and dark. To show him life wasn’t all bad, we promised to take them both fishing next morning.
Never have I seen so many mosquitoes as I saw at Stamsund. They came with the evening as one gigantic cloud and humming and hovering throughout the night. Though I thought I’d managed to cover my head and neck pretty well, I still woke up not long after eight with more than thirty bites. Eva and Datian were already up, and asked me if we were still going fishing. I told them we’d set out as soon as Mark got up.
Sitting at the quayside filling my diary, I noticed the Israeli journalist climbing into one of the rowing boats. From the clumsy way he boarded, I got the impression he’d never been in one before and thought to keep an eye out. He couldn’t manage the oars, and attempted rowing stern first. It soon became obvious he needed help. I tried shouting out instructions on how to row but, by that time, he was in a bit of a panic, so I jumped into another boat and rowed towards him, calling out how to turn, or slow the boat, to avoid crashing into the pier he was heading straight towards. Luckily, I managed to get to him first and attached a line to the bow of his boat to tow him back to the quay and dry land. At the very least, I had saved Roar the job of assessing the damage to one of his own boats.
Though, in reality, he wouldn’t have done himself or the boat much damage, he seemed incredibly shaken by the little incident, thanking me over and over again, even though I hadn’t done very much. I sat with him while he regained his composure and witnessed his shock turned to embarrassment. He felt humiliated, and I wished I could’ve convinced him it didn’t matter. So humiliated, he caught the next bus without saying goodbye. We didn’t even get to know each other’s names.
Meanwhile, I offered to take Eva and Datian out for a short trip to keep the boy amused while we waited for Mark to wake. She told me she and her husband had adopted Datian from a Romanian orphanage two years before, when he was five. They all lived on the Swedish-speaking Ålund Islands of Southern Finland.
By the time Mark got up it was after midday. After he ate his breakfast, and Eva made lunch for her and Datian, I rowed us all out to sea. We caught a lot of fish, cod, a sea salmon, a herring and various other smaller fishes. Mark was particularly successful. I caught nothing worth keeping. From Datian hating Stamsund he had begun to like it.
As cooking fish in the hostel kitchen was strictly forbidden. I elected to fry the fish on the hotplate provided on the quayside. It took an age. With the nightly mosquito blitzkrieg full on, my head became enemy target number one. I’d started to look like one of the worst cases of acne in the world.
In the way things go, by the time I’d finished cooking so much fish it was the last thing I felt like eating. Completely overwhelmed by the stuff, I could’ve murdered a pork chop. Eva made fish stew out of some for Datian, and Hiro got a generous ration.
Luckily, three French girls, who’d arrived on the Hurtigruten from the north, showed up as hungry as a pack of Gallic she-wolves. With so many leftovers we were only too happy to feed them. But there was still more left. Another couple arrived, and we fed them. Even then we couldn’t get rid of it. After they eaten as much as they could, we put the remains in the fridge. By that time, I secretly hoped someone feeling like a midnight snack would steal it.
Next morning, it was raining, and time for Eva and Datian left to head back to Finland. Yet more goodbyes.
So many people were coming in and out of my life it was becoming a revolving door.
Copyright © 2013 Bryan Hemming
The best hostel in the world – part three →