Balancing introversion with the social life of hostels isn’t easy, but this is how I navigated 20-bed dorm rooms as an extroverted introvert.
By Libby Ryan
We loudly burst through the hostel doors, gulping water to counter the oppressive Turkish heat. Even at 4 am, Istanbul maintained its soaring summer temperatures. Slogging towards our waiting bunk beds, my newfound travel buddies and I debriefed our night. “Amazing.” “Crazy.” “So much fun.” I left out one word defining my current mood: drained.
Nearly our entire dorm room had opted in on the night’s pub crawl; we giggled in the blue light of iPhone flashlights as we fumbled around in the dark. I tried to ignore the familiar pulsing uneasiness in my gut, the warning that my patience for people was wearing thin. I headed to the shared bathroom, nearly running into one of the few girls who hadn’t spent the night hopping Beyoglu neighborhood bars. She wrapped a headscarf around her hair and waved, whispering that she was headed out to watch the sun rise over the Bosphorus River. My heart swelled with jealousy at her imminent solo adventure.
Suddenly, I was thrust into an existential crisis: How could I be the girl who danced on rooftops all night all and woke up in time to watch the sunrise?
I define myself as an extroverted introvert, a term to describe my constant internal battle. I should come with my own warning label: Traveler is more introverted than may appear.
Hostels are clearly designed for my extroverted half. Dorm rooms packed with ten-plus beds, communal breakfasts and common room happy hours cater to the social butterfly crowd. It’s hard to be shy in a hostel. You have to put in some serious small talk in order to be let in on the magic of the traveler network. And once I found my way in, it was a tightrope act to balance feeding my internal attention-mongering monster and getting enough alone time to regroup for the next day.
Amazing-crazy-so-much-fun nights might take their toll on some with aching feet and a craving for a kebab, but my hangover is psychological. I can always tell where my threshold is on either side of the spectrum. When I started to feel restless buzzing energy and my walking pace unconsciously becomes speedy, I know it is time to squirrel myself away in a coffee shop. But when I found myself wandering through tourist throngs scanning the crowd for people my own age or abruptly spinning around when I heard an American accent, I knew it was time to find some friends.
Potential friends don’t tend to immediately present themselves to you at peak social moments. I had to rely on a skill that came naturally to my extroverted side but my introverted half loathed: small talk.
Luckily, there’s a neat little script for backpackers that puts family holiday chit chat to shame. I learned my lines quickly, running through my nationality (American), starting point (Istanbul), how long I planned to travel (six weeks) and length of my hostel stay (5 days) in order to compare answers with the new travelers setting down their packs on neighboring beds.
One matching answer or a follow-up query essentially guaranteed a new pal, eager to discuss what city sights were on our respective to-do lists for the next day. Often, our destinations overlapped but the notion of choking out the words, “Do you want to go together?” was bone-chillingly out of the question. Instead, I opted for the cool and casual, “We should meet up later.” Unsurprisingly, everyone agreed and yet, no one followed through. Including me.
I learned the two waves of hostel plans. The hostel breakfast club toured sights together, fresh off a morning meal of toast, Nutella, and small talk. But I could wander alone from plaza to monument, stopping for coffee, lunch, and gelato on my own and free of social anxiety. I caught the second wave, when my fellow travelers returned to home base to plan their evenings.
The night ended in a techno club. The smoke, strobes, and unexpected beat drops made my head spin as we attempted to dance to the blaring music. But I was fixated on our imminent long trek back through the historical district. I was restless, dreaming of hailing a cab to bring me back to my rented bed. But on a budget, you need partners to split a fare or a buddy to make a long walk safe. I’ve learned my lesson, so next time, I’m designating a stash of money for introvert transportation emergencies.
I did some heavy lifting before arriving in each city, researching the party levels of most of my hostels. I tended towards listings with high ratings and no curfew, but avoided the spots that hosted city-wide pub crawls. I could always send myself out for the party, but I become overwhelmed if the party comes to me.
My last night in Turkey, I found myself at a cozy wine bar chatting about future travel plans with my fellow hostel travelers. I had six weeks left in my travels and I worried momentarily that I wouldn’t meet another group as interesting or as welcoming as this clan in Istanbul. But as one glass turned into two and numbers on the clock blurred well past midnight, I looked around the table to realize it was a smattering of hostel folks, some who’d arrived days earlier like me and some who’d checked in only moments before joining the group.
We giggled like the best of friends as we chipped in spare change, trying to calculate a tip in Turkish Lira before we meandered back to the hostel only hours before my flight departed. As I packed my bags and walked along the cobbled street to the subway, I saw the first rays of light of the sun rise over the city. I stepped into the train station smiling, remembering the night’s events and savoring the precious moment alone.
Libby Ryan is a freelance journalist and travel writer, currently based in New York. Her work has appeared in Forbes Travel Guide, Delta Sky, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. She’s a Minnesota native with a soft spot for exploring the flyover states, even though she now lives much closer to the ocean. Follow her travels and quest for beautiful bookstores onInstagram and take a look at her previous work in her portfolio.