His hands hover over his keyboard as if he’s praying to a god. He stares at the sacred results of his Google search that appears on his laptop screen and scrolls through “Things to do in Colombia”. Next to him, the Colombian with a Herculean physique explores his own Instagram feed as he forks a bite of his fluffy pancake doused in maple syrup, the authentic Canadian breakfast provided each morning from the hostel staff. The Googler and the Colombian do not exchange a word or a glance.
At the check-in desk at the Canadiana Backpackers Inn in Toronto, there’s a sign with large boldface letters: ‘INTERNET PASSWORD: canada123’. The first thing travellers are doing when arriving, is logging into Wi-Fi. This is the new connection travellers make; it’s virtual- not with one another.
An Australian steadies her backpack against the wood panel wall and removes her phone from the faded outline it’s left in the back pocket of her jeans; she connects. She doesn’t look at the front-desk staff who is explaining when and where breakfast is served.
The wireless fidelity, abbreviated to Wi-Fi, weaves through the halls of the 1889 Victorian townhouses, intertwining with the ‘80s rock buzzing from the front desk. For $27.44 a night, nomads share dorms, starting and ending the day with strangers. They cook side by side and they sit thigh to thigh on the plump couches. The hostel’s ample communal areas are meant to initiate social interaction, but travellers spend most of their time with their connection to Wi-Fi.
The owner of the hostel, Chris Morgan, trudges through the hostel’s open door, the thumping of his well-worn hiking boots quieted by the overlaid Persian rugs. His bulging fanny pack pokes out from under his blue and yellow Colombia windbreaker. He retrieves a small bundle of envelops from behind the front desk. His cheeks are still flushed from the chilly October morning as he leaves.
Morgan speaks in fragments, as he explains how he slowly acquired the eight townhomes tucked away on Widmer St. in the entertainment district, the same street where his late-father, John Morgan, had once lived. He is one of Canada’s most prolific comedy writers, most known for as a founder of CBC’s Royal Canadian Air Farce.
Morgan opened the hostel in 1996, after returning to Toronto from an extensive round the world trip. He set to replicate the camaraderie that he clung to during his travels. “With a hostel there is actually a community of people, it’s not just a place to sleep, it’s also a place to meet people,” says Morgan.
Wi-Fi is a fixture in the 16 hostels located in Toronto, all providing free access to wireless Internet to their guests. Before Wi-Fi became a meeting tool for travellers, the weekly pub-crawls and quiz nights led by the hostel were where they would gather.
Canadiana Backpackers Inn obtained Wi-Fi when they first opened 20 years ago. The hostels manager, Sandra Tojeira, says back then, there wasn’t a demand for Wi-Fi.
“Before it used to be a pen and paper under their door to get in touch, where as now it’s just an impersonal Facebook message,” says Tojeira.
Melanie Chambers, the now 43-year-old travel writer, started travelling in 1996. When it came to breaking the ice, she would always strike up conversation. “Wi-Fi takes away from making face-to-face connections,” says Chambers. She stresses that travellers inevitably feel disconnected from their environment, like they never left home. What exhilarates her is taking herself out of her comfort zone. “It’s the risk that comes with travel… You want it to feel as strange as it can possibly be,” says Chambers.
The German traveller working temporarily at the front desk sinks into the common room couch, relinquishing the last few minutes of his break. A sharp body odour escapes his baggy t-shirt. The brightness of his phone illuminates his face in the dully-lit, musty common room. A life-size wood carved native Indian salutes the hostel guests who are staring at their devices as if it’s their only lifeline. While cruising through people on the Tinder app, his screen displays a photo of a clean-shaven 24 year-old Dutch man. He stops and looks over across the room to the same Dutch man sitting 9ft. away from him. His Beats by Dre headphones attach him to his laptop. The German swipes right on his screen over the man’s photo. A checkmark is promptly replaced by “Match” in Tinder’s signature fiery orange – he’s mastered the game of Where’s Waldo. Instead of going up to the Dutch man, the German fixes his eyes back on Tinder, and continues to swipe: left, left, left, right, left, right… Like fishing with dynamite. Minutes later, the German returns to his post at the front desk without speaking to the Dutch man.
The Wi-Fi network streams through the hostel, but travellers gather around the three Microsoft desktop computers tucked in a corner. “This is where the connection is strongest”, says the Colombian, tapping away at his phone. A single mother of two yells at the chunky monitor as her allocated Wi-Fi session runs out. Before she can return, a quiet girl wearing her knit sweater inside out is waiting to connect. The Colombian looks over the shoulders of two Russians, carrying on conversation without looking away from their Facebook pages.
Update: Since writing this story, the Canadiana Backpackers Inn has shut down and will be replaced by condos. Although wi-fi has become intrinsic to travel, hostels such as these had a home-y feel and I’m happy to have connected with a few great people during the time I spent there.