THIS CANADA

Way station for friendly encounters

Lloyd and Willa Jones of Thunder Bay operate one of hostelling’s liveliest crossroads

Val Ross July 27 1981
THIS CANADA

Way station for friendly encounters

Lloyd and Willa Jones of Thunder Bay operate one of hostelling’s liveliest crossroads

Val Ross July 27 1981

Way station for friendly encounters

THIS CANADA

Lloyd and Willa Jones of Thunder Bay operate one of hostelling’s liveliest crossroads

Val Ross

A pair of human skulls lies on a shelf in one of the bunk rooms of the Longhouse Village Hostel just outside Thunder Bay. A hundred years old, the ghastly objects crumble to the touch and flake bits of tooth and human leather. Their eye sockets have been pierced with loops of wicker by the Dayak tribesmen of Sarawak, Borneo, in order to hang them on their verandas. The skulls were presented to Lloyd and Willa Jones during their six years as missionaries and Baptist teachers in Borneo. Back in Canada by the mid-’70s Lloyd was unable to find a teaching job, so the couple bought a motel and trailer camp in Thunder Bay, added a hostel and hung the skulls up by the wicker loops in their combination hostel office and living room. Then one of their church friends convinced Lloyd that, as a Christian host and operator of a Canadian Hostelling Association (CAA) affiliate, he ought to take them down and shelve them. Yet whenever Lloyd retrieves the skulls to show his guests, the hostellers seem to accept them almost as of their own kind—a bit battered, perhaps, from travel, but human objects nevertheless, to be hailed and inspected.

“Travelling outside the Holiday Inn ‘No-Surprises’ circuit teaches one to cope with culture shocks,” observes Lloyd; “it’s a great humanizer.” Over the past few years, white South African travellers have enjoyed lively exchanges of views with blacks; Polish refugees have quietly revealed their hair-raising escape stories, and yes, Western Canadians have fallen in love with Easterners at the Longhouse Hostel. Ever the enthusiastic evangelist, Lloyd has come to think of his business as something of a new mission—“a place where you can believe again in the brotherhood of man.” And humanity in all its rich variety—including, in the beginning, vagrants brought by local police who thought the place was a Baptist-run flophouse—has been welcomed. “Two months ago,” recalls Lloyd, “we had one guy with a wife and two kids come to stay. They were ‘walkers.’ They’d given away all their earthly possessions, totally renounced materialism. They were just walking and working.”

Because conventional travel costs keep escalating, hostelling looks more

appealing than ever. The Canadian Hostelling Association currently has 32,000 members who pay $15 a year for a membership card which gives them slightly reduced rates in hostels affiliated with the 60 national hostelling associations in the world. Canadian hostellers’ ranks are modest compared to the 58,000 foreign hostellers who spent at least one night in a Canadian hostel last year, but, says Kerry Moynihan, CHA national technical director, “membership is growing steadily.” This year

hostellers will pay from $4 to $8 a night (non-members pay about $2 more). Drinking and smoking aren’t allowed at hostels, and the dorms are usually segregated sexually. Accommodation ranges from a converted jail in Ottawa to a spectacular former fishing lodge in Whistler, B.C. By staying in hostels one can see the world for a song. One Longhouse guest, Alan Wham, a 24-year-old pharmacist from New Zealand, looks up from his frying pan of steak and potatoes to point out that his daily budget—

laundry, accommodation, gas, postcards and meals, “including steaks, rubbishy food and a rare spending up at the bars in town”—averages $11.

Yet there is more to hostelling than a cheap bunk. There is the chance to dive into an international stream of unpredictable cultural encounters, or as Thomas Crane, 27, of Paderborn, West Germany, puts it, “It is so easier to get together with people from everywhere.” Hostellers, stripped of the privacy that money and single rooms provide, are a seasoned yet vulnerable lot; one can meet anybody, anything can happen. Eighteen-year-old Catherine Sterken from New Jersey and her travelling companion, Christine Berger, 18, of Connecticut, tell of their recent run-in with “senile female drunks—they were really terrible,” in a dingy hostel in Buffalo, N.Y. Alan Wham and his mate, Grant Blair, a pair of tall, muscular Kiwis who look as tough as the huge brown steaks they devour in the Longhouse kitchen, are still dazzled by their face-to-face encounter with elk right outside the door of their hostel in Whiskey Jack, Alta.

The appeal of hostelling lures drivers of Cadillacs, battered Volkswagen vans and touring cycles. Last year, the Longhouse alone welcomed 2,500 visitors from places as diverse as Brazil, Marseilles, Edinburgh, Iran, Tokyo, Finland, Brussels and from next door. Next month Thunder Bay hosts the Canada Games and the Jones are bracing themselves for the onslaught.

The Longhouse is smack in the middle of the country, just off the Trans-Canada Highway. On any given summer night, between 15 and 40 Canadians, Americans, Europeans and antipodeans are pitching tents or unfolding their

sleeping bags in the bunk rooms; cooking their food or buying strips of bacon (at 20 cents each) and Japanese noodle mix($l)from Willa Jones’s larder; picking tiny wild strawberries and raspberries in the field by the front door, or mounting evening expeditions to swim in the rapids of the nearby Mackenzie River or Lake Superior to wash off the dust of the road.

The Joneses have made the Longhouse one of Canadian hostelling’s most international crossroads. Willa, 47, a largeboned woman with the good, plain beauty of a Rembrandt madonna, must be on the mailing list of every foreign aid and social action group in the world. Newsletters from Amnesty International, The Society of Friends, Development and Peace (a Catholic aid group) and the Latin American Working Group crowd the hostel’s bulletin boards. Lloyd, 45, a talkative, alert-eyed man, has never got used to the notion of settling down. He has made several trips back across the Pacific to the boat people refugee camps of Malaysia and Thailand to write reports for church and aid groups and facilitate the adop-

tion of refugee children by Canadians. He has also returned to Borneo to help sponsor Dayak students wanting to study in North America. Currently he’s trying to hustle sponsors to send him to the refugee camps of El Salvador. The Longhouse also serves as headquarters for Lloyd’s projects: Concern International (his incorporated refugee policy consulting company) and the Centre for International Co-operation (support services for foreign students in northwestern Ontario).

Even the building itself is markedly international, almost a “Sarawak by Lake Superior.” The former standard

motel is named after the longhouses that multi-family communities in Borneo build of bamboo and belian wood. As is the custom in Dayak longhouses, few lines are drawn between the communal spaces and the private quarters of the Jones’s extended family (Lloyd and Willa’s four children, their niece, adopted Dayak son and two Vietnamese boys they sponsored last year). In fact, travellers are sometimes billeted in the children’s rooms. Several metre-high carvings of exuberant orangutans waving clubs guard the communal bathrooms, and three authentic Dayak students, one sporting a WILD MAN OF BORNEO T-shirt, are frequent guests in Willa’s kitchen.

Despite the constant activity, there are times when Lloyd says he feels “isolated”—when bad weather closes the austere pine forests in around the Longhouse, and the CHA and Concern International signs flap in the wake of a Greyhound bus that does not stop to disgorge hostellers. Moreover, “Thunder Bay is a multicultural city,” says Lloyd, “but it can be pretty small-town conservative.” He is still agrieved by the fact that when the hostel first opened in 1974, newspaper articles, a 100-signature petition and vociferous comments from the mayor unleashed bitter opposition. “They thought it would be a bum’s paradise.” Actually, since that time, the only hosteller whom Lloyd can recall falling afoul of the law was a lad wearing a bedsheet and sandals who claimed to be Stephen Christ (but admitted his “earthly home” was in Oklahoma); he was arrested for loitering in a local church. Today, George Tyska, a former reeve of the local township, sums up the community’s sentiments: “Long as hostellers leave me alone, I say live and let live.” As with each of the 65 permanent hostels across Canada, the Longhouse is now accepted as a warm, cheerful, crucial feature of Thunder Bay’s hospitality industry.

It’s 11 p.m., and the United Nationslike assembly of backpackers, Dayaks, senior citizens off to see the world and exhausted children are turning in for the night. Suddenly the phone rings.It’s a poor wretch calling from a chilly phone booth near Nipigon, 80 km east of town on the Trans-Canada. He’s lost his hostel card and can’t afford the nonmember rate; he knows the hostel will close before he can get there; is there any way . . .? Not to worry, says Lloyd, promising to wait up. Willa dons a housecoat and begins to roll the crust for a rhubarb pie. Once more the missionary, Willa explains, “If you’re committed to the Word of Love, you just don’t turn people away.” This night the porch light will stay burning for the traveller on the dark highway. ;£?