Gainesville’s Zen Hostel might be the one of the few places where “What is nirvana?” and “Where is the extra toilet paper?” are asked in the same breath.
Meetings at the Zen Hostel, located at 404 SE Second St., start about 9 a.m. every day; “meeting” is used loosely.
Residents and travelers gather outside at a long table, or inside the kitchen when it gets too cold, and during the meeting they can ask any questions they have about life, meditation and even where the toilet paper is kept. Then, going in a clockwise motion, everyone gets a chance to answer the posed question or “pass.”
Kitty Drebitko, 26, is one of the residents who attends these meetings and has been at the hostel for a little more than a week. She is easy to recognize with her vibrant blue and purple dreadlocks, piercings and a baby bump. She plans to give birth at the Ocala Birth Center in early March, and is settling in at the Zen Hostel until then. Her boyfriend is joining her soon from New York to help her with her pregnancy.
“I’ve been traveling for the past three years and haven’t had any kind of long-term home, so once I give birth it’s kind of like an open page for me,” she said. “I don’t have anything tying me down anywhere.”
Drebitko practices yoga every day and helps out around the hostel by booking reservations and doing laundry.
“I didn’t know when I got here how long I’d be staying,” she said, “but the longer I’ve stayed I’m like, ‘This place is sweet.’ Everyone is super considerate, and it’s very peaceful, so there’s not really a downside so far from what I’ve seen.”
Tobe Terrell, 78, started the hostel in 2004 as a Zen center that offered hospitality, but the name Zen Hostel stuck. After staying at a Zen center in Virginia for 20 years, Terrell sought to create his own center in Gainesville near his hometown of Ocala. He calls himself the custodian of the hostel.
“I only own the real estate; the Zen center has a life of its own,” he said. “I just try to be the interpreter of the energy that has been created here.”
Terrell said October and November are the busiest times of the year for short-term guests.
The hostel houses travelers as well as more permanent residents who have lived there for a few years. It operates on a “gift economy,” so people can give money or decide to volunteer their labor in exchange for staying.
Oliver Norden, 46, has been living at the hostel for almost two years. Originally from Belgium, he is the hostel’s resident artist and is skilled in acrylics, watercolors, murals and digital photographs. Some of his artwork is featured at Vellos Brickstreet Grill in downtown Gainesville.
Norden, who is also a vegan, is thankful to the Zen Hostel for teaching him discipline and inspiring him with his art.
“I do my meditation close to every day, and during that time I try to reach a level of nirvana,” he said. “What I feel when I try to reach nirvana is to open my heart and get in touch with my breath and open up to the energies that I want to send out as an individual. The Zen path to me, for now, fits very well because I’ve decided to distance myself with the material things.”
Norden’s mother, 85-year-old sculptor Nadya Levi, visited him at the hostel from Belgium. She works mostly with iron and metal but also does clay sculptures. During her stay, she sculpted a clay portrait of Terrell that now sits in the hostel’s courtyard near the fishpond and herb garden.
“Sooner or later, someone will have some moment of nirvana; some moment of fleeting, ecstatic experience,” Terrell said. “At heart, we are all divine beings.”