Wednesday, February 8, 2012
Caveat emptor to all those who have to rent a room. For some they are housing, for others an opportunity for rebirth. From the minute you check in you can be anyone you want. You start with a clean slate. Anonymous. Invisible. Or you can adopt that bon vivant personality you have always felt to be your real self.
Unfortunately there are no guarantees. You can as easily end up in a penthouse suite with plush carpeting underneath your bare feet as a smarmy, fetid closet. Price & location are marginal barometers for quality. We have all fallen victim to hyperbole in travel brochures where the PR writer describes hotels as quaint (which really means small) or the marketing critic says the location is urban (which means slums).
Movies, novels mythologize them as palatial, marble-inlaid expanses with all actors in evening wear or as film noire caricatures with neon signs blinking HOT..L outside the open, fire-escaped window. Motels are sites for all sorts of intrigue, ghosts, murder, high jinks.
Constantly you hear the mantra “I want to get back to my own bed” & to familiar surroundings. I have never been deluded by this conceit. To be in a hotel room is almost certainty you are in a different state or country. Exotic. Romantic. Hotel rooms are portals to unimagined worlds & unexplored environments. Once through the looking glass over the vanity table in your room, anything is possible.
Hotel rooms modulate your travel. No matter the purpose for your visit, opening floor to ceiling balcony doors overlooking blue vistas of calm seas speckled with fishermen laboring in the silent distance or sleeping next door to boisterous drunken adolescents who feel entitled to make noise all night before your important business meeting taints your entire opinion.
Whether you live for days/weeks/months on the road or are coerced to take a week’s vacation once every few years, adventures ensue:
Having to recoup a ticket before it expired I booked a flight to London. Online I found a cheap room near the “Tube” & extremely convenient access to the city. About the third day I felt an itch & after returning home I found myself in an emergency room receiving a dire diagnosis from the attending medical student until the “real” doctor entered & informed me I had bed bugs. Took me months to get rid of the scars.
Creature comforts are highly personal affairs. I have seen travel companions carry their own pillows to enhance their stays. To each his own. For an extended annual report assignment I had a client insist on changing her room every time she was next to the elevator or ice machine. I had no objection to her peccadilloes but she had a way of making her problems mine. I can sleep on a rock.
After checking in without fanfare I was awakened too early by a Boeing 727 taking off right outside my window (at least it seemed that way). It was so loud not even pulling a pillow over my head could drown out the din. Everything felt like those pay-per-use, vibrating Magic Fingers under the mattress but, in this case, everything in the room moved. I was shooting around the island of Sicily & spent almost no time there but I am sure this airport hotel had many disgruntled customers.
Since I spend so much time in bargain basement surroundings, I have to make Spartan facilities work for me. Motels become my home-away-from-home as well as office & headquarters. Communicating with the world has become an art form. Mastering the telephones is torturous. I have fought phones for decades. Every country has a highly classified system that would thwart the Mission Impossible team. In addition every hotel chain plots to make it even more complicated.
I carry a laptop everywhere. Getting online has presented problems behind the Iron Curtain, from remote island villages & out of Cuba. It has cost a fortune to use unreliable dial-up telephone lines. Today the scam is whether to charge for WIFI. The final bill is inversely proportional to the likelihood you pay for access. Economy hotels seem to give it away whereas the higher priced ones feel they can charge a king’s ransom. Go figure.
On my annual assignment to Japan I once checked into a room so small that it was fabricated out of one molded piece of plastic. It was easier to go outside to turn around. The bed, shower & sink combination was a masterpiece of design & you could occupy all three at the same time. There were no corners, everything was rounded. Turns out proper protocol in Japan is to stay at a very tony address. (Not my only gaff.) If you want to do business there you have to pay to play. Fortunately there was a television.
On the road your relationship with hotel/motel TV is very different than your own appliance. And you cannot recreate that relationship back home. In the last decade I have viewed more movies on airplanes & hotel rooms than in theaters.
I grew up watching TV. I have seen a few minutes of every television show produced in the USA since its invention. Therefore I love Japanese TV, although I have never for a minute had any idea what is going on. I have watched indecipherable quiz shows, Samurai soap operas & hardcore porn contests. I became so addicted that I have had a friend videotape programs so I can watch them over & over back in the USA. I watched a documentary on TV in Kyoto because it was in English (subtitled in Japanese). Eventually it became the template for my death row project years later.
Some consider it a bad habit but I turn on the television as soon as I check into my room in a new country. I may not understand the language but I familiarize myself with the rhythms & rhymes & get a better feeling for moods & energy outside.
In different cultures we have to be more open minded. Staying at hotels in the middle of the action & under the guise of making a living I have heard knocks on my door at all hours of the night. In their defense, the “working girls” were not aggressive if you tell them you have no need for their services. “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”
However hotel rooms are made for sex. I cannot count the number of times I have returned to my room & been “serenaded” by a couple “getting it on” against the wall next to my headboard. The squeaking bed springs, squealing utterances & guttural expletives have kept me awake for hours. It seemed bad form to call down to the front desk & interrupt their reverie.
On the other hand housekeeping & chambermaids have a game they play. After they knock they use their pass keys to barge in. Several times I have been interrupted in flagrante by their disapproving eyes, startled harrumphs & muffled giggling. At the very least they have taught me to always engage that silly chain lock when I am inside.
Speaking of motion, I was awakened to blinding morning sunlight with my whole bed dancing. I was stunned but soon realized I was experiencing a major earthquake. Quickly reminiscences from grade school flooded back to mind instructing me to hide in the bathtub or exit to the street. I was buck naked & the Japanese are quite formal even in dire emergencies.
Most people I have observed, as soon as they book a trip, are only concerned with two things: hotels & restaurants. All the travel magazines, websites & blogs advertize & enumerate lists of “Best Ten Hotels…”, People’s Choice Restaurants…”, “Top International Resorts…”. Then they toss in places to shop to round out coverage. Motels, bed & breakfast inns & cruise ship berths are safe havens. Eating is necessary. And shopping is a familiar experience amidst the chaos & discomfort of a new place. Restful & relaxing, they have minimum impact on new experiences. The real world is outside, not inside.
For years during the civil wars in Central America I traveled down on Congressional CoDels. The first time I found myself in the Hotel Inter-Continental in Nicaragua I was stunned by the number of suspicious people lurking in the lobby. It turned out most of them were newspaper reporters, soldiers of fortune, government officials & spies. The place was infamous. And the scene at the bar resembled the one in the Star Wars movie. The news media had turned several of the upstairs bathrooms into darkrooms & suites into wire services. Despite risking my life, they paid me the royal sum of $15 for a fully developed black/white print when I got an exclusive.
The phones in our rooms were likely bugged. And I was asked a few times “Who are you working for?” & “Who are you traveling with?” I must admit I was intrigued by the attention as nefarious as its intentions might have been but I am sure it had more to do with the company I was keeping than me. I hid my cameras under the bed on the few instances where I did not take them with me. I was not so naïve as to think it would thwart any real “thief” but might slow down the “garden variety” types.
SIGNS FOUND IN HOTELS:
It is forbidden to enter a woman, even a foreigner, if dressed as a man.
Ladies are requested not to have children in the bar.
The flattening of underwear with pleasure is the job of the chambermaid.
You are welcome to visit the cemetery where famous Russian & Soviet
composers, artists & writers are buried daily except Thursday.
Because of impropriety of entertaining guests of the opposite sex in the
bedroom, it is suggest that the lobby be used for this purpose.
Not every accommodation falls to easy categorization. On one of my trips to Malaysia & after a very long dugout canoe ride along a jungle encroached river, the Iban tribe allowed us to live in their village. These indigenous people had been headhunters for most of their history. Baskets of shrunken skulls hung from the rafters of their famous longhouses as remnants of that era. When I returned a few seasons later, they were all gone in an attempt to placate the delicate sensibilities of Australian ecotourists.
There was little or no electricity & the tattooed locals performed traditional dances by candlelight. I ferreted my way along the path to the communal latrine guided only by my ubiquitous miniature flashlight. We slept in an ancient dormitory room under mosquito netting. To this day I am still not sure what I was lying on.
I am still recovering from an exchange I had somewhere in Borneo. I had sweaty palms & it seemed to last forever but ended with this: “Rune sirbees. Essquish mee peas. Ess korea, jew wan do scramah heys, klizbie beggon, tossy ingish moppin wib bodder una sigh an copy? Rye?” (TRANSLATION: Room service. Excuse me please. It’s correct, you want two scrambled eggs, crispy bacon, toasted English muffin with butter on the side & coffee? Right?) The conversation could have resulted in an international incident for all I know. And what I really wanted was pancakes.
You may not think you spend much time in your hotel room but it is a lot more than you think. I adapt to the décor & get used to the strangeness. I have slept on tatami mats, in love hotels, youth hostels, college gymnasiums & beneath the waterline on ocean crossing, tramp steamer ships. I always get an education & receive more than I take. But after they pick up their tip on the night table, I often wonder what the chambermaids think of a room left plastered with color-coded Post-It notes in calendar grid patterns all around the walls with dates for events in the area.
The strangest place? Once I was booked into room number Pi (3.14159265...). Since it had an infinite number of digits on the door, of course, I was way down at the end of the hall. (That joke may not be very funny to you but it kills at MIT.)
We’ll leave the light on for you.