I’m sitting in what may be the most dreary hotel room I have ever stayed in, which is saying a lot. My room is the size of a large closet, and no, this isn’t Japan with its neat cubicle hotels.
In fact, it really doesn’t matter what country I’m in at the moment. I could be anywhere far from home.
Virtually everything about this hotel is not working, and the despair of it is almost comical. Almost.
When I arrived at the airport, no one was waiting for me despite an earlier confirmation that a driver would be there. I waited for an hour, then took a taxi. The taxis anywhere else in this city are cheap, but from the airport they cost 300% more.
We drove and drove for 45 minutes and finally came to a small open-air restaurant in a part of town I’d never been to before. The restaurant had the name of the hotel I’ve booked, but where was the hotel? I argued with the driver over the bill and finally paid up.
Ten minutes later, a porter appears from somewhere and carries my bag through the open-air restaurant as all the diners look on curiously. We head through the back, around the corner, and up a winding staircase. It is virtually pitch black.
Finally we come to a small room with a sign that says “Reception.” There is a candle on the desk which serves as the only source of light. I guess this is it.
The manager looks up at me and points to the candle. “Sorry,” he says. “Maximum five minutes.” I’m not sure if he means the power is coming back on in five minutes, or if the candle can only be used for five minutes at a time.
I don’t have any other options and it’s late, so I take the room sight unseen. We walk down a corridor with another lit candle to guide our way. Halfway down the hall, which isn’t far since there appears to be a grand total of three rooms in this place, the power comes back on. That’s nice.
My room is, well, “sparsely furnished” would be a nice description. There are no towels, toilet tissue, or soap in the bathroom. The mosquitoes, however, are included at no extra charge. Thankfully, at least there are sheets on the bed, and they appear to be somewhat clean.
So here I am. And otherwise, there’s not much to say about this room. There is an a/c unit, which doesn’t work, and a TV, which loudly plays ten channels in a language I don’t understand a word of. I can’t figure out how to turn it off, so I have to go back and get someone to help.
I go outside to walk around the neighborhood and find absolutely nothing of interest to me. I don’t usually crave alcohol, but tonight I feel like having a drink more than anything else. I look for a place to buy a couple of beers to take back to the room with me, but no luck—this part of the city is alcohol-free. I buy a package of cookies and a bottle of water instead. It’s 8:30 p.m. and I’m not tired, but I have nothing to do.
Back in my room, I eat the Choco-Nut cookies (not bad, but I don’t recommend eating the whole package at one sitting) and read a book. I’m easily distracted tonight and I stare up at the stained walls in my closet hotel room for minutes at a time.
Why Am I Doing This? I wonder to myself.
This year I’ll take at least 50 flights, be away from home for twelve weeks, and spend a lot of money I don’t really have right now.
I could be a normal person, home in Seattle, telling stories about that time I lived in Africa. “Those were the days,” I’d say. “Not like now, where all my lattes are perfect and I can go to Target whenever I want.”
Or I could be a normal business traveler, flying off to normal places like Chicago and Cleveland for a few days, enjoying the large omelets and unlimited orange juice at the local Marriott. In the evenings I’d hit up the T.G.I. Fridays and drink too much before taking the 7:00 a.m. flight back to Sea-Tac.
I often feel lonely when I travel. I don’t love it, I don’t hate it; it’s just part of the process.
I don’t believe in the suicidal artist theory, but for many of us out there doing what we like to do—writing, traveling, painting, studying, creating, whatever—we understand that a little loneliness can do us some good.
Splendid isolation, you might call it. Even when it doesn’t feel very splendid.
When I’m home, I look forward to leaving on the next trip, and after a couple of weeks of travel, I look forward to coming home. Neither feeling means I’m fundamentally unhappy.
Back at the Hotel California
Throughout the rest of the night the electricity goes on and off every couple of hours. The funny thing, or not so funny thing, is that whenever the power comes back on, all of the lights in the room come on with it, along with the TV that blasts techno-pop from the local MTV. It seems that every outlet and light is on some kind of master circuit breaker or something.
At midnight, and then at 2:00 a.m., 3:30, and 6:00 I am woken up by the ultimate alarm clock. Each time I get up, turn off the TV (I’ve learned how to do it by now), turn out the lights, and go back to bed for another two hour sleeping shift.
There’s no way anyone would miss their flight with this alarm system. The only problem would be coordinating when it would actually go off.
The next morning, I can’t begin to tell you how thrilled I am to check out of the dreary, candle-lit hotel and head to the other side of town. As I’m leaving, the manager stops to talk to me. In broken English, he tells me that he’s sorry for all the problems of the hotel. I just look at him, so he starts to list them out one by one.
“Internet not working.”
“Yes,” I say.
“A/C not working.”
“Yes,” I say. He doesn’t say anything else, so I prompt him.
“Um, the electricity?”
“Yes,” he says this time. “Electricity.”
“The airport pick-up?”
“That’s true,” he sighs. “Driver not working yesterday.”
I don’t want to reward bad behavior, so I don’t let him off the hook. I just look at him and get my bags together.
“Wait,” he says to me. “I want to ask you a favor.”
You’re kidding me, I think as I realize what he’s going to ask. You can’t be serious.
“See, this is new hotel,” he begins.
“Really?” I say with as much false curiosity as possible, knowing that the sarcasm will be lost in the cross-cultural exchange.
“Yes,” he says, and then he asks me for the favor. “Will you write review on internet for us?”
I consider my possible responses for a few seconds. I could say, “Sure, I’ll write a review for you,” and then use my highest powers of creativity to warn other travelers from ever coming here:
Random candle-lit hotel upstairs from a random street restaurant offers truly desperate travelers a chance to enter a world of madness and unavailable amenities. You can check out any time you’d like, but you can never leave.
I could run with that theme for a long time.
Or I could just tell the manager the truth. “Sir, you really don’t want me to write a review for you, because nothing will be good about it.”
In the end, I’m tired of this conversation and tired of the hotel. I look back at the manager and say, “I’m sorry, I need to go now.”
And then I walk out and take a taxi and go somewhere else.
Once it’s all over, I’m able to see more of the comedy in the whole experience, and I even appreciate the loneliness. On the positive side, it’s pretty cool to have discovered the real life Hotel California. How many people have stayed in a candle-lit hotel upstairs from a street restaurant?
I remember that next week I’ll see my wife again, and I’ll be back in the nice city of Seattle, and home in my apartment in Wallingford.
It will all be okay. And then I’ll get on another plane in a few weeks and head back overseas, and that will be okay too.
Image by TomHarper