Though we live in a remote region, or maybe because of it, my wife Claudia and I get to travel a lot. We travel to keep my training up to date, to visit family and friends, for our own medical appointments and to fulfil Claudia’s work commitments. We get to stay in hotels a lot.
This week we were in Sydney briefly, spending Christmas with some of the family for the first time in several years. I had forgotten how crowded Sydney is. I love seeing the teeming crowds of people but it’s also exhausting, thinking and wondering about each of them. The shops are teeming with colourful things we don’t need. Even choosing between all the fun things we need to buy becomes a way of overwhelming ourselves.
Even on the balcony of my hotel room, I could feel the nearness of people. People splashing in the pool below. People whose energetic, clear-voiced children have been playing out in the hallway throughout the day. People smoking on adjacent balconies — tensely or meditatively. People who tipped tar-smelling bong water out over their balcony and splashed it into ours.
It’s a four-and-a-half star hotel, they say. Our room has a spa bath with 2 of the 4 jets working and it is only as loud as a lawnmower. The working jets are oddly placed. My ankles and knees are very relaxed. While most appliances, including the kettle, work okay, the quilt is not big enough for the bed. I guess that’s what keeps them from being 5 star.
Hotels are strange places. I’ve come to understand that daily room service is as much about the hotel maintaining their property as it is about leaving a towel folded into a swan on your bed. Decline room service for a few days and the proprietors get worried. What is going on in there, they wonder.
The mini-bar attendant has the worst job—pounding the door at 10 o’clock to yell ‘Mini-bar! Just coming in to check your mini-bar!’ I hate the mean little fridge full of drinks I don’t want to pay for and candy past its expiration date. It’s not enough that people pay $300 a night to stay there. If the guests are alcoholics or chocoholics or just not sure if it’s safe to drink the water or too tired or too scared to go outside, the hotel management will exploit that. How do they keep getting away with charging $9 for a plastic bottle of water?
Then there are the badly lit, tiny bathrooms. There is one place we stay where the bathroom doors are made of frosted glass to let the light in. Unfortunately the room is so small that your partner does have to turn to the television up quite loudly to offer any sound privacy.
I’ve always felt that people who travel a long time (or live) in caravans must have a great love and tolerance of other humans. I know overcrowding takes a toll on people’s health though. Scabies, tuberculosis, hepatitis, poor sleep and mental illness are problems I see in my work regularly, caused by overcrowded housing with little or no privacy.
On the plus side, once the stoners upstairs have gone to sleep, the balcony does become habitable and even enjoyable, with its marvellous view of the bay . And luckily, I have a partner who’ll take turns sharing the measly quilt.
And in all honesty, some of my most memorable hospitality experiences had nothing to do with the amenities on offer. I’ve stayed in places that offered little more amenity than a wooden bed with a thin mattress and a mosquito net and my sarong in place of a blanket. I spent a night in a guesthouse above a cinema in an Indian town once – there was little sleep but listening to the audience roaring, stomping and singing along to the film helped me understand a bit better the country I was visiting. In a simple hotel by Lake Toba in Northern Sumatra, the equatorial afternoon storms brought mauve, circular lightning, and they were not at all diminished by the lack of glass in the windows or the squat toilet. Hearing village people strumming guitars and visiting each other on the night of the full moon gave me a sense of the fluidity of agrarian life. Elaborately carved wooden doors in Bali lifted my spirits higher than any array of little soaps in plastic bottles ever did (although I happily take the soaps to use as detergent while travelling).
Having said that, in several places I stayed in my travels as a young woman, I was spied on while I washed. There were one or two places I had to run away from because young men in the family would not respect my privacy. Before I met her, Claudia lived for five years in a small, isolated region in a country where homosexuality was (and still is) punishable by death. The privacy and security money can buy you in a hotel room is money well spent in such places.
After all, if I asked the young woman at reception here for another blanket, she’d find one for me with a smile. I know that all I have to do is ask for towels and coffee and emptied rubbish bins, and I would get them. I can even use my superpowers to give the hard-working housekeeper a break from the vacuuming and linen-changing (for at least this one room on their long list of jobs.) And while there is no mauve lightning, our hotel balcony does overlook one of Sydney’s stunning coastal bays. And from my newly found concrete perch of perspective, the turquoise and blue water, bracketed by stately green pines on either side, are tonic for the eyes and the soul. Especially after the stoners upstairs are safely in bed.
Thumbnail of purple lightning by Jeremy Thomas.