"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, April 18, 2011

Doing Good and Living Well: Hotels Part I


I remember every bed I have ever slept in.  I had a single cot at Camp Wanaweta in the Iroquois Cabin.  Even though I could hear the cranky double bunks creaking and shaking when the kids on the top bunk whacked off, at least I didn’t have to sleep under them.  I hated Camp Wanaweta, the communal cabins, getting preached to by Pastor Fred and then having to go to Catholic Mass in town.  My flubber and and chicken wings kept me from hoisting myself up the rubber raft in the lake.  I hated the Sunday wiener roasts which were buggy and you had to drink milk with your hotdogs. 

Why my parents insisted I go to that internment camp, I will never know; and why it took the place of the wonderful vacations to Kennebunkport, Maine, is even more of a mystery.  My room overlooked the beach, and I fell asleep to the waves of icy cold Atlantic and the sounds of the adults chatting on the verandah below.  The room always had a salty dampness, the floors creaked, and the beds were always changed daily with crisp, ironed sheets.   In the mornings we had a formal breakfast in the dining room – white linen tablecloths and napkins, silver settings, proper tea, oatmeal and eggs.  We played in the cold crawlspaces under the hotel, fished for crabs off the jetties and in the tidal pools by the Narragansett Hotel at the end of the beach, and played beach baseball on the hard, long, low tide sand.

So Camp Wanaweta was a shock; but it did prepare me for Internment Camp II, The Loomis School, a New England boarding school which provided an easy, guaranteed track to the Ivy League.  I hated it.  I had a single room, and locked it from the inside with a travel lock to keep everyone out.  The corridor hijinks always spilled over into my room it seemed, deliberate incursions for my exclusion.  When I was out of my room, my floor mates papered it (filling every square foot of it with newspaper), short-sheeted my bed, or cheesed it – smearing Limburger on the light bulbs and letting them melt, burn, and scorch the cheese so that the room filled with rancid foot-rot nastiness.

My college dorm room was a suite of adjoining rooms high up in the turret of Trumbull College.  It was quiet and civilized, had a fireplace, and view out to the courtyard.  I roomed off campus at graduate school, a great ark of an apartment on the trolley lines in Pittsburgh with three bedrooms, and space enough for a large family. 

Most of my classmates were returned Peace Corps volunteers – Peace Corps 1 and 2, the very early days.  I first knew I wanted to travel in the Ninth Grade, when Alain le Yaouanc, a French exchange student came to my country day school.  He put a face to the pictures of the Café des Deux Magots in my French book.  He wore clothes we had never seen before, smoked Gitanes and Gauloises, and while I am sure he overdid the lip-pursing, shoulder-shrugging and oo-la-la’s, he was French, foreign, and exotic.   The stories of the Peace Corps Volunteers made my conviction to travel irreversible

Because of this unusual memory for beds and hotels, I can recall most of the places I stayed in my 40 years of travel in the Third World.  The very best were the hotels of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia where everything was perfect – polished marble floors, bathrooms the size of a Holiday Inn double, huge bedroom suites, down comforters and silk bed covers.  Every brass banister was spit polished to a high gleam.  Every marble floor was gleaming and reflected the bright lights of the lobby.  Nothing was out of place and everything new and tasteful – the Chinese flower urns centered on rosewood tables; the Kashmiri carpets, buffed and elegant; the teak and mahogany chests old and oiled to a dark shine.  Perfection.

Although these hotels were undoubtedly the best for their service, appointments, and attentiveness, I preferred a few more dings and clutter.  Of these my favorites were the Raffles (Singapore), Galle Face (Colombo), and Grand (Calcutta) hotels.  These British colonial gems were as near to the Victorian Raj as I can imagine.  My favorite of these was the Grand in Calcutta.  In addition to the teak and mahogany, polished brass, and flowered urns, the Grand had long corridors lined with large brass pots filled with tropical reeds and fronds, with windows that gave out onto the manicured courtyard, and with old, original prints of Calcutta – the Governor’s House, the Maidan, and the Palladian architecture unique in the Raj.

The Grand was especially inviting because it was located in the center of Calcutta – the greatest city of South Asia.  Hot, crowded, teeming with kaleidoscopic markets, impassable streets, rickshaws, cows, and Tata trucks; impossible noise, smoke, and density; the faded elegance of old British cemeteries; and the surprising quiet of old residential neighborhoods.  I loved Calcutta so much that I often took one of my World Bank layover days there on my way to Dhaka.  I would walk for hours in this crazy mix, not knowing where to look next, stunned and amazed at what I saw – the color, sounds, smells, and mix of animals, vehicles, people were overwhelming, yet exciting.  I never got tired of those walks, and repeated them often in Old Delhi, Lucknow, Jaipur and the South.  As I got older, I did them less – less adventuresome, I suppose; more concerned about personal safety in areas that had become unsafe – but I don’t need photographs to recall the images.

Walking into the frigid, breath-taking air-conditioned lobby of the Grand was the relief I needed from the heat, dust, humidity, and crowds just outside the door.  There always came a point in my walks where I realized that I couldn’t take any more, and had to return to a familiar refuge.  I showered, sank into the cool, sheets and thick mattress of my bed in a room almost as large and elegant (although in a different way) than the Mandarin of Jakarta, slept, and dressed for drinks and dinner.

There were surprisingly civilized hotels in unexpected places.  The Fleur de Lys, for example, in Bogota, was a hardwood wonder – floors, chests, table, chairs, and beds in a suite of rooms, a Shaker-like simplicity. It had a small, warm dining room with flowers on each table, tablecloths, lace curtains on the windows and a European feel. It was in the old part of the city; the only part of the city that we knew, travelling as we were by land from Washington to La Paz by land, with no idea that there was a new, modern Bogota.  This hotel was near the bus station in what we later found out was a kidnapping and crime-ridden area, which explained how we so easily got rooms for nothing at the Fleur de Lys. 

There were hotels I loved because of their setting or history, not their rooms or amenities; for example, a great 300-room Soviet era cement block hotel on a river and hot springs in the mountains.  The beds were cots with thin, lumpy mattresses.  The curtains were stained, ripped, and hanging by one hook.  There was no bedside table or lamp, only one bare, flickering, and weak ceiling bulb. The bathroom had a footstep toilet,  a few wax paper sheets of toilet paper, one threadbare tea towel, and no soap.  It was a cellblock room.

The hotel was set in the pines and cedars of the mountains, along a fast-flowing river.  There was a promenade down to the hot springs.  The baths and pool were nasty, dirty, and foul-smelling affairs; but I liked it because it was a relic of the Soviet era – a hotel that was once filled with workers and their families, travelling with spa tickets for a paid two-week stay in the mountains.  In its day, the hotel, I am sure, still had stained, threadbare curtains, waxy toilet paper, and lumpy mattresses; but all functioned to Soviet standards, i.e. the curtains were not hanging off the hooks, the towels and sheets were clean.  I could imagine its heyday, the communal dining hall lively, children in the pool, adults drawing mineral water from the spigots at the springs.

My remembrances of hotels are mostly of what they were in times past, rather than what I saw – the British Raj, the Soviets, the Spanish and Portuguese colonists.  Even in my hotel in Kennebunkport, I felt I was staying where thousands of guests had stayed; where thousands of families had eaten the oatmeal, eaten toast with butter and marmalade; rocked on the verandah.


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