I tipped the porter then stood at the balcony staring at the ocean now a sinister shade of blue, almost black. The sun had only just set behind the flat line of the horizon dotted with boats drifting home. Stringed music drifted up from the restaurant below. Couples from their romantic evening beach walks washed their sandy feet by the outdoors shower by the swimming pool. A knot of children ran by the pool, giggling. I was not thinking of anything in particular, just standing there wondering if I should shower first and go for dinner or if I should shower after dinner when I felt a presence in the room and I whirled around to find a man standing at the threshold, as startled to see me as I was to see him. My first thought was that it was the Tanzanian secret police. I would languish in a Tanzanian jail with lowly pickpockets.
But then a lady peeked over around his shoulders and I relaxed. No secret police comes with a lady in red lipstick.
The man was the short portly type that tend to say vaguely that they dabble in import and export. You know the type, don’t you? They drive Audis. He had on a gaudy untucked flowered shirt. He looked to be in his late 50s. Nice head of hair, most likely dyed. He stepped into my room like it was his, with slow, sure steps. He had that assured energy of a man who is used to having the elevator door held for him. His lady companion was obviously not his wife. There is a look wives have and she didn’t have it. She seemed too excited to be in his space to be his wife. She was wearing one of those spaghetti tops that showed her bone structure.
“May I help you, please?” the man said.
You know how someone can use the word “please” but still come across as abrasive or combative? The please was a mockery, a hostility, a lunge. I was standing at the doorway of the balcony’s sliding glass door now. I was thinking, what the hell is this portly man with Mandela’s shirt doing in my room? The lady placed her small kitenge beach bag on the dresser, its contents rattling in the process. It was a nice bag. They were probably from a sundowner where he told her everything about his export and import business, promised to take her to Paris next where he owns a condo as she sipped her cocktail, nodding like she was interested in import and export and rubbing his hairy knees lovingly like you would stroke the skull of a dog suffering from nausea. His accent was African. I know he wasn’t Tanzanian because he spoke English. He certainly wasn’t Kenyan because he wasn’t wearing bad swimming shorts. His legs were too thin to be a West African. Probably from the southern parts of Africa. He had a heavy portuguese-like accent but still managed to be eloquent. Well educated, for sure. Affluent, definitely. He didn’t like me, he said it with his body and his gaze.
“Uhm, no, you may not help me. Unless you work here,” I said with a bit of a chip on my shoulder because I didn’t like him using please unnecessarily.
He grunted impatiently, like I had insulted him. I was almost sure he would shout, “Do I look like I work in a hotel? I work in import and export, my friend!” Instead his small eyes widened a bit dramatically (maybe he was Nigerian) and I was hoping he was having a false heart attack but then he said indignantly, “This is my room!” He didn’t say it like that, he said it in a thick accent and he said it quickly as if he didn’t believe it himself. I didn’t believe him either.
To infuriate him I said calmly, “No, this is my room, please.”
We sounded like lower primary school boys fighting over a toy. His woman, who was now standing by the bed unclasping her hair pain made a sound of surprise. Oh so you can dish please but you can’t take please? I turned to look at her properly for the first time. She was actually attractive in spite of her choice of men. And young. Much younger than him. Perhaps 27 years. She returned my stare. I turned away because I didn’t have the time for a staring contest. “How can this be your room when we slept here last night and woke up here this morning? We have our suitcases in the closet!” he said.
“I don’t know, but I have a key.” I held up my key card.
“Well, I have a key too!” he said raising his own plastic. His neck was thick – the size of the NutriBullet 900. I didn’t like him because he was brusque and combative and he was in my room. Plus you can’t just wear Mandela’s shirt to the beach – it’s disrespectful to Madiba and what he stood for, which didn’t include barging into people’s rooms with an attitude.
We were facing some sort of a Mexican standoff here in Ramada Resort in Dar. I was too tired from sitting in their ugly traffic jam. The lady, realising that this phallus contest would go on forever, dialed zero from the room phone. As we waited for the reception or security to come upstairs I leaned on the desk while they sat next to each other on the bed speaking in their strange language. They were obviously talking about me. They were probably saying that on top of sounding strange, I was a thief and I was there to steal her make-up and his terrible underwear. He seemed like the guy who wore underwear with a photo of Che Guevara on them. A revolutionary statement to match his Madiba shirt. To him I looked exactly like the kind of guy who breaks into rooms and steals such things. While we waited I tried to log onto the wifi.
Finally someone from the main desk appeared and the man pointed at me and said, “This gentleman claims this is his room.” He did it again with the word gentleman, a double entendre if you will. Gentleman and claim, sat awkwardly in that sentence like strange bedfellows. I was too tired to honest. I didn’t want to have to deal with these two. Long story short, it turned out there was a mistake (not mine, I will have you know) and I wasn’t supposed to be in that room. The man looked at me triumphantly as I pulled my suitcase handle up and rolled out of there without another word as the hotel staff apologised profusely for the mixup. I was taken to another room, on the same floor with the same view. A storm in a teacup. I later saw them that night at the salad section at dinner. They were pointing at tomatoes. Typical.
It doesn’t matter awfully much to me the hotel room I’m usually given as long as it’s very clean, functional and it’s not overlooking a wall. It matters little if you have a massive bedroom with an adjoining living room area unless you are the type who holds meetings in their rooms. That’s because a hotel room is not a place you thrive in especially for a work trip. Plus if someone – company, client – is paying for a nice room, believe me they will make sure that you only enjoy it in the late evening when you are too tired to do much else but sleep.
Hotels try to recreate a feeling of homeliness for guests but it’s hard to feel completely at home if you have to live off a suitcase. There is something very saddening about even the poshest of hotel rooms when you are alone for work. The beds are usually too big for one person and the pillows too many and everything is always so sanitized, almost suspiciously so. Even the mirrors in the bathrooms seem to lie to you. The paintings or wall art never evoke anything more than controlled beauty. I hardly ever switch on the TV. Or make tea. I don’t use bathtubs because that means lying there for over 30 minutes and surely what kind of man would I be if I bathed for 30 minutes? What am I soaking? I also never weigh myself because weighing scales in hotels are like politicians. I love the telephone though, because you can call for room service at 2 AM when you have lost sleep and are tired of reading and tired of your thoughts and the loneliness is closing in on you and nobody in Kenya is awake on Whatsapp.
“Hello, room service. How can I help you, sir?”
“Quick one, is it possible to send someone up to me room to just chill and talk?”
“Uhm…I’m sorry, sir?”
“Someone with a soothing low voice, like Sade. Female would be my first choice but I don’t mind a man either, but as long as he doesn’t have a soothing low voice. Probably a smoker if you can get one…”
“Sir, what number are you trying to reach?”
“Is that room service?”
“Yes, sir, it is.
“That’s what I thought. I need someone to come up and just sit and we shoot some breeze for 30 mins. I don’t suppose you are very busy now? It’s not like people are ordering steak and eggs at this time, are they?”
“Well, I don’t think we can do that, sir.”
“Do what, make steak and eggs?”
“No, your request, sir.”
“I’m sorry, is it too extra?”
“It’s…” he chuckles. “It’s not a service we offer.”
“Service? Oh no, no no, I think we might have misunderstood each other. I’m not looking for that kind of service. Just someone I can talk to. Actually they will do most of the talking, I will listen. I’m a good listener.”
He’s lost for words.
“I will pay. I’m happy for you to put it on my tab as pancakes or something,” I say. “Or it can be off the books. Whatever works.”
“Sir, it’s impossible. I’m sorry…we just..can’t.”
“Would maintenance department be more open to this idea, after all this is part of maintenance, software maintenance, right?”
“No sir. I’m sorry, I can’t help you, neither can they. Is there anything else you would like us to assist you with?”
I sigh dramatically.
“Okay, what about sleeping pills?”
“No, we don’t sell, prescribe or dispense any type of medication drugs, sir.”
“What about hard drugs?”
“Haha. No, certainly not!”
“Well, that’s not what I heard.”
“What did you hear, sir?
“That if you really talk nicely to someone from room service at 2am they can always slip a sleeping pill under your door.”
“Ha-ha. No, not in this hotel.”
“Oh well. Isn’t that a shame. What’s your name?”
“Yes, sir. Tito.”
“I like that name. Are you from Congo?”
“No, sir. Ha-ha. I’m from Bloemfontein.”
“I know a Tito Biyombo. He’s from DRC and I don’t think he would have a problem slipping sleeping pills under my door if I was suffering from insomnia on foreign soil.”
He laughs again. “Is there anything else sir?”
“Well…No, nothing for now….but, eh, Tito?”
“If you change your mind about those sleeping pills…”
Unless I’m writing or sleeping I will hardly ever linger alone in a hotel room. Because it feels lonesome and claustrophobic. It doesn’t matter how swanky it is. I will always throw on a jacket and leave to seek human interaction. It would either be to wander the neighbourhood or go down to the hotel bar for a drink. It’s amazing how many people you will find at the hotel bar in the evenings after a day out shaking the bushes. Business travellers, mostly, with permanently creased brows. Or people who are there to decompress, you know, the me-time crowd who just love their own company. They all gather at the bar, always at the counter, elbows on counter, heads bowed, some with books others with empty looks. Most are on their phones, sending home tepid pictures of their drinks or bitings or the exciting things they saw during the day. It’s a convention of souls that wandered far away from home. A business herd of the plane-wrecked.
I always pick the person who looks least like me to strike up a conversation with. Which means anyone who isn’t black or doesn’t look like they come from East Africa because I never want to talk about our traffic jams or a wildlife. I always prefer to talk to men because there is less pressure to come across as non-threatening. The loneliest people I have met during trips are those who are on business. They eat alone. They sleep alone. They drink alone. They think alone. They are alone even if they are not feeling lonely. Some Skype from bars. Others just sit there smiling at the barman not even knowing they are smiling. And it’s mostly in the evenings when their brains have been utilised during the day by the paymasters. These evening brings with it that cold gust of solitude that not even a jacuzzi in the room can fill.
But eventually everybody has to go back to their rooms to face themselves. Back in the room you take a quick shower, brush your teeth, kill the AC if it’s a cold city or adjust it if it’s a hot place, then jump into bed with a book and the mocking silence. The sheets will be clean and fresh and crisp but sleep will evade you for a while. You will hear the distant ping of the opening elevator in the distance and voices spilling out, laughing or wine- induced giggles receding further into the carpeted hallways. At some point you will remember that you didn’t pee, walk to the loo and pee. When you turn you will catch the reflection of a naked man as you switch off the lights. Maybe you will go to the window and stand there looking out. Maybe you will get back in bed and read some more. Then when your eyes are getting heavy you will turn over and switch off the lights but not all the lights will go off. There will always be that one light that won’t go off. So you will get up and fiddle with several switches not knowing which switch puts it off. You will roam the room naked, like a night runner, switching lights on and off.
Eventually you call housekeeping and ask, “Where do you switch off this one small light directly overhead my bed?” They say, “At the back of your headboard is a switch, sir.” Some genius put the switch behind your headboard. You put if off and finally there is darkness and relative silence save for the occasional pinging of the lifts and the odd voice of someone talking on the phone as they pass outside your door.
Then you sleep.
Maybe you lose sleep at 2am and call room service. Maybe you don’t.
I like, on the other hand, how most women approach hotel rooms with enthusiasm and curiosity. How they open wardrobes (as if they might find a new dress in there), sit and bounce on the bed with a smile, take pictures of the said bed and of the whole room and the bathroom, pick a strawberry from the complimentary bowl and walk to the balcony and lean on the rail and sigh as if they are at the bow of the Titanic.
When the day comes to leave you pack up quickly (and forget your wet boxer in the bathroom) and when you drag your suitcase out the door, you find the cleaning lady with her trolley stuffed with new beddings and bottled water and brooms and detergents in spray cans. She’s motherly with pudgy gloved fingers and she smiles without looking into your eyes when you say hello and you think to yourself, this woman folds clothes and cleans after us and we don’t see her or know her name yet maybe she’s schooling a son in university, someone who calls her mom and remembers her birthdays and thinks the world of her. So you tip her (always tip the mothers more because it does more) and when she receives the money with two open palms it stirs strange emotions in you.
You walk to the lift as she dusts and cleans and changes beddings and scrubs and puts new shower gels and face towels in the bathroom and replaces the stationary. When she’s done the room will be clean and white. But she will never be able to clean off the loneliness you left in that room. Someone else – another plane-wrecked suit on business – will be coming into that sediment loneliness and also will leave their own brand of loneliness behind.
Ps: One of the editors – Linda – who normally cleans this up in the morning had an emergency. I think she has had a wardrobe malfunction. Her heel broke so she has to go buy new shoes. She’s probably currently hobbling about in a mall with one shoe in hand. So if you pick a “there” instead of a “their” in this story please just sit on it for today. People have bigger problems.