Thursday, November 8, 2012

Sleeping in Your Clothes

Halloween passes completely without event. We’d gotten into La Paz at about 5 AM, hung around the bus station for an hour or so waiting for the sun to come up and then went off to find a cheap room. The ride back into the city from the northern jungles had been so ridiculously overwrought with peril that I harbored that strange feeling you have when it seems you are still alive despite having passed through a fatal or at least near-fatal situation. In a word, I felt ghostly, and it was easy to feel that way in an almost empty bus station at 5:20 AM. We had found one stall open where they sold coffee and sandwiches. The proprietress sold us coffee but was quite upset when we told her that we didn’t want anything else to go with it. She only allowed us to sit with our ghastly reconstituted coffees for about 10 minutes before asking us to finish and be on our way. (In Bolivia, when you order a coffee you do not get instant coffee powder with hot water, rather, at some indeterminate point in the past, they’ve already mixed the water with the instant coffee powder in a nearly 2-1 ratio. When you order a coffee, they produce this instant coffee concentrate and add hot water to it. It is worse than any instant coffee I’ve ever had. It may just be the power of suggestion because this stuff looks like garbage water, but somehow, I always taste soap or bleach in it.) We checked into a typical bus-station hotel, dirty carpets, sullied light coming in through the windows that somehow makes it always look like very early morning outside and a room crowded with beds. Our room was about 8x10, but somehow they managed to pack three very lumpy beds into it, all of them sort of parked around a small TV up on a stand, like kids in the 50s sitting around a radio listening to Little Orphan Annie. I was too tired to feel tired and took a shower before settling in to watch the bleary, eye-drying TV for a little while. There was some terrible show on about a dysfunctional family that lived in Chicago (it looked like Chicago, anyway). The teledrama’s trope seemed to be general scumbaggery. It gave me a terrible feeling watching it. I’m sure they probably had performances like that in Nero’s Rome as well, like a trait of cultural septicemia. I turned the show off before it was over and fell asleep in my clothes on the lumpy narrow bed. I woke up thinking it was much later than it was. Ten o’clock and we went out to get something to eat and pick up our Death Road pictures that the bike tour company had compiled for us. La Paz was outfitted incredibly well for Halloween. The next day was to be Todos Santos so in one of the central plazas they had all loaves of bread shaped like people for sale and that night The Nightmare Before Christmas was shown on TV, with the exception that it was called The Strange World of Jack, which, in keeping with the tradition of renaming American movies in Spanish, was a terrible change and told one nothing about the movie. The next day we left for Copacabana on the shore of Lake Titicaca. The entire day before we had done almost nothing, celebrating the fact that we were still alive after our round-trip down the death road. We had drifted around La Paz until evening when we went out for a couple of beers at a nearby hostel that was much hipper than our bus station hotel. There were Halloween decorations up and drink specials on those tall beer glasses that always look like they are about to tip over. As I mentioned before, it was a night entirely without incident, which is why it seemed so unreasonable that I woke up in a terrible mood the next morning. After working a job in which I stayed in hotels all over Latin America, I’ve become very opinionated about the subtle things that make a good hotel. Over the course of my job, we probably only stayed in one place that would actually be called nice, and even then the difference was largely cosmetic, and mostly on the outside of the building. So, I refer only to hotels of slightly poorer quality. The ones with bare rooms, threadbare towels and the feeling of a long-faded grandeur that hangs around the lobby. Among these hotels there are certain qualities that make some better than others, about 99% of them having to do with the shower. But, the most important factor in the end has to do with coffee availability in the morning. I should stress here that I really don’t care about the quality of the coffee. In nearly every place we went it was instant, and often of bulk quality. I became accustomed to this; I didn’t like it, but it was to be expected. At five o’clock in the morning, coffee is coffee. No, it is not the quality, what truly sets the good apart from the bad is if it is available at all. In my mind, the finer hotels begin breakfast services (which consist of coffee and a basket of mummified rolls, maybe some jam or butter)very early. After all, in places like Rio Quarto, Argentina, or Rancagua, Chile, most people are not there on vacation. Like us, they have some kind of work to do in the town. They will probably be getting up early. In such places, when we rose at 5 or, if we were lucky, 6, inevitably, the other patrons of the hotel would be joining us at breakfast. If there was a breakfast. Sometimes, and this is the point now, these places wouldn’t deign to start their breakfasts until 7 or sometimes even 8 o’clock. I imagine that they did this so they could avoid serving breakfast (and coffee) until after all the guests had good, thereby either conserving all of their meager resources, or taking them all for themselves. But this was rarely the case, since we asked for little more than hot water we were almost always accommodated. In La Paz, I had thought the bus station hotel’s kitchen was to open at 6. I went downstairs with my thermos at 6:20 or so thinking I’d be able to get some water for the coffee. No one at all was downstairs. The restaurant wasn’t to be opened until 7. I’d have to wait 45 minutes for coffee. No big deal really, but we had to be at the bus station at 7:45, so it meant that we wouldn’t be able to relax and have a nice morning coffee together, which is an essential part of travel, especially for me. At ten to 7 I sent Gina down to see if maybe anyone was downstairs yet, hoping that maybe the porter would take pity on a pretty girl, only asking for hot water and unlock the kitchen door himself. She came back up empty-handed about five minutes later. I packed up my bag, got everything ready to leave and then went downstairs myself. It was now after 7, probably by about ten minutes. Some old crone was just unlocking the door to the kitchen. So dropped the keys as she attempted to do so and grumbled loudly. I could tell I would get no favors from her. The hard part about asking for hot water is that you feel like you are asking for a favor. You aren’t ordering anything. You’re not getting what you’re supposed to and you obviously don’t plan on spending very much money. As a result, you have to defer to the people you are ordering from. You have to wait for them to acknowledge you. So there is always an awkward wait while you stand there holding the thermos, like the proverbial empty cup of sugar. When you are acknowledged, which in the morning is always in a crisp manner, especially because the server notices your deference and therefore assumes that you’ve got some mealy-mouthed favor to ask. The servers always seem far too happy to turn you down. Even offering to pay rarely changes their mind. What is really annoying is that you know that they’ve got to have hot water; even the most bare-bones kitchen has the means of making hot water. It’s got to be the most basic thing that a kitchen can produce. This makes you defiant; you follow the old crone into the kitchen, point to the stove and the tea kettle, asking “no hay gas? No hay agua?” Pointing and frowning. Eventually she gives up and tells you to come back in ten minutes. Ten minutes later and we’re waiting in the lobby with all our bags, still waiting on the crone. Gina’s standing at the door of the kitchen, holding the thermos in the deferential way. How did we get to this point? Are we not guests of the hotel? Are we asking for eggs benedict? Hot water should not be so complicated and drawn-out. When we finally get our water she charges us, a paltry sum, yes, but almost as if to justify her grievance, to demonstrate to the world that we were the ones who put her out, rather than the other way around. After an occasion like this, I am inclined to say that the hotel has failed to meet my incredibly low standards. If such a basic item as hot water (not even coffee, I know enough to have brought my own) is such a struggle to procure in the morning, than maybe you shold consider converting into a flophouse or a brothel, something where you customers will all be deferential and will not ask you for anything more than a bed and something to keep out the rain. We drink the coffee at the bus station. It’s good, but it’s hard to enjoy sitting on a crowded bench with our enormous packs leaving us little room to pass the cup back and forth. The bus that we board afterward is the nicest in Bolivia, and the road is paved and smooth, but stopping for about 45 minutes to wait for extra passengers and then, seemingly as a consequence, to get stuck in traffic outside the city, does nothing to improve my mood. Everything is annoying me, all the other tourists on the bus, the repetitive scenery, the story that I’m reading for the fifth time because I’ve brought nothing else. Copacabana is incredibly touristy, but it is small and quiet. All the tourist activity is confined to one street. No one is attacking us with tour packages as in Uyuni, the hostels are not all on the other side of town as in Rurrenabaque, still, I am annoyed. We check into a room and go out to find some lunch. After some over-priced food and a long nap, my spirits are finally restored, and Gina and I watch an incredible thunderstorm over the lake from our balcony. Or I should say Gina watched the thunderstorm, I was too busy looking at the hostel’s restaurant below, trying to figure out how likely it was that I’d be able to get hot water from them before 7 AM. The relaxed look of the place did not bode well

1 comment: