Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Shadows on Empty Buildings

I can’t pay attention on buses, at least not the way I should. Even the most enthralling spectacle, as seen from a bus, seems less radiant. Glaciers, salt flats, distant roseate mountains, looking at any of these things from a bus window is like looking at a poster. Sometimes, I fall asleep going through a forest and wake up in a desert. Some of the best bus-window vistas I have seen were in Montenegro when the Adriatic Sea drove into the land and exhaled its morning mists into the sky; it was like driving through a flooded mountain chain and still, it was from a bus window. As much as I enjoyed the sight, I only wanted to get out and really experience it for myself, without the buffer.

It seems like it would be a matter of senses. It would be easy to say that any bus experience pales in comparison to actually standing there because you can’t feel the wind, smell the pine needles crushed under your feet or hear the echoing screech of an ornery bird of prey, but, no. It’s not just the glass that separates one from the scene. I don’t feel the same way on trains, or even airplanes, despite the glass. Each offers a unique experience. When I see the Carpathian forest from a train window, it’s as if the train was a part of the experience, almost as if I were in the forest, enjoying the opposite sight of the train going by. The experience of a plane, with the earth constantly 1,000s of feet almost directly beneath the soles of my Converse, is tinged with a kind of primordial fear. The sublime appearance of a vertically distant desert is only increased by the sudden bubble of turbulence: you drop, you choke, you believe in your mortality as never before until the plane rights itself and the fasten seatbelt sign goes out again. Everyone breathes a sigh, hands relax on the armrests and the desert floor is so much closer. In fact, it’s right there, right beneath your feet.

By comparison, being on a bus is narcotizing. The passengers are passive, the scenery is passive. There is little interaction between the two. Perhaps this is why so many bus trips are offered at night: passengers would rather just arrive at their destination. Even little children are dazed into passivity by the bus. If someone were to take a poll on the number of people found sleeping on a bus, train or plane after an hour of travel, headed in the same direction, the number for the bus would probably be higher than the other two combined.  

If anything lies in direct contrast to the dull sensation of the bus, it is the excitement that comes when bordering a passenger ferry. I seldom give much thought to my means of transport. If I’m in A. and I have to go to B., I buy the cheapest passage. It is only when I am getting on the bike, bus, boat, train, taxi or plane that I realize what this means for me and my impression of the place I am going. But when I find myself standing on a ferry dock, thinking that I will soon be on deck watching the land recede on the horizon, I feel contended. I look forward to the voyage in a way that I won’t even when watching trains pull against platforms or listening to airport boarding calls.

I felt this way standing at the port of Tres Puentes watching the massive Pathagon ferry dock. It was a few days before Christmas and most of the passengers waiting for their boat were clutching bags overflowing with gifts purchased at cheaper prices on the mainland in Punta Arenas. Among those waiting was a very young girl holding a baby in her arms and wearing brightly colored children’s shoes. The baby was wearing a fuzzy hat with smiling animal’s face stitched at the opening directly above the child’s own face. As the passengers bound for the mainland disembarked, one among them broke away and came toward the girl with arms outstretched. The girl held up the baby so he could see better. The fuzzy animal hat blew off the baby’s head and down to the water but stopped precariously on the edge of the lapping current. The crowd waiting to board noticed the errant hat before either parent. The crowd yelled, hooted and pointed after the water-bound hat. The father went after it. He stepped down the launch where the hat had stalled, failing to notice that it was slimy with algae, he lost his balance and slid slightly into the water, arms pin wheeling. The crowd, overjoyed at the unexpected spectacle, hooted and whistled even louder. The young mother, turned away, 
embarrassed, as he brought the sopping hat up, the animal’s face still grinning.

On the boat, after boarding, everyone took their seats and bought coffee. The children broke from their parents and climbed over the couchettes into the recessed viewing windows. I felt like them, a boat to Tierra del Fuego before Christmas, not even 1,000 miles from Antarctica. Punta Arenas and its red-gold lights receded into the water as the heavy motors roared to life and pushed the massive boat into the mythic waters of the Strait of Magellan, the color of warehouse steel.

We hadn’t made any hotel reservations before leaving, but we had bought plenty of food. When we arrived, I noticed that despite the town’s small size, all the little markets were open. The hotels, however, were full. Every place was booked or closed for the holiday. After visiting five different hotels, I was beginning to lose hope. I returned to one I had passed, initially thinking it looked too expensive. I was surprised to find the price lower than others I had checked. When I asked if there was a room available, the teenage girl looked at me like I was asking if I was in a hotel or something equally obvious. “Yeah,” she said and took me up to see it.

Rather than haul our bags around from hotel to hotel, Gina had agreed to wait in the main plaza with our stuff while I searched for a room. After I secured a room, I went running back across the small town to find Gina still camped out in the plaza with an entire marching band practicing in front of the bench she was sitting on, with two giant bags she had been helpless, unable to move or even change benches. As I walked up, she gave me an ironic smile. “Sorry,” I apologized, “but I found a good place.”

The catch with our last minute hotel was that we had to pay full price for the next three days, yet we would receive no amenities, no breakfast, no staff at our disposal, no wake up calls, nothing. For the next three days, we would be alone in the hotel. Not even a skeleton crew was to stay on, the teenaged girl at the desk explained. I asked if we would be able to use the kitchen. “If you clean it up after,” she replied in the same deadpan tone she had employed earlier to tell me about the room. “How will we get out?” I asked. “You can use the backdoor.” And she showed us the backdoor.

After she handed me the key the girl explained that the staff would be leaving in a few hours, someone would be in the next morning to clean a little, but after that we were on our own. Alone in a hotel at the edge of the world for Christmas, it sounded great to me, in fact, I preferred it over having to interact with a bunch of other guests. One can only imagine the sort of listless characters that find themselves exiled to Tierra del Fuego for Christmas, being one of them myself, I was in no hurry to meet the others. It seemed fortunate that we were to be on our own.

After taking a 20 minute shower and lying around a while, I found I’d become immobilized by comfort. After weeks of sleeping outside, on buses and in cramped hostel dormitories, a room of my own was far too great a comfort to abandon so soon. We decided to stay in.

As the Patagonian summer sun set, the hour passed 11 pm and an impatient sort of darkness fell about the town in fitful strands. Most of the sky, even after midnight, was still shot through with dull twilight. The color was peaceful, slate blue and dusty vermillion and before the darkness enveloped the sky completely, I was asleep.

I awoke with a start an hour or two later. “Did you hear that?” Gina whispered to me in the darkness. “It’s just the wind,” I replied, saying the first calming thing I could think of, having no idea if it was the wind or not. I listened in the darkness. A heavy creaking sound swelled up from the ground floor. Soon after, the sound was repeated. A streetlight shone through the window gleaming off the room’s TV screen and doorknob but without bringing any real light to the room. The creaking sound on the ground floor repeated itself, sounding close now to the stairs. “Are those footsteps?” Gina asked. “No,” I replied, pretty sure what I was hearing were, indeed, footsteps. “It’s just the building settling, or something.” I strained my ears, listening down the hall for someone coming. The creaking sound had been replaced with a profound silence. If anyone else had been in the building, they were gone now. This was one aspect of staying alone in the hotel I hadn’t anticipated. Rather than the comforting sounds of other guests moving around in the night, each noise in the building was converted into a phantasm or a burglar. If we were alone in the hotel, who was walking around downstairs in the dark?

I woke up late the next morning. The room was stuffy and the comforter felt heavy and oppressive. I pulled it back. “Do you think we’ll get breakfast?” I asked Gina who was already awake. “Only one way to find out,” she told me, “kitchen is down the hall.”

I pulled my shoes over my bare feet and shuffled out into the hall. In the kitchen, a light spread had been set out: bread, jam, juice, hot water, tea bags and instant coffee packets. I poured instant coffee into two cups and poured hot water over the powder like dry earth. The sound of my spoon clanking around in the cup must’ve brought the cleaning lady in.

“Did you sleep well?” She asked.

“Yeah,” I replied, taking a big slurp of my coffee. “Was there someone here last night?”

“No,” she said shaking her head. “I got here this morning.”

I thought about telling the woman about the sound I’d heard during the night of someone moving around, but thought better of it, afraid that maybe she’d tell the owner and the owner would make us leave for fear that the hotel wouldn’t be secure with us in there. Really, it still seemed absurd to me that we’d been trusted to stay in this place all alone. We could be downstairs trying to open the register or getting into the restaurant bar. We could be getting the keys from behind the desk and stealing the little soaps out of each room. It was a wonder these people had trusted us as much as they had. I didn’t want to undermine that trust be spouting off about sounds late at night, especially now that it was the 24th and all the other hotels were probably already closed.

“I’m going to leave in an hour or two.” The cleaning lady told me. “Was there anything else you needed?”

“So no one else will be coming until the 26th?” I asked, just to be sure.


“Ok, no, I think we’re fine. Thanks. Uh, merry Christmas.”

“You, too,” she said and began clearing away the breakfast spread that had been put out for us alone.

I brought the coffee to the room and closed it with my foot. “It’s instant,” I told Gina holding the steaming cup out to her.

“That’s ok,” she said taking the cup. “Tomorrow, for Christmas, we can make our own coffee in the kitchen.”

We went out to explore the town that day, leaving the hotel by the back door. I was surprised at the number of places still open on Christmas Eve. We spent most of the day in the local history museum before walking around and eventually stopping at a grocery store to buy a bottle of wine. It was late in the afternoon when we returned to the hotel. The backdoor by which we’d left, now had a milk crate full of glass bottles pushed against it. “Somebody probably forgot something,” I explained to Gina, pushing the crate out of the way.

After we had gotten into the room, we began carrying food into the kitchen, eager to start cooking our Christmas Eve dinner. I started cooking the pasta, while Gina went back to the room for a few extra things. The rest of the hotel was dark, but we passed between the light in our room and the light in the kitchen with no problem. For just the two of us, there didn’t seem to be a reason to turn all the hallway lights on.

I was chopping onions in the kitchen when I heard a noise in the hallway, I nearly called out to Gina but, for some reason, stopped myself. I stepped out of the kitchen almost right into the arms of a squat, balding man and a squint so strong in one eye, his head appeared to be cocked to one side. I stepped back and involuntarily uttered ‘oh.’ The man merely nodded. While I’d been totally surprised by him, he seemed to be expecting me. “Hello,” I greeted him after a few awkward seconds had passed.

“Hello,” he responded in a Spanish that sounded like a piece of clam he was chewing on.
“Do you work here?” I asked when he offered no explanation.

“Yeah, I watch the place at night,” he said, walking around the dining room as if unsure what to do with himself.

“Ah, ok. They told me that there wasn’t going to be anyone else here.”

“I’m here.” The squinty guy told me, as if it were something to be refuted.

“I see, I see.” I could think of nothing else to say.

“I come to watch the place at night,” the man said, continually moving around the room as if he’d lost something and was looking for it. “I always watch the place at night. My room’s right there.” He said gesturing to the dark hallway past the door.

Gina came in and the squinty guy seemed even more awkward. “Well, I guess I’ll go to my room. Let me just grab a cup here,” he said grabbing for a plastic cup on the kitchen counter. I wished him a merry Christmas as he vanished into the hallway. It was, after all, Christmas Eve. A minute later, I heard the sound of a door shutting in the corridor.

After he left, I turned to Gina. “I bet that’s who you heard last night.”

“How come they didn’t tell us that he was coming?”

“Who knows; maybe they forgot, anyway, I guess we’re not going to be alone here, at least not at night.”

“I just don’t get why they told us we’d be alone then.” Gina said, pouring the wine.

“Maybe they just meant there wouldn’t be anyone around that we could expect much from. I have the impression that guy doesn’t do much.”

And indeed he didn’t. We didn’t see him again the rest of the night and I slept soundly until morning.

“Merry Christmas,” I told Gina stretching out and yawning in the stuffy room.

“Merry Christmas,” she returned.

“I’ll get the coffee,” I said slipping out of bed. “Do you think that guy’s still here?”

“No, I heard a door shut early this morning.” Gina said rolling back over. “I think it was him going out.”

Indeed, the hallway seemed empty, like no one had passed through it for hours. It was late in the morning, but the lack of windows in the hallway made it feel like the middle of the night. I had a feeling for a moment like I was sleepwalking and hadn’t woken up entirely.

I stumbled into the kitchen. A plate had been set out with two pieces of bread on it and a jam packet. I imagined the squinty guy must’ve set it out for us before he left for the morning. It was a nice gesture, but it seemed like he would’ve reasoned that if we were using the kitchen, as we had been when he’d come in the night before, we’d be able to find the bread on our own.  From the irritable quality of this thought, I reasoned that it was a good thing I was making coffee. Clearly, I’d woken up on the wrong side of the bed to be annoyed with this guy for leaving bread out for us.

The low rumbling of the stovetop espresso maker announced the coffee’s arrival. I picked the pot up and began pouring the brew in even measures into our cups when I heard the floorboards squeak under someone’s weight out in the dining room. I knew right away it wasn’t going to be Gina.

I set the coffee down and looked out from the kitchen in time to see a short man using a cane to almost pull himself into the dining room. When he reached the place where the two pieces of bread had been set out, he lowered himself into the seat and looked up at me.

“Do you work here?” I asked, perturbed that even Christmas morning I wasn’t going to have the place to myself. Why did they tell us we’d be alone here if we were going to have visits from the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future during our stay? Who the hell was this guy, the day watchman?

“No,” the man answered my question and broke my irritated train of thought. “I’m staying here.”

“You mean like a guest?” I asked dumbfounded.

“Yeah, a guest.”

“Oh, because they told us we would be alone.”
The man didn’t say anything to this but just shrugged and went back to buttering his toast. I wished him a merry Christmas, took my coffees and went back to the room. I found Gina sitting up in bed, awaiting the coffee.

“There’s a guy out there.” I told her, handing the coffee over.

“Who? You mean the guy from last night? He’s still here?”

“No. There’s an entirely different guy out there. This one limps.”

“Who the hell are all these people?”

“I don’t know, but he told me he’s staying here.”

“You mean like a guest?”

“Yeah, like a guest.”

Just then I heard some footsteps descending the stairs one at a time, slowly. “There he goes.” I said. 

“Do you want breakfast?”

After we finished our coffee we went into the kitchen to find the man’s place still set out, only now the bread had been eaten and only the crusts remained.

We went out, walked along the water and fed some botched Christmas cookies to the local stray dogs. 

We took a long walk into the island toward Lago de los Cisnes which seemed an appropriate destination for Christmas. At the edge of the lake, walking through a grey and blustery pampas, a llama went galloping past, stopped about 100 feet away and made some kind of threatening coughing sound at us. Among the long and rough grass, there were scores of dead sheep and lambs in various states of decomposition. It was enough to make one believe that the animals must’ve been incredibly delicate to die in such a hazardless place, unless there was something we weren’t seeing. We walked toward the water, heedful of some hidden danger, the coughing/bleating of the llama following us as we walked.

We made it back to the hotel before dark and found the backdoor locked. Frantically, I ran around, trying all the doors. Bizarrely, I found two other doors unlocked that led only to self-contained little rooms, each one with no more than a bed and bathroom. The sheets and blankets in each room were in disorder, like they’d recently been slept in and the rooms had the warmth and smell of inhabited places. I called out, but could find no occupants in either room, nor did there seem to be anyone around. Gina called out; she had found another way back into the hotel.

That night, the squinty guy came back. I talked to him while making dinner like we were old roommates. He asked me if the other guy was around. “You mean the guy with a limp?” I asked. “Yeah, I saw him this morning.” I hoped the squinty guy would give me some information as to who this other guy was, but he said nothing more than ‘goodnight’ and walked out of the kitchen.

In the morning, the hotel was again full of people. The cleaning lady was back in the kitchen setting our breakfast and the teenage girl who’d checked me in was back downstairs. After we’d gotten our stuff together and called a cab, we left just as a tour group was coming in through the restaurant doors. I tossed a wave over my back and an ‘adios.’ No one acknowledged it, save for a lone voice seated at a corner table of the restaurant where I hadn’t noticed anyone sitting, I glanced back and just before the door closed, I noticed the guy with the limp, sitting by himself and waving.

After we boarded the ferry and found our spot by the window, I bought a coffee and sat down to watch Tierra del Fuego quietly recede into the horizon and with it, what was surely one of the most bizarre hotel experiences of my life.

“You know,” I said to Gina, still looking out the window long after I’d lost sight of the land, “I bet they were all there the entire time, in the hotel, I mean.”

“You think so?” She said looking up from her magazine.

“I have no idea,” I responded. “From the beginning, I had no idea what was going on in that place, but it seems appropriate doesn’t it. I mean, it makes sense that things should’ve been so unaccountable at the end of the world.”

“Yeah, I guess,” she responded going back to her magazine. “Except for that limping guy. We never figured out who he was.”

“Yeah, you’re right. Who the hell was that guy?”

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