Friday, 10 October 2008

Notes from Uppsala [4]

Published in the Guardian Life magazine (Lagos), Sunday, Oct 05, 2008


A while ago on my Facebook page I put up a ‘status’ that read something like this: Tolu spent most of last week on trains and in hotel rooms. So what does that make him?
I guess that is one of the fringe benefits of being that thing they call a ‘writer’ –whatever it means in practical terms. The chance, occasionally, to sleep in train stations/carriages and airport lounges and strange hotel beds in stranger parts of the world. And usually the good part of this is that you don’t get to know how much those things cost, since you’re not the one paying.
For a few years now I’ve had this hobby: photographing hotel bedrooms and ‘conveniences’. It started at The Ambassadors’, a guesthouse in Ikoyi, Lagos, somewhere off Awolowo Road. It must have been my first hotel experience as a writer, and it came courtesy of the British Council. It was 2005, the Crossing Borders literary mentoring project had just kicked off its new phase, and we (participants) had gathered from across the country for the induction ceremony.
It also turned out to be my induction into the hotel room business. Learning unwritten rules and codes that make for a regret-free hotel stay. It’s where I learned that sometimes (depending on who you are) it could be suicidal to take a drink out of a hotel refrigerator, for the simple reason that the economics of hotel goods is not the same as that of supermarket, or streetside-kiosk goods.
Later that year I was in Kampala for a writing conference, also courtesy of the British Council. We stayed at the Sheraton. I returned with a poem, to which the lines below – which reveal a nagging anxiety – belong:

My biggest concerns were how not
To rake up thousands of shillings in needless bills.
Television-internet and dollar-denominated laundry.

“Hello, is that Reception? Kindly help
Me check my account. I fiddled
With the internet buttons on my remote control
And I'm not so sure anymore...”

A few weeks ago I was in Oslo, Norway, for a magazine launch. I went by train. All of seven hours in carriages or at train stations changing connections. The journey back was just as long, and a bit more psychologically tasking, perhaps because the novelty had sunk to an all-time low, and because I realised I was due for another round of train-travel the next day. As I sat in the Oslo – Hallsberg train I began to notice something. First it was a girl with a cat. She sat somewhere behind me, but I could glance at her (as often as I wanted) and see her cradling it. Moments later another girl came in, this time with a dog. A big brown dog. She promptly laid out a cloth on the seat next to her and the dog flopped onto it. Moments later, a third girl came in – with a dog, a visibly pampered, frail-looking white one. So there I was surrounded by two dogs and a cat. And then my eyes moved up to the panel at the top of the entrance into the carriage, and I saw the sign: the carriage was meant for animal owners. There had been no one to point that out to me when I was boarding.
The moment I discovered I could easily have moved to another carriage. But I thought, what-the-hell, sharing a cabin with a couple of admittedly clean and polite, well-behaved animals on a four-hour journey could not be that bad. So I stayed put. My only concern was this: there were a couple of other people in the carriage, but as far as my naked eyes could tell, they were not accompanied by any animals. I wondered why. Either they were JJCs like me who sat in blissful oblivion, (which was doubtful, they looked like regular travellers) or they were carrying the kind of animals that you can easily hide in a bag – like, uhm, pythons.
Life is about learning all those little conventions that make all journeys smoother. That there are animal cabins and non-animal cabins, smoking cabins and lounges and non-smoking ones. That two shops, side-by-side, could get away with selling the same goods at alarmingly different prices. That knowledge is key.
Without a doubt one of the most fascinating experiences for me has been learning about the sometimes-complicated mechanisms by which different hotel bathroom showers and toilets work. Which ones are pull, which ones are push, which ones twist, and which ones activate automatically once they sense a presence beneath them. And this goes for toilet flushing systems as well.
And of course, the room entry systems. Cards vs. old-fashioned keys. With the cards of course the moment you step out the door locks behind you. With the keys you might have to do the locking yourself. If you think keys are out you’re wrong. Try the charming City Hotel (with rooms that are petite in a cosy way, and have got wallpaper in them) in Göteborg. A trial will surely convince you.

(c) Tolu Ogunlesi, 2008

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