I think that it’s safe to assume that at one point or another, we’ve all been down the bad (at times truly awful) hotel road. Generally, I’ve noticed, that the bad hotel is a place you find yourself in more out of necessity than by chance. Probably the most common instance is when you miss your flight, forcing you in a Plane, Trains and Automobiles like situation where you can either spend the night in the terminal, trying to sleep on the only chair less comfortable than the one on the airplane or you can shack up at “Big Verns Wild Rodeo Motel and Tire Care Center” out on the local interstate.
Just for the sake of being able to lay down on some sort of mattress, you choose Big Verns, knowing full well that outside of stranded travelers, this place generally caters to Ladies of the Night and people on the run from local drug cartels. You sleep with both eyes open, clutching your belongings, listening to the local ambient noise of screaming Mac trucks and threats of violence yelled between individuals if payment isn’t made...in full...NOW! You then spend the rest of the night debating whether or not it’s safe enough to escape to the comforts of the Baggage Claim carousel.
On the other hand, every once in a while, you find yourself spending your night (hopefully that’s all) in a “Surprise” bad hotel. I call them the “Surprise” bad hotels because they are the places you willingly book yourself into under the promise and expectation that it will be a decent place. Then upon arrival, you find that it more resembles the dump the Wolfpack woke up in in the Hangover 2 than the local Ramada Inn.
I’ve had the worst luck (more like blind stupidity) booking a hotel from hawkers outside of train stations in a foreign cities. You pick the least seedy/mafioso looking guy to show you his binder of local hotels with vacancies for the night. Once you find a place that seems suitable, you haggle a price and then once you get to the hotel, you pay him and carry on with your day. This sounds like a reasonable transaction as you get to pick your price and then pay once you’ve checked the place out. Hotwire eat your heart out.
There is a problem with this, which I have found out the hard way. Once you arrive at your hotel of choice and it seems to check out as advertised, you pay the Hawker your negotiated price (the equivalent of a pack of gum and a handful of marbles) and you part ways. After you check in, the proprietor of the hotel will tell a Quasimodo like dude to take you to your room. And here is the problem. Sometimes he will take you up to your comfortable room where you will unpack and figure out how you will explore the city. Then on other occasions, he will take you on an exploration of the cities underbelly. Taking you from one dark, rancid alley to the next before dropping you off at the hotels’ “satellite” rooms.
Once Quasi gives you the key and gallops away, you notice that not only is it located in the middle of a busy industrial yard but there’s a brawl to the death between at least twenty stray dogs in front of the entrance. As you walk in the head the head of security is passed out in his wife beater on an olive green vinyl sofa and there’s a couple in the corner staring into space while having their complimentary breakfast of stale PopTarts and coffee that was filtered with the proprietors old underwear. You then notice that at least the couple isn’t dead and because you don’t have anymore packs of gum or bags of marbles left, you decide to spend the night anyway.
Your mood fails to improve when you get to your room and first off notice that it is furnished with a few sets of bunk beds left over from when the local prison closed. Will you be getting some roomies?! When you first step in, your shoe comes off because it got stuck to the floor and then you notice that more than one of the windows has a nice spider web mosaic on it, the burlap blankets on the bunks are riddle with cigarette burns and blood stains, the towels are so stiff that would crack if you were to drop them and...oh yeah, you do have a roommate, his name is Olaf and he just strolled in from the communal shower down the hall and he’s wearing nothing but his mullet and a cheap gold chain around his neck.
At this point, your solution (or at least my solution), is to take your stuff and and get out of there and proceed to get so drunk that you either won’t find your way back or if you do you won’t care where you pass out. In my case, I did get lost but in the search of a park bench to spend the night, I stumbled upon the alley of the hotel. When I turned the key and opened the front door, I heard someone yelling at me from behind. Being just coherent enough, I turned and across the street was the security guard in his wife beater yelling at me to get in the hotel, which was behind him. It turns out my hotel key was the key to the city and worked in strangers apartments.
With that being said, if you ever find yourself in a new city and you want to spend the night but you can only get a room through a hawker...don’t. On the other hand, if your stranded at an airport and it’s between Big Vern’s and the baggage claim carousel, use you bag as a pillow and hope no one turns it on.
Having spent a decent amount of time traveling around the world, I have come to the conclusion that Street Food is the greatest invention of all time. For just a few dollars and little effort you can find yourself sitting on the side of the road, blissfully slurping up a mind numbingly good mystery meat noodle stew. Street Food is so good that people have tried to capture it’s greatness here in America through food trucks and pop-up cafes but it always seems a bit JV compared to what you get on a street corner or in a municipal parking garage in say, Bangkok. It’s kind of like soccer in America. We form a league and have teams in most major cities but it’s a far cry from what you will find in England or Spain or Germany.
You know if you’ve had truly great Street Food because you can’t just describe the food, you have to tell a whole story that goes along with your experience. More times than not, your story will go something like this: It’s early in the morning and you find yourself wandering down a nondescript street in search a magical elixir to clear your head from the night before. When, out of no where, you hear a slight commotion and rustling coming from up ahead. As you continue to wander forward, the commotion grows louder and louder. Not knowing what is going on but knowing there is a good chance you won’t be welcome, you start to turn on your heal to high tail it out of there. But something stops you. There’s a faint, yet growing aroma of deliciousness in the air. The hunger inside you is triggered and like a moronic character in a horror movie who finds his dead buddy with a knife crammed up his ass and decides to investigate the creepy basement, you too decide to continue on.
As you trek on, like in any good horror movie, there are many indications that tell you to turn around and go home. You might encounter downed power lines, screaming babies, a flash flood, confused/lifeless stares from old women or a salty old fisherman might appear out of nowhere and actually say: “Turn around and go home.” But none of this will stop you because with every step closer the smell gets stronger and pulls you towards it like Dark Helmets tractor beam in Spaceballs. Finally, against all odds, you make it to source of the commotion and the aroma. And unlike the character from the horror movie, your day is not coming to an end, it’s just beginning.
The smell, it turns out, is coming from a makeshift kitchen that is ingeniously welded to the side of a moped and the commotion is coming from the long line of anxiously waiting people, hoping that breakfast won’t sell out before they get to the front of the line. Before you know it, you find yourself waiting nervously online like a degenerate gambler next to a roulette wheel. When you make it to the front of the line, you hand the proprietor a few coins and graciously take the steaming bowl of magic to a nearby broken card table and pull up a cinder block for a chair and dig in.
Half way through the first spoonful you feel a warm glow come out of your soul and surround you and everything around you. The skies open up and you are awash in warm sunshine. The downed power lines have been fixed, the screaming babies are giggling, the old women are no longer staring but are laughing from the bottom of their bellies and the salty fisherman is now a leprechaun handing you his pot ‘o gold. You are a changed person. You are no longer the snarky tourist considering everything you encounter as inferior to it’s counterpart you would find back home. You now, truly, see the world differently.
Now I know that if you visited a place like this on a daily basis, it would become like listening to your favorite album over and over again. You wouldn’t get that same magical feeling as the first time but you wouldn’t love it and appreciate any less either. With that being said, I wonder if anyone has ever visited America and gone back home with an amazing Street Food story? Probably not. But don’t give up hope because like great Street Food there is always a story involved and with any luck that story is just beginning here in America.