Returning to the Central African Republic, Chris Simpson reflects on his wide-ranging experience of hotels across the continent of Africa.
Hotels should be clean, safe and affordable. But they should not be boring
So where will you stay when you get there?"
The inevitable first question from friends and family as you set off for a new country.
Never good on planning, I tend to be evasive, alluding to non-existent friends of friends and tips from former travellers.
But knowing I was arriving around midnight in the Central African Republic, with way too much luggage, cash reserves for two months and a stack of valuable gadgetry, even I knew it was probably worth booking a hotel.
My chosen destination, Bangui, is not much visited by tourists.
But an internet search quickly threw up a short-list of alternatives, accompanied by some sulphurous reviews.
"Bring your own sheets... and towel," suggested one unhappy customer.
"Whichever hotel you choose, you won't be happy," warned another.
Oh well. It might be for one night only. I dialled a number, received assurances of minimum comfort at a reasonable price and returned, much relieved, to my packing.
As it turns out, there is not much grace or splendour about my second floor garret.
I have known softer pillows and tastier chicken sandwiches. But a generator purrs reassuringly in the background. The receptionists are cheerfully irreverent, rearranging my collars with sisterly care.
The boutique owner is sweetly honest about the quality of her wares.
The wise woman who cleans my room offers unsolicited, but fascinating briefings on the hotel's history and internal factions, not to mention its reputation for nocturnal traffic.
I will probably be here for my next birthday but not, I hope, my honeymoon.
Hotels should be clean, safe and affordable. But they should not be boring, a charge which I must sadly level at all too many hotels in Africa, particularly those with four-star aspirations.
I now know the warning signs. The superfluous doorman with the ridiculous uniform (are you meant to tip him?), piped muzak that desecrates favourite Beatles songs, menus posted in the lift, with lurid photos of "local" gastronomic delights, available at a third of the price just down the road.
Watch out for this evening's cultural soiree. You too will come to empathise with the specially-hired "traditional" drummers, pounding listlessly into the night, wanting, like you, to be somewhere else.
The earnest questionnaires and guest books invite facetious feedback. "What magical water do you use to justify such extortionate laundry rates? Why is there only one computer in the business centre?"
I am not averse to a little luxury, to king-sized breakfasts and turquoise swimming pools, but these should surely be occasional treats not daily necessities. To be pampered is also to be suffocated.
You do sometimes feel churlish for not entering into the spirit of things. "Jambo. How are you enjoying your day, sir?" a Kenyan helper kindly enquired.
Malarial and distinctly fractious after a week of meetings, I muttered meanly: "Thank you, it's been awful."
Licence to whinge
The endearingly bad can often be better than the self-consciously good.
There was a shambolic Lagos hotel, now supposedly under renovation, where I found the croupiers asleep in the casino.
The rooms were dark and dingy, but there was an al fresco drinking area with music going full blast, cold beers, hot meat and spicy banter that was not for the easily shocked.
Rude hotel guests are an abomination, even if fun to watch.
But the hotels I like most do give you licence to belly-ache, unwind and even (within limits) behave badly.
Offered a long-term room rent by a roguish entrepreneur in Angola, I spent 18 months in his hotel.
Maids nagged, scolded and advised but often lightened my mood. The God-fearing receptionist, slow but diligent, became a one-man answering service for the BBC and other media living down the corridor.
My cheerfully hedonistic host eventually kicked me out.
The hotel had quietly flourished. The rates were going up and there was no longer room for low budget journalists. It was an amicable parting.
I have little time for the absent proprietor. "We don't know where the bossman is," was the constant refrain from a candle-lit reception area in Monrovia, Liberia.
There was no power and no water. "Sorry, Mister Chris, you should not stay here," said the girl at the desk and it really was not her fault.
Tourism in Liberia has a long way to go, particularly outside the capital. But a big-hearted welcome and an honest quest for fresh bread in the morning often compensate for the bucket baths and lights out at midnight.
Shamed and mildly shaken by a street robbery in Monrovia, I found my hosts at the Convent guesthouse refusing the rent, a gesture worth a lot more than cable TV or an unwanted trouser press.
Travelling upcountry in neighbouring Ivory Coast, you see where the holiday-makers used to spend the night.
There are battered posters from happier times, empty swimming pools and over-anxious craftsmen and vendors, hawking often unwanted treasures to aid workers and French soldiers.
Some of the hotels are surrendering to dust and decay. Others have retained the white linen table-cloths and elegant cutlery, handled by waiters working for a pittance and hoping for a revival in fortunes that may never come.
The tourists who do make it to the Central African Republic are mainly there for the wildlife, still reputedly in abundance.
I too may one day go in search of giraffes and elephants, but for now watch discreetly from the lobby as my fellow guests come and go, accepting, with a certain sadness, that it is probably time to move on.
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