An odd lodge


LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — “As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned things, and some things are not as important as I once thought,” my breakfast companion said this morning, on what happened to be the last morning for both of us at the lodge we had been staying at for the last week.

“It really isn’t important that I like the decor,” she said, with a backhand wave at the bright brass plated tarantula-like chandelier overhead, the shiny blonde veneer of the particle board china cabinet display of silver-plated serving dishes. “A comfortable bed has its place, but it is not everything.”

I disagreed with her there, having just spent my last night on a bed that had become my first inanimate bitter enemy. I knew her bed hadn’t been comfortable either, because we had already discussed that, and I had wondered daily since meeting her a week earlier, why she had returned to this place, not once, but several times.

A work-skill trainer from Malaysia, hired by the European Union to do her part in the thing they call “capacity-building” she was on at least her third round of workshops for government staffers in the Lusaka area who had made it to the top of a six-month long waiting list for her wisdom.

When she told me about it originally I had rolled my eyes — possibly visibly, I hoped not. But without wanting to be judgmental I was annoyed, and feeling a mix of familiarity and wonder with how many ways people can think up to spend development money and still leave kids sleeping under bridges, men who have sex with men in danger of imprisonment, and women weakened by malaria dying in childbirth. These things bother me and so do the number of hours of my own one life that I have spent in workshops that seemed designed solely to give a consultant something to do.

But that had been a week earlier, over the first weekend before the workshops began. Then she came back each night and described the events of the day, almost reliving the classes in the detail of some recountings — the hands-on activities in negotiation and presentation — and I found the commitment and discipline, as well as the actual skills she imparted, made me wish I had been there at times.

So said other people who came and went around the breakfast and dinner table each day — businesspeople and government workers passing through.

I should interject here that the clientele was one of the many discordancies of this lodge.

As this is an anonymous blog, the hotel will be anonymous too, except for that all the signs to it and the black letters on the heavy gold plastic key fob referred to it as an “Executive Lodge.”

With the depressing flashiness of the dining room decor only exceeded in the bedrooms, and matched by elements of seediness — painted over wiring running over door-frames, chipped plaster and tile, stained ceilings — it would have made more sense to call a Motel Six an “executive lodge.”

And yet in addition to me with my new self-inflicted title of “journalism consultant,” and the business skills trainer from Malaysia, we had shared this plastic-coated table with: a foreign ministry officer on his way to a three-year stint in Sweden, a couple of South African farming equipment deal-makers, a government official from a norther district, and several doctors. The landlady herself, an imposing woman, who maintained a warm but distant air of someone around subordinates, had once been ambassador to two small neighboring countries. And, I had discovered that her sister was someone I had been trying to meet for information on health issues here.

That, and the redeeming fact that the cooking was actually quite good most of the time, as well as that I couldn’t bring myself to pack my eight pieces of luggage one more time, had been why I stayed without drowning in self pity after landing here after a previous and more conventional hotel had sold my reservation out from under me.

Still there was the bed, in addition to the surroundings, that made me feel like I was in jail — one of those white-collar federal penitentiaries perhaps.

Then, on the second to last night, just as the Internet went down, the place started smelling of smoke. I went down to check on the Internet status and too find out if I needed to get my passport and evacuate. I found everyone outside.

“You can sleep well tonight,” the landlady said, calling me by name, and seeming to laugh, “we’re having the place anointed.”

The smoke that had carried through the crack under my door wafted from a burning frying pan that a man was carrying around, tilting it to spill its contents over the ficus surrounding the house.

“He’s a pastor,” the landlady’s daughter told me, getting into her car.

Well good, I thought. I try, in matters of religion, to be a glass-half-full sort of imaginer, and it occurred to me that perhaps my bed really was possessed, and that I really would sleep better now that the situation was being addressed. Obviously a bit of sleep deprivation entered into this thinking.

In any case, rather than an air of purification, this was the night the landlady gave the waitresses an abusive and humiliating bollocking at the dinner table.

It started because one of them served a dish from the left, instead of the right.

“Serve from the left, (waitresses name)?” the landlady began musingly. “You just can’t learn can you?”

The waitress, who was very young, didn’t respond.

“Or do you just do whatever you feel like doing?” landlady continued, her voice gathering heat and volume.

It got worse from there. It was awful. I moved to leave and the landlady asked me to bring her my email address so she could send information on tourism trips my main squeeze and I might like. I did as she said. I knew how the waitresses felt, which, of course was even worse than watching what the waitresses felt.

The next day, when I made my way to a cafe with working internet I discovered that a missing digit in a bank number had prevented my employers from completing the transfer of downpayment for the new apartment I had found. Then I found out that the new landlord didn’t care. That I was to move in on schedule today to my own place.

I was glad, though I would have left the executive lodge anyway today, and not had to sleep under a bridge.

So this morning, the Malaysian trainer and I had our last breakfast before going upstairs to pack and she said some things were more important than a decor that suits one’s senses and a bed on which you could enjoy a full night’s sleep. I had to agree, having left both at home two weeks ago for the next year.

In her case, it turned out that on her first trip she fell ill, and the landlady kept on eye on her.

In mine it was that I met the Malaysian trainer, from whose workshops I learned something each night.


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