Friday, May 8, 2015

Jungle Reds travel: Our Huh? and Aha! moments...

HALLIE EPHRON: As many of you know, my daughter Molly is in Mexico this year working and enjoying a complete cultural immersion. Recently she writes: 
I'm glad I've been living here long enough that when a man comes running down the street waving his arms yelling "BOMBA!" it's not concerning, he's just asking that I bike down a different block since they're setting off dynamite for construction.
Which brought to mind many moments of cultural dissonance traveling in foreign lands. Like my first encounter with a bidet. Or learning the wisdom of wearing a skirt in a land of squat toilets. Or figuring out I wasn't supposed to drink from a finger bowl. Or learning the hard way that a herd of sheep coming at me will NOT go around me.

Please, share your traveling Huh? and Aha! moments... and have any of them found their way into your books?

Hallie, yes! Bidet, check! Squat toilet, check! Stubborn sheep, check!

I'll also add eating worms and crickets in Mexico City (at the Four
Seasons, I must add....), trying 100-year-old eggs and I don't even know what else in Japan (yes, the eggs are Chinese — we were at a Chinese restaurant in Tokyo).

And speaking of Tokyo — learning shoe etiquette — outside shoes left outside door, put on inside shoes. Leave inside shoes at bathroom door, put on inside bathroom shoes... Aaaaaand then reverse!

Oh! And I thought it was amusing that the Berlin hotel where I stayed provided free condoms (as part of an amenity basket) — while the hotel in England I visited next provided a kettle, tea, and biscuits....

Nothing so exotic . But when I checked in to an otherwise beautiful hotel in Dallas, there was--no light. None. None. No lights.

I was SO exhausted, and SO weary, and so hungry, and I went into the room. hoping for tea and cookies,--and got darkness.  I burst into tears. I called the desk. "Can you, sob sob, send up someone with a LAMP?"

Or in a chic little hotel in San Francisco, so adorable. UNTIL I discovered the steam from the showers set off the smoke alarm. Picture it, Reds. Where would a person be, and in what state of dishabille, when you discovered that?

And the first time it happened--what would you do or think? It went though my mind: "I'm WET, right? I'll be okay in a fire."  Then I thought better of that, and got out, dripping, and called the front desk. MY SMOKE ALARM IS GOING OFF! I said.

"It's not going off down here" was the reply.

By that time it had stopped.

Until I took another shower.

Thanks for the info about the sheep, though. Good to know.

Oh, yes, the squat toilets and iffy paper therunto. I discovered those while on an archeological dig in the Pyrenees. I wound up buying a roll of plush American toilet paper and carrying it with me for the rest of my sojourn throughout Italy and southern France.

When I went to school in London, the biggest cultural shock was also bathroom related, in that providing central heat to the bathroom seemed optional in so many places.

Here in this country, there was the Arizona hotel - I believe some of my sister Reds have stayed there - with the retro-60s rooms with a sunken tub in the middle of the floor. Not the bathroom floor - the center of the hotel room floor. What the hey? I kept waking up, convinced I was going to walk across the room in the dark and fall in.

When Ross and I went on safari in south eastern Africa, there were huge levels of cultural dissonance, but none so stark as my realization that people living perfectly recognizable lives in area villages - mechanics and teachers and farmers and such - really, truly had to fear for the intrusion of animals like hippos and elephants. I discovered this for myself when, taking a semi-open-air shower one afternoon, I was interrupted by a curious cow elephant who wanted to see what was inside my little enclosure!

Hmm, clearly, all my travel stories ultimately involve bathrooms. Not sure what that says about me.

Wait, wait! I forgot something! When I was speaking at
Murder By the Book in Houston, Texas last year, Random House put me up at Hotel Zaza — very chi chi. However, when I went to Google it, out of curiosity, it seems there's a "secret room." And it's not a penthouse suite — more "goth dungeon closet" with a chain holding the bed to the wall, pictures of skulls, and a dirty concrete floor. I'm NOT making this up — see here.

Weird, right? I asked one of the housekeepers about it and she said she didn't know anything.....

Susan, I am always put at that hotel too. I'll scope out the dreaded dungeon.

The worst thing I encountered there was a life-size photograph of an Afghan tribesman staring at me in my shower. I felt I should shower in a burka.

I've certainly had my share of exotic bathroom experiences. Like the time I forgot to bring a towel to the bathroom down the hall in Florence and it had one of those geysers that fill the room with steam so I had to put on my flimsy summer cotton dress on a soaking wet body and try to dash back to my room without encountering anyone. But as I passed a man I... oh... dropped my underwear and he called me back. Agony!

And the toilet in the depths of the French countryside that was a hole in the ground and when I pulled the chain the water started rising and the door wouldn't open. And another toilet in the Australian bush where a huge hairy Huntsman spider came to sit on the door, a few inches from the latch.

There is something to be said for the Hilton after all!

Julia, Rhys, Susan, have stayed at the 
Arizona hotel many times, but because I usually share a room with my AZ friend, I've never had the tub in the middle of the room. What am I missing??? 

And the ZaZa in  Houston. Arggh. I am usually at the Intercontinental but asked to stay at the ZaZa once because I was curious. After that I went happily back to the boring Intercontinental....

Bathrooms...apparently the ultimate travel experience. I had every bad bathroom possible as a child on many trips from Dallas to Mexico City on the old Pan American highway.  Holes in the ground, shacks with burros peering in the door, you name it. There were also some lovely old hotels and resorts on that road--wonder if they are gone now? First experience with a bidet on my first trip to France. My mother liked them so much she had one put in when they built a new house. Wonder what the builder thought?

But I have only once had to use a chamber pot, and that was at a B&B somewhere in England--Northumberland, maybe? I was not impressed.

Bathrooms here too...probably 15 years ago we went to the Dominican Republic for a week to help build a Haitian hospital. First day we were taken to a church service out in the country, in a very poor village. I tried not to have to use the facilities, but nature won out. I had to climb steps to the pit toilet in the middle of the huts...I still shudder at that memory...

In Japan, not nearly so rustic, but they did label toilets "Eastern" and "Western." I learned quickly that the lines were much much shorter if you were willing to go Eastern. I was:)

HALLIE: Oh, the toilets! It's why we travel thought, isn't it? To experience new things?

Please share your travel "learning" experiences... can't wait to hear.


  1. My first trip to Denmark went something like this—

    Me: [In the bathroom looking for the shower.] Where's shower?
    Granddaughter: it's in the bathroom.
    Me: Where in bathroom?
    Granddaughter: It's right there!
    Me: What does it look like?
    Me: I…
    Granddaughter: Something unintelligible, but I'm pretty sure I have an idea of what it meant. Followed by: You locked the door?
    Me: Yeah…?
    Granddaughter: Let me in!
    Me: Why? [I unlock the door.]
    Granddaughter: [Walks over to the wall and does something to it. Water comes out of the wall.]
    Me: Where's the curtain?
    Granddaughter: [With that apparently universal teenage look of disgust.] You're in Denmark. We put a drain in the floor. The water goes down the drain.
    Me: Let's go out to eat.
    Granddaughter: What's the matter? Can't find the stove?

  2. Sheesh . . . all this makes a body hesitate to travel.
    Worst travel experience? I was scheduled to go to a conference in Las Vegas [a place I really dislike visiting] but the girls were skating in a competition at the same time. I went to the competition and then on to the conference instead of traveling with the other folks from the office who were also going to the conference.
    Despite having advised the hotel that I would be arriving late in the evening, when I got to the hotel they refused to check me into my room until after 7:30 in the morning, so I literally spent the night sitting in the hotel lobby.
    Did I mention how much I dislike going to Las Vegas???

  3. It all boils down to bathrooms! Back when I had better knees, I had no problem using the chamberpot at night in a plumbing-free cottage on Gott's Island, Maine. The outhouse had no door and faced onto the water. Last fall I spent 24 hours living the life of an 1870s farm wife, and wondered if these old knees were going to be able to manage the chamberpot at night, but they did (the outhouses there were very nice and had doors...).

    Overseas, like Reine, I took a shower in a Moroccan bathroom the size of the shower stall, which it was. Never could figure out where to put my clothes to keep them dry! Pit toilets in West Africa where "toilet paper" is a plastic Chinese teapot full of water. Pit toilets in Japan and figuring out how to keep my clothes from dragging on the not-at-all-clean base of it.

    A good startling experience was also in Japan, at the public baths. Also super clean and airy, you sit and wash at a faucet, then go soak in a scalding bath along with a couple dozen other women from age 80 to 8 months. I loved being with all those female bodies. Same thing at the public bath in Morocco a few years ago, where I went with my son's host mother, and got a full-body vigorous scrub from a bath lady. Oh, my. Bliss.

  4. Nothing so exotic, but I am just returned from a trip to south Louisiana, where I spent time with my young niece. Because I was in indulgent aunt mode, I let her talk me into watching Dancing with the Stars and American Idol with her--twice. That should rate as some kind of horror story.

    I had my own bathroom though, and no big hairy spiders. Yikes!

  5. Update Denmark. Granddaughter is now a linguist and rollerblade racer. She recently reminded me of that first visit.

    Granddaughter: Remember that time you were lost in the bathroom?
    Me: I wasn't lost in the bathroom. I couldn't find the shower.
    Granddaughter: Same thing. You know that I was just a teenager then?
    Me: Is that why we bought supper at the video store?
    Granddaughter: You didn't like the vinegar candy?
    Me: and it goes so well with the popcorn.

  6. Reine, I am howling with laughter! We're talking about a trip to Scandinavia and I feel forewarned.

    Joan, that is a nightmare. Only thing worse would be spending the night in an airport. And btw, I'm not a fan of Vegas either. Traffic, cigarette smoke, and hotels so big they feel like cities.

  7. Edith, now I know why the wonderful hot springs in Sol Duc in Olympic National Park were filled with Japanese (locals and tourists)... though they were all wearing bathing suits.

    Ramona, Dancing with the Stars?? The only thing worse would be having to watch it in a hotel room in Vegas. ;-)

  8. Traveling, but not abroad, for my work--we stay wherever we can find suitable accommodations close to the project area. There was the hotel owned by the local carpet store--all the walls were 'papered' with carpet. The 60s green shag made the bathroom exceptionally attractive. The one where the Indian owners told us "No use towels for boot rags!" Yup, that's how thin and ragged the towels were. The one where I slept fully clothed on top of the bedspread, making sure no part of my exposed flesh touched any part of the spread. So glad those days are mostly over--the last time I was on a project, I had a mini-suite complete with full-sized fridge and stove--a dressing room, fluffy towels; thought I'd died and gone to heaven!

  9. Yes, it always comes down to bathrooms. The Japanese have different shoes for the bathroom? I knew about the indoor/outdoor shoes, but the bathroom?

    My travel experience is rather tame. Got up on morning to find a brown recluse in the sink when I was visiting South Carolina. Was making dinner that night, turned around and there was a palmetto bug sitting on the meat in the frying pan. We went out that night.

    I loved being in St. Croix and finding geckos everywhere in my condo. They were so cute - and helpful! They ate all the bugs!

  10. Reine, so funny! Ramona, Dancing with the Stars definitely counts as a hardship post...

  11. Oh, come on. I'm a diehard DWTS fan. Frustrated dancing queen, dontcha know, married to a man with two left feet and no rhythm. Sigh.

    At the airport in Arusha, Tanzania, I was saved from instant immersion into the joys of pit toilets by our guide, who steered me to the only Western toilet in the restroom, bless her.

    But I was charmed by how different some of the facilities were, everywhere we went, and took lots of photos. Especially in the tent camps we stayed in. Each one had a sumptuous bathroom, right in the tent, usually separated from the sleeping areas by a flap of some kind. It was pretty incredible to see a massive tub in the shape of a stork, right in the middle of nowhere, in a tent.

    Beds were also amazing--crisp, snowy white linens, on four-poster beds, with down comforters, in tents, in the middle of the Serengeti. Astonishing. In Northern Serengeti our "tent" (which had three permanent walls and locking doors, but one wall of tenting/netting), we were told to keep everything closed up to keep the monkeys out.

    Then there were the three lions that killed a hyena, just outside our tent one of the nights we slept there. The roaring woke us up. And in another place, hippos were feeding at the base of the tent walls, just on the other side of the walls from our sleeping heads, like three feet from us.

  12. Have to jump in as another Dancing With the Stars fan. I never know who most of the " stars" are but I love watching the innovative ballroom dance routines.

    I was in a hotel room in London that had signs warning us to leave the bathroom door open while showering to avoid setting off the smoke alarm. The only trouble was that with the door open there was a clear view of the window, through which I could clearly see the people on the London Eye. And if I could see them ....


  13. Mary Sutton, my daughter has a number of resident geckos in her apartment. She considers them good luck except when they poop over the stove while she's cooking.

    FChurch, carpeted bathroom walls! That takes the cake.

  14. We once went to Puebla, Mexico with our daughter, and the three of us shared a room. The hotel had a GLASS stairway from the lobby to the second floor, and a glass floor that you had to walk across to get to the elevator. The shower was a partly frosted glass enclosure in the middle of our bedroom. And that is the hotel where I fell into the pool next to the roof-top bar. A real adventure!

  15. Love all your stories! Apparently one of the finalists in American Idol is from the town next to us in CT. I still haven't watched:)

    Overnight in a lobby? that's the worst ever! Hallie, remember when we roomed together in that awful vegas hotel? They kept the lights so dim it was impossible to read--they wanted us out gambling!

    Karen in Ohio, your trip sounds amazing!

  16. Spent the night in the LOBBY?? Ahh....

    I've stayed at ZaZa too..I kind of liked it. But it's--more chic than comfortable. And how about he hilariously named Valley Ho in Scottsdale?

    Edith, I must say, the bath thing sounds awful. Yeesh. YOu are..BRAVE.

  17. Lucy, I remember that awful hotel! I do believe it has since closed. What I remember is we requested a "quiet" room and the "kind" (read: passive/aggressive) woman who checked us in gave us a room that you had to walk about a half-mile (literally) of corridor to get to. It was VERY quiet. Felt like we were at the hotel from The Shining.

  18. Learned early on in our military assignment in Spain to carry my little "toilet paper purse" when we went out and my husband learned to buy a sliver of soap from the bartender.

    Also learned to be at the door ready to leave before pulling the flush chain.

  19. Wow! You all have such exotic experiences. I feel like I've lead a sheltered life in comparison. However, I love reading about these different and sometimes rather horrifying encounters. Reine, you really had me laughing.

    I can understand the emphasis on bathroom experiences. My husband knows that I need a decent bathroom to exist. I guess I might have to adapt some if I take my trip to England and Scotland in the near future and want to stay in some "authentic" housing. I don't know if I could do the pit toilets, although I did manage the outhouse at my aunt's when I was growing up. Not that I enjoyed it, with it being through the garden and out by the barn.

    Joan, I had a similar experience of not being able to check into a hotel until the next day, but it was the day of my wedding/first night of my honeymoon. My new husband had failed to make a reservation for the first night, thinking that we would stop somewhere along the way. Well, due to some sporting events, there was nothing available (okay, a couple of seedy motels in which I refused to stay on my wedding night), and we had two breakfasts and drove up and down the mountain (Great Smoky Mts.) all night until we finally could check in around lunchtime. First order of business was showers and sleep. Isn't that how everyone starts their honeymoon?

  20. Granddaughter: Did you say rollerblade racer?
    Me: Why aren't you studying for exams or making those little meatballs?
    Granddaughter: In-line skating competitor!
    Me: Have you made the Olympics team yet?
    Granddaughter: no
    Me: Rollerblade racer.

  21. I traveled with a woman friend in the nineties in Spain. She collected toilet paper samples from various locations, and we would compare the size of the splinters and wood chips in each. I believe the paper at the Alhambra had the largest chips, one about the size of a postage stamp. And bathrooms that double as the shower were common in the one-star hotels I stayed in during my trip to Italy when I was younger and didn't know any better. Close to the train station may be convenient, but it's often a bad sign...and never wear white socks in a one-star hotel. You learn things about the floor you'd rather not know.