Want to Experience Local Culture? Get Out of the Hotel Clones
Places to rest your head abroad increasingly all feel the same. But there are still some that give you the measure of a place.
When you walk out of your hotel room and see a brazier of delicious-smelling frankincense burning in the corridor—the Dar Es Salam in Djibouti City—or immediately find eyes like hot coals gazing at you through a slit in a niqab face veil—the Oriental in Hargeisa, Somaliland—you know you are in the right place.
Even with all the marvels of modern transportation at our beck and call, most of us don’t usually go anywhere different. Even if you fly halfway around the world, it’s too easy to find yourself at the same place as where you began.
“Tourism is the great soporific,” said the writer and sage J.G. Ballard. “It’s a huge confidence trick, and gives people the dangerous idea that there’s something interesting in their lives. All the upgrades in existence lead to the same airports and resort hotels, the same pina colada bullshit.”
But finding the right hotel can also prove to be a rewarding engagement with the host country and its people. That’s what I’ve found over repeated trips throughout Djibouti, Somaliland, and Ethiopia as a reporter.
Hotel shopping has proven a necessity as a freelance journalist, and often the best hotels come cheap. The Oriental is $15 a night. The Dar Es Salam pushes $30, in spite of its location in the city’s dingy so-called African Quarter, due to inflated prices across the board resulting from Djibouti City’s strange status as one of the most important pieces of military real estate in that part of the world.
The sense of place you get within that price range is more than a bargain. The Oriental exists as a wonderful old-world riposte to the trend of turning hotels into carbon copies with no local grounding whatsoever. Its covered inner courtyard is like a modern caravanserai, full of Somaliland locals in Muslim dress, with tea and cake served at four p.m.—a relic from when the country was a British protectorate—by female staff in brightly colored Somali robes and head scarves.
Most importantly, each hotel becomes a second home, keeping me fed and rested, the wonderful staffs becoming surrogate families. It provides an anchor in the fast-paced (and confusing) whirlwind of reporting in a foreign field.
Having encountered combat zones when I was in the military, I have no idea how journalists, especially freelancers, manage war reporting. Even in relatively benign environments, where I have done most of my foreign journalism—though I am increasingly unsure how to qualify the fractious United States!—freelance reporting overseas is tough, lonely work.
Hence, I appreciate the constant greetings and advice from each Mohammed at the helm of the reception desks in the Oriental and the Dar Es Salam. Though the rest of the staff can’t speak English, their ever-present smiles and kind gestures mean I don’t feel entirely like a misplaced alien.
This team spirit reaches its zenith at the Wutma Hotel in the raucous Piazza area of the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. The cleaning room ladies fetch me needle and thread when shirt buttons fall off—good luck finding either at a shop—while the smartly dressed and ever-courteous wait staff and hotel guards practice their English on me, always remembering my name (as I add their names to a growing list of friends in my notebook). Throw in the crisp sheets and wonderfully brewed macchiatos for breakfast, and it amounts to an uplifting oasis amid my coverage of Ethiopia’s ethnic troubles.
Another key factor is how each hotel is deeply embedded in the local action. Not only does this keep me more in touch with reality—a challenge for many foreigners caught up in the exotic excitement, with money to burn thanks to exchange rates often leading to a decadent disregard for the harsh reality around them—it also means things are never dull.
After one arrival at the Dar Es Salam, no sooner had I checked in then a Yemeni refugee staying at the hotel—the war in Yemen was underway—began to choke on his khat leaves right in front of me as I looked on aghast. Another Yemeni refugee leapt in to do an expert demonstration of the Heimlich maneuver (he was a doctor).
Staying at the Oriental during Ramadan, I was invited each day to join the Muslim guests as they broke the daily fast with free food provided by the hotel. During another Ramadan in Djibouti, strangers gathered on the street at sunset around slices of watermelon, samosas, and dates, and beckoned me to join.
Admittedly, there are drawbacks. On a Friday and Saturday night at the Wutma, it can sound like there’s a constant stream of drunken sailors on shore leave right outside your bedroom window. At the Oriental, the daily 4:30 a.m. call to prayer from the giant four-story Ali Mataan mosque right next door is an earlier alarm clock setting than I would choose. But in each case, a few extra yawns is worth the wider experience.
The more I visited these hotels, the more I was struck by how the hotel scene in these countries mirrors the unofficial residential laws one finds back home, where gated communities shut out the edgy reality of homesteads and lives led by the masses.
In Hargeisa, all the NGO and embassy staff tend to stay at an expensive hotel on a hill at the edge of the city, encased behind walls and a barricade manned by armed guards. The place is clean and polished but has little atmosphere. It feels almost forlorn up there with its lonely commanding view. The Somaliland representative from the British Embassy in Addis Ababa told me how she has never walked around Hargeisa’s market, even though she wants to, because her security detail of ex-British Special Forces would never allow it.
Yet the main encumbrance I encounter strolling around the same downtown area alone is being continually stopped by Somalilanders welcoming me and thanking me for coming to their country. Despite having split from Somalia more than 25 years ago, Somaliland still isn’t officially recognized by the international community, so visitors mean a lot there.
In Djibouti the scale of remove is even greater. My encounter with the choking Yemeni occurred after I had been invited to join and report on a trade mission run by the British Embassy in Addis Ababa. Its staff, not surprisingly, didn’t choose to stay with me at the Dar Es Salam.
Hence, at the start of a day of trade mission-related visits, I headed to meet the group where they were staying at the Djibouti Palace Kempinski (the use of the word “palace” is appropriate: the nightly rate for some of the rooms was the same as my weekly budget, which included a domestic flight from Ethiopia). This hotel is serenely located by the water’s edge on a peninsula at the most northern point of the city.
Standing in the Kempinski’s grand lobby, I spotted a famous CNN reporter with her camera crew lounging in some chairs. Later I heard how they’d managed to get a boat—$12,000 was mentioned—and whizzed over the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, the 30-odd-kilometer stretch of water between Djibouti and Yemen. They did a piece to camera among the rubble, then hightailed it back to the palace, scoop secured. The serene surface of the hotel’s outdoor infinity pool surely offered some kind of metaphor about alternative reality and looking the other way.
Plenty has been written about the problems of foreign NGOs and aid in developing countries, and I saw much of this too. But it’s never clear cut. I came across plenty of NGO and embassy staff who were brimming with intelligence and energy and whose hearts were in the right places.
I still wonder, though, how you can ever truly begin to appreciate and understand a place if you’re always living in fancy identikit hotels, or behind compound walls that create microcosms of your home country.
Admittedly, linguistic and cultural barriers can keep you from ever truly understanding another place. But you can make worthwhile headway nevertheless.
And you can have some fun at the same time. Ordinary locals, even if they’re poor, enjoy themselves in their countries. It’s not all horror and sorrow as presented in so much of the foreign media coverage. It’s their home, come what may, and often they are more than gracious about letting you share in it.
James Jeffrey is a freelance journalist who splits his time between the U.S., the UK, and further afield, and writes for various international media. Follow him on Twitter @jrfjeffrey.