Letter From Ghana

UPDATE: Well, the esteemed “Novotel Collection” of fine art is more bountiful than we thought. We now have three contenders for the for strangest (worst?) hotel artwork of all time, all of them found in the Novotel City Centre in Accra, Ghana.

First on the list, of course, is “O Captain, My Captain” from the famous room 420 (see the original post below for the full story):

NovotelArt1

Down one floor, in room 302, we behold another remarkable creation. For now untitled, it appears to depict a severed robot head in the throes of a mind-meld with a giant strawberry:

NovotelArt2

And not to be outdone, also on the third floor, yet another demented masterpiece awaits us, perhaps the most impressive of the lot:

Novotel Art 3

We notice a consistency here — an opposing-panels “faces” theme — though somehow this unifying principle doesn’t make the pictures less ridiculous. How to choose a favorite?

 

Welcome to Room 420: Rubber Floors, Mysterious Odors, and World’s Most Inexplicable Artwork. Plus: Mojito Madness and the Perils of Dining Abroad.

February 8, 2014

ACCRA, GHANA

THE FLOOR IN ROOM 420 is made of rubber — or something that looks like rubber. It’s a pebbly, industrial-style flooring. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were made from recycled tractor tires. That would be a good thing, and either way I like it. I admire its toughness, and it lends a handsome touch to the rest of the — what to call it? — African-modernist decor of sun-faded pastels and white pine. But tread barefoot at your peril: in the shower your feet will leave inky black stains around the drain.

Outside my window, a crippled man is propelling himself down the sidewalk in a hand-cranked wheelchair with a seat made of plywood. He is wearing an oily pair of jeans, and his legs — whatever might be wrong with them exactly, or if they’re there at all — look like deflated canvas tubes. Nearby, on the wall of a construction site, in angry spray-painted letters it says, DO NOT PISS HERE!

My room stinks of cigar smoke and cologne.

Now, at least as I understand it, the accepted literary style of describing smells is to always use some fantastical or over-the-top comparison and maybe a little metaphor. “His room stank of coalsmoke and defeat.” I’m not creative enough for that, and besides it doesn’t always describe the smell accurately. I assure you this room smells precisely like cigar smoke and cologne, and I am confident that both of those things were here, in abundance, shortly before my arrival yesterday afternoon. I picture an overweight German businessman in a towel, dousing himself in some awful fragrance; a recalcitrant Nigerian hooker napping in this very bed. “Kommen ve must go now. It is check-out time!”

The smell hit me the second I walked in. I thought about changing rooms but I was too tired to go dragging my stuff back to the elevator.

Plus, this is room 420. I have had this room before, and Eau de Montecristo aside, it is my favorite for an excellent reason: because it is home to the most ridiculous piece of artwork ever to grace a hotel room. Hotel artwork is a pretty competitive field — in all the wrong categories — and if you travel a lot, doubtless you’ve marveled at the many tacky, trite, or simply hideous pieces tacked to the walls by clueless hoteliers. But the winner for oddest-ever in-room picture hangs proudly above the non-useful miniature sofa in room 420 of the Novotel City Centre here in Accra. I could try describing it, but here’s your proverbial Thousand Words instead:

Worst Hotel Artwork

I can’t make out who the artist was (initials DDR?), but this was a limited edition print, number 30 of 150, and it dates from 1997, embossed with an important-looking stamp decreeing its membership in the esteemed “Novotel Collection”. I call it, “Air and Sea,” or, “O Captain, My Captain” (artist unknown; ink and whatnot on paper). Perhaps in a youth hostel or backpacker joint it wouldn’t seem so jarring, but the fact this is West Africa makes it even more of an insane non-sequitur than it would be anywhere else.

I thought about taking it with me — the theft of fine arts is a booming business, you know. But the piece is surprisingly well-secured in its frame. Here in Somerville, Massachusetts, we have the should-be-famous Museum of Bad Art. MOBAs renowned curators could do worse, maybe, than ringing up Novotel and making an offer for DDR’s masterpiece.

Or am I being unfair? It’s a fun picture, certainly, and far preferable to some schlocky painting of an African village or an acrylic stick figure of a woman grinding grain.

Meanwhile, for guests who don’t mind lingering odors, who aren’t serious art collectors, or who don’t enjoy bouncing around on rubber floors, the Novotel still has plenty to offer. It’s clean, in a convenient location, and the staff, like everybody in Ghana, is disarmingly friendly. The poolside pizzas are the best in West Africa and the Sangaw bar, just off the lobby, is a relaxed and cozy spot to enjoy a cold bottle of Star.

It’s also a great hotel to have your laundry done — a badly needed service after a long flight and the sweaty van ride from Kotoka airport. They are prompt and do an excellent job. It’s not too expensive, and everything comes back brightly washed and meticulously folded in accordance with some unfathomable mathematical folding principle. Even the socks come back folded, looking like little origami socks.

Not everybody at the washing station is paying attention though. I’m one of those eco-weirdos who takes those sad little “help us conserve water” placards seriously; I re-use the towels and I don’t let the housecleaners change the pillow cases. And on the laundry slip, I write, in big underlined letters, NO PLASTIC! Chipping in, doing my part. No matter, this how my clothes come back to me…

Laundry

There’s some cultural disconnect going on here, possibly — the idea that a Western guest wouldn’t want his impossibly folded boxer-briefs and socks presented in cellophane splendor simply impossible to entertain. Or maybe they think this is funny?

Which brings us down to the aforementioned Sangaw Bar. What to make of this special cocktail promotion not long ago, advertised tabletop in clear plastic easels…

Apparently for some West Africans, your idea of “Latino” is a crazy old woman smoking a gigantic cigar.

Foibles aside, I much enjoy traveling to Ghana, and Ghanaians are some of my favorite people in the world. Always smiling, always saying hello, always eager to sell you a handmade goatskin drum or some shea butter without ripping you off. This is an amiable and proud place — if not always for reasons everyone is eager to hear about. Once, a couple of years ago, I was getting out of a taxi across the street from the Novotel. As I stepped to the curb, I was confronted with the following, staring at me from a newspaper kiosk…

So we know there are people who keep track of these things.

And naturally some will wonder, who finished first and second?

I digress.

Every hotel has it quirks. Inexplicable artwork, rubber floors and bizarre cocktails, there are a lot of things to dislike about hotel rooms, even the fanciest and most expensive ones: temperamental air conditioning, toe-breaking doorjambs, ergonomically hellish “work spaces.”

And here’s another one: cardboard brochures. Nowadays, each and every hotel amenity, from room service to Wi-Fi, is hawked through one or more annoying advertisements displayed throughout the room. Cards, signs, menus, and assorted promotional materials—they’re everywhere: on the dresser, in the closet, on the pillows, in the bathroom. I wouldn’t mind if this laminated litter was placed unobtrusively, but it tends to be exactly in the way, and I resent having to spend five minutes after an exhausting red-eye, gathering up these diabolical doo-dads and heaving them into a corner where they belong. One’s first moments in a hotel room ought to feel welcoming, not confrontational.

Food and room service are another topic entirely. Speaking of West Africa, be careful never to dine too hungry at the Pullman Hotel in Dakar, Senegal, where the surly poolside waitress might, eventually, bring you the pizza you ordered ninety minutes ago, and where the in-room menu offers such delectables as:

Chief Salad
Roasted Beef Joint on Crusty Polenta
The Cash of The Day
Paving Stone of Thiof and Aromatic Virgin Sauce

That last one sounds like a chapter from a fantasy novel. Head instead to La Layal, a great little Lebanese place up the street where, once you get past the Testicles with Garlic and the Homos with Chopped Meat, the menu is both coherent and tasty.

So the phones are open. If you’ve got comparable examples of hotel weirdness, feel free to share them in the comments section below.

 

Visit Ghana

Here’s an idea. Maybe you should visit Ghana. If you’re considering a first-time trip to West Africa, I can’t recommend it more highly. It’s friendly, safe, affordable, and there’s tons to do.

HIGHLIGHTS IN TEN DAYS…

Day 1: Arrival. Check in to your non-smoky room the Novotel and enjoy the afternoon at leisure. Walk down to the Arts Center to try out your haggling skills, and maybe come away with one of those not-too-overpriced drums. Later have dinner at Tandoor, Africa’s coolest Indian restaurant.

Day 2: Accra. Visit the Osu coffin makers, and finish the afternoon with a sundowner at Osekan, a seaside bar/restaurant not far from the hotel. Ghanaian dinner tonight at Buka or maybe Country Kitchen (that name, I know). If you’ve never had Ghanaian food, start easy and order the red-red with chicken.

Day 3: Get an early start and head west to Elmina Castle, the famous slave castle about two-and-a-half hours west of Accra. (Skip Cape Coast Castle and head directly to Elmina, about 20 minutes further.) After a tour be sure to wander around the harborfront area. Get right down there: right onto the sand in into the little alleyways between the houses. After lunch continue west to the small town of Axim, near the border with Ivory Coast.

Days 4 and 5: Spend two nights at the Axim Beach Hotel, a rustic seaside place on a beautiful beach. Take some time to wander Axim town, with its ramshackle main street and nearby slave castle.

Day 6: Depart Axim early and head east to Cape Coast, stopping at Nzulezo floating village on the way. Once in Cape Coast grab a bus or tro-tro up to the frenetic city of Kumasi, about a five-hour drive away. Stay at the Four Villages Inn.

Days 7-8. From your base in Kumasi, take a tro-tro out each morning and visit the nearby Ashanti towns. Buy some Kente cloth and don’t forget your schnapps (this will make sense to you later).

Day 9. Fly back to Accra — no bus or tro-tro; you’ve had your fill of that — and spend your final night in room 420. Have a pizza and a crazy lady mojito downstairs.

 

VIEW THE AUTHOR’S PHOTO GALLERY FROM GHANA

 

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27 Responses to “Letter From Ghana”
  1. pinguino says:

    Great letter! I was laughing out loud. Also, really terrific photos. You have real talent.

    — Foreigner living in Accra

  2. Another great read, that’s the Patrick Smith whose observations I love.

  3. Montague says:

    Agree with you on the cardboard and plastic crap in the room. I immediately toss it into a drawer.
    But what is the logic with the TV remote control? I walk into the room, flop onto the bed and then realise that the remote is on top of the TV, the last place, of all possible places, that one would want it. So, I put it next to the bed and leave it there. Next day, I come back to the room in the evening and it’s back on top of the TV.
    Isn’t the logical place for the remote control the bedside table? Apparently not in the minds of hoteliers.
    And then there’s the thermostat. I stopped in a Hong Kong hotel in the winter. Not cold but chilly, about ten to fifteen degrees outdoor ambient temperature. And the AC was turned to maximum cooling. So I turned it off but there was no central heating in this “sub-tropical” place and it took all night to get the room above meat locker temperature.
    The following day I came back to the room and the AC was again on maximum and ice was forming on the drinking water. Well, almost.

    • Mmmm... says:

      Thousands of angels die, every time this happens…

    • Beej in Oregon says:

      Re: the remote.

      My personal rule at any hotel is to leave “do not disturb” on the door at all times! Do I need my bed made by someone other than me? No thank you. Do I need fresh towels every day? Absolutely not, especially since there are always at least 2-3 in the bathroom when you arrive. Do I want to have to worry about someone poking around in my luggage or touching my things? Not I! Do I need the trash taken out? How much garbage do you think I generate?

      Maybe if I’m going to stay longer than a week, I might have the housekeepers come one time, but in general I find the whole concept of strangers coming into my room while I’m away invasive and creepy, not “convenient”. At least I always know where the remote will be.

  4. Tod Davis says:

    the best hotel quirk was at the Marina Mandarin in Singapore where they put caged birds in the hallways in the morning so you could wake to the sound of singing birds.

  5. Peter Vaz says:

    This is all true…I’ve been to this hotel! Don’t forget to try the Roasted Beef Joint. Scrumptious!

  6. flymike says:

    I recall a crew overnight hotel in Key West where it was SOP to open the door a crack, turn on the lights and then count to ten before going in – to let the bugs hide. And another crew hotel in Vegas where our flight attendant, bothered by a bad odor in her room, found a dead hooker under her bed.
    I’ll take weird art anytime! I do throw all that cardboard advertising in the hotel pool whenever I get a chance.

  7. Tod Davis says:

    Just a quick random question. With all of the international travel you do for both work and leisure, how does it take you to fill up a passport? and are there special large passports for crews etc?

    • Patrick says:

      Crews rarely have their passports stamped. Customs officials will often scan or look at our passports, but rarely do they stamp them. (In some places, they just wave us through.)

      If you need them, you can have extra pages inserted. I can’t remember what the cost is, but I’ve had this done a couple of times. Thanks to frequent leisure travel, my passports do fill up pretty quickly.

  8. patrick (not Smith says:

    For those of you who wonder who is #1 and #2 :)

    http://www.viasat1.com.gh/v1/vnews/offbeat.php?postId=215

  9. Cam Lind says:

    Novotels always leave me cold, although I get they are probably the best of a bad choice in Francophone West Africa.

    On another note. Flying out of Kolkata today and Emirates had advertising everywhere for their new DXB – BOS flights. I thought of Mr Smith and this site straight away.

  10. Jerry says:

    Didn’t realize the MOBA had moved to Somerville. Had gone years ago when they were in Dedham. I’m a Tufts grad and it always amazes me how much Somerville has changed in the last 20 years.

    • TeddyG says:

      It’s still in Dedham, but temporarily closed. The MOBA branch in Somerville is in the basement of the Somerville Theater. There’s also a gallery at Brookline Access Television.

  11. Msconduct says:

    God, yeah, the African sweaty van ride. I had a killer one of those last year in Windhoek.

    Hotel foibles: so many I can’t list them all, but I’m still puzzling over the top sheet with the huge neat oval hole in it in a Moscow hotel. (Sochi complainers don’t know the half of it. They should have tried travelling in Soviet Russia.) And the in-room menus are always a rich source of inspiration. In Melbourne a couple of months ago they included on the “In-Room Dinning” menu an “American backed cheesecake”. Mmm, political. But my favourite items were on an in-room menu in Wuzhen, China. As well as the enchantingly-named “Bowl Woodle”, they included, simply and without further explanation, the intriguing item “Puke”.

    • Randall Cameron says:

      My favorites, all from Al-Fakhama Hotel in Hodeidah, and a result of religious use of spell-check, are:

      1. Gordon Blue (that world-famous heavy, French-Swiss Schnitzel roll – always done wrong in the Middle East – no pork!)

      2. Table (it said tabboula in Arabic)

      3. Mutable (unrelated to table actually, this is mutabbal, made from slightly burnt eggplant)

      4. Hums (hummus)

      Could it be that everything misspelled in the Arab world comes from the menu of a single Lebanese restaurant? Why not kibble for kubba?

    • Randall Cameron says:

      BTW, Eastern European state-owned airlines, especially the domestic services, and long-haul train rides still keep the Soviet-era travel dream alive today. So do the poorer hotels in off the track locations, where the staff haven’t got word yet that socialism is dead.

      However, nothing quite compares to a no-star hotel in a secondary town in a lower-income Arab country, where guidebook ratings range from “bring your own linen” (OK, but no amenities) to “bring your own vermin” (military-grade insect repellent is required for a good night’s sleep), to (worst-case) “bring your own plumbing”. Novotel anywhere is *wonderful* in comparison.

    • Ed says:

      Concerning the sheet with a hole – it’s probably both a sheet and a duvet cover; the duvet gets inserted through the middle. They were fairly common when I was living in Ukraine.

    • Leslie in Oregon says:

      Your mention of a huge oval hole in the topsheet in a Moscow hotel interests me. During the height of the Cold War, I was interrogated by “hotel authorities” as to why there was a huge oval hole in the topsheet on my Moscow hotel bed. Not having caused it, I could not explain it, which led to more interrogation. I always wondered whether such holes were routinely used as an excuse for interrogating foreigners. (I was not yet an airline crew member at the time).

      • Msconduct says:

        @Leslie: Huh, interesting! I was there two weeks before the end of Communist rule in 1991 and things were a lot looser then.

  12. Chuck says:

    Congrats on another insightful and well written column. I look forward to your emails announcing each column.

    I lived in East Africa for half of the 80s. Work required a lot of travel east and west from Nairobi chiefly to Lome, Abidjan, Dakar, Banjul and other assorted places. Travel options in that direction were limited to Air Afrique, Ethiopian, and Nigerian Airways. We only had to watch our Nigerian connection overfly Lome because they had (again) oversold their flight to avoid any future reservations. Our joke at the time, “What can you say about an airline that has a flying elephant for a logo?”

    Reliable service only existed north-south from the from former colonial connection in Europe. I wonder if that’s changed very much?

    My fondest hotel memories were of the The Hotel du 2 Fevrier on the beach in Lome, also the stopover for the lovely stewardesses of Air France, and the Hotel Ivoir in Adidjan, West Africa, home of the only ice rink in West Africa (Wiki indicates it dates from the 1950s to encourage Scandinavian tourists?).

  13. Trevor Green says:

    Modern technology is indeed good for something. Putting the “artwork” into Google Images yields, far down the list, a hit on Lot 77 from an August 2013 auction that is clearly the same piece of “art”. It is an untitled work by Hervé Di Rosa, a modern French artist and founder of the Museum of Modest Art in Sète, France.

    Here’s hoping that the reality is as fascinating as the mystery was.

  14. JuliaZ says:

    The art in 420 is a clear WIN. In fact, as soon as I saw your email hit my inbox, I got a broad smile on my face… “the crazy ship captain! YES!!” Sad that I remember it, but how could you forget it? It is truly demented. The other two pieces you nominate are fine candidates but not worthy compared to that ship’s bold clean lines and the two-panel design.

    Of the other two, I prefer the second one. The strawberries are a little two first grade.
    :-)