Having just a little money is no barrier to travelling the world, as long as you don’t mind slumming it with the other n’er do wells and urban wildlife. Come to think of it, there’s a market for a much-needed guidebook of the worst places to lay your head and Matt Roper says he’s just the man to write it
I’m sitting at a table in a café in Istanbul sipping tea and watching the world go by as if it belonged to me and me alone. I could do this all day and for all anyone knows, I might well be doing just that.
It’s a welcome respite from my present accommodation, a £10-a-night basement room where the racket of cats screaming at each other from the street above deprives me of my sleep at night. Another thing that keeps me from my slumbers is the noise of other people fumbling to fit keys inside locks, the sound of heavy doors slamming, the din of car horns, the cries of waking seagulls and the thud of heavy footsteps on the ceiling over my head. It sends you mad after a while.
Upstairs, there’s a fairly nice bar with a piano in the corner that’s always locked. Why? Don’t they know I play with all the sweetness of Mozart?
So, if anybody reading this has any contacts to discerning publishing houses I rather fancy myself as the author of a groundbreaking coffee table book with the title of Worst Hotels of the World. It’s target audience would be the sort of person I know quite well. It’d be aimed at those of us who dream of getting themselves around the globe on next to no money while looking up at life around them from right down here in the gutter. Militant cockroaches, battles with cleaners, indifferent receptionists and no customer service whatsoever: it's all here.
Still, it’s not always the cheap hotels that are sometimes awful. Sometimes the worst hotels are those that expect you to give them a lot of money at the end of your stay. At one particular chain hotel in Manila I was up on the 17th floor in a room heavy with the smell of mildew, cigarettes and human failure. I rang down to the desk to get them to unlock my window (I hate air-conditioning) and after much negotiation they made me sign a document saying they’d take no responsibility for anything that might happen. Presumably because they thought I have the sort of face that thinks about jumping and to their credit they wouldn’t be the first.
The Bowery’s Whitehouse in New York couldn’t be described as a hotel, nor even a hostel. One of the last flophouses in the city to have closed down recently, its inclusion in my upcoming coffee table book would be a certainty. As long as down-and-outs, ratbags, winos and the occasional unfussy traveller needed a place to sink at night, the Bowery’s Whitehouse was always there for them. You slept in tiny cubicle-like rooms, with a couple of hooks for hanging clothes and a single bed with enough space beneath it to sling a backpack or a suitcase away. Once described as “a hotel for derelicts”, it was one of the most fascinating places I have ever laid this restless and troubled head and it’s demise is a very sad thing.
While working in Melbourne I hung my frazzled, exasperated and sometimes hungover hat in a room at a hostel on Flinders Street, which was built over an all-night bar by the tramline from where the excerpts of drunk, colloquial Australian conversation would drift up to my room and into my window during the small hours. Nobody curses like an Australian – it is almost a thing of beauty but it’s not the reason why Flinders Street should have an entry in my eagerly-awaited coffee table book. It’s the cleaners. They are armed with keys to the room and will come in to sweep and mop around you while you are still sleeping - and nothing will stop them. I think I managed to persuade them to stop banging on my door with a sledgehammer before invading but in the end, you just have to surrender. For that reason alone, that Melbourne hostel will be featured in my book.
If you’re the sort of person that looks for a slap-down meal, look no further than one unluxurious hotel I stayed at in Hudson, which serves perhaps the most dire breakfast I’ve ever experienced anywhere. Burnt coffee, fatty bacon and scrambled eggs that look like they’ve been regurgitated from another diner’s body half an hour or so before. There, I watched with a mixture of concern and interest while the lady at the neighbouring table tackled her two slices of cold toast – it was still white – as I imagined just how a slice of cheap carpet must feel when it’s inside the mouth.
There’s one budget-friendly, bed-and-no-breakfast, rundown hotel in Phuket Town, Thailand, full of characters who’ve stayed there so long it has become clearly detrimental to their own wellbeing – hence its inclusion in my much-needed coffee table book. Another way of putting it is that life there is a non-stop party and there comes a time when it’s just a healthy thing to move on. So laid-back were the owners, on whose verandah I would sit in the dead of night, they gave me complete access to their unmanned bar. All I had to do was write down what I'd had and pay for it the next day if there was a next day. I was doubling up as both barman and customer and I should add that the service was excellent and a hell of a lot quicker than it is in some of the pubs back home.
Also in Thailand I rented a room from a woman named Mama Petch – a fearsome woman who rules her riverside Bangkok guesthouse with an iron fist and who needs to know everything about you, right down to your blood type. This Spanish inquisition began over breakfast, where Mama Petch once turned the tables and told me once all about her marriage – at least the breakdown of it. Six years before, Mama Petch and her husband had decided they'd had enough of each other. It was decided that Mama Petch would stay where she was in the main house and run the business, while Mr. Petch moved right down to the bottom of the garden to live in the shack with the pigs. Apparently he was blissfully happy. And Mama Petch was happy too.
So, it’s back to sipping tea and watching the world go by and if anybody wants to join me in old Constantinople I will be here until Tuesday. Bring earplugs, valium and the key to the piano.
Matt Roper is a British comedian based in New York City. His relationship with Lush goes back to 2011 when he performed for the muddy festival-goers of Lushfest, returning the following year to curate the line-up of the comedy stage. As he travels around the world, he shares his musings with us here in a series of writings – a sifting of thought from a restless but always seeking imagination.
Follow Matt on social media: