I was only thinking the other week how I wished I had taken more photos of the various accommodations I’ve had travelling all over the world. I’ve got a million pics, and a lot of the conventional type. I mean, you go to Paris you’re going to take a pic of the Eiffel Tower just to prove it aren’t you. I’ve got the Taj Mahal, the pyramids (including the Sphinx), the Colosseum, the Great Wall, Petra, as well as instantly recognisable pics from London, Hong Kong and New York. A lot of them are great pics and no regrets and all that, but really, what traveller doesn’t have those pics? By and large they’re interchangeable.
What’s unique are the intimate and spontaneous photos right time, right place and good framing. That and the different rooms you’ve inhabited over the course of your travels. I don’t think I have a single pic of a hotel room, yet it’s the sort of thing that ties so many memories together.
I was reminded again on Friday night when I watched The Passenger again. It starts out in some small and unnamed village somewhere in Saharan Africa. The character played by Jack Nicholson returns to his hotel room after a frustrating jaunt through the desert. It’s hot and barren. Goats wander the streets. Overhead fans swirl. All of that stirred various memories, but it was his room which recalled vague recollections of similar accommodations in my travelling past. His room was stark and functional, a place to sleep but not to linger.
As I watched I tried to recall the occasions I had been in a room like that. Once in Singapore I thought, and another time in Ho Chi Minh City. Barcelona too. I remembered checking into a hotel room in Florence and how I felt like crying when shown to my room – bare concrete floors in a single room with a steel frame bed and no window. Even the shower didn’t have a screen. I checked out after one night.
Doubtless there have been many other rooms like that, but they tend to blur and merge, hence the wish to have recorded them somehow. I’ve stayed in all sorts of rooms, and some of them very good. In Hoi An I got a much discounted price on a fabulous room overlooking the ocean. It was a French resort just opened and I got the opening special. I remember the Japanese girls in the room next to me too. In Ho Chi Minh, on the way back from a trip down the Mekong Delta, I stumbled into a plush hotel exhausted from the trip and weary from weeks of being on the move. I didn’t care what I had to pay, I just wanted a decent bed. As it turns out I was upgraded to the Vice Presidential suite for the cost of the normal room, and it was heavenly.
There have been rooms I’ve shared, and on two occasions a bed I’ve shared with a mate because there was no other space. There have been cute rooms in quaint old buildings in Paris and Berlin, but I’ve got no photos of them either. In fact so many rooms have slipped entirely from memory. There are many places I’ve been for which I’ve got utterly no memory of where I slept. But then as I think that something returns to me – in Bodrum I think, a room with a balcony that faced seawards and, I recall, a stormy night and the grey residue of it the morning after. And I recall a night sleeping in a tent with the Bedouin in the middle of Wadi Rum. And yet so much is lost to me.
The movie goes on as this unspools in my head and Nicholson’s character moves from place to place, to rooms that seem familiar to me, as they must for any seasoned traveller. Slowly the movie grabs hold of me, I recall it, having seen it years before at the Astor, watching it comes back to me as memories of the rooms did. It’s an Antonioni movie, a great story that if it was remade today would be much flashier, but his low-key style suits it better, drawing you in, normalising it somehow so that it might be a memory.
The story is of a man tired of his life who assumes the identity of an acquaintance he meets in the African hotel. The man dies, and dragging his corpse into his hotel room the Nicholson character exchanges papers, leaving his old life behind. It turns out the man he has become is a gun runner, from which many complications arise. I wondered, would I have done this? The answer is no, except maybe right now I would.
It ends pretty much as I remember it, in another of those stark hotel rooms.