Sleeping outside of the guidebooks

Michael Johansen
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The bedside table holds a message I cannot resist: “Turn over,” it instructs me.

I never imagine the message is meant for me personally, although I could take it as a warning about the bed. The mattress looks new enough, with no mysteriously moving brown spots, but it has no sheets and the pillows have no cases. The one thin blanket is infused with glittery beach sand — no doubt tracked in on the bottom of sandled feet.

The table is unusual for a Mexican hotel, in that it’s not a slab of concrete built right into the wall to prevent me from stealing it. Instead, it’s small, sturdy and made of wood. It’s large enough to serve as a desk, but too small to sit three for a meal. It could have been stolen with little effort or care at any time, but it had somehow survived year after year standing beneath a small framed mirror.

The mirror has likely reflected hundreds of sitting guests. A few left marks of their passing, to prove perhaps that their short stay in the cosy and colourfully tiled room — in fact, in the cheapest hotel room in town — was about more than just finding a semi-safe place to go unconscious for a few hours.

The “Turn over” message is only one of many on the bedside table. Most are simply records of names, dates and points of origin: Israel, Vancouver, California, New Zealand, Mexico, Winnipeg, Madrid, Colorado, Belem, Bellingham and Madelaine, Que.

“Jake and Jason

Came from Quebec,

Left for Acapulco

Never found the air conditioner!

16 August 2004

A la prochaine!”

Some people just wanted to let the world know their thoughts, if only the one small slice of the world that finds itself in the old Hotel Mexicano, three blocks from the beach and two from the some of the town’s seedier red lights.

One man tried to use the table to send a personal message: “Cyndi. V/XI/MMV. Gracias por dame la oportunidad. … Thank you for the chance to be your first. You did very well as a learner.” It is signed, with three exclamation marks on both sides in the Spanish way, with the word “Golosa!” Greedy, it would seem.

More typical, in that it was meant for all to read, is one that reveals a lonely sadness, but also a will to create:

“A single movement of my legs would slip me so far out to sea that it would be easier to grow gills. Fortunately the mud I stand in requires the motivation of quiet hidden from the Siesta Sunrise.” It seems to be signed by a Dr. Down, who is definitely from “Wpg. Can.”

But it wasn’t any of these messages that had called to me with a command. Underneath, as advertised, visible only when the drawer was pulled right out and turned over, more words were printed by the same hand with the same bold black marker:

“No name. No country. Wanted for murder in the U.S. The joke is I never killed anyone until I came here. Body count. 5 men. 2 women. All bad. 3/12/04.”

I had spent the two previous nights in two different rooms across town near the bus station, in a hotel where business was conducted, all money and towels passed, through the bars of a gated office. The first night there, my 150 pesos got me a working television set (remote control available with a 40-peso deposit) and on the second night it got me a window that showed me some sky at the top of a narrow air shaft.

Otherwise the two different rooms were identical in their cinderblock plainness, both made hard and bare to suggest less “holiday spa” and more “prison cell.” The only tales those rooms could tell were ones of exhaustion, hard work and dull travel, of people passing through quickly and leaving nothing behind.

Better, no matter who my neighbours might be — tourists, prostitutes, would-be suicides or self-confessed killers — to have flowers by the window, sunlight in the courtyard, a table at my bedside and a drawer full of stories.

Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.

Geographic location: California, Israel, Vancouver New Zealand Mexico Winnipeg Madrid Colorado Belem Madelaine, Que Quebec U.S. Labrador

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Recent comments

  • I was not going to Mexico anyway
    May 30, 2011 - 23:09

    Damn it ,Michael , you just killed off a little more of the Mexican tourism trade .Check your back right now !

  • Jeff Power
    May 28, 2011 - 19:04

    Me, I liked it.

  • David
    May 28, 2011 - 09:42 you went ot Mexico (which you clearly didn't enjoy) but wrote this column for your newspaper employer and got paid for it. But then tyou'd have nothing interesting to write about, so you wouldn't have gotten an article out of it, and not got paid for it....Catch 22. Not a very entertaining read, either.