Friday, July 28, 2017

A Retrospective on Beds and Baths

I may have learned as much about sleeping arrangements and the culture of sleep as I did about anything else on this journey.

As a rule, the hospitality industries in Europe and Africa appear to consider children's sleeping accommodations inconsequential. In absolutely every hotel where we stayed, except Elmina, Dakar, and Oslo, Gwen's bed was either a cot or a mat. And, to be fair to the Coconut Grove Beach Resort and the Hotel le Djoloff, in Oslo it was almost a fold-away.

Photo by Earl Theisen for Look magazine, 1963.
When we arrived in Paris, the Millennium Opera receptionist informed us that - despite it being only 12:30 in the afternoon - our room was ready, except that the child's bed hadn't been placed in it yet. The parents' sleeping accommodations were two twin beds with a single head board and a night stand in between, sort of like Laura and Rob Petrie's bedroom (see photo at right).

When we returned from our introduction to Paris tour with Shannon, Gwen's bed had arrived. It was about two meters long and one wide (if that). The thin mattress was supported by canvas straps strung between wooden rails. In other words, it was a cot - "a Civil War cot," Gwen called it - and it was more than just firm. There were tears in her eyes as she imagined having to sleep on it. "I won't sleep," she sobbed. "I won't be able to. It's too hard!"

Often when we travel, I'm the one who takes the sofa bed in a hotel room if all we have available is a room with a king size bed. But I had to agree; none of us should be required to sleep on that.

We decided to rearrange the furniture in the room: took out the night stand from between the beds and pushed the beds together. I would use the desk on one side of the beds as my night stand, and Coco would use the repositioned night stand on her side. We untucked the sheets where they met bed-to-bed, and Gwen, as she put it, "got to sleep in the crack." The French love of duvets being apparently what it is, there was occasionally an issue with which duvet Gwen would sleep under, but at least there was a top sheet. I tend to generate a great deal of heat at night, so it was often my pleasure to use just the top sheet and entrust the lion's share of my duvet to Gwen... at least at the start of a night. I have learned now that, although I am no bed hog as far as the amount of space I utilize in recline, I do have a tendency to take my covers with me when I roll over. No matter how much of my duvet Gwen may have started with, my superior strength tended to uncover her as I sought to stay wrapped. I would wake, some mornings, drenched in sweat with half a duvet over me and the other half on the floor.

The Millennium Opera, for what it lacked in comfort for our child, had probably our favorite bathroom. When you entered it, the bathtub/shower and wash basin greeted you, while the toilet was enclosed in its own room with a door. This was especially convenient for those mornings when one would be performing morning ablutions while another required immediate access to the throne.

At the Coconut Grove Beach Resort in Elmina, we were provided a "family suite" - two bedrooms (one with a king size bed, one with two twins) on either side of a living room. In this case, the bathtub had its own room with the water heater suspended from the ceiling in a corner. The water heater was to be switched on before use, and off afterward. Unattached to the water heater were the sink and the toilet, which shared a room together.

Swan towel sculpture decorated with hibiscus blossoms.
Other days saw elephants and peacocks.
The decorative sash under it was arranged
in a different pattern each day also.
Gwen's stuffed owl toy, Pinkie, relaxes against the pillows.
The Coconut Grove would introduce us to the Ghanaian mattress, which I would learn is similar to that mattress experienced in most African and Asian countries. This is a mattress with the emphasis on the syllable, "mat," but without the quality of shock absorption that mats of the same thickness or less have in Western countries - for example, exercise mats or tumbling mats or even mats on which a preschooler might take a nap. Four or five inches thick and made of latex foam, these mattresses' consistency is unforgiving. I remember finally getting to my bed at 1:15AM with a prayer of thankfulness and allowing myself to collapse onto the mattress. It nearly knocked the wind out of me. Gwen and Coco took a moment to admire that the bath towels in the other bedroom had been arranged into swan shapes that they felt guilty disassembling in order to use them. This dismay gave way to their dismay at the surprising firmness of the mattress. There would ensue, over the next four days, a rotation from night to night, bed to bed, and a regular assessment of which mattress was harder.

My guess was that the difference between Eastern and Western mattresses had to do with the much greater humidity in equatorial countries and therefore their need for mattresses without springs which might rust, abbreviating the life span. That may be true, but I found no evidence of it. Instead, those who do not use Western style mattresses insist that the firmer (As Coco would come to refer to it, "Not firm. Hard!") quality of their mattresses cultivate good posture and less back problems.

They got me, there. Although I felt limbs falling asleep pretty readily, whenever I lay on my side, I experienced no back issues in all of Africa, whatsoever!

We would not have another Western style mattress, except for (I kid you not!) a waterbed at the City Escape Hotel in Accra, until we arrived in Dakar.

The Kowa Naso Hotel, Tema
On Friday evening, 16 June, after escaping that nightmare of a traffic jam, we spent the night in the Kowa Naso Hotel in Tema. Here, there was again only a king size bed; we decided not even ask for a bed for Gwen. The mattress was comparable to the ones in Elmina, except that this one had no top sheet and a small, flimsy coverlet that would have succeeded perhaps as a decorative drape over the foot of a full size bed. I called the front desk to ask whether we might either have a top sheet or a bigger bed spread.

The receptionist asked what room we were in. I told her the room number, and she said, "Oh, no."

Assuming she meant that housekeeping had clearly made a mistake in providing for the room, I said, "Could you have someone bring it, or should I come there to fetch it?"

"What?" she said.

"The top sheet. Should I come to get it myself?"

"No," she said. "No blanket. No sheet."

Catching her meaning now, I said, "So, you won't supply us a blanket or even a top sheet."

"No," she said.

"Not even though therefore we will be sleeping with no covers, myself and my family."

"No, no, no, no," she said.



"OK. Thank you, I guess," I said and hung up. I looked with amazement at Coco, over what had just transpired.

With a shrug Coco replied that she guessed we ought just to be grateful to have somewhere to stay other than the highway. I gathered our supper leftovers and set them in the hall outside the door. We spread extra clothes over ourselves and settled in for the night.

The Kowa Naso's bathroom included a basin, tub, and toilet. And, for the first time in our travels but not the last, we encountered alongside the tub a curiously large plastic bucket with what looked like a child's beach pail inside it.

One of the Spa gardens
By noon, the next day, we were guests of the Holy Trinity Spa and Health Farm in Sogakope. There, in the Royalty Room of the Esther building, we enjoyed a suite that included a large living area with floor to ceiling windows looking out onto the Volta River. This was separated from the bedroom by a door. The bedroom had a king size bed, so we asked whether we might have a smaller bed in addition, for Gwen to sleep on. Half an hour later, an attendant arrived with a mat even smaller in area than the "Civil War cot" we had been provided in Paris. It was already dressed with linens, and the one who brought it set it in a corner on the river side of the bedroom. (In retrospect, we should have simply told him, no. The Holy Trinity charged us an additional 50 cedis a night for it, 200 GhC total = $45.) The most use it got was on Sunday evening when we propped it on one side, to dry our underwear that Coco had washed in the bathroom sink, making it a rather expensive drying rack.

Since I've raised the issue, you'll be wondering now about the mattress. And this one was equally as hard as the mattresses we had slept on, in Elmina.

The bathroom, which included that sink I mentioned with an impressive vanity and mirrors including a makeup mirror, was level with the bedroom floor at the vanity end, then sloped up from the door to the platform on which the bathtub was located. The commode, between the sink and the tub, was at the same elevation with the tub.

In Elmina and Tema and now also in Sogakope, we were provided a tub partially with a shower curtain and a handheld shower head but nowhere to mount the shower head on the wall. The hose for the shower head was wrapped or twisted around the faucet. This accommodation, I assumed, was a water conservation measure; you were expected to lather up, then rinse off, or else to take a bath. In this case, though, the tub formed a seat at the end opposite the faucet. A ledge behind the seat made the fixture so long that it took up the entire wall. On the ledge was a very decorative, plastic bucket that would have held about six or seven gallons and a plastic hand pail the size of a child's beach toy. The entire thing had been mounted atop a base that was easily ten inches tall, perhaps more. There was no obvious way into the tub except either to climb up into it, setting your first foot high in the air and lifting oneself up (an exercise for the tall or youthful), or else to be seated on the edge, lift your feet to your belly, and rotate into the tub. Both Coco and Gwen required assistance getting both in and out - at least the first few times.

From the Holy Trinity Spa and Health Farm we proceeded to the village of Hohoe, where we stayed at the Kikis Court Hotel. Our room here was spacious with a very high ceiling, a desk, a personal size refrigerator, and a wardrobe with the only mirror (none over the basin in the bathroom). The bath included all fixtures in the same space, this time without the bucket and pail. But here there was a shower only with a bar on which the shower head was mounted, to make its height adjustable. That shower head would prove crucial to cleaning up ourselves and our shoes after the hike to Wli Falls.

A king size bed was provided, again for the three of us and again hard. (Coco said at one point here, "Isn't there a story in the Bible about sleeping on a rock?" "It's the story of Jacob at Bethel," I answered, "but he at least had the comfort of camping on the soft earth! The stone was his pillow." "Too bad," she answered. "I'd at least hoped I would have the grace of sleeping biblically.") Although a top sheet was provided here, there was again only a full size coverlet. Happily, however, the Kikis Court was inclined to provide us with a second such coverlet - one which I surrendered to Gwen after the first night, when, it would appear, I kept mine and Gwen took Coco's.

The Skyplus Hotel in Ho again presented us with another evidently rock-hewn mattress. And again we were three to a king size bed. This bathroom began with a little antechamber with its own mirror and vanity. This could be isolated with a door as you entered from the bedroom and/or a door to the bathroom proper. This was appointed with the three standard fixtures - this time, including a tub/bucket/shower. The hotel was set into a hillside overlooking the city, and our bedroom window looked out over Ho but with a view slightly obstructed by its conference facility just below.

Our last accommodation in Ghana was at the City Escape Hotel in Accra, not far from the U. S. Embassy and extension campuses of American institutions of higher education, such as NYU and Webster University. Gershon and we had talked about what we experienced as the unusually stony quality of sleeping arrangements in his country, and he arranged for us there a room with a water bed.
None of the three of us had ever slept on a water bed before, but our next door neighbor in Webster Groves had had one and, on a tour we took of his home shortly before he had sold the house, allowed Gwen to sit on it and experience its gentle undulation. With three of us upon it, this bed did not undulate much, although Coco and I always worried about waking the others when we would rise or return in the night answering nature's call. This was a bit of overreach on our host's part, to soften our experience of his homeland, but it's the thought that counts here, I think.

Possibly because so many of the guests were European or American, the City Escape did not provide us a bucket and pail for bathing. It did, however, have a very nice living area that extended into a kitchenette with dining table. This was especially helpful to us, for our last day in Accra when we had to get to the airport before the hotel restaurant was open for breakfast.

I perceive that the accommodations we were provided in Ghana were either local approximations of Western standards (as, I am sure, in the case of the Coconut Grove Resort and City Escape Hotel) or else African standards taken to their luxurious summit (as, I am equally sure, in the cases of the Kowa Naso, Kikis Court, and Skyplus).

Matters I haven't addressed here, but which deserve mention, are these

  1. that each of these places included a guard house, operated twenty-four hours
  2. that all but the Kowa Naso included swimming pools which were little used (no great surprise, considering African hair and skin care which can be sabotaged by swimming) and suffering from insufficient maintenance, the Coconut Grove pool being the sole exception
  3. that the attention we received from staff at each of these places, even the Kowa Naso notwithstanding our short sheeting, was opulent - sometimes to the point of solicitousness
You will read elsewhere (eventually) of the favorable impression I had of Senegal generally and Dakar in particular. One parishioner before I left told me that I must watch Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown season 6 episode about Senegal. I viewed it only after I returned but admit that I should have watched it before I left, in order to have gotten some ideas about what to do while there. Nevertheless, I have to say that I resonate completely with Bourdain's esteem of the Senegalese people and culture.

The Hotel le Djoloff, where we stayed in Dakar, seemed to be designed as a perfect blending of Western and Senegalese. Our suite included two sleeping rooms with a common entryway. Like Elmina, one room included a king size bed, the other two twins. In this case, however, the mattresses - though firm - had springs. Covers included top sheet and bed spread. Each room had its own bath with toilet, sink, and shower. The shower was a walk-in but without a curtain; the shower included a half wall/half window that was the depth of the adjoining basin. The shower head was mounted on a pole, like the one at the Kikis Court. Here was the first bathroom we had encountered since Paris that did not include a wall-mounted water heater. Instead, a passive water heater for the building was included on the roof - a feature I hadn't seen since I lived in Wisconsin!

Our itinerary's last foreign destination was Norway. And we must remember, next time, to fly in to Sandefjord, which has an international airport, when visiting our friends there. It's a three-hour drive from their home to Oslo's airport. 

Sleeping accommodations with friends Maura and Knut were practically like those we find in the States. The difference was that, instead of a top sheet, they provided duvets. I would learn, this time, to remove the batting from the duvet when I would become my nighttime furnace and to reassemble them in the morning so that no one would be the wiser. Also, I suppose there's no surprise here, there was no air conditioning anywhere we stayed in Norway. Rather, windows could be set either slightly ajar or about half open. There was also nowhere we saw or stayed where there were window screens.

At the Clarion Hotel Bastion in Oslo, near the Central Station, we were provided a family suite which had not only the king size bed for the parents but a full size bed in an adjoining room decorated so that a child would rest there comfortably. For the first time since we'd left home, Gwen slept alone and gladly! Again there were duvets, and again I gutted mine in order to sleep comfortably but covered. Our common bathroom was similar to the one in Dakar, with an uncurtained shower half of which was enclosed by plexiglass. But the shower was set in a tub raised like the one in Sogakope, though maybe not as high up because I was never asked for assistance there by either of the females in my life, either to ascend or descend. The setting of the shower - in a tub but with only half of it enclosed - could make for a very wet floor regardless who was washing.

So, there are the beds and baths of Europe and Africa we experienced. I am still contemplating their cultural and theological meanings and considering my responses and understandings of them and the people who provided them. For now, I am simply satisfied to have been so well accommodated in my blessed meanderings and traveling mercies.


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