Monday, 30 April 2012

The Perfect Review

A few weeks ago, we stayed at the Bayside Inn, the cheapest motel that we could find in the shi shi coastal town of Monterey. After the manager told us that he would “give it” to us for 39—a very reasonable price as compared to the other motels in the area—we somehow ended up with a receipt for over fifty dollars. Granted, Ricky should have asked him how it ended up being so high before he signed the receipt, but I don’t think either of us expected him to slip in what he later told us was  a “service fee” on top of the tax. We felt swindled. Isn’t providing us with a room and taking our credit card the one and only service of this motel? What chutzpah!

Aside from the dishonest owner, the place was dirty and there was no hot water. Outraged by all this, we decided that the only way to regain control of the situation, since we had already paid for the room, was to post a negative review of the place on Google.

Despite the fact that we have stayed in a million shitty motels, and the question of whether to review has come up before, I have generally veered in the direction of ‘If you have nothing nice to say, then don’t say it.’ I have never been comfortable with the idea of potentially compromising someone’s livelihood.

But this incident made me think: if they’re going to be dishonest, then they’re compromising their business—not me. We have appreciated whenever we’ve known the truth about a place before going there, so we might as well use our massive wealth of expertise in shitty motels to the benefit of other unwitting travelers.

The Bayside Inn in Monterey, CA. 
A few days later, we left Big Sur, for the second time, and spent most of the day driving away from the coast and toward Squaw Valley, a small town that we chose only because of its proximity to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National parks. As with all towns right outside national parks, Squaw Valley mostly offered accommodations that were way out of our price range. There was one motel, however, the Squaw Valley Motel—we’ve learned that the hotels that are generally the cheapest are the ones that name themselves after the town in which they are located—that was more or less affordable. Camping, in this case, was out of the question since the parks were way up in the mountains, and besides, we had reservations for three nights at Yosemite starting a few days later. As Ricky put it, “We might as well save what desire we have for camping in a bear-infested campground in the freezing cold for Yosemite.” So on we went to a night of relative luxury at the Squaw Valley Motel.

Or so we thought. After showering and making ourselves comfortable in the bed, I noticed a small bug crawling on the headboard out of the corner of my eye. It was very flat, reddish-brown, and it had little clippers at its head. I jumped backward, and said “Oh shit! Is that a bed bug?”

“Relax,” Ricky said. “Let’s check it out on the iPhone.” A practical plan it was. He Googled bed bugs and pulled up a picture to compare. And there was a picture of a flat, reddish-brownish bug with clippers on its head.

We decided not to lose hope. “Ask Google whether bed bugs are very flat,” I said hopefully. “We can’t really tell exactly how flat that bug is from the picture.”

“Bed bugs are reddish-brown and very flat,” he read from some website about bed bugs. 

Okay, so it’s a bed bug. But maybe he’s just a lone soldier, and if we kill him, we won’t have to worry about any others. We did, after all, as we do with all of motels, check the sheets for evidence of bug sheddings and red blotches from bug bites. After spraying it, and the surrounding area, with OFF!, we decided to put the episode behind us and do our best to sleep through the night.

But a little while later, I noticed yet another bug, the same type, crawling up the wall. At this point, we decided that it was time to do something about it. Ricky woke up the manager, showed him the two dead intruders, and insisted that we be moved to a different room, in the other building, as far away from this room as possible.

The question of whether to review the shitty motel again came up. The owners seemed really nice—a small husband-and-wife team. But do we just sit silently and let other unwitting customers get bitten by bed bugs? We decided to put off the question for another night.

This is what a bed bug looks like, in case you're ever unfortunate to come across one or two. 
Meanwhile, traumatized from the incident, we realized that there was really nowhere for us to stay in the area—since we weren’t staying here again, the other hotels were too expensive, and camping was out of the question. So we turned to our trusty friend: couch surfing. After sending several urgent couch requests to hosts in Fresno, the nearest big city, we did our best to sleep through the night with the hopes that we would be staying in a warm, bed-bug free room the following night.

Sure enough, we got a call the next morning. “Hello, this is Sharon.” It was an older woman with a British accent who Ricky had sent a couch request to the previous night. (Full disclosure: Ricky and I have been interested in couch surfing with an older person, since we determined that older people meant better accommodations and a higher likelihood of free meals). “I have to tell you that I actually declined your request, because I have another surfer coming to stay with me in a few days, and I thought it would be too much to have you guys stay, and for her to come right after. But then I decided, you know what? You guys seemed really nice from all your reviews on couch surfing, and I wanted to meet you, so I said: what the hell!”

We were looking forward to meeting the very verbose Sharon, and her husband Ron, later that day. But first, we had some very big trees to see. 

Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks are comprised of two contiguous regions—Kings Canyon, which is known mostly for a large canyon just below the Sierra Nevada backcountry, and Sequoia, which houses the most giant of the Giant Sequoia trees in the world. Although, the divisions are not actually that clean: while Sequoia houses the largest mountain in the Sierra Nevada and the continental U.S., Mount Whitney, Kings Canyon houses the widest tree in the world, the General Grant. 

As we drove up into the mountains of Kings Canyon—8000 feet up—we noticed that the ground was covered in snow. We quickly learned that the General Grant’s Highway, the main road connecting the two parks, was closed due to the snow. Although our original plan was to soak up the two parks over the course of three days, between the closing of the highway and the lack of a place to sleep, we realized that our bout in the park would have to be compressed into a single afternoon.

And since the drive into the canyon was also closed for winter, the only activity left on the agenda was to see the General Grant Grove of Sequoia trees in Kings Canyon. The path was covered in snow, and we were not wearing the right equipment to traverse through it. But, along with the other few visitors, we trudged through to see what we all came for. The General Grant Tree—which is only the third largest tree in the world (not the tallest or the densest)—is known for being the fattest. At forty feet in diameter, the tree was a pretty sublime sight to behold. Remnants of a time of giants, Sequoia trees, which are a type of Redwood, covered the planet when dinosaurs walked the earth. So roaming among them is actually a kind of spiritual experience, rendering the person so incredibly small in the face of this magnificent piece of nature.

The General Grant Tree, partially covered in snow.
A couple hours later, as we were ready to concede to having only seen one tree grove out of two enormous national parks, we noticed that the barrier in front of the General Grant’s Highway was suddenly gone. As luck would have it, it was the first day of the season they were opening up the road. We were now able to peek out onto some beautiful vistas overlooking the Sierras, as well see the largest tree in the world—the General Sherman. The Sherman Tree is not the widest, nor the tallest, nor even the oldest tree. But it is considered the largest tree because it is wide enough and tall enough to have the most wood of any tree in the world. Actually, that makes it the single largest living thing in the entire universe as we know it. At nearly 2,000 years old, the tree was living during the reign of Cleopatra! As you might imagine, though, these trees were not officially named until the time of the Civil War.

The Sierra Nevada Mountain Range--Mount Whitney is somewhere in the background.

As you can see, it's a very, very large tree.
Thrilled that we managed to see the essentials of both parks, we were looking forward to heading into the comforts of a real home before heading into the wilderness of Yosemite a few days later. When we finally arrived in Fresno, at a modest house on a quiet block, Sharon, a heavy-set woman, greeted us both with big hugs, and bowls of ice cream. She talked our ears off with tales of her youthful adventures traveling across the world, her experiences on couchsurfing—and all the difficulties of surfing as an older woman—, her children, her hometown of Durham, England, and her regret for having settled down in one of the most boring cities she’s ever been to—Fresno. Meanwhile, Ron, a small, white-haired Fresno native, just sat there in silence and occasionally nodded his head. Once in a while, he interjected to talk about his experiences hitchhiking across the country as a teenager. Ricky and I later determined that he had had a bad trip about forty years ago that he has yet to entirely recover from.

After finally being allowed to go to sleep—as Patricia Marx noted in her recent New Yorker article, with couch surfing, “incessant sociability” is your fee—Ricky and I spent the next day trying to find what to do in Fresno. We couldn’t find anything. We stopped briefly at a cafĂ©, perused a pretty sizable book barn, and drove around the “historic” downtown district.

We finally capitulated and went back to the Shroud residence—even if that meant more incessant sociability. That night, we cooked them dinner and played a game called “Quidler,” a Scrabble-like card game.

It was a pretty hilarious endeavor. Sharon whipped out a surprisingly competitive streak, as she sat there with her laptop to help her come up with words while the rest of us had no such help. Meanwhile, the laptop only seemed to help her come up with words that I’m pretty sure are not words at all. When Ricky and I asked her, “What’s ‘Wi’?” she said that the computer confirmed the word. Schon joked that it was “half of kiwi.”

Different though they were, to say the least, our nights with the Shrouds were ultimately interesting and enjoyable. In Marx’s article, she winks an eye to her fellow New Yorkers as she enumerates all the various eccentrics one meets on couchsurfing. And it is true, in our experience, that the people who choose to host are not run-of-the mill.

But the reality is that these are the people who choose to let strangers feel at home in their home. Marx intellectualizes about it, asking, “Has our relation with machines made us feel so deprived of human contact that we befriend anyone and shack up with whoever has a mattress?” But while the rest of us are busy antagonizing—throwing in made-up service fees, or making fun of the eccentrics on couch surfing—these people are opening up the world just a little more.

I think that if there’s anything that computers have really changed, it’s just transparency—that there are consequences to being dishonest, and rewards for being gracious. Sharon wanted to host us on account of an extremely flattering review we received from Peter in Santa Fe. He wrote: “What a bright, sweet couple. What a great trip they're making. By the end they'll know more about the USA than most of us because they're smart and curious and are going everywhere. If they want to stay with you, say yes right away before someone else does." 

We've learned that it always pays to be honest and friendly, because just as a bad review can screw you over, a good review might provide you with free lodging all across America. 

Near the end of the Quidler game, Sharon announced, “It’s anybody’s game…except Ron’s!” This came after several instances of telling him that he wasn’t using his brain. He didn't seem too fazed by her commentary. 

Later, Sharon put down the word ‘ki.’

“What’s’’ki?’” Ricky and I asked incredulously.

“It’s half of Kiwi,” said Ron.

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