In the early 90’s, I worked for a big hospital supply company, providing computer support to a number of plants that manufactured exam gloves. Almost all of that business is in Malaysia these days, but at the time, I was supporting plants in Ohio, Tennessee, and South Carolina. We also had a facility in Costa Rica, and I wound up making a total of three trips out there between 1992 and 1995.
I do not travel well, particularly to non-English-speaking countries. The language barrier makes me extremely nervous, and even though I learned enough Spanish to communicate with the taxi drivers (“Mas despacio!”) and order food, my anxiety level was pretty much through the roof, especially on the two Costa Rica trips I made alone.
I discovered that although I hardly knew any Spanish, apparently my accent was excellent. That actually made things worse, since I’d give the taxi drivers directions and, assuming I was a native speaker, they’d unleash a torrent of incomprehensible words. I had a stock response in this instance: “No hablo español. Soy un turista estúpido.” That would put a stop to it.
The only really nice hotel in San Jose was the Holiday Inn Aurola. The other lodging options were a bit disreputable. I got to experience this firsthand on my last visit when the Holiday Inn was unavailable and the travel agent booked the “second choice” motel. In fairness, however, the management was very responsive to my complaint of insect infestation in my room. I returned from the office the next day to find lots of dead bugs and a hideous pesticide odor that forced me to sleep with the windows open, which was just as well since the air conditioning didn’t really work anyway.
The Holiday Inn, however, was top-notch, elegant and comfortable by the standards of American business travelers. The night I checked in, I noticed two stunning ladies seated on a bench outside the hotel bar. They were dressed provocatively but not at all trashy. They sat comfortably, chatting with each other, and I assumed they were waiting for their dates to arrive. Which was basically true, but I hadn’t put two and two together just yet.
In the morning, I was to meet up with a consultant from our company who was also supporting the Costa Rica facility at the time. Andreas was from Peru and bore a resemblance to Sergio Mendes. He spoke flawless English and Spanish, and was as suave and sophisticated a business traveler as I was awkward and nervous. He was staying at another hotel nearby and was meeting me in the Holiday Inn lobby so that we could go to the office together. He had also arranged for a driver from the office so we didn’t have to bother with the taxis.
Driving myself in Costa Rica was not an option. First of all, it was virtually impossible to rent a car with automatic transmission, and I never learned to drive stick. But you also seemingly took your life in your hands whenever you took to the roads. Outside of San Jose proper, the roads were hilly, unpaved, and riddled with potholes. Practically the only vehicles were taxis and buses. The taxis drove like maniacs and the buses belched thick diesel exhaust, making it hazardous to drive behind them. So having the company provide a driver for us was a real luxury.
Once we got to the office, Andreas and I split up. He was a business analyst and I was a computer tech, so we had separate jobs to do. But we hooked up again at the end of the day to return to our hotels.
During the drive back, as Andreas and I made small talk, I mentioned that my 30th birthday was coming up the next weekend.
“Really?” he said. “Well, we’ll have to do something about that.”
We dropped Andreas off at his hotel first. As he got out of the car, I asked if he had dinner plans.
“I do, tonight. I’m meeting someone,” he said. “But tomorrow night, I’m going to take you out for your birthday.”
When I got back to the Holiday Inn, I went to the hotel restaurant to have dinner. Walking past the bar area, I noticed the same two women from the night before, sitting on the same bench. Wearing the same dresses.
Now, I know I’m often pretty slow on the uptake, but by now I had caught on. These ladies were, ahem, “entertainment expenses.” And I was pretty sure I couldn’t list them on my expense report.
After work the next day, we again dropped Andreas off at his hotel. He said he was going to change clothes and that he’d meet me in the Holiday Inn lobby in a half-hour.
I came down to the lobby at the appointed time and met Andreas coming in the main entrance. He handed me a couple hundred dollars in American money and asked me to exchange it at the front desk for colones, since they would only exchange currency for hotel guests.
The exchange rate was something like 400 to 1, so I came away from the desk with a considerable wad of bills. I looked across the lobby for Andreas and didn’t see him, so I walked toward the center of the lobby and looked around.
Andreas was over by the bar area, engaged in a lively conversation.
With the prostitutes.
I waited a couple of minutes, but Andreas didn’t appear to be going anywhere. I took a deep breath, stuffed the cash in my pants pocket, and walked over to the three of them.
Andreas gestured toward me, and I assumed he was introducing me in Spanish. One of the women spoke in a low voice and I didn’t catch what she said.
Andreas turned to me and said, “She says you’re very handsome.”
“Uh, thanks?” I replied, thinking to myself, “Is that a wad of colones in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?”
I had a panicked thought that perhaps Andreas was planning something more elaborate for my birthday than just dinner. At any rate, I wasn’t biting and after a few more minutes, Andreas bid the ladies goodbye and turned to me. “Ready to go?”
I nodded, waved sheepishly to the hookers, and we headed out.
In the taxi, I handed Andreas his cash. “I’ll bet holding this made me look a lot more handsome,” I chuckled.
“Ah, they’re very nice ladies,” Andreas replied. “Anyway, I’ve picked out a very special restaurant for tonight. I hope you enjoy it. Are you squeamish about food?”
“What are we talking about here?” I asked. “Eyeballs? Testicles?”
“No, nothing like that. I just wondered if you were the macaroni and cheese type.”
“Nah, I’m pretty adventurous.”
We arrived at a building that looked like a small tavern from the outside, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Andreas was greeted warmly by the host when we entered. He was obviously a regular here. We were seated at a small table adjacent to the lounge area, where a console organ sat on a small stage in the center of the room.
“You like music with your dinner?” asked Andreas.
“Sure. I play organ myself.”
“You’ll enjoy this. This guy is good.”
There were no menus. The waiter came to the table and spoke a whole bunch of Spanish that flew right past me. Andreas was listening carefully and nodding. Then he turned to me.
“Do you like meat, or fish?”
“Those are our choices?”
“They have a meat plate, and a fish plate. Which do you prefer?”
“What’s on the meat plate?” I asked.
Andreas grinned. “Meat,” he said.
“Then I guess I won’t ask what’s on the fish plate.”
Given the lack of detail, I decided that indeterminate meat was a better choice than mystery seafood.
It was only about ten minutes before the waiter returned and set a large metal platter before us, loaded with a variety of meats and chicken. There were meatballs, slices of steak, a few pork items, and a pile of sliced up dark lumpy things in the center. I pointed and looked at Andreas.
“Kidneys,” he said.
I figured Andreas had eaten here several times and he was apparently still alive. So I speared a kidney fragment with my fork and munched away. It tasted like liver, only chewy. I loved it.
The entertainment started shortly thereafter. A man came out and sat at the organ bench. He then opened a case and pulled out a saxophone. He started a tune on the organ and then played the saxophone and organ simultaneously. I was amazed. The food was good, the music was terrific, and we had a lovely evening.
The next night, I was stuck late at the office and took a taxi back to the hotel myself. I entered the lobby and noticed that the ladies were not at their post. Perhaps it’s their night off, I thought. Or maybe they got lucky. I wondered if they worked separately or together. Rather an arousing prospect.
I got off the elevator at my floor and headed down the hallway to my room, which was all the way at the end. On my way, I passed an open door. A woman was backing out of the room, saying goodbye to someone. That was all I made out. “Buenas noches.”
I reached my room and was fishing the key card out of my pocket when I heard the woman call down the hall after me, “Excusa, señor. ¿Cuándo es?”
“No hablo…” I began.
“Oh, you speak English,” she said, speaking perfect English herself. So much for my great accent.
“I speak English just fine,” she continued. “I’m actually Mexican. Do you have the time?”
I looked at my watch. “7:15,” I said.
“Thanks,” she replied, and paused for a moment. “So, do you want to talk?”
This woman looked nothing like the ladies in the lobby. She was fortyish, rather dumpy, with bleached blond hair, wearing a sweatshirt and jogging pants. She did not look like a prostitute. She looked like someone’s mom. Or a member of the Ladies’ Auxiliary.
“Well, I was just going to go downstairs for dinner.”
“Oh,” she said. “Would you like me to meet you for dinner?”
Now, of course, this whole situation could have been easily settled if I had just said, “Thanks, but I’m not interested in company tonight.” But if I had handled the situation that well, I wouldn’t be telling the story now. My flustered brain quickly determined a fast way to get rid of her.
“Uh, sure,” I stammered.
“Okay! I’ll meet you downstairs,” she said, and headed off to the elevator.
I darted inside my room, put down my briefcase, and sat on the edge of the bed, totally bewildered. This woman couldn’t possibly be a prostitute, I thought. She’s not even attractive, and what kind of loser hooker solicits door-to-door in a hotel? They’re supposed to sit in the lobby and wait for you to come to them!
Then came the realization that I hadn’t solved my problem – I’d only delayed it. Not only that, but I’d actually led this woman on.
I did the first thing I usually did when I was in trouble. I grabbed the phone and called my wife.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, picking up on my tone of voice immediately. “Where are you?”
“I’m at my hotel. I think I’ve just been propositioned by a prostitute.”
“I, uh, invited her to dinner.”
“Well, what if she’s not a prostitute? What if she’s just some lonely, goofy lady looking for companionship? I didn’t want to insult her.”
The line was silent, but I could hear the sound of Michelle’s eyeballs rolling back in her head.
“You idiot,” she said sympathetically. “You go tell that woman you’re not interested.”
“You’ll be fine. You just need to handle this like an adult.”
I said goodbye and hung up the phone. She was right, of course. All I had to do was tell this woman, politely but firmly, that I wasn’t interested in her company. Nothing to it.
Now I just had to get up out of the chair and do it.
My legs didn’t seem to be moving.
I heard a frantic voice in my head saying, “Plan B! The easy way out! All you have to do is not leave your room!”
Moments later I had the second double bed stripped and I was dragging the mattress across the room to prop up against the door. Block the light and sound, I thought. She’ll come back looking for me and think I’ve either left the room or I’m asleep. Brilliant!
Problem solved. I turned the TV on, with the volume as low as I could still hear it, and took a few deep breaths, congratulating myself on my solution. Then I heard a faint grumbling noise from my stomach.
“Shit! I forgot dinner! Okay, don’t panic, don’t panic! Uh…YES! Room service!”
I grabbed the room service menu and quickly picked out some items that I recognized in Spanish. “Camarones – those are shrimp. Okay. And, uh…hamburguesa. That’s easy. And some té helado.”
Twenty minutes later there was a muffled knock at the door. I pulled the mattress aside and checked the peephole. It was the room service guy. I opened the door and frantically motioned him into the room, peering down the hallway to make sure the coast was clear.
He looked at me, then at the mattress against the wall, then at me again, then shrugged slightly and rolled his cart into the room. I shut the door, a little too hastily, and he looked at me again for a moment before beginning to lay out the meal.
I saw that he was putting two place settings on the table. I had obviously ordered too much food.
Once the cart had been emptied, he presented the tab, which I signed and added a very generous gratuity. I then darted to the door, opening it and checking the hall again before motioning him out of the room.
He stared at me for several seconds this time before rolling his cart out of the room and into the hallway.
Once the door was closed and the mattress back in place, I sat down in front of the TV and wolfed down my eight-course meal, all the while listening for any hint of noise from the hallway.
I slept fitfully that night. I imagined knocks at the door all night, although I’m sure I heard someone genuinely knocking at least twice. I wondered how long she’d wait for me before giving up and looking for someone else who wanted to “talk.”
I was starting to feel guilty. If this woman was a prostitute, it was obviously a last resort. What if she needed this money to survive? What if I had ruined her chance to make a few bucks that night, because she waited in vain for me instead of seeking other clients?
Then I imagined her naked.
I felt a bit better after that. I may have ruined her night, but I probably saved some poor dumb drunk guy who would have picked her up and hated himself for it later. And so, in some small way, my cowardice made the world a better place, at least for one night.