By now everybody on this little island justifiably thinks I'm a raving lunatic. I spend Monday morning on my "errands"--meaning that I dash in and out of the local post office, the tourist office, the library, and various banks and Laundromats, notebook in hand, interrogating them about hours, prices, and services. Then, usually without explanation, because an explanation would take too long and nobody would understand, I whirl out to my next destination and repeat the same mundane routine.
A classic example of the level of my daily conversations: I spot a Laundromat behind the main general store, so I go in to check it out and find two girls hanging around. Me: What hours is this Laundromat open? Girl: Until midnight (so far, my question is normal). Me: No, every day including Sundays, when do you open and close? Girl (giving me an irritated look and spitting a fiery stream of betel-nut saliva into a Coke can): Monday to Friday, we're open from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., closed Saturday and Sunday. Sometimes we're open later. Me (scribbling down the Laundromat hours): And how much does it cost to wash and dry? Girl: 50 cents to wash, 75 cents to dry. And off I speed to next shop, while the girl shakes her head and settles back to her betel-nut-spitting routine.
Fabulous as it sounds, travel writing is not a dream life. Sure I'm getting paid to travel--but I'm getting paid to commune with Laundromat operators and bank clerks and post office workers, while all the legitimate tourists on Yap Island are off scuba diving with manta rays (the enormous wavy fish has made Yap world-famous for diving). To be fair, usually it's not quite this bad--I generally check all these trifles like post office and Laundromat hours by phone. (Then I later drive by the respective institutions to see if their locations on the map are still correct.) But my hotel in Yap has no in-room phones; and since Colonia, the main city in Yap, is about half a mile across, it's just as easy to walk around.
Checking hotel rooms, which I must do in person rather than by phone (no, travel writers don't stay at every hotel they list), is my particular bane. By now I've seen close to 100 hotel rooms in Micronesia. I looked at three this morning; it's unbelievably boring, I can tell you. Checking bathrooms is the worst--you go in, turn on the faucet to see if there's hot water and water pressure, note whether there's a tub or a shower, check for flaking paint or grit. And you know that the next bathroom could be a lot worse or better, but you can't check every bathroom along the hallway. The only slight diversion comes from some of the posh hotels in Guam and Saipan, which (as they proudly show me) put phones in the bathrooms, right next to the toilet. I have not the faintest idea why.
Every travel writer has a different strategy for conducting hotel checks. Some prefer to go undercover, because if you declare yourself a travel guide writer they may show you the best room. So you simply tell the front desk that a friend/parent/sibling is coming into town and can you see a room and get rates, and by the way do all rooms have televisions and an ocean view and is there a Laundromat on the premises and what is the price for a double as well as a single in case two friends show up? Sometimes I adopt this method; but most times, I've found, it simply leads to exhausting, prolonged fictions. (When exactly is your friend arriving? Uh ... sometime next week. We're full next week. Well, they might be coming in two weeks, I'm not exactly sure, can you check anyway?)
Usually I reveal myself as a travel writer. It spares me from spinning out this imaginary-friend tale--plus I don't think in this part of the world the front desk employees fully appreciate what Lonely Planet is, nor do they have a scam up their sleeves. Or so I sincerely hope.