I returned on Monday (4 days earlier than planned, but I'll get to that) from the small city of São Luís, Maranhão (a UNESCO World Heritage site) and the national park Lençóis (the Portuguese word for "sheets"; picture white bedsheets blowing in the wind, except instead of cotton, they are made of the whitest of sand). The trip has been highly ranked on my Hot List for quite some time, but had been delayed on the grounds of expense and seasonality. Now, though, there were three reasons that it was time to cough up the dough and change my travel style a bit--from 100% mochileira (backpacker) to tour group participant/hotel guest.
- It was extremely difficult to make a reservation. What should have been a simple, straightforward process was tedious and annoying which involved a series of attempts at completing their online reservation form as well as a handful of follow-up emails. Completely uncoordinated.
- The staff was unhelpful (if I'm being generous), and downright rude (if I'm being honest). The man and woman who run the place sleep on a mattress behind the check-in counter. Perhaps they don't sleep well and that explains why it is nearly impossible to eke a smile out of them.
- Forget about receiving any tips on what to see or do, how to get around, or where to find anything: no one speaks a word of English (which, fortunately wasn't a problem for me, but still), nor are there any signs on the wall, covering the basics, to compensate for this fact.
- Relatedly, no useful and customary information is provided (in any language, whether verbally or with signage; e.g. directions to the bus station, a grocery store, internet café, recommended local restaurant, etc.) even when specifically prompted. I asked the woman, in Portuguese of course, if there was a restaurant or market nearby. She responded, in the flat and unhospitable tone I came to learn was her usual demeanor, "to the right." Umm, ok, a block? Four? On the left side or right? Does this place have a name? What am I looking for, a restaurant or a market? Nada. I asked for clarification and her dead eyes just looked at me as if to say I was pushing my luck. I walked out shaking my head, and never did find anywhere to purchase food--cooked or uncooked--to the right. Not within several blocks, in fact, so it was a good thing I had thrown a few protein bars in my suitcase.
- Even though I should have known better, the next day, I asked her for directions to the mall (which, incidentally, conveys how much I disliked the city). She muttered "bus terminal". Duh. Could you be more specific? No. Of course you can't.
- I was eaten alive by ferocious mini-mosquitos at night, which at first I feared were bed bugs. I don't think it's fair to fault a place for the nature that gets in, but it is noteworthy that I didn't experience this elsewhere during the remainder of the trip despite being in far more lush surroundings.
- The last straw, to which I confess I got a little pissy, was Wednesday morning. I was up, packed, and out of the room at 6:45 because the minibus to Lençóis was due to pick me up at 7am. I set my luggage by the front door--at which point the woman sleeping behind the counter stirs, looks at me, rolls over and goes back to sleep. I sit and wait until 7am, when the included hostel breakfast (sure, we'll call it "breakfast") service is supposed to begin. Dining area still dark and shuttered, I knock on the locked door that leads to the guest and staff kitchens to ask if I can heat up some water for my coffee. Not leaving something as important as my morning caffeine to chance, I was prepared with coffee-in-a-teabag and my own cup in hand. Another woman, who is preparing said breakfast, opens the door a crack and denies me access to the hot water. Oh-no-she-dit-ant! Jump ahead to 7:15, breakfast still not "open" and minibus still not there, and the man-manager returns from the market, wherever that is. I complain to him about not being permitted to get coffee or hot water despite it being well past 7am. The woman-manager gets out of bed and, speaking at him and not at me, dismissively says that my bus won't arrive until 7:45 anyway. I correct her, "no, they said 7am." She relays the message, again directed at him and not me, that my tour company called and changed the pickup time. "Really!? When?!" I indignantly inquire. "Last night while she was at dinner," she responds to the man. Now I was pissed, which I made no attempt to hide. (After all, she had seen me return from dinner [while she was whining her opinions of the evening novela to the television in an empty room, as if it would change the inane plot to do so], and could easily have relayed the message then, not only for its pertinence but for the extra hour of sleep!) He got the door to the kitchen open and I got my coffee, at least.