Welcome to the Happiness Hotel*

Once upon a time, a high school teacher left her job to travel and work overseas, in ‘any job but teaching’. To cut a long, not-fairy-story short, I found myself in Galway, working as an ‘accommodation assistant’ at . . . let’s call it the Grand Galway Hotel.

I had no idea what an accommodation assistant was, as will become obvious when I tell you that it means cleaner. Which I’m telling you now. The couple of lines in the Galway Advertiser’s Situations Vacant section hadn’t clued me in, otherwise I might have gone elsewhere – although I was broke, and it wasn’t a great time to find a job, heading into summer with most positions already taken by fellow travellers.

So yep, in my mid-twenties I was a cleaner in one of Galway’s most terrible hotels: terrible partly because they were possibly the last hotel in town still accepting sporting teams and hen and buck groups – eeeesh – and partly because the people running the hotel were a bunch of dicks.

Our hotel lobby. I spent a LOT of time dusting that fountain in the mornings. Oh wait, that's the Shangri La.
Our hotel lobby. I spent a LOT of time dusting that fountain in the mornings. Oh wait, that’s the Shangri La.

What was good about it:

  • not much.
  • but seriously. The best thing about it was making several friends from different countries (mostly Eastern Europe), such good friends that I probably stayed on in the job for another month or two instead of telling the manager to stick it.
  • free biscuits. Okay, stolen biscuits.
  • free lunch. Which was not that great and which one of my colleagues refused to ever eat again, after she’d seen ‘something bad’ happen during the preparation of the lunch. She refused to tell us what it was because we wouldn’t have eaten it either. In hindsight, maybe I should have pressed her for details . . . In hindsight, maybe there really is no such thing as a free lunch.
  • picking up Irish lingo; eg. ‘I’m awful for the chocolate’ (I love chocolate), ‘Sound’ (cool).
  • laughing at the way Irish colleagues said ‘garage’ and ‘film’ (it’s got two syllables!); all of us, Irish colleagues as well, comparing pronunciation of ‘turkey’ and deciding (me included) that Australians say it the worst.
  • on days when there weren’t a lot of rooms to clean, we’d make hideous instant coffee and chat while we tidied. Or we’d watch TV, something universal like the world weather report or MTV, drink coffee and eat biscuits, and my friend Egle and I would joke around while Julia napped on one of the beds. The two of them together were a superfast cleaning machine, so they could afford the time. If they finished early, they’d come help me.

    Us in our beautiful aprons and domestic servant up-dos. In Edwardian times.
  • There were days when we cleaned rooms after hen nights and found plastic penises and fairy wings, or leftover alcohol and hefty tips. One day Egle and Julia, both giggling, dragged Katka, our supervisor and good friend, and me into 107. In the bath was a clear plasticky, vaguely oval-shaped thing, about the size of a toddler, quivering like jelly. Egle and Julia laughed while poking it to make it wobble about, as Katka and I looked on, mystified. It turned out they had found a packet of condoms while making the bed, and had filled one up with water. Julia’s vigorous poking caused it to explode, spraying us and most of the bathroom with water. It was hilarious on an otherwise boring day.
  • There’s something vaguely comforting about making up rooms for strangers. Smoothing pristine white linen over the mattresses, making envelope corners and tucking the edges in tightly; folding fluffy towels and hanging them on the bathroom rails; placing pyjamas under pillows; wiping down enamel surfaces until they gleam. There was a strange, anonymous relationship between us and the guests, involving a certain care on our part . . . it was somehow reassuring.
  • I’ve found some nice, even heartwarming things in rooms: a note in 313 saying, God loves you. Thank you for taking care of us, signed by some group called Peace of Jesus and weighted with a two Euro coin; in another room a paper bag, taped up with To the girl who cleaned our room scrawled on it, a swirly-patterned nylon scarf inside. (It was hideous. I treasured it anyway. Though not enough to wear it.)

    There were always hijinks galore at the Grand Galway Hotel.
    There were always hijinks galore at the Grand Galway Hotel.

Slightly less pleasant experiences:

  • having to somehow fish socks out of a cigarette-and-urine-filled toilet bowl.
  • finding someone had wet the bed in a possible drunken stupor (‘Just turn over the mattress,’ I was told by management. If that was the policy for a 3-star hotel, I did NOT ever want to stay in a 1-star room).
  • suspecting a creepy porter of harassing younger female colleagues and not being able to do anything about it.
  • same creepy porter saying to Katka: “You shouldn’t be supervisor: you’re no good. It should have been given to someone smart. A man.” When we called him out on it, he called us all fucking bitches. We reported him and you know what happened? He was given a holiday. Management paid him a low wage in cash so they didn’t fire him. See above comment re: management being dicks.
  • discovering used condoms in various places. Katka had once found one in a kettle. In fact Katka had a few horror stories like that, such as finding shit not in but next to the toilet. The worst one I heard was when she found a businessman who’d had a heart attack during the night and fallen out of bed. Dead.

The worst thing that happened while I was there was when a cleaner called Jess opened 310, thinking it had been vacated. The guest had hanged himself in the bathroom. He was a 30-year-old Albanian who’d overstayed his visa and was being deported the next day. Whatever was waiting for him in his home country had been worse than death. I went with Katka to air out the room after the body had been taken away and the room had been blessed; everything else had been left mostly untouched. (The Irish: their first priority will be to bless a room, not clear away implements the deceased used to harm themselves.) It was not pretty.

Jess couldn’t face working in the hotel anymore, coming back only to give our manager (Mary C – the C is for Classy) notice. Mary C was seemingly all understanding, but quietly relieved as she’d accidentally hired too many accommodation assistants and had been planning to fire Jess anyway. After Jess left, Mary C laughed and said, “What an eejit. The stupid girl can’t even come into the hotel!” (Oh sorry! The C was for Cowface.)

Last I knew, 310 was being used to store furniture during renovations and everyone gave it a wide berth. I wouldn’t be surprised if all these years later, it was still out of circulation. People were pretty spooked (not Mary C, though, but I’m not sure she’s a person).

Any lessons to be learned from my experience? Read all job ads carefully, kids! And then at the interview (meeting, whatever), if you still don’t know what the job is exactly, ask. And then (and even after the first day, or anytime), you can still say no. Or leave. Or hey, stick it out and make friends and eat aalll the free biscuits. Then one day when you’ve had enough, and you know you’re about to quit and management isn’t watching, grab a colleague, run down the fire escape, jump over the wall and leg it to the nearest bar serving happy hour cocktails. You will not regret it. Those cocktails will be the sweetest you ever tasted.

Out of curiosity, I just googled the Grand Galway Hotel – it’s now allegedly 4 and a half stars, yet sitting pretty in the bottom half of Galway’s hotels on Trip Advisor. From the look of the reviews, nothing’s changed – except in the social media age, everyone now knows what it’s really like. Neat.

One more lesson: when visiting Galway, make sure you do your research first. Splash out on a really good hotel.

*’If that’s the Happiness Hotel, I’d hate to see what the sad one looks like’ –– Fozzie Bear, The Great Muppet Caper.


Underwater Love

Recently my partner and I spent a week in sunny Port Douglas. There were many highlights of the trip, but there was one in particular for me. I was extra excited by the prospect of ticking off one of my big life goals (I refuse to say ‘bucketlist’ . . . oops): to see the Great Barrier Reef before it dies. Yes, that should read ‘before I die’, but at this rate it looks like I’m gonna outlast it.

What’s happening with the reef? Things aren’t looking great right now. The coral, for a number of reasons, is dying. The greatest threat is climate change, causing coral bleaching – this has already begun and is apparently going to become an annual thing as global temperatures rise. Then there’s pollution, primarily from runoff, chemical use, etc. in sugar cane farming and beef grazing.

The latest dredging plan has the dumping of dredge spoil happening not on the reef exactly, more like near the reef. It’s cool to dump in the wetlands, right? Well, not really, as it’ll end up on the reef anyway. That’s the thing about ecosystems, they’re pesky with their interconnectedness. Anyway, meantime the Great Barrier Reef Marine Authority seems to be not listening to its scientific experts for some reason. Money reasons, maybe? Government money-loving reasons? It’s all sickeningly short-sighted.

Anyway, back to the holiday. We did a daytrip to the outer reef, snorkelling at three different spots on Opal Reef, and it was amaaazing. I don’t remember having ever snorkelled before, so that was a joy in itself. And on the reef? Pure, unadulterated joy. We swam only about 50 metres from the boat at most each time and saw loads of parrot fish, other . . . tropical fish, incredible coral gardens, sea cucumbers (gross), giant clams, and what we thought was a clown fish but turns out wasn’t a clown fish yet who cared, it was as exciting as seeing an actual clown fish!

We were swimming back to the boat at the end of our second snorkel when I saw a big fish underneath it – about a metre or so long. I nudged my partner’s arm and said ‘Holy crap, look at that!’ which sounded like ‘Mphfh! Mphfphnghmph!’ underwater, then surfaced and yelled something awesome to the boat like, ‘There’s a big fish under the boat!’  Marty, one of our guides, called back, ‘Yeah, that’s Angus!’ Haha, good one, we laughed.

We got back to the boat, pulled ourselves onto the back steps where we sat half in the water still, pulling off our fins and talking about our fish friend. Something bumped my leg; it was the freaking fish. I kind of squealed. Marty had been surreptitiously tossing bits of ham into the water while we were talking, so the fish was swimming right by, having a snack. Marty told us he was a roughly four-year-old Maori wrasse, and we were smack bang in the middle of his territory.

I got over my initial surprise and stuck my head underwater, looking at Angus as he swam right past. I got to see close up his weird fish mouth and his cool eyes – they reminded me of a sheep’s but more colourful – and give him pats. It was incredible. Other snorkellers came up, yet he wasn’t bothered and kept swimming in amongst us, catching the occasional scrap of ham, and generally being a happy ocean pet.

I have no idea what he made of us, but he was impressive to me. Nothing in my life compares to the experience of being eye to eye with a Maori wrasse on the edge of the Great Barrier Reef. Nothing in my aquatic life, anyway (hey, I’ve ridden an elephant). And he’s out there right now, probably hanging around another tour boat, making friends, getting some ham and pats and having his photo taken.

An artist’s impression of Angus and me getting to know each other.

After having our quality tropical fish time, we headed to the third spot where it was almost low tide, so there was only a metre or so at times between us and the coral. You could just float on the surface, face down, snorkel in, and float on over the top of the coral gardens, watching the fish going about their fish business, weaving in and out of the wavy coral in the filtered sunlight. And that’s exactly what we did.

I came back from the tour wanting to go back out every day for the rest of the week (sadly we didn’t, but there were loads of other things to do and see). I’ll always remember the absolute, sheer childlike joy of floating through the reef – it’s such a gift, and unfortunately it seems it’s going to be a fleeting one.

My heart hurts to think that other people, even the people charged with the caretaking of this beautiful wild place, are not looking after its best interests and still don’t get and probably won’t ever understand the interconnectedness of ecosystems, the fragile nature of this one, the impact of climate change, and that the damage that has been done and will still unavoidably be done can’t be reversed.

At a time when our country in general is not being looked after properly, when coal is king, when we’re being brainwashed by fear-mongering media, when fundamental human rights are being ignored and a whole range of injustices are taking place on our watch, the future of one of our endangered national icons might just slip through our fingers.

I definitely want to make semi-regular trips back there if I can, to remember what’s out there, see it while I can, to visit my new fish friends and remember the fantastic underwater world that exists out there every day while I’m in my office or on a busy city train or walking crowded footpaths or getting shitty with slow people on escalators. I’m telling everyone who’ll listen that they should do themselves a favour and go out there too. And soon.

Right, I’m off to sponsor a sea turtle or go sign a petition. This one looks good. For a better idea of the magical underwater wonderland we experienced, check out this Calypso YouTube video (a Maori wrasse, probably Angus, can be seen at 1:32).

Jo and Angus
Angus and me, new besties.