Recently, while in Christchurch, I stayed at the So Hotel in Cashel Street. Trust me, it really is So hotel. I had a thoroughly pleasant time and I'd be very happy indeed to stay there again. But it is an undeniably bizarre place...
I started to wonder about it when the taxi pulled up outside the hotel and dropped me off. Enormous signs indicated that rooms could be had from as little as $69 per night. That is an absurdly cheap rate for a mid-city hotel. My heart sank as I walked through the doors into a blast of over amplified music that roared out of the bar. I went up to the front desk and introduced myself to the man who was tapping away at the keyboard of an elegant looking, very modern and very sexy Apple computer.
"I'm sorry," he said, "you'll have to speak up. I can't hear you. The music is too loud."
I introduced myself again at a higher volume.
"Welcome to the So Hotel," he said as he confirmed my details and prepared the magnetic card that would allow me access to my room.
"Why are the room rates So Cheap?" I asked.
I repeated the question at the top of my voice.
"Because we don't service the room while you are here," he said.
"What?" I boggled, "Not at all?"
"Not at all," he confirmed. "Once you enter your room, that's it for the week. No hotel staff will enter it as long as you are in residence. It won't be cleaned, it won't be serviced, the bed won't be made, the towels won't be picked up off the floor, and nobody will fold the next available sheet of paper on the toilet roll into a neat triangular point."
I began to worry. "Don't I even get clean towels when I've used up all the ones in the room?"
"No," he said. "Not unless you pay a $15 surcharge to have your room serviced."
I began to understand why the rooms were So Cheap. I took my magnetic card and headed towards the lift. Just past the lift was a table with six Apple computers on it that were providing free connectivity to hotel guests. It was So Internet. Six Chinese teenagers were superglued to the screens. Their mousing arms had bulging biceps, their non-mousing arms hung limp, atrophied and withered. They gazed unblinkingly at the screens in front of them, clicking furiously as they did mysterious internetty things involving hieroglyphs.
I took the lift to the fourth floor and headed for room 417. The magnetic card allowed me entry to a room that was about the size of a jail cell. The bed was a steel frame securely bolted to the far wall. A deep mattress sat on the frame and a strange blue glow shone out from underneath it. A large flat screen television hung on the wall at the foot of the bed. A telephone and a control console of frightening complexity were built in to the headboard.
Just to the right of the door was a frosted glass cylinder that stretched from the floor to the ceiling. A sliding panel in the cylinder revealed a shower, washbasin and toilet.
To the left of the door a stainless steel pole was bolted firmly to the floor and to the ceiling. A small horizontal bar joined the pole to the left hand wall. Three coat hangers swayed gently on the bar, forming a minimalist wardrobe. A small shelf was attached to the wall and a hard plastic chair was sitting underneath it.
I edged into the room and unpacked my case. I hung my jacket on one of the coat hangers and piled the rest of my clothes on the shelf. I slid my empty case under the bed into the sinister blue glow and I sat down on the bed; the plastic chair looked far too uncomfortable to sit on. There was a bed side table on which sat the remote control for the TV and a very large loose leaf folder with 40 pages of small print that described how the room worked. I settled down to read...
The compendium began by explaining that the hotel was So Conscious of its environmental responsibilities. Everything in my room that wasn't screwed down was biodegradable and the toilet and shower were specifically designed to use as little water as possible. The hotel was So Proud of its contribution to the environment and the compendium suggested that I could contribute to this environmental effort by walking everywhere. They would So Appreciate the help.
Then the compendium began to describe the control console in the headboard and things really got weird.
First the alarm clock. The compendium explained how to set a wake up time on the clock and then told me that the alarm would not ring, buzz, beep or vibrate, and neither was there the equivalent of a snooze button. Instead, a few minutes before the alarm was due to go off, a light above my bed would very gradually get brighter and brighter. This, the compendium informed me with a perfectly straight face, was to simulate a sunrise that would allow me to wake up naturally with the day. Once the simulated sun had fully risen, the television would turn itself on and show me inspiring (yet soothing) pictures of stunningly beautiful New Zealand scenery to the accompaniment of of a soundtrack of New Age whales singing something scored by Wagner after a hard night out with the Valkyries over-indulging in chips and real ale.
Intrigued, I investigated the television. It had all the usual channels (though Prime and CTV were not working; there were channel slots available for both, but they were blank). None of the channels synchronised properly with the sound, and the lip movements of the people on the screen lagged seriously behind their words giving the distinct impression that everything, even the news, was a badly dubbed foreign film. I kept expecting to see bands of starving peasants, bronzed farm workers singling patriotic songs, close ups of wrinkled faces and monochrome supernatural entities playing symbolic games of chess.
As I explored the TV options available to me, I discovered a whole sequence of serene channels for meditating by. The first of these was the New Zealand scenery that the alarm clock had promised me, but there were several others as well. There was a waterfall, waves splashing gently on to a sandy beach, a fire burning cheerfully in a grate (with the appropriate crackling sound effects) and several meditative channels that simply consisted of the message "NO DISC" in white letters on a swirly blue background.
I turned the TV off and returned to the compendium which was now ready to explain the delights of the mood button to me.
The mood button was a special switch on the headboard console with six different settings. Each setting caused a different coloured light to glow eerily behind the frosted glass of the shower unit which then diffused the light dimly over the room. In deeply serious tones, the compendium explained that falling asleep bathed in the rich radiative glow of these pastel shades would ensure that I enjoyed a satisfyingly natural sleep which would cause me to awake refreshed and eager for the new day. Several pages of the compendium expounded at length on the different mental and physical benefits to be gained from each colour.
This section of the compendium also explained the blue glow that shone from under the bed. It was a night light for those of a nervous disposition who found the mood lighting too intrusive but who were nevertheless worried about sleeping in the pitch dark of a lightless room. It had a switch all of its own and when turned on, it would continue to shine even when nobody was in the room. Presumably this constant unattended glow would discourage monsters from sneaking in and hiding under the bed from where they could grab your unprepared ankles when you arose refreshed in the morning.
The next section in the compendium told me that the So Hotel had a bar and restaurant in the foyer called What Bar. So What, as it were. The compendium didn't quite nudge me in the ribs and say, "Geddit? Geddit?" at the top of its voice, but I'm sure the next release of the book will fix this obvious bug in the humour module.
Pages 28 and 29 were missing from my compendium and therefore I will never know what delights the rest of the control panel may have contained. Pages 30 to 40 explained how to use the telephone and listed the international dial codes for every country in the world, including Atlantis, Mu, Lemuria and Lyonesse.
I decided to visit What and drink a beer. As I went to open the door of my room I discovered signs I could hang on the outside. One, printed with the words "So Sleepy" meant that I would not be disturbed. The other, printed with the words "So Untidy" requested that my room be serviced and noted in positively minuscule print that there would be a surcharge of $15 for doing this. I made sure to leave both of the signs inside my room and I took the lift to the foyer where the Chinese teenagers were still monopolising the free internet connection.
"They've been using those computers non-stop for a week," said a disgruntled man who was obviously suffering from severe pornography withdrawal symptoms.
"They do look a little dusty," I said. "Presumably Chinese teenagers don't get serviced on the same schedule that the residential rooms don't get serviced."
I wondered whether I should hang a sign on them. So Untidy.
"They shouldn't be allowed to use the machines for all that time," complained the man. "They should be circumscribed."
"Well, there's no drawback in that," I said.
"What?" He looked a bit shocked.
"Yes, that's So Where I'm going."
So What had no beers on tap and charged me $8 for a 330ml bottle of New Zealand beer. Even by central city standards this was exorbitantly expensive. No wonder the hotel was So Profitable. I determined not to drink there again and went out in search of cheaper watering holes.
Right next door to the So Hotel was a bar called the Stock Exchange. A sign in the window claimed that it offered a range of tap beers and therefore I went in to explore. It was a themed bar and the walls were decorated with financial memorabilia such as old Stock Exchange chalk boards and the like. As a concession to modernity, they also had some computer screens displaying ever changing graphs of fluctuations in this, that and the other stock and share option. It soon became abundantly clear to me that the price fluctuations displayed on the screens were directly linked to the till behind the bar. Every time I bought a beer, it rang up a different price; reflecting, as it were, the current situation described by the bouncing graphs. Obviously the owners of the Stock Exchange were as eccentric as the owners of the So Hotel (perhaps they were the same people?), but at least the beer was cheaper at the Stock Exchange than it was at the So Hotel and it was served in larger quantities as well; always a bonus.
I had not brought my spectacles with me and consequently I was unable to make much sense of the rather blurry displays on the Stock Exchange screens. Invariably I utterly failed to correlate the situation the graphs described with the current beer price. As a result of this, many of my beer buying decisions proved to be sub-optimal. But never mind. Bibo ergo sum, as it were.
Over the next few days I explored the possibilities of the mood lighting in my room. Green and yellow did little for me other than to wake me up at random intervals during the night convinced that the walls were covered with phosphorescent Ganymedean slime-moulds which were intent on digesting me and spitting out the bones. Red gave the room the glow and ambiance of an Amsterdam brothel and my dreams were visited by nubile Indonesian princesses who sat on the hard plastic chair and knitted elaborately patterned batik jumpers. Sometimes the girls giggled at me.
Purple was the very best colour of all and I used it the most. As long as I didn't turn on the proper shower light (which tended to drown out the colours) I could shower in purple rain and sing at the top of my voice, pretending to be the artist formerly known as Prince. Then I could carefully clean the soap scum from my body as I indulged in my world famous impression of the artist formerly known as Rinse. And later, having dressed, I would go to So What for breakfast and eat toast and Marmalade (ob la dee, ob la da; by the artists formerly known as Quince). Perhaps I could have meatloaf as well; the artist formerly known as Mince.
After a week of New Age colour therapy and simulated sunrises, I was unbelievably soothed. My karma was calm, my chi was chipper, my consciousness was well raised and spiritually I was at peace with the oneness of the all (or was that the allness of the one? I often get them confused). I felt So Cosmic. However I had no soap left, and I was down to my very last sheet of toilet paper which I'd folded into a sharp triangular point after all, I do have standards which I endeavour to keep up. My towels were So Damp that I'd been unable to dry myself for two days. I'd tried standing in front of the open fire on the television set after every shower, but it didn't work very well.
"I've had a wonderful time," I said as I checked out. "But I'd So Like to pay the bill and go home."
"No problem. Here's the smallest hotel bill you've ever been presented with."
I waved goodbye to the Chinese teenagers as I left but they were concentrating So Hard on clicking that they didn't notice.