Sunday, January 13, 2008

Negative Stars

I write this from perhaps the crappiest hotel I've ever stayed in (besides that place in Uruguay with thousands of cigarette burns on the floor), the redundant "Budget Inn Motel" in South Tucson, Arizona. (Incidentally, in South America, a motel is a place that "rents rooms by the hour.") I'm 1900 miles into the hard push across the US to get from Asheville to San Diego in two and a half days. The highway roars just outside the window. On the back of the door, there's painter's tape, and someone has scrawled in both sharpie and crayon "Ck out tme 10: AM." A heating vent has been taped over. A thin layer of spackle barely covers boards, nails, and tape patching a 2-foot hole in the wall. Someone thought it wise to paint the tiled shower, which is now peeling, just like the plastic trim along the floor. A hole in the ceiling reveals where there used to be a light fixture. It's not only run-down, but years of repairs have been quarter-assed at best.

But I don't mind. I really just need a place to sleep for a few hours, and the bed is fine. I passed up the $40 chains to save $15 knowing what I'd be getting into. The only thing that disturbs me is that the places I've stayed in South America, usually for $5-15 per night, were almost all nicer than the local budget motels of America, even ones much less crappy than this.

Driving through El Paso, I got one clear view of a residential hillside in Juarez, a slum of border-town hovels that could not exist in the US. As a prosperous nation, that level of housing isn't allowed. (If you can't afford any better, you have to live on the streets.) I would expect that the bottom rung of short-term accommodation in the US would also be held to a higher standard than in Latin America, but apparently not. I know hotel rooms are going to cost more here. What I don't get is that if such run-down dumps can stay in business here, where people expect an elevated standard of living, why do South American hotels owners keep there places so much better maintained in a place where people are used to living much more modestly, and how do they afford the upkeep while charging 80% less?

I'm sure there are answers in labor costs, competition, the relative costs of starting a business, and my own culturally-adjusting expectations, but I just thought I'd point out the paradox before being lulled to sleep by the woosh of cars and trucks on I-10.

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