I despise guest books. You know, those large bound volumes, sometimes flowery, often unlined and large as artists’ sketchbooks, where travelers are invited to leave their salient remarks and summations of stays in hotels, b and b’s, or vacation rentals.
Recently, my wife, daughter and I rented a charming one room cottage – appropriately, if not very romantically, dubbed the “Casa do Tanque – set amidst a glowing field of purple and yellow wildflowers down a peaceful ravine near mangrove fields along the lovely rolling topography of Portugal’s Alentejo coast. In three days there, we all got properly relaxed, doing as little as possible except hunt for various strange bugs and butterflies (in my eight-year-old’s case), read in hammocks, go for short hikes, have picnics, outdoor showers and barbeques each night.
The only interruptions to mar this ordinary bliss occurred when we actually tried to do something. When back roads befuddled my GPS, and Portugal’s infamous scanty signage did its usual number, an expected twenty-minute drive to long empty Atlantic beaches turned into two hours of going in hot circles through dusty farms. The other unexpected hitch was a real doozy, the worst such incident in my long career as a quasi-hotel dweller. With the barbecue going, and vegetables boiling on the tiny stove inside, I went to get the platter of sausages, eggplant skewers and marshmallows for prospective charring, nudging the front door of the cottage shut to keep the dampness and mosquitoes of the hurrying dusk from invading. As the door closed, I immediately sensed that I had made an irrevocable faux pas. A night earlier, in the reflexive act of a paranoid ex-New Yorker, I had removed the rusty key from the front door lock so that no roaming werewolves or ax murderers could just let themselves in. Now, with the key inside and the door clicking shut automatically with no warning, there was no way for us to get back in ourselves. The water on the small stove would soon be boiling away and not only were all our clothes and cosmetics left behind, but so were our three beloved dogs. At just that very instant as well, the still and perfect blue of Lusitania (“land of light” since the Romans) darkened on cue as though we were on a movie set suddenly switched to “storm.” Within minutes, there was a deluge that soaked all of us, and our barbecue, as we struggled to figure out how and where we were going to get dry and get some sleep later that night. (Also locked within the cabin were our mobile phones and the number for the caretaker who, in any case, lived an hour’s drive away.)
First, we hustled our increasingly agitated daughter into the car parked amidst the wildflowers – at least, the Peugeot was unlocked. From inside, we could soon hear her screaming for fear of the dogs.Our evening had gone from total relaxation to utter hysteria in seconds. What to do? Windows to the cottage were too high to reach, but there was one set of glass doors. Our last resort, reached with remarkable haste, was to smash open several of the lower panes to reach the inner lock. However, the glass wouldn’t give easily. Not until my wife and I were utterly soaked. At last, we found a rock large and jagged enough to do the job in ten smashes. Then the old door bolt wouldn’t give, but did at last. With dogs, if not dinner, rescued and disaster averted, the event quickly turned into one of those great tales of battle and badges of honor for travelers everywhere. We had made ourselves a vivid memory of our sojourn in paradise better than any trinkets or knit coasters we could pick up.
Guilty as I felt about initiating the whole degrading chain of events, I had pretty much put the whole business out of mind until we checked out several days later – and, in cleaning up and replacing the TV remotes where they belonged, found one of those darn guest registers on the carpeted floor. Why did I always feel compelled to open these penned Pandora’s boxes? Inside, on page after page, accompanied by quaint drawings of daisies and doilies, scrawled in six languages and eight colors of ballpoint, were dozens of tributes to the marvelous cottage, its magnificent nearby attractions, the wonderful peace, serenity and wind-surfing so many far-more knowing pilgrims had found before us. Why didn’t anyone ever have anything bad to say, any complaints whatsoever, any mishaps or near-conflagrations like ours to memorialize? Was this the travel equivalent of Freud’s repression of the unconscious, with all traumas born of being strangers papered over with prose that could only be described, even without accompanying soundtrack, as “breathless”?
How was it all the amateur Fodors who ever came before me always managed to have such an absolutely unblemished and blissful time, always knew their way straight to the best waves, most charming villages and personal moments of transformation? Could it be me and mine were the only ones who ever got locked out of Nirvana, stumbled or got cut with thorns on the path to redemptive restoration? I wanted to scrawl down the entire account of our near-fire incident, but of course, I was at that moment too much in a hurry to get back to the city, also too lazy and relaxed by the past few days to even attempt it. Besides, even a grump like me felt ashamed to smudge the cavalcade of pure praise on these thick and indestructible pages. Nothing, no guides or magazines or classic travelogues, have ever made me feel so much like I’d missed the boat of good times and ready discoveries than these instant encyclopedia of joy. No more guest registers for me, please. To flip these pages is to peer into my restless soul and all it lacked, all the sights my restless eye and all the reveries my avid heart always skipped past.