I wasn’t naïve enough to believe that the term “luxury” was going to be part of the experience – regardless of the fact that the word was heavily featured in the listing. Any rental of a two-bedroom apartment that comes in just above $30 USD a night is, by default, not a luxury item.
The cracks in this overnight adventure for my friend and I quickly appeared. The pinpoint GPS location of the unit provided by the owner led us to … the parking lot of a pharmacy. My follow up calls yielded equally helpful information, such as “look for the guy standing by a gate.”
We drove half a mile in either direction from the pharmacy. The owner said his unit was “down the road” from the pharmacy but didn’t indicate the direction. We repeated our journey and eventually noticed someone waving at us from a side street. Gate Guy indicated that we should pull in to one of the spaces behind the metal gate. As we rolled in, I admired the building, which looked like a design straight out of the Brezhnev era.
Gate Guy immediately disclaimed any knowledge of the unit, our rental, or anything. He was there as a favor to the owner, who wanted to come by later to meet us in person.
I volunteered that we saw no need for a formal meeting with the owner, and listened as Gate Guy explained in detail the purpose behind three keys. One opened the outer door next to the gate. The gate itself remained unlocked as he had no key for it and our car would be trapped. This effectively negated the point of key #1.
Key #2 opened the formidable metal door to the building.
Once inside, a dark, grim set of tiled stairs led up to two doors. The one on the left, already open, was our unit. The door for the unit on the right was closed. No noise came from behind the closed door, or from whatever was below us. I liked the idea of quiet, which does not always come with a $30 rental.
Gate Guy walked into the open unit, handed me the three keys (indicating that the third was for the door to the unit), again disclaimed any knowledge of the rental, and, in something of an homage to the ghost of Christmas past, again indicated that we would later be visited by the owner.
There were, in fact, two bedrooms. Each room did indeed have a bed. The rest of the unit was unremarkable, and the opposite of luxurious. It was, for two guys looking to briefly escape their homes so they could get a car serviced before they visited local nurseries, perfect.
After confirming that there was no safe to secure any valuables, we walked across the street to a small mini-super for beer and snacks. And beer.
When I reached to pull the door closed behind me I found a key already in the lock. The key was on a ring with more than a dozen other unmarked keys. I assumed that these belonged to Gate Guy. Since I already had the three magic keys needed for access, I removed the larger set of keys for which I wanted zero responsibility and set them on a nearby table.
You can guess what happened next. We returned with our beer and snacks only to find that Key #3 didn’t open the door which had automatically locked behind us. I tried all three keys. Nada.
We put down our supplies. I called the owner. He said, helpfully, that what we really needed was the set of a dozen keys now locked inside the unit. I asked if Gate Guy was still around to help. He wasn’t, but the owner assured me that help was on the way.
My friend and I sat in the landing in the dark hallway, drank a beer and chuckled at our predicament. It was all very Pura Vida. There was no point in complaining. We settled in to see what happened next.
A few minutes later a woman entered the door below. She wore a hoodie and had a surgical mask over her face so that the only thing visible were her eyes. In muffled Spanglish, she gestured to the door and produced a set of twenty keys on an even larger key ring.
“Don’t worry,” she mumbled, “one of these will work.”
Several minutes later, she turned and handed the keys to me. “You try.”
I tried all the keys. At her request, I even tried the three keys we were originally given. Nada.
I glanced at my friend, who fought back a giggle and eyed our now warm supply of beer.
With no other obvious option, I suggested that I use a credit card to try and pop the lock open.
“You can do that?” she asked.
“Maybe,” I replied, eying the thick piece of molding installed to defeat exactly what I was trying to do.
Unconvinced, she gestured that I should try and then pulled out her phone. I pushed on the door to create a little gap – careful not to try too hard and fully aware of the slew of broken latches and zippers that litter my past.
About the time she began talking to the owner there was a loud “ping” and the door flew open. All three of us nervously stuck our heads into the unit. The receiving end of the lock sat on the floor. She told the owner to hang on, and advised that we look for screws.
There were no screws. The receiving end of the lock had in fact been secured by paint, and optimism. My friend and I shared a look as she explained the situation to the owner.
She conveyed that the owner would come by later to try and fix the lock. Or maybe someone sent by the owner — maybe the owner with someone. Maybe not.
With a sense of bravado that comes with being a middle-aged man who has almost nothing anyone wants to steal, and a healthy amount of not being involved in whatever comedic attempt at rescue that might or might not happen before midnight, I declined the offer.
“We’ll brace the door with a chair.”
“You can do that?” she asked.
She conferred with the owner.
“He still wants to come by.”
“At what time?”
After another quick confirmation from my friend, I again declined the offer.
“We really just want to go to bed. I have to take my car in early for service. We don’t care about the door. The metal one to the building will lock behind us when we leave.”
“He’d still like to come.”
“Please tell him no thank you.”
Several hours later, in the midst of an alien encounter movie marathon (my friend is a true believer in the little green guys and I am his most likely recruit), there was a knock at the door.
I put down the last of our beers and yelled at the barricaded door.
The knock repeated. “It’s me, the owner.” I looked over at my friend, who shook his head. It was 8:30 at night. Pitch dark outside. The neighborhood, like the unit, was just this side of sketchy and not acquainted with the word “luxury.” Inviting unknown callers in at night seemed problematic.
Only after the person in the hall used my name did I realize I had no other option but to remove the barricade and let the owner in. I did. He entered.
“How is everything?”
I looked at the small pile of beer cans and the adjacent alien “documentary” – frozen on a frame involving a supposed encounter involving a vacant lot in South America.
“Oh, you know, fine.”
The owner grabbed the large set of keys that had originally been hanging from the lock.
“I can let you into the other unit,” he volunteered.
I looked over to my friend, who squinted painfully in what I took for the same amount of eagerness I had in packing everything up to find who-knows-what in the other unit.
“No thanks, we’re fine.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, we’re sure.”
The owner then made awkward chitchat for a while before I finally convinced him to leave.
I sat back down on the small couch and listened to the sound of barking dogs and loud motos.
“We’re probably going to get raped you know.”
My friend smiled, “Or someone’s going to harvest our organs.”
That second option, especially fresh on the heels of the alien abduction marathon, seemed even less appealing. I took some comfort from the fact that there was no bathtub in the unit, and that I only had one kidney. The organ-harvesters would be disappointed.
A little while later I closed the flimsy door to my bedroom and turned on the fan I bring with me on all my outings. It provides a decent amount of wind, which I like, and even more white noise. The noise from the fan would keep me from hearing anyone attempting to overcome my flimsy barricade. I didn’t want to know.
I texted my bride to let her know that something evil would likely to happen. She encouraged me to avoid that outcome, so I turned the fan to its highest level.
In the morning we collected our belongings, undid my barricade, and let the metal door to the building slam shut to close this chapter of our silly story.
A couple of hours later the owner called. Where, he wanted to know, was his $30 something dollars?
I explained that I thought he had been paid via the website where I booked the unit. I also wondered — to myself — why he hadn’t asked for the money when he insisted on showing up the night before. The owner explained that he would prefer if we returned to the unit — now twenty minutes away — where he would meet us in person. I explained that our plans didn’t include that trip, but asked when exactly he thought this meeting would occur. “Later,” he offered. I declined, and said I’d transfer the money to his account.
I did the transfer once I returned home. The owner thanked me, and asked when we might come back for another stay.
“Later,” I replied.
Much, much later.