It is early afternoon. The hostel is extremely quiet. As far as my eyes can see, there is one woman working in the open kitchen at the corner right next to the front door. No guests. No other staff. The woman reluctantly puts down her work when she sees me, crosses the hallway, and stops in the middle to take me to one of the rooms.
It is a four-bed dorm. I survey the room. I see no other bags or luggage. Apparently no other people had checked in yet. Wonderful! I hope it will stay like this until the evening. I would love to have the room all by myself. It would be a perk after many nights of sharing rooms with random people. I miss my private me-time.
I find some loose coffee powder sprinkling on the white linen of one of the beds. I look inquisitively at the woman. She points at the ceiling with a shrug, as if telling me that the coffee powder drops from the ceiling, or the sky maybe. I do not bother to inquire further. I would not understand what she is saying anyway.
The hostel is a large rectangular box of single-story building. I fall in love with it instantly. The decor is casual and laid-back, simplistic but very tasteful for the standard of a hostel. There are about ten rooms spreading out on the two sides of the long hallway, all dorm rooms with a few huge beds in each, except for the two store rooms at the end of the corridor. The common room and the dining room, which I first passed through from the front door, are very spacious. Big windows frame the length of each whitewashed wall surface of the rectangle, bringing daylight and fresh air to every corner of the house. A small swimming pool by the main entrance adds extra charm to the building.
The woman makes me a cup of coffee, and asks if I would like to take a coffee tour today or tomorrow. I have got a bit worn out from the past few days of the trip, so I tell her I would take the tour tomorrow, and would take my own pace to wander around the hacienda on my own this afternoon.
I have no special things to do for now. I try the internet, but it is not working. The lady fetches a teenage boy somewhere to fix it. I go out to look around meanwhile. A few workers are labouring on the slope where some coffee trees are planted. But soon I find that the hacienda is far too lacking in human activities to be like a real working farm. With nothing more interesting to do, I go back to the hostel. The boy who has been fixing the internet speaks some English. I strike a conversation to ask why the farm is so quiet. He is not sure either, but thinks it might be a holiday for the workers.
It is almost 5. The young guy drops in to say goodbye. He is going back to town. ‘You are the only guest today,’ he says, ‘but the woman will stay here.’
After the young man is gone, the woman makes me pasta for dinner. She cleans the dish when I am done, and turns to the door. ‘Where are you going?’, I ask, just in time to stop her at the doorfront. She points to a hut about a few hundred metres away from the hostel, and says, ‘I don’t stay here.’
It means I would be spending a night in this big building of more than a few thousand feet, all alone. Splendid, I think, but not quite. I would be happy to have my own room quietly all by myself for a night, but being the only guest in an empty hostel is quite another matter. Almost reassuringly, the woman makes a gesture to show me that the door can be left unlatched if I want to go out. Then she turns away sharply, and closes the door behind her.
I am startled and bemused. Pitch dark outside, I wonder how the woman would come to the idea that I would care for going out in this isolated hacienda at this late hour. Picking coffee beans under the moonlight?
Now that the woman has gone, I start to inspect every room in the hostel. While there is not much I can do to ensure my safety, at the very least I want to check if all the windows are shut. But it is a vast space with many rooms and even more windows. The task is tiresome enough. Once I am done, I get back to the front door and consider what I should do with it. I decide that I can leave it as it is until before I go to bed.
More than half an hour has passed. While I am washing myself in the bathroom, I hear faintly a rattling sound. But it soon dies. Then another clatter. Now I am sure the sound comes from the front door. I gingerly walk out from the bathroom and look. There is a middle-aged man with a big bag of groceries in his hand. He says he is the manager of the farm. Behind him is a tiny old woman holding a pet dog. The man introduces the old lady as his mother. I tell the manager that I find the hostel too quiet, and ask if there is any emergency number which I can call if there is any problem here. He looks perplexed, as if this is a weird question. Perhaps it had never occurred to him that there would ever be a ‘problem’ here. But he remains friendly and says he will see for anything that he can do.
When he comes back, he tells me that he is bringing good news and bad news. For the bad one, he cannot find any staff to stay over in this hostel, which means I cannot stay here tonight if I do not feel safe. But he has a piece of good news. He can take me, if I wish, to the grand mansion, which is the other place for guests in the hacienda. I can go now if I am ready, as he and his mother will be driving to the mansion.
I am desperate to leave this desolate place. I give a big nod even before he finishes his words.
I grab my bag, and get on the 4×4 of the manager with his mother. The grand mansion emerges before us in a few minutes. Even in the darkness, one can tell it is a very charming piece of architecture. The two-story mansion sits on a lawn that stretches extensively until it meets the dense vegetation and merges with the colour of the night. Lighted up in the surrounding obscurity, the mansion looks like a majestic vessel floating on the immense ocean. An exterior hallway belts around the house, creating an elongated verandah that blurs the border of indoor and outdoor.
The man takes me around the house for a quick tour. Each room is decorated in an old-world country style. There is nothing extravagant, but here and there you can find a hint of rustic elegance. It all looks so effortless that it feels homey and relaxing, yet the charm of this mansion is clearly not something created by accident, but is put together with much thought, taste and care. Whereas the laid-back ambiance of the hostel that I fled appeals backpacking travellers, the sophistication of this mansion surely fascinates the wanderlusters who care for style.
The manager leads me to the door of one of the rooms. When the aged wood door is opened before me, I almost cry out in excitement. The room is furnished with extreme delicacy. A bed with a vintage headboard made of wrought iron sits in the middle of the room. A lovely beige-colored crochet spreads above the linen the colour of pale cherry blossoms. I want to throw myself on it and have a sweet dream right away.
From a somber dorm bed in an empty hostel to a dreamy suite of a grand mansion, what a dramatic but happy turn of events this evening!
I thank the man, unpack my bag and settle myself comfortably in my new room.
I am crouching lazily on my beautiful bed to scribble on my journal all the surprising things that had just happened. Just then a head pops up at the corner of my eyes. Here is the man. He is standing at the exterior hallway and peeps through the window to my room. I have been too excited since I checked in that I forget to close the window shutter.
The man asks if I am good with my new room, and invites me to join him and his mother for dinner. I have already had dinner, but I happily join them for a cup of coffee.
The dining room is adjacent to my room. It has a big open kitchen where the helper prepares the meal. The old lady is taking a break by the dining table. At her back is a side door that connects my room to the dining room, which I did not notice when I was in my guest room. While they are having dinner, the helper thoughtfully serves me a plate of dessert, which I cannot resist.
It is a cosy evening with a great chat with this pair of mother and son. The aroma of roasted coffee beans fills the chilly night air. Soon they finish dinner. The old lady excuses herself and retires to her room. I am conscious that I am an unexpected guest. Without any intention of disrupting their evening routines any further, I take the hint and thank the host once again, then excuse myself too, happy to be spending the rest of the evening quietly in my fairy-tale-like room.
The man gestures me to stay and says I do not have to worry. He invites me to chat a little longer. Out of courtesy I stay. We continue our chat, but for some reason that I cannot explain, I start to feel more and more uneasy staying. I have a feeling that he is trying to suggest implicitly something more than just a short chat. Obscurely, he brings out the topic of the sunrise in the hacienda. The break of dawn at the hacienda is beautiful, he says, and he is looking forward to seeing the sunrise with me when I wake up. I get alerted by this strange remark. The implication is too obvious to ignore. Abruptly I stand up and ask to leave, and swiftly withdraw to my room next door.
Retreating to my room, door tightly latched, my heart is pumping. I have just started traveling alone in South America and have never encountered anything like this in my previous solo trips. I reckon my firm response had probably made myself clear, but I am not sure if I am completely safe in my room. In this isolated mansion, I am in an unfamiliar environment, a stranger’s home. I need to fend for myself and think of my own safety.
I look around and check the door and the window shutters once again. I take out my door stopper and tuck it under the side door connecting the dining room, so that no one can barge in from that side. From what I learnt from TV dramas, I stack the table, the chair and literally anything that feels weighty and move them against the front door, hoping that it will block the way if whoever wants to try the door.
Someone keeps rustling next door. I feel disquieted in my room, pacing up and down restlessly. Until after the sound completely dies, and the light seeping through the door gap is out, I dose off at last.
I wake up late. The mansion is empty except for the helper working in the kitchen. I take the coffee tour, and am joined by a few travelers just arriving. When I hear that they are staying in the hostel for the night, I pack my bag and move back to the hostel as soon as I finish the tour.
With hindsight, I ask myself if spending the night in the hostel alone would be a safer option than to move to a place with people. And I know not.