Letter From Ghana

Welcome to Room 420: Rubber Floors, Mysterious Odors and Inexplicable Artwork. Plus: Mojito Madness and the World’s Worst Billboard.


THE FLOOR IN ROOM 420 is made of rubber — or something that looks like rubber. It’s a pebbly, industrial-style flooring. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were made from recycled tractor tires. That would be a good thing, and either way I like it. I admire its toughness, and it lends a handsome touch to the rest of the — what to call it? — African-modernist decor of sun-faded pastels and white pine. But tread barefoot at your peril: in the shower your feet will leave inky black stains around the drain.

Outside my window, a crippled man is propelling himself down the sidewalk in a hand-cranked wheelchair with a seat made of plywood. He is wearing an oily pair of jeans, and his legs — whatever might be wrong with them exactly, or if they’re there at all — look like deflated canvas tubes. Nearby, on the wall of a construction site, in angry spray-painted letters it says, DO NOT PISS HERE!

My room stinks of cigar smoke and cologne.

Now, at least as I understand it, the accepted literary style of describing smells is to always use some fantastical or over-the-top comparison and maybe a little metaphor. “His room stank of coalsmoke and defeat.” I’m not creative enough for that, and besides it doesn’t always describe the smell accurately. I assure you this room smells precisely like cigar smoke and cologne, and I am confident that both of those things were here, in abundance, shortly before my arrival yesterday afternoon. I picture an overweight German businessman in a towel dousing himself in some awful fragrance; a recalcitrant Nigerian hooker napping in this very bed. “Kommen ve must go now. It is check-out time!”

The smell hit me the second I walked in. I thought about changing rooms but I was too tired to go dragging my stuff back to the elevator.

Plus, this is room 420. I have had this room before, and Eau de Montecristo aside, it is my favorite for an excellent reason: because it is home to the most ridiculous piece of artwork ever to grace a hotel room. Hotel artwork is a pretty competitive field — in all the wrong categories — and if you travel a lot, doubtless you’ve marveled at the many tacky, trite, or simply hideous pieces tacked to the walls by clueless hoteliers. But the winner for oddest-ever in-room picture hangs proudly above the non-useful miniature sofa in room 420 of the Novotel City Centre here in Accra. I could try describing it, but here’s your proverbial Thousand Words instead:

Worst Hotel Artwork

I can’t make out who the artist was (initials DDR?), but this was a limited edition print, number 30 of 150, and it dates from 1997, embossed with an important-looking stamp decreeing its membership in the esteemed “Novotel Collection.” I call it, “Air and Sea,” or, “O Captain My Captain” (artist unknown; ink and whatnot on paper). Perhaps in a youth hostel or backpacker joint it wouldn’t seem so jarring, but the fact this is West Africa makes it even more of an insane non-sequitur than it would be anywhere else.

I thought about taking it with me — the theft of fine arts is a booming business, you know. And here in Somerville, Massachusetts, we have the should-be-famous Museum of Bad Art. MOBAs renowned curators could do worse, maybe, than ringing up Novotel and making an offer for DDR’s masterpiece. Alas the piece is surprisingly well-secured in its frame.

Or am I being unfair? It’s a fun picture, certainly, and far preferable to some schlocky painting of an African village or an acrylic stick figure of a woman grinding grain.

Meanwhile, for guests who don’t mind lingering odors, who aren’t serious art collectors, or who don’t enjoy bouncing around on rubber floors, the Novotel still has plenty to offer. It’s clean, in a convenient location, and the staff, like everybody in Ghana, is disarmingly friendly. The poolside pizzas are the best in West Africa and the Sangaw bar, just off the lobby, is a relaxed and cozy spot to enjoy a cold bottle of Star.

It’s also a great hotel to have your laundry done — a badly needed service after a long flight and the sweaty van ride from Kotoka airport. They are prompt and do an excellent job. It’s not too expensive, and everything comes back brightly washed and meticulously folded in accordance with some unfathomable mathematical folding principle. Even the socks come back folded, looking like little origami socks.

Not everybody at the washing station is paying attention though. I’m one of those eco-weirdos who takes those sad little “help us conserve water” placards seriously; I re-use the towels and I don’t let the housecleaners change the pillow cases. And on the laundry slip, I write, in big underlined letters, NO PLASTIC! Chipping in, doing my part. No matter, here’s how my clothes come back to me…


There’s some cultural disconnect going on here, possibly — the idea that a Western guest wouldn’t want his impossibly folded boxer-briefs and socks presented in cellophane splendor simply impossible to entertain. Or maybe they think this is funny?

Which brings us down to the aforementioned Sangaw Bar. What to make of this special cocktail promotion, advertised tabletop in clear plastic easels…

Apparently for some West Africans, your idea of “Latino” is a crazy old woman smoking a gigantic cigar.

I much enjoy traveling to Ghana, and Ghanaians are some of my favorite people in the world. Always smiling, always saying hello, always eager to sell you a handmade goatskin drum or some shea butter without ripping you off. This is an amiable and proud place — if not always for reasons everyone is eager to hear about. Once, a couple of years ago, I was getting out of a taxi across from the Novotel, and as I stepped to the curb I was confronted with the following, staring at me from a newspaper kiosk…

So we know there are people who keep track of these things. And naturally some of us wonder: who finished first and second?

Accra is also home to the world’s worst billboard. It’s just outside the airport, informing arriving passengers of the country’s desperate dearth of copywriters. KILL INSECTS! ENJOY NICE SMELL. Is that the smell of dead insects? At any rate, it looks like they applied a little too much: “Hey girls, come and help daddy spread some of this toxic insecticide around the house. Douse it good now, and breathe it in! Smell that wonderful smell. Breathe in deep! What’s that? Yes, daddy also has a headache and knife-like stomach pains. But just keep breathing and spraying. Wait, oh shit, I just killed my entire family…

Kill Insects

I digress.

Every hotel has it quirks. Inexplicable artwork, rubber floors and bizarre cocktails, there are a lot of things to dislike about hotel rooms, even the fanciest and most expensive ones: temperamental air conditioning, toe-breaking doorjambs, ergonomically hellish “work spaces.”

And here’s another one: cardboard brochures. Nowadays, each and every hotel amenity, from room service to Wi-Fi, is hawked through one or more annoying advertisements displayed throughout the room. Cards, signs, menus, and assorted promotional materials—they’re everywhere: on the dresser, in the closet, on the pillows, in the bathroom. I wouldn’t mind if this laminated litter was placed unobtrusively, but it tends to be exactly in the way, and I resent having to spend five minutes after an exhausting red-eye, gathering up these diabolical doo-dads and heaving them into a corner where they belong. One’s first moments in a hotel room ought to feel welcoming, not confrontational.

Food and room service are another topic entirely. Speaking of West Africa, be careful never to dine too hungry at the Pullman Hotel in Dakar, Senegal, where the surly poolside waitress might, eventually, bring you the pizza you ordered ninety minutes ago, and where the in-room menu offers such delectables as:

Chief Salad
Roasted Beef Joint on Crusty Polenta
The Cash of The Day
Paving Stone of Thiof and Aromatic Virgin Sauce

That last one sounds like a chapter from a fantasy novel. Head instead to Le Layal, a great little Lebanese place up the street where, once you get past the “Testicles with Garlic” and the “Homos with Chopped Meat”, the menu is both coherent and tasty.

So the phones are open. If you’ve got comparable examples of hotel weirdness, feel free to share them in the comments section below.


UPDATE: November 15, 2014

Well, subsequent stays at the Novotel City Centre in Accra reveal that the “Novotel Collection” is more bountiful than we thought. We now have three contenders for the for strangest (worst?) hotel artwork of all time. Move over “O Captain,” you’ve got company. Down one floor, in room 302 we behold this remarkable creation. For now untitled, it appears to depict a severed robot head in the throes of a mind-meld with a giant strawberry…


And not to be outdone, also on the third floor, yet another demented masterpiece awaits us, perhaps the most impressive of the lot…

Novotel Art 3

We notice a consistency here — an opposing-panels “faces” theme — though somehow this unifying principle doesn’t make the pictures less ridiculous. How to choose a favorite?


Anyway here’s an idea. Maybe you should visit Ghana. If you’re considering a first-time trip to West Africa, I can’t recommend it more highly. It’s friendly, safe, affordable, and there’s tons to do.


Day 1: Arrival. Check in to your non-smoky room at the Novotel and enjoy the afternoon at leisure. Walk down to the Arts Center to try out your haggling skills, and maybe come away with one of those not-too-overpriced drums. Later have dinner at Tandoor, Africa’s best (and spiciest) Indian restaurant.

Day 2: Accra. Visit the Osu coffin makers, and finish the afternoon with a sundowner at Osekan, a seaside bar/restaurant not far from the hotel. Ghanaian food tonight at Buka, or at Asanka Local if you’re adventurous. If you’ve never had Ghanaian food, start easy and order the red-red, or the Jollof rice with chicken.

Day 3: Get an early start and head west to Elmina Castle, the famous slave castle about two-and-a-half hours west of Accra. (Skip Cape Coast Castle and head directly to Elmina, about 20 minutes further.) After a tour be sure to wander around the harborfront area. Get right down in there, onto the sand in into the little alleyways between the houses. After lunch continue west to the small town of Axim, near the border with Ivory Coast.

Visit Ghana

Days 4 and 5: Spend two nights at the Axim Beach Hotel, a rustic seaside place on a beautiful beach. Take some time to wander Axim town, with its ramshackle main street and nearby slave castle.

Day 6: Depart Axim early and head east to Cape Coast, stopping at Nzulezo floating village on the way. Once in Cape Coast grab a bus or tro-tro up to the frenetic city of Kumasi, about a five-hour drive away. Stay at the Four Villages Inn.

Days 7-8. From your base in Kumasi, take a tro-tro out each morning and visit the nearby Ashanti towns. Buy some Kente cloth and don’t forget your schnapps (this will make sense to you later).

Day 9. Fly back to Accra — no bus or tro-tro; you’ve had your fill of that — and spend your final night in room 420. Have a pizza and a crazy lady mojito.




And please consider donating to this campaign:



Back to the Ask the Pilot Home Page Visit the Blog Archive Back to Top!

Leave a Comment

Maximum 1500 characters. Watch your spelling and grammar. Poorly written posts will be deleted!

39 Responses to “Letter From Ghana”
You are viewing newest comments first. Click to reverse order
  1. Michael Kennedy says:

    That coffin maker – the one in your pictures – and his finished product were featured in Episode 7 (I think) of “Treadstone” on Amazon Prime. They made Accra look like a nice place to visit.

  2. PhilipB says:

    The foibles of hotels would fill a blog all their own bit I’m certainly with you on the promo cards. I stack them up with the room service menu and catalog for the property’s line of bedding products only to find the maid has carefully repositioned them again the next day. This little battle can lat for weeks (I do a lot of extended trips).

    My other pet peeve is being a lefty, all my toiletries are placed on the left side of the sink. So often I come back to find the maid has carefully placed everything to the right. Again this little game of checkers can last for days.

    As for the “not letting a stranger touch/move your stuff”; pffft. If you’re worried about something like that you shouldn’t be staying in a hotel anyway. Believe me there’s a lot more you can’t see to be worried about the the stuff you can.

    • Patrick says:

      How about the practice of wrapping the telephone cord around the body of the phone. This is pretty much universal now at the big chains. If you don’t unwrap the cord first, you end up flipping the whole body of the phone over when you lift the receiver.

      We could do a whole segment just on phones. Good luck navigating any hotel’s voicemail system, for example, and often the phones are so complicated you need NASA training to figure out how to call the front desk. And then there are those semi-vertical, easel-style phones that sit upright on the desk, with the receiver that just EVER SO DAINTILY fits into the notch. The slightest bump and the thing goes tumbling across the table. Who the hell ever designed such a shitty phone, and why would any hotel ever sign off on equipping its rooms with them?

      And don’t get me started on television remotes. It can take twenty minutes just to figure out how to turn the bloody TV on, and navigating the channels is sometimes completely hopeless.

  3. If you would liқe to take a good deal from this paragraph then you havе to apply such techniգueѕ to your won blog.

  4. tom mcintyre says:

    do not stroll about Tema (accra’s port) with your USA passport enticingly poking out of the back pocket of your cut-off Levi’s.
    You will meet the the world’s clumsiest (yet still polite) pick-poclet.

  5. DA says:

    My most bizarre airport experience was at an airport hotel in Amsterdam. (Can’t remember the name ; it was a while ago.) Here I was, a woman from a conservative S.Asian country on my first solo trip overseas. I was en route to college in the USA, making use of the overnight layover to rest and recuperate.

    When I got to my room I was pretty startled to see guidebooks advertising the kind of service I had never heard of before – “female escorts” delivered to your room. I knew that Amsterdam was well known for sexual services. But I hadn’t realized that they were so openly publicized, and so readily accessible. Was I ever so glad not to have a kid with me!

  6. WildaBeast says:

    So just returned from a trip to Cuba last week. You know what I saw while I was there? An old woman with a bunch of flowers in her hair sitting outside a bar smoking a giant cigar. I swear she looked exactly like the women in the mojito ad. So maybe it’s not as ridiculous as we all thought…

  7. Grichard says:

    Ha! You, of all people, should figure that the billboard refers to the insecticide spraydown from the flight attendants on the way back to the US…

  8. J P Gosselin says:

    Love it! 🙂 Excellent as usual!

  9. Patrick – One of your better ones. You are one unique airline pilot-make that one unique person. Since I am now 66 I must go back a few years to college when I could pass ride on Eastern Airlines as son of a Captain – I flew to LAX (first class) and took a city bus downtown. I found an “interesting” hotel for $3.15 Believe me when I say I was ripped-off. Looking for an elevator was useless as it was out of order. I got to my room and realized there was no toilet, only stink, er, I mean a sink. The bedspread had holes and when I pulled it back there were bugs crawling around – there was a door with only an eye-hook latch to another room where a man was threatening to kill his wife and from the bangs, possibly succeeding. Unlike you, I have no comment on the artwork. I decided another hotel was in order.

    And yes, I flew back to school in first class, and, no I didn’t recognize any of my fellow FC passengers from the hotel.

  10. Nick says:

    Hotels…. I agree with the paper crap everywhere. And the tv remote. My DND sign always hangs on the door, and in some places a padlock goes on my bag. Lagos is one of those. Noooo, not the Sheraton, that is for rich airlines’s crews. Think House of J, Welcome Center or some others.
    Sheraton in Addis Ababa is very nice. The Sheraton in Quito, Ecuador (at 10.000ft) didn’t have heat when it was 3C outside. Stove and oven on didn’t help much, extra blankets were nowhere to be found.
    Now go to Los Angeles. Line hotel. They obviously wanted to reduce cost and decided to put nothing on the walls, no paint, no wallpaper. You come out of the elevator and it looks like you walk through a storage unit. When you walk into the “room” it looks like a garage unit. Concrete walls with pencil marks, metal conduits, a bed facing a full front window with a remote controlled shade, a desk, a weird table with wooden blocks, that makes it unusable for anything. Why do I have to feel like I sleep in a garage? and the windows are noisy…… They provide earplugs. So I won’t hear my alarm.
    Miami has the Crown Plaza. 4 layers of glass that don’t open. An a/c unit that recirculates the room air. The only source of fresh air is a fan near the elevators, if you have a room at the end of the hallway you will not get fresh air. You will be breathing CO2, with the complimentary headache from hypoxia.
    Talking about Miami, the Sherry F! Only crews. Quiet, nice pool, right on the beach, nice gym, the beer machine for those of us who come rolling in in the middle of the night – it is 5 o’clock somewhere…. Perfect hotel.
    I like some of the German hospitality. At a holiday inn near Leipzig they made us a giant cold cut platter in the middle of the night, apologizing that the kitchen was already several hours closed and this was all they could do. The people at a hotel near Frankfurt Hahn go out of their way for you. A hotel in Bishkek (National, across from the Hyatt) has free bicycles, free local mobile phone, free ipad to use. Nice.
    The translations in some countries are amazing. An explanation about the a/c in a Japanese hotel was….. incomprehensible. What about the flyers with all the porn channels next to the tv remote in Japan?
    “Dear self esteemed guest. For your continued well being, we will have a fumigation exercise tomorrow. We are sorry for any inconvenience this might cause you, please accept our apologies”. This is Nigerian for “we will be spraying mosquito repellant”, maybe DDT, don’t know.. I have never been so sick in my life. After 2 confirmations that we could stay in the rooms, I had to leave my room when the stuff came under the door. When I came rolling down the stairs I was told we were not supposed to be there. One breath of the stuff was enough to put me on the floor of the aircraft for the return trip to Europe, 2 steps away from the lav. I was not going to a Nigerian hospital.

  11. JuliaZ says:

    The art in 420 is a clear WIN. In fact, as soon as I saw your email hit my inbox, I got a broad smile on my face… “the crazy ship captain! YES!!” Sad that I remember it, but how could you forget it? It is truly demented. The other two pieces you nominate are fine candidates but not worthy compared to that ship’s bold clean lines and the two-panel design.

    Of the other two, I prefer the second one. The strawberries are a little too first grade.

  12. Trevor Green says:

    Modern technology is indeed good for something. Putting the “artwork” into Google Images yields, far down the list, a hit on Lot 77 from an August 2013 auction that is clearly the same piece of “art”. It is an untitled work by Hervé Di Rosa, a modern French artist and founder of the Museum of Modest Art in Sète, France.

    Here’s hoping that the reality is as fascinating as the mystery was.

  13. Chuck says:

    Congrats on another insightful and well written column. I look forward to your emails announcing each column.

    I lived in East Africa for half of the 80s. Work required a lot of travel east and west from Nairobi chiefly to Lome, Abidjan, Dakar, Banjul and other assorted places. Travel options in that direction were limited to Air Afrique, Ethiopian, and Nigerian Airways. We only had to watch our Nigerian connection overfly Lome because they had (again) oversold their flight to avoid any future reservations. Our joke at the time, “What can you say about an airline that has a flying elephant for a logo?”

    Reliable service only existed north-south from the from former colonial connection in Europe. I wonder if that’s changed very much?

    My fondest hotel memories were of the The Hotel du 2 Fevrier on the beach in Lome, also the stopover for the lovely stewardesses of Air France, and the Hotel Ivoir in Adidjan, West Africa, home of the only ice rink in West Africa (Wiki indicates it dates from the 1950s to encourage Scandinavian tourists?).

  14. Msconduct says:

    God, yeah, the African sweaty van ride. I had a killer one of those last year in Windhoek.

    Hotel foibles: so many I can’t list them all, but I’m still puzzling over the top sheet with the huge neat oval hole in it in a Moscow hotel. (Sochi complainers don’t know the half of it. They should have tried travelling in Soviet Russia.) And the in-room menus are always a rich source of inspiration. In Melbourne a couple of months ago they included on the “In-Room Dinning” menu an “American backed cheesecake”. Mmm, political. But my favourite items were on an in-room menu in Wuzhen, China. As well as the enchantingly-named “Bowl Woodle”, they included, simply and without further explanation, the intriguing item “Puke”.

    • Randall Cameron says:

      My favorites, all from Al-Fakhama Hotel in Hodeidah, and a result of religious use of spell-check, are:

      1. Gordon Blue (that world-famous heavy, French-Swiss Schnitzel roll – always done wrong in the Middle East – no pork!)

      2. Table (it said tabboula in Arabic)

      3. Mutable (unrelated to table actually, this is mutabbal, made from slightly burnt eggplant)

      4. Hums (hummus)

      Could it be that everything misspelled in the Arab world comes from the menu of a single Lebanese restaurant? Why not kibble for kubba?

    • Randall Cameron says:

      BTW, Eastern European state-owned airlines, especially the domestic services, and long-haul train rides still keep the Soviet-era travel dream alive today. So do the poorer hotels in off the track locations, where the staff haven’t got word yet that socialism is dead.

      However, nothing quite compares to a no-star hotel in a secondary town in a lower-income Arab country, where guidebook ratings range from “bring your own linen” (OK, but no amenities) to “bring your own vermin” (military-grade insect repellent is required for a good night’s sleep), to (worst-case) “bring your own plumbing”. Novotel anywhere is *wonderful* in comparison.

    • Ed says:

      Concerning the sheet with a hole – it’s probably both a sheet and a duvet cover; the duvet gets inserted through the middle. They were fairly common when I was living in Ukraine.

    • Leslie in Oregon says:

      Your mention of a huge oval hole in the topsheet in a Moscow hotel interests me. During the height of the Cold War, I was interrogated by “hotel authorities” as to why there was a huge oval hole in the topsheet on my Moscow hotel bed. Not having caused it, I could not explain it, which led to more interrogation. I always wondered whether such holes were routinely used as an excuse for interrogating foreigners. (I was not yet an airline crew member at the time).

      • Msconduct says:

        @Leslie: Huh, interesting! I was there two weeks before the end of Communist rule in 1991 and things were a lot looser then.

  15. Jerry says:

    Didn’t realize the MOBA had moved to Somerville. Had gone years ago when they were in Dedham. I’m a Tufts grad and it always amazes me how much Somerville has changed in the last 20 years.

    • TeddyG says:

      It’s still in Dedham, but temporarily closed. The MOBA branch in Somerville is in the basement of the Somerville Theater. There’s also a gallery at Brookline Access Television.

  16. Cam Lind says:

    Novotels always leave me cold, although I get they are probably the best of a bad choice in Francophone West Africa.

    On another note. Flying out of Kolkata today and Emirates had advertising everywhere for their new DXB – BOS flights. I thought of Mr Smith and this site straight away.

  17. patrick (not Smith says:

    For those of you who wonder who is #1 and #2 🙂


  18. Tod Davis says:

    Just a quick random question. With all of the international travel you do for both work and leisure, how does it take you to fill up a passport? and are there special large passports for crews etc?

    • Patrick says:

      Crews rarely have their passports stamped. Customs officials will often scan or look at our passports, but rarely do they stamp them. (In some places, they just wave us through.)

      If you need them, you can have extra pages inserted. I can’t remember what the cost is, but I’ve had this done a couple of times. Thanks to frequent leisure travel, my passports do fill up pretty quickly.

      • John W. says:

        America now limits passport page adds to two times. After that, need to buy a new passport. Before this, I think I had three or four additions on my old passport, which ended up looking like an accordion.

        But for anyone buying a new passport, definitely get the one with extra pages… I can’t remember but I think it is no extra cost, or the extra cost is worth it. You then have a larger passport and still have two subsequent page adds.

  19. flymike says:

    I recall a crew overnight hotel in Key West where it was SOP to open the door a crack, turn on the lights and then count to ten before going in – to let the bugs hide. And another crew hotel in Vegas where our flight attendant, bothered by a bad odor in her room, found a dead hooker under her bed.
    I’ll take weird art anytime! I do throw all that cardboard advertising in the hotel pool whenever I get a chance.

  20. Peter Vaz says:

    This is all true…I’ve been to this hotel! Don’t forget to try the Roasted Beef Joint. Scrumptious!

  21. Tod Davis says:

    the best hotel quirk was at the Marina Mandarin in Singapore where they put caged birds in the hallways in the morning so you could wake to the sound of singing birds.

  22. Montague says:

    Agree with you on the cardboard and plastic crap in the room. I immediately toss it into a drawer.
    But what is the logic with the TV remote control? I walk into the room, flop onto the bed and then realise that the remote is on top of the TV, the last place, of all possible places, that one would want it. So, I put it next to the bed and leave it there. Next day, I come back to the room in the evening and it’s back on top of the TV.
    Isn’t the logical place for the remote control the bedside table? Apparently not in the minds of hoteliers.
    And then there’s the thermostat. I stopped in a Hong Kong hotel in the winter. Not cold but chilly, about ten to fifteen degrees outdoor ambient temperature. And the AC was turned to maximum cooling. So I turned it off but there was no central heating in this “sub-tropical” place and it took all night to get the room above meat locker temperature.
    The following day I came back to the room and the AC was again on maximum and ice was forming on the drinking water. Well, almost.

    • Mmmm... says:

      Thousands of angels die, every time this happens…

    • Beej in Oregon says:

      Re: the remote.

      My personal rule at any hotel is to leave “do not disturb” on the door at all times! Do I need my bed made by someone other than me? No thank you. Do I need fresh towels every day? Absolutely not, especially since there are always at least 2-3 in the bathroom when you arrive. Do I want to have to worry about someone poking around in my luggage or touching my things? Not I! Do I need the trash taken out? How much garbage do you think I generate?

      Maybe if I’m going to stay longer than a week, I might have the housekeepers come one time, but in general I find the whole concept of strangers coming into my room while I’m away invasive and creepy, not “convenient”. At least I always know where the remote will be.

  23. Another great read, that’s the Patrick Smith whose observations I love.

  24. pinguino says:

    Great letter! I was laughing out loud. Also, really terrific photos. You have real talent.

    — Foreigner living in Accra