Anyone with history of traipsing on a budget will have ample impressions of the phenomenon known as the ‘guest room’: sometimes kitted out in Victorian luxury, sometimes spare as a jail cell. But always a relief. The backstory is an ancient admonition that households do well to welcome strangers since heavenly visitors arrive in just such guise. I confess to impersonating badly any celestial being, but have nevertheless been happy to benefit from this piece of classic wisdom.
I remember once trekking in the Himalaya on my way to rendezvous with a friend for a mountain ramble. I strode off solo into gathering shadows wondering what had become of my companion and finally stumbled into a small herders’ settlement called Magra. My knock at a dwelling brought a figure to the door who had reason to be suspicious of nocturnal arrivals. In stammered Hindi I explained that I had been stood-up by a friend and needed shelter for the night.
By all rights he should have waved me off as a nuisance, or worse, as a danger to his kinfolk. But having once been schooled in that piece of ancient wisdom by a grandmother, no doubt, he could not bring himself to dismiss me outright. After all, the herds had been taken to higher pasture, he calculated, and their shelter was now vacant. So, he gestured toward a stone shed visible in the faint starlight. I bowed, expressing gratitude, and groped my way into the rude structure now rich with earthy aroma.
The silence and darkness left me full of musing about these circumstances even as I reproached my no-show friend. But I soon realized that I was not alone. An army of insects on night shift was busy turning what the cattle had deposited there into fully mature fertilizer. What is more, I could not escape the resonances of my situation with the long-ago story of an honest-to-God, celestial visitor who found shelter with bewildered parents in just such circumstances: the rustic ‘guest room’ out back. Except that now the animals had absconded. Morning light relieved me of these meanderings and eventually reunited me with my trekking partner. They may still be telling the story beside the fires in Magra of this odd visitation that brought neither discernable blessing nor prophet message.
A southern African proverb is pithy and brutal: ‘Moeti o ja noga’ or, ‘The traveler eats snakes’. Having traipsed into wilderness, say the sages, the traveler should be prepared to make-do with unusual – even unsettling – fare. For my wife, Mary Kay, and me, though, it was not snakes that awaited us at the end of a day of tripping in the Congo. What awaited us, rather, was a winged creature – a nightjar. We were billeted by friends in a thatch guest house overlooking Africa’s Rift Valley. Below us lay Lake Albert, the lower reaches of the Semliki River and beyond, the blue highlands of Uganda. It might well be the most spectacular guest accommodation in the heart of Africa for its splendid panorama, at the end, let it be said, of a road from hell.
After an evening of yarns we excused ourselves, happy to abandon weary bones to the peace of Africa’s vast interior. But wherever in the world the guest room may lie, its occupants should know that their coming incurs costs for others. Someone relinquished a blanket or even the bed itself in favor of the visitor. Provision of water in a basin required a trip to the village pump or spring. Routines were altered to dust and sweep the room. A timely-lit mosquito coil would banish worries about malaria.
But in our case, we had also unwittingly invaded the space of a nightjar whose preferred nocturnal perch was the peak of the roof. It was thoroughly unsettled at the sound of intruders, the voices or even breathing in the guest room below. It began to churr and wing-clap in objection. I stepped out into the night, glimpsing the silhouette of a bird that had laid prior claim to the guest house for itself, and hissing curses, I began pelting it with stones. Needless to say, this fell short of my finest hour, and besides, my aim was lamentably bad. The nightjar took refuge in the surrounding trees only to renew its protests as soon as I disappeared indoors. This skirmish went on through the night until exhaustion brought it to an end. The morning majesty of mountain, river, and valley were lost to the misery of a night passed in pitched battle.
But we remember that wherever we have been graciously taken in to the ‘guest room’, perhaps even mistaken for haloed emissaries, someone – or creature – is paying a price.