All illustrations by Evie Cahir.
In 2010, a friend of mine started a travel magazine and asked if she could publish an article I had written about a Kashmiri tailor, during a month I spent living on a houseboat in Kashmir.
I had stayed on the tailor’s boat during the winter, and I was the only guest. George Harrison had stayed there 47 years earlier, when he was studying the sitar with Ravi Shankar. I typed the piece on the hotel owner’s typewriter. But my friend who ran the magazine, a grifter like me, couldn’t pay real money. She compensated me instead with “hotel trades.”
She explained how it worked: I would approach independently owned hotels with a copy of her media kit and a proposal. In exchange for a two-night stay, I would write a 500-word review. She advised me to avoid big corporate hotels, because press people there had to go through so many chains of command they would often dismiss the request outright. “You need a small place,” my friend said, “where somebody can make the decision right there.” She added, “Don’t bother with inexpensive places. It’s bizarre, but the more expensive they are, the more likely they are to agree.”
I grew up in a state of financial volatility. Until I was 18 and my grandmother died, my grandfather would visit me and my mom at our home in Houston, from his mansion in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and for a week, money would flow like water. One Christmas, he saved all the money wrappers from the cash he’d spent and proudly put them in a photo album: they totaled $10,000. But then he would leave, the money would dry up, and we’d go from feast to famine. Sometimes, our lights, water, or phone would go out. Sometimes we’d spend $80 on tomatoes. Or my mom would spend $8,000 on Chinese antiquities, but we’d run out of gas on the way home. It wasn’t that bad, it was just crazy.
The experience acclimated me to the high life and the low life. In my early 20s, after I’d left Houston for New York to attend college, I shoplifted everything I needed—food, books, clothes. In those days, I could mask my nervousness perfectly. I was so cool I didn’t even bother to hide my theft. Once I walked out of Whole Foods with my arms piled with food. When I went through the sensor, a book on macrobiotic nutrition I had hidden somewhere in the pile set it off.
I stopped and slowly turned to face the cashier. She waved me through. “It does that all the time,” she said. I didn’t flinch.
Twelve years later I was living off unemployment in New York City. My mother and her boss were going to India, and she asked her boss to buy me a ticket, too. I sublet my apartment in New York and ended up staying in India for a year.
After I turned in my piece about Kashmir, I tested out the hotel-trade scam. I sent out a string of email proposals with media-kit attachments to Hong Kong hotels. I was flying back to the US soon and had an open-ended layover in Hong Kong, so the timing seemed perfect.
I got two bites. One was from a huge hotel agreeing to a two-night stay on trade, and the second was from J Plus—Philippe Starck’s boutique hotel—where the manager proposed a media rate of $150.
I had bungled it with the first hotel by switching the date of my stay—I was nervous and kept thinking up neurotic reasons why the dates needed to be moved. I spooked them. I have a memory of tremblingly firing off emails and then being stunned when it all worked. I also remember that the computer kept directing me to a $50-a-night Hong Kong hotel, as though the arm of fate was saying, “No, Amie. Don’t do it.”
When I landed in Hong Kong, the Philippe Starck hotel offered a car from the airport for $125. I worried that if I did not take the car, I would give a bad first impression. I felt that the hotel’s public-relations people would expect the hotel reviewer to travel by car, to be wearing nice clothes, to have a business card, and to have a copy of the magazine in hand. I had none of these things.
At baggage claim, I found the chauffeur with his sign and approached him. I said, “Hold on a second.” I took my suitcase into the toilet, where I changed into a suit. Then I got cash from an ATM. I was surprised when money came out. While traveling or taking money out of a machine, I always expected disaster.
Even though the chauffeur had picked me up, indicating that my understanding of the transaction was sound, I expected to arrive at the front desk where the attendant would tell me that there had been a mistake, that my name was not in the computer at all, or some other dreadful thing.
As we drove through the streets of Hong Kong, looking at large advertisements for Prada and Gucci, I planned a speech. I looked up the name of the public-relations person whom I’d emailed with my smartphone, and I rehearsed a conversation that would begin, “I am a hotel reviewer...”
The desk woman was unattractive, or at least she looked like nothing special. I had thought a boutique hotel in Hong Kong would be staffed by intimidating or perhaps even beautiful people, so this was a nice surprise.
The hotel lobby had sleek black marble floors and contemporary furniture with one exotic touch: a beaded African rocking chair. The desk attendant said, “You’re the hotel reviewer? I was able to upgrade you to a suite.” She took my credit card for incidentals while I signed in. “I’m sorry,” she said, after swiping my card, “it was declined. Do you have another one?”
I gave her $250 in cash, and went up to my suite.
The room was astonishing. I felt like I was in a photo from Architectural Digest. I think the word that went through my head was sick, which was strange because I don’t think I’d ever used that word before then. The suite had two rooms with concrete floors. In a corner of one was a window seat upholstered in white leather overlooking the city. All the furniture was white, the curtains ghostly and translucent.
After about 15 minutes I had taken it all in and was completely bored. If you’re sitting in a hotel by yourself, it doesn’t matter what it looks like. So I drank. I watched movies. I read the in-room brochure, which listed some nightclubs. I went to bed.
On my second night, I visited a club. It was nearly empty. The bartenders and servers wore all-black outfits and strange microphones attached to headbands. The floors were black marble. At one table, American businessmen were getting drunk.
I left and wandered to a street with strip clubs. Old ladies on milk crates sat in front of the bars. They ate rice and vegetables out of Styrofoam takeout containers. I decided to go into one, but the woman guarding the club waved me away, and all her friends did the same. Finally I was allowed into a place that was empty. Inside a woman in an American-flag bikini danced for me. I watched her, thinking about how I wanted to experience travel. The woman caught my eye and it was awkward. I realized that in my suit I looked like a lesbian.
The proprietor came and sat beside me. “Do you like girls?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “I’m a writer.”
I never wrote the review for the J Plus hotel, but this didn’t stop me from spending the next year using the premise of the hotel-review trade to score free stays in other cities. I arranged for free lodging in France, Portugal, Spain, Croatia, and Colorado. I wrote all of the reviews.
Then I went to Bali and stayed in four hotels. I told myself—lied to myself—that I was going to write the reviews. I never did.
In December 2012, I became a self-aware scam artist, a true grifter. I was visiting my stepdaughter in Austin, Texas, and arranged for free hotel rooms knowing that I would never write the reviews. To be more precise, I wanted to write them, but I knew no magazine would ever publish them, though I told myself I’d find a way. That’s about as self-aware as I got.
I wrote to six Austin hotels, and a PR woman answered me. She introduced me to a new swindle: comped meals. She suggested that I review three restaurants in Austin. She put me in a spa hotel on the outside of town. I accepted for two nights, and then booked a second hotel trade. One night, I had two free hotel rooms. One sat empty. For a long time I had wished I could stay in nice hotels. Now I was doing it, but I was still unhappy. Hysterical with greed, I told my husband to steal two seersucker pillows and a fake-sable throw from the second hotel, where we didn’t stay.
But the free-meal thing was confusing me. Sitting at a Thai place one night, I was concerned that I had misunderstood. I was worried that I would have to pay, which was unacceptable. I wrote to the PR woman. I tried to find a roundabout way of asking. She received my email at night, in the middle of a Christmas party at her office. She wrote back, “Amie, you’re comped.” Then she wrote a second email, “Comp comp comp, for sure!” Then she wrote a third in which she apologized for her tone, explaining: “Office karaoke party… Oy vey.”
Last March, I went to Rio. That’s when everything began to fall apart. I arranged a piece on spec. I proposed to write an article about Brazil in exchange for five hotel trades. Five different luxury hotels in ten days. I had arranged some using my name, the others were booked under my husband’s name. By this time, I didn’t even bother using the word review. Sometimes I just offered a vague sort of promise of a mention in some publication who had no idea what I was doing.
Among other hotels, we stayed at a boutique place in Ipanema. The moisture from the ocean made the air feel gentle. The streets were quiet, and the darkness hid the dust.
The boutique was a block from the beach. The rooms were small but carefully appointed, and the owner, wasn’t sure how to regard us. We arrived for check-in three hours early, and he wasn’t at work yet. The front-desk clerk called him, and a few minutes later he arrived in a tank top. He was handsome and nearing 40. He had a beard. He seemed shaky, like he’d been up late the night before. He asked us to wait while he sniffled, frantically checked his emails, and rearranged his books.
I said quietly, “He’s on coke.”
“Umm, you think?” my husband, a former cocaine addict, replied sarcastically. When the owner was ready to speak to us he was polite but firm: check-in was not until three o’clock. He could put our bags in a closet and said we could wait.
That evening, when we brought in four two-liter bottles of Diet Coke, crackers, cheese, salami, and mangoes from the supermarket down the street (the minibar, we’d been told, was NOT comped), the owner and his boyfriend were having dinner at the head of the long dining table off the lobby. It was a very stylishly kept room, with high ceilings, a cow-skin rug, and deep brown mahogany floors with a matted finish. The older man with the owner communicated authority. We were afraid he would want us to eat with him. But more than that, we were afraid he would ask us who we were and our intentions regarding the hotel. We slinked by with our overstuffed plastic grocery bags.
Later, when we read comments about the boutique on TripAdvisor, one of the guests had complained a bit about the staff, and in response, the owner flamed him for “bringing groceries into the room as if it were a hostel.”
I noticed on our last day that my husband and I were not the only ones who feared the two owners. The sole front-office employee was from Portugal. He had been hired on the basis of his résumé and photograph, and his degree in hotel management. But he was obviously working in terror because of his bosses. Always slightly shaking, he walked with his butt cheeks clenched.
One morning, he brought us our coffee without any milk, and when we asked for milk, he said, “Yes,” and disappeared. We asked for milk again. Fifteen minutes later he returned with a tiny pitcher. He held it by the top, and when he got to our table, something happened, and the bulb full of milk slid out of the top and spilled all over our table. He panicked and lifted our place mats. He looked around for a dishrag. He was disoriented and forgave us, even though he was the one who had spilled the pitcher, saying, “That’s all right.” He told us to move to a different table.
Afterward, we went walking along the beach of Ipanema and a man threw mustard on my husband’s shoe and then offered to shine it. While shining the shoe, he spoke philosophically about life. He sniffed a lot, saying, “No stress,” and charged us $50. We were alarmed, and he flipped over his shine box to reveal his pricing structure. It was written in pen: one shoe, $50. Two shoes, $75. I started to protest. What did this man think he was going to pull on us? My husband paid him.
In April, after we had returned to the US and my review of the boutique never came out, as I’d promised, the owner emailed me to complain. I told him (truthfully) that my story was rejected. He was not happy. I suggested I could include a mention of it in an occasional column I write about haunted hotels. He was even less happy:
This is really embarrassing as we had a deal with an exchange...
You will probably understand that i accepted the deal to host you for free 2 nights for a publication in VICE magazine, reviewing the hotel on line is really [less than what we expected]... I AM DISAPPOINTED.
Haunted hotel i am sure your are kidding, does [my hotel] seem to be haunted ????
Yet I still hadn’t learned my lesson. It went on like this. I stayed for free in Seattle and in Mexico City.
Then, suddenly, and without ever consciously deciding it, I stopped stealing hotel rooms. I think I stopped because the whole thing was so embarrassing. Staying in nice hotel rooms had been a fantasy of mine, but after experiencing it I realized that it was the fantasy I was intrigued by, not the reality.
Staying in these types of hotels, quite frankly, sucks. Unless you’re a millionaire, it sucks if you’re paying because it’s too much money. It sucks if you’re not paying because you’re walking on eggshells the whole time. When I began to recognize the implications of never writing my reviews, it sucked even more, because it meant I was a thief. I realized that what I had been doing was stealing. Up until that point, I had mostly preserved the fiction that I was a bona fide hotel and restaurant reviewer.
To justify my actions, I clung to that fiction. I was even hoping to sneak mini hotel reviews into this piece, but I couldn’t get them past my editor because it was obvious that I was guilt-tripping. He asked me, “Are you just trying to get reviews of the hotels into the magazine again?” We had a huge disagreement about photos. I argued that glamorous shots of La Suite in Rio, Las Alcobas in Mexico City, the Sorrento in Seattle, the Legian in Seminyak, Mama Ruisa in Santa Teresa, and the Imperial in India—all of the hotels I still owe reviews to—would both entertain the reader and satisfy the hotel owners I’ve scammed.
He didn’t buy it.