Encounters are interesting. Random ones that is. Work in an industry like this and you’re bound to have a lot of them. You meet people; all sorts of strangers with backpacks and suitcases of stories to tell. If you hold the conversation long enough, way past the pleasantries and formalities; you’re likely to unearth a lifetime of memories that leave you feeling somewhat different. Prospectively shifted. I have worked in the hotel industry for almost two years now and let’s just say a receptionist is as good as a bartender; with the right amount of politeness and a smile wide enough to brighten a dimly lit room; anyone can tell you anything. What inspired this blog post you might ask; well, one particular encounter of course.
It was a gloomy day. Cold rainy, wet weather that I don’t like. I had barely gotten enough sleep and yet there I was running around sorting out last minute wedding preps and I hadn’t even had a cup of wake-up caffeine yet. Let me bring you up to speed; the Mountain Inn has a sister hotel called the Emafini Country Lodge. That is where the encounter took place. A random day, work as usual. People had already started arriving for the festivities; sound guys moving equipment in, bridesmaids running around in a frenzy. Commotion of all sorts but I sat in the middle of the chaos, oblivious to it all. Or rather purposefully oblivious. Carefully minding my business but lifting my head up every now and then when someone had a question that required answering. I was also partially lost in a train of thought; vicariously day dreaming. So caught up in my own world that despite looking out the glass doorway, I failed to notice the elderly man with the 90s suit walking towards me. Taken aback by his hello, I flashed a hurried smile and in my most quaint siSwati, exchanged pleasantries. You know, the receptionist script. He was here for the wedding and rather super early too, so I gestured to a chair and as soon as he was comfortable in his seat, I was lost in my thoughts again. I didn’t even notice him leave a few minutes later. I didn’t even see the staff running through one door and out the other. I was back in my head once more.
Not a long while after, the elderly stranger showed up at the desk again. My head was still in the clouds. So, when his voice came crashing through my thoughts, I was honestly startled. “King Sobhuza was a gentleman, can you see?” He said; interrupting my daydream. He was pointing at the wall with the old Eswatini Photographs. His gaze completely locked onto one particular image; the one with King Sobhuza II delivering a speech. Two men whose identities to me who at the time were completely unknown, sat beside His majesty watching attentively. A man in uniform, astutely clothed and holding a rank of some sort stood behind him looking on. The elderly man moved closer towards the pictures, his gaze still fixed. “Can you capture it for me?” He finally asked. “I love our history…and this picture holds so much of it” I remained silent for a moment, then slowly standing up from my chair, I moved towards the glass case. I had seen these images before. Countless times. Almost every day. I had walked past them, seeing nothing by strangers caught in time. The elderly man handed me his phone and then stood back to watch as I struggled to get the frame right. After a few shoddy but successful snaps, I handed him back his phone and just as I was about to make my way back to my chair, that’s when the encounter started to unfold. Yeah, that’s when it started to happen.
He points at the man of rank standing behind the King. “That’s the late TV Mthethwa; the country’s first police commissioner” He says, almost sending my jaw to the floor. Forgive me but the only bell the name has ever rung is his infamous coined phrase that’s now our electricity company’s tag line. I shake my head in disbelief. “I didn’t know that” I confess as I make my way back to the glass case. His eyes remain fixed on the photograph, then he slowly moves his index finger across the glass to rest on one of the guests sitting next to the King. “And that’s our first finance minister” he says with a chuckle. I’m dumbfounded now. Completely. “He also founded Peak Timber”. This impromptu general knowledge class goes on for a while. He points at a new picture ever so often, and bellows out a laugh whenever he catches the shocked look on my face. For months I’ve been walking past this glass case, unaware of the people in the images. To me, they were only people of the past who had come and gone. Nothing crazy in particular and yet there I was, watching and listening as this fine stranger gave a name to every face.
I realised that day how far our country had come. From Swaziland to Eswatini. From a street with one hotel, to a whole country full of sights, wonders and an infrastructural landscape on the rise. We really had come a long way and so I stood there with this stranger, taking in the names of those who had pioneered and paved the way. Suddenly in the distance, there sounded a car horn. And then another and another. The elderly man shifted his attention to the doorway and let out a sigh of relief. “The wedding party is here” He said softly, gently putting his phone back into the hidden pocket of his 90’s coat and began to take a few brisk steps towards the door. But, just as his hand was about to touch the door knob, he stopped dead in his tracks and looked back at me. His face held an almost stern but soft smile. A smile none the less. Undecided perhaps. “Ngiyabonga sisi” he at last said. And then turned back to the door and walked out of sight.
Minutes later, the wedding party started to stream in. A beautiful sight against the cold gloomy sky. Excitement hung unapologetically in the air and free smiles were being thrown in every direction. I didn’t complain. I was too lost in my own world to complain. I was too busy wondering what other hidden treasures this old glass case of monochrome history held. Encounters are truly interesting. Work in an industry like this and you’re bound to have a lot of them. You meet people; all sorts of strangers with backpacks and suitcases of stories to tell and if you hold the conversation long enough, way past the pleasantries and formalities; you’re likely to unearth a lifetime of memories that leave you feeling somewhat different. Prospectively shifted.
I would know. I had one on a gloomy random day.