A Totally Unfair Five Star Rant

It feels terribly unfair to slam the Kivu Serena for anything at all. As an outpost of civilization on the edge of the chaos and anarchy that is the Democratic Republic of Congo (literally walking distance from the hotel’s lobby), pretty much anything shy of cholera and gunfire at the breakfast buffet should be counted as a plus. But if it weren’t for the setting, this self-declared luxury hotel would be hard pressed to scrape together two stars, let alone justify the hefty room rate of $200 and up.

Gisenyi is a sleepy has-been resort town on the edge of the beautiful and serene Lake Kivu. But apart from the lake, the pleasant climate at well over 5,000 feet and the views, there’s not a whole lot going on here, thus the town only sports a couple of upscale hotels that cater to the few foreigners who make it this far. Most of them are either tourists on their way to or from seeing the gorillas in the Virunga mountains less than an hour north of town, or expat relief and development workers on R&R from the DRC or Rwanda. The clientele on this weekend in late July also included (and, yes, I’m just being wildly and unfairly prejudiced here): a couple of oversized Ukranian drug dealers (who really should stick to kneecapping the competition back in Kiev, rather than trying their hand at things like jet skiing, because, boy, they sucked gloriously at it); the kingpin of a Congolese uranium smuggling operation with his extended family; an orthodox Jewish diamond dealer, who insisted on wearing all black, even while negotiating with his shady suppliers on the beach in the noonday sun; a bald, barrel-chested former British marine, now working as a freelance mercenary, eagerly looking to get a date with the cute Dutch relief worker here to run a workshop on domestic abuse prevention; and last but not least the four obnoxious and sophomoric Indian gun runners and carpet traders, who bullied the staff at the pool into letting them use the life saver as a pool toy.

Sure, it’s nice here. When you’re in a region where few if any of the amenities and pleasures we take for granted at home can be relied on, it takes precious little to thrill. The pool is clean, the plumbing mostly works, the linen is clean, the beds very comfy. There’s staff everywhere looking to please; you can’t bat an eyelid without someone asking you if you want more coffee. It’s like a colonial nostalgia trip. The rooms have TV and A/C, and instead of those anonymous credit card thingies, they come with old-fashioned keys that are attached to cute, hand-carved wooden gorilla sculptures.

And, so, it’s mostly the little things that baffle: the presence of toilet paper somewhere in the vicinity of the porcelain throne, for instance… is that really too much to ask for? Towels by the pool? I mean, if one of your main selling points is the fact that you have a damn nice pool, then why not take the bold, brave step and provide the towels that a lazy foreigner expects to find there – particularly when you have gone to the trouble of posting a sign in French and English warning me not to bring along a towel from my own room.

But the bigger things, too: like staff that gives a shit. Be it at banks, restaurants or various stores, we have almost without exception dealt with staff in Kigali that have been courteous, knowledgeable and eager to get things done right. It was a bit of a let-down, then, to discover that the self-important front line staff at the Kivu Serena can’t even be bothered to meet the standard set in Kigali. As in: if you’re claiming to be a world class hotel boasting wireless internet access, but the wireless internet is all screwed up, then at least acknowledge that it might matter to your guests and pretend to care; don’t dismissively cook up random lies about your IT staff “working on it,” when in fact a) you don’t have any IT staff, and b) what staff you do have clearly doesn’t know a router from a pressure cooker. Your subsequent attempt to be seen as “doing something” by looking scrutinizingly under the front desk counter and moving the stapler a few inches to the left just comes across as vaguely disingenuous and further discredits you.

Look, I don’t expect blazing broadband and streaming video when I’m in the heart of Africa; slow is fine, and I can live with the occasional snag and hiccup in the connection – heck, the power has been on and off six or more times just this morning, which is to be expected in these parts. But surely the whole point of being part of the Serena chain of international hotels is that you can call rely on corporate tech support to keep things like your wireless network running and available? If not, I might as well stay at Chez Ebola up the road for $10 a night and know for sure that I’m not going to get email for a while.

And maybe it’s just me, but when I ask the front desk if they have a map of the town in which they insist they are the preeminent establishment, then I expect something other than a blank and slightly suspicious stare. I expect a map – if even just a crappy hand-drawn one. And since the hotel gift shop is located a whopping ten steps from the front desk, a conscientious employee who really cared could easily have made his way over there at some point in her career and discovered what the gift shop actually has to offer. Which is why when, after much hemming and hawing and shoulder-shrugging, Ms. Hair-do-and-attitude at the reception dismissively sends me to the gift shop to look for my silly map and I discover that all they have on offer there is an outdated map of Rwanda and a pile of overpriced gorilla-themed kitch, I’m inclined to get more than a little pissed off.

And when I ask for the phone number of one of the very few legitimate tourist attractions in this place – the completely awesome Rwanda Adventures bike rental outfit – then I don’t really care much for a glare as if I’m ET asking to phone home. At long last, one of the guys at the front desk remembers that a friend of his works for the outfit I’m after, and he gives me the guys’ cell phone number. Better than nothing, I suppose, but the actual number of the place would be so much more useful. I ask if they might have a copy of “The Eye” – the ubiquitous free Rwandan tourist magazine with a great list of all the activities and facilities in the country. Somewhere under the pile of old printouts on the reception desk, they reluctantly find one, and I’m in business. But the service could have been so much more impressive.

So although it probably is the best thing going in Gisenyi, the Kivu Serena really only gets away with awarding itself four stars because the bar in this town is set so damn low. And the Serena can only charge 1st world prices for barely adequate 3rd world service and facilities because, heck, at least they offer service and facilities of some sort. At half the price and half the stars, it’d be a fair deal; for now, it’s the kind of splurge you indulge in for the hell of it, and then feel vaguely bad about afterwards.