Mystery: The phantom Surabaya chambermaid

About 20 years ago, when I was working at the ILO office in Jakarta, our office was implementing a large project to establish Indonesia’s national skills development system in Surabaya, the second largest city, in East Java.  At that time, it was the largest project my organization had ever carried out worldwide in terms of budget and staff numbers.  The project employed more than 80 people, including international technical experts and national staff.

The project’s group of experts and the chief technical advisor lived and worked in Surabaya.  However, ILO Jakarta was responsible for recruiting project experts, obtaining government approval for their employment, obtaining their stay and work permits from the national authorities, extending their contracts, paying all staff salaries, approving and paying for various vocational training programs submitted by the experts, and for all other administrative work.

The telecommunication system in Indonesia in those days left much to be desired.  Due to the limited number of lines, even a call within Jakarta was difficult, so trying to get a connection from Jakarta in West Java to Surabaya required considerable perseverance.  Even if you managed to get through to the other end after dialing many times, your call was often abruptly cut off.  Any fax received was almost always garbled and only half legible, so trying to understand it felt like decrypting a secret code in some spy movie.

Under such circumstances, the project’s chief technical advisor often traveled by air to consult the director of ILO Jakarta and me, the desk officer, in Jakarta.  One day, however, my boss ordered me to go on mission to Surabaya.  Since the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) was contributing some funds to the project, two officials from UNDP Jakarta also wanted to join me.  One of them was an Indonesian national officer who was familiar with Surabaya and who said he knew of a nice hotel there, so I asked him to make my hotel booking as well.

The three of us arrived in Surabaya in the evening and went directly from the airport to the hotel.  It turned out to be a modest establishment.  After we checked in, we were led to our individual rooms.  U.N. officials are paid per diem, or a daily subsistence allowance, to cover the cost of lodging and meals at the destination of duty travels.  This is based on the cost of living there and is applicable to the whole U.N. system.  With the per diem for Surabaya, we could have stayed in a much more salubrious and modern hotel.  However, I had no complaint with our accommodation as the lodging seemed decently clean.

My room was spacious with two single beds.  The bathroom was typical of Indonesia, with a tiled floor.  Instead of a bathtub, or shower, there was a small, but deep, water container filled with water, on which a ladle was placed.  In order to wash, one simply ladled water all over one’s body.  The water would collect on the tiled floor and run away down the drain in the middle of the bathroom.  There was usually a light metal lid over the drain to block any odor from the drainage system.

When I first entered, the drain was open and its cover had been left next to it.  The chambermaid must have forgotten to put the lid back on after cleaning the bathroom, I thought.  I put the cover on and went out for dinner with the two UNDP officials.  Soon after our meal, we returned to the hotel, and I went back to my room to prepare for my work in the coming days.

To my great surprise, I found the drain in my bathroom uncovered again.  I had only been out of the room for about an hour!  Had the chambermaid come in once again to clean the bathroom?  If so, this time, too, she had forgotten to put the cover back on after cleaning.  I really wondered how many times a day the chambermaid at this hotel came in to clean the room.  Normally, chambermaids in any hotel, even a luxury one, clean rooms once daily.  However, I remembered an acquaintance, a junior manager at a super luxury hotel, telling me that chambermaids in such places were assigned to a particular room.  Since she was responsible for ensuring the room in her care was kept clean at all times, she would clean it as many times a day as was needed.  But, unlike my friend’s hotel, this was only an inexpensive lodging.  I was puzzled, but went to bed, as I was tired.

Having slept like a log, I woke up early in the morning, feeling all refreshed, and went to the bathroom.  To my astonishment, I found the drain cover off again.  I had definitely carefully replaced it the previous night.  I wondered if someone had come into my room very quietly, while I slept, to clean my bathroom.  The thought gave me an eerie feeling.  No, no, that could not have been possible.  But then, who on earth could have appeared in my bathroom in the middle of the night and uncovered the drain?  Who could then have gone out of my room without disturbing me, leaving the drain cover off?

I was totally confused.  In any event, I placed the lid back on and began brushing my teeth while looking at myself in the mirror above the washbasin.  At that moment, I suddenly heard a noise.  It sounded like some kind of metallic object rattling against something.  As I listened carefully, I realized it was coming from near my feet.  I looked down and saw the drain cover moving.  The noise came from the cover rattling against the floor tiles.

Suddenly, whatever was under the cover pushed it up and aside and jumped out of the drain.  It was a huge brown rat!  It must have been surprised to discover company in the bathroom, and hurriedly dashed into the bedroom.  I frantically chased after it, but it fled back to the bathroom and quickly escaped back down the drain.  Since the room door was closed, the drain in the bathroom was its only means of escape.

Well, I was at least relieved finally to have discovered the identity of the phantom chambermaid in my room.  But the idea that such a huge rat had crept out of the drain and wandered around my room while I slept made me shudder.  I stayed at the hotel for two more nights before returning to Jakarta, but placed my suitcase, filled with heavy documents, over the drain cover to prevent any further unwanted visits from my phantom chambermaid.

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