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How Hospitality Happens

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Contributed by Inn Owner Anna Maria de Freitas

As Dave and I were traveling through Indonesia and Malaysia on our annual holiday earlier this year, we’d reminisce each day about our shared experience. We found ourselves saying over and over again, “We are being so well taken care of!” We are both staunchly independent people and don’t want others to fuss over us. We are right at home carrying our own luggage, making our own way from the airport, or assembling our own dive equipment. Yet we found ourselves instinctively letting go and letting others take care of us. Being taken care of is a two-way street. By not allowing the giver to take care of us, it takes a bit of joy from them.

It caused me to reflect on the meaning of hospitality. Like different languages it has different nuances in different countries, but the underlying meaning is the same.

In Indonesia, we would exchange greetings with a bow with our palms together in a prayer position. This salutation or sembah is an expression of reverence, humility, and respect. The gesture is performed wordlessly, unlike at the end of yoga where you exchange namaste. As you gaze back up you smile at each other.

In Malaysia, we would greet others with a smile and place our right hand over the left breast meaning, “I greet you from my heart.” It was as if we were letting go for just a moment.

A handshake, in comparison, seems so businesslike and cold. These Asian greetings were so much warmer and personal and set the tone for our personal encounters. Everyone we met was so polite and helpful. Their sunny disposition matched the hot tropical climate.

guide tommy

Hospitality is taking care of people — and take care of us they did.

At every place we stayed, the staff was constantly checking to see if there was anything else they could do. They always liked to strike up a conversation with the “two white” people. They would always ask where we were from. After we mentioned the USA or America, we then had to differentiate between Washington, D.C. and Washington State. I realized that most of these folks probably hadn’t traveled very far from their communities and to explain about our home on San Juan Island — and the two-day journey by ferry, planes, bus, and boat we had taken to get halfway around the world — seemed so foreign to them.

I preferred turning the questioning from about us to about them. I loved learning about Tommy’s life. He was our 28-year-old trekking guide in the Danum rainforest. He grew up in the jungle. He reflects now that his childhood seemed so normal to him, as that was all he knew. Now he realizes that most city people would not view it as normal. His family lived off the land. His dad spent the day hunting, and Tommy would often accompany him. They ate everything the jungle would provide — frog, monkey, bird, boar, and fish. His mom took care of the family, the vegetable garden, and tended the rice paddy.

There is no one I would rather be in the jungle with than Tommy. We had a couple of aggressive encounters with orangutans during two different treks — one was chasing us from the canopy, and another was dropping branches on us. Tommy had amazing instincts and was always watching out for our safety. He made sure we didn’t touch a poisonous plant or step on a mound of fire ants during a night trek. He didn’t mind if we made a blood donation to the rainforest after an encounter with a leech. Tommy went to school in the city and graduated from the university with a degree in hospitality. On his days off from guiding, he goes back to his village and visits his family in the jungle. We spent three full days with Tommy and when we left, he was there waving goodbye. We felt we were saying goodbye to a friend.

Hospitality is genuine.

friendly meals

We landed on Mataking Island, a remote Malaysian Island, on Chinese New Year. When we checked in, John the front desk manager was very concerned and gently told us that we were the only two “white people” here. He said he would tell his friend in the dining room to take care of us. He wanted to ensure we had had enough to eat and that there would be dishes to our liking, as the menu was catering to the Chinese tourists. Luckily, we love Asian food. The next day we were doing a day trip to a marine park and they wanted to pack food for us. They asked what we would like and we asked for simple food for diving – roasted chicken, potatoes, vegetables, and bananas. Well that is all it took. For the rest of our stay, the chef prepared a fabulous dinner of roasted or grilled chicken, stir fried vegetables, and roasted or baked potatoes. Each morning there was a bunch of bananas on our table. The kitchen prepared an extensive buffet for 100+ guests, yet the team could not have been more excited to deliver my special lunch and dinner each day. They always prepared enough food for a family of four. I ate with gusto and appreciation. I left the dining room with my hand on my heart acknowledging, all the staff we encountered.

Hospitality is giving and receiving.

We transferred to another Malaysian island closer to Sipadan Island, a famous marine park. When we arrived, Dave and I both had a head cold. The dive team requires each diver, regardless of their experience, to do a “check” dive before going out on a boat. We explained that we weren’t fit and needed to spend the day to rest so we could dive the rest of the week. We also asked if we could do 60-minute dives instead of the normal 45-minute dives.They said the best they could do is 50 minutes, as it would upset the entire schedule.

Later that day, we learned that we received the permit to dive Sipadan Island the next day. It would be a private boat. They allowed us to skip the “check dive” and took us on our word, certification level, and experience. We rallied and got up at 4:45 a.m. to catch a 5:30 boat to the marine park. The dive team was concerned, as they knew we were sick and weren’t sure we could dive. Somehow dive we did. We had an amazing day.

Hospitality is being honest and trusting.

The next day the resort was flooded by a large group of divers. George, the dive manager, made the schedule and put us in his care as our dive leader. He was concerned about our ears. We told him we did fine at Sipadan Island.

Each day for the rest of our stay, George made the schedule assigning us to him. Normally you have a different guide each day. Secretly, we think he enjoyed our company. Dave and I got a chuckle that George was having so much fun that he lost track of his 45-minute rule. He realized he didn’t need to worry about us and could be totally at peace in the quiet under the water. It was just the three of us, our bubbles, and the schools of fish we were encountering. It gave us such joy to see George relax. He is normally on high alert managing the dive center and looking after inexperienced divers in the water. We were glad to give George this gift. Before leaving, we thanked George for taking good care of us. We told him it was a pleasure diving with him. I put my hand to my heart and George extended his hand. Dave took the cue and shook his hand. Then he clasped his hands together and bowed.

Hospitality is reciprocal.

There are so many parallels to our experience on our trip to what we strive to offer with our warm and professional hospitality at the San Juan Island Inn Collection. We want to take care of our guests. We want to be genuine and authentic. We want to be trusting. We want to give and receive and, most importantly, we want you to feel so welcomed that you will leave as our friend and return as part of our extended family.

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