Where you don't just get a bed, you get friends

namibia, windhoek, namibia institute of culinary education.
namibia, windhoek, namibia institute of culinary education.

Alex wants to go out for sushi, which would be understandable if we were in, say, Japan. But we're not in Japan.

He'd found me a few minutes ago sitting in the guesthouse's little dining room, tapping away on my laptop and wondering what to do with a spare night in Windhoek, Namibia.

"Hey Ben, what are you going to do for dinner?"

"I don't know. Probably go down to Joe's Beerhouse, I guess."

"Ag, didn't you go there for lunch?"

I smiled, nodding. Busted. Joe's is where most tourists in Windhoek seem to end up, especially those staying at Londiningi Guesthouse, which is only a 10-minute walk up the road. But Alex was having none of it.

"We'll go for sushi," he says, whacking the flat of his hand on the table. "Seven o'clock, you and I are having sushi."

So now we're having sushi. Namibia is not exactly known for its sushi. This is a country where most food isn't just cooked, it's blasted with direct fire, huge slabs of meat slapped on hot coals. It's rarely adorned with vegetables - they just get in the way of the meat.

Joe's Beerhouse is typical. The pub does an "oryx knuckle", which is the roasted knee joint of an antelope that, when still in possession of its knee joints, stands as tall as a human. Tourists and residents alike turn out in their hundreds to devour these things and then do dessert.

This is, after all, a country with ancient tribal influences coupled with Afrikaner influences and German influences. None of those cultures are exactly known for their appreciation of delicately sliced, raw fish.

But Alex reckons he knows a sushi place. So when seven o'clock rolls around the two of us bid goodbye to Natalie, Alex's French wife, jump in his 4WD and head into the city, taking a little impromptu tour on the way. That's the oldest building in Windhoek, Alex says. That place used to be a nightclub until it was shut down.

Alex isn't a regular tourist - he and Natalie are the owners of Londiningi, a small guesthouse tucked away in one of Windhoek's fancier suburbs.

The pair are the perfect hosts, making dinner for guests, making conversation with guests.

And, occasionally, eating sushi with guests.

They're also the reason people stay in places like Londiningi. The big chain hotels probably have their attractions, but if you've got the choice it has to be a guesthouse. It's not the beds or the facilities or the designs that make them great - it's the people who run them.

Case in point: the Red Tree House in Mexico City. It's a guesthouse, but I would move in there permanently and call it home if I could.

The owners, Ernesto and Victor, are about the best hosts you could imagine. They'll open a few bottles of wine every night, lay out some food and get all the guests chatting. They'll point you in the direction of whatever it is that takes your fancy in that vast city.

But the real star of the Red Tree House show is a golden retriever named Abril, a shaggy hunk of canine that just kind of wanders around the courtyard and gets patted a lot. She's awesome - now show me a Hilton that can boast that.

But back to Alex and the sushi. Without Alex I really would be heading back to Joe's for the second time today, contemplating the gastronomic monstrosity that is the oryx knuckle, and hanging out with other tourists.

Instead the two of us are going to eat at NICE, the Namibia Institute of Culinary Education, which is about as far from Joe's as you can get.

Windhoek's fancier residents are there tonight drinking cocktails in the lounge, and a few more are grouped around the sushi bar on the top level.

The sushi chef is not from Japan, but from Harare. Of course.

His name is Makosi, and he's enormous. His portion sizes are enormous, too.

He hacks into raw salmon like it's a zebra, layering big slabs of red meat next to a fat green splodge of wasabi.

Alex, meanwhile, is enjoying the fresh company. He's telling me about his old construction business, the one that boomed and then went bust. He's telling me about the night he spent in a South African jail, naked, before he name-dropped a local barrister and was released. He's telling me about Natalie, a Frenchwoman who came to invest in Namibia and wound up with a guesthouse and a husband.

He's having a good night. So am I.

This is the appeal of guesthouses - you don't just get a bed, you get friends. And sometimes you get sushi.

This story Where you don't just get a bed, you get friends first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.