Saturday, April 19, 2008

And every day's an endless stream ...

(Published in HT Mumbai, 24th April, with a few well-deserved cuts. Check out the last page of the current TIME magazine for the value of a good editor!)


Mornings, evenings, afternoons. The faint rushing of the AC. The gurgling of a flush in the next room. The vestigial babble from a muted TV. The hiss and “pock” of the electric kettle coming to a boil. The silence of a hotel room is all of these. And more. It comes from within, a slow flood that drowns out sound, a flood that rises from too many coffees in front of too many flickering TVs, unfamiliar newspapers under identical doors, from too many tables for one just because another room service dinner can’t be endured.

The first few months, the first few times on the road, a good hotel room is a haven, an assurance of comfort. There’s a lot to be said for a life where just about anything you want is at the other end of a phone call. Where the room is cleaned and the bed made even before you ask. There’s a certain reassuring sameness to most hotel rooms – the same design, the little foyer with the mini-bar and the door leading into the bathroom, the standard furnishing of bed, bedside tables (with a Gideon Bible and perhaps a Bhagavad Gita in the drawer), armchair, desk, wardrobe, wastebasket. Then you learn to look for the little things where class shows. The choice of pictures on the walls. A footstool for the armchair. The basket of fruit, the chocolate stand. The packaging of the toiletries. (With the exception of the Marriott in Hong Kong, the stuff inside the packaging is indistinguishable. But I still filch them. It’s a neurosis, I think.)

The first few trips. Then they start to run into one another. That day I actually had the time to soak in a bath, was that Ahmedabad or Coimbatore? That long conversation on the phone, was that in the Qutb or the Ashoka? Then the sameness begins to haunt you. The evenings stretch longer. The room service menu seems to lurk like a malign presence in the old family mansion. The television’s babble invites a savage stab of the power button on the remote. Nothing fits. Especially inside my head.

Room service. At first it’s such an indulgence. The tray, the napery, the waiter’s bow at the door. The food is rarely top-notch or even good, but it’s such luxury to have a leisurely undisturbed dinner with a book. Faintly decadent, and all the better for it. Later, the longings. For a salad just so, or sautéed vegetables and butter on the side with a nice broiled chop. Which NO room service manager can understand or cater to. (These days I’m careful to order only the most basic stuff, say, a Caesar salad or some grilled chicken, the kind of thing I can set to rights with olive oil and lemon if the kitchen has goofed.) And the battle, every time, to get the makings of a café Viennoise and NO, I do NOT want you to make it for me, I want whipped cream on the side, no, NOT fresh cream please. Agh. Exasperation. (To be fair, the Metropolitan in Delhi – the Nikko as used-to-be – know what I need by now.) Eventually, the ho-hum pulling on of a shirt at ten in the evening and wandering down to the lobby floor to check out the restaurants. Because there are only so many calls one can make, so many re-runs of the same headlines to watch on TV, a book lasts an hour at most and the empty room seems to snigger at me.

Dining alone in my room is lonely. But after a while, even the best chef can’t make up for the loneliness of dining alone in a restaurant. Where laughter rises from a table for four and the couple two tables down are leaning towards each other with a shared smile. While I nibble on an asparagus stick and debate on another trip to the salad bar. It’s not you, chef. It’s just that the meal doesn’t taste so good without somebody to share it with.

Some places I want to share the view. Green wind-swayed expanses from the upper floors of the Delhi Oberoi. The sea from my room at the Vizag Taj, or from the Sea Lounge in the Grand Old Lady of Apollo Bunder. Far pavilions on the horizon from Wildflower Hall. The urban glitter from the Hong Kong Marriott. Or the Pennsylvania on 8th Avenue.

Some hotels are just so gorgeous that nothing else matters. For me, top of this list is the Taj West End in Bangalore. A low-rise built on an old planter’s estate, it sprawls across 20-odd acres with pathways winding between flowering trees and little green nooks. Some day I shall go back to their oldest room, in the original planter’s bungalow with wooden stairs, brass fittings and a huge dormer window that looks out on trees with blood-red flowers. There are others that come close. The Grand in Calcutta has real character, and huge old rooms like a nabob’s palace. Perhaps it’s a good thing that the present management considers aggressive marketing infra dig. (It also has an outstanding dessert buffet, but I’m trying to be strong). The Metropole in Brussels, 112 years old, the lobby and bars all golden light and warm wood panelling, chandeliers and polished brass. But it has no views and the rooms, though huge, are a little stark.

Some things you learn. Not just “tip once, tip early, tip big”. I’ve learnt that that the so-called club floor is usually a rip-off, where you pay extra dollar just for a concierge button on the phone and free coffees in a lounge you never get around to using. There are exceptions, like the Park in Delhi where the tea lounge is a quiet vantage point for amazing sunsets. I’ve learnt that even if it takes another quarter of an hour and another trip downstairs, it’s better to change your room right away than put up with the banging of the service door. (NEVER ever take a room near a service door. At the Marine Plaza last month, I managed to get to sleep at around 1 o’clock after a long evening with blogger friends. Only to be woken at a quarter to two by loud banging noises from the corridor. A drunken NRI couple, fat ugly and totally uncool as they bulged out of their all-black outfits, had tried to walk up from the lobby and found themselves on the wrong side of a locked service door.)

If you’re staying at the same hotel a second or third time, it helps to know a name or two. Even if the chap isn’t around, asking for him makes a point. Think about it – when you’re greeted by name, you feel a little better because you know they’re taking the trouble at least to check the room list. Don’t you think it works in the other direction too? (This works like a charm at restaurants as well. In fact, anywhere in the hospitality industry. Which, face it, is a tough and usually thankless environment. Especially when catering to a curmudgeon like me.) This does NOT work, however, in a faceless warehouse like the Ashoka. The manager in one wing may not even know the lobby manager’s name. Besides, there’s usually a high attrition rate and the staff keep changing.

I’m picky about little things. Like freshly ironed clothes. Hotel laundries are always hugely over-priced and not always reliable. Would you risk the possibility of your Italian (or faux Italian) wrinkle-free shirt coming back with the cuffs shiny or, horrors, a burn mark? That too, half an hour after you’ve showered and left the room? I get around this by asking for an iron and board in my room. In the evening, because first thing in the morning there’s a run on the irons. Free, flexi-time and if the collar’s ruined, at least there’s nobody else to blame. But you have to find an accessible power point. If there isn’t one, I’d look for another hotel. Next time, of course. Unless you use the travelling salesman’s trick of hanging up the shirt in a steaming shower stall. That works too.

Meantime, there’s the mystique of the mundane. Hang up my clothes, give my shoes a quick wipe with the shoe-mitt (I’ve stopped hoarding those), pack everything except my toilet kit and the laptop. Shake out the blanket, put a bottle of water on the bedside table, fluff out the pillows, set the air-conditioning just so, use the bedside console to switch off everything except the lamp on the far side.

Then lie awake in the dark for an hour or so while the smoke detector blinks above me and the ticking of the clock becomes clearer. Tomorrow is another day. With a pre-dawn taxi ride and a flight that is bound to leave on time only if I’m running late. Good night, world.

23 comments:

Vivek Kumar said...

For some reason, it read like a familiar story at first. Then realization dawned.

I understand.

Tabula Rasa said...

you saved it right till the end: if you have a laptop, what are you doing surfing television? (no wonder your posting frequency has dropped.)

Lekhni said...

Lovely account, I find so much to agree with.

But I thought irons were pretty standard,no? You have to ask for them?

I also completely disagree that all toiletries are the same. I am a moisturizer connoisseur, and I love the "Whole Wheat Lotion" I found in the Sheraton at Los Angeles, and the Seaweed lotion I found in Amsterdam.
Even among hotels that serve less exotic stuff, one chain(the Hilton? I forget) has Neutrogena.

But as for the shampoos, bah, they are all equally useless.

Space Bar said...

Aw. Lovely post, but I can't resist pointing you to this.

And yeah, I second TR. You don't watch TV; what's stopping you from blogging?!

satanbug21 said...

familiar...very familiar...
only the places and hotels change...

life seems to be a series of nameless hotel rooms and 0605 flights...

The Hermit of Wandering Thoughts said...

Reading this was like deja vu for me.. Can identify with this 110%..and developed very similar rituals in those endless streams of hotel rooms which make up most days of my life....
Wrote something on the same lines some time back
http://zofo09.spaces.live.com/blog/cns!70AF0E8D7E855912!7751.entry

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Vivek, is that realisation or compassion?

TR, I hear and obey

Lekhni, irons are standard in the US. Not in India, nor in some parts of Europe.

Space Bar, thank you for the heads-up.

SatanBug, you haven't really started yet.

Hermit, couldn't find your "piece on the same lines" off that link.

J.A.P.

eve's lungs said...

Familiar - at one time I used to sit and count the bloody waves at Juhu and I used to cry at the thought of leaving home and going on tour .

I adore flicking lotions - the ones at the Orchid Ecotel are marvellous and the lemon soap they used to stock at the Marine some years back ..

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

E Lungs, the Marine still has that lemon soap. I pick up some, every time.

J.A.P.

??! said...

Lovely, lovely piece.

(Of course, everybody still has the piece on their feedreaders. So...umm...horse/door/bolting.)

Vivek Kumar said...

First, realization. Then, understanding and compassion.

I recall someone having written a book calling our tribe "migratory birds" or something similar. Sigh..

mystic rose said...

ooh. its like a sneak peak :)

Sucharita Sarkar said...

Hi,

the ennui, the infrequent posting,the anglophilia, the wikkitmania...and doyalbaba...its like being back in ol' Kol again. Please don't change.

I'll definitely come back for a taste of home.

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

??! (get a name!), thank you. As for the stable door, we have an open door policy.

Vivek, was it The Sarna?

Rose, peEk not peAk. Can't imagine K2 sidling around squint-eyed.

Sucharita, glad to be of service.

J.A.P.

satanbug21 said...

" Haven`t really started yet" ???

am up watching Liverpool vs Chelsea...Bhubaneshwar Hilton...0605 tomorrow...

BongoP'o'ndit said...

OT: if you are back from your wanderings and have time to spare.....moi still in town and won't say no to cockatils and conversations. Do get in touch: bongopondit_at_gmail_dot_com

ichatteralot said...

I just anted to say that I read your musings in HT Cafe and I have liked them all so far. BTW, how much do they pay??? :)

No Thanks said...

Shirt and the rest of the outfit outside the stall ... steaming hot shower in the stall.

N.T.

Vivek Kumar said...

No, not him. Tried to google it as well but can't recall the correct phrase etc. right now. Nevermind.

mystic rose said...

Ofcourse I knew that! Must be the age.
How embarassing to be corrected thus by you.

and I did not mean so much squint eyed as in a preview of a movie.

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

S-Bug, stay with it for a while

Pondit Moshai ... I presume?

Vivek, quite so.

M Rose, I know what you MEANT. Is it exceptionally embarrassing to be corrected by ME?

J.A.P.

mystic rose said...

Yes, Mr Prufrock.

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