Thursday, February 12, 2009

On The Road

When I met up with Shormistha earlier this month, we expounded for a bit on hotels while traveling. We came up with the following:

There are two kinds of hotels in developing countries.

The first is the 'country hotel'. Though you can sometimes find these in cities (we stayed in one in Bangalore) they are usually found in towns of moderate-to-middling size, with maybe one or two spots of interest to visitors, and even those are the B-list celebrities of the tourism world. Curious or off-the-beaten-path travelers pass through but rarely; most visitors are there for weddings or funerals.

When you walk into these hotels, you can expect to see a room. It will be painted pastel green, pink or possibly both and have a ratty brown chair, at least 30 years old, in one corner. There will be grime on the walls and it will smell of incense and goats.

This room may or may not have a reception desk and there may or may not be anyone manning it. If someone is there, he is likely to be sleeping. Possibly in a chair, and possibly with a cricket match on the television in front of him.

One thing this room almost always has is a photograph (black and white or cheap technicolor) of a long-dead relative of the proprietor, hung high on the wall. In India, this photograph will be decorated with incense, sandalwood paste and marigolds.

When you finally wake up the sleeping person, you will find that he isn't actually the concierge. He may be a watchman or errand-boy, a friend of the concierge, a relative of the owner or just some guy who wandered in and took a nap.
"I want a room," you ask - in the local language if you're savvy like that.
"Room?" he will reply.
"Yes, room!"
He will putter around and finally leave, coming back ten minutes later (if you're lucky) with another guy.
"Room?" you ask.
"Room?" the other guy replies. The two guys look at each other as if silently asking - "do we have rooms here?"

When you finally establish that they do indeed have rooms, a third guy comes in and takes out a Tome. This Tome is about 2,000 pages long and almost as many years old, and is disintegrating at the edges. He'll blow the dust off it and open it up - if you look back to the first page you can expect to see Mary and Joseph, who tried to get a room here when the place first opened.

The tome is approximately the size and weight of a Gutenberg Bible.

In this Tome, you painstakingly enter your full name, age, date of birth, father's name, passport number, visa number, duration of stay, nationality, father's nationality, three phone numbers, address, permanent address, email address, port of embarkation, port of disembarkation, previous destination, next destination, purpose of visit, flight number, exact time of check-in, number of children, number of children traveling with you, a local reference (if you have one), occupation, salary, marital status, name and age of spouse, number of bags, type of room requested and type of room granted. Each space given for this information is approximately 2 cemtimeters wide.

The second kind of hotel is the 'city hotel' - this one has about ten people in the lobby, all with specific jobs and all requiring baksheesh to do them. There are three to five clocks on the wall - one says "London", one "New York", one is for the capital of the country you are in, and any others are for completely random destinations (in Mumbai our hotel had clocks for Delhi, London, New York, Kandahar and Anchorage, Alaska). None of them tell the correct time in any of those destinations.

When you arrive, people are running around and screaming. The computer system is either down, was recently down, or is working but not running properly. A child is crying in the corner while her mother fights with the elevator boy, and at least one guy who should be working is standing around and smoking. All the couches and chairs are occupied, and you are pretty sure that none of the occupants are employees or guests.

"I have a booking," you say.
"Just a moment," says the officious brillantined man behind the counter, before he checks his coiffure in the mirrored wall behind you. He calls another guy, who calls a boy of about 8, who runs outside and returns five minutes later with a piece of paper that proves, apparently, that you do have a booking.
"Here is your key, and we provide a coupon for breakfast," says Mr. Brillantine.
"Thanks. When can I get my coupon, then?"
"I will give it to you now."

Ten minutes later, he's run away to deal with some of the screaming people, and you are standing there waiting for your breakfast coupon.

"Breakfast coupon?"
"You want breakfast now?"
"No, we were told we would get the coupon for tomorrow."
"Oh yes."

Then that guy runs away and comes back five minutes later, having done nothing.
"OK now?" he asks.
"Well, actually no, we still need our breakfast coupon."
"Oh that! We will send it to your room with the boy."

The boy never comes, you go to breakfast the next day and nobody asks you for any coupon, nor did they seem to think that such a coupon ever existed.

The boy, meanwhile, stops by your room with your laundry, hoping for more baksheesh.

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