I have been traveling more than I had bargained for when I moved back to India. Way more. Which might sound like a terrible thing - but hasn't turned out to be. At least, not yet.
Don't get me wrong. The 'get up early to catch the morning flight' part hurts like hell. I would rather get my legs waxed. But two things make business travel less painful than hot wax on hairy skin - the airlines (about which I wrote a recent post), and the most remarkable set of hotels Indian cities sport.
In my seven years in the US, I had my fair share of business travel. Overnight stay on such travels would mean a Marriott, a Holiday Inn, a Hilton, a Sheraton, maybe a Hyatt. Nothing to sniff at, but you would have people looking at you kinda strange if you told them you were looking forward to a night there. The stay is what you endured so you could get business done. In India however, it is all the wrong side up.
"Where are you staying?" my dad asked when I told him of my latest travel plans, this time to Delhi. How is that relevant, I might have asked a month back. But I have learned. It is relevant. In fact, it is more darn interesting than whatever I might be going to Delhi for. Hotels in India you see, are palaces for hire. And if you are going to stay at a palace of some sort, no shame in looking forward to it, is there? Not everyone agrees with this philosophy of course. Frequent corporate travellers take great pains to be blasé about the Taj-es, the Leelas, the ITCs they stay at oh-so-often. I am new to the breed, and haven't developed the necessary refinement in my sensibilities yet. So let me tell you while I still have my sense of perspective about me - these hotels are too incredible for words! I haven't seen anything quite like them.
It starts at the airport. The hotel was supposed to get me picked up. In the context of this particular hotel, 'pick up' meant a chauffeur in crip white uniform, peaked cap and all, politely wishing me a good morning, picking up my luggage, and driving me to the hotel - get this - in a BMW 5-series sedan. The whole transaction has a surreal, upside down feel to it. The driver is clearly better dressed than I am. My shoes are way too dirty for the interiors of the immaculately maintained interiors of the car. He speakes in hushed tones around me, like he is afraid to break my internal train of thought. And all I want to do is shout to the world that I am been driven around in a BMW 5 series - that I am the prince of flipping Persia!
I am shown to my room by someone whose sole job seems to be to say 'sir' every other second and perform mindless tasks of helpfulness like pressing the elevator button for you, or offering to help you open the door to your room. I say 'room' of course, but I mean it only loosely. It is usually a wastefully large space for one night, designed and decorated so tastefully that you can't help feeling a bit ashamed about your own bedroom. The 'standard' in these rooms seems to include such basic essentials as plush slippers to slip your feet into, a bath robe and an evening robe, some large array of toiletries left for your pleasure, and the locally popular snack tastefully set up for your attention. These 'essentials' out of the way, the hotels start trying to outdo each other with the crazy things they imagine someone needing. This one hotel had, along with its regular toiletry kit, an emery board. Now I should probably be ashamed of myself, but I don't really know what an emery board is. It looked like a file of some sort, but I am not quite sure what to do with it. Then there was this other hotel that had near the toilet what I can only imagine was a bidet, though I hadn't actually come across one outside of the pages of a book, and wouldn't know how to use one if my life depended on it. And this other one had a shiny, long handled shoe horn. And this other one had a brush at the end of a polished wooden handle. Only, I wasn't quite certain what I was supposed to use this brush on. Was this to brush my shoes? If so, why the long handle? Or maybe it was to brush my coat? My hair? Heck, these things should come with instructions. One of the hotels I frequent has a 'pillow menu'. In it, they have a variety of pillows, by shape, firmness, thickness and some other parameters that escape me. I guess you can pick the pillows you want and they will send them along. I say 'I guess' because I have never tried the option - I would probably die of pretentiousness before I got through the call. A hotel in Hyderabad had some sort of a portable touch pad that had (among other things) a one-touch way to turn off all the lights in the room, pull the curtains, turn off the TV, and Lord knows what else. Now that toy kept me going for a while.
So there is this race on, with the hotels set to outdo each other with new and innovative ways to wow their customers. Which is all fine by me. All power to them, I say. But there are certain things that I wish they did not innovate on. Take lamps for instance. No two lamps seem to have the same kind of switches. If this one has a push bottom on the top, the other one has a turning one on its base, and the third one has some sort of a foot based operation. Why all this variety guys? Do you really want me to spend all this time looking for ways to turn on the light? Speaking of spending time figuring out stuff, what is with the shower controls? First of all, each hotel seems to have perfected some unique way of making their shower seem like the best you have ever taken in your life. If you only took showers at these hotels, you might think single shower-heads are for the sanitarily underpriveleged. Each shower is a combination of multiple heads set at strange angles so that every part of your body gets a direct jet aimed at it. For a habitually long shower taker like me, this is the good Lord's gift, and I am happy to spend a good hour inside. Only, and here is the rub, every hotel has a different set of controls for their shower. So here I am, naked as the day I was born, staring dumbly at a confusing array of knobs and handles trying to figure out which of them does what. And there are unforgiving mirrors that force you to face your ignominy. "So Mr. Hot-Shot Banker", they seem to taunt, "figured out how to turn on the water yet?"
All this is to say that there are ways to go overboard. And these hotels do. Frequently. But am I complaining? Heck, no. Keep at it guys. Keep trying crazy stuff to go one up on the hotel next door (Did I tell you about this hotel that had a rectangular toilet seat? You would need to be Larry Craig to sit comfortably on them, if you know what I mean). Keep trying crazy stuff, and you will keep my life on the road interesting.
My conference in Delhi is done, and everyone has been dropped back to the airport. I reach Bombay late in the evening. It is raining, the monsoons providing their own multi-directional showers to the millions of Indians who will never see the inside of a Leela. The pick-up area at the airport is a mess. The cacophony of car horns is unbearable. Small, dirty puddles of water are everywhere. a passing car sprays a speck of mud on my trouser. My driver is late. As my mother once said on getting out of a swank mall into the bustle of Bombay traffic, "We are back in India".