Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Will we ever look at a deluxe hotel the same way again?

In the summer of 2008, at the Taj Palace hotel in New Delhi’s Safdarjung Enclave, the vast marble floor of the lobby reflects our family’s weary, jetlagged faces. The exhaustion of a 24-hour journey notwithstanding, the interior–evocative of the Mughal era–stops us dead in our tracks.

“Guys, just wait until tomorrow morning,” dad says, taking in our sleepy faces. “The breakfast here is to die for.”

Considering how many innocent civilians died while eating at this hotel’s sister establishment in Mumbai last week, my recollection of a delightful dining experience at the Delhi Taj now leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

I doubt that any of us has ever bothered to check around while checking into a top-flight hotel. In our family, we can’t always afford the five-star experience but we are bold gawkers in tony places. When visiting a new town, we dine, have coffee or hang out for an hour or two at a ritzy hotel; there’s wonderful (window) shopping, great dining and, almost always, artifacts and displays that speak to the history and the culture of the place. And, let’s admit it, there are those snazzy restrooms with extra-ply tissue.

The only time our family was ever denied entry to hang out at a deluxe hotel was at the Ritz in Paris; we’ve been licking our wounds ever since. Surely, the Queen of England was in town and that’s why?

Our family has been in countless travels to exotic locales. And over the years, we’ve been riddled by many setbacks: we were conned by taxi drivers in Bangkok, we dropped a green-card along with a wallet in Chennai, we almost got pick-pocketed in Madrid, we dodged an avalanche at Mont Blanc by several car-lengths, we endured harassment from gypsies around the Vatican, we were mobbed by Madrid’s noisy prostitutes, we fell direly ill in London and we fussed over an infant son hospitalized with pneumonia in Hong Kong. Still, travel has brought us excitement. It has instilled a sense of wonder. It has given us rest.

But this new unrest stirs synonyms of controversy for the word ‘travel’ in my head: Trouble, Terror, Tumult, Torture, Torment, Tension, Tyranny. Tranquility, you ask? That word is synonymous with staying home and pressing a remote to watch the travels of Michael Palin.

I don’t know if I see myself craving the deluxe hotel experience wholeheartedly anymore. Will a gentle knock on the door for “room service” be just that and no more? Is everyone on the hotel’s housekeeping staff really “in house”? All I know is that from now on, I won’t fret if I’m overcharged for a rollaway bed, not as long as I’m not rolled away from the hotel in a gurney. I never snack off of a mini-bar because of the maxi charges. But from here on (and hear this, husband), I will, because who knows how long these historic mega-hotels will be around?

I’m leery of the power of the Internet with respect to hotels: the mass of information, while a goldmine for potential visitors, is a quarry of resources for potential perpetrators of crime. Double click on any hotel’s website and you’ll see extensive charts and videos showing hotel and accommodation layouts. The event planning section of the website for Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace Hotel–directed at wedding and conference groups originally–certainly allowed one group to throw a one-of-a-kind bash with massive consequences. We can only pray and hope there won’t be any missile consequences.

“I don’t ever want to stay at a five-star hotel,” I say, as we watch the Taj ablaze on television. “It’s only Best Western or Comfort Inn for us.”

“Over my dead body, mom!” my daughter shoots back.

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