The Ego Suite
My friends just came back from an ‘unbelievable’ holiday. They couldn’t stop talking about it and how much fun they had when I met them for dinner. My partly jealous but mostly apathetic ears heard them but barely listened. I however realized, notwithstanding my lack of attention, there was something consistent in their insipid description of what they called wanderlust. All they were talking about was the hotel that they stayed in. How they were ‘looked after’ by the staff, how they got upgraded to an ego suite, how the swimming pool had a cocktail bar they never used, how they had cultural shows within the hotel and they didn’t have to step out to actually witness it and how they got drunk and spent all their time talking about life back home. I also remember someone saying, “Now that we have ‘covered’ France, we should make a plan to check Portugal off our list, almost sounding like a war statement. “My pick is The Intercontinental there. They have an indoor swimming pool and in house cooking classes!”
The real problem with the way we travel or for that matter do anything else in life is our desire for sameness. We don’t like shaking it up. We like being in the same shit, doing it over and over again. We still are the cavemen who did the exact same thing everyday because it did not kill them the previous day. Until it did. We still say to ourselves “Eat only the red berry, it didn’t kill me. Chase only the small rabbits, they will not eat you”. So we live the same way everyday and call it habit or discipline or life. And it is to cater precisely to this prehistoric predisposition that hotels were created.
Hotels are like a neutral territory with a consistent plaid cold culture meant to cut across all cultures. You will be greeted with the same ‘earnestly-trying-to-be-warm-but-done-it-so-many-times-today-that-its-like-a-painful-fart’ kind of smile by the front desk and will get the same ‘here-is-your-stuff-that-I-am-underpaid-to-get-and I’m-in-this-for-the-tips-so-move-your-fucking-ass-and-give-me-money’ nod from the bell boy. We all secretly know when a thank you is fake. We just pretend it is real and then return it with a robotic sounding ‘You’re welcome’. Sometimes, we don’t even bother with that. Most of them have the same impersonal rug, the same faceless glitter and the same wall paint with no character or a story to tell. It doesn’t matter if you are in Jaipur or Jersey. Manila or Mumbai. New Delhi or New York. A hotel will always be and behave like your parents. Always wanting the best for you and always keeping you safe. From the city’s slug and slime. From its grind and grime. From its life and death. It's true, hotels are meant to make you feel at home and to their credit, they don’t hide it. But then why travel if you want to feel at home? Just be home. Preferably with your parents.
Hotels also stand for replication. Hundreds of people staying in the exact same kind of room with the same beige coloured curtains, an impersonal and unused study table and the same detergent packed in a fancy bottle with a fancier name and ordering the exact same food out of a menu which seems to be talking only to you but was mass printed in thousands. It’s like rows of luxurious barracks filled with ignorant immigrants who think they are esteemed guests of a faceless businessman who figured he can make more money by renting out real estate on a daily basis instead of a long lease.
Not that I don’t stay in hotels when I travel. But I am trying to tweak that a little. The hotels I remember fondly are the ones where I either had a conversation with the bartender about his life and travails or a waitress who drew up her own pub hopping map for me to check out the cool spots to visit with specific notes on places which read something like - this place is overpriced but you should go and say hi to Jackson who manages the club and say Tina said Hi. See the common string? It is always about the people. No matter how fancy the bed is and has pillows made from some exotic sounding bird’s feather, you always bring back memories of conversations that are unique with people who intend to mean what they say. We all secretly know when a thank you is fake. We just pretend it is real and then return it with a robotic sounding ‘You’re welcome’. Sometimes, we don’t even bother with that.
So for the last few years, even if I have to live in a hotel, I try and find one that is a quaint little ‘boutiqueish’ property, preferably run by a family of ten. Aging parents who started it fifty years back and now run by the next generation with equal fervor and passion. Where you could become friends with one of the sons who would talk about some bizarre experiences he had with guests while running this hotel, including marrying one of them. How his seven year old son helps him clean up the pool and as a reward, he lets him sit behind the front desk for a while. Or how once, the hotel caught fire and everyone in the family doused it bucket after bucket. When it reopened, it ran full occupancy for 6 months and got featured in Lonely Planet’s must stays. How one of the villas is now locked forever because the local legend believes its spooked. Now that’s fascinating. Too bad, it exists in my imagination.
But here’s one that is real. I remember staying in an apartment in Chicago for a month. It overlooked the North Michigan Avenue and the Michigan Lake. Spectacular view and greatly appointed. But what I really remember is catching up with a neighbor or two every morning over a coffee outside the apartment. Or walking with them to work, until our paths diverged. Bumping into them in the elevator and knowing they ran into their ex-wife and how awkward it was. Or that I should not step out tonight as a thunderstorm was expected. It somehow was a better way of knowing the weather than weather.com. Incidentally, I also stayed at The Four Seasons on the same street for a while. I don’t remember anything about the hotel except for the gorgeous looking receptionist, albeit with a practiced smile.
So if hotels offer you a robotic and measured happiness and most of the other good ones are either hard to zero in on, thanks to millions of confusing reviews of trip advisor or difficult to find due to the fact that they exist in our imaginations, where should one stay when traveling? The key is stay in a place that has life and people. And stories. And challenges. And experiences. And local coffee made according to how the charming lady-owner likes it because it reminds her of her honeymoon. So next time you move out of your home, just leave it behind. In fact, try and leave yourself behind. Find a new one thousands of miles away. Listen to a story and share yours with someone. Because bird feathers were meant to be on a bird, not under your head. Because coffee tastes so much better when shared with a stranger.
And AirBnB did not pay me to write this. Just saying.