"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Ultimate Traveler–Elegant Hotels And Down And Dirty

I was a world traveller for 40 years and visited over 50 countries on all continents.  I travelled to small villages in the African bush, banged over dirt tracks to reach the most far-flung and isolated hamlets in the tribal regions of Madhya Pradesh, froze in the 14,000 ft. reaches of the Bolivian altiplano, and stayed in the thatched huts of curanderos and witch doctors on tributaries of the Amazon.

I rode colectivo taxis over the Peruvian Andean passes, jammed in the back seat of a banged-up Toyota for the twelve-hour ride from Huancayo to Ayacucho.  I rode reconditioned Bluebird school buses up the narrow, rock-strewn roads of the lower Himalayas teetering above the 1000 ft. gorges on either side.  I travelled across the heart of India third class on the Deccan Queen in high summer, got stranded in the Mauritanian desert, and ground along for interminable hours on the Bamako to Mopti road before the Chinese highway was built.

I wandered through the mazes of markets and bazaars in Old Delhi, Niamey, and Bangkok, took tea with village elders under a banyan tree in North India, drank home-brewed beer in the quartiers of Kinshasa, ate mechoui on the roof of the prefect in a Saharan oasis, and battled flies in dank restaurants in Thana.

However, I stayed in great hotels.  In fact, some of the great hotels of the world – the Oriental in Bangkok, the Grand Hotel in Calcutta, the Raffles in Singapore, the Galle Face in Colombo, elegant grande dame hotels in the Carpathians, five-star hotels on the Corniche in Dakar, the Victorian polished mahogany and teak Splendide and the gingerbread watering hold of Graham Greene, the Oloffson n Port-au-Prince  and many, many more.  One can live in luxury and get down and dirty on the same trip.

The Raffles Singapore

The Oloffson, Port-au-Prince

Writing in the New York Times (5.26.13) Tony Perrottet writes of Rich Travel, Poor Travel and how tourists see the world and makes a distinction between those who travel well and those who suffer third class. On a recent trip to India, Perrottet had banged around in the worst possible way, but then met up with friends who travelled well:

In their cocoon of opulence, they quizzed me about my comical but vivid excursions, which had left me both exhausted and exhilarated. I began to realize that they suffered their own form of travel envy. The sense of control money provided them had also served to deaden their experience.

This, of course, overstates and exaggerates the case to make a point – one should travel ‘local’ to get the taste and smell of place and time; and cites Epictetus who averred that the only way to travel was to suffer. Writing of the long and arduous trek to the Olympic Games he said:

“Don’t you swelter all day in the sun? Aren’t you jammed in with the crowds?” Epictetus asked. “Don’t the din and the shouting and the petty annoyances drive you mad? But of course you put up with it all because it’s an unforgettable spectacle.”

Perrottet goes on to describe the travel of the rich and super rich whether the British governors who decamped with elephants and camels to visit their districts in India, or the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts who built elegant lodges for their occasional hunting trips, all to insulate themselves from the rabble, the heat and dust, the choking crowds, the acrid, rancid smells, the chaos, noise, and misery of local life.

King George V and the Queen arrive in Delhi in 1911, where he was proclaimed Emperor

Of course the wealthy want to avoid the stench and abomination of the poor.  Who would choose to live in a Calcutta slum when they could lodge at the Grand; or suffer the brutal heat of the Gangetic Plain when they can sit in cool, high-ceilinged comfort, fanned by punkawallahs, repairing to the verandah in the evening for a gin fizz or a chota peg?

The modern traveller, however, never has to face this dilemma.  My rule of thumb was always ‘Slum by Day, Five Star by Night; and it guided me well over my many decades in the Third World.

Calcutta is one of my favorite cities, a surprise to most perhaps because of its reputation as the Black Hole of India, all poverty and Mother Teresa or sweet-looking Patrick Swayze caring for the poor and learning about himself in the worst slum in the world in the movie City of Joy.  Calcutta is a vibrant, exciting, demanding city of kaleidoscopic diversity, intensity, unfathomable density, oases of old English graveyards and spacious parks.  It is the intellectual and artistic center of India and one of the most passionately political.

When I worked for the World Bank I would get a stopover on my way from Washington to Dhaka, and rather than take it in London or Paris, I would stop for two days in Calcutta, stay at the Grand, and wander the city.  I would walk until I hit the wall – the moment when the crowds, the heat, the closeness of the smells of urine, dung, horses, spices, goats, curry, bidis, vomit and incense became suffocating; when the tonga clatter, cycle bells, lorry horns, hawker cries became disorienting; and when the tangle of bright sari cloth, garish billboards, naked sadhus, scuffles and altercations, shitting children, and rank goat troupes all became too much.  I had to get out, to retreat within the protective perimeter of the Grand.

The Oberoi Grand Calcutta

Drenched with sweat, blackened with diesel fumes, slum dust, and mud slime, I entered into the chillingly cold, marble lobby of the Grand.  The tall, elegant, liveried Sikh greeted me with a slight bow, and a servant offered me lemonade from a silver tray.  All was quiet and poised inside the hotel.  There was an elegance, an old-world propriety, and a comforting familiarity.  There were brass planters of palm, floral bouquets, old prints of the Raj on the walls, tea tables set with white linen.  It was magnificent.  It was more than a refuge.  It was another world.

Paul Theroux is a great travel writer because he is personal.  Travel for him, like many before him is an adventure and a voyage of discovery.  In his Tao of Travel he has collected the writings of travellers from Ibn Battuta to Mungo Park; and the theme of all of them was that solitary travel when one leaves familiar confines, the comfort and security of home, and the pleasure of companions, can one explore from the inside. Only when confronting the unknown, the dangerous, the unexpected, and the unfamiliar can you find out what you are made of.  You can finally judge and gauge yourself by yourself.

In his latest book Last Train to Zona Verde he travels up the ‘left’ side of Africa from Cape Town to Angola, paralleling the voyage he took on the ‘right’ side from Sudan to South Africa, described in Dark Star Safari.  Both books are typically Theroux – perceptive, personal, and confessional.  He has travelled farther into the interior of Africa than I ever have, and been more adventurous than I could ever have been; but he stayed in some great hotels.  In Zona Verde he tells of the great hotels of Windhoek and the pleasure they gave him.  For him as for me, these sanctuaries of civility and the good life were simply parts of a complex voyage.  It was never either-or; it was always both.

There is no doubt that many if not most travellers fear the unknown and want to tick off the wonders of the world to tell the folks back home.  Packaged tours, plastic and programmed are a billion dollar industry.  Expatriates throughout the developing world often live in gated, hermetically-sealed environments.  Official Americans rarely left the Embassy compound in Delhi, and there was no reason to.  There was a commissary, school, swimming pool, church, bowling alley, and restaurant.  American beer, American food, and most of all an American ambience.  You didn’t live in India.  You lived in America.

Perrottet makes an error, I feel, in conflating those who live in isolated comfort or luxury to deliberately avoid, shun, or ignore the real world; and those who see elegance and chaos as but two elements of a new world. 

Jekyll Island, Georgia was one of the hunting campgrounds of the captains of industry of the early 20th century described by Perrottet.  Each family of Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, or Cranes built their own ‘cottages’, hunted and fished by day, and had magnificently elegant dinners by night back on the grounds.  All these cottages and main hotel have been recently restored.  The Jekyll Island Hotel is a magnificent place  - tailored, manicured lawns, elegant, chandeliered dining room, flowered walkways, gardens, river walks, impressive live oaks spreading across wide lawns.  I go there often – before and after my now regular ‘Cracker Trips’, ventures into rural Georgia, the Deep South, and another world.

I do not travel anymore to far-flung outposts in Africa, and like Paul Theroux who in Last Train to Zona Verde wrote what seems to be his swan-song, I have had enough.  Like Theroux, I had increasingly found myself in some fly-blown, miserable crossroads in the middle of nowhere and have asked myself “What am I doing here?”.  Neither the excitement and adventure of hard travel nor the special counterpoise of the elegant hotels and the end of the journey tempt me any longer; but it has been a good ride.  I tend to remember the hotels more than I do the slums and bazaars which all tend to look alike after a while; but the hotels are all unique, special, set in a particularly period of time and history.  They each have their own character, charm, and brand of elegance.

I miss neither; and have moved on to other things; but I have not one moment of regret for what was one great ride.

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