Travelling for work sounds like a lot of fun, especially when you are not experiencing said travel while grinding your life away in some soul-destroying and largely meaningless corporate existence. Tell people that you go on buying trips to exotic locations for a living and that you buy all manner of objects like textiles and jewellery and handicrafts, well they become almost catatonic with excitement on your behalf imagining all of the delights you must experience on a daily basis. They picture you swanning from bazaar to souk, interacting amiably with colourful locals, sending your goods via porters straight to a steamer vessel at dock, then resting your weary head on billowing silk cushions at night, perhaps recounting tales of your adventures to other travellers in the bar between times. What they don't know (or want to know) is that you are most likely working in 40 C plus (sometimes higher indoors) or adversely, during the rainy season, that you battle illness, mosquitoes, heat rash, dogs, monkeys, thieves, inadequate banking facilities and nightmare transportation logistics, or that you generally carry everything you buy in a day on your back until you can deposit it somewhere safe.
Not to say that all or our trips are the stuff made of nightmares - and besides, quite often the best stories come from what was at the time a very difficult or even a dangerous situation. I remember one perfect evening on a hotel porch in Jaipur, sitting in our recliners sipping fruit punch with a husband and wife team of diamond buyers from South Africa. We were discussing monkeys, as you do in that part of the world, and I was recounting a particularly funny story (in retrospect) about being badly scratched by one on an earlier trip. The wife in turn related stories about baboons back at home. I asked her if she'd locked the house up tight before leaving and her face fell as she suddenly remembered leaving a small bathroom window open on the first floor. I spent the next hour cheerfully imagining out loud all the things the local troop of baboons were doing to her underwear at that very moment.
Taking a half-day out of our buying schedule to visit an ancient Jaipurian palace, I took a moment to sit, at which point the monkey in the picture sidled up to me and started eying me off. Just as Ian took the shot the monkey reached over, looked me straight in the eye, then raked its filthy little set of claws across my leg.
Hotels are a particular dice roll when travelling for this kind of work. Booking from home can be expensive and land you in surprisingly unsuitable locations - one hotel in Hannoi located next to a river came with such a loud chorus of frogs we had to shout to make ourselves heard, while my father once ended up in a male brothel in Bangkok. However booking on the spot can be even more expensive and you run the very real risk of finding every hotel in town is full because of some unforeseen and obscure flower throwing festival, which is also how I ended up spending the night in a brothel in Ethiopia. And now that I think about it, I'm not sure that any of my hotel mishaps have ever once resulted in a funny story.
Another major problem with booking your hotel online is that the owner's idea of "four star" and your idea of "four star" can be two very different things. On one memorable occasion, we required overnight housing in Mumbai at Air India's expense because our afternoon flight to Jaipur was canceled. We were told we were being sent to the "Four Seasons" as a special treat. An hour later, we found ourselves inside a hole in the wall building in suburban Mumbai still under construction. It turned out the "Four Sasons" we had been sent to was not exactly legit.
So for better or for worse, this is my hotel classification system, and certainly one that has never let me down:
Shithouse. I think you can picture this category for yourself. Think of the toilets in any seedy nightclub at 4 am on a Sunday morning and you’re pretty well spot on. So vile even cockroaches avoid the place. Costs anywhere between $5 and $80 a night. May be in or near a brothel.
Dormitory accommodation in Pakistan. Photo credit: Kashgar
And while we're at it, this is not Harrods. Photo credit: Kashgar
Toilet Block, Clean. This usually consists of a room tiled in white with twin beds, and a bathroom that you can shower and crap in at the same time. Surprisingly clean, but looks can be deceiving! I once spent a night in a room like this while a rat quietly ate half a packet of biscuits not five centimetres from my sleeping head. Costs between $40 and $120 a night. Possibly has hot water, at least at certain times of the day (those times being when you are out). Mattress feels like a plank, usually made of foam. Subcategory is Toilet Block, Dirty. Same as above but three years older.
And the dining room was disappointing... Photo credit: Kashgar
The pleasures of the Holiday Inn, Manali, await you. Falls into the Toilet Block, Dirty classification. Sign reads "Owned by competent group of companies". Photo credit: Kashgar.
Deceased Estate. You reach the lobby and think wow! Soaring ceilings, mezzanine levels, grand piano in the corner. Unfortunately the good times don’t reach the guest rooms. Stinking of the accumulated years of cigarette smoke and carpeted in some kind of dense green felt, the room will have an air conditioning unit that sounds like a rabid hippo and plumbing that lets you know exactly what your neighbour is up to at all times of the night. Cost between $120 and $250. May or may not include breakfast.
This four star hotel in the backlands of Vietnam comes with it's
very own pig as a doorman. Picture credit: Kashgar
Plastic International. Ok, except for the price. Value $120, actual cost closer to $300 plus taxes. Breakfast usually extra. Five channels of Bollywood, Chinese government propaganda or the Dow Jones Index and CNN available on TV. Staff ignore you unless absolutely necessary. Swimming pool generally closed for maintenance, often all year round.
This is Nice. Unfortunately, this is also rare unless one is spending upwards of $300 per night. Always has a functioning swimming pool and staff dressed in huge turbans/pantaloons/funny hats. Current trend is a glass wall between the bed and bath and a rain shower. I always steal the toiletries from these hotels just to get a better sense of value. But boy are they nice to come back to at the end of long day's buying.
My favourite hotel in the whole world when I'm traveling in India: the head doorman at the Ajit Bawan Hotel in Jodhpur. Photo credit: Kashgar
Meanwhile somewhere in Burma...Photo credit: Kashgar
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