As a person working in the social development sector, traveling forms an integral part of my job. It is the fuel that runs my job description and achievement of performance targets. So traveling for me is not a choice. It is compulsory! Unfortunately I am not a typical “professional” traveling to “Corporate destinations”. The places I travel to are usually god forsaken places and small towns that most people have never heard about. And the experiences…. ? Well they have been unique in themselves!
The first time I ever traveled on work was to a remote village inside the Srisailam forest in Andhra Pradesh. I was in my mid twenties and terribly excited about it. The organization had arranged my accommodation inside a government “Inspection bungalow”. The place looked picturesque with a lovely view and a clean room. I was rearing to go…! I left for the village almost immediately after I “checked in”. I was feeling very important as I accompanied the local field staff in their jeep to the project area. The day passed by with no major incident.
it was only when I got back to the “inspection bungalow” that I realized what lay in store for me! The entire building was clothed in darkness- there was a power cut! It was going to be a “Hard day’s night” and there was no way that I was going to be sleeping like a log! The care taker brought out an oil lantern and placed it on a table in my room. It was about 8 PM and I was hungry. But Mr. Caretaker had been waiting for me to get back so that I could tell him what I wanted for dinner. There weren’t many options and I had to finally settle for whatever it was that suited his culinary inclination. I felt around the bathroom for the bucket ,filled it with ice cold water, bathing in the dark and praying all the while that there were no reptiles about !! The power did not come back until dawn. I kept myself busy through the night swatting mosquitoes and trying to blot out from my mind all the ghost stories I had read !
The next memorable experience was a few years later at Nagapattinam in a hotel run by the Government of Tamil Nadu. This hotel was inside a small congested town and one would have never expected it to be “memorable” in any way except for the strong smell of drying fish from a fish drying yard nearby.
The situation began to unfold in front of me in true Tamil movie style when I got back from the project villages at about 7 PM. There were some flashy cars parked outside and one could hear loud laughter coming out of the rooms. “MLA xxx Saar and his friends are here” whispered the Manager into my ears. He was behaving like I was a spy who he had to quickly hide. He beckoned me to follow him up the stairs into my room. When I reached the room, he whispered “ Madam please stay inside your room. Don’t come downstairs for food. I will serve it here”! I did not have to ask why. The strong smell of alcohol around the corridors was warning enough for me to stay indoors.
But nothing prepared me for the eerie experience in the middle of the night! The room had suddenly lighted up like a UFO had landed outside. Before I could jump out and go to the window it became dark once again. I was just thinking I might have imagined it when it lit up again for a moment before going dark. I couldn’t for the life of me imagine what the matter was until I noticed the way the light was moving around ! It was the light atop the lighthouse and I had the unique privilege of being in a room that came within the arc of the beam! The rest of the night was spent watching this light. In one of the light up moments I found that my room had a door that I hadn’t noticed earlier. It was not the door to the bathroom. So obviously it was the connecting door to the next room. My imagination ran riot wondering who was on the other side of the connecting door. The latch was not on my side of the door you see. So I dragged a huge side table and pushed it against the door with the comforting thought that if anyone tried to enter my room from the other side I would at least hear him!
This is a precaution I follow in all the hotels I stay that have no latch / safety chain on the door.
As the years went by and development hit the smaller towns, the hotels seemed to get better. But every once in a while I would have an experience to remember.
The hotel CST Grand was located on a highway that led from Kodai Road towards the hills. It looked beautiful when I checked it. It was brand new and like the “Titanic” still smelling of wet paint. The staff were courteous and the food delicious. But it was when I got ready to turn in for the night that I had the feeling that may be I was the only resident of this hotel. I was not confident enough to leave my room and go downstairs to the reception to verify if my guess was true .My room faced the highway and every once in a while I would hear vehicles whizz past. For some strange reason the scenes from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” began to play in my mind. I kept the light on all the time wondering if the curtains were thick enough to keep away prying eyes from the highway.
There have been other experiences that have been less sinister. The best room in the best “hotel” in Machilipatnam had a circular bed with a velvet coverlet that refused to come off !!! It was a most unsettling experience to suddenly wake up in the night and wonder which “side” of the bed I was on. The room and the bed became so famous in our office that people vied with each other to stay there. Unfortunately it was much before the days of “Facebook” and “Selfies”! So there was no motivation to take photographs posing like a Telugu movie heroine in a dream sequence!!!
But despite all these, travel and accommodation in all these places have been very pleasant experiences. As a woman traveling alone I have always found the hotel staff to be very protective and caring! There have been times when I have been unwell and these “boys” have gone out in the middle of the night to get me paracetamol. I have always been served hot food and they have never forgotten that I am vegetarian.
Many of the hotels in the small towns today have smartened up and we have buffet style “Complimentary breakfast” thrown in. Very often the food in the buffet is cold as the food warmers do not work properly. But that does not affect me as I always get my food hot and straight out of the kitchen. There are more girls now serving food in the restaurants. I generally spend time talking to them to find out what their career plans in the hospitality industry are. It has broken a lot of stereotypes that I have in my mind and I am pleasantly surprised.
I am also happy at the way that many of the hotels in the district towns are becoming women friendly these days. They have pick up and drop to the railway station. Almost all the “room boys” knock before they enter your room. No longer do I find dirty plates and empty liquor bottles outside closed doors when I leave my room in the mornings.
Organizational policies are also becoming sensitive to these issues. Hotels are checked for safety before women employees are accommodated there. And thanks to these conditions I find more number of women like me staying alone in hotels in these towns. No longer do I feel odd about myself when I am checking in to a hotel. I do not know if it is because I have grown older or have become more immune to the stares.. But yes, I now understand why “Avvaiyar” voluntarily adopted the cloak of old age.