My friend edits a travel magazine. She lets me review hotels. This means that I can stay at nice hotels free in return for a short review. (The magazine doesn’t pay either; it’s done “on trade.”) I can write four or five hotel reviews a year. Whenever I suggest more, my friend (who is a close friend of more than ten years) goes silent.
I recently arranged to stay at the Hotel in Delhi for two nights on trade. Rooms there start at six hundred dollars, and (uncharacteristically) they included everything—food, minibar, spa, airport pick-up and drop-off—in the trade. I mean it was all, to use their very polite and reassuring word, complimentary. Alcohol would have cost, they did say, but I am not a person who drinks anymore. I recently lost my privileges.
The thing about a free hotel stay is that you pay in time, in tours, and in the unspoken requirement that you ask questions, feign amazement, and jot notes about wall hangings, historic meetings, and persons who have sat in so-and-so chair. (“How do you spell that name? So wonderful. So he really sat here? May I sit?”)
The Hotel is the finest hotel I have reviewed, and my tormentors there (two women, one in guest relations and one in PR) were the most sadistic creatures I have ever known. Five hours of touring and talk, man. Then a visit to every grade of room (there are eight). And the whole time I am nodding in Lanvin flats, taking notes in a red Moleskine notebook, and generally pretending to be a person who was not raised by a wolf and would like to run her hand down the fabric of a curtain.
The Hotel has five restaurants, one of which was rated by Condé Nast as among the ten best in the world. When my dungeon master asked me where my companion, Clancy, and I would prefer to dine that evening, I naturally said that we would prefer to dine at the best restaurant in the world.
Our reservation was a lock. Nervous with pride and excitement, the restaurant manager gave us a tour. He explained the restaurant was organized according to the seven stages of human life. When he learned we were writers (“Oh, I would have guessed Wall Street”), we were seated in the second, creative phase of life: childhood.
I want to say this was a fine hotel and this manager, as well as my tormentors, were genuinely charming and that a different person might have enjoyed every moment of the day I spent in hell. Or at least more moments.
We got the tasting menu. A few minutes later, the waiter cleared our brass plates, and put down ordinary dinnerware. He went into the kitchen and returned with a copper bowl full of some kind of curried fish. He gave each of us a spoonful. We each took a bite.
The food, to be blunt, was P. F. Chang’s on training day, but with the added spice—we’d learn the following morning—E. coli. I was already deep in regret and embarrassment—really, I’d insisted we try this dish, out of the several they have—when they served a “palate cleanser” made of lime jello, frozen condensed milk, a brown savory spice, and cottage cheese in four attractive layers in a shot glass. This was followed by a main course of more steamed or fried fish—like at a dinner at a very cheap conference or a wedding back in small-town Louisiana, where I originally hail from, you really couldn’t say steamed or fried or somewhere in between—and egg noodles masquerading as pad Thai.
Our waiter was back with another copper bowl, more spoonfuls, and then he was gone and quickly back again with a copper bowl. Then he went away and came back with another copper bowl and more spoonfuls. Our plates now looked like a plate would look if filled by a greedy first-timer at a Jackson Heights Indian buffet. I began to have doubts.
I said, “You know, I think there’s a steam table back there.”
“Really?” Clancy said. Occasionally, despite his good manners, he does speak to me like I am stupid. But before I could begin to protest, our waiter was back.
“And how is the meal?” he asked. “Everything is to your satisfaction?”
He went away for three minutes and returned with a brass plate of breaded, fried fish topped with grated green mango. The breading, because it had been sitting in a buffet, was soggy and pale. He gave us each a portion.
Clancy took a bite of the fish. He said, “I think I would go so far as to say the food is awful.”
“Why did you even try it?” I asked.
We started to speculate about how this restaurant had won its award. We agreed that the PR and guest-relations women (again, these women were young, beautiful, knowledgeable, and kind) were not lying. We were baffled. And then we remembered what a journalist is—that we are, in fact, journalists—and we (every day stronger in our sobriety but not perfect people) recalled the wine menu (it was outstanding) and recognized what sort of carpet the Hotel would likely roll out for a reporter (we guessed he was all of twenty-five) from the most prestigious Condé Nast. Our deduction: complimentary wine.
We could see him sozzled at two P.M., taking notes on the tour, the drapes, the chair, and the visit of this-and-this King—must I go to my suitcase and refer to those notes? We pictured him selecting the restaurant with the gaudiest decor—it would have appeared exotic through his goggles. By now, ten more brass bowls had come and gone and our plates had been cleared, and we were eating our mercifully plain desert (vanilla ice cream), speaking in our (uncommonly good) imitations of drunks, saying things like, “It’s de—LEH—suh. Thane yuh, the food is delehshuh. It’s absollulley delehshuhsh.”
“I’m so happy to hear that, sir.”
“It’s duhlishuh. It’s absollulley …”
“Thank you, sir.”
For some reason, even though our meals were complimentary, we always had to sign for them. Clancy signed, tipped in cash, and even filled out the comment card. Each element of the restaurant—service, food, ambiance, and so on—was rated on a points system, ten being the highest. I looked over his shoulder and saw him checking ten for each of the twenty boxes.
After he gave the waiter the check, Clancy said, “I only gave him a thousand rupees. I’m sorry, but…” Clancy normally tips 25 percent or more; this was less.
“Oh, that’s fine—more than enough. That’s good here, even. They don’t tip like we do, and besides”—I was forgetting the meal was complimentary—“the tip in Indian hotels is usually included in the bill.”
Clancy was dubious. When our waiter passed our table, he did not slow his pace, and only looked at us out of the corners of his eyes.
“See?” Clancy said.
It made no sense—I knew the tip (twenty dollars) was generous by Indian standards. At the very least it was adequate. We sat a little longer before leaving, and I watched the waiter to see if I had misunderstood, but there was no question: we had done something he could not pardon.
That was Delhi. Now we are in Varanasi. Grifters, we arranged to jump in the Ganges in exchange for two nights at the Taj Hotel. We wanted another—one of the finest hotels in India—but our editor’s travel department very cannily worked us down to its sister hotel. It is a nice hotel. I write from there now. We have a two-room suite. There is a pool. And the members of the staff, to a one, perhaps conscious of their betters at the older sibling, take a unique and totally unfamilar pride in their work.
We had dal for lunch yesterday. We were the only people in the restaurant. The decor was a bit like a chic restaurant in Texas in 1982. The dal was delicious and our waiter kind, careful, and able to apprehend our wishes. Clancy filled out the comment card—all tens—and in the additional comment space, he said our waiter (he knew him by name) was a perfect gentleman. He wrote two or three sentences like that.
In the long hallway past the pashmina boutique, we heard footsteps racing behind us. It was the restaurant manager. Clancy had forgotten to fill in his full name, telephone, room number, and home address.
He obliged, and when we were alone again, he said, “They take those things seriously.”
“Maybe that’s why that other waiter hated us, ’cause I was writing all those crazy things.”
“Don’t you remember? I was writing we came there six times for brunch. How our entire wedding party was delighted?”
“Oh,” I said. I hadn’t noticed. Yes.