Travel blues in Europe

Ever since I retired six years ago, I have had all the time in the world to do whatever I want. So mostly I watch TV and read low-brow fiction. Sadly, travel has been pretty much ruled out because my wife teaches in a university and gets only the summer off — which in India is not the time for travelling. So we try and go abroad for a couple of weeks every summer and stay either with my son who teaches at a university in Europe or in some downmarket Airbnb flats. This is because my son says hotels are terrible in Europe, which indeed they are. Compared to India they are not much better than Airbnb accommodation, and cost an arm and a leg.

In India, even very ordinary places — like three-star hotels and government guest houses — offer so much more than European hotels in terms of space, food and service. And the ones that compare well are absurdly expensive. This, by the way, is in sharp contrast to their trains in which even the second class is better than our First AC. Given that their journeys are short and ours so long, I’d have thought it would be other way round. Strange.

India and the rest of Asia really pamper their guests. Even the cheaper hotels are heavenly compared to what you get in Europe.

India and the rest of Asia really pamper their guests. Even the cheaper hotels are heavenly compared to what you get in Europe. I remember staying at a wonderful, old, and restored colonial bungalow in Mussoorie once. It had been built by Courtenay Peregrine Ilbert, a government lawyer, who came up with a very good idea in 1883: he drafted a legislation that would allow Indian magistrates to try white people.

The white people, especially in Calcutta (now Kolkata), became very upset with this and got the law substantially diluted after spreading rumours that Indian judges would fill their harems with white women!

A major problem in Europe during summer is the absence of air conditioning. It can get very hot and humid there. After a full day’s arduous sightseeing when you return to your room or Airbnb flat, you have to suffer the heat till about midnight when the air finally cools. They don’t even have fans, for which you have to ask and which they may or may not have. Mostly they don’t.

In India, many government guest houses are also, in a sense, restored colonial bungalows. Between 2001 and 2010, I used to go to Mussoorie once or twice a year to the IAS Academy to give lectures. They let me stay in their VIP guesthouse which is a very nice place, but there was a pattern that I noticed.

In winter when the sahibs were not visiting, I got large rooms with a splendid view; in summer it was the doghouse!

In winter when the sahibs were not visiting, they would give me large rooms with the most splendid views of the mountains but which couldn’t be seen because of the fog and sleet. In summer, however, when the sahibs would land up en famille, I was given the doghouses — the smaller rooms with a view of the admin block. Once a very senior professor from the Delhi School of Economics was given a room in the basement. In winter, however, he would have got the VIP suite.

When I told a colleague about this typical bureaucratic practice, she suggested I stay at the Ilbert Manor. I don’t know if it’s still there but if you go to Mussoorie, it’s a good place to spend a weekend, not least because there’s absolutely nothing to do except just laze.

Happily, now my wife is on a year’s sabbatical and we can travel more in India and South Asia. I am really looking forward to that. No visa hassles. No extortionate price. No muted racism. Just us brown fellows who know what hospitality means.

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