Hayley, Patrick and I booked into Mumbais Hotel Sea Princess on the advice of our friend Raj. At least, we believed him to be our friend, but we now suspect him to have cunningly wheedled his way into our lives purely to enact a long-plotted, cold-served revenge for a grievous wrong we unwittingly did him many years ago, a la The Count of Monte Cristo. Nothing but a decade of rotting alone and forgotten in a prison tower would cause a person to send anyone to this hotel.
Patrick and I arrived first. Patrick was on crutches with his leg in a cast not, as the staff seemed to believe, as some kind of hilarious fancy dress outfit, but because of a break only two days earlier, rendering him somewhat incapacitated. As normal people might imagine, travelling in this condition is a little tiring and stressful, so it would have been nice to have been welcomed into the hotel with some assistance maybe a wheelchair like from the kind people at Jet Airways. Instead, the porters chucked our bags on the forecourt, and we hobbled our way in and through the doors.
Our first impressions were of the usual gilt explosion, a pan-pipe reiteration of Bryan Adams on the stereo, and an overly complex check-in process but so much, so Asian lux hotel. After a long journey and having had no hot water for a week, we were just desperate to wash and rest.
Maybe there will be WATER PRESSURE? I fantasied.
Maybe we wont have to sleep on a plastic sheet?
Maybe there is a KETTLE?
Ohhh maybe there is fast wifi?
We arrived in our room and initially it did indeed seem that all our dreams had come true. We waited for our luggage to arrive so we could wash and change and go down to the pool for a long-overdue lunch. And waited. I called down. We waited some more. The wifi code was also not forthcoming. Wed asked at check-in and the assistant promised to call up with it. She didnt. We resorted to drinking the mini bar for something to do.
Eventually the bags arrived, and excitedly I leapt into the shower. It was cold, but still a vast improvement on no shower at all. Bits of the bathroom kept falling off in our hands the edging to the doors, for example, leaving the bare glass sides exposed. The toilet lid doesnt stand up against the back wall so it leans hygienically and comfortably onto your back, folding you into a toilet sandwich. But our standards are really pretty low so this all seemed fine.
We raced (well, as much as one can race into a lift whose doors violently close upon you after 5 seconds, when on crutches), down to the pool. Hobbling through the bizarrely laid out restaurant, whose aisles all come to abrupt dead-ends, expecting to see a Cretan minotaur jump out at any minute, we came to the door to the pool. The sun was sparkling on the water, and we saw some inviting looking tables overlooking the beach ahead. But as we tried to step through, several staff ran up to tell us this door was closed. No, not the pool, not the outdoor cafe, just the door. We were welcome to be out there apparently, but seemingly we couldnt go out there. They shooed us to a side door, and Patrick, with blisters ever more weeping under his armpits, crutched his way back through the gilted labyrinth, and then down a flight of steps into a building site. A waft of sewage immediately floated into our nostrils. We picked our way over various bits of debris round to the pool. Checking with a waiter that we could in fact eat out there, as it looked, and smelt, an unlikely place anyone would do that, we sat down at a table. The waiter stood nearby for some time. We looked expectantly at him, and he at us. Time passed. Eventually I cracked, and made the book-opening international menu sign. His face lit up! He returned with one menu. It is a small thing, and only one I mention in passing, but despite the pile of menus on the side, at the Sea Princess we only ever received one menu per table, so we each perused the offerings individually, while the other stared blankly into space.
The waiter sweetly asked us to test the temperature of the beer with our hands. How nice I thought. Not realising the temperature of drinks is an obsession bordering on mania at the Sea Princess, with armies of staff engaged for this purpose, who were unable to take orders, collect bags, produce bills, order taxis. But they were very, very good at removing your coffee cup if they thought it was too cold, even if you were only half-way through.
Two of the four available umbrellas at the pool were broken and the other two taken, so Patricks alabaster skin took a little more beating. I was happy to bask sweatily and lizard-like, enjoying the sunshine for the perhaps last time before having to face Londons winter again. Unfortunately only a completely deaf lizard would have been able to relax as the building work going on around us consisted of continuous hammering on metal, interspersed regularly with a plane taking off from one of the worlds busiest airports half an hour away. However, respite was granted from this every fifteen minutes, by the launches from the helipad in the next block, which drowned out everything else. It was an excellent opportunity to practise our yogic pratyahara, or withdrawal of the senses; if one can switch off smell and hearing in these conditions, one must surely be pretty close to enlightenment.
Hayley arrived bearing some news, which began to raise our suspicions: Raj was no longer coming. The whole reason we were in Mumbai was to see him and take his mothers renowned tour of the city. Why would he pull out at the last minute? Unless was this all an elaborate joke? Or worse? We began to feel unsettled. The sense of paranoia grew as we began to make plans to see the city without Rajs family members. The Sea Princess, it transpires, is not near anything, It is not near famous monuments, museums, shops, restaurants, or even slums. With the Mumbai traffic, it would take at least an hour and a half to travel south to see anything. For a brief layover, three hours travelling seemed excessive. As we later found out, cab drivers from only the next district cackle hysterically when you suggest they might drive to the Sea Princess, before speeding off in the opposite direction. The Sea Princess, it dawned on us, is located in the Ealing of Mumbai.
Undeterred, after a sleep only punctuated by a loud sex show on one side of the paper thin walls, a major domestic fight on the other, and the steady stream of cigarette smoke seeping into our non-smoking room, we fuelled ourselves with breakfast, or as I think we can more appropriately name it, The Ballet of the Coffee Cups. As one might expect, there are coffee cups set out ready on the table. Until, on the fifth attempt of ordering coffee when you finally find the coffee waiter, he then removes the cups. Then the waiter bearing the filter coffee pot filled with freshly brewed instant Nescafe comes over, only to find no receptacles for the stinking brew. He disappears, and then another waiter appears to ask how many cups we would like. He then reappears with a number of cups different to that stated. We began to feel like the unsuspecting Parisian tourist lured into the three cup Shell Game outside the Sacre-Coeur, or perhaps we were in an immersive theatre production, an Augustus Boal Theatre of the Oppressed, an elucidating commentary on a subject as yet obscured, or perhaps just too subtly intelligent for these simple travellers to appreciate. The Sea Princess does not advertise its artistic and theatrical offerings; I think this is a shame, as it could be one of its more likely attractions, in the absence of absolutely anything else.
Check-out time is a civilised 12pm, but due to Hayleys friend Marcus, whom we had begun to suspect to be in some serious cahoots with Raj The Revenger, having booked her onto a 2am flight, she needed to stay in the hotel as late as possible. She rang down to reception.
-Would it be possible to arrange a late check out?
-Well, my flight is at 2am, so as late as possible.
-Er, ok, 10pm?
-No thats not possible.
-What time is possible?
-What time would you like?
-No that is not possible.
-Can you tell me the latest possible check out time?
-What time would you like?
This Pinteresque dialogue continued, with its delicate balance of comedy, tragedy and mounting tension, until the apotheosis of 1 o clock was reached. That was possible.
The check-out procedure takes a mere 40 minutes, and resembles a wonderful orchestral symphony, where the conductor has recently fallen off his platform and smashed in his skull. People move around, they take things from you, they give them back, they hand them to someone else. You are sent to one desk, then another. On tentative enquiry that the process might be expedited before our plane took off, circumvented the globe, then landed again before we arrived, the manager said You have checked out at the eleventh hour, what do you expect?. Clearly a fair analysis of the situation, we thought.
Hayley, having checked out, was instantly barred from the spa and the wifi. She requested access to both happy, even begging, to pay extra but this was not possible. In addition the pool had been closed off, as had the indoor coffee area overlooking the pool.
She sat in the restaurant, and watched the coffee cups as they moved back and forth a thousand times, in a mesmerising dance of infinite jest.
I think we can all agree the moral of this story is twofold:
1. Upset Raj at your peril.
2. Do not stay at the Hotel Sea Princess.