Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Taj in Varkala

From the beginning of our trip we'd been planning to go to either Goa or Kerala in India.  They're both known as relaxing places on the beach, and we'd gotten recommendations for both of them.  We thought about going to the beach directly after our 18 day tour of China, but at the end we felt ok enough to instead travel through North India straight off.  Our 10 day tour of Rajasthan ended on March 31, which meant we'd been traveling for 4.5 weeks, spending on average about 2 nights in each hotel room.  It seemed like as good a time as any to head to the beach to relax for at least a few days.  We ended up picking Kerala because it sounded less touristey than Goa, and we really wanted to feel like we were getting some peace and quiet.

So, speaking of peace and quiet...  You may remember that when our cab driver wouldn't take us to our hotel, we yelled at him to stop at the Taj Palace hotel.  We've never stayed in a Taj hotel, but somehow we had known it was a very nice hotel that could be trusted.  We also felt that going into the hotel was like going into the green zone.  This was partially because we felt so afraid from our taxi ride, and the hotel was a sanctuary, but it was also due to the layout of the hotel entrance:  There were concrete blast barriers that required an incoming vehicle to weave back and forth (so it couldn't charge the hotel at high speed).  There were guards with big guns lining not only the entrance but the outside wall surrounding the property, they had large wrought iron gates, and the hotel was only enterable via a side road.  

It took a week, but eventually we figured out why we knew the taj was a nice hotel:  The Taj Palace in Mumbai was one of the targets of the violent 26/11 siege by (alleged) pakistani muslim militants.  Since it had been in the news recently, we must have internalized the name of the hotel and knew it was a nice chain.  (Note that the Taj we went into was in delhi; the attacked one was in mumbai.)  In retrospect, that was probably also the reason why it felt like going into the Green Zone.  The hotel in Delhi was extremely fortified to prevent a mumbai-style attack.

There are still constant reports of Pakistani incursions in the Indian news.  We did our camel safari in the Rajasthani desert about 100km from the Pakistan border.  The day before our camel safari, our driver told us that several hundred Pakistani "Taliban" were rounded up by the Indian Army (and got into firefights?) crossing the desert border into India, presumably in order to carry out terrorist attacks within India.  When we were on our safari, I kept joking with the lead camel guy and our driver about how maybe we'll catch some terrorists lost in the desert.  They laughed, but I wonder if they were just being polite and it wasn't something I should have joked about.  

In any case, I mention all this to give some background into the security feeling in India.  I don't think people are paranoid, but definitely many hotels have lots of extra security.  People are aware of the potential threat after 26/11, but for the most part it feels safe.

Bearing that in mind, before going to Kerala we arranged 2 nights at a Taj hotel, the "Gateway Garden" in Varkala.  It had decent reviews on tripadvisor, and we wanted to stay somewhere we knew would be nice so we could relax and not worry about anything.

On April 1, we went to the Delhi airport and prepared to board our Kingfisher flight to Trivandrum Kerala.  Marisa started reading the newspaper, and the frontpage story was...  an email originating from Pakistan  had been sent to the Taj hotel in Chennai threatening it.  There were very few details in the story, but apparently the Taj hotel in Mumbai was also threatened, and all Taj hotels were put on extra security alert.  So much for our relaxing stay at the taj in kerala.

We considered just canceling our stay and losing our nonrefundable reservation, so we spent some time talking about it.  It seemed like the threat (which wasn't even to this hotel) was pretty ambiguous; we decided that we would go to the hotel to check it out and see what we thought about how risky it was.

We also read quite a bit about the earlier attack in Mumbai.  The details were horrific.  There were attacks in two hotels.  At the Taj the militants rounded people up from all the rooms and specifically took Americans and British citizens hostage.  (Although the vast majority of innocent people killed were Indian.)  For more than a day, the terrorists were under siege by special Indian counterterrorist forces who engaged in a firefight with the terrorists in the corridors of the hotel until eventually all of them were killed or surrendered.

Our first decision was that if terrorists showed up at our hotel, we would hide our American passports and do our best big lebowski german accent:  "Ve are Jerman, not Amerikan!  Ja!  Ve are von Dusseldorf!"

We had arranged for a driver from the hotel, so he picked us up and dropped us off right at the lobby.  The first good sign was that upon arrival we realized our hotel was not even labeled as a Taj hotel.  All the signs outside said "The Gateway Hotel".  It apparently is owned by the Taj group, but is not fancy enough to merit the "Taj Palace" label.  Normally that'd be a disappointment but in this case it seemed to give it a lower profile.  We also noticed that there was practically no one else in the hotel, which was a good thing.  The terrorists had picked the hotel in Mumbai because it was packed to the gills with rich businessmen, famous politicians, and westerners.  We also asked the guy at checkin if he'd heard anything about the terrorist threats on the Taj.  He looked a little taken aback (afraid?).  He got really quiet and said that he hadn't heard anything about it.  (We weren't sure if that meant he was clueless, or if people thought our hotel wouldn't be under threat.  We felt a little bad for scaring him.)

We determined that it seemed alright to stay at the hotel.  We only had reservations for 2 nights, so we decided we'd move as soon as that was up.  As a precaution, we made an effort to always be together when on the hotel property in case something happened, and we also tried to stay off the property as much as possible during the day.

That actually probably had a far more dangerous impact, because in order to stay off the hotel property, our first full day in Kerala we went to the beach and rented a beach umbrella.  We stayed there all day under the umbrella reading, and occasionally leaving to swim in the ocean.  Apparently the umbrella didn't really filter the sun, because Steve got a moderate sunburn, which is probably higher risk than a terrorist attack anyway.

We've since moved to a much smaller hotel with only 4 rooms, which is not a part of a high profile chain.  It's quite nice, is half the price of the Taj, and directly overlooks the ocean.

On a final note, if Steve was a terrorist, he wouldn't attack the taj but would instead invade the north end of the varkala beach, because that's where all the pale brits are.  You can't kick a seagull without hitting red sunburnt skin there.


  1. Never a dull moment....always a new anxiety. But it sounds as if the time you had on the beach was nice. I wonder what will happen next?

  2. It's good to be alert, and you seem to have a plan for all contingencies. I'm glad you've also found ways to relax.

  3. hahaha sehr gut mein Deutche volk!

    You guys are so cute! I love how you're so careful about everything.

    To help calm you down (or perhaps make you more nervous) the risk of being involved in a terrorist attack in India is about one millionth the risk of being in an auto-rickshaw accident