Monday, August 24, 2009

Hotels and parables

A final reflection on our Sri Lankan hotel experience that kind of sums the whole thing up.

Hikkaduwa was pretty trashed by the tsunami in 2004. When we stayed there in 2007, the hotel we chose was part of an international chain and had had considerable help in getting itself back on its feet. It was full when we looked at the website ahead of this year's visit - it was also pretty expensive!

The Supercorals where we stayed wasn't so lucky. The sea washed away the ground floor and did quite a bit of damage to the pool and outdoor bar area. Five years later, it's still being rebuilt. Half the hotel was boarded up with workmen coming and going doing major plumbing and electrical work.

Our room was comfortable, the bathroom was excellent, the air conditioning was quiet and wonderfully effective. And given that we were paying the equivalent of £13 per person per night bed and breakfast, we thought that it was good value. And to be honest even after the loss of my mobile phone from our locked room, I'd consider staying there again.

We felt that our presence was a tiny vote of confidence in their reconstruction efforts, their comeback from being all-but washed away by the tsunami.

And our stay was not without its comic moments.

On the first day of multiple occupancy, we came down to breakfast at our usual time of just after 8am. It was laid out for a buffet but there was no food in it yet. 'about ten minutes,' said a bright eyed young waiter. So we sat down. What he'd failed to tell us was that the ensuing ten minutes would offer us some of the best slapstick we've ever witnessed.

In an attempt to light the kerosene burners under each of the large dishes that keep the buffet warm, two waiters managed to set fire to the table cloth. Three foot high flames quickly spread as the kerosene spilled out from the burner. Other waiters arrived with cloths. For the next two or three minutes about half a dozen of them fanned the flames along the table. Eventually a manager with a jug of water and the fact that all the kerosene had burned up meant that the conflagration died down and went out.

In the meantime, another group of waiters was trying to get the toaster working. It was one of those devices where you put the bread in at one end and it falls out two or three minutes later from the other end nicely brown. Except this machine was only producing warm curly bread. One waiter thought that this was because the conveyor belt was moving too quickly, so he was trying to slow it down using spoons. After a moment or two it stopped working altogether.

So there was much frantic fiddling with the plug and cable. Still nothing. This was probably due to the fact that one of the waiters was sitting on the floor with the two ends of the power cable sticking up from his fist, completely separated from the plug in the socket. The manager motioned to him and he proceeded to shove the cable ends back into the live plug and hold them there. The toaster sprang to life - although it continued only to produced warm curly bread unless the same slice was put through it three or four times.

And we were not charged a penny for this floor show! The breakfast that eventually followed it - some half an hour after we first sat down - was pretty good too, though we avoided the fish curry and French toast.

This is a hotel with huge potential - a great location, lots of rooms, a well appointed pool in a lovely garden area with the Indian Ocean as a constant backdrop. But it requires a management revolution and an influx of high-spending tourists to achieve that potential.

In many ways, it's a tiny parable of Sri Lanka as a whole. I for one am up for investing a bit of time and cash in the country. We just need a million or so more.

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