Posts Tagged ‘hotel’

Don’t valet.

February 11, 2009

(the following is a true story; a personal account of my old advertising partner’s first hand experience with terrorism. Good friend, fellow writer: williamspencer.com)

My first day in Mumbai

In a way, this is a boring story. I was standing in a hotel lobby with some friends, we went upstairs and sat in the room for a long time. Then we left. That’s basically what happened. But I’m grateful that my story is not more exciting. If it were, I might not be here to tell it.

“There are terrorists inside the hotel.” That was the beginning. That’s when I locked the door and we began a long, nerve-wracking wait. And that’s all it really was. Four people sitting in a luxury hotel suite, waiting. We never saw an explosion. Never saw a terrorist. Never saw anything burning or anyone getting shot. Occasionally we would hear something: an explosion or gunshots in the distance. That was the only evidence that the story we heard from friends on the phone was happening in our hotel. Mostly it was silent.

I had come to Mumbai with my friend Pooja from Delhi, where I had been living for a few months. This was my first trip to India and first day in Mumbai. I liked it. It seemed to have more warmth and character than Delhi. When I found that most of the hotels on my list didn’t have availability or were charging double their listed rate, possibly because of my American accent, I just happened to be near the Taj hotel. I secretly wanted to stay there anyway, i think, and now I had a good excuse for to splurge a bit.

One shower, one nap, and an hour of strolling around the hotel later, I found myself looking at a hotel employee rushing toward me from the street waving his arms.

“Bhago! Bhago!” (I later learned that ‘Bhago’ means ‘run’.)

“Go inside!”

I recall hearing a gunshot before he urged us inside but I didn’t place the sound at the time. I’ve been lucky enough in my life that I haven’t heard that sound enough to reliably distinguish it from a firecracker or a truck backfiring. We strolled into the lobby, knowing that something was going on, but with little idea what. My friend Akash thought maybe we should leave in his car. After all, we had been waiting on the steps in front of the hotel for the valet to bring his car, which was parked close enough to be almost silly for a valet to go and get. We could probably get to it and leave.

An American couple ran in after us. I remembered seeing them when I checked-in and overheard their accent. The girl was hurt. But it looked like she fell–she hadn’t been shot. We stood in the center of the lobby, looking around for any indication of what was happening outside, when we heard a loud sound come from the opposite direction, toward the back of the hotel. It sounded like a gunshot or an explosion. There are fewer alternate explanations for that kind of sound when you’re inside.

“Let’s go to the room.”

Things just felt unpredictable. We walked quickly toward the elevator, which also happened to be toward where the sound had come from. No one else was leaving. The lobby still looked relatively normal–people walking around, talking in groups. We walked into an elevator left open after a very relaxed-looking man in sandals leisurely walked out. We punched our floor number and stood waiting for the door to close. Nothing was happening in the lobby. The whole thing was probably nothing–we could always go out for dinner later.

Looking down from our room, we could see people huddled around something on the street. Eventually an ambulance came and a body was loaded into it. Not moving. Later a news van showed up. The light attached to a video camera scanned the ground where the people had been standing. A few minutes later, it showed up on TV. Pools and splatters of blood on the street.

“These kinds of gang shootings happen a lot here” Akash explained.

That’s what the TV caption said: Gang Violence. Then we started getting news about other places. The train station. The Oberoi hotel. One news network changed their caption to “Terror Strike”. Then the TVs cut to static. Akash told us what he had heard moments before from a phone call: there were terrorists inside the hotel. And that was the beginning.

“I wonder if my car is okay” was the next thing Akash said, mostly to himself.

We had a lot of time on our hands. In regular cycles, we questioned our decisions. Should we have left the hotel? Should we try to get out now? I figured that the terrorists would not have the time to go room-to-room, especially once the police showed up, they would only be able to round up hostages who were easy to round up. The room seemed safe, at least considering that terrorists had taken over our hotel. One possibility made me question myself. What if they are trying to bring down the tower? It seemed unlikely, but a lot of unlikely things had happened that day. I saw the twin towers collapse from my rooftop in Brooklyn on 9/11 and recalled the fact that many of those inside were told that the safest thing to do was stay inside. Still, it seemed the safer option to stay.

My 3 friends were all Indian and a constant stream of phone calls and SMS messages from concerned friends interrupted each other in turn.

“Call me back in 5 minutes.”

“Hang on I have another call.”

“She’s on the other phone.”

Over and over. Then, during the times when someone didn’t have a call coming in, I heard them report on what their friends were seeing on TV.

“There are 40 terrorists.”

“They are holding hostages on the top floor of our building.”

“There is firing on the 13th floor.”

“They are looking for British and Americans.”

Mostly, as we later found out, the facts were wrong. The last one, however, was true. And those words stayed in the pit of my stomach after hearing them. With red hair and freckles, I sort of stand out in India. Before I left, my mom actually suggested that I dye my hair and grow a beard to blend in more. I thought this was ridiculous at the time. I still do. But suddenly, it seemed a little less so as my Indian friends asked if I had a hooded sweatshirt to wear in case we had to leave.

Some people recognized Akash’s car on TV and called him. Prominently displayed in front of the hotel, police and soldiers were using it as a shield and shooting from behind its protection. I remember Akash asking someone if it looked okay.

I was in the midst of planning this trip when there were bomb blasts in Delhi, where I was going to rent an apartment and live for two months. I mentally brushed it off. What are the chances of that happening to me while I’m there? Besides, these things could happen anywhere. I’m sure the chances of dying in a car accident on the way to Best Buy are much greater than dying in a terror attack, statistically speaking. That’s the entire goal of terrorism: to make the threat appear much bigger than it is. To create disproportionate fear, even if many more people die falling off of ladders or slipping on icy stairs. I still think that’s true. Yet, I was sitting there, on my first day in Mumbai, in the middle of a terror attack. What if we went to Goa first as we had once planned? What if the first hotel I called had rooms available? How did I come to travel 800 miles across a foreign country to stand in the center of the biggest terror attack in the history of Mumbai just as it started to happen?

“There are no whys.”

That is what my friend Pooja says whenever I ask one of my many questions about how things work in India (Why do you check-in twice at airports? Why does the security guard blow his whistle constantly as a signal of safety? Why is there never not someone peeing on the side of any long stretch of road? Why don’t they try to prevent cars, people, and dogs from leaving marks in wet concrete?)

We waited. That was the very best we could do. Nothing. We would go out on our balcony and look down at the crowds of people looking up at the hotel from the street. Sometimes people would notice us and point. There was never no one looking up at us. The sniper across the street occasionally motioned for us to go back inside. But we needed to see outside. We needed to see something.

We raided the mini-bar. The hazelnut chocolates were especially good. This supplemented our diet of granola bars and water, which we just happened to have in quantity. But no one felt like eating very much. Each of us constantly asked each other they were okay. And each of us nodded back dutifully when asked. None of us were okay, exactly, but there was no other choice than to remain in-control, calm, quiet.

I had only ever experienced fear in quick doses. The adrenaline of narrowly avoiding a car accident. The armrest-gripping tension of severe turbulence on an airplane. Our fear was dulled by the hours accumulating behind us. Softened by the comfortable, dim environment. It felt more like a prolonged, intense nervousness. We were scared of feeling real fear. We savored the bit of safety we felt in our room even as we wished we could be outside, the waiting over.

After a sleepless night came a tired morning, and we all encouraged each other to sleep. We had varying degrees of success. After I woke up from an hour-long nap, there was a split-second before I fully re-remembered what was happening. I felt content. Garima, Akash’s wife, was particularly successful, sleeping 6 hours or more on chaise lounge. I was the one that woke her up. We heard explosions semi-regularly from the beginning, but we usually heard the sound come from outside our window. Now sounds were coming from the inside, maybe one floor up or down. They didn’t sound like big bombs. They sounded like the kind of explosion that would open the locked door of a hotel room. They got closer. Soon we heard yelling on our floor. This was the first sound we heard from our hallway the entire time. We had word that commandos would come to rescue hotel guests from their rooms. We also had received a text message that said “don’t open the door, terrorists may be dressed as police”. Now, fists banged on our door.

“Open the door! We are police!”

“If you don’t open now, we’ll break the door!”

Pooja looked out the peephole to see black uniforms and helmets. Akash very politely did what was suggested earlier by one of the few hotel employees we managed to speak to on the phone: ask for ID. But if these were commandos, our feelings were not their primary concern.

“No ID! Open the door now!”

Even if they were terrorists, refusing to open would only give us another 5 minutes. They were opening every room one way or another. We were tired of waiting. Pooja opened the door. I came out last. They lined us up against the wall and checked our IDs. On their shoulders were the letters NSG–National Security Guard–the most elite Indian commandos.

Before they came I had thought about hiding my passport and saying I’m Canadian. That’s what it seems like American backpackers in Europe have been doing for most of this decade to avoid lengthy diatribes about George W. Bush. But I didn’t. I handed over my open passport and he took it in one hand while the other held a Glock, not pointed at me, but not pointed away either.

“You’re American?”

I nodded in confirmation. I felt pretty confident these were the good guys. Terrorists probably wouldn’t go to this much trouble to fool people or waste this much manpower collecting hostages (there were at least a dozen commandos, guns-drawn, in our hallway at this point). He gave me a look like he thought I was lucky and I knew he was right.

I meekly asked a question. “Are there any terrorists still in the buiding?”

He returned a hint of a smile.

“Don’t ask such questions.”

There were. We walked past more and more NSG as we made our way to a service area, joining a group of 10-15 other guests. Everyone seemed to be furiously typing on their blackberries. No one spoke. Two commandos stood nearby in silence, guns drawn. After 10 minutes, we got the signal to walk downstairs. One of the “black cats”, as the NSG are called, lead the group while the other followed. Our pace was painfully slow. Two people had knees problems. One guy seemed to be in serious pain. Sixteen flights went one at a time. On each floor we stopped to make sure we were together.

As we reached the lower floors, we were told that we should prepare ourselves to see bodies. I didn’t see any bodies. But the floor was covered in blood. Not pools of blood–dried blood in trails that came from dragging bodies around. There had been bodies dragged all over. We walked down a dark corridor. More stairs. Through a kitchen. A dining room. Over broken glass. Through shallow pools of water on the floor. The blood was a constant. This was our only glimpse into the reality of what happened. Just a minute or two where we saw the aftermath of a massacre and started to feel the horror from which we had been entirely removed 16 floors above. Before it was just text messages and words, now we could see it and smell it. This really happened.

We entered a big room filled with soldiers and the smell of smoke. Judging from their uniforms, there were at least 4 different branches of the military and police here. Most soldiers sat or stood mingling with others of their own kind. Some of the soldiers were lined up to make a path for us to walk. Some smiled as we passed, like they were wearily cheering for us. Glad that we survived. We were glad too and smiled back.

It took me until we were almost leaving the room to realize that this was the lobby we walked into 21 hours earlier. Then, we were again waiting on the same steps where we had waited before this happened. Akash spotted his car in the same place. There were no valets.

“Can I just take the keys out of the ignition?”

A policeman and a firefighter patiently explained the situation.

“They are throwing grenades down from above.”

About 10 of us got into an ambulance and we sped off to some police station I will never see again. Friends picked us up 10 minutes later and soon we were at some Auntie’s house where hugs and food and comfort waited. I was so exhausted at that point that I don’t remember exactly where we were or whose house it was.

We hadn’t seen any TV at that point. When we finally sat down in front of the news channel, the first image to greet us was ourselves. A camera had caught us through a window, walking down the stairs of the hotel. The second thing we saw was a report that grenades had exploded at the front steps of the hotel. The same place we had just been less than an hour earlier. Someone spotted Akash’s car in the background.

While I sat at a table of food not eating, I remembered just before coming to Mumbai, when I was looking towards Gurgaon from the edge of south Delhi as I do around 5:00 every day, waiting for the sun to light up some of the world’s most beautiful pollution. I was thinking of my friend Bill, who died two years ago for literally no reason at all. An unexplained inflamation of the heart as he played music at an old-folks home. The medical term for that is “idiopathic”. As I understand it, it simply means, “we don’t know”. I had a reason to be dead. He had none. There are no whys. Things just happen.

For two days after we got out, we stayed inside. Slept. Ate. Watched TV. We reminded each other how lucky we were. How, if we waited another 15 seconds in the lobby, our fate would have been very different. The battle at the Taj lasted another two days. It ended just before we got in a taxi and boarded a flight back to Delhi. We had been there for 3 days; arriving soon before the attack began and leaving just after the Taj was cleared. It was almost like we came just for that.

I was with Pooja in Delhi telling this story to friends a few days later when Akash called. He had gone back to the Taj for his car. The windscreen and every window was shattered. There were bullet holes in the side and front. Lots of grenade shrapnel. Evidence of bullets bouncing around the interior. All four tires were flat. And the battery was dead. Still, someone helped him get it started and he slowly limped away in it, happy, he said.

© 2008 William Burks Spencer

6 months.

June 19, 2008

For the past 6 months I’ve been working on NYNY Hotel and Casino’s new advertising campaign, without them buying a god damn thing. And we’re the only team on it. That’s over twelve hundred hours worth of mind bending, hell grinding work. Now just think about that for a second. Twelve hundred hours is equal to over 400 major league baseball games. It’s over a hundred plane rides to Europe and two hundred plane rides to Asia. Twelve hundred hours is longer than the time it took to figure out and implement a succsessful plan for getting the astronauts on Apollo 13 back from the dark side of the moon. It’s twelve hundred fucking hours. So, two things happened today. The first, after twelve hundred hours, the client finally bought a fucking ad.

The second. I quit.

Insanity by definition is: Something that is extremely foolish.

Spending twelve hundred hours writing a single fucking piece of advertising seemed to qualify as foolish in my book. It’s good to have my mental health back. I sure did miss it.

6th and Market

June 9, 2008

If you’re ever in San Francisco I highly recommend dining at the Vietnamese restaurant named Tu Lan. I also highly recommend bringing a gun with you when you go.

Tu Lan sits at the corner of 6th and Market just up the street from city hall. It’s a Vietnamese joint that you will love as long as you keep your eyes on the food and not on the patrons, the floor, the people screaming obceneties inside and outside, the crack rocks that are being exchanged, and the guy sleeping in the back. But if you’re into Vietnamese food, or crack, it’s really awesome. So why the hell would you ever risk life or limb to eat at a restaurant? Well, Julia Child risked her life on several occasions to do so. It was one of her favorite restaurants in San Francisco, and she knew a good eat. After trying the Imperial Rolls you’ll be going out to get a conceled weapons license, so that you can come back for more. Shit, rob the place if you want. No one’s gonna pay much attention.

Outside you’ll find some really nice graffiti. This was one of my favorite pieces.

If you’re feeling really brave, I suggest getting your food to go and having a stroll down 6th street. One cheery evening I picked up two orders of Imperial rolls and some delicious mint and basil spring rolls and headed down 6th street towards a buddies apartment where I was house sitting. 

Everything seemed normal for 6th street. Drugs being exchanged, a hooker trying to turn a trick, a drunk passed out in the alley. I paused at a red light and waited for the signal to change allowing me to cross. Catty corner from me was The Henry Hotel. A modern day flop house. I wondered, “What’s in there? Who’s in there?.” Just then a man exited the front door of the “hotel” and began traversing the street, disrupting traffic. I thought nothing of it. Just then another man came out of the front door of the hotel carrying a mountain bike. Suddenly the man launched the mountain bike in the air, attempting to hit the first man. The bike landed with a crash in the middle of the intersection and the first guy turned, walking back to pick up what I assume was his bike. Just as he reacheed the bike, the second man re-emerged from the Henry Hotel. This time he was carrying a two by four. He ran towards the man and the bike and swung the heavy peice of lumber, smashing the guys face wide open. The man fell to the ground on his back and a serious beating ensued. The sort of beating that you know is meant to end in death.

At this point I’m thinking this is a very bad situation. I’ve got to help this human being, crackhead or not, I’m not about to witness a murder that I could have stopped. I looked to my side where to my amazement was a normal looking guy who was also seeing this whole thing go down. He was wearing gym clothes and looked to be pretty buff and able to kick some ass. I looked at him, he looked at me. He ran towards the men in the street. Here it was, we were going to save the day. I followed suit, running a few steps behind him. Just as this guy in gym clothes reaches the two men, he picks up the mountain bike, jumps on it, and rides away.

I was speechless. here I am in in the middle of 6th street holding a bag of Veitnamese egg rolls, witnessing a beating, and a theft. Luckily between my screaming and a few other souls who had jumped out of their cars we managed to scare the guy back into the hotel. After that I just ran. I figured someone else could sort this whole thing out and I didn’t want to see what the guy was going come back out with the third time. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t going to be an apology.

When I finally got back to my buddy Philippe’s house I found a distraught and confused girlfriend. While I was out, some crackhead had busted out the window to my truck and stolen Brenda’s bag that contained a single pair of five dollar flip flops. He left the stereo, and a bag containing a bottle of vodka and three bottles of wine. I guess when you’re addicted to crack, nothing else compares to a good pair of women’s flip flops.

Tu Lan. Vietnamese that’s to die for.

New Haircut/Rough Trip

June 9, 2008

I got a haircut today, and when the stylist handed me the mirror to look at the back of my head I was reminded of this scar.

Since I don’t spend much time looking at the back of my head I often forget it’s there, but when I see it, I can’t forget how it got there.

It all went down in Juarez, Mexico, 1,159 kilometers due south of Denver. Ten and a half hours by car.

In 1997 I was attending college at the University of Denver. One morning myself and a group of friends decided to take an impromptu road trip. Juarez was the closest town we could find that was outside of the US, and it seemed like a great place to enjoy a little rest and relaxation from the “stresses” of white-collar college life. At the least we thought it would be a great town to find cheap beers and some easy prescription drugs. You know, those pills aren’t getting any cheaper, and we didn’t think taking a bus to Canada with a bunch of snow birds was going to be an awesome time.

We had a good crew. My roommate Fletch, my other roommate Ben, a cowgirl from Montana named Gia, Andrew from Tennessee, Boarts from Manhattan Beach, a girl who’d met Boarts at a party the night before (can’t remember her name), and Keith and his two buddies Ron and Mike who I didn’t know all that well. We packed up two cars and drove south with a map, some money and a bunch of weed that Ben had grown in our basement.  

After ten hours on the unremarkable I-25 we reached the border town of El Paso. El Paso smells like shit, literally. I think it’s because of the amount of cattle that’s transported through the town, and the amount of shit that cattle shit. It’s a town filled with truckers and truck stops and dirty bathrooms and a lot of dirt and crap. And shit. But we had booked the nicest hotel in the town. The Camino Real. Marble tables, jacuzzi tubs, a view of Juarez that was to die for, and air conditioning that seemed to filter out the cow smell. From our suite window we enjoyed a panoramic view of a million shanties strewn along a dirt hillside; as well the electrified barbed wire fence that seperated those shanties from our united states. When the sun went down, the thousands of twinkling light bulbs strewn from a single wire were reminiscent of a giant outdoor summer fistival. It was strangely alluring.

We walked across the border just after sundown. The border crossing was uneventful but as we entered the town of Juarez I felt a distinct sense of unease. A bunch of rich white kids walking into the one of the poorest, most murder-ridden, rape-infested towns in Mexico (remember to do good research before traveling). The locals looked at me with the eyes of townsfolk who were expecting wild bandits to ride into town at any moment. The good, the bad, and the ugly. We were all there.

Eventually we discovered a quaint town square with a bevy of innocuous white tables complimented with a pharmacy that was just around the corner. Easy drugs. Bottles of 100 count valium for $20, sheets of Rohipinal for $15.

Any place where you can buy enough date rape drugs for a year probably should tip you off to what’s about to happen. And I think that includes guys raping guys.

The night began with a traditional Mexican dinner and a table that grew increasingly crowded with Corona bottles that looked as if they’d been reused a thousand times. The Valiums we’d bought were also consumed at what Dr. Drew would consider an alarming pace. We thought it was pretty much par for the course. We were numb and content.  Juarez looked beautiful. As dinner was wrapping up, Fletch Mike and Ron, at the table next to us decided to split up a bottle of 100 Valium. Just as they were scooping up their shares two Federales took notice and came over. An argument began. None of us spoke very good Spanish and within seconds, the Federales were carting Fletcher, Ron and Mike off and threatening to do the same with the rest of us if we didn’t back off. So we did. I watched Fletch, Mike, and Ron walk away handcuffed, into the Mexican night.

From what we’ve gathered, this is what happened next.

First they were broght to a Mexican jail for interrogation. After this interrogation they were transferred to Juarez’s Cesaro “pound you in the ass” Prison where they were beaten, their clothing robbed, and I’m assuming made someone’s bitch. This all transpired in the first night. Three college kids who had everything, now had nothing. Not even the clothes on their back. In one year, eighteen inmates had been murdered in this hellhole. A prison built for 300 that now housed over 1,200 of the nastiest rapists, murderers, drug dealers and filth on earth. Fletch, Ron and Mike spent the next three months trying to stay alive.

Later that night I stumbled back towards the border in shock of what had just happened. Everything was cloudy. I stopped for a drink with Dycus at a bar called The Submarine. From there I somehow made it across the border and into our hotel room. Just as I walked though the door to our suite, I passed out and slammed my head on the corner of one of the marble coffee tables. The Valium helped shield the pain but when when Gia’s hand touched to the back of my head she felt a running river of blood.

 “Oh my God, you’ve gotta go to the hospital.”

We arrived at the hospital in a cab (the driver stole Gia’s wallet) and the doctors were not happy to see me. They took one look at the back of my head and decided that 6 huge cattle staples would be the right remedy for my night of stupidity. The staples were so thick that upon my return to Denver they had to be ripped out and replaced with stiches. I’m sure that’s why the scar is still there today. Just as the doctors were stapling my head shut, Ben walked into the room with a his hand wrapped in a towel, blood dripping from it.

Evidently, after I had left The Submarine, some marines from the El Paso US army base had decided to pick a fight with Ben in the bathroom. A bad choice. Ben is like a pitt bull. He looks like a pit bull. 6’2″, 230 pounds, with a nose that’s slightly upturned and a chin that looks like a concrete street curb. He’d taken the three highly testosteroned army newbies and used their heads to remodel the entire bathroom. Toilets smashed to rubble. Ben hid is bloodied paws in his coat pockets as he crossed back into El Paso and had ended up on a stretcher next to me.

The drive back was a mix between the joy of survival and the sadness of a loss of friends. I never saw Fletch, Mike or Ron again. My roommate and my two other friends had become a statistic that mothers fear most. After three months in Cesero prision the guys were brought to trial for distribution of narcotics. In Mexico they had two choices. 1. They could serve the time sentenced for the crime. In their case 3 years. Or 2. They could pay the equivalent of said sentence. In their case $150,000 a piece. Each of the boy’s parents took their college fund. The money that grandparents, parents and other loved ones had saved up to provide an education to get them out of Mexico and used it to grant their freedom. They never came back to the University of Denver. Their families couldn’t afford it. The money for education used on one lesson that will last me and those guys a lifetime.

Brenda says this story makes us seem like assholes. We were assholes. We were young and stupid and doing all the things that make me look back on this and think, “What the fuck were we thinking.”

We weren’t.

If I can pass on any good advice from this experiece it would be this.

1. Don’t vacation in Juarez.

2. Carry plenty of cash to pay off the Federales.

4. Canada is nice this time of year.