Accommodation reviews are to a guidebook writer’s job what rice is to a Chinese meal: utterly essential and usually uninteresting.
Hostel reviews are fairly straightforward. Hostel owners see guidebook writers as allies, even when the last reviewer called their hostel “a mildewing, flea infested dump which a wrecking ball would only improve.” I’ve come across more than a few places proudly displaying a sticker reading as seen in guidebook X on their front door despite the fact that guidebook X had nothing flattering to say about their establishment. Mid-priced places, boutique hotels and the like, generally view placement in a guidebook as a way to stand out among the competition, making owners of such places fairly cooperative in the review process. But the five star hotel is a different animal entirely: management in the finer hotels generally assume their reputations make the review process superfluous.
“This sort of thing is handled through the PR manager. Leave your business card and I’ll see that it’s passed forward.”
Which is fair enough, I suppose. Raffles and their ilk aren’t exactly hurting for business, and their clientèle aren’t likely to run in the same circles as your average Lonely Planet reader. Among a five-star manager’s job is keeping out the riff-raff, a category to which I clearly belong.
Nonetheless, I have a job to do.
I began my rounds that day using my usual strategy for dealing with reticent hotel management. No longer a guidebook writer, today I’m Joe Q. Citizen looking to help some out of town friends book a future Singapore stay.
With my digital recorder turned on inside the mobile phone holder resting on my shoulder, I take notes discreetly for later transcription. It’s a workable solution, but by mid-day something feels wrong. It isn’t that I’m lying (well, technically I am, but all in the name of providing you, my reader, with an accurate review), but that I’m bored.
And if I’m bored, what about you, dear reader?
And what about the entertainment of the hotel staff?
I push through the revolving door of the next hotel — an exclusive, double towered place with an astronomical price tag-and make a beeline through luxury for the front desk. A lovely woman with the nametag Ann greets me with a smile.
“I’m here to help my parents book a room for their upcoming visit,” I tell Ann, giving a vague date of sometime in the next few months before launching into the exciting tale of my parents’ upcoming journey.
In the autumn of their lives, my parents have decided to visit the Far East, where I’ve been working for several years. The trip is a big deal for them. It’s their very first time outside of the United States.
“I guess I should tell you, Ann. My parents have special needs.”
“Special needs? Are they handicapped?”
Ann’s tone indicates that the establishment is both well equipped and proud to be of service to such guests.
“My parents are little people.”
Ann is visibly perplexed. She hasn’t heard the term before.
“Little people. My father stands about this high.” I hold my palm level with my solar plexus. “And my mother?” I continue, laughing breezily while raising my hand mid-rib cage. “I guess you could say mom’s the tall one.”
“Midgets?” Ann’s eyes brighten with excitement.
“Oh no!” I shake my head earnestly. “We must never call them that. They are little people.”
“Little People…” Ann tries the phrase on for size.
“You can imagine how hard it is for them to travel.” I continue. “In America they often get stared at. Strangers pick them up and hug them.”
“We will not let that happen here!”
“The kindness of Singaporeans is well known. That’s just one of the reasons they want to visit here. That, and of course, your famous cuisine.”
Ann, now an unwitting participant in my pointless deception, smiles at this unneeded bait.
“I think we can make their visit very memorable.”
Still smiling, Ann leads me to the mid-level elevators to begin the tour.
The standard room boasts a king sized bed, plush carpeting and a flat screen television, perfectly acceptable for your average traveler. But I’ve suddenly decided that my little parents have deeper pockets and more discriminating tastes.
“What if they wanted something more…elegant?”
“Ah! In that case they’ll want the clubhouse floor.”
As the elevator whisks us to the upper levels, Ann explains the amenities of the clubhouse floor. I repeat salient snippets thoughtfully into my right shoulder.
“Harbor view rooms…free breakfast…evening drinks.”
Each room on the clubhouse floor is done up in a combination of modern and British colonial-era décor, and comes equipped with a top-of-the-line Italian espresso machine. The floor-to-ceiling windows offer unparalleled views of both city and harbor. My little parents will feel like royalty!
“Do your parents like to swim?” Ann asks.
“Oh yes. But not if the water is too deep.”
“They’ll love our rooftop pool and Jacuzzi!”
The roof induces instant vertigo. I shudder at the thought of how my tiny parents will feel.
As we ride the elevator back to the lobby Ann gives me her card, her hand lingering warmly against mine for several seconds.
“When you are ready to make arrangements, call me personally. I can offer your parents a discount should they stay the full week.”
Leaving the hotel, I feel an unexpected twinge of conscience when it hits me that the empathic and enthusiastic Ann will never hear back from me. How long will she wait for a reservation from my diminutive mother and father? Will their absence lead Ann to believe that the hotel, or possibly she herself, is somehow lacking? What if Ann comes to believe that she’d unknowingly caused offense, either to myself or to little people in general? Might this trigger in Ann a spiral of professional doubt?
True, I’d done my job, getting all the information needed for a colorful, informative review. But at what cost?
I decide on my next review to create a less sympathetic persona. I want there to be no regret when my fictitious family fails to materialize.
Ten minutes later I am standing at the front desk of another top Singaporean hotel. The concierge this time is a man, perhaps 30 and tall for a Singaporean. His nametag reads Frank.
“May I help you sir?”
“Yeah, it’s like this,” I begin, laying on a sour Texas drawl worthy of any redneck trucker or small town racist cop. I want Frank to catch the faint whiff of truck stop and chewing tobacco on my breath.
“My brother-in-law and his wife…that’s my sister…they’re ah, they’re thinking about taking a trip out here and I’m supposed to help them find a suitable hotel.”
“Very good, sir.” Frank replies with professional courtesy and little warmth. “And when will they be arriving?”
“Well yeah, that’s kind of…well, they haven’t booked their tickets yet, because they need to ensure transport. They’re what you’d call special needs people.”
“Special needs people? They are handicapped?”
“Not as such. They’re Big people.”
Frank appears perplexed. “I am not sure I…”
“Look, they’re just god-damned fat, okay? They must weigh 800 pounds combined. I’m not sure what that is in kilograms. That’s what y’all use, right?”
Shifting my weight leg to leg, I emote a mildly pained expression to drive home my shame and irritation at the situation.
“How do they…” Fishing for words, Frank seems to share my embarrassment.
“Move around? Real slow and not too far. They’re going to have to get some special arrangement for the plane over here. I don’t even want to ask how that’ll work but Edna…that’s my sister, Edna…she says she’s got a travel agent who works with people like them. Bob, well…he isn’t too happy about the whole idea. Bob’s Edna’s husband. Nice fella, but god-awful fat.”
“So…you would like to see if a room would be suitable for your…family?”
Frank’s tone is distinctly less enthusiastic than Ann’s had been. There will be no disappointment, no lingering professional doubt when my morbidly obese family fails to arrive.
“Damned if I’m letting them stay in my apartment.” I mumble. “It’s a studio.”
Frank rings a bell and a bellboy in a crisply pressed suit appears. The two exchange a few quick words in the Hokkien dialect.
“The bellboy will show you a few rooms that might be suitable.”
Frank seems happy to return to other duties.
We ride the elevator in silence, and I suspect strongly the bellboy has been instructed to get the room showing over with quickly.
“Y’all got a freight elevator in this hotel?”
“Yes sir. It is in the back.”
“Bob and Edna come here you’ll need it, I tell you what.”
“Very good, sir.”
The bellboy leads me to a moderately priced standard with two double beds on the eleventh floor.
“Nice view…comfortable furniture…full sized flat screen TV…” I say out loud, taking notes. “Bob sure does love to watch his TV. You got anything with one big king sized bed?”
“That would be a deluxe. I will show you that next.”
“You do that. No way you’ll get either of ’em in these petite bunks.”
The deluxe room proves larger and more suitably furnished for a couple of Bob and Edna’s imaginary girth. The extra large king-sized bed is an especially appropriate touch. I comment on the deluxe room’s separate bathtub and stand-up shower.
“Either of ’em get in this bathtub you’ll need a crane to hoist ’em out. You’d be better off just bringing someone in here to hose ’em down once a day.”
“Like circus elephants, sir?”
I fear the bellboy may be on to me. It’s time to bring my research to a close.
On the elevator ride down, the bellboy goes through the list of eating options.
“…In addition to having two on-site restaurants, we also offer a free in-room continental breakfast.”
“Real nice. They like to eat in bed.”
As I collect a business card and rate sheet at the front desk, Frank flashes a business-like smile, terse and silent. I am certain my fat family’s failure to appear will not be mourned.
Basking in the warmth of my own professionalism, I leave the air-conditioned lobby and hit the muggy streets of Singapore, contemplating the shape my next fictitious relation might take. My albino aunt has long pined to visit the Far East, and my uncle with Tourette syndrome has yet to try durian.
With so many imaginary relatives the possibilities are endless.
My Parents are Little People is but one of the nineteen stories from the increasingly deranged mind of travel writer Joshua Samuel Brown (with illustrations by David Lee Ingersoll) awaiting you in How Not to Avoid Jet Lag (and other tales of travel madness). Click here to order your copy from Smashwords or here to order it from Amazon.