June 29, 2016
8: 52 PM

Hiatus in Himachal – Part 1

With our car dangling at the tip of a cliff and a gaping void underneath, the voice command system would repeat, “You have arrived at your destination. Step out of the vehicle. You are now about to enter a happy place. Close your eyes and jump off into the valley of emptiness”. This voice could belong to one of those advanced audio commentary apps of psychic intelligence built with dark undertones. Before the vacation started, MakeMyTrip’s repeated reminders indicated that our true happiness lay in subscribing to an app called AudioCompass, an advanced audio tour guide. But who knows where evil hides nowadays. Smartphone technology could very well be its refuge. We declined the subscription and continued packing the clothes and toiletries for the week.

We were so excited for the trip. Because, on the eve of our vacation, we felt we had hit the lowest point already. Everything seemed only positive and uphill from there. By booking a package deal from MakeMyTrip, our sufferings kept going in loops. We had paid the amount in full according to the advice of the MakeMyTrip booking rep. So, any alterations in the package, for example, a hotel change based on bad internet reviews or a paranoid friend’s advice and some retrospection on safety or a request for a tour escort/driver who speaks at least the Guide’s English (with monosyllable words + ‘only’ + ‘like’), are completely ‘Against the Policy’ from the travel agents’ runbook.

No refunds.

No reusable coupons.

No resolutions.

If you’ve paid in full, it’s a done deal. When it comes to vacation and quality time, money isn’t important. Happiness is. Great motto for the travel agents, not so much for common travelers who take half-yearly frantic vacations.

Since the customer care made it clear that our booking was made offline (facilitated by an agent working with a headset and elaborate lunch breaks), we wouldn’t be able to track or correlate with the hotels’ rates or their cancellation policies on the website. We have to rely on calling MakeMyTrip, a new rep every time, and explaining the booking concerns all over again only to be transferred to another rep. Finally, we went full circle and the original rep began the second iteration successfully.

One interesting fact was we had a representative assigned for the entire trip, much like the one stop shop. He called 2 days before our trip and said, “Welcome to the MakeMyTrip Holiday. I’ll repeat the entire agenda for confirmation. I work until 6:30 PM. This is the contact number, but as per the policy, you are not allowed to reach me directly. Just call this board and ask for me. Now, are you ready for the big day?”

“What happens during emergencies? Is there someone else to address our concerns after your shift?”

“Sir, no problem. You can log the issue with our support. I’ll handle it asap the next day.”

“We have a problem with the Manali hotel location. We’d like to change to another one, something family-friendly and not secluded in the wilderness. We have raised concerns repeatedly but no resolutions so far.”

“Sir, as per the policy, you are not allowed to change hotels now.”

“Ok, give us a refund then. We don’t want to travel at all.”

“Sir, you are within 15 days from the travel date and beyond cancellation. Refund is not possible.”

“But we booked only within 15 days. How is that policy applicable to us?”

“Yes sir.”

“Yes sir? We’d like to speak to the hotel. We want to know their cancellation policy. Put us through, please.”

“No sir. We have spoken to the hotel already. It’s a good hotel and recommended by us. They said they cannot refund now. If you want to cancel, please confirm. I’ll initiate the process.”

“Well, why would I cancel if there is no refund? Seems we are forced to take the vacation.”

“Yes sir.”

“At least, could you arrange a driver who can understand/speak English basically? We can speak Hindi in chops and bits but it’d be difficult to interact during problem times.”

“Sir, I cannot promise that and all.”

“Put us through to your manager. We’d like to escalate this issue.”

“Yes, sir. No manager.”

“Everyone has a manager, right?”

“No escalations, sir, as per the policy. Please call or write to customer care address and they’ll write back within 48 hours.”

“But we’ll already be in Manali by then.”

“Yes sir.”

“What about the detailed invoice? We’d like to know the rate-cards for each hotel and sightseeing activities. The booking rep quoted only an arbitrary number as the total and we paid it. In fact, we were rushed to pay because the rep said the amount was increasing drastically every minute due to the crunch in air tickets.”

Their actual invoice sent to our email read,

“Total Amount: Rs. XXXXX. Thank you.”

“Sir, as per the policy, this is what we share with everyone. This is the final invoice. Now, are you ready for the big day?”

For a moment, I thought it was a ruthless bot on the other side. But then, I didn’t sense logic.

To go on a vacation to Shimla and Manali is something I’ve always wanted since childhood, especially as someone from the south to go all the way up to Himalaya and see the snow folds in their true magnificence. But to go now was because I needed. While I was driving my bike from office last month on an intensely rainy night on roads with surprise pits that you see in those military training programs, a car hit my vehicle from behind at the stop signal after restlessly honk-rushing me for a minute. Of all the waiting vehicles near me, he had to hit mine. Without any respite, he drove past me with a raging laugh showing his coffee-stained teeth and a raised middle-finger that seemed to suffer from erection problems.

“That’s it”, I decided, “I am taking a vacation.”

With tension rampaging in circles above my helmet, I could have vandalized his car, dragged him out and dismantled his jaw and handed it back to him in a recycled paper bag. But taking a vacation seemed to the safer alternative and the civilized way to blow off steam. So, I proposed that we go on a week’s vacation to my wife. Excited by the idea, we started doing the research for places and finally ended up with Shimla and Manali according to time and money. Since we didn’t have much time left to book, we chose the MakeMyTrip package deal, which, in hindsight, mounted the green devil on our backs.

With all these quirks and pre-tour tension, we still knew what was coming. This trip’s not about soul-searching or knowing oneself through bare survival techniques in the wild or appreciating different cultures or psychoanalyzing fellow travelers for writing a great travel book in the future. It is just a plain vacation taken by normal families as in the good-old days to burn the vacation budget. It’s just the vacation driven by Google Maps, judgmental internet reviews, persuasive travel agents and local escorts who fleece us in tandem and crowded suicide points and highway Dhabas and hotels that provide herbal soaps, half-board meals and hilltop views through stained windows.

A slight change of scenery from the city traffic fumes was all we needed.

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