Fire Down Below

This is a little story about customer service. 

One of the very first blog posts I wrote about India started, “India always smells like its a little bit on fire.” Today I got to experience the source of that smell first hand. Or at least one source. 
I was staying in an international luxury hotel in New Delhi – according to the website – and at a little before 7 am I heard some distant sirens and seemingly unrelated yelling. Shortly thereafter there was the faint smell of smoke which was confirmed by my suite mates. I opened the door to see if there was any reason for concern and was hit with a wall of smoke. I could not see the glass railing five feet in front of me and the floor was obscured. The whole hotel was engulfed in smoke and the visibility was zero. I opened the curtains to another wall of smoke. We were staying on the ninth floor. There were no smoke alarms ringing, no sprinklers deployed and no lights or people pointing us to safety.

Between the three of us we managed to remember to bring our passports, phones and money. Someone yelled to grab a towel. I remembered to wet it. And we each grabbed a bottle of water as we fled for the stairs. 

Earlier in the morning I had sought out a quiet place in the hall to talk to my husband, somewhere I wouldn’t disturb anyone, and had chosen the door to the stairs. This proved to be an ominous, yet fortuitous, bit of foreshadowing. 

I led the way to the stairs then ran ahead of everyone. I kept calling back to be sure they were following and at several intervals back tracked to reconnect. The smoke was overpowering and there didn’t seem to be an end to it. At some point a man with his cellphone flashlight on passed me and I hurried to follow his light, not cultivating the presence of mind at the time to turn on my own. 

Fear is a funny thing. Adrenaline only allows space for what is absolutely necessary and he was providing the light. 

Finally, close to the ground floor there was a doorway with smoke billowing in and just after that the air seemed to clear. We were beneath the fire. 

We all collected at an opening where we could watch the fire brigade working hard. We had overshot the lobby and the daylight seen under the floor where the fire was raging was too inviting. We did not want to turn back. I ran for the opening through shattered glass and water amongst the shouted protests of the fire fighters. The other two soon followed. 

We were safe. Perhaps we were never really in any danger. 

But it felt like it. In retrospect it was more about broken trust. There were smoke detectors everywhere and a hotel-wide sprinkler system. There was evidence that we were safe. Signs that we were protected. 

And it was all lies. 

After we were allowed back into our room we threw our personal belongings into suitcases and carry-ons with amazing speed and agility. We were done. We booked a couple rooms at a high-end American hotel, checked out much to the chagrin of the desk manager – she thought it “not very nice” of us to abandon ship along with 80% of her bookings – and asked her to call us a car for the other hotel. 

We explained that we knew it wasn’t her fault personally and the fire itself was in the mall that just happened to be inconveniently located inside their hotel, but the warnings, sprinklers, lighted pathways and missing kindness, concern or help, we’re all on her and the hotel. It just wasn’t a good customer service experience. 

We took our leave, in a car she paid for, and plopped ourselves in the lap of the familiar to lick our wounds and process the morning’s events. There is sure to be some gem of wisdom that will emerge.

For me, right now, gratitude for my time spent in a green beret and sash and the fire drills practiced in elementary school come to mind. 

Perspective and compassion are two other gifts that continually show up in India as well. The further we got from the incident the easier it was to let it go. No one died. No one even got hurt that were aware of, although a single ambulance showed up an hour into the ordeal with its white eyelet curtains pulled back and ready to receive the infirm. 

Others would say, “It was only in the mall.” And seeing the charred store fronts and the hotel with most of the smoke cleared it would be easy to dismiss it as an unfortunate mishap. But for the hundreds of people in pajamas and various states of stupor it was a bit more. 

Reactions ran from crying and panic to nonchalance. This is India. It happens. An Indian friend when told what had happened simply said. “Oops.” 

But my favorite response, and the one that will forever make me smirk, is that of the bellboy at the front entrance when we were finally allowed back in. I asked, “What’s happening?” To which he replied with a smile and his endearing Hindi head shake, “No problem.”

The staff at the cafe, when we sought strength from caffeine after the threat had passed also greeted us happily, “Namaskar, good morning.” A friend believes this is a nice lesson in moving on, letting go of the past, no matter how recent. Perhaps. 

For now, I will chose to stay on lower levels of hotels and always know the exit route. Here I will await perspective. And then I can let it go. 

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