Friday, February 13, 2009

Ten Years - The Highlights

It's been 10 years that I started Johnson's in Alleppey, Kerala, India. As in every business there are always some moments/memories that one treasures or are unforgettable for a variety of reasons. I will share some of them with you on this blog.

1- Early Years

I remember standing at the boat jetty and bus stand waiting for tourists to arrive so that I could hustle them into staying at my guesthouse. This was really the pits, as I had just finished up with my music shop and party DJ career in Kochi and was something of a celebrity then. But, to start any new business, you have to start from the bottom up and that's exactly where I began. One big advantage I had those days was my English. No one in the tourism business in Alleppey could speak good English. And so I did better than most other touts or guides at that time. There was this couple sometime in that first season who comes to mind. I managed to convince them to come to my place. I put them on a tuk tuk from the bus or boat terminus and waited for other tourists to arrive. When I got back home, the couple met me and asked me what I was doing there. When I said I owned the house, they couldn't believe it!

2- Randy

One of our first guests, I believe it was in the first or second week, was this extrovert 50 something American male nurse named Randy. Randy loved talking, and over dinner one evening the conversation turned to Euthanasia. Remember Jack Kevorkian, he was in the news those days. This was on the 3rd or 4th day that Randy was staying with us and we had become friends, kind of. But, I was stunned and horrified when Randy opened up said he had administered euthanasia to two of his patients. Man, I had a murderer in the house!

3- Basil Gabriel

And there was this other American, Basil Gabriel, also 50 something who came to stay one night and ended up staying 3 consecutive months. Still the record as the longest staying guest at Johnson's or The Nest as we were known then. He loved Alleppey and I think he stayed a bit longer than he would have, especially as the monsoon set in- because in those early days I was not well off, and he was simply helping us by staying. Basil was an India addict and visited us two or 3 times more over the next couple of seasons. Basil Gabriel never left India. He died of a heart attack somewhere in Rajasthan. Dear sweet Basil. Will never be forgotten.

4- Lonely Planet

One day, in only our second season a friend received a call from a guest who said they wanted to stay with us because we were in the Lonely Planet. I did not believe him. At that time I wasn't even sure I wanted to continue on in the business. A week later a couple turns up and showed me the new Lonely Planet and yes, we were in it. I was stunned- in only our second season? We haven't looked back since.

5- Worst guests ever

French couple from hell- One of the guides who worked for me in those early years brought in this French couple. We had only two rooms then and both of them were full. These were the days when mobile phones were not that common as it is now. Anyway, I gave them a room in my neighbour's house (after due apologies), but they were furious. The neighbour called after some time saying the couple were creating a scene at her place. I went over to check it out and found the guy in the street walking about like a lunatic. I confronted him and told him to cool off- nicely. The couple was on dope or something and tried to throw a tantrum. I finally told him to bugger off, when the crazy nutter drew a knife on me! It was a small pen knife and I laughed in his face. When he found he couldn't scare me, he withdrew muttering. I asked them to vacate the premises. Finally, they left.

Bearded James- Much more recently, think it was last season, this English gentleman calls to book a double room. Right from the time he entered the house, the guy started complaining. I wasn't there, but over the phone told him if he did not want to stay I would be happy to find a tuk tuk for him to move somewhere else. The man and his girlfriend stayed. Next day they took my houseboat, with few others. He came back, stayed in the same room again and then came to have a talk with me about how poor the facilities were. This man was complaining all the time and went on about how he got freebies every other place he had stayed in.I said it was not on in my place. The guy was obviously trying to get me to give him freebies or discounts and did not like it that I wouldn't budge. He left bitchin' and then left a long and nasty review on Tripadvisor which had a lot of half truths and outright lies. The French couple was eccentric, but even with the knife out, I did not feel any real threat. James was quite the most disgusting person who stayed with us.

Single female traveller syndrome-

Single female travellers, especially the older ones are sometimes a bother. A significant number travel alone maybe 'cause they do not have a boyfriend or have come off a bad relationship and is travelling to India for the 'spiritual fix'. Let me be clear, this is not a generalization. But I find that quite a few of them are troublesome. They are not happy and try to make others less happy. And these days it is not just the single females, even the ones coming 2 or 3 together are beginning to be unpleasant tourists. I think they get away with bad behaviour at other places and try to capitalize on their femininity in unfair ways. Not in my place. Thank you. Once again, this is not every female traveller or every group of female travellers that I am complaining about. We have had some wonderful ladies staying with us. Coup;e of them are listed in the 'Best ever' category.

6- Best guests ever

Johnson- Rob Johnson. Rob (English) came first in the fall of 2003 or 4. He came because of my homestead's name (a nice name, right?). He's been coming in every fall since except this season. I look forward to his visits. He's now a good friend. It's great to have someone come back. Different from the here today, houseboat tomorrow guests I usually have.

Peetu and Letty-

The monsoon usually brings in budget travellers who are not too happy with the weather. But, this unforgettable Spanish couple walks in one rainy night with this huge smile on their faces. They were young, cheerful, happy and made us happy. They left even happier too as it was World Cup Soccer time and they left with their smiles even broader as Spain won the semifinals the day before they left. Michael and his girlfriend- Aussies- who visited us in our first year. And then came back again in our tenth- had my original card with them. I wasn't sure I recognized them at first but over their visit it started coming back to me. Nice, very nice, that they came back after all these years. Olivia & Sammy - Cool gals- Single female travellers, I am including Olivia here in this 'best of' list especially now after a couple of nasty tripadvisor reviews which mentioned this blog. Well, Olivia also read this blog, came in to have a pow wow with me and my friends, had a good laugh with me about what she thought of the blog- the single white traveller part, of course. She stayed with us one weekend, came back the next weekend, had a rollicking night with a few beers thrown in, and then took my ecohouseboat with another single lady traveller. Olivia also left a tripadvisor review. Check it out. Sammy came in with a group of volunteers, came back without them after a week, and stayed 3 or 4 nights, very friendly girl. Recommended lots of guests to me. e

The majority of our guests are fortunately nice people and 99% are happy to stay here. I wish I could name all of my special guests but space will not allow it. However, some who do come to mind are John Roberts, Maya, Tristan, Derek Taylor, Gregory Walker, Armelle and not to forget, the Irish, my fave nationality......................

7- Music

Gregory Walker - Famous American violinist contacted me about a musical journey /documentary - (Song of the Untouchables) he was planning to do in Kerala. I arranged almost his entire 2 week stay in Kerala including 3 days on the Eco houseboat. One night was at a flutist friend's place in Kochi where he jammed with Ashka and his band mates playing Indo jazz rock. Then this unforgettable session with a Dj that I arranged where Gregory played along with the Dj. That was the most amazing violin playing I have heard in my life. It was an excellent violin itself, an electric one and didn't Greg know how to play it. Amazing. Brilliant violinist, wonderful persona.

8- Building my houseboat

Not just a highlight of my 10 years in the tourism business, this was one the highlights of my life. I finally created something that I visualized, conceptualized, designed and had built. And the result, the most successful and popular houseboat in Kerala. I get most of my recommendations because of this eco houseboat .

9- The night we partied

I am a former DJ and still like my music. And there's quite a few occasions when travellers turn up with a guitar and a song. A few beers and it's party time. One such session had Paul - a Canadian guitarist singer, who led the group of guests into one long vibrant music session. Paul started singing and strumming, this French lady took it up, and she could sing well. There was this Italian bloke who was shy initially. Few beers and some cool vibes later, my man opened up and belted out some on the spot made up blues. What a voice. What a night it turned out to be. Real special. Chris and Emma, who took my boat the next day was there and immortalized that night in their blog which is still present on the net waves.

10-Eco houseboat- One of 3 in the Rough Guide

I was pretty thrilled when the guesthouse got listed in the Lonely Planet. The next best thing was when my houseboat was only one of 3 that's listed in the last Rough Guides edition. That was a special moment too as I work pretty hard on giving my guests the best possible houseboat experience. Yes, it was well deserved. The French guide book- Guide du Routard, the Footprint guide book also has my boat listed. But Lonely planet spoils it a bit by saying my boat is overpriced.

Yes, it's been a great 10 years. Was it worth it? Yes, financially, of course. I was down and out when I started this new business. So it's helped me make a fresh start in life. And most of all - and this is important - I enjoy it. It is sometimes stressful in peak season when there are guests walking in at midnight or even later. But, it's worse when I do not have any in the off season (June). Fortunately, the off season seems to be shortening every passing year. And my business seems to increasing every year. Only exception to that was the year the Tsunami struck. And then last season, although we did the numbers pretty well, the tourists budgets have lessened on account of the recession.

Thank you.

26/3/2012 28/11/2012 This article seems to be ruffling a few feathers. Some really nasty reviews on tripadvsior are coming in with this blog being mentioned. Some guests openly tell me that they feel uncomfortable with the 'worst tourists ever' part, and a few female travellers are not taking kindly to the 'single female traveller' part. Everything in here is the truth. It is not over dramatized, exaggerated or contains outright lies & half truths, unlike the tripadvisor comments that mentioned this blog and some of the other nastier revfiews about us.. One of the reasons I keep it in the guest rooms is to let our guests know that we've been there, and done that. If it's taken in the wrong context, well, I got to take it on the chin, if it's taken for what it is ( and I will leave it to the guest to decide what it is :-), hey, come on down and let's have a chat and a beer:-) Johnson Gilbert