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Happy Horrors

Sometimes the worst vacation experiences make for the best memories

Author James Wallman Illustration Michael Byers

travelessayA few years ago, I booked myself a dream skiing trip to Kashmir, in northern India, one of the most beautiful, remote and politically troubled places on the planet. Specifically, I was heading for Gulmarg, a famously challenging ski resort close to the border with Pakistan.

“Your hotel is very nice,” a tourism official informed me before I left. “Central heating is there.” Hmm. This seemed an odd detail to highlight, given that I was heading for a frozen mountainside. But I shrugged it off, packed my bags and flew into Delhi, the first leg of my trip. There, in the hotel bar, I met a nice local man, who also assured me that I’d be delighted with my Gulmarg lodgings. “It has central heating,” he said with a nod.

The next day, after another long flight and a squiggly, white-knuckle Jeep ride, I arrived at the lodge. It was a single-story, shack-like property with dazzling views of the snow-slathered Pir Panjal mountains. Inside, I was greeted by a grinning receptionist. I couldn’t help but notice he was dressed in a sweater and woolly hat. On a nearby sofa sat a couple of guests, similarly attired.

“Um, this might be a silly question,” I said, “but do you have central heating?”

The question hung in the air, along with my breath, and I felt the first tingly stirrings of unease. I wouldn’t say I have an actual phobia about being cold, but I try to avoid it. Also, surely, an integral part of any skiing trip is the après-brrr thaw. Without this, you’re basically looking at the movie Alive.

“Yes, Mr. James,” replied the grinning receptionist.
“Central heating is here!”
“So why is everyone wearing coats?”
He grinned.
“Does it work?”
“Yes, yes!”
“Is it on?”
Nothing.
“Can you turn it on?”
More nothing.

Here, it seemed, was the rub. The staff appeared to be under strict orders to leave the central heating alone. I followed the grinning receptionist through the lobby, exchanging glances with the shivering couple on the couch. Halfway down a dark corridor, he yanked open a door to reveal a room with a dresser, over which lay the original protective plastic coating. I’d asked for a valley view, but it was hard to tell whether I had one, given that the windowpane was made of opaque plexiglass. The pane didn’t fit very well, so every time the wind blew, which was constantly, it rattled, as if to announce the arrival of another frigid blast.

“Enjoy!”

I sat on the bed (its mattress apparently stuffed with shale) and tried to think of a bright side to all this. I’d recently read about a psychological principle called “positive reinterpretation,” part of which involves the ability to make the best of a bad thing. So: positive spin, positive spin, positive spin. The best I could manage was that my room didn’t have a polar bear in it.

That night, in an effort to keep the insistent Himalayan cold at bay, I went to bed in my ski suit, hat and moisture-wicking mittens. When little icicles began to form on my eyelashes, I put my goggles on, but all that did was create frozen suction cups over my eyes. I called reception and requested—demanded—that they provide me with a heater.

A while later, the grinning receptionist trundled into my room with the hotel’s only portable heater, which looked like something that might have been put to use in the trenches during World War I. Still, it was something. I draped my frost-stiffened ski suit over the dresser, turned the heater up as high as it would go and dozed off. Ahhh.

Argh!

I awoke to a crackling sound and a nasty smell. The clothes that had been steaming when I fell asleep were now afire. I jumped up, threw a glass of ice-cold water at a pair of flaming ski pants, instead hitting the dresser, where the protective plastic coating had started to melt. So I attempted that thing they do in films, where people put out fires by whacking them with blankets. I whacked my fire with a ski sock, which took a bit longer but eventually worked. For the rest of the trip, I made do with the cold.

A few weeks later, back in London, I found myself being asked for the 50th time how my ski trip had gone. By then, I’d developed my worst-vacation-ever story to the point where I kind of enjoyed telling it—the goggles, the central heating, the late-night inferno. People wanted to hear about the debacle at dinner parties, and even when they didn’t, I told them anyway. Over time, my grinning receptionist became less a figure of ridicule than an example of dauntless pluck.  

Which brings me to another aspect of positive reinterpretation, the part that says we can emerge from terrible experiences improved somehow—stronger, kinder, more self-aware. In my case, the bright side was that I finally understood how unpleasant experiences can be as valuable as pleasant ones, and more so with the passing of time. I hated my stay at that icebox hotel, but I wouldn’t swap the memory of it for the world.

London-based writerjames wallman is the author of Stuffocation, a manifesto for why we should all spend our time, energy and money on experiences—even ones that go wrong.

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