Timing for a world traveler obviously matters. Travel has its risks in unlikely spots.
Normally tourist-friendly Thailand recently had 300,000 stranded tourists when anti-government demonstrators took over the airports in Bangkok for several days. Jim and Julianne Sawyer of Pendleton just missed being involved when their plane into Bangkok was diverted to Hong Kong on news of the takeover.
The Oregonian recently told an Oregon tourist's story while on a cruise ship going from the Suez Canal through the Gulf of Aden. A boat of pirates fired on it and might have boarded it if the captain had not put the cruise ship at full speed ahead.
I shudder a little when I recall that last May I was having dinner in one of the restaurants of the iconic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and Tower, the absolutely splendid hotel on the marine drive of south Mumbai (Bombay). How fortunate I was to be there at a good time and I enjoyed my meal in peace - and left in peace.
But those tourists, executives and Indian elite at the hotel on the evening of November 26 were surprised by a brutal attack. Probably just four extremely well trained and absolutely ruthless terrorists, who reportedly came by boat from Pakistan to the beaches in front of the hotel, caused fear, death and destruction in the hotel with their guns and grenades for three days before they were finally overpowered and killed. Six more terrorists were attacking other prominent locations in south Mumbai.
Help was very slow in coming. Indian commandos in New Delhi did not arrive for nine hours after the attacks began in Mumbai because it took so long to find a plane for them. Local firefighters, inexplicably, didn't arrive for several hours after the terrorists set fire in various parts of the hotel.
The terrorists knew the 500 room labyrinth of the Taj Mahal hotel better than the commandos. They held hostages, they quickly skipped between floors, they used grenades and they killed purposely and at random. They are said to have been in contact by satellite phones with a boss in Pakistan which of their hostages to kill. They said they were looking for Americans, British and Jews but actually killed all nationalities. (I'll write later on what is known of the attackers.)
I wonder to myself if I were staying at the hotel and eating in a hotel restaurant at the time of the attack, would I have gone back to my room, as some did, to seek safety, or would I have just tried to flee outside, not knowing if that was any safer? I'm not sure. Hotel guests did both, according to the reports, some surviving, some not.
The hotel staff performed very bravely. They called all rooms to warn residents to lock their doors and turn off lights. Pockets of people in hotel restaurants were led to safer places in the dark and smoke. Some got out their room windows by tying bed sheets and curtains into ropes. A few were rescued by firemen's ladders.
There are poignant tales such as the woman in a restaurant who was led to safety outside thinking her husband was behind her. But he wasn't. He was later found among the dead and appeared to have been tortured.
The hotel staff suffered, too. Ten were killed by the terrorists. The general manager lost his wife and two children on the first night of the attack but continued to help guests to safety.
The hotel is owned by one of India's oldest and largest conglomerates, the Tata Group. Jamsetji Tata built it in 1903 as a symbol of his business success in colonial India. I have written two previous articles on the Tata family, which is of Parsi origins, and of their steadily expanding business operations to this day.
South Mumbai where the hotel is located has been India's premier business district for the last 150 years. Wall Street's big banks have been establishing offices there of late, and India has dreamed of making Mumbai an international finance capital.
The gruesome November attack, showcasing weak security, may stymie those plans.
Jamsetji's great-great grandson, Rajan Tata, today's chairman of Tata Sons, is reported in the Wall Street Journal to have criticized the Indian government for its poor response to the terrorist attack and to call on it for improved security measures. He has also been trying to galvanize the business community to rebuild all the places damaged in the attack in South Mumbai. It is not clear yet that they will. As for the Taj Mahal hotel, the owners are vowing to restore every damaged inch to bring it back to its full glory.
Ambassador Harriet Isom grew up in Pendleton and has retired to the family ranch. She was a career diplomat serving in Asia and Africa from 1961 to 1996.