Our hotel in Jaipur has not quite lived up to the picture created in the hit film ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’. It’s been more like ‘The Quite Nice Carnation Guest House’ – but we’ve loved it.
The staff at the establishment, just outside of the Pink City’s walls, have been charming, if not a little perplexed. For instance it has been practically impossible to order food, as the English menu seems to be beyond the poor chaps, even when one is using the Hindi words. Of course, it could be our pronunciation, though when one is furnished with a cup of tea so sweet it could strip five layers of varnish from an Indian teak floor, when the instruction ‘without sugar’ has been repeated fifteen times, one does begin to wonder. But the poor boys look practically suicidal if you complain, so I imagine I shall be returning to Europe sans teeth and in need of some major dental work.
It is not just Andrew and I who have had communication issues. I overheard one conversation at breakfast that could have come straight out of ‘Fawlty Towers’!
‘Does your muesli contain nuts?’ Asks one British lady. A septuagenarian I imagine.
‘No’, the chef responds.
‘There are no nuts?’ she continues.
‘Yes’ he says.
‘What do you mean yes? Are there nuts or aren’t there nuts?’
‘Yes there are nuts, or yes there aren’t nuts?’
‘Yes’ he repeats.
‘Don’t keep saying yes. Are there nuts?’
‘Yes’ he says again.
‘Show me the muesli!’ She screeches.
The waiter then removes the lid from the plastic container and presents it to the lady wanting breakfast.
‘There are no nuts in there!’ She says.
‘No’, he responds, ‘You want nuts?’
‘Yes’ she affirms, in an exasperated fashion, ‘you have nuts?’
‘No’ says the waiter.
And this is a short conversation.
Usually one is practically ready for lunch by the time breakfast has arrived!
At night a young puppeteer has sat banging on a drum to get us diners attention. He has then attempted to entertain us with a show consisting of various mannequins, each representing unpronounceable Maharajas past, waving their arms about unconvincingly and wobbling their brightly painted heads. Apparently all of these have been handmade by his blind, great grandmother of one hundred and eleven. Because I was one of the few to take notice, this budding showman has taken a shine to me. Unfortunately, with strings attached! I’ve had to tell him in no uncertain terms, that I have absolutely no interest in working his limbs. He eventually took the hint and asked me instead for a big tip in order to buy some new rubbers. I presume he meant the kind used in the classroom, although I can’t be sure!
This city has shown us the best and the worst of this diverse country in such a short space of time, but it has certainly won us over. It has been a feast for all of the senses, and so of course, as with any overindulgence, indigestion is inevitable. But we leave with our appetite more than sated.
In the morning we are introduced to our driver- Ramrash. I am only hoping, in one of his more reckless moments, Andrew doesn’t take this as an instruction. In the fantasies we’d constructed, Ramrash looked very like this.
Sadly he doesn’t!
But he is tremendously affable, with a kind face and absolutely no English. This tour is gonna be interesting to say the least.
On leaving Jaipur, Ramrash drives us south towards the national park of Ranbamthore, one of the few places left in India where one has a semi decent chance of spotting that most enchanting of beasts – the tiger. We make a brief pit stop to stock up on travel sickness pills and some illicit Valium – both essential if one is to commit to any long road journeys here. Then we hit the almost open road.
As we career down the carriageway, missing trucks and pedestrians by mere millimetres, Andrew and I discuss with amazement how few incidents we have witnessed here. We decide there must be an innate Highway Code, which is invisible to us foreigners, keeping everything on two or more wheels in order. A few miles up the highway, we realise we’ve spoken too soon. A small crowd has gathered by the side of the road, and as the traffic is forced to slow, our vehicle comes to a standstill next to a body in the road. It is a man with half a head, his brains frying on the burning tarmac for all to see. Indeed some of the spectators are filming the scene on their mobile phones. It comes as quite a shock as two policeman both grab a limb and begin to drag the corpse towards a waiting van. At this point, I’m feeling more than grateful that we both took a ‘Vomitstop’ pill earlier to help with the journey, or we could have been chucking our own cerebral fluid all over the back seat.
Our conversation was somewhat muted for a few minutes, before the inevitable black humour took over. A defence, no doubt, to cover the horror of of what we had just witnessed. But even during the joking, I couldn’t help but ponder this fleeting dance that is life. At one moment this poor guy was happily motoring along through the warm sunshine, on his hard-earned scooter, and the next ,bang. Brain dead! It was sobering. So much so that we decided to crack open a beer to take the edge off. We’ll, it was after noon – for us lucky ones!
When we arrived in Sawai Madhopur, a distinctly unattractive town close to the jungle where the big cats roam, we began our search for somewhere to lay our heads, still feeling grateful we had them! The first guest house we tried had the charm of a Victorian asylum, only with less character. And it wasn’t cheap! After an almost biblical experience searching, we eventually found room at the inn. Not a particularly salubrious establishment, but with very accommodating staff which improved the accommodation. After another brilliant vegetarian meal, at less than a tenth of the price one pays in Europe, we lay down our weary bones and dreamt of tigers and leapards and bears. And brains!!! It was not the most restful of nights.
In the morning we woke to a chilly start. Apparently it never rains here in March, but today, the day we’d chosen for our safari, it appeared the heavens were about to open. We took a stroll, searching the one mall that exists for something waterproof.
However, there was not even a bin liner in sight. So instead we opted for a bottle of Indian Scotch, (a misnomer if their ever was one!), and Andrew, a packet of Marlboro Lights,(yet another!!).
In fact, Andrew has supposedly given up smoking since finishing his last packet three days ago. He is now using his terribly expensive vaporizer, which he purchased in England before we left, including a multitude of expensive refills. However, that idea seems to have gone up in smoke, and he is now puffing in conjunction with this new-fangled machine – sometimes simultaneously ! Except for situations when it is forbidden to smoke, that is when the ‘vape’ takes over, to ease his brain. As on the occasion when we came across the poor gentleman without one.
Even I had a puff then!
As if to balance that fatal moment we’d witnessed the day before, something much happier occurred on the piece of scrubland that constitutes the view from our room. A shepherd took his crook and tapped the back of a large nanny goat in his care. He then lay her on her side and held her down for a moment, seemingly against her will. I, with the same car crash mentality as that of the previous day, could not take my eyes away. I asked Ramrash what was occurring and he replied ‘baby coming, baby’. Andrew and I were then privileged to spectate as a new life came into this world, in fact two. It was equally as visceral as the moment yesterday, but with a much happier conclusion.
Life’s scales always seem to balance in some way or another in this crazy country. If at times they can swing rather precariously from one extreme to the other !
So, uncomfortably ensconced in our new digs, without a cloud in the sky, we set off on safari. Tucked into a jeep, known as a gypsy, with our new friend Chris, a freelance editor from our neck of the woods, we headed into some.
Naively, we thought we may have the vehicle to ourselves, but we were soon joined by a very smart Indian family who were also on the lookout for some big game. A young man, his very pretty wife, and their nearly little boy, with a grin as wide as his midriff. They took their seats behind us in the jeep and we pulled off, in an unrecognisable gear, towards the forest.
We bumped around for about an hour, cheerfully chatting, and sharing the odd swig from our bottle of Coke! (Nudge nudge etc…). We saw nothing. Unless three deer, two peacocks, and a partridge in a bare tree count as a significant sighting.
The sky, by this time, was looking as grey as a Some of the tap water here, and we all knew we should have looked harder for something waterproof. And then, as we came out from the bush and hit the open plains, the skies did the same, and opened! There was a small kerfuffle in the back of the vehicle and we came to a juddering halt under the pouring rain. Our guide stepped out to help one of our Asian friends into the front seat undercover. I assumed it was to be the young lady, dressed in a very fine jade-green saree – but no, to my amazement, it was little smiling Vikram who was helped into the front seat. Vishnu forbid the child get slightly damp.
As we carried on driving through the driving rain, the mini god in the front seat demanded we stop now and then, in order to see a squirrel, or another deer. We waited, patiently dripping, as little Vikram took photo after photo on his mobile phone of the ordinary fauna which surrounded us. At one point he also decided to play with the handle of his seat, so not only was I getting soaked to the skin, but I was also beginning to develop serious bruising of the patella. Added to this, it was now looking increasingly unlikely that we were going to spot a tiger. I mean surely they wouldn’t be daft enough to come out in this weather!
It was during this slight malaise, and as the weather began to worsen, that our driver decided to take cover under a Banyan tree. We pulled up alongside an identical vehicle to ours, only I noticed with envy that this vehicle had only one passenger. We sat in silence for a moment before the elderly occupant shifted in his spacious seat and turned towards us. I smiled, there was no response. Chris, our new companion then piped up,
‘Have you had any luck today? Spotted any tigers?’
‘Oh yeah’ the dour faced pensioner responded, ‘Sure!’
We knew at this point our friend sharing shelter under the canopy was one of our American cousins.
‘We’ve seen nothing’ I offered, ‘well, a few cows’.
There was silence. The man looked at me with a troubled expression. No doubt he was a Trump supporter.
Chris tried again,
‘Today, you mean today you’ve seen a tiger?’
‘Oh yeah. Lots.’ The guy boasted. ‘This morning I saw two of them mating!’
No doubt ya did I thought. But kept quiet.
‘It was quite something’.
The animal envy was palpable. Everybody tried to be polite, but the ignorant git’s arrogance was too much for Andrew, who decided to do his best Floridian accent with a very loud,
‘Oh yeah. Gee – I saw two of them fucking this morning!’
This wasn’t lost on the old man, who gave another hard stare.
‘You’re stage whisper could do with a little practice’ whispered Chris, giggling with amusement, the editor in him coming to the fore. Andrew laughed. Our friend from across the pond did not. He just continued with his cold hard stare.
I stared back in silence. I had no charm left for the old fool. I’d obviously displeased him by even having the nerve to exist. I was relieved as we eventually parted and went on our separate safaris.
The rain continued unabated, and soon we came to a clearing where several other jeeps and cantors were grouped. We soon knew why. At the top of a hillock there stood a brick shelter where the rest of the humans were taking shelter.
We did the same for a while. It seemed ironic that we were spending the majority of our time on our exotic safari huddled in a man-made shelter.
After a while it was all too mundane for me, and I left to take my chances under the trees, joining a few deer who had the same idea.
It reminded me very much of an expensive version of Richmond Park in London, only the deer were much further away, and not as impressive.
Soon we clambered back onto our wheels and began the trek again. It was at this point that the little Indian god, still shielded from the precipation in the front seat, decided to turn to me and say, with a self-satisfied smile,
‘We shall see no tigers today.’
‘Oh’, I replied, in that condescending manner in which an adult talks to a strange child, ‘ and why is that?’
‘The rain’, he said, laughing as though I should be aware of this fact too.
I growled. It was the only one anyone had heard so far.
It was at this point that Andrew turned to me and said, in his opinion, we would all have a better chance of spotting one of the great beasts if we had some bait, and perhaps it would be a good idea to tie something to the back of the jeep to flush the animals from their hiding. A small Indian child perhaps. We laughed far too loudly at this, I don’t think his parents, who were in possession of a little English, were that amused. But neither did they look too bothered, they, after all, had also paid big money to spot one of these big cats.
As the time wore on it became increasingly unlikely we would be lucky. We came across another charabanc full of excited folk, most of them with a look of Princess Anne, who couldn’t wait to tell us that they too had seen the two tigers having it off that morning. Several times.
We, on the other hand, were more likely to see one of these fussy felines on the front of a Kellogg’s Frosties Box. They were beginning to irritate.
They weren’t grrrreat – just grating. These wonderful elusive animals were proving to be just that – Kipling’s ‘Sheer Khan’ was proving to be more, ‘Sheer Can’t be bothered.
Another hour later, wet and cold now, loathing children and tigers, our driver stopped our vehicle when a burning smell was detected. Little Vikram had been playing uncontrollably with the controls and it seems something or other had burnt out. We sat for at least fifteen minutes whilst our guide fiddled worriedly with parts of the jeep.
It would be just our luck, I thought, if a veritable ambush of tigers, hungry and bored of deer, appeared suddenly out of the scrub. I knew if that happened, we’d have absolutely no choice but to sacrifice little Vikram. His parents were young, they could try for another. After realising that the ‘wiper-machine’ was causing the problem, our driver got the vehicle to start, and little Vikram was ordered not to touch anything else. He’d had a lucky escape.
And so, we exited the park without so much as a glimpse of anything orange, bar some dodgy headgear a Scandinavian lesbian was seen sporting.
We bade goodbye to our Indian friends and were dropped back at our guesthouse, which was now,of course, bathed in full sunlight.
I sit on the roof, watching the local nature pass by, both human and otherwise, and can’t help but laugh. Who cares whether we’d managed to catch a glimpse of that Blakean myth, that maharajah of cats. This country has a roar all of it’s own. It certainly doesn’t require a giant striped feline to make one feel it’s awesome energy.
Sitting with a Kingfisher beer, drying off, I recite William Blake’s famous ditty to myself,
Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright,
Did We See one?
Did We Shite!
But we still felt the roar.