Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Jaisalmer: the camel safari, sleeping (and puking) under the stars

It was to be one of the highlights of the trip. We all got up Christmas day morning to find the bus decorated with Christmas decorations and a chocolate Santa on each seat. We had a short drive to the Rat temple, where we had the thrill of walking bare foot through a building full of rats. Apparently very lucky if they run over or pee on your feet. And then on to Jaisalmer where we would have a camel safari into the desert. We had a party planned for the evening in the desert. Secret Santa presents would be opened, and a grand time would be had by all.

All was well at the Rat Temple (If anything can be called well, when you are walking on rat pee). But the tides began to turn as we neared Jaisalmer.

As I mentioned last post, we were all a mess. Everyone was coughing, sneezing, or at some stage of getting over one of the above. Two of the younger girls in the group had been up drinking the night before and were in some stage of recovery from their hangovers. We arrived in Jaisalmer around 4:30 and had been given a few minutes to repack a small bag with everything we needed for a cold night in the desert. By the time we were ready to hop into the jeeps, three or four people were feeling quite ill.

Was it the local lunch on the way? Was it the chicken from last night’s dinner? Everyone had a theory. After the bumpy jeep ride that took us to the camels, two people were puking and several others were on their way. The four already sick returned to Jaisalmer and checked into a hotel. The rest of us mounted camels to ride off into the sunset. Marc decided to skip the camel ride and took a jeep ride instead.

Still hopeful for a great night in the desert, I mounted my camel (named Lucky) with my young guide at the reigns. He sang a beautiful melody all the way that was in beat with Lucky’s slowly, slowly pace. Camel rides are not particularly comfortable, but the scenery at sunset was worth the bumps and chafing. We arrived at the desert camp as the sun set. The desert people that would be hosting us, looked to us like the Bedouin of the Sinai. We confirmed they do live in a village and are not a wandering people, but they must have been at some time. Their attire and way of cooking was too similar to Bedouin culture to be a simple coincidence.

There was a group of local Indian tourists already seated around the fire when we arrived, and two beautiful women in festive attire were dancing to the music being performed by the full band with local instruments.

Behind us dinner was being prepared and large silver plates with sections for rice, dal and other condiments were being dished up and delivered to each of us with chapattis coming around fresh from the fire. In true Indian style, we were to eat with our hands.

It was all very romantic but I was not realty feeling it. Although I was still feeling well, I couldn’t quite get through dinner. All I could think about was how the food had been prepared, and everyone eating with their hands. I am pretty open minded, but this was a bit over the top for me.

The local Indian tourists left us after dinner, and we were on our own for the rest of the night. We opened our Secret Santa presents, and the bar was open for business. Everyone was in the spirit more or less. It was cold but manageable.

Then the puking began. One by one, the stomach virus took hold of several other members of the group.

Marc and I decided to figure out where we would be sleeping and hope we could get through the night virus free. I was feeling nauseous but was determined to beat this thing. We got our sleeping bags out and set up camp and I practiced the Rake therapy that I had learned from Dhana, our Nepalese trekking guide. I focused on my stomach and told it to stay put. Through some miracle both of us made it through the very cold night with only one foray into the desert to pee.

In the morning, the desert people returned to prepare breakfast. Hot rice pudding with bananas cooked in milk, toast and jam, hard boiled eggs and plenty of chai. As I watched them cleaning our plates from last night with sand and wiping them clean with the same dirty rag they seemed to be using for everything else, I suggested to Al and Anja that perhaps we should use the plastic cups we had brought with us for the rice pudding at least. My suggestion received a positive response luckily!

The rice pudding was delicious. We ate it with tea biscuits as spoons. Those that were brave enough, ate the toast and jam and even the hard boiled eggs. I had seen the water the eggs were boiled in and watched the toast being handled by the boy looking after that end of things and passed on both counts. I had made it through the night and wasn’t taking any chances.

After breakfast, those that had puked all night were piled into a jeep, and the rest of us got back on our camels for the ride back. The scenery was as grand during the day as it was at sunset.

Safely back at the hotel with two days in Jaisalmer, I let my guard down and let nature take its path. I knew there was enough time now to get past this in the comfort of a nice cozy hotel room. By that evening I was puking every hour. By morning, I was through and had a whole day to lay in bed and recover.

The attraction in Jaisalmer is a beautiful fort that looks like it is has been carved out of sand. Inside is a living city where about 2000 people reside. I sent Marc off to investigate as I recovered in the hotel room. We have only a few photos of these few days of the trip. For me, unfortunately Jaisalmer will be remembered as the town I spent in bed, or sitting on or standing over the toilet! Luckily, by the time we boarded the bus this morning, I was 100%. I can’t say that for everyone though. Should be an interesting travel day!!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Falling in and out of love with India

We have been in India now for 19 days. The first leg of our trip ended last night and we said goodbye to Silje and Nicolai and hello to Sue, Daniela and Martin. It was extremely sad to see S & N leave the group, as they were such an important part of the trip dynamic. It reminded us all how close we have become in such a short time.

As we begin our second leg and I ponder how to summarize the last four days (two in Jaipur and two in Delhi) in just a few words, love and hate come to mind.

I left off last post with a bit of a teaser about our Jaipur Hotel, which was called the Bissau Palace. Most of the hotels we have stayed in have Palace somewhere in the title. And in fact we learned that some of the hotels in India are in fact Palaces converted into hotels. But up to now, while our accommodations have been better than any of us expected — Palaces they have not been by a long shot.

As we approached the outskirts of Jaipur we all noticed that the streets were cleaner, the traffic a bit more acceptable, and the store fronts amazingly colourful. There was excitement in the air as we had some free time in Jaipur and were all looking forward to the Old City Bazaar.

Our City guide in Jaipur was very knowledgeable about Indian politics, the caste system as well as the city’s history, so we had a first meeting planned with him after arriving at our hotel.

Following the instructions Al had from the Lonely Planet and map quest we arrived at what was supposed to be the location of our hotel. But there was no hotel to be seen and no one he asked knew where it was. Quick thinking by Al, he asked a tuk tuk driver who agreed to lead our bus to the hotel and within minutes we arrived at the most beautiful hotel we had seen thus far in India. As we walked through painted archways and past marble bowls filled with rose petals, we were mesmerized. Every inch of the walls in the hotel were hand painted with floral designs, and folk tale stories. I must be in heaven, I thought as I took out my camera to try to capture the beauty.

The dining room where we had breakfast (and some of the group had dinner) was formally set with bone china and beautiful brass and copper tea and coffee decanters. The employees (all men) wore red turbans and beautiful tunics made from patterned cloth. We felt like we were in another time.

We met with our local guide that evening in a room beautifully decorated, with display cabinets full of antique artifacts, jewelry and books. It seemed like the perfect setting to hear about how the caste system came about and how it evolved. We also learned about the government’s policies of affirmative action to try and undo the damage that the caste system has brought upon the untouchable class who had been destined to a life as street sweepers.

The next day we had a half day of touring and then were left to ourselves to explore the colourful street vendors and shops lining the streets of the old city. Jaipur is known as the pink city. All of the walls are painted a shade of pinky red. We were all sure it was red sandstone like all of the Red Forts we had seen thus far, but in fact a decision was made by one of the rulers to actually paint the walls this colour.

We all had shopping to do as Brett, one of the group, had suggested we do a secret Santa exchange, and Jaipur was the best shopping we had seen so far. Marc and I wandered the streets and bargained with the vendors and had a really great afternoon and evening.

This was the India I was waiting to see. For me this was the day I truly fell in love with India.

But it was short lived.

We left for Delhi the next morning and left our beautiful hotel and great market experiences behind and set out for a long drive to Delhi where we would have two free days to ourselves and where we would meet the new people and start the second leg of the trip. We stopped as usual at a local eatery on the way, and I just wasn’t feeling good about it. Personally, I was sick to death of dal of one description or another over rice or chapati. It all looked questionable and I just had no appetite for these terribly dirty places. Marc on the other hand seemed to be resigned and was quite enjoying the street fare.

Delhi is a huge city of 22 million, which means a lot of pollution and masses of humanity and their filth. Marc and I were really suffering from the air quality. We were both sick with colds and coughs which just don’t go away when you are filling your lungs with exhaust.

Our hotel was located in a middle class Indian neighbourhood and a group of us wandered the streets in search of some western food, and couple of drinks We found a bar at the corner of our street and had a drink, which always helps to deal with our surroundings. Marc sighted a Pizza Hut, and we decided that it was just what we needed to exit Indian culture long enough to regroup. It definitely did the trick!

Restaurant taxes have been a great mystery to all of us. Food is inexpensive enough, but by the time you add in 20% VAT plus another 20% state tax, and a 10% service charge, your meal doesn’t come close to approximating the price on the menu. Most waiters in restaurants also seem to have a problem adding up bills correctly (funnily, they always favour the restaurant and not the customer). Our meals in Delhi were actually better in that regard to other places, but this was grating on our nerves as well.

The next day we headed out for the Red Fort (every big city has one) and the famous Jami Masjid Mosque. I had had enough of both, and was following Marc like a zombie for most of the day. I had heard great things about the Bazaars in Delhi and was just waiting to get to that part of the day. After visiting both Fort and Mosque, we stopped for dosas on the street and eventually made it to the Bazaars.

Wow! The bazaars were completely over the top amazing. We decided to do it by foot rather than tuk tuk so we did not see everything, but what we did see was absolutely breathtaking. Unfortunately, I did not take very many photos as I was too busy taking in the eye candy. Each part of the Market is divided. So all of the sari fabrics are in one area, all of the ribbons, buttons and beads for decorating saris are in another part, eye glass shops in another section, vegetables etc in another. The amount of beautiful things crammed in each tiny shop was mind-boggling.

I could have spent the next week there, wandering the streets and looking at the amazing sights.

We were all (everyone in the group) by now sick with colds and coughs. My duty as hygiene monitor has been a dismal failure. Our bus seems to be an incubator for all of this, and I just knew it was only a matter of time before this turned ugly. And I was right. By the time we hit Jaisalmer the next day, there was more than our noses that were running.

Friday, December 23, 2011

A foggy visit to the Taj Mahal

After a great hour at the local market in Khajarahu, we had a long drive to Agra. We were promised a basic but modern hotel with wifi so everyone was in a good mood. We arrived around 6:00, met our fixer Ali and were all off to do our own thing for dinner. Al and Anja popped in to everyone’s rooms to let us all know that the restaurant in the hotel was busy, but we could order room service with no additional charge.

Then the door buzzer began ringing repeatedly as different hotel employees, came by to ask about laundry, dinner etc. I was madly trying to get the wifi to work which was my first priority and Marc was busy in the bathroom, which was his, so the constant disturbance was a reminder that a full service hotel in India is simply one where the hotel employees were looking for a way to get tips. When we first arrived, we had one such employee buzz to show us how the lights worked and then stood in the door for what seemed like hours waiting for Marc to give him a tip!

Ali, had rented tuk tuks for us for the whole day, just like in Varanasi. Our plans were to meet downstairs at 5:15 to jump into our tuk tuks and be at the entrance to the Taj Mahal in time for sunrise. It was unusually cold the next morning but we were all up and ready to go as planned, anticipating a great morning at the Taj. When we arrived though, there was no one there. No one in the ticket booth and no tourists lining up. An elderly local tour guide informed us that the opening hour had changed and the ticket booth would only open at 7:00. Al was immediately on the phone to Ali, who arrived within minutes apologizing profusely for the wrong information. We all found a street vendor and had our morning Masala tea and before we knew it, the sun was up, the ticket booth open, and we were in line to enter the Taj complex. Al apologized for the mix up, to which we all said “no worries Al, cheers!”

One problem. The fog was so thick, we couldn’t see one meter in front of us. The Taj Mahal was out there somewhere but we couldn’t see it! We all took pictures of fog and then went inside to enjoy the interior.

Then we all got back in our tuk tuks and went over to Ali’s home where a wonderful breakfast was waiting for us prepared by his wife and two daughters. We all sat cross-legged on the carpet and enjoyed an eclectic Indian/western breakfast.

Then we were off to a marble factory where we learned about the art of precious stone inlay work, which Agra is famous for.

The masterpieces we saw there were absolutely spectacular. We were not allowed to photograph the actual work, offered for sale, but take my word for it, the work was museum quality. It was the first time so far on the trip, that I really wanted to buy something. The patterns were so intricate and the colour schemes so spectacular that I was beside myself. I was heartbroken not to at least have the chance to photograph the work, since I would not be packing a 40 lb marble elephant or table top with me on an around the world trip. I tried to record as much as I could in my memory. That was just going to have to do.

We had a full day of touring including the Red Fort which was very impressive, a visit to the Jami Masjid Mosque and the adjoining local Bazaar, Itimad-ud-Daulah’s Tomb, or the Baby Taj Mahal as it is affectionately called here and a final opportunity to see the Taj Mahal at sunset. The fog lifted enough by the end of the day to finally see the Jewel in the Crown of India! We stood on the riverbank taking it all in. It was as if the Taj Mahal was floating on a cloud. It would have been great of course to see it clearly at sunrise, but it was truly special to view it from a distance at dusk.

So of course you now know that the photo of me at the top of this post in front of the Taj Mahal, was in fact a photo of me in front of a “photo” of the Taj Mahal, but it was a great experience all the same.

That night we all went to a local Indian restaurant and had a great Indian meal, and said our farewell’s to Agra.

In the morning we took a short ride to Fetehpur Sikri where we were met by a local guide who took us through the Palace built by the Emperor Akbar the Great to house his three wives (one Hindi, one Moslem and one Christian) and hundreds of concubines. An enlightened ruler, he believed that all of the religions had something to offer and created his own religion combining Hindu, Moslem and Christian values. His Palace was decorated in a combination of motifs from all three religions. It was another foggy day, but we managed to get a good look at the Palace before returning to the bus, and the rest of our drive to Jaipur including a local lunch.

An amazing hotel and experience was waiting for us there!
(coming soon!)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The lodge by the river near Khajurahu

I am several days behind in documenting our trip. Every other day is a travel day, so you would think that there would be time to catch up. But the truth is that the roads have been atrocious and our driver has, shall we say not been terribly sensitive when encountering the bumps in the road as he barrels ahead. Things have improved since Al had a stern talk with him but still, there is only so much writing I can do in these conditions.

The other problem is that our days are so jam packed with experiences, that are worthy of noting that as much as I would like to skip a day, I just can’t. So I guess, little by little it will all get done. I have the pictures to remind me of the most important bits so hopefully where my memory fades, I will have reminders.

So where were we?

Al was talking to a man on the phone and looking for a boy on a bike. Right.

We were to be staying at a lodge outside of Khajurahu. Anja had described it as basic but nice, so we really didn’t know what to expect. The boy on a bike eventually arrived and the bus headed after him on the paved road for about 300 meters. Then he turned down what looked like an opening in the bush, not a road at all. We and our bus driver rubbed our eyes in disbelief. How could anyone ever find this place? And how was a 20 passenger bus going to manage to traverse this sandy gravel road through the bush?

Travelling at about 5k an hour we followed the road (or whatever you want to call it) until we finally arrived at an open space where the bus stopped. But we couldn’t see any semblance of a lodge or anything for that matter. Two or three people arrived with a list of rooms and we were to follow one of them to our cottages which were somewhere out in the bush in several directions. “Maybe tree houses?” I said to Marc. We all carried our bags for what seemed to be an eternity as the sun was setting, not sure how we would find each other once we were settled in whatever kind of cottages could possibly be way out here in the middle of nowhere. An episode of the twilight zone for sure! There were light bulbs on poles along the way and we were all hoping there was electricity in this place so that we would have a clue as to where we were.

“Guys” Al said in his usual optimistic tone, Let’s meet in the bar for drinks as soon as you are settled. Dinner is at 7:00”. But where was the bar, we all quieried? He didn’t have a clue, but assumed it would be easy to find if we followed the light bulbs. 

Two groups were shuffled down another lit sandy path, and soon we came to another road to the left which we followed and eventually saw a large cottage. Inside were two spacious (very) rustic suites, with a very large living room equipped with a central adobe style fireplace, tables and chairs and a bar area with cups and saucers and a sink. In our suite was a large bathroom with a two sided mirrored vanity, towel rack and modern sink and toilet. There was a promise of hot water courtesy of a burning fire out back that somehow heated the water.

There was a flashlight, candle and mosquito coils on the table in the bedroom.

If we were in Canada, we would have thought the rustic aspects of the place were deplorable, but here just outside of Khajurahu, it was almost paradise.

The biggest treat though was the bar and dining room once we found it. Luckily, Al and Anja were staying in the other suite in our building so they helped us find it.

I had been joking about the tree house idea, but the bar and dining room were actually pretty much built into a group of trees that overlooked a gorgeous river. We all climbed the stair to the balcony and witnessed an amazing sunset in what turned out to be an absolutely spectacular spot. After many beers and cocktails, we were invited for dinner in a large formal style dining room with large wooden tables and carved chairs. We were served a wonderful Indian meal and rice pudding for dessert. All of the unpleasantness of our experience with the Maharaja was long forgotten as we focused on our new experience here in the middle of nowhere!

The next morning we had a guided tour of the erotic temples of Khajurahu, with their exquisite carved exteriors. Our guide brought to our attention the progressiveness of the Indian culture of 1000 years ago. He had a good sense of humour as well as being quite knowledgeable, and we managed to see many erotic poses and the explanations behind them. For the prudes following my blog, you may want to skip the photos. Some would certainly have a R rating, but most are definitely x rated. View at your own risk!

Our cottages were so well set up for entertaining, that it simply made sense to take advantage. There was a trip to the local “bottle shop” while we were in town, and a  plan for a “girls only” get together before dinner. A second plan for a group party after dinner was also gelling. Both parties were well attended and I think it was the perfect activity to break any ice still needing to be broken. We were a solid group now, Ready for anything that was going to be thrown our way.

On the way out of town, we passed a huge local market. Marc gave a shout to Al to see if we could stop the bus and take a look. “Sure can” was his answer and we stopped for a photo op and to enjoy the local colour. Here are a few photos.

 Every driving day, we stop for local food. Inevitably, we become the centre of attention. Here are a couple of photos from one of the stops.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The mystery of the Maharaja, Bengal tigers and jungle tea under the Banyan tree at Bandhavgarh Game Park

In hindsight, and after much discussion, all of the details of our “full of intrigue”, “surrealistic” two days in Bandhavgarh Game Park make some sort of sense. But it definitely required an extensive debrief for all of us to fully comprehend what had just happened to us.

The movie version (based on the book), would have started something like this:

The dust caked orange tourist bus, barreled towards an Indian state border checkpoint, somewhere between Bandhavgarh and Khajuraho. The young Indian boys (no one on the bus is sure what their jobs are, but they have been with the driver from the beginning of the Indian trip) in the front cabin of the bus, were receiving endless phone calls on their mobiles and were talking either into their phone or to each other in Hindi

(English subtitles)
Yes sir. Oh yes sir. We will be at the border crossing within the hour. Whatever you say sir.

(one to the other)
We now have our orders. When we reach the border, wait for the border guard to approach and then ask Mr. Al to leave the bus to speak to them. Just give him the head wobble and let him decide what it means. Then leave it all to them. We must make sure not to be involved. Very good trick to pretend we know very little English. Very handy with tourists …

(close up of the bus coming to a stop at border crossing)
(two boys motioning to each other and their boss the driver)
(burly security guard approaches the bus slowly, grimace on his face, shaking his head, motions to the license plate)
(boys motion to Mr. Al with the Indian head wobble which could mean yes, no, please, thank you or get out of the bus)

Al, sticks his head out of the bus to survey the situation. “no worries” he calmly smiles back at his passengers, but his glance towards Anja shows a bit more concern. “Stay here, I will see what’s up”, he says as he exits the bus. “I will straighten it out, whatever it is”. But he knows exactly what this is, and he is in disbelief that they would have gone this far. In his mind, he is reviewing the phone call he received three hours earlier from the hotel staff at the Maharaja’s Royal Retreat.


(flashback to Al on his mobile at the back of the bus, fuming)
“What do you mean you want to charge us more for the rooms? We paid our bill in full, exactly what you asked. Yes, I am still here. I am sorry, but you can’t come back after the fact and ask us for more money. Come again? Where are we? What do you mean? We are on the bus. No, we cannot turn around. No. We have paid our bill in full and that is the end of the matter. Hello?”

Someone hung up, but it is not clear who hung up on whom.

Al realizes immediately that he has a bit of problem on his hands. Not only does he have the hotel to deal with, but all of the passengers on the bus have been privy to this conversation, as well as the two Indian lads in the front cabin of the bus, and he is sure their English is much better than they let on. In addition, he has just ripped a strip off the bus driver for driving ridiculously fast and almost killing the whole bus of passengers on more than one occasion. Ah well, just part of a days work for super Al. It will all work out. No worries, cheers …


(All of the passengers are saying their final farewells at Maharaja’s Royal Retreat and boarding the bus)

(Silje, the group’s Norwegian beauty, who will definitely be the star of the mini series, was steaming)
(close up on her facial expression as she faces the rest of her fellow travelers eyes almost bulging from their sockets)

“So what did you think of this? Oh man, the Maharaja was such a sleaze!”

As she says this she notices the young tall thin, light skinned hotel manager, who had just counted, recounted and concluded Al’s cash payment for the hotel and meals, suspiciously standing in front of the bus taking down the bus’s license plate and talking to someone on his mobile ...


16 bedraggled travelers remove their belongings from the bus after a harrowing 12-hour ride on bad roads. It is 8:30 pm, and the last three hours of insane driving were at night. Everyone is a bit shaken up but glad to be in Bandhavgarh, and at the Maharaja’s Royal Retreat, which at first glance is looking quite comfy. Six or seven hotel employees arrive as if out of nowhere, but none of them seems to understand a word of English. Anja had called ahead to say they would be arriving late, but the staff seemed confused, but none-the-less very happy to be of service.

After a lot of head wobbling and yes answers to all questions no matter if they made any sense at all or not, it was ascertained that everyone should congregate in the main building. The Maharaja, Al and Anja were told, would be arriving shortly to greet them. In the mean time, juice was distributed and nerves and stomachs got settled.

(From out of nowhere, a plump, but distinguished looking man in his 50’s appeared)
(all 16 travelers look up as if in a dream to find The Maharaja addressing them)

(In a clearly British Indian accent)“Welcome. Please, make yourself at home. Beer, rum?” and with a snap of his fingers all of the hotel staff that had greeted the group at the steps of the bus reappeared and began taking orders. “I am the Maharaja, and this lodge is part of my family home. I make a concerted effort to meet all of my guests, and I can tell just from looking at you, that you are one of the nicest groups I have met here. Really I mean that. Please feel at home. We have prepared a fire outside under the 300-year-old Banyan tree. Please let’s retire there now and I will orient you to this property, and the flora, fauna and animal life that you will see in the park. Please, please this way”, as he motioned the direction to the outdoor seating area.

Everyone was immediately enchanted and the group, energized by the Maharaja’s warm greeting, retired to the outdoor thatched roof enclosure where a crackling fire was awaiting them. Beer and wine and snacks were served as the Maharaja’s tale of Bengal tigers, elephants, jackal and monkeys unfolded.

It became clear to Silje immediately that the Maharaja intentions were less than pure. Between offering rum to everyone, and making himself seem like the most gracious of hosts, he was like an experienced Bengal tiger eyeing the young females in the crowd (his prey) and getting ready for the kill.

Silje lights up a room, just by walking into it. Into her fourth month of traveling with her long time boyfriend Nicholai (and just recently confirmed fiancée), she has a full wardrobe of local fashions. This had not gone unnoticed by the (old enough to be at her father) Maharaja. Before the first hour had passed, he was stalking her, offering her alcohol and plying her with compliments and asking the two or three questions that would immediately let him know where he stood and what his chances were. She quickly and with her usual flare told him the story of her recent engagement party in Nepal. Before her story was even finished, his eyes were elsewhere, realizing he had no chance with her. “Ah look at that cute young one in such colourful trousers”, he thought to himself and was off to stock the next unsuspecting young female.

In the meantime, the rest of the group was enjoying themselves around the fire, drinking beer and rum and eating snacks so tasty and plentiful that they were all taken aback, when at 10:00 pm they were invited to the dining room for a full dinner. Bottled water was at each place setting and delicious meal was served. The Maharaja announced that tea would be delivered to each person’s room in the morning after a 5:00 am wake up call. There are tigers to be seen after all and our safari would begin at 5:30.

What a place! What an interesting man! The group was in a trance —but not Silje. “This is not going to turn out well,” she said under her breath as she made her way to her room about midnight. “I have a bad feeling about this man and this place.”


(three jeeps return from the morning safari and park in the lot)
(The group is disappointed they have not see a tiger, but have been lucky enough to see monkeys and birds.)

(Camera pans left to the kitchen staff preparing breakfast under the Banyan tree.)

A clay adobe stove structure’s fire is being fed dry branches and the cook is breaking two eggs at a time into a copper bowl, adding cut up onions, tomatoes and greens and pouring the mixture onto a sizzling skillet. A line is forming to his right with eager travelers, waiting for their personal omelet. Hotel staff are all over the group with offers of tea, coffee, and other breakfast fare. No tigers, but no worries. What a place, what an experience!

But the spell was soon to be broken, piece by piece, until it unraveled completely.

The first clue was the presentation of a bill for the previous night’s drinks around the fire as well as the bottles of water at dinner. Everyone, including Al and Anja, assumed they were complimentary, but no worries, the prices were fair and everyone was happy to pay. But they wanted the money immediately and were less than polite about it. And this became the norm. Friendly and misleading service to the group on one hand, and gruff unfriendly attitude towards the group leaders.

Then there was a general sense of confusion about the day’s plans. Marc, Naomi, Kevin, Bob, Magdalena and Miro planned to take a second stab at seeing an elusive Bengal tiger and were scheduled for a second safari at 2:15. Lunch was scheduled for 1:00, and a bird walk for 12:30. The Maharaja, an aspiring cook and foodie, was going to give a cooking demonstration at 7:00 pm. There was the museum to see as well as the library, and so the day was quite packed with options, but the good thing was that according to the schedule, you could catch everything if you wanted to.

But from the time that the plans were made, the schedules changed minute by minute and there was an ongoing line of hotel people, announcing rescheduled events, that contradicted the original plans.

In addition (and maybe this is the most important piece of the puzzle), the Maharaja had cleverly in his first sit down with the group around the Banyan tree, suggested that on the way to Khajuraho, the group should stop by his Fort.

“Really it is right on your way”, the Maharaja began “and I would be very pleased to have you. The group will really enjoy it and it will break up the trip. Just let me know”. “Thank you Maharaja”, Al graciously replied, “that sounds like a very nice idea. And you are right it is on the way. We will discuss it and get back to you.”

The next day, a member of hotel staff approached Al with a bill for $22 a head for the visit to the Fort. “But we have not confirmed, and we had no idea there was a cost involved”, Al quickly piped in and off he went to discuss the matter with the Maharaja just before his cooking demonstration was about to begin.

(Close up of Al in deep conversation. Camera pans from Al’s face to the Maharaja’s. The Maharaja looks down, shakes his head and walks away.)

And that my friends, in where in my opinion, the proverbial tiger poop hit the fan.

In the real time story (back at the border crossing), Anja sat quietly with us for as long as she could stand it and then left the bus to see what was up. She returned five minutes later. I asked if everything was all right and she said simply “Yes, Al will explain”. He arrived minutes later and calmly told us what we had already expected. The hotel staff (but we know it was the Maharaja) had called the police and told them we had not paid all our bill, and to stop us at the border and demand payment. Even though we had paid our bill in full, Al said, he had really no other option but to pay the additional amount (bribe) that they were asking for. Now that the police were involved there was really no other choice.

“It will just take a few minutes to settle” he assured us, “There seems to be a bit of a question to exactly how much the total is and I need to be sure I have proof that the money will actually get to the hotel”.

That was the end of it in the real story, but, In the movie version, Marc came up with a much better ending:

(Camera pans to Al returning to the border office with saddle-bags full of Indian Rupees, collected from all of the passengers to pay the bribe.)
(close-up of Silje fuming)

Silje stands up and pushes her way to the front of the bus. “This is just not right” she mutters under her breath. “I will be back Nicholai, I promise! She screams with a last loving look at her fiancée as she jumps from the top step of the bus to the ground. She eyes a motor bike parked at the border, jumps on it, revs it up and she is away in a cloud of dust, back to Bandhavgarh to settle the score.


Silje covered in dust, her black hair matted from the wind, her traditional sari in tatters, riding side saddle drives the motor bike right into the Maharaja’s cottage at his family’s lodge, startling him as she crashed through the door.

She turns off the engine and dismounts. “You are a very bad man”, she said quietly, “and I really can’t stand for that”.

(We are still trying to decide how the confrontation should go. We couldn’t decide if Silje would have then gone into a full “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” marshal arts routine, or simply pulled out a baseball bat to break his knee caps, but you get the jist. She would be the heroine of the film as she was the only one that had him figured out from the first encounter.)

Then of course at the end, the bus arrives and Nicholai is waiting at the door. She runs into his arms and the credits star running.

In the real story, we spent the rest of the drive to Khujarahu discussing what really happened and feeling really crappy about the con or highway robbery or whatever it was that had happened to us. But you know, it was really a nice place, and we actually all had a great time there — and Marc and I did see two tigers on our second safari, so it was all part of this crazy adventure we are on. And as Al is quick to say in these kinds of situations — No worries guys, Cheers!

The next movie opens as we drive into a gas station outside of Khajurahu. Al is on his mobile talking to the lodge. He turns to us and says, ”Ok guys, we are just waiting here for a boy on a bike who will show us the way. The sign at the turn off has come down and we would not find it without him”.

Stay tuned!