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!


  1. Dearest Naomi!
    Guess what? I'm an ex-Winnipegger too! I moved to Israel when I was 12 and like you am dreaming to sell my designs. I just finished learning Textile design in Shenkar, I gave birth to my 3rd child a month ago and am on "vacation" for 3 months. I don't see myself going back to my old job because of the kids, and I dream of working from home. Do you have any tips on how it can be done?
    By the way, we went on our honeymoon to Thailand, Laos.. Nepal Tibet, India so I'm sooo jealous of you! I wish I could just pack up and leave for a couple months! Enjoy every scent sight and sound!

  2. Thank you Naomi & Marc for enabling us to travel vicariously through your blog. Bruce & I had Janet & her family & Larry & some hiking friends over last night for a photo evening. It was fun to recall the wonders of Gwaii Haanas and share them with others. Wish you could have joined us. I thoroughly enjoyed your stories from Nepal as they brought back many memories. Looking forward to your next installment.
    Be well.
    Brigita & Bruce