She was on a month-long visit to India, and Mumbai was her first stop. Though jet-lagged, the lady tourist exulted that she had finally arrived in exotic India! Her father who had served in India when the country was ruled by the Brits, had filled her head with stories about Kiplingesque jungles, the wondrous Taj Mahal and palaces crammed with untold riches.
As her Indian friend drove her to his home, her father’s borrowed memories un-spooled in her mind and she even imagined that she had been an Indian in a previous lifetime! The clamour and chaos and the rivers of people that she saw en route, both unnerved and enthralled her but then the car came to a stop at a traffic signal and a be-turbaned snake charmer thrust his basket through the window. A serpent uncoiled itself and eyeballed her malevolently, and the woman almost passed out. She wanted to fly back home that very night but was persuaded by her friend to stay on… Since that first visit, she has made 10 visits to India.
She told us, “As they say, there are two types of people in the world – those who have been to India and those who haven’t!” And then added: “And those who have been to India can be segmented into two types: those who love India and those who just cannot handle the surprises the country throws at them.”
Yes, India has a way of springing pleasant and unpleasant surprises on our foreign guests. Twenty-year-old Oliver had an unusual welcome, when he arrived in India recently. Stones were thrown at his car en route from Mumbai airport, by stray urchins. “Initially, I thought it was a traditional Indian welcome,” he joked. We met him at the swish Relais & Chateaux luxury tented camp and spa The Serai, Jaisalmer, in the Thar Desert, close to the medieval city of Jaisalmer. Over the next few days, Oliver was slowly seduced by the flaring sunsets and sunrises in the burnt-orange desert; the twitter of birds outside his tent at daybreak; the sight of a camel caravan loping away in the distance with charpoy rope beds balancing on their accommodating humps; the contours and colour of the golden Jaisalmer Fort …
At the luxurious Jawai Leopard Camp, situated in the Aravalli Hills, 30 km away from Ranakpur, in western Rajasthan, we met Peter and Christine who were on their eighth visit to India! They loved the camp’s minimalist design, the magical rocky landscape that unfolded around it and where leopards lurked. They walked with the red-turbaned Rabari herdsmen who shepherd their goats home at dusk, clucking to them like they were their children and marvelled at the simplicity of a nomadic lifestyle, devoid of want and greed.
We chatted with two other American women whose husbands had opted to go to Las Vegas rather than India! We met them at another Relais & Chateaux luxe camp, Sher Bagh in Ranthambhore. Though one of them had been bitten by a spider in Delhi, she gamely soldiered on with her friend, pain and discomfort of the bite forgotten as the rest of their trip had a fairy-tale quality. The duo told us that at the Rambagh Palace in Jaipur, where they were staying earlier, the President of South Africa and his entourage had been welcomed with typical Indian fanfare – caparisoned camels and elephants, folk dancers in glittering costumes with the palace grounds resembling a wonderland of flickering diyas.
And when in Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, they saw the majestic tiger in the wild, they felt that their trip to India had fulfilled their wildest dreams.
On a game drive in Ranthambhore, we shared a jeep with Mary Rose and Sally from London who had decided that time was running out on them and they needed to tick off countries from their bucket list. Mary Rose had been born in Nainital and had returned to India in her twenties to teach at a school in Darjeeling for a year. Both were starry eyed about India and the trip with its incredible highs, fuelled their delightful camaraderie. Sally said that she had always been driven by the desire to traverse the length and breadth of the country and both the friends could do it only after their husbands had passed on. “Our late husbands loved the bright lights of Paris and Berlin; India for them was a country where tigers and leopards stalked city streets!” Sally vowed that she would not leave the country without seeing a magnificent Royal Bengal Tiger.
And towards the end of our game drive which had taken in tawny grassland, dense forest, blue lakes and water holes, we spotted him lying supine near a thicket. Was it the intensity of her desire or a stroke of luck? An ecstatic Sally gazed at the big cat, transfixed by his magnificence and then commanded Mary Rose to take her photo with the laid-back tiger in the background. She patted her hair in place and then complained about her friend’s lack of photography skills. Mary Rose had got the feline in the frame but only a part of Sally’s face!
And on our last evening, we sat around a camp fire at Sher Bagh, where we met another couple. The wife was an ardent Indophile and the husband had decided to indulge her by using his frequent flier miles to fly her to India on a magical trip. Ever since she had read the tales of Rudyard Kipling as a child, India and elephants had fascinated her. Indeed she had an over-riding desire to hug an elephant. When she rode one en route to the magnificent Amber Fort in Jaipur, it was the high point of her trip. But then when she slid off her caparisoned perch and told the mahout that she wanted to ‘cuddle’ his elephant, he sensibly suggested that she hug his trunk instead. Later he took the couple to the elephant’s stable and allowed her to help scrub and bathe the pachyderm in a pond nearby.
Yes, India has a way of fulfilling the strangest and most fugitive of fantasies in the most extraordinary ways!