Keir hired a car and a driver to get us from Kajaraho to Bandhavgarh National Tiger Park by nightfall. In terms of kilometers we were less than three hours away, but the roads through rural India are uneven and often unpaved. We would also be dealing with livestock, bicycles, motorcycles, and many trucks tricked out with decorations and signs that implored drivers to “PLEASE HONK!” That meant that the trip could easily take up to seven hours. Finding a van with enough seat belts for the children proved challenging and in the end, we resorted to using a seat belt that Keir had fashioned from a belt he had “borrowed” from an airline a couple of years ago. It was small enough for Zoe, and could be slipped through a bigger seat belt when she sat on an adult’s lap.
Pat and I brought our books up front and made sure that the kids had playing cards and their books. As we started on our bumpy morning drive the kids entertained each other with magic tricks, and I stared out the window hoping to become alert enough for a nice long read.
Pat and I never cracked our books. The ride was simply too fascinating. We drove through countryside and villages, hitting a few small towns. We drove past motorcycles transporting up to three, even four, people a bike. Women in colorful saris carried long bunches of sticks for firewood on their heads. Ordered stacks of bricks with geometric designs stamped into them, lay on the outskirts of most villages. These turned out to be bricks of drying cow dung used for fuel and for building the walls of some sheds. People’s homes were so small that all life seemed to spill out onto the road – washing, cooking, bathing, and small groups of people talking on blankets or around a fire. We drove past outside classrooms of children sitting cross-legged in front of a teacher who might – or in some cases might not – have a blackboard. Girls in brightly colored school uniforms walked in groups along the side of the road. Each little village had a few stores, each no bigger than a closet. Many small homes were painted bright Shiva blue. Sometimes an older person lay on a wooden cot in front of a house. It didn’t seem like the few homes in each village could contain all that life. But Keir and Robyn said that the one or two room huts often could house up to eight people, even more. Each village appeared to have a well that was often the only source of water. And everywhere, everywhere, we saw cows, monkeys, goats, and dogs.
We stopped outside of one village when we couldn’t get by several trucks. We all peeled out of the van to see a huge truck stuck in the dirt unable to move. Several men worked on the problem with ropes and planks of wood while motorcycles and herds of goats continued their thoroughfare. The kids enjoyed stretching their legs as we waited forty minutes for the villagers to pry the truck loose and budge it enough for other trucks and our van to narrowly gun past it before getting stuck as well.
We arrived at the Mogli Resort, just outside the Tiger Preserve, with a couple of hours of daylight left. This was key on a number of levels, not the least of which was that once the sun set the temperature would drop to the high thirties. With no heat in our rooms we would have to huddle around a fire or burrow into our beds in layers of clothes to fight the cold.
Mogli resort's full staff was overseen by a plump man in a uniform. There were about fifty cottages and rooms on the extensive grounds. A huge pool of sparkling blue water sat in front of our two cottages. White lounge chairs lined the pool and a spigot of water sprayed into the pool. Spencer wished that he had brought his swimming trunks but I thought the water must be freezing. This was confirmed when both boys yelped as soon as they stuck their bare feet in, yanking them back immediately and demanding a towels to dry off.
Two raised outside decks promised terrific stargazing. All paths led from various cottages to a large rotunda. This served as a banquet hall. There were several long dining tables covered in crisp white and red tablecloths. At one end, a television played ESPN. At the other, there was an extensive food serving area, complete with silver serving trays, stacks of drinking glasses and coffee cups. Uniformed men bustled back and forth with table linens and silverware. A tiger motif infused all aspects of the décor: Tiger paintings and photos, tiger wall hangings, and a huge stuffed toy tiger curled up next to the television. The children were enchanted.
And hungry. Could we, we asked the round concierge/manager, order dinner soon? It was about five and the children had barely eaten anything on the trip.
“Dinner is at eight,” he replied officiously.
“Ah,” I said, to Keir, “I bet they can’t shift dinner because of the other guests.”
Keir threw me a look and whispered through a clenched smile, “There are no other guests.”
He nodded. “I don’t see anyone and there was only our name written on the blackboard in the office.”
“Is it low season?” I whispered back.
“Nope,” he replied.
The manager walked off in the direction of the office and the adults huddled to assess the situation. We were a few miles from any town and none of us had food. The kids would never last until eight. And why – if we were the only guests on the entire complex – couldn’t dinner be moved up a bit? We looked around the huge rotunda, now noticing that of the ten or so long tables, only one had place settings. Seven. At one end. It looked and like an Indian version of “The Shining”. Why was it going to take three hours to prepare food for our relatively small party? We were outnumbered by workers, I estimated, three to one.
Robyn went off in pursuit of the manager again and the rest of us, passively, hungrily, explored the grounds. Minutes later Robyn announced that she had managed to score some bananas and toast for the children who pounced on the rations eagerly. Keir and I ordered a beer and a glass of wine, respectively. The waiters looked confused and we weren’t sure if our drink order was understood or even possible to fill. The whole staff seemed befuddled by our presence, and I wondered how long it had been since they had had guests. Keir said that he had seen names in the guest book dated a week prior. What happened here when there were no guests? Maybe the rigid meal schedule was kept and now that guests were actually manifesting, everyone was thrown off their game.
After a half hour a beer and a bottle of wine appeared. Keir guessed that a hotel employee had driven into town to get them. We all took our glasses up to the stargazing deck and chatted until a fire was lit. The kids went off to pool and the cottages while the adults warmed themselves. Every once in awhile the fire was stoked into bursts angry flames by a groundskeeper with gasoline. The fact that we were the only guests added to the feeling of being on another planet altogether. Our two little families floating in space. Darkness fell and with it the temperature bringing the kids closer to the fiery nexus of our universe.
By the time dinner was served two hours later we were starving and exhausted. We dragged ourselves into the airy, freezing rotunda to gobble up enough food to last us the night. We were given hot water bottles and told to meet at the rotunda tomorrow morning at five thirty for our jeep safari. I couldn’t wait to wrap myself around my hot water bottle and load on the blankets.
I did not know that I would be up most of the night.
Because Murphy would be heaving up his dinner well into the early morning.
Because Murphy would be heaving up his dinner well into the early morning.
|Spencer at the pool|
|Inside the cabin|
|Dinner in the Rotunda|