Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Last Night in Orchha

              I love a good campfire.  Especially when it’s otherwise freezing and wine is provided.  I love it even when it’s fueled by gasoline, as was the case at the Blue Bull campsite in Orchha.  In fact, I might have suggested that the staff immolate a few of the unoccupied tents to create a wall of heat to shield us from the bitter temperature we would encounter hiking to the bathrooms later to brush our teeth.
            Our last full day in Orchha had been a lazy one by our standards.  Pat had stayed with the kids on the campground while I joined Robyn and Keir for a bike ride that morning.  I had had some trepidation about keeping up with the guides and Robyn and Keir who are seasoned bike riders.  I ride a stationary bike, for exercise, two to three times a week but it would be hardly comparable unless the guides provided gossip magazines to peruse as I pedaled and allowed me to stop and sit down every time I broke a sweat.  I overcame my apprehension pretty quickly however, after considering that the river-rafting excursion had probably prepared them for my level of expertise at anything physical. 
            My determination to keep up on the ride had served me well. It focused my mind, and made it possible for me to swerve through the chaotic streets of Orchha without dwelling on the very real possibility of losing a limb or slamming into an oncoming motorcycle after skidding through a pile of cow dung. Half way through the ride, one of our guides turned to me and said in a genuinely surprised tone, “Good bike rider.” That was all I needed to push through to the end.
            Sitting around the campfire that night, I took pride in the soreness in my haunches. I was also proud of having negotiated the marketplace around Orchha’s temple earlier that evening.  The temple itself was gorgeous and I had felt calm in its confines, listening to the music of an evening ceremony in progress.  By now very used to temple hopping, the children had run around quietly, as if they owned the place. I had seen some batik stamps being sold outside, before we climbed the steps to the temple and I thought that they would make lovely small gifts for friends. Since many street vendors state different prices for Indians and tourists, I milled around in the temple while our guides ran down to the market to buy the stamps for me.  Later, we took a walk through the market which was challenging only because I’ve never been good at haggling and I always feel #1) foolish because I’m arguing over a couple of dollars here and #2) anxious because I know I’m probably still paying more than the object is worth and #3) doubtful that any object is worth how foolish and anxious I feel by the time I hand over my money. 
            Any residual tension from haggling and bike riding faded in front of the fire that night, as I enjoyed one of Keir’s many entertaining stories. I loved the campfire ritual so much that I already knew it would be one of the many things I’d miss upon returning home to my far more ordinary nighttime routine of watching MSNBC when the kids were asleep and hating myself because I would never be as smart as Rachel Maddow. 
            The kids were tucked into their tent and we had just unscrewed the bottle cap off of the wine when Vinod and a couple of guys brought out a blanket and laid it out in front of the fire opposite us.  Once it was arranged, Vinod stood rather formally on it and began to talk.  I was reminded that Vinod was the kind-faced gentleman who had given our welcoming speech just two days earlier.  How strange that I now felt I knew him since he had shared his own stories around the campfire and carried our children when they were tired (not to mention, watched me wash my son’s bare bottom in the sacred Betwa river). 
            “It is a tradition,” Vinod said, lit by the fire, “for the staff to sit with the guests on the last night and sing songs.” 
            Ten or twelve men materialized on the blanket and took a seat.  I recognized our rafting guides, the cook, and a couple of the men who took us bike riding.  All of them, in fact.  Some sat cross-legged, others shared a couple of available seats.  One sat on another’s lap.  Robyn had told me that Indian men were quite affectionate with each other and it was lovely to see such physical ease. I thought of how much physical distance American’s usually require.
            “I’m going to get the kids,” Pat said, and sprinted toward the tent. 
            The men on the blanket giggled and talked as Pat rounded up the boys and Robyn and Zoe.  When we all settled, the men sang a beautiful song that sounded like a folk song they all knew. It could also, I grant, have been a cricket team song or an advertisement for a phone plan. How was I to know?  It didn’t matter. It was clear that the men were enjoying themselves.  So much so that when the song seemed to peter out because a few of them couldn’t remember the rest of the words, they poked each other and pushed a few forward who could make it to the end.  Then they decided to sing another song and another.  Some of the songs started to sound more modern.  Perhaps they were Bollywood songs.  And sometimes only two or three of the men knew the song.  They all encouraged a tall man to sing the lead a couple of times.  And frequently, failing words gave way to laughter.  The guy in the hat seemed to be the joker who had them all falling over with his pithy asides.  I didn’t understand a word of it and could have watched them all night.
            Eventually, however, it seemed selfish not to share our own songs with them.  After a brief family discussion, we settled on “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer” because we all knew the words, it was Christmas Day, and Zoe was the most passionate in defense of her choice.  We sang with conviction and the gentlemen applauded kindly. I wanted to sing them something pretty, as they had us.  Really, if you don’t understand the words to “Rudolf” it sounds like a drinking song. Pat volunteered to sing a Sinatra standard, “I’ll Get Along Without You Very Well”.  It’s a lonely wail of a song that he sang out into the black night. The fire crackled and the men listened until the song waned, as it was meant to do.  Then Spencer offered to sing a Pokemon song. At home, I had found the boys’ obsession with Pokemon mildly annoying, so I didn’t think much of his choice until I heard his clear strong voice sing the words:

“On the road
Far from home
But you don't have to feel alone
Brave and strong
Together we will be
It's our destiny

We will be heroes
We can change the world if we try
I go where you go
Forever friends you and I
We will be heroes”

            Spencer paused and I couldn’t breathe. The Indian gentlemen looked at each other. Was it over? Pat shifted in his chair. Then Spence took a breath and tagged it, “Battle Dimension. Pokemon.”
Even Murphy knew that the moment had somehow been corrupted, “Dude, you did not just sing ‘Pokemon’.”
Spencer leaned back in his chair, “Why wouldn’t I?”
Everyone applauded.
The kids hanging out at the campsite

Brett on a bike in Orchha

Pat and the kids at the Orchha Temple

The Snow Leopard Staff with the children


  1. Haunting and beautiful. I love Pat's singing into the dark and Spencer's anthem. No wonder they applauded.

  2. brett, I just read your last three posts and I have to say your vulnerability touch's me so deep! I think this is what i love most about your writing - you may feel scared, embarrassed, alone, silly, no matter what - you share and express this feeling with such brilliance (and I say brilliance because we all feel these feelings so much, but are to scared to share) and I really want to thank you because the journey that I am on - what you share makes me not feel alone in this world and I really appreciate how you put a smile on my face every time I read your witty and endearing blogs!

  3. Brett, I'm playing a little catch up so forgive me for the past due comments, but thanks. I got little tears in my eyes and then just when I thought it was safe, more tears in my eyes.

    There are some things about being a parent that I thought there just weren't words for, yet you manage to find them and share them. Thanks so much.