I woke the next morning, with my head throbbing, a throat which felt like sandpaper and a mouth which tasted like no earthly product I have ever come across. I groaned and, clutching the blankets around me, tried to sink back into the pillow but the sounds of Rajeev bellowing to his ‘troops’ across the camp infiltrated my semi-conscious state. I peered at my watch and was amazed to discover it was already 09.30. I shot out of bed, instantly regretted it, my flu was worse and the vodkas had taken their toll. My head exploded and I fell back, wondering for the umpteenth time just what the hell I was doing here? Gingerly, I tried once more to reach a vertical position with slightly more success. No bucket of hot water had appeared this morning and so I rolled some deodorant under my armpits, dressed in khaki trousers, khaki shirt and a fleece and threw all my other gear into my bag, ready to beat a hasty retreat. Only guessing at how my hair, used to being washed every day, must look on day three of neglect, and remembering my note to self from the previous evening, I grabbed a baseball cap, stuck it on my head and, trying to look more jovial than I felt, ventured out of the room.
I was immediately enveloped by the, sight, sounds and smells of the forest. The warmth of the sun was penetrating the branches of the trees and the more immediate sounds of camp life were all around me. Two jeeps were just coming in through the gates, the guides back from the morning safari, having already spent a few hours in the park. Nine thirty was a four hours too late to surface in the jungles, but I couldn’t worry about that now.
Despite shivering, feeling feverish and definitely not feeling refreshed I still felt strangely at peace and I ventured toward the sound of Rajeev’s voice, wincing with each decibel that reverberated around my head. I found him amidst several members of staff who were dashing around in all directions, following his commands. ‘Uttam’ he hollered just as I approached, ‘Where are my cigarettes?’ Uttam appeared just in the nick of time with a fresh packet and a glass, both on a silver tray. Oh my God, no way, please tell me that wasn’t a glass of whiskey?
He handed both over just as Rajeev spotted me. ‘Ahh, morning,’ he shouted, ‘How are you feeling? Refreshed? Good good, excellent, right then, the boys will make you some breakfast and then I will run you over to Tiger Lodge myself, it’s been a while since I have seen Puneeta and Krishnan.’
I wanted to ask if Abhishek had left already but my embarrassment coupled with the hangover meant that I just stood there feeling bamboozled before I allowed myself once more to be led off in the direction of some food. Toast, cornflakes, muesli, all that was on offer was in no way shape or form going to go down my shredded, swollen throat and so I just settled for some juice and hot, sweet chai. I sat down and allowed my mind to drift. Tea seemed to be tea the globe over, or in India and the UK anyway and the world’s problems could be solved with a hot sweet cuppa. Before I could determine which came first English tea or Indian chai, Rajeev sent Uttam to chivvy me along, eager to be on the road. Thinking back to the glass of whiskey which I had seen him drinking earlier, I figured it would be better to make tracks sooner rather than later.
He was already sitting behind the wheel of a closed-topped Jeep and I saw that my bags had been stowed in the back seats.
‘Come along, come along,’ he insisted, ‘Let’s get you there in time for lunch.’ I clambered into the front and had barely had time to say goodbye to the staff, or even shut the door, when, tyres spinning and dust flying, we shot out of the gates and onto the main road. Thank goodness nothing was coming as he barely paused to check for approaching traffic.
I glanced at him, nervously. ‘How far is it to Tiger Lodge?’ I rasped, as we swerved, with no regard for the approaching truck, to overtake a bullock cart, on the single lane, potholed road. I closed my eyes and gripped onto the sides of the seat, waiting for the impending impact which was surely inevitable? I realised we had missed it as I was thrown against the door as we veered sharply back to the left side of the road with Rajeev, swearing and muttering about incompetent truck drivers. I glanced back to see the aforementioned driver struggling to keep the truck upright, having been forced into the verge. I thanked God for his safety and started doing various deals with Him myself as Rajeev blasted his horn and overtook another jeep taking us halfway onto the rough land on the far side. I hung on for grim death. I wondered whether he had heard my question and was just about to ask again but when I looked at him, was astounded to see that he wasn’t even looking at the road, but peering up into the trees; ‘This whole area is buffer zone,’ he started to explain, ‘where only lodges and tribal houses can be built. Trees can’t be cut and we quite often see a few animals which have ventured out from the park as well as a good variety of birds in the higher branches. Look, see that?’ He pointed up into the dense foliage, ‘That’s a Rufus Tree Pie, quite common in these parts.’
There was no way I could see anything up in the trees given the speed that we were doing and was tempted to point out that maybe it would be a better idea to look at the road instead of giving me a nature lesson.
We veered on and off the road with Rajeev oblivious to my fear and seemingly, the trucks and cars that were swerving off in all directions to avoid him. My knuckles gradually turned white as they gripped onto the bar, thoughtfully attached to the front console, as he accelerated and braked increasingly erratically as we barely dodged men on bikes, chickens, dogs and several jeeps before finally swinging into the very welcome gates of Tiger Lodge. He screeched to a halt, ‘Here we are then.’
I sat where I was unable to move, my hands unwilling to loosen their life saving grip. I tried to smile and mutter my thanks but couldn’t do anything except sit there stupefied. A couple of moments later, I saw Puneeta and Krishnan approaching and tried to muster a smile.
‘’Jo hi, is everything ok were expecting you last night, what happened?’’ asked Puneeta, looking quite concerned and more than a little baffled as she looked from me to Rajeev. As soon as I saw her, I was reminded of her gentle nature and I nodded as I finally managed to rouse myself and climbed out of the jeep. As my feet touched the ground I started to feel slightly faint and I held on to the door for a moment or two. ‘Jo, are you alright?’ She asked again, anxiously.
Krishnan, her husband, looked on, also seemingly perplexed at my unexpected choice of arrival companion.
‘’Well, I’m not sure to be honest, it’s a bit of a long story, did you get my message? ‘No,’ she said, ‘What message?’ I glared at Rajeev, he had promised me he would get a message to them; fortunately Krishnan and he were walking away.
Stalling, until he was out of ear shot I shook my head and said, ‘Rajeev promised he would get a message to you last night. I am so sorry, I don’t feel very well, do you mind if I sit down?’
‘Yes, of course, come this way,’ said Puneeta, and lead me down through the camp and into the main lodge building where she sat me down, got me a refreshing nimbu pani (fresh lime juice) and ordered tea.
‘So what on earth happened to you, why didn’t you get here last night, and how did you end up having Rajeev drive you here?’’ She fired the questions at me albeit kindly and, beginning to regain some composure, I regaled her with the story of my last twenty four hours.
’Good grief, you poor thing,’ muttered Puneeta, ’We usually don’t inflict Rajeev on people until they are quite a bit more settled and I am furious with him for kidnapping you like that. You were only half an hour away.’
‘Half an hour?’ I exclaimed, ‘last night he told me it was at least an hour and a half and then today we got here much quicker than that.’
‘Yes well, that’s Rajeev’s driving for you. He is known for his infamous hospitality and also his speedy and erratic driving.’ She smiled, with a twinkle in her eye.
‘Yes, well, it has certainly been a far cry from the way I usually travel in India.’ I breathed deeply, ‘But I was looking for a whole new experience and it’s safe to say, it has certainly been that so far!’
‘Actually.’ She exclaimed, in a very typical Indian way, and we both grinned, and I blew my nose on a tissue one of the staff had thoughtfully provided.
‘Anyway,’ she continued, ‘ You’re here now and there’s no rush, we operate on jungle time, which is a pace slower than India time, take a couple of days to recover and find your feet and then we will start showing you the ropes.’’
She looked on sympathetically as I was wracked with a coughing fit, ‘Sorry, I think I have flu; unlike me, I never usually get sick, but I feel dreadful.’ But then, not wanting to appear too negative in front of my new boss I spluttered,
‘But, it is great to be here finally and we did see a barking deer on the road on the way.’ Puneeta looked at me suspiciously, ‘If you saw a barking deer on the road, how come Rajeev didn’t hit it?’
‘That’s easy,’ I replied, ‘we were nowhere near the road at the time.’
We both laughed and then I started another bout of coughing.
‘Right,’ said Puneeta, ‘It looks like I’d better change that chai to a hot water with honey and lemon and show you where you will be staying. You need some rest.’ With that, she shouted for Prem, a member of staff,
‘We were meant to have built you your own room but are a little behind schedule and so you will be staying in one of the guest tents when we have availability, which fortunately we have for the next few days. We will figure out where to put you when we are full when the need arises.’
Just then, Prem arrived, he looked to be in his teens and had a very innocent look about him, incredibly slim but with huge round cheeks and an even bigger smile. ‘Garam pani, nimbu aur seth ke saath,’ said Puneeta.
I looked mildly surprised, ‘Oh, don’t the staff speak English?’
‘No’ said Puneeta, and proceeded to drop a bombshell I hadn’t even considered. ‘You see, all of the staff are tribals, in keeping with our eco policy of only employing locals, and none of them speak very much English.’
‘What?’ I looked at her aghast. Having no permanent accommodation was not a problem, but I quickly realised that I really hadn’t thought this through. I had accepted a job, managing a lodge, on my own, in the middle of a jungle, that much I had known, but having Rajeev as my nearest neighbour and a team of staff who spoke no English? My ill thought through escape was beginning to look more like much more of a challenge than I had anticipated.