‘Memsahib, memsahib, chai aap ke liye.’ The voice gradually began to permeate my subconscious.
‘Memsahib, lunch adha ganta baad.’
I began to come to and groaned, I ached from head to foot.
‘Memsahib, chai aap ke liye.’
My aural senses, about the only ones that seemed not to hurt, homed in on the word ‘Memsahib.’
Really, memsahib? Ha! Now that I could get used to. Hold on, what else did he say? Lunch? Jeepers, surely I hadn’t slept for twenty four hours? Mortified, I shot out of bed, unzipped the front ‘door’ to find that a pot of tea had been left for me. Staff at my disposal, tea delivered to my tent, my every need tended to with the merest instruction. Well, not quite every need, but maybe this was going to be okay. I looked out over the camp and the dam, trees, birds and sun, in short, the jungle greeted me. Perhaps this had been the right decision after all. I paused, smiled, coughed, ouch, yup, still felt like I had been hit by a large moving vehicle, and then remembering that lunch was imminent, I dragged myself into the bathroom. In record time I showered, a proper shower with hot water, got dressed and ventured out. This sleeping in was starting to become a recurring pattern and one which I would have to break.
One of the staff, I was yet to find out names, pointed to the direction of the main lodge building and I headed up there to find Puneeta sitting on the veranda. ‘Hi’, she greeted me, how are you feeling?’
‘’Like I have been in a train smash, but even so I am so sorry, I can’t believe how long I have slept, really sorry. I bet you think I am hopeless, I’m so embarrassed.’’
‘Not at all,’ replied Puneeta, ‘you were exhausted so we decided to leave you to sleep. Krishnan and I are still here so no rush, we only woke you up as we thought you had better eat something. Lunch is in 20 minutes, the guests are back from the park, great tiger sightings this morning so they are happy. You and I can sneak off and have lunch in private, Krishnan can entertain the guests.’
We moved around to the side veranda, sat down, ordered chai and then I was finally able to start taking stock of my new surroundings.
‘So, welcome to our scruffy little camp’ Puneeta said.
I didn’t find it scruffy at all, I found it charming. Unlike so many of the lodges I had seen, which had manicured lawns or were in the style of Rajasthan palaces or concrete blocks with no thought to conservation or aesthetics, Tiger Lodge had left the land as much to nature as possible. There was the main lodge building with a veranda around the front and side which is where we were now sitting, sipping chai. Inside there was a large open fire place surrounded by sofas and book shelves lined the walls. It was a perfect setting for the chilly winter evenings. The front veranda overlooked the rest of the camp, which was ideal in its simplicity. There was the dam, at the side of which the guests were now seated enjoying lunch. The six tents were proper safari tents, and had been thoughtfully placed around the land, spaced out to offer privacy. Being green they blended in with the foliage and were separated from each other by trees. ‘What trees are those?’ I pointed to the ones between the nearest tents.
‘Ahh, eucalyptus, not indigenous, they were here when we bought the land but they are good for repelling mosquitos.’
I nodded but was more concerned with staff issues than mosquitos. I paused wondering how to approach it without sounding too concerned.
‘So, how many staff are there?’ I asked.
‘Fourteen’, replied Puneeta. ‘All from the local tribes, The Baigas and the Gonds, we try to be as socially responsible as possible.’
I smiled. ‘That’s nice, most people seem to have imported staff from outside the area.’
‘Yes, some camps have, but these were the people who were displaced from the land when it became a designated national park and so we want to help them as much as possible. It doesn’t make things easy, which you will find out, the work ethic can be somewhat erratic, but we prefer to do what we see to be the right thing’.
‘Well, I think that’s a great idea but, do they speak any English?’ I ventured, semi hopefully.
‘No, well Raj does, the head naturalist, he’s from Nepal but he is out in the park for most of the day. Don’t worry though, I’ll be here for another three weeks and Krishnan for three to four weeks after that so you will be prepared and able to communicate by the time we leave.’
I nodded with more confidence than I actually felt but was prevented from commenting by the arrival of lunch.
‘It was quite funny actually’, Puneeta continued, ‘we did hear of some women not too far from here who were giving English lessons to the tribals during the monsoon season, so we sent two of our most promising staff, Antraram and Uddal along for a few days. What we didn’t realise was that these women were missionaries and the boys came back being able to recite the Lord’s Prayer beautifully and say phrases such as ‘’Let us pray’’ but nothing terribly useful for communicating with guests.’
I laughed and started tucking into lunch of rice, daal and vegetable curry.
‘Did you mention that you have hotel experience?’ asked Puneeta, rather too late, I thought, given that I was already in situ.
‘Yes’, I said, ‘I did a degree in hotel and catering and then also worked in hotels and as a chef for a couple of years, before I moved into travel.’
‘Perfect’, said Puneeta, ‘you shouldn’t have any problems here then. Actually, the food side of things is one of our weaker areas, so if you could help devise new menus and work with the boys in the kitchen, that would be great.’
‘No probs, I’d love to.’
‘Great, we do have a bit of a logistical problem with ingredients. The nearest big town is a ten hour round trip away; we use that mainly for dry produce but we have to rely on the drivers who go to collect the guests to come back with what is actually on the shopping list, which doesn’t always go according to plan. For all fresh fruit, veg and basics, we use what’s available at the local markets which is also dependent on the season.’
So, no English speaking staff, no electricity, no way of phoning for help and a shopping nightmare, I was beginning to wish I was back in London. Well, almost.
‘Well, I’m sure I’ll get the hang of it.’
‘Of course you will, it’s not too difficult, it’s just a case of being organised and occasionally inventive but I am sure as you have actual cheffing experience, you will be more adaptable with shortfalls in preferred ingredients than I am. The other issue is staff, by only employing locals, well, some of them are great and enthusiastic, but some of others aren’t that bothered. Don’t expect to build too much of a rapport with them, they tend to come and do their job, mostly, and go. It’s just the way they are.’
‘Okay,’ So much for a team I could rely on, I figured I might as well find out what other surprises were in store for me. ‘So what’s the daily schedule then?’
‘The days all follow a similar pattern here. We get up at four thirty,’
‘Four thirty!’ A high pitched squeal emerged before I had even noticed.
‘Yes, don’t worry, you’ll get used to that too. It’s all early to bed and early to rise here, the guests tend to be in bed by nine thirty, and the boys will wake you up.’ I peered at her with more than a little scepticism, I was more used to that being going to bed time, not getting up time.
She continued, ‘Then you need to check that the rest of the staff are here and preparing the bed tea,’
‘Bed tea?’ I asked.
‘Ahh, a hangover from the days of the Raj, the staff serve tea, coffee and biscuits to the guest in their tents with their wake up call. Breakfast is eaten in the park so, after bed tea they then prepare the picnic breakfast. You need to check on that and make sure the naturalists are here.’
‘Ah, so, the colonial hangover will also explain why the staff are calling me memsahib?’
‘Are they? Oh how sweet. They still speak quite an old fashioned Hindi here, so if they have decided that you are to be ‘’memsahib,’’ enjoy it. The safaris are from 0530 until around 12.00 that’s why we provide a packed breakfast. At this time of year the morning safaris in particular are cold so we give hot water bottles and blankets. Then the guests come back, have a rest, lunch and then head back to the park from 3.00 pm until 6.00 pm. The evening meal is at 1930, we start with soup around the camp fire and then most people are in bed by 2130 ready for an early start again the next day.’
‘Well that sounds straight forward enough,’ I said, ‘what could possibly go wrong?’
‘Plenty,’ grinned Puneeta, ‘Simple living is never quite that. We have regular challenges but then they make life more interesting don’t they?’
I smiled wanly, I had come here to get away from challenges, I hadn’t anticipated being faced with a whole load more.
After lunch, the guests dispersed for a couple of hours’ rest before heading out for the evening safari and Krishnan took me for a walk around camp so that I could start to get my bearings. At the back of the lodge was the kitchen and storage area and further behind was a chicken coop and the site where my house was going to be built. To say the kitchen was basic was an understatement but at least there was a gas oven, storage cupboards, a fridge, despite the lack of electricity and a sink. Outside was a washing up area and a cold store room.
‘This is Antaram and Dilip and Prem’ said Krishnan as three nervous faces smiled and said ‘Namaste,’ the Hindi greeting. ‘Antaram is the main cook and Dilip and Prem help prep and serve. The girls outside, Bhaisakin and Sudhir,’ Krishnan pointed through a hole in the wall, ‘do the washing up, they don’t serve the guests.’ I looked out to see a lady in her early fifties and a girl in her early twenties who both briefly looked up and shyly brought their hands together in a welcome, whilst keeping their eyes downcast before turning away.
‘I am never going to remember all these names,’ I said, ‘I have never even heard any of them before.’
‘Oh, don’t worry, give yourself a few days and you will start to remember who is who and who does what.’
‘Hmmm, maybe, I might have to give mnemonics a try.’ I said. ‘Antaram, rhymes with pram, ants in a pram, Antaram that could work.’
Krishnan gave me an odd glance as we ventured out the back to where my ‘house’ would hopefully soon start to be built and then circled back around the lodge to the front of camp and wandered down to the tents. The area was well spaced around six acres, Puneeta cycled past and waved as we strolled along.
‘That is the main entrance,’ Krishnan pointed to the gate that I had careered through yesterday, ‘The building on the left is the staff accommodation and the one on the right is our house.’
Just as he said this, a man with a broad smile on his face came up and shook my hand, ‘And this is Bahardur, the camp’s man Friday and local character, he’s really helpful but a bit of a joker.’
‘Hi, sorry, namaste,’ I said and Bahardur laughed and walked away. Krishnan grinned, ‘That about sums him up, you’ll get used to it.’ We wondered down towards Krishnan and Puneeta’s house where Puneeta was entertaining their young son, Jai.
‘Got your bearings?’ she asked as we approached.
‘Well, in terms of the layout, yup, not a problem, but some of the staff names are a bit confusing.’
‘Oh, don’t worry, you’ll get to know them in no time. Anyway, how are your gardening skills?’
Gardening skills? Seriously? ‘Pretty non-existent, why?’
‘Well, my latest project is my vegetable patch. There are a lot of things that we can’t get here so I bought various seeds over from when we were visiting friends in the UK and am now trying to grow them.’ I followed as she walked out to the vegetable garden where courgettes, broccoli and rocket leaf lettuce were all being nurtured. Just as I was beginning to feel that yet again, all this was out of my depth, a man wondered over from the staff accommodation.
‘Ahh,’ said Krishnan. ‘Here’s Raj, the head naturalist, he is amazing, and will be your right hand man when we leave. He’s been with us for four years now and knows how things run, though obviously, he will be in the park most of the day. Raj, meet Jo, our new camp manager.’
We shook hands and said hello. ‘I saw you arrive yesterday with Rajeev’, Raj said, ‘you looked a little shaken.’ We all laughed. ‘You could say that, sounds like you are going to be my saving grace.’ I said.
‘Oh, I don’t know about that, but I will give what help I can, as long as you don’t expect me to help with gardening or cooking.’
‘Well, cooking I am ok with, gardening not so much, speaking Hindi, not at all.’
‘That could be interesting,’ he said, smiling, but not before I caught him giving a quick, surprised glance in Krishnan’s direction, ‘Have you been to India before?’
I told him my potted history of several trips a year but always to different states, mainly in the south and given that they each have different languages and the only common one was English, I had always stuck to that.
‘So, at least you have knowledge of India, and Puneeta and Krishnan aren’t leaving for a while. Are you interested in wildlife?’
‘I love it,’ I enthused, ‘as a child I had posters of tigers on my bedroom wall instead of pop stars, that’s one of the reason’s I jumped at this opportunity.’
Raj looked horrified, just what on earth had made me say that? I sounded like an absolute idiot. I shook my head and scuffed the ground with my toe.
‘Well, that’s half the battle, all the guests want to talk about is India and the tigers. Are you coming into the park this afternoon?’
I looked at Puneeta, ‘No,’ she said, ‘the jeeps are all full and she probably still needs some more rest, she’s recovering from flu, but we could arrange a drive tomorrow morning, we’ll all go in, that could be fun.’
‘Oh wow, that would be brilliant, I’d love to, if that’s ok?’
‘Great idea,’ said Krishnan.
‘Brilliant.’ I exclaimed as I tried to stifle a yawn.
‘Right,’ Puneeta took charge, ‘more hot water with honey and lemon for you, and more rest.’
‘Sure,’ I replied, I was fading again, but Burke had flashed across my mind, ‘Is there a phone anywhere I can use? I ought to tell my parents I have arrived safely and send a couple of emails.’ I didn’t want to tell them the real reason.
‘There is no electricity just now, said Krishnan, but we’ll figure something out later on.’
Of course there wasn’t, wasn’t that why I had come? Saved for the first time already.
‘Actually, Bahardur will be going into town shopping at some point in the next couple of days, you can go with him, there are phones on the way.
‘Ahh, yes, the STD clinics,’ I said, laughing. Raj and Krishnan just stared at me. ‘Erm, the phones are all ISD for International and STD for domestic calling, but in the UK STD clinics are for,’ my sentence drifted off as I looked helpfully at Puneeta who jumped in very quickly, giving me a discreet shake of the head,
‘There is also one shop in town which has a computer, it’s Baihar’s equivalent of an internet café. Don’t expect Wi-Fi with a side order of cappuccino and blueberry muffins though.’
‘Right,’ I said, looking at her gratefully, though I wasn’t sure exactly what misdemeanour I had just committed. ‘I still can’t believe I am going to the park tomorrow, how exciting.’
‘Yes, we’ll get that sorted, I hope you’ve brought lots of layers, at this time of year the morning safaris are freezing.’
I nodded. ‘Great, well then, go and get some rest you’ll need to be fit for the early morning, I’ll see you later.’
With that I headed back to my tent, thoughts swirlling around my head and feeling decidedly overwhelmed. At least there was the safari to look forward to, my first morning in the park, what would I get to see?