Cocktails and Campfires

There is something wonderful about sitting out around a campfire.  I know all you African/Indian Safari diehards have been experiencing this for years, but it is something that, living in the UK, we really don’t get to experience very often. For one main reason.  The weather. Now, we are renowned on our island for discussing the weather and we are never happy about it.  ‘Isn’t it mild? I know, you can’t believe it, it’s January and the spring daffodils are coming out already, before the snow drops!  Even the plants are confused, it’ll be a bugger in spring.’  A week later, when the frosts hit, ‘By ‘eck, its bitter, it’s killed all the daffodils and I’ve had to putt’heating up, me bills ‘ll be enormous, bloody thieving electric companies, they’d have us all freeze just so they can make an extra bob or two.’ Or, as this is England after all, ‘Am getting fed up of all this rain!’ Though to be fair, this winter, with half of the country under flood waters, I do have some sympathy there. Fortunately for me, my favourite pastime is horse riding and so it is the horse that has to trawl through the mud and not myself.Beach camp fire in Rishikesh with post rafting chai.

Then the summer hits.  On a rare sunny day, ‘Ooh it’s too hot, we shouldn’t have to work in this, there’ll be people dying of heat stroke.’ And the other thing we have to endure on days when the sun does venture an appearance are the swathes of white, cellulite-dimpled flesh which appear and which, as we are not used to dealing with the sun, gradually turn pinker and pinker throughout the day, until a guaranteed outcome the following day is blistered skin and sun stroke.  Oh yes, we can talk about and not cope with the weather in this country with impressive aplomb. However, Indian friends, you are not wholly exempt from this, seldom do I hear of someone having a ‘viral’ that hasn’t been caused by ‘mausam change’. Mausam is the Hindi word for weather. You can’t deny it!

As most of you are aware, I divide my time between Yorkshire and India and there are certain things that I take for granted in each of these destinations, and yet that somehow I manage to transition between them without noticing.  When I am in the UK, I don’t plan ahead. In my vehicle (which without the efforts of my Indian driver, resembles a skip) is kept everything from water proofs and wellingtons to umbrellas to sun cream, just in case. Picnics or BBQ’s can never be planned with more than 30 minutes’ notice  and if the sun should shine for more than an hour, there is a mad scramble to find the picnic basket,

‘Is it in the shed, when did we last use it?’ Puzzled looks all round as the family search the dark recesses of their memories.

‘Where are the flasks?’

Yes, even on a hot sunny day we feel the need to carry warming soup, and when unearthed from under the two years of debris that have gathered on top, shouts of,

‘Who the bloody hell put these away without washing them?!’

By the time the picnic is prepared, sandwiches, crisps, pork pie and soup, you then sit in a traffic jam for 3 hours, in the blistering heat, dogs panting and slavering all over the car, as guess what? Yes, everyone else in the country has had the same idea and are heading to the same beach. By the time you do get there and lay claim to your 1m square patch of sand, the wind has invariably got up and one sits there stoically, half sheltered by a wind break,  munching on sand encrusted sandwiches, as the kids paddle in the water, screaming due to the freezing temperature and the dog runs off with the contents of someone else’s far more interesting picnic.  As the sun begins to set and the temperatures drop, pale pink arms begin to produce goose bumps in their multitudes and it is time to wish you had a warming fire as, despite the false camaraderie of having enjoyed such a day, you are reluctant to pack up and join the queues on the roads back home.

This is where India comes into its own.   The weather.  Knowing that, for at least 10 months of the year (state depending of course)  in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, where I have spent most of my Indian days, the sun will be shining, day after glorious day after glorious day after glorious day.  The sad thing is, this is so normal, you don’t even notice it. However,  it does makes planning safaris, lunches, picnics, horse rides, camel rides, walks you name it, whatever your fancy, easy to arrange in advance.  Imagine, fellow Brits, being able to arrange a picnic as far ahead as 3 weeks on Tuesday at 2pm?

Of course what else makes it easier, is that one then has staff to prepare the food, pack it up and clear it all away afterwards. Picnics in India take on a whole new genre.  I have turned up in jeeps, on horse-back (and even camel, under sufferance – Mr Singh, you know who you are!) to tables set in the middle of nowhere, though usually in a picturesque spot by a lake, replete with crisp white table cloths, chairs, proper glassware (no plastic tumblers here), crockery and cutlery, immaculately dressed staff at the ready, to be served what can only be described as a sumptuous feast, at the end of which, and after an hour’s rest under the shade of a tree, or a canopy thoughtfully produced as if from nowhere, one can just get back in the saddle and head home without a thought of clearing, washing or queuing.  A hark back to the Colonial days, and no one does this better now than the Indians I am sure.
Yet, lulls are also easy to allow when staring into the camp fire, reflecting and chinking the ice in your Old Monk or Whiskey. Ahh, yes, that’s another thing about campfires in India which may contribute to the content or vociferousness of a conversation, one merely has to hold ones empty glass up and it is immediately refilled with the poison of your choice.  With such perceived anonymity and alcohol, the conversations cannot fail but start to flow.  Perhaps it was these factors that one campfire conversation I was party to recently, focused on the Indian dinner party conversation taboo’s of politics and sex – most surprising!

Yet it is the evenings for me, when India really comes into its own.  It’s second nature in MP, Uttarakhand or Rajasthan, to sit out in the evenings, around a camp fire.  Okay, maybe not in the extreme summer months,though my search for a campfire in May once took me to the fabulous Abbotsford in Nainital where temperatures still allowed for one.  There is something so soothing and therapeutic about it.  Sitting in the open air, staring into the fire, listening to the crackles and the conversations taking place around you.  Of course, once again, it is the wonderful staff who gather the wood and light the fires and then stand within calling distance to replenish as required.

Conversations seem to take on a whole new dimension around a camp fire.  Maybe due to the lack of lighting, faces in semi darkness, only lit by the intermittent flickering flames of the fire, which give people a perceived anonymity and greater confidence.  Then there is the romance of the situation which adds a certain resonance to many a conversation.

In addition, and thank goodness, something needs to soak up all that alcohol on an empty stomach, plates of delicious pre-dinner snacks (usually sufficiently substantial to constitute a dinner in their own right – if heading for a first experience of Indian hospitality – be warned… this isn’t a cocktail dinner, it is pre-dinner only!) are offered with alarming frequency.

c62e8-tribalfireI have enjoyed campfires in the National Parks of Madhya Pradesh where, not surprisingly, the conversation focuses on the wildlife, forest departments, plight of the tiger etc.  In Rajasthan, the conversations tend to be more varied though it is always amusing to hear which Rajput is biding his time or plotting his revenge against another Rajput compatriot.  The days of war and fierce battles held on horse and elephants fighting to defend land and gain women may be over as far as visual battle fields are concerned, but by and large these guys gained most of their lands through valiance in battle or assisting a Maharaja.  War is in their blood, and the blood lust, whilst quieted has never quite gone away. There is always some revenge being plotted somewhere around the state.

Rafting RishikeshI have also enjoyed campfires on the beaches in Uttarakhand.  Raft the rapids on the 24 km stretch above Rishikesh and then head back to camp.  Chai and snacks and as the sun sets, the fires are lit.  This time, instead of being clad in safari attire, as is the case in MP, it is jeans scruffs, jumpers and bare feet digging into the sand.  Talk of other rafting destinations, nearby treks, the local villages and the customs….. a fabulous way to end the day.

Having said that, one of my most magical and memorable experiences was staying at Ramathra Fort in Rajasthan over a New Year. Picture the scene! A remote, small yet beautifully restored fort in the middle of nowhere in the countryside of Rajasthan, somewhere very vaguely between Agra and Jaipur.  Night falls, the camp fires are lit, the staff are attentive, drinks are flowing, along with the conversations, folk musicians play in the back ground, snacks are circulated and all this overlooked by a perfectly full moon shining down though a perfectly clear sky.  It doesn’t get much better than that.

sunrise tiger mountainOf course, it is easy for me to romanticise my India, especially when sitting in Yorkshire on a dreary and wet day  – you see, even I can’t escape talking about the weather –  but there are elements of campfires that aren’t all romantic.  Sparks flying and landing on your trousers or sweater, quickly burning through to the skin.  Having to move away from the fire and run the gauntlet away from its soothing warmth in the freezing night air of the winter months to get to your room (I appreciate how spoilt that makes me sound!) Then, upon reaching your room, wondering, dreamily if that handsome Rajput had really been paying particular attention to what I had to say?  Heading to the bathroom to complete the evening’s ablutions, and looking in the mirror to see mascara smeared all the way down my face. Mortified. That’s the thing about wood smoke, it doesn’t half get in your eyes and once there, it stings, like hell and guaranteed at some point, it will get you. The only saving grace, is the dark and the thought that perhaps that handsome chap, didn’t notice it across the flames.

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