I have to admit, when I left the UK for India last month I was dreading it. Having pretty much constantly (and guiltily) thought and dreamt of India, ‘my favourite place in the world’, whilst I was in Africa, suddenly after a happy month at home I couldn’t really believe I was heading off on my own again so soon.
Fortunately the “you’ll love it when you get there” advice I gave myself and was given by my friends as always turned out to be totally true. I LOVE IT HERE. India is the bomb. The thing I love about it most is the same thing that I have loved about India on my previous trips. The people.
The first two weeks were completely nuts, I arrived exhausted. Had a day to acclimatise then our first guests arrived…. A learning curve to say the least, whilst constantly trying to be on chirpy happy form.
This months blog will be a sort of general summary – like a long email I might send to Mum and Dad, the ones that follow in the next few months will be on specific topics, setting the scene for future ones if you like. The next ones will be spicier I promise! (For instance at the end of November, I am doing a 7 day walk/camping journey with WWF India. Along the wildlife corridor between two national parks, then writing it up - hopefully for a local paper...) Don’t give up on me.
To start though I ought to explain what I am doing here and where ‘here’ actually is… Then, like my Africa blogs I’ll run through a few things (staff, wildlife, guests etc.). Here goes…
I am now the General Manager (very fancy title) of Kipling Camp in Madhya Pradesh, Central India. Kipling is an old school institutional sort of place; set up and built by Belinda Wright’s (my boss, a 4th generation white Indian wildlife conservationist) father, with whitewash walled small bungalows repainted every year after the monsoon, absolutely stunning waterhole in front of the camp and a very relaxed atmosphere. It is deep in the jungle surrounded by trees, birds and wildlife. The local leopard comes through most evenings (as revealed by the alarm calls of the deer and monkeys, and our camera traps...), and evidence (pug marks, scratches) of your highness The Tigress we find regularly. We’ll get a photo soon! With very pretty rooms, plenty of hammocks, delicious food and such kind staff – Kipling blew me away when I arrived. Another different India to the hundreds I had seen before (of the millions out there), but this India was clean, quiet and full of wildlife, but still retaining its Indian character of organised chaos and head wobbling. Bizarre? Peachy.
I have really had to learn fast; tricky and demanding guests, trying to communicate with the staff in a language we don’t share, teaching myself that I have to be the boss when I really just want to be everyone’s friend… I know I was Head Boy for a bit a school but stepping up from employee to Manager is a big shift. But one I have enjoyed. There are 17 staff (all men) and two forengay volunteers – gappys (both boys). And me (unspecified).
The staff here are all amazing, just as I expected. All so kind, smiley and each very individual. The best thing is how interested they all are in the wildlife, always curious about the camera traps, “Sir Ji, leopard coming?? Leopard coming?”, always asking if the guests saw the Tiger on a park drive, or running into the Shamiana (main communal area) “Sir Ji, alarm call, alarm call!” to show us the way to some shrieking spotted deer, running for their lives. It is so great they are involved and actually care, conservation has to start in the local community otherwise it is starts doomed.
I have managed to get a bit of popularity with the guys, I think, by trying to make hilarious jokes…. Who needs a mutual language to be hilarious?
Having paid the staff their salaries, which first needed me to go to the nearest town – Mandala - and withdraw over a thousand pounds in 500 rupee notes from the bank, a classic Indian experience; Everyone staring and helping and chatting, not easy to hide as the only white man but out here you are always about a foot taller than everyone else. No hope! (I have learned for next time that this is best to do at the end of the trip into town – saves walking around the market with pockets overflowing with cash. My pockets were in cinders)
After being paid, Choki returns half an hour later with a complaint.
“Sir Ji. This no working.” Choki holds up a one hundred rupee note with a slight rip in it.
I am quite wary of being taken for a ride by the guys as I think they have worked out I am a moustachioed Walter from the Bash Street Kids. A softy.
So I say.
“Are you sure this isn’t from your own money? I am sure I didn’t give any ripped notes out, I’ve just been to the bank”
Choki smiles sweetly, having not understood a word I have said.
“Teak Haing (OK), I’ll get you a new one.”
When I come back from my room and the safe with a replacement note that is completely ripped down the middle and held together by cellotape, I hear Choki cursing the idiot (me) for being so stupid as I sit down at my desk. When he approaches again saying I imagine “how can you be such a moron – this one is worse than the last one!” I give him a normal one straight out my pocket with a big smile, when he realises I played trick on him he thinks it is the funniest thing anyone has ever done. By the time he gets back to the staff quarters I can hear everyone laughing their heads off.
Now, I am not claiming this was a particularly hilarious joke (although, it was pretty good), but it is jokes like these that I learned in Africa and that are so effective when making new friendships without a common language. Another example was the revealing of my moustache – no words, yet apparently hilarious. (Really pissed off about this, I thought that if there was one place that people may like my moustache it would be in a country where every one has one. Nope, “Where beard?”, “before better”, “no problem, no problem, but do this (covers face with hands indicating – grow beard back)” Sure I look like Ned Flanders/Nazi Officer/Colonial Hunter. But still, surely someone has to like it? Unbelievable.) I also showed the guys my Racing the Swift video, which they loved – they thought my booty shaking in the lake particularly amusing.
The problem with the staff is that I really just want to be chilling and joking around in the staff quarters like I would be if I was travelling or one of the gappys, problem is I have to also be their boss… quite tricky for me. I have had to give a couple of telling’s off, which to be honest the guys can really only understand by the tone of my voice…
Ivan in deep gruff angry voice + furrowed eyebrows…: “Babulal, why are you late this morning”
Babulal: “working fields Sir Ji, rice cutting”
Sir Ji: “You should have told me, you stink of booze (mimes drinking). Drinking? Not farming?”
“Last night drinking little” (coy smile on his face) “This morning no!” (affronted look on face).
I start laughing.
Last night I caught Mutsu drinking local ‘wine’ from a coke bottle. All I said was “don’t drink too much, what would Allah say??” Leave it to God to sort out..
But still, how can I tell the boys off for having a drink when we have no guests here when I drink every evening – when the guests are here??
The gappys… I am far far too chummy with the ‘gappys’ Fred and George (I know HP fans, classic.), the fact that I am 6 years older than them only makes me want to appear younger rather than give me the impression I should be more mature and knowledgeable. When chatting with them in the evenings (when no guests) I honestly feel like I am the same age as them, guess it turns out I think I’m Robin Hood (Peter Pan? Mowgli.). Giving them advice on how best to buy charras in India rather than asking them to make me another drink… I quite enjoy them wanting to hear my stories, talking about school and gap year makes me realise what a brilliant and lucky time I have had. We killed it guys.
I figured I can be relaxed with them when no guests around – I would rather be their mate and play cards and talk girls than try and keep some sort of managerial distance. May be this will come back to bite me, but so far so good. When guests are here, I snap ‘em into shape (getting busier and busier as the season develops).
The guests so far have been a mixed bunch, there seems to be no typical guest; a British Cypriot married to a Polish lady who lived in Singapore with their two small kids, a wealthy Indian family, quite a few of Belinda’s friends from all over India from locals to white Delhiites (tricky), British couple, amazing American couple, insufferable American mature student (s are fucking weird). Every new guest is a new personality. But this is where I think I am at my best, I am pretty sure that all the guests have been delighted, mainly I know due to the camp, the location, the park etc. but also due to the service from the guys, from the gappys and from me. I feel quite proud about how it has run so far – there have been a couple of hiccups and misunderstandings but the best thing about these teething problems has been that after they were pointed out, we (I) improved. I think for me, if the staff are happy and they like you, they will work hard for you. If the staff work hard and let me shmarm. Then the guests will be happy. Even if they don’t see a tiger.
We have also had a few from the travel industry turn up, including the Lonely Planet guy coming for lunch, I had already told his organiser on the phone
“I’m sorry we are not a restaurant. We don’t accept people just in for lunch…”
“He’s from lonely planet.”
“Aaaahhhhh. See you at 1 O’clock.”
Not a great start. The monkeys come around the main part of camp about once a week, and when they do they cause chaos. Obviously when the LP guy, Kevin, was here they went nuts…. Tried to pee on him, from the treetops whilst we were having lunch – hopefully we managed to make it a comical event (?) and we will remain the LP’s Kanha National Park star recommendation….
We are in the buffer zone of Kanha NP. That is why people come here, to see the Tiger - although it is certainly not guaranteed. In true Indian fashion they have to make things v difficult for themselves (us) here, and add 70 different forms for us to fill out, different fees, taxes, etc. etc. Indian red tape. However once we have waded through it (the guests don't wade), everyone has queued at the park gates at 5.30am with a load of other people waiting to enter the park and you find yourselves in a Landover scrum. After all that, you are suddenly in a misty grassy plain surrounded by breath-taking jungle as the sun comes up. It makes it all so so worth it. Chital, Samar, Barasingha (all deer) everywhere. Birds making the jungle sing and if you’re lucky a Tiger walking down the dirt track minding her own business. This makes the jungle park drive a very special trip (Very much a ‘Park Drive’. I said game drive, out of habit from Kenya. Nearly had my head bitten off by Belinda. “Game is for African hunters, we don’t say that here….” Yikes!). It is amazing though, that when you hear the word safari, or wildlife, we all immediately think of Africa and the big 5. It really is stunning here, and so wild, even if the system spoils it a little bit.
Last but obviously not least – Tara. Tara the elephant. Tara, Mark Shand’s elephant. Mark Shand (he unfortunately died earlier this year, he was Camilla – Duchess of Cornwall’s brother) wrote a book called Travels on my Elephant, which was the story of how he rode an elephant through parts of India over a few months. That Elephant – Tara – has now lived at Kipling for the last 25 years (my age…). She arrived by fate; Mark had finished his journey and had taken Tara to an Elephant market, furious he couldn’t find anyone he trusted to take proper care of her he holed himself up in his tent. This tent had a Union Jack outside it and so Belinda and her Mother Anne who were at the market to buy an Elephant to live at Kipling thought they’d investigate this Union Jacked anomaly. And the rest they say is ... (http://www.kiplingcamp.com/tara-more.html)
Guests (and me) feed Tara then walk her down to the river where we swim with her then scrub her with big rocks. She's one of the most spoiled and happy elephants in India. At 60 years plus, she is getting on a little but every afternoon at 3 O’ Clock when she leaves her stable for the river, she pretty much sprints down. Her favourite part of the day.
We went down to the river the other day with Belinda and some of her friends cum guests. Everything is slightly more stressful when Belinda is here, I have to balance making sure everyone has fun, knows they can go swimming with Tara, getting Mutsu to set up tea and cake, whilst I am also desperately trying to hide my tattoos from my new boss which leads to a very awkward style of swimming and tea preparation…. The troubles of being badass eh?