I left Orcha, stayed overnight at Jhansi before boarding a train to Khajuraho. It was a comfortable 5 hours journey and although the landscape was mostly flat and uncharacteristic, the exotic fun of the carnival that happens inside general sleeper compartments kept me occupied. This was no air conditioned coach frequented by the slightly more moneyed (hence polished, although not always the best co travelers) but a box on wheels which was crammed with living, breathing majority of India’s population. They were mostly blue collared workers, farmers, small traders and their families and friends. While they were blissfully unaware of the modern etiquette (and sense of privacy) of the sophisticated society, they were friendly, helpful and chatty.
My tattoos intrigued them and so did my solo traveling status and for a while, they simply stared unsure of how to react at my presence. Finally a tea seller arrived and broke the ice. Nothing connects us Indians with strangers than a cup of tea (Chai). Horror stories of sharing food from strangers on Indian public transport are countless and most of them are true, but in any culture across the world sharing food is the first step into accepting and acceptance. I shared my tea with a group of families returning from a relative’s wedding and instead of having tea bought/brought by them, I shared mine with them. It was a safer option and served its purpose.
Immediately warm smiles filled the coach and Hindi flew like the rivers we passed over. Indian trains just like the Indian highways are a lot of fun and very entertaining if you have the patience, tolerance and an open inquisitive mind. While the air conditioned ones can be boring at best, cooped up with too many people yelling on their mobile phones self importantly, unruly children making asses of themselves and horrible recycled air, its the general ones which in my eyes are really worth trying for if going on short journeys. They too would yell over their phones, peep into your Ipad (out of curiousity, not rudeness), stare at you but you know that for them that’s normal behaviour and they don’t know any better. We had tea in earthen pots, paper bags of rice puffs with spices and slice of fresh coconut and cones of soaked plump black grams tossed with chopped onions and tomatoes.
Time passed by soon and by the time we got off at Khajuraho, they knew about my entire family tree, my daughter, my profession (this one I insisted on telling them since they were not too keen) and I had all the details about their relatives wedding and their vast web of relatives (the great Indian extended family). Khajuraho came and I bid them goodbye, but not before promising a lunch/dinner visit at their home. Such is the genuine warmth of real Indians, and although at times it can be a huge suffocating cultural shock, deep in their hearts they mean well.
I hired an auto rickshaw, left Khajuraho (famous for India’s sex temples) and drove further into the country side. The road became a challenge sometimes but it felt great to be in the open country. The land was not very photogenic, but the colourful, painted rural houses were absolutely mind blowing. Huge banyan trees tangled and drooped along the road and muddy disinterested buffalos, frisky goats and colourfully veiled women saw me zip by. Life moved at a luxuriously slow pace, still deeply tied to the land that were tilled by the residents and dates changed according to mango ripening and festival times. Revered basil pots were kept in cleanly swept dirt courtyards with a tiny earthen lamp which was lit every evening accompanied by prayers by the lady of the house. Meant to thank Laxmi, the Goddess of prosperity, it is a mandatory rustic ancient Indian Hindu ritual.
I stayed at the MP Tourism Mandla Jungle Camp at Mandla near Panna National Park and it was clean, green and delightfully solo woman traveler friendly. A nearly obscure dusty Mandla, sits patiently by pristine Narmada River and as far as eyes could see, endless emerald belts stretched along both its banks. Capital of the once powerful, now forgotten Gond dynasty (of whom hardly any traces remain) it was the gem rush of Jan 2014, which changed life overnight in this tribal-dominated district. Even farming was put on hold temporarily as villagers were busy digging and sifting their way to riches. It is also the jumping off base for the well known Panna National Park tiger safari (Not as popular for tiger spotting as the Bandhavgarh National Park)
Panna in Hindi means emerald and it was indeed verdant green there. Even the sunny air smelled of fresh sap. I was not keen on Panna tiger watch as Bandhavgarh National Park was there in the later part of my MP itinerary. So I left instead to visit the beautiful Pandav Falls. The water fall is situated in a natural bowl scooped out in the lovely wooded mountains and has great mythological importance. It was a short walk to the Pandav Falls Park and the area was absolutely stunning. Panna National Park ribboned on both sides of the highway (which unfortunately killed a lot of wildlife, in spite of being fenced in) and being late winter, the trees were bedecked in an enchanting gold. Teak (Sal),Arjuna and Mahua trees covered the entire area and their fallen leaves of gold covered the earth like a gauzy veil.
I walked down the small gorge guarded by a handhold slowly taking my own sweet time. It was one of the most peaceful places I had ever seen. The liquid emerald stream tumbled down the smooth flat slabs of rocks and poured into the perfect heart shaped pool, deep green in colour. A handful of caves lined one side of the pool and these were supposed to have been inhabited by the great Pandavas (important mythological characters of the great Indian epic Mahabharata) during their exile. Trees grew profusely and scents of strange wild flowers mingled into the wooded air.
Bee hives hung in huge clumps along the Arjuna trees and long claw marks scaled along the trunks. These were done by the sloth bears who infested the area and prospect of their favourite food, wild honey drew them in hordes. The breeze wrinkled the smooth green surface with ripples and sunlight danced on them mirthfully. Fishes swam like tiny bits of rainbow and for once in the great overcrowded mainland of India, I experienced complete solitude. It became my favourite part of India and I was left alone cocooned in my peace for a long time, till a man appeared magically and revealed its strange mythological connection. I am usually very possessive about my solitude and hate to see it go, but that day somehow his presence made the magic just increase.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE