Now this is one I won’t be forgetting anytime soon. Huge thanks to India Someday for connecting me with the amazing experience of visiting a much less touristy (and nature-rich) area and staying with a fabulous family.The beautiful smiles and contagious laughter of Neetu, Vishal and Sahil will feed my soul for a long time to come. For starters, I highly recommend checking out Orchha. Off the typical path for most travelers (but fear not, there are plenty of souvenir shops and eager locals hankering for your business), Orchha has some pretty impressive sites, a serene nature preserve and a local homestay program organized through Friends of Orchha that is well worth your time and support.
I took the early train from Delhi to Jhansi, the biggest transit hub close to Orchha and played a long round of the usual rickshaw bargaining game. I had been told INR150-200 would be appropriate. One driver latched on to me from the moment I stepped off the train, incessantly naming his price, following me around as I tried negotiating with others and making it clear, through his whiny persistent voice, that he wouldn’t be giving up any time soon. Yeah, pretty annoying but I do have to say, as someone who can be persistent myself, I was pretty impressed by his determination and once I realized 200 was as low as I could get, I hopped in his yellow and green tuk-tuk and was blown away by his immediate transformation into a super-friendly, chilled out driver.
We enjoyed a fun and bumpy drive to Orchha where I was met by Ashok of Friends of Orchha who took me deeper into the Ganj village where I would be staying with a local Indian family. Always something fun about hopping on the back of a motorbike!
Ashok introduced me to the family and showed me the very clean stand-alone washroom and shower, and my nicely decorated room, equipped with a large mosquito net, sitting area, and windows looking out onto the cows and garden. Much more simple and non-frilly than the plush places I’ve been staying at, it wasn’t quite as rustic as some other villages I’ve visited and as I imagine some other village home-stays might be. While I personally would be down with staying in a hut or somewhere more bare-bones and basic, with the right expectations (bring your own toilet paper and know you can purchase bottled water just down the street), I think even those with high standards for their accommodation would feel comfortable here. In fact, as someone who loves a firm bed, I have to say that this was one of the best I’ve been on – and let me tell you, I’ve stayed in some pretty high-end places thanks to India Someday!
I was welcomed with a delicious cup of chai as I sat on the charpai (bed-cot made of wood and tightly-woven rope) in the open-air living room. Neetu, the 13 year old daughter was helping her grandmother prepare lunch. I joined them in the kitchen and offered to help but was granted the fun role of spectator (I did get to work on dinner!) I haven’t yet taken a cooking class here in India but this was the next best thing.
Neetu’s English is quite impressive and her enthusiasm, curiosity and smile are delightful. I learned that her mother had passed away a bunch of years ago in an unfortunate accident. I shared that I too had lost my mom and as we spent more time together, it was nice to hear her mention things she remembered about her mother, like that she ate super slowly (like I do) and always said it was healthier to do so. Lunch was delicious. Almost all they eat is homegrown in their beautiful garden.
Two additional guests arrived and we all started getting to know each other as we helped Neetu prepare for her upcoming school exam on technology and computers. I’m glad I wasn’t the one having to take the test – I didn’t know half of what she was learning, including the origin of the word COMPUTER – Common Oriented Machine Particularly Used for Trade and Education Research.
After some much needed rest (getting to a 6AM train and then being in 100 degree weather is quite exhausting), the French guests and I hopped on the home-stay’s pretty decrepit bicycles and ventured down the dirt road through the small markets and down to the boulder-full river.
Despite having a bent wheel and a seat so low my knees nearly reached my face when I pedaled (no allen wrench available for seat adjustments), I was stoked to be on wheels. It was the final day of Ganesh Chaturthi and we watched a steady stream of Ganesh statues be carried into the waters as a closing part of the 9-day celebration.
It seems like there’s always a festival or celebration going on in India. We enjoyed the town until the sun set behind the chhatris (cenotaphs to Orchha’s rulers), watching the vultures up above and the locals swimming and celebrating Ganesh down below.
Chopping Okra (bhindi) on the kitchen floor with the kids, I watched grandma (Khamla Basti) in her squatted position, tend to the cooking at the floor-level stove. I found the kitchen to be immaculate (if you don’t count the flies) and incredibly organized. The boys, ages 6 and 9, had the most contagious laughs and captivating smiles. As I write this, it’s quite powerful how much I miss them. It was fun watching Vishal give his dad a leg massage, holding onto a rope dangling from the ceiling, a creation of their dad’s the kids seemed quite proud of.
I had shown them the frisbee I brought and they were getting quite excited to give it a try. We left grandma to the cooking and ventured out to the area alongside my room, in front of the cows, where I couldn’t stop smiling as we all chuckled with each whirl of the disc. As a backpacker, you definitely don’t want to be carrying any extra weight – but I am having zero regrets for toting my frisbees! We had a blast.
A good night’s rest was had by all and a delicious breakfast (poha) was served to us before we hopped back on our rickety bikes towards the nature preserve. We rolled down the hills, through the town and followed directions to the 2nd entrance of the preserve where we were told the gate would be open and there was no ticket counter. Laboring on our decaying bikes, we passed dozens of monkeys (they never cease to capture my attention), some peacocks and lots of birds. The dirt path led us to some scenic views of the boulder-full rivers, the highlight being an area where the waters were deep enough for us to have one of the most refreshing, beautiful swims imaginable, though I guess my fear of crocodiles (as the sign near the park’s entrance warned) made me just a tad less relaxed! Not a soul in sight aside from the one white cow who seemed to have the inside scoop on the best place to while the day away.
If it wasn’t for running out of drinking water and wanting to tour the eye-catching sites in the afternoon, I could have stayed there for many more hours.
We pedaled back towards the preserve’s exit where we were met by 3 men including a stern looking gun-toting officer requesting INR 150 from each of us. We paid up after a bit of skepticism and negotiating (turns out that is the standard tourist rate for the nature preserve) and as we began to cycle towards town, I heard (and felt) that familiar POP sound of a blown tire. My decrepit bike had led me to a heavenly swimming hole but failed me for the rest of the day. A new tube would have cost INR 10 but the tire itself needed replacing and it seemed too pricey for them to pursue right away (yikes, as I reflect, I realize I perhaps should have spread the bike love and some tourist $ to have replaced it for them!) I enjoyed a tasty lunch and some wifi in the air-conditioned Betwa Tarang rooftop restaurant (huge portions) and lounged there for the hottest couple of hours of the day, bidding farewell to the French guests who were soon catching the train to Delhi.
My plan was to return to the home-stay for a few hours to hang out with the kids but it was too far to walk in the blazing heat when I knew I wanted to visit the impressive Jehangir Mahal and other nearby sites in the afternoon. I found the medieval Islamic architecture to be amazing and I loved climbing the hidden staircases, peering out the arched windows and literally getting lost in the mazes. One entrance ticket (INR 250) covers most of the major sites.
When I did return to the home-stay after sunset, we had a blast! We studied for Neetu’s test, played more Frisbee and they put me to shame (even the 6 year old) at Carrom, the finger billiards game I’m loving here.
For dinner, I was invited to join the kids to eat at 8:30 when Jodha Akbar, their favorite TV show was on. I felt honored! I also got a kick out of the show. It is about a Muslim King and Hindu Queen.
We stayed up late playing more Frisbee and prepping for the computer exam. The kids would all have school the next morning and we joked about waking up at 4am (Neetu had to leave by 6:30) so that we could do everything we wanted (more Frisbee, more Carrom, etc.) I planned to wake early to say goodbye to Neetu or she was to wake me – but sadly, we missed each other.
I so treasured our time together and started feeling attached, wanting to come back to visit again. The youngest little peanut was still asleep when I had to leave and Vishal was all suited up in his school uniform, in serious mode, but we got a few disc tosses in and said farewell.
I already miss these kids, having thoroughly enjoyed living with them these past couple of days. I wonder how it must be for them, strangers in their homes on a regular basis, some they might not connect with at all and others they perhaps get attached to as well.
I must say though, that Friends of Orchha is doing some terrific work. The homestay is the primary source of income for this family. 6 other families participate as well and as you can imagine, many others are interested.
The families receive the majority of the room charge and all of the meal fees. The remainder is used for loans taken to build the place up. The organization also runs a youth center (temporarily closed for construction) and has purchased toilets for other homes in the village. What a memorable experience.
Thank you India Someday.
Thank you You Wander We Pay.