"Well, what did you think?" Richard had the annoying habit of asking your opinion and then correcting any error in fact, as he saw it.
"About what?" I was cautious and wasn't about to fall for it again.
When we first met yesterday he told me about the "Charol Dham" tour, Chitrakoot's answer to a flight over the Grand Canyon. You probably guessed there was no aerial transport involved and as it turned out, not too much to see. "Charol Dham" means "four attractions" in Hindi and we were discussing them over lunch.
Richard is from Murwillumbah in northern New South Wales, not too far from where I live. He was born in England but travels on a German passport because it is "the cheapest". I was impressed by this but the initial admiration wore off when he presented me with a detailed printed itinerary, complete with train numbers, times and dates.
"I buy all the tickets on the internet before I leave Australia." He told me when I asked about his tightly structured tour. His "to do" list included the "Charol Dham" tour around town. All four sights were documented.
"This is my eighth trip to India and I research them all meticulously." Really?
Some of my friends would be thrilled. I was merely amazed. The Lonely Planet has only four lines on "Chitrakut". and nothing about the tour. The locals don't even agree with their spelling. I ended up here by overhearing a conversation in a guesthouse and a reference in a page torn from an "Intrepid" adventure holiday magazine.
When I showed interest yesterday, he gave me details and we sought where to catch the tempo together. He told me however, that he'd prefer to go alone to "absorb the religious experience". I told him I understood but I didn't.
I got up early and walked the fifteen minutes to the tempo stop. A tempo is a large shared tuk-tuk and they are generally overcrowded. He was boarding one as I approached. I'm sure he saw me and quickly jumped aboard because he wanted to be "alone". Never mind the nineteen locals. I caught the next one that came along, ascertained I wouldn't be overcharged and was alarmed when it immediately turned right since the one he had caught had gone straight ahead. You would think all "Charol Dham" tours would follow the same route. I did.
The driver deposited me at the first "sight" called Khama Giri. As I trekked along the path through the old town, taking in many temples, for what turned out to be an hour and a half and five kilometres, I became progressively more concerned whether the tempo driver would still be waiting when I finally emerged. He wasn't. I walked the two km back to town, confused as to where my other four sites had gone.
A swarm of tuk-tuks with drivers descended when I returned to the original starting point and offered me what appeared to be an identical itinerary for 8-10 times the original price. This was to go on my own, however.
I escaped, shaking my head and muttering the first quote in rupees. One persistent fellow without a tuk-tuk pursued me after all the others had given up. He seemed to understand what I wanted and led me to a stand where a lone deserted tempo was waiting. He instructed me to get in. I sat alone for a while thinking "This'll never work." They need at least a dozen people to make it viable. As I pondered, a driver appeared and fired up the vehicle. He drove around the streets of Chitrakoot shouting "Charol Dham" just as the first one had but without success. This went on for some time until it seemed like he had given up and drove out of town on a different direction from my first journey.
"Is this progress?" I wondered as we pulled into the first stop.
"Probably not." I thought as it turned out to be the same place I had been three hours earlier. Khama Giri again. I was a wake-up this time and politely refused to get off. I knew the consequences. At this point a man and three women were negotiating with another tuk-tuk driver. Suddenly they were swept into our vehicle. Another bloke also appeared, as if from nowhere.
"I am Rajiv Singh".
"Charol Dham"? I enquired and he nodded.
We were getting somewhere and nowhere. A few more laps of the village. "Charol Dham" "Charol Dham" and a new couple joined the fray. Now we were eight, maybe nine, I'm not too sure. We must have reached critical mass because we went further than ever before, past the last tuk-tuk post in town.
The driver wanted more. "Charol Dham" he chanted. So did another boy and the guy who had originally approached me. I wondered how they were related.
"Charol Dham" "Charol Dham".
I joined in and everybody laughed. It was to no avail. Only the eight (or was it nine?) of us made the round trip. Others jumped on and off for shorter distances through the countryside, not joining the tour but merely using us as a form of transport. At times there were as many as twenty adults and children on the three-wheeler.
When we arrived at the first, sorry, second sight, a temple on the river it was four hours after the odyssey had begun. I ran straight into Richard. He acknowledged me but said nothing. He was "alone".
"Wow" I thought, if anyone truly ever thinks that. This place must really be something. After all, he had been there for over three hours.
Back at lunch I asked him about it.
"I have a story to tell."
"I didn't get going until about 9.30." He shook his head.
"But I saw you leave at 7am." Well, I had, hadn't I?
"That was the one with lots of people?" he said.
"He let them off."
"Then he told me it was ten times what we'd agreed."
"I had to walk about two km to get back to where I started.
"The next one drove around for an hour before kicking me off because he couldn't find any takers."
"On the way I fortunately discovered where the tour actually leaves."
We'd been told to stand in the wrong spot.
At least I'd been to Khama Giri.