GUEST STORIES: A Journalist’s Reflections on Savista
When we asked veteran British journalist Richard Horsman to send us a contribution to our blog, we had no doubt that we would be rewarded with a thoughtful and sensitive piece. What has pleasantly surprised us is the vividness of his memories of his stay with us. Through the last five years of Savista’s existence, Richard has remained a friend and supporter of the idea of Savista. It is people like him who make it worthwhile for us to keep Savista open to cultural explorers arriving on the sands of Rajasthan drawn, like travelers through the ages, to this amazingly diverse, often disturbing, yet ever fascinating and overwhelming country.
Reflections on Savista
Our family trip to India came at a very special time. For me, a significant birthday. For my wife and I, the realisation that our two boys would soon be going their separate ways. Our elder son Alex was poised to start university, the younger boy Daniel about to embark on the exams that would shape his future.
I’ve been a journalist, and more recently a trainer of journalists, for thirty years. Most of my front line experience was in West Yorkshire, mainly in Bradford, one of the most fascinating and diverse cities in the UK. Much of that diversity comes from a large and dynamic South Asian community. Originally these migrants were attracted to Bradford by the lure of jobs in the woollen industry. Their descendants are now taking the lead in business, politics, education and cultural activities.
The city offered a young journalist in the 1980s fascinating glimpses of another world.
I would be invited to cover Diwali and Eid celebrations in makeshift temples and mosques often hidden away in dreary back streets – but once inside I was welcomed into a world of colour and spice and fragrance a million miles from my northern English experience.
As the communities grew in confidence the Bradford Mela was established, at its height the biggest celebration of South Asian culture in Europe. Restaurants would compete to create tempting and delicious treats for the event, often served in extravagant surroundings – one restaurant built a ‘Maharaja’s palace’ on the Victorian boating lake in Lister Park. Another commissioned a life-size sculpture of an elephant to lead the Mela parade through Yorkshire cast iron gates surmounted with fibreglass tigers.
And yet I knew what I saw was a pale reflection of the real India and Pakistan.
Watching the dancers in the park sheltering under umbrellas to keep the September rain off their costumes. Gazing at the Sunday promenade of women and girls heading for the Mela in fabulous brightly-coloured saris … but with sensible shoes in place of dainty sandals to cope with the mud, the whole ensemble topped off with a Marks and Spencer’s cardigan to keep the Yorkshire winds at bay.
It wasn’t .. quite .. right.
I began to dream of seeing the real India. Things got in the way. Life, mainly. Setting up our first home, getting a car, preparing for children, sorting out their education, getting on at work. Something was always a greater priority for our money, our time, our attention. Suddenly I was middle aged and I’d never been to India. So I decided to do something about it.
We’d been warned over and over but it’s true. Visiting India for the first time isn’t a holiday, it’s an experience. Nothing can prepare for the three-dimensional reality of the hustle and bustle, the noise, the smells, the strangeness, the wealth and poverty side by side. Above all the throng of people, people everywhere doing stuff westerners would expect to be done by a machine. We tried to combine the touristy and the authentic. It was hectic.
Our trip started in Delhi and followed the ‘golden triangle’ route. We’d chosen a guest house in Delhi for our first stop. I’ll always remember the ride in the beaten up taxi, the willing hands to carry the luggage and the houseboy sitting in his kitchen, not a yard from us behind a curtain, in case we wanted anything. I wasn’t ready for the plumbing or the power cuts.
Agra, and we faced the opposite extreme. A five-star tourist hotel with every opulence money could buy. It felt like a Disney set. The plumbing was perfect, the lights stayed on, but it felt so false, looking around the dining room, to see Europeans, Americans and Japanese being waited on by Indians without a single Indian guest. The cooking was rich, the service faultless, the experience a sham. Worth it for the Taj Mahal, but not a part of my dream.
That began to be realised when we arrived at Savista. Our driver didn’t know where it was. Most tourists staying in Jaipur headed for hotels which were clones of the one we’d seen in Agra. Most tourists didn’t stay in one place for six nights. He was a bit bemused, and I began to worry I’d made a mistake.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
From the moment we drove through the gate, welcomed by a turbaned doorman, we began to relax.
First impressions were that the website pictures don’t do justice to the haveli itself. It’s an impressive building, a renovation project in progress, so it lacks the uncanny perfection of a film set, but every detail of the work has been carefully thought through. The arches of the original open gallery outside our room were glazed to provide a cool sitting area which would also be pleasantly warm in winter. The earthenware pitcher of water drawn from Savista’s own well was cooled naturally by evaporation, the first time I’d tasted cool, sweet, fresh water (as opposed to a chilled mineral product in a plastic bottle) for over a week. Our room was tastefully furnished with original antiques, and was air conditioned .. but we only needed a short blast of artificial cooling each evening. The fans and the architecture did the rest. Such a contrast to the hermetically sealed rooms of the tourist hotels.
It was time for dinner and a short walk through the grounds, our path lit by firepots, brought us to the dining area under a canopy. These evening meals were probably the most enjoyable part of our stay. We enjoyed the excellent home style cooking – real Indian vegetarian cuisine, not some hybrid version adapted to western tastes, and not over-rich or complicated.
Beyond normal dinner table small talk we also appreciated the many open and intelligent conversations we shared with our host Bhanwar. He’d address the usual tourist concerns, of course, but he also took the time to put out observations and experiences in context each day by helping us understand more about the Indian way of life. We began to relax more when receiving the close attention of Savista’s numerous staff as he explained how revenue generated by the resort provided vital employment which underpinned the economic structure of the surrounding villages. Even water from the swimming pool is recycled to irrigate neighbouring farmland. Savista is truly at the heart of its community.
It’s important to appreciate that Savista is so much more than just another option for an overnight stop. It’s more a destination in its own right.
Only after the first day or so could we appreciate the touches which made us feel like welcome house guests rather than paying visitors. The little things. The way the staff turned down the beds at just the time they knew we would want an afternoon siesta. On the second day our sunloungers by the pool were made ready with fresh towels in just the spot we preferred .. the shades over the courtyard had been specially adjusted to suit. I developed a taste for sweet lime and soda, and one was always brought to me unbidden (along with a cool towel) as soon as we arrived back from sightseeing. I’m sure they never appeared on the bill. Neither was there any charge for the smiles on the faces of staff who took a real pride in doing their jobs well.
Savista is quirky, and that only adds to its charm. The numerous power cuts send staff scurrying for matches and candles and fuses and switches – but it’s only moments until calm is restored. Not everyone speaks English (but then my Hindi is appalling) so an ingenious chalk board system allows requests to be written on a slate, then taken away to be interpreted by someone who understands.
Savista also has great potential for the future. Looking out over the gardens to the rear Bhanwar told us of plans for live music and dance events, for enhancing the spa facilities and for integrating programmes of yoga and meditation into stays for those who would enjoy such a break. There was even talk of a golf course.
In summary the Savista Retreat offered us our most relaxed experience of the real India. It was the most memorable part of our Indian adventure. My only regret was we never took the opportunity (which was offered) to spend a night sleeping on the roof under the canopy of stars. That can be a dream for another day.
Richard now teaches postgraduate journalism at Leeds Trinity University in the UK. You can read his blog http://richardhorsman.com and follow him on Twitter as @leedsjourno.
Richard and Ruth and their sons Alex and Daniel are treasured members of Savista’s extended family of guests and friends, and guests-as-friends. They were among our earliest guests, arriving purely on faith. Savista had just begun its new life as a hotel that year, and by the time spring came along we had a mere fledgling presence on the internet. All that the Horsman family had to base their judgement on was our website. And a few online reviews posted by some supportive happy guests. As Richard’s post describes, their Indian holiday – rather, “experience” – came at the end of years of waiting and dreaming. It was also a major family occasion, a marker of sorts. One can imagine how much they must have hoped that all their choices would turn out right.
One of the online reviews must have mentioned that the pool had not been functional on the one or two days that that particular guest had stayed. Those were the days when we were totally dependent on the state electricity supply system, and could fill our pool only when electricity was supplied to farmers – erratic at most times – for running irrigation pumps. State electricity policy in India has always favoured urban/industrial needs over rural populations and farming imperatives. A few days before they were to arrive, a worried Ruth wrote to us, referring to the review, and asking earnestly whether they would have the pool for use. We sent her a resounding yes, and no further questions were asked or doubts expressed.
The family that arrived proved to be just the kind of travelers that Savista loves to welcome. Intellectually curious and extremely well informed, culturally sensitive and eager for enquiry and conversation. They did all the city sights and explored the rural location that they had chosen, with equal enthusiasm. And since returning home, they have kept in touch through the years by email and on Facebook.
The family has crossed significant goalposts since they visited us. Ruth, a computer analyst who specialises in managing databases, completed her degree in Psychology from the Open University as a mature student in the year that the family visited Savista. Ruth also has a deep passion for reading which inspired the boys to love books. As the family’s India holiday planner, she made sure that they all arrived remarkably well read on the country. Alex graduated in computer science from Cambridge this year; he has opted for an academic career, and has just been appointed to a research assistantship at his department in Cambridge. Daniel will join Bradford University this Fall to embark on a degree in civil engineering. One of the things that the course will offer him is the option of a year abroad; and Daniel is seriously considering spending that year working in India (a fallout of his visit to India, his parents believe). If this happens, he can be assured of having Savista as a second home, for holidays or even just simple R and R. It would be a pleasure to host a younger generation Horsman ‘Friend of Savista’ and, incidentally, also have him see that things at Savista have moved beyond the days of uncertain power supply that Richard amusingly – and indulgently – describes!
In the interim years, Savista has commissioned its own private electricity sub-station and now has 24 hour electricity with the back up of inverters and two diesel operated generators. We still have matchboxes and candles, but now use them to light up the courtyard in the evenings so we can enjoy the starlit sky without the interference of bright electric lights. Retreats around special interests and block printing workshops have been integrated into the cultural offerings. And there is much else besides, such as high speed internet (we can now offer our guests free wifi), a re-designed pool and restaurant, etc. The slates and chalk are still in place to facilitate communication, even though there is an intercom system! Our staff now speak a little English… enough to delight our guests with warm greetings.
But we still remain the “quirky” place that Richard found. Very much a place where travelers can expect to experience India, “differently”.