Team Phun! in India – Saving the Best for Last

by Bob Bestor

DSC02532“Let’s do this again tomorrow night,” said our host. “Yes,” he continued, sort of agreeing with himself, “come back tomorrow night and the drinks are on me.”

You might remember from previous stories that Team Phun! (myself and three high school buddies) had brought along a couple of guitars and a ukulele on our 16-day tour of Rajasthan, India. We had just spent a delightful evening around a crackling campfire in the garden of Hotel Bhairon Vilas, visiting and singing and playing with a few other guests, a couple of hotel staff and our host, Harsh, the owner of the hotel.

Now Harsh is one cool cat. I’d guess he is in his late 30’s and looks like a Bollywood movie star. He is quite handsome, wearing his hair pulled back into a very hip little ponytail, and flashing a gleaming smile. He carries himself with the ease and confidence of a very successful man who has descended from many generations of very successful men.

Harsh has taken the former family compound, which is located just outside Bikaner’s historic Junagarth Fort, and turned it into a gorgeous hotel, with stained glass, antique furniture and beautiful tapestries throughout its huge rooms and common spaces. Also on site is a pool, a restaurant and a funky little bar that looks like it was decorated by Charles Addams. Harsh definitely has an eye for the finer things in life.

At one point between numbers he asked, “Are you professionals or just friends who play together?” Well that cracked us up. But in Harsh’s defense we did have a professional amongst us. While Dave and I are mediocre musicians at best (sorry Dave) Doug is a professional. He majored in music in college and has spent the last few decades making his living teaching music, playing classical guitar, and performing with bands ranging in style from jazz and swing to rock and bluegrass and just about everything in between. Doug papers over a lot of cracks that Dave and I create. Doug is our secret weapon.

So anyway, a good time was had by all, singing great tunes and making friends for life with people we’d just met. And of course, we all enthusiastically agreed to come back the next night, which was to be our last night in India, and do it all over again.

We spent our last day wandering around Bikaner hunting for souvenirs, snacking on street food and basking in the hustle, bustle and all-encompassing non-stop commotion that is India.

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When we returned in the late afternoon from our day out, we were approached by hotel staff and informed that Harsh wanted to take us out to dinner that evening. Once again we enthusiastically agreed and a time was set. Team Phun! was more than excited with the prospect of a dinner out on the town with Harsh, followed by another campfire sing along. But when we met at the appointed time Harsh looked puzzled.“Where are your instruments?” he asked.

Team Phun! had assumed that we were going to out to eat and then coming back for music. Harsh obviously had other ideas. Now I don’t know how the other members of Team Phun! felt about this, but this was moving very quickly out of my comfort zone. It’s one thing to play informally with a few drinking buddies around a campfire. It is another thing entirely to go out in public, say, to a restaurant, and perform. And that’s where we seemed to be headed.

Nevertheless, we grabbed our instruments and loaded ourselves, along with our entourage (the other hotel guests from the previous night were along too), into a few cars and were soon on our way. Within a few minutes we arrived at our destination and thankfully it was not a restaurant. It was Vijay the Camel Man’s Guest House.

Since 1983, Vijay Singh Rathore has been running camel safaris in the nearby Thar desert. His guesthouse has a large pavilion out back where a fire was already roaring. Tables and chairs were set up, the barbecue was red-hot and a self-service bar was ready for lots of self-serving. Vijay’s staff was also at the ready with plenty of delectable treats set to hit the barbecue as soon as we’d all settled in.

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Now Vijay the Camel Man is also a successful man. And while Harsh carries himself quite confidently, Vijay carries himself almost regally. He looks to be around sixty and sports a perfectly trimmed salt and pepper mustache. He wears a pillbox hat cocked jauntily on his head. His perfectly tailored sport coat and slacks appear to be made from the finest materials and he wears a gorgeous silk scarf draped around his neck and tucked into his jacket. It is a very dapper look and his web site does not do him justice.

We gathered around and Harsh introduced us to our host. Then Vijay enthusiastically greeted us all: (Note: no offense is intended, but for full effect the following should be read with your best Bollywood inspired Indian accent.).

“Welcome everyone! Welcome to my home! It is wonderful to have so many lovely people here tonight! It is a blessing to have travelers from all over the world. We have guests from Germany. We have guests from Spain. We have guests from France. And of course, we have our special guests from America! (That’s Team Phun! by the way.)  I am delighted to have you all here. We have plenty of food and we have plenty of drink. Please make yourselves at home. Please help yourselves. I want everyone to have a wonderful time because…..That’s the Way…uh-huh, uh-huh…I Like It!”

Yes, that was the venerable Vijay the Camel Man quoting the almost equally venerable KC of KC and Sunshine Band and his 1975 number one hit single That’s the Way (I Like It).” It brought down the house. And it was the perfect beginning to a “wonderful” (to quote Vijay) evening.

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What followed was a steady stream of fabulousness from the barbecue. Kebabs of chicken, fish and mutton just kept coming. All perfectly smothered in the finest of Indian spices and sauces. It was some of the best food of an already stellar food trip.

So we all ate and we all drank and we all shared the stories of our travels and our homes. Team Phun! performed about a dozen songs and those that knew the words sang along when they were inspired to. Nobody asked if we were professionals this time but we did get plenty of warm applause. More good fun.

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All too soon though we realized it was getting late. We’d been at Vijay’s since before 8pm and it was now well after 11pm. Our driver Promod had been hanging out this whole time waiting for us. Our bellies were full and we also felt that maybe we were close to overstaying our welcome. We decided that in a few minutes we should start making the move to leave. But before we could, Vijay made another proclamation:

“Dinner is served!”

With that his staff paraded out of the kitchen with several large trays filled with rice and chapatis and even more chicken, fish and mutton.

So we all simply carried on. More food. More drink. More fun. We finally made it back to our hotel at about 1:30am.

And that’s the story of Team Phun’s last night in India. And just like Vijay the Camel Man, that’s the way, uh-huh, uh-huh, we like it.

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Team Phun! Meets Lawrence of Arabia

by Bob Bestor

CCAMELWhat was the best thing about being on a Camel for the very first time? Was it that my camel was huge? Was it that when my camel stood up, hind legs first as they do, I was unexpectedly tipped waaaay back in the saddle and found myself waaaay off balance, waaaay, waaaay higher up off the ground than I ever expected? Was it that the metal saddle had no padding, felt way too small and offered next to nothing to hold on to? No, here’s the best part: in charge of this enormous, living and snorting, bouncing and heaving desert SUV was an 8-year-old boy named Alsee. Yes, I was about to enter one of earth’s most inhospitable regions, India’s Thar Desert (aka: Marusthali or, Land of the Dead), with a third-grader as my guide. Of course, it turns out he was in complete control, but the first 10 seconds of my camel safari did not fill me with confidence.

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Soon enough though I got used to the unwieldy ride and began to enjoy it. Though still it was bumpy enough that letting go with one hand to dig into my pocket for my camera and trying to take a snapshot while moving felt like living on the edge.

After about 10 minutes we came to our first watering hole stop and our guides, two more 8-year-olds and their boss who looked about 50, helped us dismount from our camels. Fortunately the getting off is not quite as hairy as the getting on. We were messing around and trying to communicate with our guides when one of us picked up a large stick and pantomimed the swing of a cricket bat. Within seconds one of the boys was off like a shot to a nearby village and before you could say “Snickometer” (that’s a cricket term by the way) he was back with a ball and the cricket game was on! unnamed-2“Team Phun!” versus the finest junior players in all of India! And since a pick-up game of cricket is a whole lot like a pick-up game of baseball it was no problem for us foreigners to get the hang of it. It was a fabulous interlude of bowling (cricket’s pitching), batting, fielding, running between the wickets, trash talking, and high fives and fist bumps. There were bowl outs, there were biffers, there were caught outs, there were leg breaks, and even a couple of sixes, which is cricket’s home run. Other than a couple of body parts that nowadays simply refuse to cooperate, it felt like we were all eight years old again. Everyone had such a good time that we did it all over again at our next stop.

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After a couple of short rides through flat desert scrubland we entered the dunes. And it was just like the movies, with rolling hills of sand, its pristine surface picturesque in texture, perfectly rippled by the wind. Soon we came to a high ridge where we once again dismounted, threw the ball around some more with the boys and enjoyed a frosty beverage purchased from a vendor who suddenly appeared with a shoulder bag full of ice-cold beer out in the middle of nowhere. With only the rolling dunes of the Thar Desert to be seen in all directions, we watched the sun go down. It was pretty sweet.

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Mr. President–Team Phun! Welcomes You In India

photo(Bob has been in India this month, traveling with three high school friends. Before he departed, he penned this letter to the POTUS. I’m sad to report the President did NOT get in touch with Bob, but it’s definitely his loss.)

January 5, 2015

To: President Barack Obama
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, D.C. 20500

Regarding: India visit

Dear Mr. President,

It has come to my attention that you and I (along with three of my oldest and dearest friends) will be in India later this month.

My traveling companions, Mr. David Wertzberger, Mr. Erik Kuefner and Mr. Douglas Wendt, and I (hereafter referred to as “Team Phun!”) were all delighted to hear that you accepted the invitation of Prime Minister Modi to attend the 2015 Republic Day celebration in the world’s most populous democracy as Chief Guest.

The odds are astronomical that our paths would cross at such a distant and exotic locale. And when one is so very far away from home, a familiar face is always a welcome sight. As such Team Phun! extends to you the invitation and opportunity to take a break from dignitaries, official events, and what I am certain is stifling protocol, to join us on our travels.

Team Phun! has arranged a mini van and driver through Mr. Ashok at www.i-love-my-india.co.in. His reviews on Tripadvisor are stellar. He’ll be driving us for about 15 days throughout Rajasthan and we have plenty of room. Of course, the invitation extends to the First Lady should she be with you. While it is a boy’s trip, we can certainly “clean it up” in her presence.

Mr. President, we know you’ll be busy. Heck, we’ll be busy too. But my guess is you’ll never be more than an hour’s helicopter ride from us. So whether it’s for a few minutes, a few hours, or a few days, you are encouraged to join us. Once you hop into the van you can loosen your tie and be assured that what happens in the van stays in the van. You’ll be free to relax, share some jokes, and let off some of the steam built up by being the leader of the free world.

I really think you would enjoy traveling with us. We have lots in common. Each of us is happily married to a delightful, smart and strong woman, each of us is a proud American, and each of us voted for you in 2008 and 2012. We all have kids. In fact, I have two daughters, Emily Kate and Sarah Margaret who are just a bit older than your Malia Ann and Natasha.

It is our intention to learn as much as we can about India’s rich history, culture and cuisine and, acting as ambassadors, to have a ready smile for everyone we meet. Upon our return we aim to share our experiences with friends, family and co-workers in the hopes of making our big world feel both a little bit smaller and a little bit friendlier. Team Phun! welcomes you along for the ride.

As an added bonus, your Chicago Bulls play our Golden State Warriors at about 9am India time on Wednesday January 28th. I’ll have my iPad and with wifi we can get it with my DishAnywhere account. We’ve been waiting nearly 40 years for a Warriors team like this and we intend to catch as much as possible of their run to the NBA Championship. We can watch it over breakfast. Go Dubs!

Here is my contact information and our itinerary. Let’s make it happen!

Robert Bestor
Work: 541-482-7383
Email: bob@travelessentials.com

1/14 – Arrive Delhi
1/17 – To Agra
1/18 – Taj Majal
1/19 – Jaipur
1/20 – Pushkarand
1/21 – To Udaipur where Mr. Kuefner has relatives
1/23 – To Jodhpur via Ranakpur and Kumbalgarh
1/25 – To Jaislmer
1/27 – To Bikaner
1/28 – To Mandawa
1/29 – To Dehli and fly back home

Our itinerary is flexible. We may also try to fit in a camel safari in the Great Thar Desert. Though we may not have a working phone while in India we will have email access. You can reach me at the above phone number until our departure date.

Please contact me with any questions or concerns you may have.

On behalf of Team Phun! and Sincerely,

Robert Harmon Bestor III