The meals were so good and diverting it almost made me forget my chilblains (the fallout from the hot-water bottles). Food is Mahua Kothi’s secret weapon. The best thing about it is not its variety or its quantity, which are giddy-making, but the fact that it has not been namby-pamby–ized. There’s no sucking up to Western palates. Executive chef Manish Chandna, late of the Oberoi New Delhi, gave me 23 recipes, and every one of them used fresh green chiles, even the skewers of apple and pineapple he passed around one evening with drinks (the fruit had also been tossed with salt, cumin, mango powder, black pepper, and tamarind chutney). Ginger-garlic paste was practically as ubiquitous. A typical dinner began with a thin soup, then moved on to multiple dishes served at the same time: double-marinated leg of lamb and chicken, the former spit-roasted, the latter wrapped in a banana leaf before being encased in dough and lowered into a pit; whole (for mouth feel) and split (for body) black lentils simmered with mustard oil, garlic, and onion; charcoal-grilled eggplant cooked a second time with tomato and coriander; a stew of green beans and potatoes zapped with cumin and turmeric. Sweets, including cottage-cheese dumplings bathed in rose-scented sugar syrup, are in the great silky-creamy-perfumed Indian tradition.
In four days I never dined in the same place twice. Every time I turned around a table was being set up in some surprising location—on the roof of the pavilion that houses all the public spaces; beside the beautiful crumbling brick wall of the kitchen garden; in a field under an ancient mahua tree, whose fleshy flowers villagers ferment and distill into a fire-breathing liquor that is not being bottled for export any time soon. CC Africa insists that it’s not what it does, but how it does it. In any case, the tigers are gravy.
Beyond the Safari
Four nights at Mahua Kothi (www.ccafrica.com/india; $600 per person per night) is the least a person of even baseline sanity would commit to, given how isolated it is and the suffering involved in reaching it. The lodge has an airstrip in the works, designed to receive charters, but for the present there are no easy ways to get there, only ones that are more or less painful. If you use a travel agent and he has you doubling back on yourself at any point, fire him. More advice: Only you know how many transfers you can handle in an often chaotic country before falling apart. When in doubt, build in more days. Finally, make the safari the centerpiece of a larger trip. There are a lot of fascinating places on the way to Mahua Kothi, and it would be reckless not to visit them.
I told the first agent I spoke to that I wanted to experience Indian train travel. He must have thought I meant write a book about Indian train travel. The trip he put together had me arriving in Delhi from New York at 2 a.m. and boarding a 13½-hour milk train for Katni the very next afternoon, disembarking at my favorite hour, 4 a.m. The costliest ticket would have had me sharing a sleeper with up to three strangers. The last leg of the proposed journey called for two hours in a minibus. We all know about the limitations of the infrastructure in India, but I was sure there was a better way.
I was in much more practiced hands with Cox & Kings (91-11/2680-7750; www.coxandkingsusa.com). Just to be safe, I had the itinerary Cox prepared for me vetted by India Safaris and Tours (91-11/2680-7750; www.indiasafaris.com), a new, Delhi-based company partly owned by CC Africa. Give or take a transfer, the two outfitters were in agreement. I flew direct on Continental, arriving at the much more civilized hour of 9:15 p.m., and stayed two nights at the Imperial (91-11/2334 -1234; www.theimperialindia.com; doubles from $425), the minimum recovery period after the 14-hour flight, unless you want to feel like a mummy rather than merely a corpse. An Art Deco landmark, the Imperial is a good choice if you like big, expensive, full-service Indian hotels with palm trees and liveried doormen. Another thing this institution has going for it is its location, across the street—you can walk, if you dare—from Central Cottage Industries Emporium, an all-in-one purveyor of crafts, carpets, antiques, jewelry, fabrics, and more.