Finding the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
After watching the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel movie for a third time in 2015, it suddenly struck me that there were a series of extraordinary principles being acted out. These principles were serious concerns for many people who were closing in on their the 60s and 70s. The new generation of older people grew up in an age where retirement homes sounded like a death sentence; the last place anyone wanted to end up, and if they did it would be the last place.
This inspiration coupled with my years of personal development training and skill brought me to decide to actualise a personal development retreat specifically for this age group. I belong to this group too and know some of the challenges we face are ones that others are yet to arrive at.
With this in mind, in 2017, my wife Delaine and I set out to find a location that would be ideal to bring it to fruition. In the beginning we had decided on using the Indonesian island of Bali, and its here we began the search. We wanted the experience to be as close to the film location so we were not looking for a five-star hotel, but a slightly run-down one, and we hoped for a business partnership.
We started out with five months in Bali, plenty of time to explore the whole island. The first thing which was clear is that a retreat couldn't be in the heart of tourism, particularly the south coast, Kuta, Legian, Seminyak; nor could it be in the centre of Ubud. We went to the less popular north coast, which indeed is quite beautiful and quiet, but difficult to get there; five hours on decrepit roads.
Finally, we settled on the east coast spot of Candidasa, and a rather old traditional Balinese Ida Beach Resort, and we set about trying to come to an arrangement with the owners. As it turned out the hotel was the dream of a deceased man who's widow rather liked the plan, but as with most Asian cultures the final decision lay with the two sons. One of them would have liked to keep his mother happy, but the other was unimpressed seeing it might require investment and work on his part.
The longer the discussions lasted the sooner I became disillusioned with Candidasa itself. At the time the volcano Mt Agung had become active and closed down Bali's only international airport trapping hundreds of tourists. The local population was being evacuated from the surrounding districts through Candidasa, making it ever more obvious that there was only one main road and it went right through the middle of the town.
I started looking at what was the real requirements for a Marigold project, and it soon became clear that there needed to be access to a reasonable sized city, and at that point we abandoned Bali, at least for the moment. We returned back to New Zealand to review our plan.
In 2018 we were introduced to an Indian business man from Kerala who suggested that we would find the ideal on the Kerala backwaters, and he had introductions to a resort that would suit the project. So began the next stage of the search. As it turned out we explored the coast of Kerala from Fort Cochin to Kovalam but nothing stood out. What we did discover is that most of India's tourism industry is internal. Indians visiting other parts of India. Not only this, but there was hardly a developed service industry. Mostly we were treated offhandedly, and often mislead.
It was very hard to find any restaurants serving food suitable to the European palate, always too much chilli and spice. Even if you asked for “low spice”, and no chilli, the waiter would promise this was possible, the resulting dishes were hardly edible. It later became clear that when they said, yes to low spice, they meant they had heard that you wanted low spice, not that they were going to bring that. The reality was the food was prepared and the spices and chilli were already part of this. This, as it turned out became an important part of the search and the final selection.
Once we were back in the west, people often ask whether we “loved India”, which seems an anomaly because the real impression of India is intense! However, I get beyond myself. We explored all of south India..... Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Goa and Pondicherry, and throughout it was very similar. Beautiful exciting cities, extreme traffic, poor clogged roads and insane drivers, but throughout there was still an amazing quality that is extremely hard to put into words. Once again, the Best Exotic film comes back into focus, because it captured it.
After a bit of R&R in Auroville, and later at the Theosophical HQ in Adyar, we decided to fly to Rajasthan and see the actual Marigold Hotel which in reality is called Rawla Khempur. Up to this stage we had travelled by car and train, which turned out the train was more comfortable than the car, or at least the drivers.
We flew into the capital of Rajasthan, Jaipur, the pink city and found a reasonable guest house, which happened to be alongside the rail track. All night the trains stream past,blasting their horns as the passed over road crossings. It was extraordinarily noisey, at that is saying something against the background of noisey India.
There was an upside to this, which was a local novelty restaurant called “Vegetrainian” which delivered the food on the tray of a model train. This was one thing, but the food was designed for children with far less spices. It was a fun evening with edible food..... yum!
After trying to sleep with earplugs to no avail, we decided to find another hotel which took us to the old city, and a 300 year old palace off the main street. From there we planned our trip to Ravla Khempur, which Google says is in a small town called Mavli, which is about an hour from Udaipur. So we go to Udaipur and find a hotel to base from, and the next day we go to Mavli with no untoward circumstances it seems. Having arrived there, and relying on old father google maps we set off to walk the short distance to Marigold. When google tells us we have arrived it turns out we have arrived at the rusting old sign that tells us Ravla Khempur is 9km down the road, a little too far to walk.
Sitting at the corner is a guy in his car, eating lunch. We rock on over and attempt to persuade him to drive us. He's very reluctant, but eventually agrees and we jump in before he can change his mind. Actually, he has rung a guy he knows and we meet up with a beat up minibus which will take us to the place. Its all working out. Ten minutes later we're standing in a mini-village in the middle of the desert.... This is the location of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel! The most amazing thing is that after the minibus has left there is absolutely no sound at all. Almost an impossibility in India.
After wandering in an empty space, eventually the manager arrives to meet us and introduce himself. After we have explained our mission he takes us on the “tour”. It turns out that very little of the hotel is the movie, in the main it is all props and filming angles. Even the street market was erected outside in the dust. The only thing recognisable is the entrance. Ravla Khempur is in fact, a famous horse breeding stables for Marwari and Kathiawari horses, and the owner is a famous breeder.
Ravla Khempur is a hotel for horse people who want to go riding; it has eight rooms and sixteen stables. It does have a lovely big swimming pool, and is an excellent place to go on silent retreat; there is nobody to distract and nowhere to go, in fact the silence is deafening. The manager and staff are lovely and friendly but it was immediately clear this wasn't what we were looking for.
At this point it became clear that we had overlooked the obvious. The Ravla Khempur is a 300 year old palace owned by a Rajput family (descendants of ruling Hindu warriors), but the hotel we had found in Jaipur was in the same league, and far more like the Marigold in the movie than Ravla Khempur was.
Once we arrived back we began to test the opportunity and found that it was perfect. The hotel reception is run by Ali and his friend, Arif. Ali is very like Sonny from the film without the madness. A competent, friendly, calming influence capable of providing pretty much whatever you want. Remembering that India has it all. The hotel has been the Rajput family's home since its building in the late 1600s, and has only been a hotel for ten years. It is in the process of renewal as well as retaining its heritage, much like a metaphor for how we see the Marigold Retirement Plan. That is, people coming to renew their passion for life without losing their heritage or history.
After a very personable meeting with the current owner's son, who incidentally was the only person we came across in India who had been at university studying hospitality. In reality, the only person who seems to have any idea at all about the service industry. He showed us the whole of the hotel, including a secret passage that leads next door to his uncle's restaurant. The greatest surprise is that this restaurant is aware of European taste and so doesn't put spices and chilli in the cooking until after it is ordered so you get exactly what you want. They are also very willing to provide whatever food we request, which makes it easy for individual needs.
The meeting with the son happened on the very last evening in Jaipur, and so our trip to India ended by finding the perfect Marigold Retirement location.