The Wall Street Journal
Good Weekend Magazine, 16 October 2015
Following the break-up of her professional and personal partnership as co-founder of Howqua Dale Gourmet Retreat in Victoria, Marieke Brugman, 58, reinvented herself as a travel guru leading small groups interested in food, culture and yoga. In India, Durga Singh, 53, a Rajasthani prince, is her right hand man and tour leader.
Marieke: My first trip to in 1994 took a solid year to prepare. I had partnered up with a Delhi-based company called Royal Expeditions; Durga was working with them as translator and guide after finishing an agriculture degree in Udaipur. He came to meet us at Delhi airport, wearing one of his many splendid turbans. Within an hour on the bus he had everyone rolling in the aisles with his marvellously anachronistic English. By the end of the trip I realised he was an incurable romantic who personified the chivalric myth of Rajasthan. On the one hand there is a patrician formality about him, on the other he can dissolve in giggles at a lewd Aussie joke around a campfire. I have seen him almost moved to tears talking about Gandhi.
People bow at his feet. He has status and charisma. Even a shepherd in the desert recognises it. The way he speaks to people, no matter who they are, confers dignity on their circumstances. He is, however, an unreconstructed, self-confessed male chauvinist. He had never met an openly gay woman before and will still tell you that in India such a thing does not exist, but he has come to accept it among men. He gets cross with Indian feminism because he thinks it destabilises families. With Durga there are no taboos – you can talk about arranged marriages (he takes that responsibility towards his daughters very seriously and was really alarmed when his eldest fell in love with an American boy), poverty, opium addicts, the practice of suttee. He is very traditional and clannish but open to new information, ideas and gadgets. The thing that impressed him most on his first visit and that he took home as a souvenir ? Those rubbers squeegees we use for wiping windscreens. He thought they were brilliant!
We constantly argue because he likes to start the day early on our tours. I would rather do one good temple than five. He’s very precise, like an art director, and
has a wonderful sense of the grand: he’ll think nothing of buying 10 kilos of Pushkar roses for a client’s birthday party.
He never flaps, not even when once, our entire group was bumped from the hotel in Jaipur and had nowhere to stay. Durga arranged for us to stay in the elephant stables of a friend’s palace. I was fuming at him for letting this happen and for the primitive conditions (there weren’t even any buckets for guests to wash in), but he diffused the tension and taught me that in India you have to let the fury go and adapt. He was so smooth everyone forgave him. I was born a pessimist but Durga has taught me optimism and how to live in the now. He helped me find strength after a traumatic breakup. He did not try to persuade me to be forgiving, like a Hindu, he just pledged to work exclusively with me. His loyalty is absolutely unconditional.
He used to eat meat but since he started to read the sacred texts of Hinduism, he has taken a more devout path. I’ve tempted him with rum, but he wants to be exemplary, so he’ll only take a discreet sip on a cold night in the desert.
He always wanted to be a doctor and has a strong commitment to the principles of Ayurvedic medicine and drinks two litres of water before we start the day.
He’s a very competent rider, loves all animals, but especially adores camels and is always trying to persuade visitors of their charms. He does not always succeed.
When we met he was not financially flush, despite his family having sent him to the Indian equivalent of Eton. Together with that first batch of clients, I got him to Oz, and we covered his accommodation by billeting him with friends. He’d never been overseas before, and he marvelled at how competent Australian women were – the fact that they drove, cooked and worked and were so practical. He’s been used to servants all his life, so he doesn’t offer to help with the washing up, although I’ve told him off.
He’s quite a dandy – I’ve lost count of his turbans, but he takes great pride in demonstrating how to tie one to visitors. No matter how rugged the traveling gets, he always wears a different immaculate, uncreased kurta. He folds his clothes like origami.