a unique perspective on this crazy world

Posts tagged ‘india’

let’s cross our fingers and hope for the best…

We will soon be in another country but some random thoughts about India before I move on to the next continent.

I believe one in seven people in the world can trace their roots to India.  That is a lot of people!  With that many people, life is bound to be messy.  With China slowing down and an optimistic new Indian Prime Minister, India is in the news a lot these days.

Travelling there it is hard to know what to think.  It’s clear there is a lot of work to do and not all the rich people appreciate the daily lifestyle of the poor people.  Those kind of illusions exist in the west as well.  Why I encourage everyone I can to travel and see the world and meet the people.  Listen to what your parents, friends and the media tell you – but don’t believe it without question.  Learn to make your own judgements and opinions.

What I have found to be universally true is that there are a lot of good, kind ordinary people in even the most corrupt and screwed up country.  The challenge is how to improve their lives in a meaningful way.  Troops, assassinations and even charity often do more harm than good.  I’m a big believer in the market economy so one thing you can do is travel and do some shopping 🙂

a riot of colour

a riot of colour

C did his best to keep me out of the shops (or hurry me along – if he had let me shop longer on our way to Jhansi we wouldn’t have had to spend hours waiting for the train outside the station 😉 but I defied him 🙂  India is a shopping paradise, especially for those who don’t favour black.  There is a riot of colour everywhere.  There are saris, purses, bangles, shawls, intricately carved furniture, jewelry made of precious gemstones and so much more.

I wish I could provide more shopping tips but it was a tiny part of my Indian experience.  What I would say is to be wary of help from guides.  Normally in Asia, there is a kickback to guides for bringing in unsuspecting tourists.  I didn’t have much choice due to the chock-a-block itinerary so let the guide take me shopping in Agra.  You definitely get lots of attention and Indian shopkeepers are skilled salespeople so keep your head about you.  It’s also good to not be too enthusiastic as typically prices are not marked.

I’m not much of a bargainer so I enjoyed my time shopping in the hotel much more.  It’s entirely possible I was getting ripped off but the gentlemen were charming and the goods were gorgeous so I didn’t care.  Compared to my hometown the prices were good and I was hopefully helping the economy a little bit.  What I really like is to buy from artisans directly but that isn’t always possible.

I actually had my best shopping experience at the airport.  The prices seemed the same and there was a vast array of gorgeous goods – and it was more independent – not all the goods were stacked behind the counter.  You could drape the shawl on yourself.  I would definitely recommend that you buy at least one shawl on your trip to India.  When it’s 40 degrees outside, it can be hard to be enthusiastic about a real pashmina but you will be grateful when you step onto the plane.

I’ve been hauling a black shawl I bought in London onto planes for years now.  It’s practical but sometimes seems too dark so I was over the moon to find a multi-coloured shawl made of very fine wool.  It livens up the neutrals and is a match to pink, purple, green, yellow, turquoise, orange… pretty much anything.  It has become one of my most prized possessions.  Worth a trip to India just to get that shawl 🙂

a typical street scene

a typical street scene

India is a vast and complicated place.  My travels only skimmed the surface of its possibilities.  Before, during and after I read some great books about Indian history and culture, which I would recommend, even if a trip isn’t on your agenda:

Indian Summer by Alex Von Tunzelmann – a very readable history about Indian independence

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo – a poignant picture of modern India and people who would love the chance to use a luxury toilet

Around India in 80 Trains by Monisha Rajesh – one of the many expat Indians looking for her roots and a primer for train travel in India

Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure by Sarah Macdonald – an expat outside perspective on India

We ended our visit to India on a high note.  The road from Agra to Delhi is sleek and modern and we made the kind of time we spoiled westerners expect every day.  No cows on the road to slow us down!  Due to the issues we faced at Bandhavgarth, the original Indian tour company representative met us in Delhi and then treated us to a special meal.  The setting was fantastic.  It looked very western.  We were outside in a park covered with fairy lights and the place was packed with well-dressed locals.  The new India obviously.  Once again the cocktail was fine but the food was hilarious.  While we got to have a special meal, we could not choose from the regular menu so the choices were really limited.  I love Italian food so thought I would go for the pasta.  I have been cooking Italian food for years and won’t reheat it in the microwave because pasta needs to be al dente.  A little overcooked I can handle if I must but this was mush…

Apparently Indians love mush!  It was so bad I barely ate any and the server was good so we discussed it.  He laughed as he knew what I was talking about but he said Indians would send it back if the chef actually cooked it al dente!  I related my experiences with foreign cuisine in India and do advise you not to go there.  It’s a little boring eating Indian food every day but it’s all they know how to do 🙂

One of the benefits of writing the blog is that I get to relive my travel adventures and I am feeling nostalgic for India as I type this.  Without question, it is not a really easy travel destination but you can organize to live in a bubble if you want – or be bold like the Australian lady and take 2nd class trains.  There’s lots going on and it is obvious some progress is being made.

also india an art show in hotel lobby

also india an art show in hotel lobby

I would love to see the trickle-down economics turn into a flood but I know that may be delusional.  But we can always hope.  My Viking ancestors could never have imagined in their wildest dreams the incredible life I would lead a few centuries on as I type my thoughts to the world while glancing out the window at the boats on False Creek enjoying the last summer long weekend.  Let’s just cross our fingers and hope the new Prime Minister finds a way to bridge the centuries like a time machine and bring the people I saw walking along the road transporting goods on their heads into the 21st century.

 

 

even a cynic should see it ;)

It didn’t make any sense to me… someone would drive us for many hours and then put us on a train for the final three hours.  Why not just drive us to Agra?  A country famous for mysticism and faith is a tough place for the analytical.  While it didn’t seem to make sense, I was excited to get out of the bubble for a few hours and experience this “real” India I had been reading about and glimpsing through the windows of an air-conditioned SUV.  C liked the bubble.  I hadn’t appreciated how freaked out he was until I wandered off to take photos in the train station and he chastised me.  It was just a train station, not a bazaar.  I wasn’t jumping out of the jeep to pet a baby lion (believe me, it is REALLY tempting but you SHOULD NOT 😉

beautiful decay

beautiful decay

Lots has been written about the poverty in India and it is heartbreaking.  What is disturbing is the extreme wealth and the extreme poverty living side by side in different centuries.  It was the part of the trip I could never wrap my head around.  As a tourist, it is tough to know what to do.  I do research and try to support organizations that employ local people and tip generously.  It was young ambitious Africans who taught me what people really want is not charity but a good job (and possibly to make out with you 🙂

Count your blessings.  It is what I think every day at home but travelling in the more challenging parts of the world just brings home the point in such a poignant way.  We are all accidents of our birth.  It irritates me to no end when people born in privileged countries feel a sense of entitlement to their good fortune.  But not everyone is so unenlightened.  I have been travelling like crazy this year so there are many stories still to come but I was in Romania last week and stayed up until 4:30am discussing life with someone who thought he might like to emigrate to Canada.  It was obviously an interesting conversation but the one point that really warmed my heart was how he appreciated having been born in Romania rather than South Sudan.  It’s all relative.

As is the train station in Jahnsi.  There is no question an Indian train station is an intimidating place.  I think many of them are the same.  You enter a decaying Victorian building, like visiting a 110 year old former beauty queen in a nursing home.  But inside there is only chaos.  It’s hot.  There are oodles of people of all ages in various states of slumber and attire.  We had arrived WAY too early so spent a couple of hours just hanging around, mostly in the SUV without the air conditioning.

We engaged in another Monty Python sketch with our driver.  Once we discovered how early we were, we began chatting with the driver about finding a nice hotel bar or equivalent where we could have a drink, chill in air conditioning and use a nice toilet before we got on the train.  We had this conversation several times, trying to change the syntax sufficiently to get him to understand our request… but to no avail.  We had gone off-script and he couldn’t figure out what we were nattering about.  Being totally spoiled western brats… most of the people waiting for trains were sitting or sleeping on the floor in the steaming train station.

We were hanging out in our bubble until we got on a first class train.  But we had been on the road a long time and we really needed a bathroom.  Apparently there are no public bathrooms in Indian train stations.  I have always considered indoor plumbing and proper sanitation as luxuries but India gave me a whole new level of appreciation.  I will not supply too many graphic details.  I will never be able to do reality TV because I refuse to eat live insects for sport but I have a pretty strong stomach for discarded toilet paper, flies and stench (just hold your breath as long as possible!).  I always thought peeing in a pitch black pit toilet near the bridge over the River Kwai in Thailand was going to be my worst toilet experience – but I had yet to experience a “luxury toilet” in India 😉

What the hell IS a luxury toilet?  Obviously, the adjective is not well understood in India 🙂  First, you had to pay of course.  Not paying to use the toilet is a kind of North American luxury so I always carry small coins in local currency.  Ever the girl scout, I had to pay for C as well.  If you haven’t travelled a lot you might not appreciate that the western flush toilet is a lot less common than you realize.  Most of the world squats over a hole.  I’ve had plenty of practice so that wasn’t a problem.  Normally though the hole is a similar size to the bowl of a flush toilet.  But not when you go luxury!  I have no idea WHAT the designer was thinking… I hate people who can afford to pee indoors?  It’s possible I was just doing it wrong – but there was a tiny cylindrical hole that I assumed you were supposed to aim for.  Good luck.  Needless to say, that just results in backsplash and the most disgusting toilet experience of my life.  Always carry wipes and hand sanitizer when you travel!  What was funny though was that when I went to the sink to clean up I saw there was also a western flush toilet around a corner.  So, when paying for a luxury toilet, check carefully before choosing your stall! 🙂

The most extraordinary part of the trip was boarding the train.  I had packed light and had a backpack.  C’s backpack had wheels.  It didn’t really

dorothy this is not lufthansa...

dorothy this is not lufthansa…

matter.  It was an old Victorian building full of stairs and long halls filled with people so luggage was carried.  Our wonderful driver had engaged a porter to assist us.  When the time finally arrived, the porter tied his scarf into a luggage rack on the top of his head and hoisted both suitcases onto it and then gracefully walked through the train station with two backpacks on his head.

Standing on the platform freaked C out.  An Indian train is unlike anything I have yet seen.  We met an Australian expat living in France with an adopted Chinese daughter at the camp in Bandhavgarth.  She had been in India before as a young woman but it was her daughter’s first trip.  They were taking trains.  She said her daughter had been scared in Delhi about boarding the train.  When I saw the trains come though the station, I totally understood.  The 1st class train was fine.  Nothing terribly special but we had a reserved seat and the train was clean.  In other classes, it is a totally different experience.  People are crowded in and out of the cars and there are bars on the windows.  It looks like the passengers are being involuntarily transported to a place they don’t want to go but it is normal travel for the vast majority of the population.

not sure if you need a ticket for this

not sure if you need a ticket for this

Our driver and porter loaded us onto the train and said goodbye.  Our driver said he would miss us.  I would miss him.  He had taken excellent care of us and shepherded us through our “real” adventure so that it felt more like a ride in Disneyland than any intrepid journey through the sub-continent.

And before long, we were in Agra!  From the “luxury toilet” to a five star luxury hotel.  The kind of place with a choice of cuisine and a shopping mall among other features.  It was technically C’s birthday for a few more hours so I took him to the trendy looking bar for a cocktail.  The cocktails took an incredibly long time to make but at least they tasted fine when they arrived.  I can’t say the same for the chicken satay.  I’ve learned by experience to be wary of ordering a Caesar salad or nachos outside of North America but the satay countries were right next door.  I live in Canada so never eat the same type of cuisine for days on end so was excited to have a change from the “mystery Indian food for westerners” I had been consuming for two weeks.  DON’T do it!  Just eat Indian food in India.  I don’t know WHAT they did to that poor chicken but it was so disgusting I couldn’t eat more than a couple of skewers.  Luckily I’d taken C for a nice Indian birthday dinner in the hotel the night before because I knew we were arriving in Agra very late.

And would then have to be up really early the next morning to beat the crowds!  By that point I had just accepted I was ready to be brainwashed by the cult due to sleep deprivation.

yes its the taj mahal...

yes its the taj mahal…

The Taj Mahal!!!  C hadn’t even bothered to see it on his first trip to India because he only cares about tigers but the travel agent had done me a solid and I was going to finally see it.  I have seen almost all of those things… the Pyramids, the Eiffel Tower, Angor Wat, ETC… the list is almost complete… but the Taj is one of the most famous.  It’s like the Pyramids.  There is a lot of buildup and anticipation.  Apparently some Indians weep when they see it.

First you go through an irritating entry procedure.  Then the guide didn’t give me my souvenir ticket even though I had paid for it (C thought she was using it again later in the day).  She did give an informative history of the mausoleum though and it was nice to hear about an Indian man who really loved his wife as opposed to seeing her as chattel.   It is a spectacular building.  What is spectacular are the details – the symmetry, the materials, the intricate inlaid gemstones.  It’s full of tourists taking selfies but you should go.  It’s less exciting though than some of the other spectacular sights in the world so, if you can’t do them all, I would likely go to Bangkok (Grand Palace) or Siem Reap (Angkor Wat).

We also visited the Agra Fort, which is also worthwhile.  Sandstone forts seem to be an Indian thing so you likely don’t need to visit too many but this one is impressive. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and Akbar sounds like a good guy.

Luxury toilets to the Taj Mahal… India is a land of great contrast.  The Taj is better 😉

the invention of porn? ;)

I like tigers but SEVENTEEN game safaris is a lot!  Luckily there were a handful of “cultural days” attached to the itinerary so I was OK with signing up and not rocking the boat with requests.  Someday I will work less and actually have time to do research before I arrive in foreign places… I DO make sure I have the basics sorted – visas, currency, safety issues, etc.  But there is an exciting je ne sais quoi to just showing up as long as accommodation and transport have been arranged, which is how I ended up channeling Harry Potter… it was not “the one whose name cannot be spoken” but rather “the city whose name I cannot remember how to pronounce”…

temple overview

temple overview

Khajuraho… lots of those letters you don’t actually pronounce… this is what the tourist itinerary said…

Situated in the heart of Central India. Khajuraho is a fascinating village with a quaint rural ambience and a rich cultural heritage. The fascinating temples of Khajuraho, India’s unique gift of love to the world represent the expression of a highly matured civilization.

I should have done some research 😉  I still doubt it would have prepared me for the experience.

http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/240

It was nice to just be hot and sweaty, not also covered in a layer of fine dust.  I am an urban girl so it was interesting driving through a city.  There is always a lot going on, even in the hours of the days when people are sleeping in North America.  It’s likely because it is really hot and a lot of the shelter does not look like somewhere you would want to spend any recreational time.  I am typing this in my apartment with fans blowing on me from three directions and feeling sorry for myself, so it’s hard to imagine hanging out in a tiny dwelling that looks impromptu held together by blue plastic without electricity.

They confiscated my mini tripod (which I never use but it does live in my camera bag) but then we were in.  Our guide was male.  He was knowledgeable and lively and an excellent guide.  What I had not appreciated was the subject matter of the temples 😉

Some of it was just normal ancient stuff… cool sandstone carvings… impressive architecture for the 10th century… UNESCO world heritage status…

What was unexpected was the subject matter of a lot of the temple reliefs.  The guide’s presentation of it all was priceless and I didn’t even giggle (except to myself).  The Indian Hugh Hefner? 😉  Of course, I am sure he thought we were a married couple.  I was just an easy-going ex-spouse accompanying my ex-husband on his milestone birthday trip to India.

Of course, when the guide started pointing out the 69 position on the temple wall, it was a tad

leaving nothing to the imagination...

leaving nothing to the imagination…

uncomfortable.  According to him, it’s number 69 in the Kama Sutra but I think that might just be part of this tourist shtick.  Did at least learn Kama is the god of love; hence, Kama Sutra.  He seemed a bit too gleeful pointing out the various poses.  Seriously, you need someone else in the room so you can do it with one leg (the third party is there to balance you).  And if you are away from your wife for more than 10 days, animals start to look sexy???  The whole place seemed a bit nuts.  According to the guide – before the internet – people didn’t know how to have sex, so pretty much every possible position was illustrated on the walls of the temple for educational purposes – and to promote population growth.

Perhaps this is why India is so overpopulated? 🙂  I am pretty sure a lot of those positions do NOT produce babies… and somehow all the babes in the illustrations look like Playboy bunnies.  India is full of gorgeous women but not all of them look like the chicks on the walls of the temples at Khajuraho.  As a woman, I had a lot of trouble with the advanced civilization propaganda.

The guide kept emphasizing the “love” aspect of these couplings and how horny the women were.  For the most part, it just looked like a huge ancient male fantasy to me – the ancient version of internet porn.

Nevertheless, the temples are ancient and fascinating and not every scene is about sex so well worth visiting.  The sexy temples are the Hindu ones.  We also went to the Jain temples.  The Jain religion is fascinating and almost polar opposite to the hedonistic Hindus.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jainism

carvings are exquisite

carvings are exquisite

Khajuraho should definitely be part of a visit to India.  Whether you learn how to pronounce it correctly or not, it is a fascinating glimpse into the 10th century and the Chandela dynasty.  Perhaps the Indians seemed a little fixated on “sexy time” but most of the rest of the world was very primitive in those days so it really was an advanced civilization for the time period.

 

 

monty python goes on safari

I came to India prepared for things to go wrong… I had heard lots of stories and had already read at least two books set in India just before I got on the plane to Delhi.  But India can be easy 🙂  People showed up when they promised.  The drivers were excellent even if the journey felt scary to a novice.  The accommodation was charming and rustic but there was air-conditioning or a high speed fan.

no LG front loader here

no LG front loader here

The countryside we drove through was evidence life for the average person in rural India was still trapped in another century.  Shelters did not really look like homes and many were patched with scraps of plastic.  There were so many piles of concrete and bricks it was impossible to tell if buildings were being constructed or demolished.  Life looked incomplete, arduous and precarious.  It was hard to reconcile the women walking down the sides of the road with water jugs or bags of rice piled on top of their heads with our air-conditioned SUV.

I do love chai so did at least have a few chances to sip authentic roadside chai with our driver perched on well-worn plastic chairs.  But mostly we just floated through in our bubble where the cool air, the teeming bowl of candy and the bottled water flowed freely.

Then we got to our last tiger reserve – Bandhavgarh.  Bandhavgarh is probably the most famous tiger reserve in India.  It is supposed to have one of the highest tiger population densities in India.  It’s the former stomping ground of a Maharaja (who killed most of the tigers showing off before it became a national park of course) so it is a smaller space and I got excited by the idea of less aimless driving covered in dust and more snapping photos of wild animals.  I even like taking photos of monkeys and exotic deer 🙂

hey ladies look at this!

hey ladies look at this!

I did get some great shots of peacocks!  And watched a mating dance that was spectacular – and hilarious.  The dude just kept dancing around and showing off like a guy in a singles bar with terrible pickup lines.  And the ladies just stuck together snacking and no doubt making snarky remarks.  I felt sorry for the male… it appears women stick together in cliques and give guys a hard time in all the species 😉

seriously dude we don't care...

seriously dude we don’t care…

The tone of our Bandhavgarh experience was foreshadowed as soon as we got to the park.  Driving in India is an adventure, not just because there are no passing rules and everyone is jockeying for position, but because one encounters all types of road conditions from proper highways to dirt tracks immortalized by John Denver.  But at least we got to drive ON the road!

Apparently much of Bandhavgarh is a construction site.  I am hoping this means in the future better roads and possibly roads that don’t flood in the rainy season.  Right now it just means a very narrow path of elevated concrete where it is tough for two vehicles to pass each other and gigantic ditches on either side with a wicked drop off from the concrete center.  Playing chicken just got more dangerous…

Our driver was lovely and intrepid so he chose a path based on the flow of the traffic on the other side of the concrete and we breezed or bounced depending on the path chosen.  Then we turned off a side road to the lodge – and encountered a full-blown construction site that had completely blocked off the road.  He had to get out and have a chat.

We were now in Michelle Shocked “Memories of East Texas” country.  Take a left.  Take a right.  Bounce through the rice fields.  Hope you don’t destroy the undercarriage of your vehicle.  But he got us there!  Of course, then we had to figure out how to unlock the gate to the lodge – but eventually we made contact and were able to check in.

The lodge was charming and my favourite of the trip (Jungle Mantra Lodge).  The owner was a charming Englishman with an Indian background who had moved back to marry an Indian woman in a romance worthy of Harlequin.  Everyone sat together at the evening meal and we became a rag-tag family and the conversations were more stuff of a gentleman’s club than the Indian jungle.

We discovered our tour operator was a little more ordinary.  I ended up as translator and peacemaker.  Clemens had booked private safaris so he could commandeer the back seat of the jeep with his gigantic camera equipment but we had other people in our first jeep – and our tiger sighting was pretty lame.

The park was famous though so we stayed optimistic and I sat in on the conversation trying to understand what had gone wrong.  It appeared we had paid the German tour operator who may or may not have paid the Indian tour operator.  The Indian tour operator definitely hadn’t paid the lodge in time to secure the permits for the best gates so we now had to take the leftovers.

Other people saw tigers in Bandhavgarh so I am sure they were there – but definitely secure your permits in advance!  Instead we had the Monty Python safari experience.  The driver got stuck and I hoped this wasn’t some bad scheme of extortion.  He eventually got the vehicle restarted but the roads in Bandhavgarh did seem a little more rutted than really seemed necessary.  Stranding tourists in the middle of a tiger park doesn’t seem like a great tourism strategy.

The worst safari was saved for last though.  The accents were so thick it was almost impossible to understand the guide or the forest employee escort.  It appeared we were roaming around a “buffer” zone rather than the national park.  As Clemens pointed out, we were looking for tigers, not cows.  There shouldn’t be cows in the national park.  Indians love bureaucracy so – not only are there different gates and zones for the national park – there are also “buffer zones” between park and non-park.  Because of Bandhavgarh’s popularity, you need a permit even to travel in the buffer zone (but it costs less).

Due to the lack of a common accent, let alone language, it was entirely unclear what was going on.  What was clear was that we were doing tons of dusty driving, seeing almost nothing and then madly dashing for the gate before it got too dark and the park closed.  We did eventually get back to the lodge – that was also unclear as our guide didn’t necessarily seem competent enough to remember where he had picked us up.  John Cleese would have loved it 😉

the jungle book and groundhog day – tiger style ;)

So much of my childhood knowledge of literature came filtered through the imagination of Walt Disney.  So, it is not surprising that I have not read Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book but instead associate it with the Disney imagery.  At the time I had no expectation of ever seeing the jungle that inspired the tales.  But a trip to India when you were growing up in a small rural town in northern Canada was as likely as winning the lottery.

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/77270.The_Jungle_Book

Because I had never imagined it, it was extra exciting to get to Pench National Park and Kanha Tiger Reserve.  Pench was only a fleeting visit (one game drive and no tiger sightings) and left no real memories.  Kanha provided probably our best guide and definitely most impressive tiger sightings.  Clemens is a sweet guy but he has a rather strong sense of entitlement so, by this point, he was requesting specific tigers – a male tiger, a cub, perhaps we could see a tiger killing some prey… I rolled my eyes and told him that wasn’t how safaris worked but it didn’t deter him.  It was his birthday and he was the safari veteran.  I was just tagging along…

http://www.kanhatigerreserve.com/

The pressure was on though!  So the guide cleverly took us to a pool late in the afternoon where a male tiger liked to hang around cooling down.  The tiger was there!  And there was a female tiger up on the hill.  At least Clemens got his male tiger.  We heard rumours of other sightings and dashed madly around the park a few times trying to find the tiger but never with any success.  But our special tiger was there lounging in the pool every day… he didn’t do that much and we waited as long as we could in an attempt to see him stand up.  He was not willing to cooperate – tiger as supermodel and we didn’t have $10,000…

groundhog day tiger

groundhog day tiger

It began to feel like the movie Groundhog Day rather than The Jungle Book 😉  But that is the thing with

waiting for the tiger to perform :)

waiting for the tiger to perform 🙂

seeing animals in the wild.  THEY are in charge and you have to accept that.  There is a certain zen quality to just sitting in the safari vehicle seeing if the animal will DO something.  And they generally do.  Perhaps not exactly what you want.  It is tough to get them to pose for just the perfect shot.  You need to be patient, accurate and fast.  I learned by trial and error with my new camera in Tanzania that it’s generally best to put it on the “sports” setting.  The tigers we saw were moving a lot more slowly than David Beckham but they did move and it meant not all my tigers were blurry.

While Clemens was fixated on tigers and haranguing our guide, I was enjoying all the attractions of the park.  It’s easy to see how Kanha could provide inspiration as a lush jungle setting.  The landscape is gorgeous even if you don’t see animals but there are plenty of animals to check out in addition to the tigers.

We stayed at Kanha Jungle Lodge, which I would highly recommend.  Kanha was the only place in India where I saw women in actual jobs!  We were greeted by the wife of the owner, one of the lodge’s naturalists was female and Kanha Tiger Reserve actually had female forest guides.  The lodge is also impressive because it is family owned and apparently the founder Kailash Sankhala was known as the Tiger Man of India and was the founding director of Project Tiger in 1973.  It is an eco-lodge showing a lot of respect for the environment.  It is also very romantic as you feel like you are living in The Jungle Book and every evening you have an apertif in the rustic lodge and then have dinner under candlelight in the moonlight on an outdoor patio.

http://www.kanhajunglelodge.com/

http://projecttiger.nic.in/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kailash_Sankhala

the romantic lodge at twilight

the romantic lodge at twilight

Of course this means you are essentially eating in the dark and it’s hard to know what you are eating.  But you can be guaranteed it is likely vegetables – or chicken!  I like chicken and normally eat it every week… but every day for every meal except breakfast?  I didn’t eat chicken for a month when I got home.  But you can’t eat cows or pigs and lamb is mutton so you probably don’t want it anyway.  I have a sense of entitlement with regard to eating good food.  I live in one of the world’s culinary capitals so I am totally spoiled.  If you like Indian food, you will have to suck it up if you go on safari.  They are going to tell you they are serving you different things but mostly it is all going to taste the same – chicken and vegetables in a sauce with some Indian spices dialed down for western palates.  If you LIKE Indian food, come to Vancouver and go to Vij’s 😉

The food at the Kanha Jungle Lodge is better than average.  The staff are charming.  The park is gorgeous.  And hopefully you will see the groundhog day tigers.  Their behaviour was consistent enough to almost make me think I WAS in the Disney Jungle Book 😉

 

waiting for a tiger named godot ;)

As has likely become apparent by now, going on safari in India involves being constantly covered in a layer of fine dust, a lot of silence staring at nothing particularly interesting and considerable jostling for position should anyone manage to find a live animal in the wild… If you have always imagined yourself on stage in “Waiting for Godot”, this is your moment to shine 😉

You definitely need some patience and if you are a prima donna who doesn’t like getting dirty, it’s likely better to stay at a five star hotel in one of the major cities.  But it is absolutely worth the hours of boredom and giving up washing your hair because it seems pointless.  Even though I couldn’t get a beer, Tadoba was my favourite tiger reserve.  Since we went to FOUR, I was party to a lot of shop talk about tiger reserves.  Tadoba is definitely more under the radar and I gather it is a bit of a renegade park compared to the more established ones.

As noted earlier, the parks are divided into zones with separate gates.  Officially, you have to stay in the zone that corresponds to your gate.  Tadoba was my first park so I was still very naïve about this whole tiger tracking experience so these are not statements of fact, just deductions I made by eavesdropping on other conversations as the tour progressed.  I think our driver may have taken us out of the zone we were really supposed to be travelling in so that we could find tigers…

In any event, we DID see tigers!  Pretty much every safari.  I was completely spoiled by travelling with and beyond in Tanzania during the migration and seeing lions 10 times on 10 safaris so I quickly realized I had to dial my expectations back and be grateful if I saw a sole tiger for more than two minutes – and if it was close enough to get a photo where one could tell for sure it WAS a tiger.

tiger crossing road

tiger close up

As noted, our first day was more boot camp to see how you fared under duress and the tiger we spotted was underwhelming.  Day two, however, rewarded us with a close up of a tiger crossing the road.  Hard to get great photos but that was definitely a TIGER!

Things got a little light on the tiger front after that so the pressure was on when we set out on our final game safari at Tadoba.  In the lodge, I had read about a female tiger that had been born in the tiger reserve and was apparently nonplussed by groups of humans madly trying to take photos of her.  The article merely seemed to be a taunt.

Because I was growing tired of lemonade and there was a mini fridge in the room, the staff kindly provided me with a small container of milk so that I could take advantage of the chai I bought in Delhi.  It tasted so good I decided I should have a second cup.  I strongly advise you not to drink tea before you go on safari!

Tea is a major diuretic and I was now about to be subjected to three or four hours of being shaken silly in a jeep in a situation where hiding behind a bush might involve you being mauled by a random tiger.  Generally, bathroom facilities in India are challenging so I thought I could make it…   Of course, I should have said something to the guide instead of trying not to take the safari off-course…

I was surviving and knew I could make it back to camp but we still hadn’t found a tiger and Clemens was very disappointed.  By that point, finding a bathroom was a lot more exciting than finding a tiger so I was trying to send mind waves to just stop looking and head to camp.

But, no, that was not to be.  Instead, we went off on some Indiana Jones mission to a part of the park we

tiger spotting

tiger spotting

had not yet seen.  I prayed there would be no tiger so we could drive just as fast back to the lodge.  It was really close to closing time and I knew we had to get out there very soon.

that tiger

hey tigger pose for me 🙂

My prayers were not answered – but Clemens were 🙂  It was an incredible sighting.  I wish I could have enjoyed it more.  Not only was my bladder ready to explode but I ran to the end of my memory card so was frantically trying to delete photos so I could get some photos of the tiger.  So, let my bad judgement allow you to make better choices.  Limit your liquid intake BEFORE you go on safari.  Suck it up and use a yukky bathroom and stop the safari if you really need to.  And make sure your memory card is not almost full!

But even if you screw up like I did and you are in physical pain, seeing a tiger in the wild will be worth it.  Even if you don’t get a photo, you have SEEN it.  But I did get a photo –   I’m a tough girl… 😉

 

 

in the shooting gallery with the wildlife junkies ;)

India was not my first safari.  It was my first tiger – but I felt fairly worldly from a safari perspective.  I mean, most people don’t know where Botswana is, let alone its virtues as a safari destination.  But Svarsara Jungle Lodge attracted the junkies.  Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve is notable as Maharashtra’s oldest and largest national park.  Project Tiger was started in 1973 to conserve the Indian Bengal tiger.  It began by establishing 9 Tiger Reserves.  There are now 47 Tiger Reserves.  And there are some tigers in them!  It’s a bit controversial as to how serious India is about tiger conservation – and it’s a big, complex job.  There are a lot of people and not many tigers and too many people in China thinking consuming bits of tiger will make them more powerful.  No!  Just work on your self-esteem and learn to be more charming – leave the beautiful tigers in peace.

https://www.svasararesorts.com/svasara-lodge.html

http://www.maharashtratourism.gov.in/mtdc/HTML/MaharashtraTourism/TouristDelight/Sanctuaries/Sanctuaries.aspx?strpage=TadobaNPSanctuaries.html

pretty even without tigers :)

pretty even without tigers 🙂

Whether there are actually tigers in the Tiger Reserves or not, there aren’t a lot of tigers left in the world so India has done a good job of convincing you to come to India to see one.  A lot of people go to Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve.  It’s likely the most famous (we will get there too :).  It has plenty of lodges to stay in and plenty of publicity.  Tadoba is more of a hidden secret.  There is little accommodation and most people come on a day trip.  But you can stay at Svarsara Jungle Lodge – so we did 🙂

As previously noted, I was just tagging along so was like a little kid at the table while the adults talked about serious stuff.  I didn’t realize the parks were set into zones with different gates and you couldn’t necessarily move around the whole park.  That it mattered what gate you started at and that you would need to line up and wait for the park to open.  (I hadn’t even memorized the names of the parks we were visiting at that point… bad girl!)

Because of the storms the first evening we didn’t follow the normal dinner protocol – and didn’t interact with other guests.  The weather had cleared by day two so we met for drinks (i.e. soda pop :)) before dinner and were able to mingle with other safari guests.  We also attempted to watch a film about Indian wildlife.  We tried to watch it at least three times – but the power would always kick out before it ended and we got tired of watching the beginning so finally abandoned the project.

Clemens normally goes on safari alone so is good at interacting with other guests.  That night we met a Dutch

one of india's most famous birds

one of india’s most famous birds

couple who also went on safari pretty much every year and they talked parks, gates, animals, facilities, cameras, etc.  I’d already noticed that my very nice Nikon didn’t really cut it.  I felt a bit like I was in Afghanistan rather than India.  With all the safari vehicles lining up and then drag racing in the dust, it is a bit much so a lot of people have bandanna and scarves tied around their head and their mouth with only their eyes visible.  They are dressed in camouflage colours to not scare the animals.  And they are brandishing gigantic cameras with dust and rainproof covers that look like weapons.  I was clearly out of my league 😉

I quickly realized Tadoba was a bit of a hidden secret so attracted the wildlife junkies who had already been everywhere else.  Some had already seen tigers in other parks.  They all talked the lingo and knew all the park names and shared tips on the best gates from which you wanted to enter.  It was a fascinating new world.  I am a snob about lots of stuff (food, wine, literature) but I’m just excited to see animals.  I even like monkeys and deer!  Clemens refused to stop for anything that pedestrian for at least two days…

When we got to Kanha, it was even more fascinating.  I am pretty sure I overheard some people exchanging details so they could plan a trip to Ethiopia together.  Ever since a taxi driver in Amsterdam educated me on how fascinating Ethiopia is, I have wanted to go.  So I managed to work my way into their conversation.  It ended up being one of the highlights of the trip.  They invited us to have dinner with them so the six of us sat in the dark under candlelight being fed mysterious food we couldn’t see and drinking Kingfisher beer (the alcohol ban lifted in Madhya Pradesh).

Eddie sounded like he was from Michigan but his father had been one of the first people from discover the virtues of outsourcing from China so he had lived in China for a long time and ran a specialty auto parts supply company out of Shanghai and had tacked tracking tigers onto a business trip.  Philippe and Sonia were from Paris with charmingly accented English.  I think they were brother and sister but Eddie was the only person in India I could really understand clearly J   I am normally great with accents but had to really listen in India.  Whatever their relationship, Philippe was hilarious.  Clemens is pretty quiet but given that he is an engineer for Daimler, he could connect with Eddie.  To add another perspective to the table, we had the only female wildlife specialist I met during my travels.

baby monkey doing yoda pose for me :)

baby monkey doing yoda pose for me 🙂

It made for an evening of incredible conversation.  Even though I think the Americans’ attitude toward guns and violence is bat-shit crazy, I do love them.  It’s always dangerous to generalize about an entire national group but I have encountered so many Americans like Eddie during my travels – friendly, generous, gregarious.  He sat at the head of the table and really led the conversation and, between the two of us, we got everyone involved.  It’s not very often I feel like the most boring person at the table…

But it seemed like everyone had already seen gorillas (for sure three had, maybe four).  I was the girl who hadn’t seen a gorilla in the wild.  The girl who hadn’t been to Ethiopia.  For god’s sake, I haven’t even been to Kruger – which is apparently far too touristy! 😉  Big deal I’d been to Paris so many times I have completely lost count.

In this crowd, I was listening and learning.  I wasn’t jaded at all.  I still got excited when I saw a baby monkey!  It was refreshing to see there was so much more to see and experience in the world.  I have already booked to see penguins in Patagonia next year but incubating a plan for Zambia.  I am well on my way to becoming a wildlife junkie.  Now I just need one of those big-ass cameras to properly shoot in the gallery 😉

 

 

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