Saturday, May 5, 2018

Tigers And The Taj

We came to Ranthambore for one reason, Bengal Tigers. Ranthambore National Park is home to a long list of exotic and wild roaming animals but it's the Tigers that everyone comes here for. We had two safari's planned, one in the evening and one early the next morning. I did not know what to expect. The park was only a short distance from the town. The cynic in me figured we were heading to a zoo disguised as a national park. 

Raj dropped us off at our resort hotel which was the best we had to date. Our guide and driver arrived in the early evening and we jumped into an open aired 6 seater 4 x 4 and hit the road. There were 4 locals with us. They started out a bit quiet and a bit shy but in the end we had a great time. All it took were a few selfies and we became the best of friends. We drove 30 minutes to the park through a few small villages and open spaces. Experiencing villages from the back seat of a car is one thing. Enjoying them from an open aired jeep can was exhilarating. I had forgotten what a joy it was to drive in an open aired vehicle.

As we entered the park I half expected to leave the jeep and jump into a fortified bus with armed guards. I figured that the guide realizes we are looking for tigers and our vehicle offered NO protection. That was not going to be the case. Caitlyn sat in the middle seat which gave her protection on either side, smart girl. We were assured that there was no danger. Nope, no danger it's only wild tigers. I wondered if that was going through the minds of Siegfried and Roy in 2003, there is "no danger with tigers"

On this trip we did see large fresh tiger tracks in the sand but no tigers. We did see a lot of large game animals including deer and elk. There were also monkeys (freaking monkeys!), peacocks and parrots. Not all was lost as the 2 hours in the park was a relaxing way to spend the evening. I did get out of the vehicle to show my courage walking in tiger land but got scared by a noise in the brush and scrambled back into the safety (?) of our jeep. We would try again the next 5:00 am!

The sun was up when we were picked up at 5:00 am. This time we had 4 Europeans with us, each loaded up with expensive camera gear. We entered a different zone in the park.  Ten minutes in and our guide gave us a quiet Shhh, look up on the bridge. There they were, a mother and 2 cubs napping and doing tiger stuff. 

This time it was not us alone in the park in a jeep. There were 20 jeeps and 10 larger vehicles holding 20 or more people. Shhh was not an option. Shrieks, screams, laughs, camera clicks and loud exciting chatter yes, quiet? Not a chance. Ultimately everyone around us settled down as best they could. The tigers were in no hurry to give us a show. Every once in a while they would move and the silence was shattered with ohhs and ahhs, camera clicks and shouting. Some kids started crying for whatever reason. They did move around a bit in the 30 minutes we watched them. It was when they got up you suddenly realized how big they were. Mother Nature always gives you signs that she is totally in charge. If the tigers wanted to change their diet from deer and elk to human they had that option and we could do nothing about it.

Agra is the Taj Mahal. One of the modern Seven Man Made Wonders of the world, it is number 6 for me. Now I have to travel to Brazil to visit Christ the Redeemer to complete the set. The outside is as spectacular and beautiful as you can imagine. Inside, not so much. It was commissioned in 1632 by the then emperor for his favorite wife, number 14, as her tomb. She is buried there to this day.
Caitlyn on hearing this got a bit quiet, then blurted out "I can't get a guy to text me back and this guy builds this for his dead wife". 

Lucky for us it is the slow tourist season in India. There was picture madness when we entered but we stood back and let people do their thing. Ten minutes later we could take our time and do what we wanted. We joked that it was like the people who jump up as soon as a plane lands and stops. There was no need to take hundreds of pictures anyways. The grounds were huge and manicured so we could walk around and enjoy ourselves. One side was lined with beautiful gardens that housed huge flocks of screeching parrots. As a bird guy I was enjoying that until the large black hawks showed up and started picking off lime green parrots for breakfast. Just when you are having a moment of historical and natural tranquility mother nature sends in birds of prey. I knew the flying monkeys would eventually show up.

Agra also has a huge fort. No surprise there. We jumped in a Tuk Tuk for a one hour ride around the city. It became a game of the driver stopping at various shops for us to tour and hopefully buy something. Good for him as he would have made a small commission and it was harmless plus we did see some interesting artisans work with silk, precious stones and marble. It started to wear us down so we had him drop us off at the fort. We wandered and it was huge and magnificent. Just for fun we decided to try and walk back to our hotel in the mid day heat. In the hour it took us we were stopped by no less than 25 Tuk Tuk drivers offering us a cheap ride. When told "No, we want to walk" the poor drivers just looked at us confused and bewildered. "It is to hot to walk, you must get in my tuk tuk for your health" was the best response we heard.

Delhi is divided into Old Delhi and New Dehli. It was Old Delhi that I wanted to see. Raj drove us around to visit the Gate of India and the Government Buildings. They lined up beautifully down a long straight road and it would have looked brilliant but the pollution was terrible. As with many official things here they were built by the British. The Government building has over 300 rooms. Before independence it was the home of the British Viceroy or Governor. Raj gave us a quick "stupid British" while describing it.

We had the opportunity to visit the memorial to Ghandi. It was simple and elegant. As you enter the memorial area you must take off your shoes. As the ground was hot from the mid day sun I was not the only person hoping like a lunatic looking for patches of shade on the walkway.

Then it was "go time". Raj arranged for a pedicab to take us through the Spice Market of Old Delhi. Our pedicab driver was about 50 and looked 70. He also could have used a good meal. None of that slowed him down. As we blasted through the busy streets of New Delhi he managed the old pedicab like the pro he was. Through loud and crowded intersections and down busy boulevards I never felt any fear of being destroyed by any on coming vehicles heading directly towards us. Nope, not scared at all.

As he turned onto a busy street in Old Delhi, time shifted. Gone were wide clean streets with modern cars and traffic lights. Now it was narrow alleys with bumper to bumper tuk tuks and honking pedicabs. Bunches of electrical wires hung off poles and outside building windows like large bird nests. Cows appeared and then were gone. Masses of people mingled with the traffic and with every metre we moved the noise levels increased. This is what I imagined when I thought of Old Delhi.

He found a place to park the bike and led us on foot through dark and narrow alleys that opened up into colorful bustling markets that we would never have discovered on our own. The smells of every imaginable spice filled the air mixed with incense and cow shit. The markets date back hundreds if not thousands of years and there was nothing modern about them. Our driver then did something extraordinary for us.

At the end of one of the markets he walked up a steep staircase and told us to follow. I figured that this was where we would get drugged and sold into slavery. Well Caitlyn into slavery, me who knows what  Up three flights of stairs we came to an open patio. "Look, this is how many people live in India". He was showing us the poverty that spread out before us. Something we would never see from street level. A dose of reality for us. There was never a mention for money to help. It was all about education. We climbed 3 more flights of steep musty concrete steps and reached an open rooftop. There laying around in the not sun were no less than 20 people. Open rooms showed makeshift kitchens and beds. We we greeted not with palms out but with smiles and waves. There we were, foreign tourists standing with the poorest of the poor and they were welcoming us with smiles and waves. "Learn and Understand" was all that was said to us.

I did not feel over whelmed, sad or disgusted. I honestly found myself accepting their reality because our driver did 2 things. He was educating us to the reality of life in India and he never once asked for money.

Our tour with Raj in Rajasthan came to an end as he drove us to the Delhi airport. It was a quick good bye and off he went. The coolest driver we could have ever had.

This 10 days were more than I could have imagined. You can not prepare for India because there is nothing you can prepare for. It smashes you in the face and destroys your senses. So far it shocked me, saddened me, disgusted me, captured my attention and opened my eyes wider than they have ever been before. It has embraced me with kindness, beauty, colours, aromas and genuine smiles. I am constantly off balance keeping alert and alive. My simplest joy here is finding a coffee shop to unwind and stare out at the world around me. No book, no phone, no computer. My eyes meeting the wonderful madness of India

What could possibly happen next?

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