India Holiday – Day 17: Tigers, Trains and Agra

They say that doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity.

It certainly feels insane to me that we – after 3 safaris with no tigers – choose to set the alarm clock for 05:30 on January 1st, in order to try it one last time. When it actually goes off after just 5 hours of sleep, it feels no less insane. Happy New Year.

We are as ready as it’s possible to be at 06:15 and trudge over to the outdoor waiting area to get a cup of coffee and a biscuit before leaving. It’s cold, very cold; perhaps 4C, and very, very hazy. Any tigers that come our way will have to be less than 20 meters away or they’ll be invisible. And our jeep persists in not turning up at 06:30, nor at 06:45, nor at 07:00. What does finally turn up at 7 is a canter – a big 20-seater that we have so far avoided, being favoured with the smaller, nimbler and more comfortable jeep.

We seriously consider going back to bed at this point. We’re tired and cold already, and if it wasn’t for the fact that we are well under way to pick up more passengers when the guide tells us that we’re going to Sector 5 – where nobody saw any tigers yesterday – we are not impressed. He explains that the selection of sector is done by computer, implying that since a computer is involved, the selection is flawless. I am sceptical.

The amount of leg room in the jeep was a problem; it was hard for me to sit comfortably and I ended up sitting behind with my a knee on either side of the driver’s seat. On the canter, the legroom available is if anything worse and the only seat I can use is in the middle seat of the back row. It does not seem to offer any advantages other than legroom, but at least I now fit in the vehicle 🙂

As the canter fills up, it soon becomes clear that I am the only “gora” (white person) onboard – everyone else is Indian. I don’t mind, but I’m fairly certain we are not going to see any tigers and seriously consider ways to get back to my warm, comfortable bed to sleep for a few more hours rather than endure more cold, bumpy roads.

Mamta is no less cold and reminds me it’s worth staying positive so I put on my happy face and hope for the best.

We drive for about 45 minutes into the park, along roads that are familiar from the day before, and see very little other than hazy landscape and more Samber deer. I just wish it would be over soon, frankly.

Then – in a flash – everything changes. A jeep in front of us is stopped and someone says “There!” – and there it is indeed, right next to the road: A Royal Bengal Tiger in all her glory. Everybody rushes to the side of the canter, standing up to take photos, pointing and smiling.

The guide immediately tries to ushers me to a favourable position in front – I guess he knows on which side his bread is buttered – but I am so tall that if I stand up it doesn’t really matter where I am and I don’t want to block everyone else’s view 🙂

The tiger moves along slowly, limping, and clearly has a severe injury on her front left leg or paw. Why she comes so close to the road and us I don’t know, but it offers us a minute or two of time where she is in view, and I snap several photos.

The tiger we see is a fairly recent mum with 3 cubs, and the theory is that she has been fighting a male tiger over one of the cubs – which is male. Male tigers will readily kill any other male tiger to eliminate competition for the females, even their own offspring. It’s a tough world out there.

We spend the rest of the time waiting for the tiger to reappear (she doesn’t) and then on driving slowly back towards the gate following some male tiger marks, but we don’t see any more tigers. One was enough though; our spirits are immeasurably higher now than before.

Apparently, seeing a tiger is good luck, and we choose to take the timing as a sign that 2013 will be a lucky year for the Mertner family 🙂

Having been on four safaris, I can also reveal the pattern they all seem to follow: First, the guide suggests that the safari focuses just on tigers, ignoring smaller game. Then he spots tiger prints or hears a noise or something, and a hectic, lengthy chase follows. And then, if no tiger is seen, the rest of the safari is spent looking at smaller game, without acknowledging that the “tiger focus” is off. Seems to work 🙂

Back at the hotel, we quickly grab breakfast and rush out the door as we need to make sure we don’t miss our train scheduled for a 12:30 departure: We are going to Bharatpur by train where we meet our driver and then drive from there to Agra.

The station is full of interesting people, from the old man chewing something to the “cleaning lady” that ineffectually sweeps the platform and the businessman crossing the tracks between platforms with his briefcase, and of course – this being India – many, many more. As the train turns out to be 25 minutes late, we have plenty of time to observe.

The train is the longest I have ever seen; the platform is 1km long, and the train fills all of it! It stops slowly and stays stationary for just a minute or two, so it’s important to be in the right area before the train arrives if you want to avoid boarding the train after it has started leaving again – something that looks very common. Fortunately, it takes a little while for such a long train to get up to speed!

We are in a 1st class sleeper carriage that is spacious and clean but has seen a lot of heavy use and is clearly not of recent manufacture. Sadly, the windows are filthy, making it impossible to take any photos while on the move – it makes me very happy with the choice of driving everywhere as it’s so interesting to see what is happening along the road.

After the attendant makes the bed for Mamta, she decides to nap, while Iain plays an iPad game and I write the post for yesterday, only just finishing as we arrive in Bharatpur. A pleasant 3-hour train ride – definitely not a bad way to travel, if only the windows were in good shape!

Bharatpur is a major railway junction and the station is incredibly busy, heaving with crowds that have made themselves at home on the platforms, between the tracks and even on the tracks in some cases. We are convinced to take a porter – a good thing as the walk along the platform to the car turns out to be 2km! The porter whizzes our heavy suitcase onto his head and motors away at high speed while talking on his cellphone and navigating the crowds. It’s a mad, mad, crazy country.

Mr Prakash then takes us to Fatehpur Sikri – a huge abandoned palace on the way to Agra. Our guide is frantic with worry as we get there just 2 minutes before they close the gates, but we make it inside and it’s well worth it.

The palace was built by the Mughal emperor Akbar in the late 1500s and was abandoned just 3 years after it was complete, because of a lack of drinking water in the vicinity. It’s very well preserved and has a lot of interesting features – for example, Akbar married 3 wives, one Christian, one Hindu and one Muslim (to keep the peace) and built each of them a palace inside the palace, each more lavish than the other.

It’s 6pm by the time we finish at the palace, the sun has gone down, it’s cold, it’s hazy/smoggy again, and we’re now both tired and hungry – breakfast was a long time ago! Agra is only 35km away though, and our hotel is the swanky Oberoi Amarvilas hotel so we decide to wait until we arrive and then have dinner in style there.

Night driving in India is not my favourite, but it was this evening that I discovered that night parking isn’t great either. One our way to Agra, a gridlock that would impress even Parisians on a bad day held us virtually stationary for more than 2 hours before we finally got through the choke point and could get going.

Agra is extremely foggy as expected but the Oberoi looks fantastic when we finally arrive at around 9:30, and we dive straight into the restaurant to get filled up and then crash into bed, exhausted but happy. What a day.

Tomorrow, it’s time to see the Taj Mahal, and we don’t start until 10am. Bliss.

India Holiday – Day 16: Ranthambore and New Year

Our hotel is only 1km from the busy train station and intersection at Sawai Madhopur where we tomorrow will take the train towards Agra, and this is evident from the number of trains that stop or pass through there. In true India driving style, every train hoots when it approaches the station, and some of them seem to keep it going until they have passed through, presumably to let people and livestock know to get off the track. (Not that it’s too dissimilar from home – we get the same when trains pass Acton Yard!)

We are woken at 5:30am to a particularly long and loud HOOOOOOOOOOOT, and as the alarm clock is set for just 15 minutes later, we roll out of bed to prepare for our second safari. It’s true: it really does get cold in winter, even in India. It’s no more than 5C outside and we cover ourselves in multiple layers, scarves and blankets and climb onto our jeep after a quick cup of tea. The drive to the park itself is particularly cold, as wind chill makes itself felt through all the layers. Brr.

It’s a great morning: the haze is less thick than usual, the guide is helpful, friendly and thorough, and the landscape through which we drive is mesmerisingly beautiful with everything from rugged cliffs and narrow ledges in mountainous areas to fairly dense forest in the lowlands, surrounding both natural and artificial watering holes and small lakes. There are also several dried-out rivers that we bumpily drive across, and we enjoy the sunrise and the rich colours of the morning landscape in spite of deep-frozen feet, hands and noses.

However much we enjoy the rest of it, we do not see any tigers and return to the hotel at 10:30 to get breakfast, to get warm, and to get a much-needed catch-up nap. It’s hard work to stay alert on a 4 hour safari, trying to hold onto everything through a cold and very bumpy ride, but we all agree it’s a huge amount of fun and want to do it again 🙂

For our afternoon safari starting at 2pm, the guide and jeep driver are really engaging and promise us that Sector 5 – our destination – is full of tigers today, including a mum with 3 cubs. I up the ante by promising them that I’ll give them 1,000 Rs for each tiger we see, and that really gets their attention!

Once again we are struck by how beautiful the nature is, even though it can hardly be called unspoilt. The “core” area of the park is off limits to tourists, and if I was a tiger that is where I’d hide most of the time too I think; some of the dirt roads are so much used that all of the trees and leaves in a radius of several meters are completely covered in a thick layer of the same fine, red dust that also starts covering cameras, shoes and of course cars.

We see lots of wildlife and take lots of pictures that I hope will be good for the album. Spotted deer are common and dot the landscape, and the shortsighted Samber deer that make up most of the tigers’ diet are also present in many places, chewing leisurely.

Just after we enter the park, the guide spots a series of very fresh paw prints that look very tiger-like to me, and we set off following them. A tiger has clearly walked on the road recently, and we follow the prints through several branches of the road network; the excitement of the hunt is definitely real – it feels like there may actually be tigers in the park after all, and perhaps we are about to get lucky!

Other than paw prints, the main way to find a tiger is to listen for the warning calls the animals make when they spot a tiger, so we stop and listen for such calls several times. The guides are not carrying walkie-talkies so any coordinated search is out of the question – the main information sharing happens when drivers meet on the road and tell each other what they have or have not found. Odd, I think.

There are also lots of monkeys in the park, usually hanging out in groups of 10-20, sitting either in the treetops (particularly if they think a tiger is close!) or on the ground, grooming each other. The tigers don’t like the monkeys much: they are fast, and can run to the top of trees where tigers can’t get – and they also have an excellent sight. When they spot a tiger, they emit a characteristic sound that the other animals also listen out for. It’s hard to be a tiger here – they want to be sure their attack works and so don’t attack their prey when they are no more than 20 meters away from it. This means that most of the time they sit very still in a hidden position, waiting for prey to get close before pouncing.

We do hear both the Samber and the monkeys issuing warning calls, and continue our mad dash towards where we think the tiger is, lose the trail, pick up the trail again, but in the end do not manage to find one. Perhaps it’s watching us, but we can’t see it…

The main piece of excitement came when I spotted something running fast and shouted “There! Over there!” loudly, only to discover it was not a tiger nor a chase, but just a spotted deer in a hurry. Iain claims his heart stopped for several beats, and Mamta and Iain both spent much time ridiculing me by pointing out other “exciting” finds in breathless voices. I deserved it 🙂

Towards the end of our time slot, the guide and driver try several unusual things to get that elusive tiger into our sights. First, they let much of the air out of the tires to allow us to cross even bumpier ground than usual, to get us to some secluded spots where the tigers sometimes hang out. Then, they change the number plate of the jeep to Sector 4 – each jeep has to stick to one sector or risk a big fine or a ban, so they look quite furtive doing this. And finally, they take us up a very steep and rocky “road” close to a steep cliff in Sector 4, at the top of which we have an excellent view over a large area – we really ought to be able to spot a tiger from here.

The jeep gets quite close to the edge a couple of times, and none of us a really comfortable with it; seeing a tiger is not worth risking our lives over! Iain sums it up when he says “I am NOT enjoying this anymore!”, and I wonder if I should have promised them a smaller incentive after all 🙂

Alas, even with desperate measures we have no luck and head back to the hotel just as the sun sets and it once again starts getting cold. The trip was not at all wasted though, as we also see loads of birds – peacocks, owls, and kinds I don’t recognise – as well as several large crocodiles laying in wait either in the water or on rocks.

Ranthambore Park is not completely closed off, and in the night it is common for the tigers to venture outside where they can be seen on roads and in the surrounding countryside. Villagers don’t tend to like this for obvious reasons, but our driver tells us that he’ll keep an eye out for them and give us a call and pick us up if he spots one – anything to win that 1,000 Rs prize!

At the hotel, preparations for New Year’s Eve are under way, and we look forward to trying another festival in Indian Style. Once again it’s all outside: strange, since it gets quite cold in the evening and Indians consider anything less than 25C pretty cold, so we decide to stay in our safari gear (including blankets!) to not risk getting too cold during the party 🙂

It starts off with a show that involves music, singing and a dance troupe exhibiting several of the usual Indian styles of show dancing: belly dancing, formation dancing with pots of fire on the head, and dancing with a huge stack of pots on the head. There even is a pretty convincing fire eater, and we are having fun. (Iain is reading Catching Fire and can’t put it down, so misses most of the show – I can recognize myself as a kid here quite clearly, except that we did not have any e-book readers then 🙂

During the show, we are served canapés in the form of various tandoori snacks, and they are served by so many waiters that we quickly fill up. There are vegetable skewers, mushroom thingies, fish cakes, prawns, chicken, and much more. There also is an ample supply of the Sula brand of Indian wine we have come to like, and we finally sit back and relax, enjoying the show and the wine.

We get talking to a jewish couple who live in New York, and they tell us that they cannot eat most of the food as it’s not “kosher”. They describe themselves as “conservative jews”, which means that they adhere strictly to scripture, just not quite as strictly as the even stricter “orthodox jews”.

The way in which they interpret the commandments and the seriousness with which they treat them is interesting to me; fortunately I manage to mostly hold my tongue and just listen as Mamta discusses and questions them about how the old rules are applied to modern living. If I had said something, it could easily have led to a big argument I think, so I’m glad I stayed quiet 🙂

One example they gave is that there is a clear commandment to rest on the Sabbath, which includes a command to not make “new fire” but only make use of existing fire. That makes sense to me: it was probably quite a chore to make fire back in the day, and the rule encourages proper preparation the day before rest day so it really van be restful. However, the question of how this applies to electricity arose as it’s kind of a “modern fire”. After much deliberation, the rabbis eventually decided that closing an electrical circuit is equivalent to creating something new, i.e. “new fire”, and therefore is forbidden on the Sabbath. As a result, elevators in high rises where orthodox jews live stop on every floor so no button needs to be pressed, for example.  Talk about taking an ancient rule about fire to the extreme!

Another example is the old rule that “you must not cook a goat in its mother’s milk”, which is taken to the rather large conclusion that dairy must never under any circumstances be mixed with meat. Consequently, jews have separate jars and utensils for dealing with dairy and meat, and a dish like a cheese burger is completely out of the question. Again, feels rather extreme to me, but it’s their life, so hey.

Many of the jewish traditions seem quite similar to Eastern ones, such as Hinduism, and it’s easy to spot similarities that hint at a common origin in the cultural or environmental circumstances behind them. When Mamta points out a couple of these, it doesn’t seem to resonate though; it’s not a topic we pursue either.

Reaffirmed in our knowledge that conversion to jewdom isn’t for us, we head off to get dinner, thankful that the only restrictions we have on our diet are ones dictated by either our palates or by our own moral code.  Dinner consist of a lavish spread of mainly Indian dishes (although many are confusingly given western names), and the ones I sample are all delicious, including the barfi and many ice cream I have for dessert.

The tables laden with food are decorated in a special and unique way: several large vegetables and fruits are intricately carved or sculpted and in many cases lit from the inside, making for a festive and interesting display. I hope the pictures turn out well.

There are also fireworks that are set off all throughout the evening, at irregular intervals. The fireworks are large and impressive – every time one is set off, it sounds like a large bomb just exploded next door, so we are not likely to miss them when they go off in the sky 🙂

We round off the evening with a dance at the disco set up in the hotel’s conference facilities, and it’s a fun mix of old Indian pop hits and new entries like Psy’s Gangnam Style that see us rocking into the new year. We can do horse-dancing as well as anyone!

With 2012 sent off properly, we crawl into bed and set the alarm for 5:30 again.  We have one last safari on January 1st, and we really hope to finally see some tigers!

Happy new Year! 🙂

India Holiday – Day 15: Ranthambore

There is so much poverty on display in India it is hard to fathom, while also considering that some are very wealthy. According to the OECD, income inequality has grown in the last 20 years: today, the top 10% make an average of 12 times as much as the bottom 10% do.

Of India’s 1.2 billion people, 65% live below the poverty limit, a staggering figure, particularly when you think about what the criteria is: 66.1 Rupees per day in cities, or 35.1 Rupees per day in rural regions. The higher figure translates to £0.76 per day, or around £277 per year – and 2/3 of India’s vast population does not meet this meagre “survival” threshold. It is definitely not a “comfort” threshold!

To put the number in perspective, an employee at a good hotel in a rural area (like the Shapura Bagh we just left) will have a salary around 3,000 Rupees per month (100 Rs per day) and at a super hotel like the Taj Lake Palace, the salary may be 3-4 times higher, at perhaps 10,000 Rs/month.

Even a salaried employee must therefore depend a lot on additiona income such as tips received from guests like us to support themselves, let alone a family. It puts into perspective the impact decisions on how much to tip must have – whether 50, 100 or 500, it really matters to the recipient.

I ask our driver Mr Prakash about his tips too, and he just smiles and says it’s a bit like gambling for him – sometimes you’re unlucky, sometimes you are more lucky, such is life. How hard must financial planning be in such circumstances?

I am convinced that a major thing that holds back India’s progress and furthers inequality is corruption. It is pervasive as every time you need to interact with or get a service from the government, a bribe is necessary to make things happen. A few examples give a taste of just how pervasive it is:

  • When you need to pay car road tax of perhaps 500Rs, the form is just not processed if you don’t also pay a bribe of 100Rs.
  • If you go to a public school, most teachers run “private tutoring” sessions afterwards. Students that don’t pay for those simply don’t get high marks.
  • If you go to a government hospital, there is no guarantee that you will see a doctor or a nurse or get medicine if you don’t pay to get it. Hospital-employed doctors also run private clinics to supplement their income, and encourage patients to use them.
  • If your electricity or water supply doesn’t work, complaining doesn’t help – only money does.
  • If you are stopped for a traffic offence (speeding, polluting, no lights), you are almost always given a choice of “ticket or money now”.

I have asked several people for examples like these and asked if it’s really all the time or just sometimes. One of them summarised it like this: “Donations are definitely compulsory, not optional”.

The above can explain why teachers and doctors are “absent from their workplace” for as much as 40% of the time: they are simply busy making money elsewhere. And because those government jobs are so desirable because they pay well, often come with a place to live, and are hard to lose, they are very expensive to get too: you can only be considered for an opening if you have enough money to pay the right people enough of a bribe.

To my mind, the whole system is rotten from top to bottom, and is a big impediment to things getting better in India. Once again I must plug the book Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which in spite of the odd title gives a great if occasionally depressing glimpse into corruption and its effect on social mobility.

Privatisation seems to be the only option for getting rid of corruption: you can’t typically bribe employees of a private company and complaints have a noticeable impact. In areas where utilities have been privatised for example, service is now much, much better. Can you privatise teaching? Traffic enforcement? The police? What else? Government itself?

As you can perhaps tell, I am feeling better today 🙂 After a bumpy ride, we do arrive safely at Ranthambore and start by packing what we need for the next few days into a single suitcase: when we leave here, it will be by train to Agra, where our driver will meet us with the rest of the luggage and we want to minimize what we need to take on the train.

After a brief lunch, we start the first of several safaris or “Game Drive” tours we have booked – we’re off to the reservation to go Tiger Spotting as Ranthambore is home to the Royal Bengal Tiger! Today’s trip is in an open-top Jeep-like car and we are joined by a couple from Germany/Belgium. They went on a trip this morning and are hoping for better luck this time…

The park is around 400 square km and is divided into 9 sectors that each have a few tigers and where strict limits on the number of cars entering are enforced, to make sure the area does not get overrun by tourists.

At least that is what we are told by the guide – I wish had a TransIndus one, but instead we got one from the hotel. As we approach the park, we are told we have to also have a guide from the park itself even though the jeep clearly doesn’t have room for him, but are told “it’s compulsory!” It amazes me that some silly rules appear unbreakable, whereas other more important ones are broken with impunity…

Our “official park guide” thus ends up wedged between the driver and the hotel guide on the front seats, half on top of the gear stick. He ends up saying exactly nothing during the tour, so I’m not sure what value he was meant to add, but given how many Indians it’s normally possible to pack into a jeep it’s probably ok 🙂

I am happy that we got a Jeep: the other way to enter the park is on a “Canter”, which is a much larger 20-seater. In such a vehicle, some of the narrow winding trails are inaccessible and it is surely impossible to hear what the guide might say if you are not in the first couple of rows.

We enter the park’s Sector 7 and drive around for a couple of hours, occasionally pausing to listen for animal sounds or warning cries to help spot tigers or leopards, but sadly hear nothing of the sort. It’s not quite what I expected: the park has a public road running through it, and most of the time we can hear the usual India noises: car horns, lorry horns and throaty engines. Sigh.

The park is also not quite the unspoilt nature we were hoping for; there are people waling around on foot on the well-worn tracks, and there are even people living inside houses and a small farm inside the park!

We don’t see any tigers, nor much sign of any other animals, sadly. A couple of gazelles and antelopes is the only slightly exotic wildlife – and although we do see cows, monkeys and peacocks as well, we see more equally disappointed tourists than we see animals 🙁

We’re booked for another tour tomorrow morning at 6:39, and we’ll go for that, hoping it’s better in the morning. Are we being stupidly naive, or tenacious and persistent? Time will tell; tune in tomorrow for an update that hopefully has better news 🙂