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 πŸ™‚

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 πŸ™‚

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 πŸ™‚

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 πŸ™‚

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 πŸ™‚

During the show, we are served canapΓ©s 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 πŸ™‚

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.Β  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.Β  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 πŸ™‚

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.Β  We have one last safari on January 1st, and we really hope to finally see some tigers!

Happy new Year! πŸ™‚