We went from Agra to the Ranthambore National Park. After dropping our bags at the Ranthambore Regency, we met our park guide and driver for an open jeep drive of the national park with hopes of spotting a tiger. The park is a Bengal Tiger preserve and when you drive in it is is like entering the set for the Jungle Book – or more aptly the Jungle Book did a great job on the real Indian tiger environment. The park is huge and only a fraction is open to tourists on guided jeep tours. The portion that is open is divided into ten “jongs” of which you (and several other jeeps) are assigned one to roam around. Our guide was an amazing 17 year veteran of doing this and seemed to know the terrain and its animals like his own family. Because of the territorial nature of the tiger and the size of the jongs, there is one male tiger and potentially two females that cover 2-3 jongs. We quickly realized why the staff at the hotel, our tour guide, and everyone we saw wished us the very best luck in seeing a tiger as if it would be a magical rare occurrence. I have to admit by the end of the jarring three hours of off road driving, my mind toggled between – ‘there probably isn’t any tiger here at all’ and ‘why on earth would a tiger be anywhere near all the roads where the jeep and truck loads of tourists come?’
We saw deer (a lot like our front yard in Ashland), peacocks (we have had two lie on our roof for part of a summer), crocodiles and monkeys (alright, none in Ashland thankfully).
Many tourists do upwards of five three-hour tours and never see the elusive tiger so we didn’t have much hope as we started our second and last jeep tour at 6am the next day. We did get to see the even more rare Sloth Bear, which was cool (but sort of looked like a regular old black bear you would see along the Wild and Scenic stretch of the Rogue River). This time we got assigned jong 3, in the center of the park and home to tiger #91. After driving for about an hour our guide saw a paw print in the dirt road. The tigers have soft paws so they often walk along the road ways (good for them and good for the tourists). Our guide tells the driver to back up… keeping going back…. a bit more… and then he looks behind us and yells “tiger, tiger, tiger, tiger, tiger!” It was awesome.
After breakfast we drove four hours to Pushkar. We stayed at the beautiful Jagat Palace. It was the best part of Pushkar in our opinion. The dining room staff loved Judi and John and they doted on us talking about Donald Trump (even they dislike him) and sharing information about various Indian dishes with us. Our first night there we heard a huge noise next to the hotel with lights and pumping music. We ventured out around to try and investigate but the party was deep inside a building and clearly a wedding so we decided not to crash it. But by sneaking up to the roof top of our hotel we could look down over the walls into the courtyard. It was massive. After seeing this, we asked various people we met about their weddings to learn there are often thousands of people are invited and the ceremonies go on for days. It is hard to see how the cost can be borne by the average Indian family but I guess it all goes around.
Pushkar is a holy city and has a famous temple. It also has a sacred lake where it is believed that Shiva dropped a lotus blossom and the lake sprang forth, which is surrounded by 162 ghats (baths) and at least that many scams and people working to separate you from your rupees. It is all vegetarian and no alcohol. We found the Jagatpita Brahma Mandir temple to be not that impressive and a crush of folks forcing you to move on past the interesting parts. We paid the rupees to have someone watch our shoes; we paid for a guide to tell us a few things; we paid for a locker because our guide insisted we should leave Judi’s bag and any camera but phones were ok (should’ve been a tip off); we were asked for donations at the temple; we were told it is customary to buy something from a market shop after visiting the temple, etc. Then (and this is the part that pissed us off) we were directed to the sacred lake where a Brahma (priest fellow) would bless us and our family and we could donate whatever amount we wanted, if anything, no pressure. As he went through the ritual parts of dabbing dye on our foreheads and tying string on wrists we repeated after him various words we didn’t understand interspersed with, “And this… good fortune… comes with a… donation of… support.” Not once, not twice, but three times. Then they explained that people normally pledge to support the Braman to pay for their meals for one day, two days, maybe a week. I said “one day is good”, to which he replies to Judi and how many days for you? We said we were good with one day together and met his scornful look. So two minutes later we are lead to the donation window where there is a schedule that converts your promise of days of meals to hard rupees. To my offered $20 US, I am told that at todays conversion rate that is not enough to cover our pledge. We left them $40 US – it wasn’t the money it was the whole ugly mix of crass extortion and supposed spiritualism. Our tour owner later was so offended that we had this experience he paid for a wonderful experience at the end of our trip that was one of our favorites so perhaps everything happens for a reason. But if you go, beware of the whole scam.
Pushkar also brought us a much anticipated camel ride. We loved the boys that took us around through the surrounding hillsides but you had to try and look past the sewage, mounds of garbage and amazingly poor people living in make-shift tents. Half way through the adventure the camel “gets tired” and these folks have a variety of goods you can look at. Since we have no interest in buying stuff we would have to carry quickly, three ragged guys in with homemade instruments come over. They play a couple of things and talk about their instrument. I hand the leader 100 rupee (which we understand is pretty standard) to which he replies there are three of them and I should pay each of them. Fine; 100 rupee is about $1.60. Then he sees a few US $1 that I keep as back up for tips if I run out of small rupee bills and he follows up with, “and I would like some of the American paper too.” Fine. Can we leave now. Again, it is not the $6. In fact we left with an overwhelming urge to want to help these people but the crassness of it is hard to handle, but then again, I have never been as poor so we try and check our judgement. It just wears you down. The camel ride itself was one of our favorite things and other then when they stand up, it is a wonderful smooth ride. For moments you are left imagining you are rhythmically moving across the barren desert loaded with goods to trade at the other end of a long journey.
From Pushkar we retraced our path to what would be our favorite Indian city, Jaipor. It is the home of our tour company owner and the owner of Ele-fantastic. Rahul is the owner of both Indian Destination Experts (our life saving tour operator) and Ele-fantastic. He is the fifth generation of elephant trainers / owners. The company is fantastic. The treatment of the elephants is wonderful. I took to an elephant that they are still rehabilitating and he showed me how they make a special diet for her every day to bring up her weight and the treatment to help her feet. We loved feeding, painting on, washing and riding these beautifully gentle creatures. They have the maximum the government allows (22 females and 2 males) and the majority of them have been born at their farm. Each elephant has a trainer and the farm has many compound buildings in pods of four where the trainer and his family lives together with the elephant. They are with the elephant everyday, Rahul explained. The farm is the only spotless, high functioning, wonderful service thing we experienced in India outside of a western catering hotel. It was the gem of Jaipor for us.
Rahul provided Mr. BK to us as our Jaipor guide, a personal friend of his and trainer of most of the other guides in Jaipor. He took us to the famous Monkey temple on Friday (which is a day of the money) and brought us to the local monkey whisperer. This guy seemed to know the monkeys almost by name and knew their behavior and patterns. It ended up being the best temple experience we had.
Our time at the City Palace and the Amber Fort was also wonderful, with Mr. BK to navigate how to buy tickets (getting us a student discount), where to take pictures and how to avoid the security guards asking if we wanted help taking our picture.
Also part of our mission to India was buying Kate a saree. Mr. BK took us to the wonderful Heritage textile shop where it was high quality and we would not have to bargain because of Rahul and BK’s influence. The experience was exactly what we wanted. Kate decided on her material, John and I ordered shirts after picking out fabric and Judi bought a wrap. They tailor the saree downstairs and it would be delivered to Rahul’s home where we were staying in two hours. It was a great experience for us. Saree was $110 and the rest was $70 total which we thought was great.
After hearing about our Pushkar experience, Rahul arranged for us to visit local villages and a local school as part of the Amer Jeep Safari tour. We had seen plenty of animals so we skipped that part and just visited real Indian people. Our guide Marteen spoke wonderful english, Khan our driver was young and fun, and they provided a cooler full of drinks, snacks and chocolate. It is owned by Rahul’s childhood friend Waseem Pathan (see the theme?). They brought pencils and candies for us to give to the school kids and we were treated like visiting rock stars. We left feeling passionate love for the children of India. Waseem and his french-born wife provided lunch for us in their home and shared pictures and stories of their wedding. Afterwards, Rahul arranged for Kahn (our safari driver) to drive us into the old city market area and just walk along with us so that Kate could shop for a little bit of bling to bring home.
We will post one more India story about our stay in Rahul’s home. From Jaipor, our constant companion Indu, our driver, took us the five hours back to Delhi and the safety of the Raddison Blu hotel. We had a wonderful buffet dinner of Indian foods and got a wonderful night of rest (once the hotel staff came and made up the sofa for the kids) so that we could be up at 4am to catch our 8:00am flight to Bhutan.