Friday, February 11, 2011

On Safari And In The Forts of Ranthambore National Park

Welcome back, as I write this I am sitting in Goa at Anjuna Beach. With the wedding still fresh in my mind, we have moved on and the good times just keep coming:

We woke up the next morning, I did some exercise (I bought a jump rope in Bangkok!), and had breakfast with Sazzy's uncle. I spent the rest of the morning furiously writing the last blog entry and uploading it, then we caught an hour and a half taxi to the train station. On the modern freeway, one of the few pieces of road without potholes (yet) we passed a massive part of town full of very modern buildings from the current Indian economic boom, this is just one of them. The funny thing about the freeway though, is you can still drive down it at 25 miles an hour in a tractor, haha. Also, the lane lines are not rules, just suggestions.

We got to the train station in Delhi headed for Sawai Madhopur where we were going to Ranthambore National Park and Oberoi Hotel & Resort where Sazzy's cousin works as the head chef at a five-star hotel/restaurant. The train station was slightly confusing and smelled like crap (probably all the crap on the train tracks!) but was nice enough and we had no problems.

The train ride was a blast and was my first time riding a train on this trip. I've been in all manors of cars, trucks, motorcycles, buses and airplanes, so it's fun to add yet another transportation method to the list. On the train ride, we got to see some of the countryside on our way south, including many fields, small towns, local cricket games and of course the sunset. Our tickets were in the Third Class AC Sleeper, the lowest of the AC cars but still giving us all kinds of snack/meal services. A very comfortable way to travel I would say.

When we arrived at Sawai Madhopur, thanks to Sazzy's cousin Deep a driver was waiting at the train station to pick us up and bring us to the Oberoi. On the way I realized how big a deal Ranthambore National Park and the tiger reserve are. Between the train station and the hotel we passed countless other safari vehicles, tons of other hotel/resorts and a few weddings as well. Deep has an apartment at the hotel and was very generous in letting us stay with him, as well as organizing the safari, train and air tickets, rides around the area and a number of fantastic meals.

At 5:30am or so we woke up, got dressed and headed off for our safari in the tiger reserve. We had originally been booked for one of the larger buses, but ended up getting an upgrade to a jeep with just two other people who happened to be from New York.

At the entrance to the park, we had to show our passports and sign a release form saying we would not sue if we were attacked by a tiger or something. Given all the adventures and dangerous activities I've been on during this trip this is probably only the second or third form I've actually had to sign, haha.

Upon entering the park at sunrise we drove through some amazing ruins that were up to 1500 years old we immediately began seeing some amazing wildlife and realizing how special this place is. This is a lousy photo, but these are two very large simbar deer.

One of the most common mammals in the park were the white spotted deer, I'd guess these are a common food source of the tigers that roam the area. On the road we saw some tiger tracks in the dust, and the guides did their best to take us to where they may be, but we never saw a tiger. Oh well, it was still great.

The bird life here was wonderful. Not sure what this one is, but we saw eagles, storks, parrots, egrets, vultures babblers, peacocks and even a very large owl! Like the bird sanctuary we visited a week or so ago, this was another place I'd have loved to visit with Brendan because he would have really loved all the bird life.

This is a crocodile sitting out in the sun with it's mouth open. Wrestling one is on my to do list, and I think I could have taken this one, but I figured the guides wouldn't appreciate it so I stayed in the jeep, haha. Oh, we also saw a mongoose walking along a river below us.

As usual, monkeys were all over the place. They mostly sat in the trees above the road but would run around on the ground in many places, flying through the trees and on a steep cliff. Watching the way they move through the environment really is impressive.

After the safari had ended we returned to the hotel and were greeted by Deep, who as you might expect for the head chef of a five star restaurant is a busy man. In the background you can see the building which his apartment is in, and to the right of the building he has an awesome all organic vegetable garden which we were lucky enough to get to eat from.

We then walked past the elephants and through the massive doors into the hotel courtyard for breakfast. Inside there was a musician playing a flute and mouth harp, and we were treated to a (western style) breakfast of pastries, toast, fruit, juice, eggs, bacon and more. As you would expect from such a place, the food and service was top notch.

In the afternoon we had thought about doing a second safari to see more wildlife and hopefully see a tiger, but decided against it in favor of visiting the absolutely immense hilltop complex of Ranthambore Fort, which is inside the national park. The fort is said to have been built by Maharaja Jayanta in the fifth century and was one of the strongest forts in India, occupied by various rulers until the 1500s. It houses Muslim, Hindi and Janis religious sites which are active to this day.

A view out into the national park from inside of the fort. Truly beautiful land.

On the road up to the fort, Indians came in every manor possible: walking, motorcycles, tractors, jeeps packed so full the drivers hung out the sides, and normal passenger cars. Apparently white people are not as interested, because in the two and a half hours we spent walking the grounds we were the only white people around. Here in India this can cause quite a stir, and people were constantly looking at us and saying hello. When they saw we had cameras they got even more excited, and a few at a time at first, children came up asking us to take their picture. This drew a crowd, and within about a minute and a half we had two dozen people around us getting in groups for us to photograph.

Here I am standing at one of the countless ruins that are inside the forts walls. One thing I find very interesting, and quite different from our western take on historical sites is how Indians treat them. Rather than our typical stance of preservation and cleanliness, at the temple behind me I saw both a woman in a bright red sari take all her styrofoam plates and other garbage and just toss it down the side, and two kids with their pants down taking dumps right at the base of the temple. Many of the areas were also full of graffiti. Granted there is no entrance fee for the fort to pay for maintenance, no garbage cans, nor bathrooms, and granted all these things happen in the west to some extent (though MUCH less) I couldn't help but find it a bit offensive that such an amazing place is treated in such a way. I guess that's just my western sensibilities.

Due to the huge numbers of buildings in the fort, you can easily walk off the main trail and find smaller but often equally amazing ruins that you have all to yourself. It was nice to do this to get away from the constant attention of the locals, haha.

On the opposite side of the fort from where we had come in, we were greeted by this scene. The pond was full of a red marine plant and was being used by both people and monkeys for bathing, we saw this huge section of wall, full of people, monkeys, and dotted with cooking fired and the cliff behind it. On every walkway, women in bright saris provided an amazing splash of color. I've seen a lot of ancient ruins on this trip so far, and this ranks among the best.

As we left this view point an old man came to us and indicated he wanted to show us something. This area is still a very active religious site for the Indian people and sites of worship are hidden all over the place. He took us down this steep and narrow set of stairs under a small building, hundreds of years old, and maybe 20x12 feet wide. The basement was small and very dark. In it we found a man praying, and a small, dirty nook in the wall that contained a statue draped in gold cloth, an oil lamp and a dish for offerings. It was only a tiny little place and a simple gesture of kindness, but it certainly made an impression.

Another interesting thing done here, is that people make little houses out of rocks, and these foot tall structures dot the ground all over the place. We asked someone why they do it, and was told it is to have a big house in the next life. Naturally we made our own, and as Sazzy was working on his, a man walked past and in Hindi said “Build it five stories!!”

A game of cricket on one of the large grassy fields. Like I said, people here treat ancient ruins differently, haha.

The next thing we did was go to Ganesh Temple, the most visited and one dedicated to mice. We bought plates of offerings which contained a pack of incense, a coconut, a necklace of flowers and ludhu, took off our shoes and went inside. Inside we stood in lines made of iron pipes, wrung the bell above our head and handed our offering to the priests who were sitting in the window. There, they blessed the ludhu and gave us the tika as a blessing.

The three of us with our tekas. Naturally, this managed to attract even more attention to us as we walked out. On our way out, around 5pm, we finally saw other westerners for the first time. It was a tour group of 60 year olds.

A row of monkeys, these guys are everywhere.

When we returned to the room, a delicious meal of Thai curry was waiting for us, cooked by Deep. It was a very late lunch, and a group of cooks from the restaurant were in the kitchen preparing us a dinner as well! Due to time, we took the food to go and headed off to the train station.

Thanks again for the hospitality Deep, it was wonderful.

This time we were riding the train overnight all the way to Mumbai. We had only gotten two confirmed seats, but paid for three tickets, and Hunter was sick. He laid in bed feeling terrible, while Sazzy tried to get us a third bed. He ended up offering an old man some 12-year Jameson Whiskey, and in exchange the old man told his helper that was traveling with him to sleep on the floor and give Sazzy his bed!

We arrived in Mumbai which we had just entered as a transportation hub because we were going to fly the rest of the way to Goa and took a taxi to the airport. On the way I got to sew a brief look at one of the biggest cities in the world. It was flat, seemed to sprawl forever, and each place you looked, new sky scrapers were being built. Massive billboards for luxury condos, cars, cloths and even horse racing were everywhere. Among all this was still the same slums, sewer smell and terrible smog that seems to persist in every large city in India.

At the airport we had a three hour wait and Hunter was in pain and starting to sweat. He laid down on the airport floor while Sazzy and I ate left-over five star food. Eventually he ate a few bites of rice and began to feel better which was very good. We got on the plane for what was only a 45 minute or so flight, and arrived in Goa around 4pm. The airport was shared by the military, and on the runway we got to see tons of cool aircraft. I saw transports, communications, dual-rotor helicopters and fighter jets. We even saw one of the fighters landing and pulling it's drag chutes to stop.

When we landed at the airport we didn't even know where we were going to go. We picked Anjuna beach mostly on a whim and took an absorbingly expensive taxi ride to get there. We arrived again with no idea what the place was like and needed to find a room. Sazzy walked around by himself speaking Hindi to the various guest houses to get a better deal, and we ended up with a great room for 700 rupees. We watched the sunset relaxed a bit in the room and then headed out to look around.

This is what people mean when they say “Goa isn't India.” It was controlled by the Portuguese for a very long time, has a large (24%) Christian population, speaks a different language, and is know for it's hippie past and it's beach scene. To be honest it feels very much like the beach scene in Thailand, which of course isn't 'real' Thailand either. This is a reggae bar, down the the beach is an bar playing trance music. We plan on staying here a few days before Sazzy and Hunter leave, Hunter back to the States and Sazzy to Thailand, and I will head out into the wider and 'authentic' India on my own. For now it's a few days of relaxing on the beach and I'm certainly looking forward to it.