Saturday, May 21, 2016

India update: monkeys and deer and TIGERS, oh my!

Days 5 and 6

The heat continues - it is around 116 degrees Farenheit each day.  We have never in our lives experienced this kind of heat, but the locals consider it normal for this time of year.  It is breaking 100 year records, but they are still outside hauling bricks on their heads, pullings weeds, and doing mason work.  In fact, they still serve you HOT CHAI, which of course, you drink, because it is offered!  (Also, because even if they offered you "iced chai" (is there such a thing??) you couldn't accept it because weak immuned Westerners need to avoid all tap water, including ice, lest they come down with a case of "Delhi Belly"... 

We took a train from Agra to the train to Sawai Madhopur.  This was not a super fast brand new train like the one we took before, but a "normal" train.  Well, normal except that our car had some semblance of cooling (not what we would really call "air conditioning" in the USA but it did the trick and trust me, we were MUCH more comfortably cool than the people riding in the other cars.  We were met by our guide, taken to the hotel, and told to be ready at 5:45 am the next morning for the first of 3 safaris we had signed up for!  This is a part of the trip I was really looking forward to - looking for LIONS in Ranthambore Park!! 

Before I get to the safaris, let me explain a little bit about the area and the hotel.  Ranthambore Park used to beinhabited by villagers, but when the Indian government decided that they should be more ecologically conscious and save the wild animals from being hunted, they moved all humans out of the park and resettled them into "town".  They also had to teach them skills of interacting with others (because they had been very isolated), educate them, and train them in skills that could help them survive.  When they had lived in the park they existed only on things they could find and make there.  After being resettled, many were trained by NGOs that came in to be ARTISTS.  They have little shops set up around the town to display their wares, some of which are really impressive!  I had read about a womens' artist collective online before we went and it was one place I knew I wanted to visit, so we asked our guide to take us there.  Instead, he took us (without asking...) to a DIFFERENT collective (probably because he would get a bigger cut of whatever we bought at that shop).  Anyway, like the rest of the trip has been for us, it was not about buying the perfect item, it was about having a fun experience, and that we did.  We were the only people at the shop and they ROLLED OUT THE RED CARPET for us (not literally, but if they had had a red carpet I am sure they would have busted that thing out!).  They greeted us as if we were the Kind and Queen of South Arlington and proceeded to pull out loads and loads of paintings for us and lay them on the ground to be admired.  The technique of "unfold everything, take it out of any packaging, lay it in front of the Westerners" works to make me feel guilty for them having "gone to so much trouble" - it has their desired effect of making you feel you should buy SOMETHING...  When we stepped into the other room and bangles, bits, and baubles were placed before us, as well as when they plopped this colorful turban on David's head and this scarf on me and asked if they could use our camera to take a photo for us.  Haha.  (Note:  David rather liked the idea of having a turban, but really, where does one wear one nowadays in DC?  He more likes the idea of learning to TIE turbans on.)  The main man at the shop was an artist who paints tiger paintings using "stone colors" - instead of paint he uses ground up stones to proudce the shades he needs.  The paint brushes are made from "squirrel tail hairs" (what we call chipmunks they call squirrels).  He was proud to tell us that he is now FAMOUS because of his art ("Chelsea Clinton bought my painting!  See??  See - this photo!!  Chelsea Clinton!!").  And indeed he IS famous, 3 of his pieces hung in the hallway of our hotel.  :)  We did NOT come home with a huge tiger painting, but we did get a couple of baubles (though not the bed cover they had hoped we would go for, nor a PASHMINA SCARF which I could barely even suffer trying ON when he put it over my shoulders due to the heat, let alone BUY...).  And while I perused the shop, David entertained some of the men and a boy with some banter and a card trick.  Needless to say, David loved that part.

This felt VERY strange to me - appropriation of culture - not very PC...  But of course the shop people dressed us up this way, not by our choice, and said "Picture, picture!".  I am guessing they sell many a turban this way to tourists  :)
Our hotel in Ranthambore was really nice.  There was a great pool in the middle of the courtyard that was pretty much BODY TEMPERATURE due to all of the hot weather.  But when it is 116 degrees out, even a pool of 98 degrees feels refreshing!  It was fun to splash around in, especially in the evenings, though the local BATS also enjoyed flying around and dipping into the pool at that time.  At first that scared me, but I got braver.  The whole hotel resort complex was practically deserted due to it being the off season (ummm, have I mentioned the HEAT?  Plus monsoon season starts in around 2 weeks and EVERYTHING in the Ranthambore area will close for three months.  But for some reason the hotel still had a full staff working, so men in uniforms stood around everywhere wanting to wait on us.  :)  All meals were included (buffet) and you could barely set your fork down on the table without someone running up and asking if you needed more naan, some juice, chai, etc.  It was sweet. 

Now - THE SAFARIS!!  We had signed up for 3, because everyone said that if you really want to see a tiger, you need to do multiple trips.  If you only budget time (or money) for one safari, then don't see a tiger, you could be disappointed.  Well, in for a penny, in for a pound (and really wanting to see a TIGER!) we registerd for 3  safaris - two early morning outtings and one afternoon outting.  The morning ones leave the hotel at 6:00 am.  Normally we are not morning people, but because we have been doing so much in the hot weather we have been going to be early and sleeping well, so we hopped out of bed ready to go bright and early for the safari! 

Intrepid Safari Tourists :)
We booked "shared" safaris, meaning we would be in a big, open Army Jeep-like vehicle that seats 20.  The first safari it was all Indian tourists except us and one other English speaking pair.  They treated us like ROYALTY.  I expect this is because we had paid (through the travel agent) far more than anyone else on board (and probably over "manufacturer's suggested retail price" :) ).  In any event, when the Jeep pulled up to pick us up it was already full of Indian tourists, but the guide said he had saved the BEST SEATS for us.  Awk-ward... 

He let me choose between the seats way up front behind the wind screen or the front row, and I picked the front row. When we stopped to pick up the last people (the only other English speakers) I imagine he told themt he same line I had been given as he walked them to the Jeep - "I saved the BEST seats for you!".  But as we took off on our adventure, it did feel very segregated and a bit classist - THIS is the white person section, and THIS back here is the brown person section...
The guide was very good and explained a lot, but he talked almost exclusively in ENGLISH when the vast majority of the vehicle spoke Hindi as a natiive language (and some may not have understood the English).  This also made me feel uncomfortable.  Maybe it is because of my work as an interpreter, but I was keenly aware of the inaccessiblity of the information to some of the people in the group. 

David's goofy hat from REI, which he almost didn't buy because, well, it looks ridiculous,
has turned out to be PERFECT for this scorching sun and heat. 
One of the things he said when we started our bumpy ride into the park was, "Oh, and ignore the monkeys and the peacocks, we have pleeeeeeeeeeenty of those!".  Of course, I was almost as excited to see THOSE things in the wild as I was to see tigers, but I tried to take his advice and focus on the tiger "hunting", expecting that he meant that he would at some point make time for us to stop and stare at the grandeur of the peacocks and gawk at the monkeys.  Wrongo!  Peacocks are to India like squirrels are to America - run of the mill and certainly not worth taking photos of.  Same goes for monkeys.  Drat!  But note to self:  glad we booked 3 safaris so that I knew to focus on peacocks and monkeys on the next one!!

Our morning session DID yield the big prize - WE SAW A TIGER.  It was very cool!  They are much, much better camoflauged than this city girl ever imagined - they blend right into the scenery.  From my "movie-fied" idea of tigers I thought they would stand right out with their orange and black stripes, but nope, they blend into the environment really well.  The guides spot them because they know areas they tend to hang out in at certain times of the day (it's a really big park), they know what the tigers have been doing lately (there are 56 tigers total - so knowing who ate recently, etc helps, the tigers are not tagged or set up with electronic monitoring of any type), and they listen for the alarm calls of the sambah deer.  We got to hear those calls - it is a great alarm system!  When a sambah deer spots a tiger in the area, they let out this very loud, almost bark-like sound which tells all of the other animals in the area to steer clear!!  As soon as one of those alarm calls goes off all Safari Jeeps rush to the area to sit patiently with their guests and watch.  We were lucky enough to get to watch a male tiger in the grass, who then got up and laid in a lake!  He drank a lot of water and, as the guide explained to David, used his thick coat to SOAK UP a lot of water to help keep him cool as it evaporated later in the day.  Ingenious, eh??  We got to watch him make his way up a rocky cliff, too.  Spectacular!!

Aren't the eyes GORGEOUS??

Resting in the water

Such a BEAUTIFUL animal

And check out those TEETH!

We also saw sambah deer and white spotted deer, peacocks, monkeys, some amazing birds, and an antelope!!

Antelope in the wild

We went back to the hotel, showered, ate breakfast, swam, and then HEADED OUT FOR SAFARI NUMBER 2!  That one left at 3:30 pm...  Yes, during the hot, hot afternoon.  Honestly, I was a bit scared of going on that one, I was afraid I might get sick from overheating again.  But we slathered on sunscreen (again), stocked up on four big bottles of water, and headed out!!

Everything was dry and brown - the monsoon season will start in a couple of weeks and bring GREEN
AND WE SAW 2 TIGERS!!!!  One was difficult to see through the brush, but the other one was lovely!  And during that trip I was careful to take some monkey and peacock photos (but it was funny that I couldn't get a peacock with his tail UP until the end, and then he was standing "the wrong way".  I shot anyway, and am pleased with the result, because I now realize that THIS SIDE of the peacock is under appreciated!!!  I had no idea what a peacock looked like from behind, did you?
Because we stayed in the park so long watching tigers, our naturalist and driver were worried they were going to get slapped with a FINE for exiting late, so they put the petal to the metal on our old huge Jeep with very crappy shocks.  This meant the trip was even BUMPIER than ever, and because 3 other Jeeps were in the same trouble as us, it meant a 4 Jeep convoy racing through a forest on extremely narrow, rock filled, VERY BUMPY dirt roads.  Even the locals on our Jeep were scared!!  One local guy got into an argument with the driver over the excessive speed, and the driver stopped, turned to the man, and said (in Hindi), "FINE - DO YOU WANT TO PAY THE FINE THEN??".  We "ate the red dust" of the Jeep ahead of us for much of the bumpy, fast drive back.

Tiger out in his habitat

Taking a snooze

See how well camouflaged they are???  It is hard to spot them at first
We made friends with two little boys who sat behind us for that trip.  They were around 9 or 10 years old, had been studying English in school and were eager to try it out. One was especially sweet and would sometimes "interpret" little blips for me, like, "Maam, he said sit down and be careful now."  :)  They also told us that the deep cuts we saw in a tree trunk were TIGER MARKINGS, a way for tigers to mark their territories.  The fact that they giggled as soon as we turned around after that explanation made us think they were punking us, but the naturalist later taught us the same thing so we knew it was true.  After spending over 3 hours together, when we were near the end of the safari, one boy leaned up to me and whispered, "Ma'am?  Ma'am?  Yours eyes are blue since BIRTH??".  I wonder how long those boys had been discussing this issue in Hindi right behind my back before he got up the guts to ask me.  Here all of this time I thought people were staring at me just because my skin was white, my hair was lighter, and my clothes were "funny" to them.  I hadn't even thought about the fact that my eyes are not a color they have seen before, except in photos or movies.  I don't even consider eye color when I took at people, because people I typcially interact with in my country have such a wide variety of eye colors that I do not even notice it.  But not here, not in this land of dark skin and dark eyes.  "Yes, yes, my eyes are blue since birth..."

A tiger has marked his territory.  The claw cuts were VERY deep in the bark and BIG
Our final safari was another early morning one and was successful again! This time we watched a tiger sleeping.  He was cute, we could see his chest move when he breathed, and anytime he rolled over or made some other grand gesture everyone in our Jeep and the 3 or 4 parked with us gasped with excitement!!  Then the tiger would fall right back to sleep - zzzzzz.  He had a great trick of putting his big paw up on a tree while he slept.  That reminded me of when I sleep with my arm over my head.  I wonder if the tiger's arm ever falls asleep while he naps like mine does??
Peacock from BEHIND - who knew they are still amazingly intricate and beautiful from behind??
Sambah deer - a tiger's favorite meal...

Monkey baby with maama

That last safari had a very rich family on board.  They were the last to be picked up in our Jeep and everyone knew before they even walked out of their very posh, polished hotel that someone rich was coming.  Indeed they were, rich parents with 2 spoiled rich kids.  Their hotel loaded a special cooler of water and juice (just for them, of course!) onto the Jeep and handed them green surgical masks to cover their delicate, rich faces from the dirt.  The woman wore a sleeveless, silk, obviously DRY CLEAN dress on a SAFARI!  Who does that??  (Certainly not me, who wore the same outfit on all 3 rides (in all fairness I did rinse it out between safaris 1 and 2...).)  The wife fussed to her huband in Hindi after we had sat to wait for the tiger to wake up awhile, and the way our driver quickly reparked our Jeep in a bit more shade made it clear that whatever she said was about being too HOT...  Weenie.  Her daughter played games on a cell phone while the rest of us watched the tiger sleep, and the woman eventually played cell phone games, too!  Why would you go on a safari just to mess with a cell phone???  Crazy if you ask me.  And when we dropped them back at their posh hotel there was a man with a fancy lunch for them and a huge decorated LIVE ELEPHANT waiting for them!!!!  Just for them!!!!  And they just snapped a photo or 2 of the daughter with it then went into the hotel.  THEY BRING YOU AN ELEPHANT and you only look at it for ONE MINUTE?  You don't even RIDE IT?  I am glad that I appreciate things in life.  Even with all of the money that family obviously has, it sure doesn't look like they have FUN.  I, for one, value fun over money.

So HUMAN - David looks just like this sometimes!

I can't help but think that these were the monkeys that inspired the "See no evil, hear no evil..." thing

I could watch monkeys all day

Having a snack
Next up - train trip to JAIPUR!  Pink City, here we come!!

P.S. - on the day we did 2 safaris in 1 day, guess how many showers we took?  FOUR!!  Safaris in well over 100 degree heat are not for wimps, even though you are just sitting in a bumpy jeep looking for animals.  Safaris are sweaty!
The monkey tails were longer than I expected they would be

Look at the baby's sweet EARS!!  So big!!

Funny funny monkeys


Kirsten Ghatasheh said... I am in awe I tell you!!! I would love love love the monkeys. And the tiger....oh boy. So beautiful. Heaven!!! (Cept for the heat!) (And swimming with bats...haha). A-MAZ-ING!

Kirsten Ghatasheh said... I am in awe I tell you!!! I would love love love the monkeys. And the tiger....oh boy. So beautiful. Heaven!!! (Cept for the heat!) (And swimming with bats...haha). A-MAZ-ING!

STG said...

You would love it Kirsten!!! So much to see, hear, smell, taste....