India, Tigers and Christmas
Merry Christmas to all of our friends and family. It is Christmas morning and I have not written a blog in the last ten days or so. We are in a beach hut in Palolem Beach in Goa, India. Nicola is in the hammock and I am sitting on our little porch. Our beach hut is not much more than four walls made of plywood covered by thatched palms and the roof is covered in burlap. There is an attached bathroom with hot water… a luxury for most beach huts. In the off season (ie. any time except Christmas), these huts cost about 600 rupees a night. During Christmas and New Years they are 3000 rupees a night. We had trouble finding a beach hut online because we were doing it so late. We grabbed anything we could but it was only for four days (Dec 23-27). I think the ones that have a web presence are more expensive because of that. We have been looking for the last couple of days for a place to extend our stay at Palolem until January 2nd. There are many places that have some availability but mostly with cold water only. Those seem to cost 1500 rupees during this peak time. We have booked another place for the period from December 27th until January 2nd.
As I sit here, the waves crash in the Arabian Sea. We are not here for luxury accommodation. We are here for sun, beach and relaxation. It is a beautiful place. As you walk out into the sea, it is sand on the bottom. Not a single rock. Goa is famous for its beaches. There are several beaches to choose from but we picked a beach that would not be the party beach but would not be a beach in solitude either. We wanted something somewhere in between. I think we have found it. The British have kept this place a secret from the rest of the world I think. Virtually all of the tourists here are British except for us and the odd Russians. I guess Goa to the Brits is like Mexico or Cuba to Canadians.
We came to Goa to rest. I know it sounds funny to say we are exhausted but it is true. I am sure many would say boo hoo facetiously to us but let me explain. I know it is not the same as having worked for the past six months but travelling is tiring. Think about how you feel after being on a holiday trip for two or three weeks. You are actually tired when you get back. Travelling is an amazing release of stress. Our minds rarely think much about work these days. Nicola’s pain in her shoulders and neck is gone now… and has been for months. However, we have been on the move every three days to a week pretty much. Living out of our backpacks, always trying to figure out where to go next, how to get there, and where to stay. We eat every meal in restaurants and every day we spend hours sight seeing. Boo hoo I know. But ti is time to recharge the batteries… physically. The peaceful sounds of the crashing waves; the warmth of the hot sun (32 C yesterday); and reading is what we need right now.
So, what are we missing? For Nicola, I think this is much easier. She travels most Christmas holidays. It is the break she needs from work and the fix she needs for her travel addiction. For me however, it is a bit more challenging. I usually spend my Christmas with my family in Ontario and get some Emily time. I am missing my family right now and I am sure they are missing me. I have known that this was coming for the past five years as we planned for our year away. Luckily, FaceTime has been amazing for us. I think perhaps I talk to my family more this year than in other years because we have FaceTime. Today I am thinking of them and wishing them all an amazing Christmas.
So, backing up now a little… what have we been up to since my last blog? We were on a great tiger hunt. We were in Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan. We stayed two nights there. We had booked four tiger safaris. Each was about 3 hours long. We booked one on our first afternoon; one the next morning and afternoon; and finally one on our last morning. When we planned our visit to Ranthambore, we knew that there were no guarantees of seeing a tiger. Everything we read suggested booking three or four safaris to increase your chances. The park is divided into nine zones and it is random which zone you will be in each safari. It is equally random which zone a tiger might be seen in if any each time.
On our first safari, we were in zone 2. One of the park rangers opened a gate and allowed us into zone 4 as well. We saw lots of animals: monkeys, deer (spotted and samba), peacocks, wild boar, crocs, owls, and more. The guides try to locate the tigers in two ways. First they look for tracks. The tigers actually like to walk on the roads because it is easier to get around. We saw several tracks. Secondly, the guides listen for the alarms of the other animals. The animals alert each other about the location of tigers. A few times, our guide got excited and we started speeding away to another area. However, we did not find any when we got there. Oh, and the third way they find them is to ask the other guides. On our first safari we saw no tigers… disappointment. We discovered after that one was sighted in zone 5.
The next morning, we were in zone 5 and so felt some optimism about finding a tiger. Again, it is so random that the optimism is really unfounded. The link between seeing a tiger yesterday in zone 5 and the chance of seeing one in the same place today is non-existant. On safari, you can either been in a jeep with six people jammed into two rows in the back or in a cantor with seating for about 20. We were in a cantor for all of our safaris. I think that the jeeps are a little faster and can get into more places. However, I think that the cantor is more comfortable and less jammed in. When it comes right down to it people in jeeps and cantors see the same wildlife. And the cantor is a little cheaper. We had heard that mornings were better for spotting tigers. It was definitely colder and the seats were wet from the morning dew. After 3 hours in zone 5, I think we saw less than we did in zone 2 and 4. No tigers at all.
Safari number 3 left that afternoon. This time we were in zone 3. Mentally I prepared myself for not seeing any tigers. I told myself that it is all about luck but I was not feeling very lucky. I also knew that I would likely be very disappointed if we went through 4 safaris with not even a single glimpse. As safari number 3 proceeded, there did not even seem to be any hints of tigers. No prints and no alarms. No reports from other guides. It was not promising. As the safari proceeds, you can tell a point when the driver starts to head back to the gate. We were on our way back to the gate and Nic and I started to discuss being shut out again. Extreme disappointment. We passed a Park Ranger and after a discussion in Hindi we started to speed up. The guide said that one was sighted near to the gate. As we approached the gate, there were jeeps and cantors all crowded around. There was something definitely up there. We were far away though. Our guide got excited and started to point at something. People said they saw it but I saw nothing. If there was a tiger and we were the only ones to not see it that would be worse.
The guide barked some instructions to the driver. The driver pulled back and drove out of the gate. More vehicles lined the street. We pulled forward and found a spot with an unobstructed view of the jungle to our right. The most glorious sight ever. Probably about 40 feet away, a large male tiger stood in plain sight. We saw his profile and I snapped photos. I paused the picture taking patiently waiting for him to look our way. Then he started to walk into the jungle more and the moment was over just as quickly as it had begun. Some people in our cantor were upset because they wanted us to back up so we could see it again. There was no way that was possible. There were dozens of vehicles and the road was blocked. In an instant, our worries about not seeing a tiger were gone. We had seen one tiger and even got some pics. Some people got so excited that they took no pictures.
We celebrated our sighting that night with a couple of beers over dinner. We shared our sighting with a couple of Americans who live in Turkmenistan, Heather and Nate. They had been a little further back in the pack of vehicles and saw the same tiger. They were much luckier though as the tiger passed right by their jeep. Unfortunately, their camera battery had died and they got no pics. Another couple promised however to send them a couple of pictures. We promised the same thing to another Canadian couple that had been on our cantor, Sarah and Jonah. We tried but the email keeps bouncing back. Sarah and Jonah if you are reading this you should email me at jeff.nwt at gmail.com. Not sure why it is coming back but I will try again.
On our last morning, we had one final safari. We were extremely hopeful about seeing more tigers. Unfortunately we did not. Nevertheless, we were still happy that we had seen one. We met several people who saw none and even heard about someone who did 18 safaris and never saw one. That is bad luck. On the other hand, we also met people who saw three on their one and only safari. It is really just the luck of the draw.
After our final safari we ate breakfast and then packed. I had a quick shower. You can get very dusty during the safari. Finally, we were off to Jodhpur with our driver. We had been told that it was about 7 or 8 hour drive when we booked the trip. Turns out that is is more like 11 hours. Driving in India is scary enough for us however doing it in the dark added a whole new dimension to the scariness. In the dark, people have their brights on almost all the time. Or they flash their brights at other cars instead of honking their horns. Add the same insanity on the roads but take away the lights and describing it as scary does not do justice to how frightening it is.
We arrived in Jodhpur at about 10pm to find that they had overbooked our hotel. Our driver had a heated discussion with the front desk person but they called another hotel and got us a room. I think we actually got upgraded in hotels. This new hotel was self described as an 18th century aristocratic home. On the wall was a portrait of a noble looking man with a large curled moustache typical of many we had seen in the Rajasthan area. I looked at the man working the front desk and I asked if that was him. It was his great great grandfather. His family had owned this home for 200 years. It was quite an amazing place. We basically just crashed though after a long day of safari and driving.
We came to Jodhpur to see the Amber Fort. Throughout Rajasthan you can see endless forts, palaces, and temples. We wanted to see the best fort and were told this was it. Our driver first took us to the fort the next day. We got an audio guide to the fort. The fort used to be occupied by the Maharaja of Jodhpur. However, in 1971 the system of royalty with Maharajas was abolished. The fort was now more of a museum and used for special occasions. The fort is built upon the top of a mountain outcropping. It was quite spectacular. Following the fort, we went to a nearby temple. One more time, Nicola got mobbed by a group of school kids looking to take their picture with her. It makes me laugh every time.
After Jodhpur, we drove to Jaipur. It was a good 7 or 8 hours. We arrived late again but at least this time we would be there for a couple of nights. I had surprised Nicola by booking a room in this hotel that Nicola had spotted online with the travel agent. It was a peacock suite. The bed had a peacock headboard and footboard. The chairs were peacocks. The whole motif was peacock. It was lovely.
Our driver new Jaipur well. I think he knew people there and was able to get around easily. Jaipur is nicknamed the pink city. The old city is painted in pink. One of the Maharajas felt that pink was a hospitable colour. We came to Jaipur to see the palace. It was very impressive. We also got to see painted elephants. Nicola really wanted to see them so our driver took us to where they are housed. We got quite a showing from one of the trainers. Up close and personal … for a tip of course.
Jaipur is well known for its jewellery. Nicola bought a tanzanite for herself in Tanzania. She also had a couple of small diamonds from a ring her mother gave her when she was 16. She had a ring made with the tanzanite and the two small diamonds. They kept the gold from her other ring which reduced the cost of her ring to $100. Not too bad, a custom made ring for so little in 24 hours.
Our driver also took us to a textile shop. You have to expect this. They get kickbacks from shops for bringing in tourists. The first guy that talked to us seemed upset that we were not interested in rugs. We have seen enough carpets and could not handle one more carpet showing. We were absolutely not interested. Next we went into the clothing area. I had a custom tailored suit made and a custom made dress shirt. I was planning to buy one back in Canada for Emily’s grad in June but decided to have one made instead. I also had a casual shirt made and Nicola had two nice shirts made. Again, all in 24 hours.
We did some more sightseeing in Jaipur on our second morning. We also went for an amazing lassi at a place called Lassiwala. It is very popular as long as you go to the right Lassiwala on MI road. There are three other places all around it that other vendors have named Lassiwala trying to steal business from the famous one. Too funny. After lunch and sightseeing we began our trip to Delhi. That was another 7 hours in the car.
When we arrived in Delhi we were both exhausted. We did very little except order some room service and watch some television. Even the next day we did very little. We did not leave the hotel until the afternoon. Then we took a tuk tuk to Connaught Place and tried to find an English movie. No luck. We had McDonalds believe it or not. We had a Masala Veggie Burger. There was no beef in McDonalds. Only chicken and veggies. Seems strange that you cannot get a Big Mac but it is India after all. Surprisingly it is still very packed with Indians much more than tourists.
At Connaught Place we wandered around for a while. It is a big modern area with several modern stores. Nicola had been looking for a place lately to get her hair cut. What we were told is that Indian women do not cut their hair so you do not see beauty salons… only barbers. We saw one though and so we stopped so she could get it cut. It looks lovely although she feels it is too short. I don’t think so.
The next morning … actually around noon… we asked the front desk if they could get us a driver to take us sightseeing. Yesterday we were not interested at all. Today we figured we should cram it all in. It was Sunday though so every place was extremely packed. We saw most of the required Delhi sites. We saw a Sikh temple, the Lotus Temple (Bahai), Humayan’s Tomb, India Gate, Qurun Minar, and I am sure a couple we cannot remember right now. We did not get to the Fort because we ran out of time. I guess going after noon was not the best idea but frankly that is all we could handle. Our driver was a funny young guy. He was always laughing and very attentive to us. He gave us a cell phone to call him when we exited a site and then he pulled up to pick us up. He took us to a shop and when we said we were not interested he said he would call us in ten minutes to get us out of there. He asked us to please go in for him but not buy anything. Again, we do not understand the complexities of how their business works.
We arranged for the same driver to take us to the airport the next morning. Actually, we arranged for him to take us to the post office and then to the airport. He helped us package up our stuff and then navigate the postal service in Delhi. He had to run around to find something to package our stuff we were sending home in and then packaged it for us. He had to run to get our passports photocopied for the post office. He was invaluable. We would not have been able to do it without him. He was sweating and out of breath from all of his running around for us.
As I mentioned earlier we are now in Goa. We flew here from Delhi. This is a bit of an abbreviated post because there is little internet here. We are going for Christmas dinner at a place that has wifi so I want to get it up on Christmas Day. I am not sure if I will be able to get pics on tonight or not. If I cannot then I will add them at a later time.
Regardless, here is to a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to everyone we know. May your holidays be safe, happy, and filled with good times.
Namaste from India