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Around the World in 210 Days

Tigerless Tiger Safari

INDIA | Friday, 18 January 2008 | Views [1067] | Comments [7]

S’why does somebody go to Suwai Madhopur? To see tigers, of course. Well, to try to see tigers, that is. The train to S.M. took about three hours, and allowed us to see some of the Indian countryside, which is covered in yellow mustard flowers, farms, and a little dust. The train periodically stopped at what seemed to be the middle of nowhere, and the locals would board with trays of vegetables, peanuts, and chai tea. There are three classes of cars on the trains: First, Second, and Third (creative naming, huh?). Within each class, there are seat cars and sleeper cars. For this journey, we chose 2nd seats, with air conditioning. The seats are wooden benches, on which three people may sit. The A/C is a network of fans (the kind you would see in old mechanic shops) bolted to the ceiling. Since it is winter here, the fans were unnecessary, and with the windows open it felt like early Fall. The weather here (so far) starts out very chilly, moves to pleasant, followed immediately by “really hot,” unless in the shade, and then dips back through pleasant before hitting really cold. It’s typical desert weather, we guess.

Suwai Madhopur is a small village that is within a rickshaw’s drive of Ranthambore National Park, which is the only place in India where you can still see wild tigers (we think). According to our guidebook, there are only 26 in the park, which makes the presence of the “Save the Tigers” posters understandable. We arrived on Monday afternoon, and quickly booked a hotel through the tourist office in the train station. They gave us a map of the town and told us what time to arrive to book a jeep/bus “tiger tour” of the park. 5 in the morning. They also told us how much the rickshaw there should cost, which is invaluable as there is absolutely no pricing system, and the drivers generally just quote a “high” price. That is, $2.50, as opposed to $1.25.

Armed with this information and a map to our hotel, we quickly set off in the wrong direction. After asking four, five, six men (they tend to clump together when foreigners walk up) we were told how to get there. Armed with that information, we found our hotel no problem. We checked in, happily noted the western-style bathroom (actually, Alex would not have done any checking in if it weren’t for the western-style bathroom…), and ordered a roll of toilet paper (only 25 rupees!). After our 2 hour arrival-nap, we walked into the heart of the village and explored the streets. S.M. was notably different from Jaipur. There was almost no begging (although definitely people living on the street), everyone seemed to be occupied. Either drinking tea or just sitting around talking. A few of the market booth owners would call out to us, but mainly it was just a friendly hello. We stopped at a stand with sunglasses (Since Andrew broke his second pair in Italy, and the sun is brighter here than anywhere we’ve been). Soon, a crowd of kids formed around us, and we decided to “look around” aka escape quickly. The market was full of small shops, primarily made out of tin (like big tool sheds on stilts). There’s no glass to be seen, or storefronts at all, for that matter. There are advertisements for lots of English-sounding companies “graffiti-ed” onto the buildings. Any actual graffiti is in Hindi, so looks more artistic, and for us is indiscernible from decorative scrawls. There are cows everywhere. Not just here, everywhere in India. They are considered sacred, so in S.M. people bring them fresh vegetables throughout the day. In Jaipur, the cows largely ate through the trash (alongside the goats and monkeys). Here, they ate from heaps of lettuce leaves piled in the center of the streets. In fact, the center of the streets are the cows’ favorite resting spots, and they lay all over, causing much honking. They also go to the bathroom everywhere, which isn’t too crazy, considering there are outdoor urinals for people on side streets. The cow patties don’t necessarily go to waste, though, as one of the local breads is baked by setting it on a flaming dried cow patty. Mm! Anyhow, we walked through the market and found another sunglasses stand, where Andrew was able to bargain half the price. He went from 100 to 60 rupees, and wasn’t going to take the 50 we were offering. Andrew conceded and pulled out all of our rupees. As luck would have it, we only had 50, so we apologized and began walking off (pretty much always has to happen before they will agree to a price, but in this case it wasn’t a bluff). So we got the sunglasses for $1.25, which is good considering Alex is sure they will be broken before Delhi.

            We found a nice vegetarian restaurant, which isn’t hard as most all of Rajasthan (the state we are in. Did you know India has states? 26 of them, we think. We have sparse internet access, so feel free to Google it) is vegetarian, and we stuffed ourselves with cashew curry and something-masala (that’s an Indian food joke, as practically everything here is a masala—it means “mix”). We found our way home in the dark, and determined that our 4:30am wake up would require going to bed early.

            Knowing it got hot during the day, we donned only our hooded sweatshirts and braved the cold as we walked to the rickshaw station. The ride to the park was foreboding as rickshaws have no doors and the wind that was whipping us caused us to shiver.  We arrived at the booking office, where we were told we would be able to get seats on a jeep or open-top bus.  There were 10 or so men standing around the jeep line.  When we got into it, someone approached us and told us that there were only two jeeps and both were full, but they would be happy to put our name on a bus list and we wouldn’t even have to wait in line.  Feeling a little suspicious, we asked them why anyone would be in the jeep line if they were booked.  The guy had no answer and waved us off.  We decided to risk being in the line.  We got into line behind about four people.  The line was not moving.  After a bit, the guy in front of us asked if we were going on a jeep ride.  We said that we hoped to and he explained that him and two friends were planning on renting an entire jeep (which seats 6 people plus a guide).  They were going to fake the other three names, because there is a bizarre policy that you can’t rent a jeep with less than 6 people.  Soon thereafter one of the government workers called Andrew into the office and gestured for him to talk to the men helping people at the window.  It seems that the people at the window were primarily there to make sure no one was able to get to the window.  The men told Andrew that without six people we wouldn’t be able to get a jeep and he returned to the line dejected.  As we were about to hop into the bus line, the guy in front of us, Atul said that he would be happy to put us down on his ticket in place of two of the fake names.  We agreed and he and Rajiv (his friend from Bombay, also in line) were able to secure a jeep and guide for the five of us.  At this point it was almost six and we were freezing.  The tour wasn’t going to start until 6:30 so the guide offered to pick us up at Atul’s hotel. Atul had a car which we happily piled into (yeah, yeah, we know…never get in cars with strangers and such, but it was FREEZING) and we went back to their hotel and had tea. 

            Atul works for the merchant marine, is from Northern India and just came back from a year’s study in the UK.  Rajiv is from Bombay (home of Bollywood) and has been working on special effects in film for the last ten years.  Atul’s friend Viloli was from Nagaland (sp?), which is in the mountains of northeastern India, and whose people have less Indian culture and kind of got “stuck” within the borders during some property settlement. She is about to start a new job in real estate in Delhi, a town she reviews as being “okay, but you get used to it after a few years.” So the three of them were a very eclectic sample of India: One from the North, one from the South, and one from the East—and they were awesome. 

            Our jeep pulled up around 6:30 and after walking outside, we realized we had been foolhardy to dress only in sweatshirts.  Rajiv came to the rescue with a sweater for each of us.  Even still the ride to the national park was far from comfortable.  After our guide negotiated which trail we would take (there are seven trails and no one gets to choose a trail, but there seems to be a little influence that can be wielded) we were awarded trail number three.  The drive in felt a lot like a scene from Jurassic Park as we road deeper into the jungle, past giant trees whose roots hung like vines from the branches.  We drove through towering cement arches and our tour began.  The goal typically is to spot tigers.  This is done by looking for foot prints on the dirt trails that you drive on.  Also the guide listens for warning calls from animals that may be preyed upon by the tigers.  About an hour into the ride, we spotted a leopard finishing a lovely breakfast of what seemed to have been Deer TarTar.  Apparently due to their nocturnal nature and shyness, although there are over 60 leopards in the park, it is rarer to see them than the tigers (although for us the tigers were the rare ones).  The leopard paced back and forth scaring away the birds that were picking at the carcass and eventually lumbered away.  The park was full of wildlife including different types of deer (one species called Sambar), antelope, and birds including hundreds of peacocks. 

            The ride was really wonderful, it was beautiful and peaceful and even though we didn’t spot a tiger we still felt like we were in a national geographic magazine.  Afterwards we returned to Atul, Rajiv and Viloli’s hotel.  They asked if we wanted to join them for breakfast so we happily agreed and headed upstairs to the rooftop terrace.  We chatted for a couple of hours until it was time for us to check out of our hotel.  Atul volunteered to drive us to our hotel and they invited us to store our luggage at their place as our train wasn’t until 11:35.  Since we had no plans for the rest of the day we asked if we could join them as they explored the country side.  They found a fort on our map of the town that seemed to be less touristic and was within a half hour drive.  It took us through plenty of colorful villages one which had a pair of dueling cows.  Atul was the best driver we have seen so far.  Honking only once the entire time, despite the presence of camels, cows, tractors, motorbikes, and cars.  We learned that the system for navigating doesn’t involve reading road signs, rather it just requires slowing down and uttering the name of the town we were heading toward and following their finger.  We were explaining to them that we wanted to do a Vipassana (the meditation retreat), and they couldn’t understand what word we were using due to our pronunciation.  Eventually they said “Oh Vi-Pas-sana” (compared to our pronunciation Vip-assana), later when they were asking directions, they had the exact same experience with the pronunciation of the fort we were going to. We were delighted, as it is hard to explain how even when you think you are speaking the language, they can’t understand it. It makes sense here, though, because as Atul put it, “every 100 kilometers, the language changes, the people change, the gods change…” In fact, there are hundreds of different languages in India, although less than 20 are officially recognized by the government.

            We eventually pulled into a village and saw our destination on the top of the hill behind it. The ruins of a massive fort that stretched across the plateau of the hill.  There was no obvious road there and it was hard to get directions to the base of the hill.  Finally we happened upon a small boy (around 8 or 9—although he told us he was 20), he said he could show us the way by following him.  When Atul asked how we could follow him if he was walking, the boy replied, drive slow.  Instead, Atul invited him into the car and he showed us the way. (See if the boy will get into cars with strangers then surely it is ok for us to…when in Rome).  Some boys were playing cricket at the base of the hill and about four of them abandoned their game to follow us up to the fort.  The trail was steep and winding, built more for grazing goats than anything else.  It made us a little nervous about Nepal, especially when Atul pointed out that the trek we are doing takes about 13 km per day and we were only hiking the equivalent of a city block.  India is full of forts and we have already visited a couple, but this one had a completely different feel.  It was abandoned as opposed to being a tourist destination.  You enter under rotting wooden gates plated with rusted metal into a temple.  (*Note, we didn’t have a water bottle and it was hot, so we all shared one that one of our companions had brought, it possibly saved our lives).  Inside the exterior walls were paths leading to various decaying buildings including temples, kitchens, and water reservoirs.  At one water reservoir, while we were discussing the undrinkability of the water a man and a boy descended to the water and filled up a couple of bottles, they asked if we needed any, and Atul replied (in Hindi) that we were foreigners and would be in trouble if we drank it.  (*Note, earlier Vivoli had bought guavas and had us try them, although our guide book warned against eating fruit with skin on it, especially after being washed in Indian water, we thought what the heck, you only live once).  The two rounded the reservoir and the boy offered us small white pumice-like pieces of candy.  Vivoli explained that they are traditional sweets given at the temple after prayers, so we each took two and thanked him.  They tasted like sugar mixed with butane gas (Andrew says anyway, Alex listened to her parents when they said don’t take candy from strangers). After the reservoir we found what was probably the king and queens quarters and was a still intact two-story building. It had a nice courtyard and steps to the roof that jutted out from the wall without supports from underneath.  The eight of us spent an hour on the roof looking out over Rajasthan. 

            We stayed at the fort until sunset, the four boys having abandoned us an hour before.  As we were descending at dusk, we happened to meet up with two goat herders and their flock.  One of them rounded up a baby goat and let us pet it.  We nodded graciously and he took that to mean we wanted to hold it.  He handed the goat to Alex who held it as though burping a baby.  It was not happy being held and cried like a baby to be put down.  When Alex finally let it go it ran back to its mom, no doubt complaining about how the humans had abused it.  We continued the trek down to the car accompanied by the goat herders and their flock.  As we neared the car, we saw what must have been thirty village children had gathered near the car.  As we approached they swarmed, shaking our hands and pressing inwards.  We fought our way to the car and shut the doors.  They pressed against the glass like monsters in a horror movie.  Vivoli likened it to the paparazzi swarming a limo.  We drove off and many of the children chased after us in a cloud of dust. 

            On the way home we stopped at a restaurant and had some Cauliflower Masala and Mutter (Chickpeas) Masala.  We went back to their hotel and hung out until it was time to go to the train.  Around 11 we said goodbye, and thanked everyone for a great day.  Then Atul dropped us off at the train station.  Our train was running late, so we sat on the platform for an hour waiting for it and listening to Harry Potter.  When it arrived, the sleeper car we had purchased tickets for was at the other end of the platform.  So we started walking briskly, which turned into a trot, jog, and then run as the train started departing from the station.  We reached the door of our compartment and Andrew pushed Alex on and then was pushed on by the train worker himself.  As it was after 12:30 at night, most people were already stretched out on their beds.  After a little bit of confusion we found our sleeper beds which were on the top and hoisted ourselves up along with our bags.  It was a tight fit, but after little sleep the night before and the early morning, we slept wrapped around our luggage which we had locked to the bed.  As we didn’t know exactly when our stop was, we did have to wake up several times to ask when the stop was.  Finally though we arrived in Udaipur, known as the city of sunsets because it has four lakes that are known to reflect the sun beautifully at dusk…but this will have to wait, as that is another day and another blog.

Tags: The Great Outdoors



One would think Mardi would have read such an interesting story BEFORE I did. tsk tsk tsk

  Richard Jan 18, 2008 3:37 AM


I guess us guys o 58th street just seem to enjoy the stories more than others. While in India do you think that you can find me a baby tiger or a monkey like the one in Aladin. I would like to teach him/her to pick pocket people. I would then never have to work a day in my life. If that can happen it would be awesome.

  spanky Jan 19, 2008 5:11 PM


Oh man, if I had a nickel for every time one of those marauding monkeys picked my pocket...

  Annie Jan 20, 2008 8:03 AM


Oh man, if I had a nickel for every time one of those marauding monkeys picked my pocket...

  Annie Jan 20, 2008 9:02 AM


if you HAD the nickel, I would then HAVE the nickel, thanks to my awesome monkey. I think I would name him Steve.

  spanky Jan 20, 2008 10:52 AM


So good to hear from Annie. I was afraid she never recovered from the trip over yonder
(thats how we talk here)

I have been meaning to ask Annie if she was able to assess Alex's prana while she was over there. ("there" meaning...yonder) One simply must have good prana.

As Andrew's father I have to let him know the risks involved in crazy Spanky capers. 58th Street Gangstas don't play...
Exhibit A:

Man Tries to Smuggle Monkeys in Pants
October 27, 2005 - 3:03pm

(Los Angeles, CA) -- An Orange County, California has pleaded guilty to trying to smuggle monkeys in his pants.
The "Los Angeles Times" reports that when Robert John Cusack arrived from Indonesia last June, LAX authorities found 50 orchids in his luggage after four rare birds flew out.

When inspectors asked him if he had anything else to hide, he said there were monkeys in his pants. Sure enough, a search revealed a pair of endangered pigmy primates.

The monkeys are now thriving at the LA Zoo, but the birds are dead.

His attorney said Cusack bought the animals on the black market in an attempt to rescue them.

(Los Angeles, CA) -- An Orange County, California has pleaded guilty to trying to smuggle monkeys in his pants.
The "Los Angeles Times" reports that when Robert John Cusack arrived from Indonesia last June, LAX authorities found 50 orchids in his luggage after four rare birds flew out.

When inspectors asked him if he had anything else to hide, he said there were monkeys in his pants. Sure enough, a search revealed a pair of endangered pigmy primates.

The monkeys are now thriving at the LA Zoo, but the birds are dead.

His attorney said Cusack bought the animals on the black market in an attempt to rescue them.

  richard Jan 20, 2008 1:44 PM


well i guess the tigers heard you didn't have your tiger or monkey shots but you had played with the monkeys and were afraid to catch something. i cannot wait to see all the pictures you two are taking. you are taking some right? and it spanky gets a monkey i know i will get the tiger. i am so glad you two are making so many friends and that you are saving so much money because of all the nice people you are meeting, so i really expect something wonderful when you get back. i will tell you the postcard was great but i just got it two weeks ago, i was really upset when i saw the girls had gotten one, and then happy when i saw ours but i will tell you i have heard of snail mail but i think this was slower. miss and love you mom

  mardi Jan 26, 2008 3:08 AM

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