Rajasthan is India illustrated in all its fascinating colors—its tribal people, their laid-back lifestyles and cultural richness, the hilltop fortresses, the exotic fairy tale palaces, the colorful bazaars, the foods and aromas and, most of all, the stark contrast from the big city craziness of Mumbai or Delhi.
Our first stop was Udaipur and we splurged! Arriving at the impressive Lake Palace Hotel by a small ferry, we were greeted by a full moon outside our bedroom window. The rooftop gardens provided a romantic and panoramic view of Lake Pichola and the City Palace across the lake.
The restaurant at the hotel was classy but the menu preparations and service were disappointingly mediocre. The Lake Palace Hotel ambiance was unquestionably par excellence. Even the handcrafted sign to the watering hole creatively reads Amrit Sagar or Fountain of Eternal Youth. The scalloped archways and painted ceilings have been restored to perfection; the gardens and lily ponds brim with gorgeous gifts of nature in full bloom. The courtyards and fountains are truly striking. Serenity at its synthetic best—but just not my cup of tea. One night of this royal splendor was just right.
The next day started with the boat ride back to the shores of reality and a taxi ride to the bazaars as we embarked on my favorite pastime—shopping for my ladies! I love shopping for the lovely ladies in my life. I love the fabrics and dresses and jewelry and I love to see happiness on the faces of the recipients.
So, most of our Rajasthani shopping was done in one shop in Udaipur, mainly because we didn’t have a lot of time and secondly, because we were lucky to find a good store that had most things we wanted. It’s no secret that our driver-cum-guide was handsomely thanked by the shop owner. It’s the enterprising capitalist way and happens all over the world.
After a great Rajasthani vegetarian lunch thaali and lassi, we took in Udaipur’s other major attraction, the City Palace, right across from our magical hotel. The Palace complex is a disorganized cluster of large buildings, each palace or an annex built by various rulers. Some of the buildings are physically connected to others, probably added on haphazardly.
There are excellent views of Lake Pichola and Lake Palace Hotel from the numerous balconies and towers of City Palace. Also visible is the Jagmandir Island with a palace of its own, south of Lake Palace Hotel. The museum within the Palace has an assorted and impressive collection of art and exhibits but these are poorly displayed and with inadequate lighting. I found the beautiful peacock mosaics in the Mor Chowk and the fascinating collection of miniatures and glass and porcelain pieces from all over the world very interesting.
The main courtyard in the palace is surrounded by licensed vendor shops which surprised us initially, but we soon realized that this was a normal source of income for the government bureaucracy and a common tourist trap at most palaces and forts. A quick walk through the souvenir shops revealed nothing that would entice a desi visitor to make a major purchase. Interestingly, an outer building of the palace complex now houses an elementary school where we were mobbed by uniformed young boys and girls as they poured out into the courtyard. Stepping out of City Palace, we walked through the Jagdish Temple and an 18th-century haveli, which had a modest gallery of works by local artists, but again the lighting left much to be desired.
Moving north to Jaipur, we enjoyed the first class air-conditioned compartment on the evening train, with no idea of what awaited us over the next day-and-a-half as we adventured our way through India, destination: Ranthambhore National Park and Tiger Reserve in Sawai Madhopur.
The Tiger Reserve wildlife sanctuary within Ranthambhore National Park is one of 19 for conservation efforts to save the endangered tiger and its habitat.
Our train from Udaipur arrived in Jaipur at 5:40 a.m. We discovered that the next train to Sawai Madhopur left in 20 minutes so I bought tickets right away. Our departure platform was across eight rows of tracks! We ran with our bags, up and down three bridges and made it to the train, exhausted. Four hours later, we were in a modest but clean retirement room with bed, bath and ceiling fan, at the Sawai Madhopur station.
The ticket office for tours of the Tiger Reserve was “somewhere near the station” so I asked around and walked along the general direction of the most likely location, amusing myself with the interesting debris and railway trash as I walked. Half a mile away, I found the closed doors of the office for “Project Tiger.” It was 10:30 a.m. The sign said the office opened at 10 a.m. I got just a little nervous. Was the park still there or were the tigers extinct already? Thankfully, a man showed up and unlocked the door. I allowed him a few minutes to shuffle his books and for other getting-ready-to-open procedures, then very courteously ask for two tickets. He looked at a register, scratched his head and told me that tickets for today may be “very difficult.” At that moment, we were rudely interrupted by an off-duty friend who took over this man’s total attention for a social exchange. After a few minutes, my patience began to wear thin. I cleared my throat and ask again for the tickets. My assertiveness worked. I got the tickets at the “locals” rate and no demand for bakhsheesh. After a refreshing bucket-bath, a brief rest and lunch, we were off on the safari in an open flatbed truck with 22 seats. About six people in our group had been on this safari-tour at least twice; one well-tanned European young man said it was his fifth time! No one on the truck had seen a tiger yet but we felt optimistic today. We could feel it.
An hour later, we were at the gate to the park and tiger reserve. Our truck meandered through ruins of small fortress gates. We saw remnants of walls built by the maharajas to keep the wildlife inside the park, once the exclusive hunting grounds for the rich and famous. We saw people living along the rivers and ponds, in simple dwellings, going about their usual chores for the afternoon. We saw mandirs. We saw langoor and macaque monkeys by the scores, chitaldeer, peacocks in full glory. We drove deeper into the forest, through shallow riverbeds and rocky creeks, up and down steep banks, stopping periodically for the guide to plan strategy with the driver about where the tigers were supposed to be. No one really knew. We went on. It was hot. There was a beautiful stag with impressive antlers, cooling off in the muddy creek. Monkeys and peacocks everywhere. Just no sign of Mr. Tiger. We had been out for more than an hour and gone as far as we could. The guide suggested we stretch our legs before turning back. There were other tour vehicles at this meeting point. The guides and drivers compared notes and exchange stories. One guide said he sighted a tiger on every trip. The others laughed at him. Our guide admitted he could go a month of daily trips and never see a tiger. The fact was that nobody knew. We started on our way back to the gate, disappointed. The shadows were growing. It was cooling off.
Suddenly, we heard a roar in the distance. Sher Khan was here, somewhere! The driver stopped. We waited for 20 minutes in silence. Nothing. We moved on. We heard Mr. T again. “Stop. Go slow. Stop near the creek, he’ll come for a drink for sure,” some one said. Maybe. We waited quietly for another 20 minutes. Dejected, we moved on slowly, up the road, almost back to where we saw the people and dwellings. It was 5:20. “We have to be out of the gate by 6:00 or I lose my license,” our guide nervously announced.
A jeep had stopped just ahead of us and the driver whispered “Tiger, tiger … “and pointed left. The truck stopped and everyone was up on his feet, craning, pushing, whispering, wondering, … and, yes—an unbelievable sight was right before our eyes.
I could not take my eyes off this beautiful creature, not even for the moment it would take to bring my camera to the eye. I savored each and every moment that I witnessed this majestic animal—each step, each breath, each soft grunt, every shuffling sound of its paws, as it loped regally between our truck and the jeep, totally disinterested in us, as he walked into the thick brush and down to the creek for an afternoon drink-or perhaps a prey-to sustain his powerful, beautiful body.
Two days of rigorous travel to see 10 seconds of tiger—what a small price to pay for such an awesome, once-in-a-lifetime encounter! Perhaps it is the briefness of the experience that makes the memory so priceless. I get chills every time I relate the story and relive the emotion.
A sideline here: this was a full-grown male, less than half a mile from the dwellings near the gate. People living here do not carry weapons or show any fear of being attacked—fascinating co-existence in nature between a powerful creature and unarmed humans, with mutual respect for each other.
Our truck stopped up the road. Our guide was jubilant. “I told you we would see one,” he proclaimed. Someone wanted to know if the tiger might have come back up from the creek. “Oh, no. He’ll sit at the water until dark and go on his shikar later. You just have to know where to look. Not every guide knows the best spots in the park.” A few minutes passed. A truck rolled up behind us. Their guide was excited about the tiger they saw coming back up from the water, probably our tiger. So much for tiger talk and predictions! No one really knew. We were just plain very, very lucky.
Mission accomplished and everyone returned feeling happy. We were dropped off at the railway bridge, took a tonga to the bazaar, and found a good eating place for dinner and then took a tonga back to our retirement room for the night. It was an early start the next day for Jaipur. Had to be up by 5 a.m. to buy tickets—no advance bookings from this location. The India adventure continues.
Amjad Noorani lives in Salinas, CA.