When toddlers attack

Saturday, April 30, 2011

More travels

Ranthambore National ParkYou can credit our happy faces in this photo to our finally leaving the purgatory of the Bharatpur Junction train station, riding into Rajasthan in air-conditioned comfort to the little town of Sawai Madhopur, jumping off point for Ranthambore National Park. In spite of our delight in finally being out of Bharatpur, I came down with a hell of a cold on the train. Actually, half the car was sneezing along with me (everyone back home in LA seems to be coming down with something this week, so I got to do my own fascinating little observation of global epidemiology and how viruses jump borders with myself as guinea pig -- not that I bear any responsibility for bringing it home, mine only lasted for a day and half!). At first, I hoped it was just a reaction to the ever-visible air of the Indian countryside, but no, my drippy nose stayed with me for the next 200 kilometers.

Sawai Madhopur is a quiet little town that, aside from an annual guava festival (we missed it), doesn't have much reason to exist other than the tourists who head to Ranthambore. Centuries ago, Ranthambore had its own Rajput maharaja, who was eventually conquered by the Mughals. What this means is that the park is home to an impressive mountaintop fort, and the road in is dotted with little Islamic domed shrines that mark the graves of fallen Mughal officers, killed in the many battles fought in the area. Later, the whole area passed to the maharajas of Jaipur, who used it as a hunting preserve until independence in 1949.  That means that today, it's one of the best areas in India to spot wild tigers, as well as hyenas, bears, jackals and leopards.

  But it was there we discovered the key to travel across India -- a nice splurge every few days. Our first was at Ranthambore Bagh, an eco-resort founded by nature photographer Dicky Singh. The tents were far from roughing it -- comfy beds, rugs, and mosquito netting, with a shaded porch perfect for vegging on a hot afternoon.

We were there late in the tourist season, so there were only a few other guests, which meant we had to eat waaaaay more than we wanted at the wonderful Rajasthani buffet (that's right, it was all their fault - they made us overeat).  A musical family from Bikaner played traditional music from the region and their daughter danced.  Naturally, we finished our dinner with masala chai.

Turns out we didn't see tigers -- or lions or bears or leopards or any other large carnivore on our safari  in spite of being up and out in a surprisingly chilly dawn.   It didn't matter --

we saw spotted deer... 

Wild monkeys...

Wild peacocks...

Indian ring-neck parakeets...

.And a magpie-like bird called a treepie, which has learned that tourists mean snacks.

Oh, and cute kids.

The afternoon of our safari, we hired a guide (a real one, this time) to take us to the fort. His name was Nadim, and he knew his stuff -- trained as a biologist but obviously in love with the region, its culture and history, too. Ranthambore Fort was built about a thousand years ago and has changed hands many times.  The fort is dotted with historic temples hundreds of years old, including a particularly important one to Ganesh, so we shared the ramp through the massive gates up to the mountaintop with dozens of villagers from the surrounding area.  

Nadim said he first visited the fort when he was eight years old and has spent most of his life exploring the ruins of temples, palaces and barracks.  He showed us some medieval grave markers with what was left of beautiful calligraphy in Persian --  and told us that when he was a kid, they were in perfect condition.  Little by little, the marvels of Ranthambore Fort are being chipped away.  But we were the only tourists on the mountain during our visit and the view from the top made me feel very privileged.

The next day, we relaxed at our tent until our next rendezvous with the Indian rail system early that afternoon.  We were heading to Pushkar, a holy city and one of the only places in India where Brahma is worshiped.  The train was supposed to arrive at about four.  Our first hint of trouble was when I called ahead to see if our hotel could send a taxi to pick us up.  "Call us when you arrive in Ajmer," said the hotel clerk (Ajmer is the nearest rail stop to Pushkar).  "That train is always late."  And indeed it was.  We spent five hours on the platform at Sawai Madhopur, making more involuntary sociological observations about the customs of Indian rail passengers, as well as the dogs, cows, goats and pigs that wandered at will through the station.  At least no one stared here.  Besides an occasional cow.

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