Thursday, May 31, 2012

Day 8: A Night in a Palace? Don’t Mind if I Do

We had a single night in Kota. It’s a pretty little riverfront town, but the highlight of this stop was actually our hotel, the Umed Bhawan Palace. Throughout India, they have what are called “heritage hotels.” Each state still has a Maharaja, although they are merely figureheads now. The Maharajas still own the family palaces and properties. Many properties have been converted into museums, and some are now hotels and restaurants.

Our suite at the Palace was definitely the largest of any we’ve stayed at, ever. It was bigger than the first apartment John and I shared, nearly as big as our house. It was easy to imagine decades of Maharaja guests having the identical experience we were.
As we arrived, we were greeted with marigold garlands. 

At this point in the trip we were so exhausted and these beds were so comfy I slept for  about 10 hours straight. It was the best night's sleep I got the whole time. 

The flatscreen and AC unit were a little out of place, but everything else was quite authentic. 

View from our interior porch. 

The upper floor was closed because the royal family still lived there, but we were free to roam the first floor, courtyard and grounds. 

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Day 7: Tiger Spotting in Ranthambhore

There are 41 tigers living in the Ranthambhore National Park and Tiger Preserve (according to our park ranger), and we spotted two on our safaris through the park. We went out twice, once in the morning and once in the late afternoon. We were lucky enough to spot a tiger each time.
The ranger told us Ranthambhore staff had recently given this tiger a lifetime achievement award. She's had seven cubs so far and each has lived. That's a remarkable mothering record, even for a tiger in the preserve. 
We toured the park in an open-top cantor vehicle. Both times the tigers strolled along less than 20 yards from us. You’d think they would shy away from the big jeeps full of people, but they could care less about us. They didn't even give us a glance. I guess a 550 lb predator isn’t scared of much.

The tigers are certainly the big draw for Ranthambhore safaris, but the park is full of other wildlife as well. Dozens of bird species, monkeys, sambars, mongoose, barking deer and crocodiles all made the safari a worthwhile excursion even if you didn’t see a tiger like we did.

Sanbar eat water plants in the drier months when there is less foliage. The building in background is now referred to as the Tiger Palace because the cats like to hang out there. Our ranger said you can often see them in the windows. 

Baby crocodile sunning himself on the large flat rock at the water's edge. 

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Day 6: The Real India

Today we hit the road for Ranthambhore. Raj told us Delhi, Agra and Jaipur make up the “Golden Triangle of India” (the must-see sightseeing spots), but now we head to the real India. Finally, we’re seeing the kind of India I imagined, and finally, it is beautiful.
Each city seemed to have a specialty. In Ranthambhore, it was handmade textiles. 

Our hotel is the Pugmark and it is definitely my favorite so far. Five stars it is not, but what it lacks in amenities it more than makes up for in beauty, charm and authenticity. The grounds are covered in flowering bushes and mango trees. Monkeys are everywhere, and lizards slip in the door with you at night.
I loved the Pugmark Hotel. The grounds were beautiful; staff were working in the gardens constantly. 

The staff is sweet and helpful; I think they are as interested in us as we are in the tigers (Ranthambhore’s main attraction). Waiters will stop and have entire conversations, patiently answering our questions about their life and families. They even threw us an India barbecue.

Our room is small, but comfy. There’s a single wall unit air conditioner, but it does the trick. The power shuts off periodically and in the three to five minutes it takes for someone to flip on the generator the temp in the room shoots up almost immediately.

Fortunately, we were only menaced from a distance by the small, but naughty, black-faced monkeys. One man in our group was surrounded by a gang of four-foot tall monkeys who, evidently, were interested in mangos.
Cheeky monkey. 

Monday, May 28, 2012

Day 5: Elephants and Amber in the Pink City

We started our day with an elephant ride to the mountaintop Amber Fort. Our elephant was one of the biggest; the boarding platform almost wasn’t tall enough for us the scramble onto the saddle.

The first few minutes were terrifying. But, after I accepted that we probably, most likely, well maybe weren’t going to fall to our death, it was so fun. We hung on for dear life and took in the amazing views of the city wall snaking up and down the mountainside.

We saw so many amazing things in Jaipur—the pink city gates, the Amber Fort’s maze of steps and hallways, a working observatory built in the 1600s, the world’s largest sun dial, and the current Maharaja’s palace residence—but the elephant ride was definitely a highlight for this stop.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Day 4: On the road again

Our fourth full day in India was another long travel day. Six hours in the bus again, at least this time we’ve put in enough distance in to really start to see a chance in scenery. There were patches of Easter egg-colored neighborhood amid the sea of brown dust, larger homes and apartment buildings, and mountains (well Oklahoma-style mountains) as we entered Jaipur.

Today we broke up the trip with a stop at the deserted city, Fatehpur Sikri and a delicious lunch at an air conditioned café in the middle of nowhere. It made the trip much more bearable to stop and have a little fun in the middle.

Raj, our guide, added a driving tour of Jaipur to the evening’s itinerary. I think he wanted to show off his home town a little. He even had our bus driver take us to the market for a quick shopping trip. Jaipur’s market was the first we’d seen. I expected more marketplaces.

We only had 30 minutes to wander the streets and shops, but it was fun. The sidewalks were crowded with merchandise and shoppers. The store owners called out as you passed, “Free to look, cheap to buy!”After the violently pushy vendors in Egypt, Jaipur’s market was like a stroll through the mall. We left with an arm full of bangles and dozens of photos.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Day 3: Taking in Agra

Agra is best known as the home of the Taj Mahal. And that was our first stop of the day. It was “not crowded” by Indian standards, and we were all thrilled to discover that the “high priced tickets” foreigner are forced to buy (it’s nearly free for Indians to enter) basically equaled a Taj fast pass.

The line for Indians to enter the grounds was hundreds of people deep, but we walked straight through the “high price ticket entrance.” Our tickets also included a bottle of water and shoe covers, so we didn’t have to go barefoot on the blistering hot marble.

The Taj Mahal was much smaller than I imagined and just as impressive as the structure itself are the grounds surrounding it. The gardens are original, not recreations. So the flower beds, tree placements and fountains are all just as the original designers intended.

Next door to the Taj, we toured the Red Fort. It was every bit as remarkable as its famous showy neighbor. The fort covers more than a square mile and has never once been completely taken. It featured gates large enough for elephants to enter, corridors where acid would be poured onto invaders, chambers for the emperor, his wives and his concubines, meeting areas for the parliament, and a prison where the emperor who built the Taj was ultimately imprisoned by his son.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Day2: Travel at the Speed of India

According to the tour itinerary on our second full day in India we travel by private coach to Agra and spend the balance of the day at leisure. What the itinerary did not hint at was that while it’s a mere 235 kilometers to Agra (that’s about 145 miles, I did the math) it takes six to seven hours “depending on traffic.”

Back home that might take you two and a half hours, but here road conditions and traffic—automobiles, bicycles, pedestrians and livestock—make what we assumed to be a quick trip into a day-long affair.

Typically traveling across a new country, whether it be by bus, train or boat, is fascinating. You get to watch the landscape change, see the people living their daily lives, and take in the diversity of the urban and rural areas. Maybe we haven’t seen much because we really didn’t travel that far, but so far India all look pretty much the same, gray, dirty and covered in heaping piles of trash.

The neighborhoods of million dollar flats look identical (at least from the outside) to crime-ridden poor neighborhoods. Maybe the dreary backdrop makes the beautiful things we’ve seen seem all that more spectacular. Just when I start to think the entire place is one massive landfill, it surprises me with something so pretty I gasp.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

In India White People Get Their Own Paparazzi

Have you ever had the feeling someone was watching you but you didn’t know why? That happened to us today in Delhi. Only it wasn’t just one person, it was mobs of people, and it wasn’t just watching.

Early in the day, I noticed as our tour group stopped, Indians slowly congregated around us. At first I thought they were eavesdropping on Raj’s, our guide, commentary. But at points, he’d mention an interesting cultural tidbit about the people around us and say “don’t worry, they don’t understand English.” Really? Then what are staring at?

Then it escalated. I noticed people snapping pictures of us. One guy came and casually stood a foot or two from me and had a friend take a photo. Video cameras began trailing us as went down a sidewalk. Then one particular large and brave group gathered around us and began asking to take photo with us, although it seemed they primarily wanted photos with the women.

It was so bizarre. It was kind of making me feel like a freak, but most of our group was really eating up. We quickly discovered if you let one person pose with you it becomes a mob scene. John and I ended up a bit ahead of the group as we headed to the bus. I stopped to let a young couple take a picture with me. So many others already had, and they asked really nicely. What I didn’t realize was that we’d gone from a relatively secluded portion of the park to the busy entrance area. Suddenly I was surrounded.

Dozens of people crowded around me, jostling for a photo op. They were grabbing and beginning to shout as cameramen lined up nearby. About this time, another crowd seemed to decide a photo with John was worth the effort as well and he started to drift away in his own developing photo-frenzy.

And that’s when I kind of lost it for a moment. I started yelling for John, “John! Johnjohnjohnjohn!” Together we managed to disentangle from the scrum. Luckily, no one seemed insulted by my melt down, in fact they seemed to think it was pretty funny.

On board the bus, Raj told us most of the people at the monument were tourists as well, from small villages around India. They’d never seen a white person in real life before. They’ll take the photos back to their village and show all their friends how the met a white person in Delhi.

Day 1-New Delhi, Old Delhi, South Delhi, Who knew there were so many Delhis

Our first real day in India, we were off to explore the capital, Delhi. Between visiting Gandhi’s ashes, a mosque and a Jain temple, we saw a lot of crazy things. Crazy things I saw in Delhi:
  • An elephant, just wondering around
  • A snake charmer
  • Amazing Technicolor parades of saris
  • Monkeys climbing phone lines
  • A bird hospital
  • Ice blocks toted via bicycle
  • Ice blocks on the sidewalk after a bicycle crash
  • The thieves market where they sell chopped car parts from tiny street storefronts
The highlight of the day was definitely the rickshaw ride through Old Delhi. Our guide told us that we were in the highest crime area of Delhi. So we held our bags close and boarded the tiny cart pulled by an even tinier man on a bike.

He wove us in and out of Old Delhi alleyways pack with stores, street vendors, people and vehicles. I mentioned the crazy Delhi traffic earlier. Today we saw it up close. I couldn’t believe how nonchalant people were as our rickshaw tires rolled inches from their toes, or how our driver managed to weave us into oncoming taxis and buses when we hit the busier streets.

I got off our rickshaw 40 minutes later knowing we never could have navigated the back alleys alone, thinking I saw some “real” India today, and feeling just the slightest bit like I just survived a harrowing experience.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Day 0-Touch Down in Delhi

After the longest plane ride of my life (14 hours 20 minutes) we finally touched down in Delhi. After the airport misadventures, we were just so thrilled to have actually made it.

We breezed through customs, claimed every piece of luggage (always feels like a little victory), found our guide without a hitch, and even hit the ATM so we are now shopping-ready.

I read so many places that India “smells.” You’re told the stench accosts you the moment you exit the airport. Granted we haven’t hit the hustle bustle of the streets yet, but India (so far) smells lovely. It definitely has a smell, a distinct smell that followed us from the airport through the 45 minute drive in Delhi traffic all the way to the hotel. It’s an earthy, smoky slightly incense-like smell. It reminds me of wood briquettes on a grill.
It was dark as our van zipped us through the highways and roundabouts. But, we had front row seats for the spectacle that is Delhi driving. These folks are brave, or crazy, or both. Like many third world nations, lines on the street, stops signs, etc. are a suggestion. A suggestion often ignored. The rules seem to be, if you car fits, you can put it there. If it doesn’t fit, just honk until someone moves.

The if-you-fit driving mentality must be why there are so many motorbikes and scooters. They zip in between the cars, squeezing through unlikely gaps in traffic. Most had at least two people on them. I saw one with three ladies, and a number of bikers had a sidesaddled sari-wearing companion.

Now I’m suffering from reverse jetlag and I woke at 4 am on day one. Time to go meet India. Well, almost time.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Trip that Almost Wasn’t a.k.a F-you

Adventures in the airport are never good. I like to save my adventure time for when we are actually in-country. Despite the best efforts (or really I should say despite the despicable lackluster efforts) of Orbitz we still managed to make it.

Our airport misadventure began when we checked in at OKC and were told that while Orbitz made a reservation for us on the flight, they never issued a ticket. So even though we’d paid Orbitz nearly $1,000 for this flight, Delta couldn’t give us a boarding pass because on their end we hadn’t paid. To pay at the gate would be an extra $2,000 since the flight was leaving in a matter of hours.

But it’s a simple fix. Just call Orbitz, tell them about the mistake, and they can issue the ticket and it’ll all be cleared up. Only getting Orbitz to fix their colossal screw up was anything but easy. Turns out it was impossible.

John and I used both cell phones to make multiple calls to Orbitz as the clock on our boarding time ticked down. Between the two of us we talked to at least a dozen reps. Most claimed they could find our record because Orbitz had changed systems since then (I was using the confirmation number Orbitz sent me three days prior). The ones who bothered to try, found the reservation, but no one seemed to know how to issue the ticket. I’m sorry, isn’t that what you do?!

Everyone we spoke to either put us on hold for 20 plus minutes, transferred us back to the department we originally called, or simply hung up on us. Yep, hung up! Question too hard? Oopsie, we must have been “disconnected.” Four times.

Then at literally the last minute, Mother Nature, flight delays and a miracle worker at the Delta counter saved us. The flight we booked was delayed by storms and would miss the connection. Somehow being forced to rebook opened the itinerary and Delta was able to put us on another flight at no charge. So instead of paying $2,000 to savage our trip, we got off with paying a $25 cab ride from La Guardia to JFK where we originally were supposed to land.

Then as if Delta hadn’t done enough already, our flight attendant gave us free wine because our flight was delayed. So, now I double plus mega heart Delta forever. I took down the miracle worker’s name so I can call Delta when we get home and tell them how awesome she was. I also plan to contact the Better Business Bureau and have a little chat about Orbitz.