Friday, July 29, 2011

On Safari

I figured after my adventure in Mumbai that I couldn’t leave India without trying to see a tiger. After all, I had been able to see lions on my previous trips to Kenya, so it only seemed fitting. So after a week back in Delhi, I pulled together a last minute trip to the Wildlife Reserve at Ranthambhore to go tiger spotting.

However, before I talk about that, I want to discuss a crazy experience in Delhi the night that I left for Ranthambhore. It so happened that on this evening, Andrew and Alan were in town (Delhi, this time) and were absolutely eager to see me and treat me to dinner. I was only too happy to oblige, but unfortunately had already planned to attend an environmental lecture that evening at the India Habitat Centre. Being the environmentally-conscious citizens that they are, Alan and Andrew thought it might be fun to attend as well and that afterward we could all grab a bite together. So I met them at their hotel and proceeded together to the India Habitat Center.

Now when I had planned on attending this event, all I knew was from a blurb forwarded me by my friend David. David didn’t know the speaker personally but thought I might be interested. The blurb said this was the launch of a new environmental movement in India called the “Tao of Green.” Interested since it invoked a philosophy that I had come to know in China, I thought it might be worth my attending to learn a bit about environmental movements in India (a nice complement to the green building research). Based on my enthusiasm, Andrew and Alan joined me.

From the first moments, we sensed this would not be quite what I had expected. We entered the room to hear the sounds of Bob Marley and other hits of the 1970s with the Windows Media Player Visualizer filling the projector screen. Though I recognized a face or two from my previous environmental conferences in Delhi, the crowd was mostly dressed down and relaxed. Few seemed to be of any high importance in the Indian environmental scene. The man running the show bounced excitedly around in his ragged jeans, slippers, and shawl reminiscent of those from South America. His overexcited nature belied either a great nervousness or something else.

When finally the hour struck to begin the meeting, he had to be prodded to get going. Otherwise, I think he would have fiddled with his computer and the microphones endlessly. He turned his bloodshot eyes to the crowd and excitedly began asking the audience for their suggestions on what to do about the environment, the lack of social infrastructure in India, and basically solutions to the problems caused by the corrupt Indian government. The bewildered audience which had been expecting a presentation of some sort just stared back until another member politely suggested that he explain why we were all here before demanding we overthrow “the man” and solve all of India’s problems through a new social order. Accepting the request, the man called up his panel of speakers and introduced each. That was the end of what I can even begin to call the “normal” part of the evening.

At this point, an audience member stood up and began yelling that one of the panelists was a fraud, liar, and undeserving of sitting on any panel anywhere. He claimed that the panelist had failed to pay his rent for years and as such was undeserving of the praise heaped on him from the organizer of the evening. In the five minutes that followed, a heated argument ensued in which the accused sat smugly, the accuser shook with rage as he yelled his accusations and held up incriminating documents, and the host had to be physically restrained in his violent retorts that nearly came to blows. The accuser was finally escorted from the room and calm ensued, but not before several others had discreetly found the exit. We wished later we had been among them.

As a sense of disquieted calm returned to the evening, the presenter turned once more to explaining his movement. With the accompaniment again of Mr. Marley, Queen, and others, he began a slideshow with images and headlines meant to shock us into revolution against India and the world. Claims of climate change, corruption in schools, failing grades, and a downfall of the economic system flashed on the screen as the presenter bounced along with the music, shifting from side to side, and occasionally throwing out a short rant to accompany a slide. When it was all over, I glanced from Andrew to Alan as I thought to myself, “What have I gotten us into?”

At the end of this, a few more people found the door while others stared blankly at the presenter again imploring us to offer thoughts and solutions to his new movement and creation of a new social order. He even asked us directly for an American viewpoint. Not wanting to be associated with this at all, we just shook our heads. An audience member again implored him to explain what it all meant. He defended his slides, saying that they were presenting the problem and later he would show his solution—the Tao of Green. After a heated debate on the use of the word “Tao” in the name of the movement that resulted in several more audience members leaving, I had to excuse myself to take an important phone call from the University of Michigan.

When I finished, I found Andrew waiting for me outside the hall. He had excused himself to the toilet and did not want to return. He sent me in to collect Alan so we could head to dinner. I crept back in to find Alan sitting in a shocked stupor at the crazy and often idiotic events unfolding before him. Tapping him lightly and signaling the door, he was only too happy to leave, and soon we were off to dinner at the American diner near the Habitat Centre. I found out later that while I was outside, the presenter had showed his solution through several more nonsensical slides that amounted to nothing except damning the current global geopolitical order, if, that is, you could apply any theme to his rants and images. I felt bad for subjecting my friends to this horrid evening, but soon we were all laughing about it while sitting in the neon glow of a 50’s diner in the heart of Delhi.

The presenter contacted me a few days later via e-mail. When I asked him to remove me from his e-mail list, he messaged me directly in a very defensive mood. After calling me a product of the system, saying that my friend David who had referred me to the event would be ashamed of me, and telling me that I was closed-minded and ignorant, he somehow had a change of heart and invited me to his home. I declined, blocked his screen name, and reported all of his messages as spam. I found out later that he doesn’t even know David—the e-mail was sent to David through some list serv. I don’t know what is wrong with this man, how many drugs he was on that night or the night he messaged me, or what he thinks he will accomplish with his ranting and images (his rants, by the way, continued in daily e-mails culminating in one that claimed the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami were products of global warming instigated by the malicious actions of current world leaders), but I hope he never includes me again in any of it.

After that interesting evening and a nice dinner, however, I was off to the train station for an overnight ride to the Ranthambhore National Park in Rajasthan. Though not the best place for tiger spotting in India, it is the closest to Delhi and with my limited time, the only one I could book easily. I arrived in the wee hours of the morning and was picked up and transferred to my hotel by the company through which I had booked my safaris. To maximize my chances of seeing the beautiful yet elusive beast, I booked on four trips—morning and evening each day—with another overnight trip back to Delhi on Sunday.

The first ride began shortly after sunrise as I was picked up by the lorry—a vehicle for 16 people. We headed into the game park and turned onto one of the paths set out for vehicles. The rules there were quite strict—unlike in the African game parks I visited, each lorry was assigned one route on which it could drive and one route only. So if a tiger was on another road, too bad. It was a matter of luck as to which route you were assigned too, so no trying to guess where the tiger will be based on where he was before. Each ride was only 2 hours as well and then you had to leave.

Riding through the jungle was fun though and we saw plenty of birds, monkeys, and deer. At first these interested us, especially when the birds would come down to perch on the top of the lorry’s windshield providing for close-up pictures. We even ran across a couple of crocodile sitting in the lake waiting for the sun to warm their cold-blooded bodies. However these animals soon seemed old to us as we thirsted for the sight of a leopard, or better yet, a tiger. As we turned around, however, it seemed luck was not with us. We left the park and though every pair of eyes in the car strained for a dash of orange in the reeds, it was not to be found. Our eyes only picked up what you see below.

My time in between rides on both days was a blissful vacation from the bustle of work in Delhi. I had chosen to leave the computer at my hotel in Delhi in the care of friends so that I would be unencumbered on my train rides. I had brought instead only a book to read and Sudoku puzzles to solve. I passed my afternoons, therefore, relaxing, thinking, sketching, and exploring the small village around Ranthambhore. It was wonderful in many ways to feel as though I was on a great adventure—I was not wasting time certainly—but yet to be able to pass the time in some idleness, relaxing from my southern adventures and storing rest for my upcoming travels.

As the afternoon waned, it was time for my next game ride. This time, I hopped into a different lorry with a new guide. We turned down a new path and again the excitement of the hunt stirred us all. Fresh eyes and high spirits scanned the forest floor for sights of the big cat but again found only birds and deer. Monkeys chattered above our heads but none called the warning of the big cat. Suddenly our guide pricked up his ears. He had heard the warning call and not far off. We stopped the car by a lake and waited. Perhaps the tiger was coming down to drink. There are only a few of these big beauties in Ranthambhore Park, and yet the park itself is massive, with large swaths inaccessible to jeeps and lorries. The excitement gripped us, but as the minutes waned, our attention wandered. Even the guide relaxed and seemed not to hope for a sighting. As we were thinking of moving on, we heard the warning call again, this time sharper and behind us. The driver did a quick U-turn and raced back toward the park entrance. We came upon a jeep stopped in the reeds, its cargo of four tourists popped out the top, cameras at the ready. As we waited, we saw something move to the right. The reeds rustled and slowly parted, and there emerged a beautiful, large male tiger. Undisturbed by the 24 tourists now snapping his picture (another jeep had come up behind us), he sauntered on his way. Swiftly, our driver moved past the jeep to keep pace with the cat until the tiger turned and faced the road. We stopped, killed the engine, and waited. Slowly, he moved out from the trees, walked slowly across the road not 20 meters in front of the car, and disappeared on the other side. Though we tried to follow, he moved away from the road and was soon lost in the underbrush.

Even though we had only seen him for two minutes, the car twittered with excitement as we drove on back to the gates and out of the park. No other lorries had glimpsed the beast that day and so we felt special—the conquering heroes. For me, the night was spent in relaxation and happiness over an Indian dinner before an early bedtime for my next day of safaris.

As dawn again broke on Ranthambhore, it was time for me to rise and head out once more. The sighting the evening before had whet my appetite for more, and I felt sure that today we would again be lucky. Our drive took us down yet another track this morning, past more crocodiles reposing by a beautiful lake. Birds skimmed the surface, and the clarity of the sky promised a beautiful day and lifted us all with optimism. For several in our car, this was their last chance to glimpse the powerful animal so near extinction. They only hoped if they went home empty today that it wouldn’t be the last chance in their lives. We drove all morning, but again in vain. Though we came upon wild boars this time as well as the usual cohort of deer and monkeys, the tiger again eluded us. Tracks lay in the road, but evidently the nocturnal beast had settled elsewhere for the day. Our cameras full but hearts empty, we again returned to town disappointed.

After another day of relaxation and wandering the town picking up souvenirs, I boarded a lorry for the last time Sunday evening. With yet another guide and on yet another road, I hoped that I might at least go 2/4 in my tiger spotting. Yet as the drive grew long, the sun’s rays longer, and time shorter, it seemed we were not to find the beast. We rode this time past the ruins of a hunting lodge now known to drivers as “Tiger Fort” because of the propensity of the beasts to sleep in the open windows. Yet today there was no such luck. Through the hills we wandered again encountering deer, boars, and monkeys, but no tiger.

As we passed the Tiger Fort again, though, something was different. Two jeeps were stopped staring at it from across the lake. We joined them and soon a whisper of “tiger” passed through the car. Everyone strained their eyes, but none could make out the supposed sighting. Our guide passed around binoculars and explained where to look. Sure enough, there was the tiger, sitting in the window. With the twin miracles of optical and digital zoom, even you can see for yourself. See?

How about now?


If you still didn’t see him in the last picture, try this one, and note that you are looking for the white belly of the reclining big cat. His head is up too, so that should help.

Though we now could all technically say we had seen the tiger, it seemed somehow unsatisfying. Though the time was short and we had to get back, as we saw the tiger moving, our driver decided to chance it. He raced around the lake to the other side and waited. With baited breath, we saw the tiger slowly pop through the reeds into a small pond, stoop for a drink, and then move off again into the brush. We tried briefly to follow, but our tardiness forced the driver back to the main gate without further chances to see the beautiful cat. Even so, we were all extremely thankful for his courage in defying the curfew and expressed our gratitude profusely on the ride home.

As darkness fell again on the city, I strolled through to the train station and waited for my train. Though it would be a long night and very uncomfortable, I could make the journey happy. I had been triumphant in my quest and had experienced yet another unique aspect of India’s mysteries.

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