This was not the town for us. Hotel drama, no tigers on our safari, and we lost the laptop. It could have been worse, I keep telling myself, and Lordy it could have been better!
So, the event with the longest-reaching effects for us: the laptop fell out the back of the auto-rickshaw just now as we were heading for the train station this morning. We had gotten up about 4:30am and, bleary-eyed, we loaded the vehicle and packed in as we always do, and somehow the laptop bag ended up balanced in the back on top of the backpacks. It wasn’t there when we reached the train station, and it wasn’t on the street when DH went to look. The laptop, given to us by LW our excellent friend in Washington DC, had served us well and was an important tool in our traveling. It was the way DH was able to hold a part-time job teaching online. It also had all of our bills and business things from home, back-up photos, and a transcript for a play DH was writing. In the beat-up black case were the homeschool portfolios the kids have been working on for months, and our atlas with our route traced on the continents, and a chess set, and our cell phone from Thailand with the difficult-to-obtain Indian SIM card. There were probably other things we’ll notice later. Ugh. I’m not sure what we’ll do next about all of that. DH may have to quit the job because the cost of replacing the computer might be more than his earnings! We are all pretty bummed out and I can’t even say the trip to this town was worth it.
We left Bundi, with its laid-back vibe, elephant stable hotel, and petroglyphs. The Rathambore National Park outside the town of Sawai Madhopur was on our way back to Jaipur and we decided to visit. The journey to there from Bundi was not far, under two hours by bus and train, but it ended up also requiring three auto-rickshaws to get to our final destination, the budget hotel from our guidebook. We were in good spirits, after all of these trips and narrowly avoiding a fine for being in the wrong area on the train*. We were, however, hungry so we moseyed up to the rooftop restaurant at the hotel. After ordering and waiting an hour, we learned there was just one man cooking and by the time we had eaten, nearly three hours had passed. During that time I was also unpleasantly surprised that our rooms, which were fine but very basic (no bathroom in room, no tv, no a/c), cost more than much nicer rooms we had had all over India. Apparently the park, with its population of tigers and its proximity to other big tourist sites like Jaipur and the Taj Mahal, is a huge draw for tourists and prices are high. We were planning to go on a safari and we also hoped to see the rare beasts, but for many tourists tigers are a main goal and a very big deal and thus the high premium.
Tiger images are everywhere in this town. They decorate the railway station, hotels, businesses, vehicles, everything. With the exception of the three-month rainy season, there are safaris every morning and evening to one of the ten zones of the park- but only zones 1-5 have a good rate of tiger sightings, so every safari vendor wants a higher price for these. The number of vehicles is restricted, sometimes with changing numbers and rules. Supply and demand ratios are fiercer than a hungry carnivore. Every tourist we spoke with had one primary topic of conversation- did you see one? I had to remind myself I personally wasn’t in a frenzy of wanting to see a tiger. Like the vast majority of all humans who have ever lived, I prefer to avoid carnivorous master predators. In fact, a guide was harmed and a tourist was threatened by a tiger not far from here two months ago. A guard was killed by a tiger at Ranthambore less than a year ago. That said, it was hard not to get caught up in the hype. It would be cool to see one of the big cats. But also, I am excited to support the conservation of tiger habitat- it benefits all living things in the food chain, including humans, when the habitat of a master predator is preserved. The park has something like 300 bird species, several types of deer and monkeys, alligators, mongoose, native plants, much diversity that thrives in the protected land. Hopefully a lot of the tiger revenue goes to help the wild species in the park.
So there were a lot of things to see there at Ranthambore. But I realized all of us wanted to see a tiger and we had a decent chance of being disappointed. We didn’t even have a safari booked (our guidebook recommended booking 3-4 months in advance, but that seemed extreme, or maybe it’s low season) and we had to figure out how to do that in our two days here. We also had to get to Jaipur from here afterwards, and the usual homeschooling work to continue. We did all of this as best we could.
The first afternoon, we went to see the Ranthambore Fort (above) on the non-tiger side of the park. On the way in, we saw many deer and birds, in fact it was like a mini-safari. We never figured out the layout of the park to understand how we were inside the park but here, with the fort and a temple as well, visitor and vehicle numbers appeared unmonitored. The fort was nice and, with the temple on fort grounds, well populated by locals. There were a few tourists as well. I got separated from DH and the kids and I followed a stony road past the fort. I thought it would loop around but it kept going. I had to turn around. We were there near the end of the day and I saw many people leaving as I waited for my family. I’m not sure where the locals came from, but they all had on traditional clothing- saris for the women and white with a turban for the men. Many were coming from the road I had taken. Everyone had to leave the area by 6 pm per the park rules. I watched about 40 parakeets carefully eating birdseed on the ground. They seemed to pick it up so gently with their beaks compared to the fast-pecking pigeons nearby. As people came down the stairs, they bent to touch the last step and then touch their forehead. It was quite beautiful to watch.
When we got back to the hotel, we decided to have dinner a few doors down and that brought us into some drama I never figured out. It seems the restaurant owner had once worked at our hotel and there were some bad feelings. The hotel man asked why we didn’t eat at the hotel restaurant but did not accept our reasoning about the three hour wait for lunch. DH had a long discussion with Hotel Guy. I didn’t have much patience for this. And maybe we got bad juju from this, since none of the park’s 56 beautiful striped animals showed themselves on the safari and then the laptop loss.
Above: open roof vehicle called a ‘canter’ with 2o tiger-seeking tourists. Below:Cleverly and me on the tiger-free journey
I thought about hype and traveling, and how things are important and taken for granted intermittently. So much can go wrong at any moment, in travel and in life. The people in the countries we have visited seem to accept fate more than we Americans. My family mourned the loss of the computer, tried to get it back, we’re scheming to get it back or replace it, it is hard to accept that it is gone. It’s hard to feel sorry for ourselves with so much poverty around us. We have so much to be thankful for. I’m glad we made our early train this morning, glad we have our health and resources, grateful for so many good times on this trip. Things are bound to go wrong once in a while. And that is our story of Sawai Madhopur.
Below: Ranthambore residents with less press coverage:
*We bought ‘unreserved’ tickets but boarded on a different car because we thought we could upgrade en route. Not possible since there were no available seats, also a punishable offense, apparently. We had done it once before without a problem but there had been empty seats then. Unreserved cars are overcrowded and difficult to board due to people rushing to enter an already overfilled space. We couldn’t picture attempting this with all six of us + luggage. These were the only tickets we could get that day. We ended up spending the short trip (1 hour) mostly in the between-car space with some friendly railroad employees. We felt like stowaways! They wouldn’t let us walk through to the unreserved car because we would have had to pass through a first class car and this is not allowed- a British holdover, I suppose, no mixing of classes! India rail is a complicated and interesting place.