INDIA-When Wilderness Calls

Tigers in India
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On a whim, we decided to go to India to see the tigers. A friend had asked her travel agent, Heidi Hoehn from TravelStore, to set up a tour that focused on wild animals. We joined the fray. We had no idea that with all the stops and hotels for several nights each, that we would collect so many pairs of slippers! Most fit me and a few fit Larry.
 
We flew to Doha, Qatar, on Qatar Airlines, changed planes in Doha and flew to Delhi. In only 16 ½ hours we changed countries, cultures, language, food and lifestyle. Traveling with us were three people we know well. The other six were new to us. It was a congenial group. 
 
Our first group get together was at the Imperial Hotel in Delhi. This hotel is well known for its high standards of service and refreshingly different hotel experience. We collected our first set of slippers. 
 
Traffic in Delhi is mayhem in action. The lines on the roads mean nothing. (We found the same thing in Cairo.) Cars, taxis, motorcycles, scooters, tuk tuks, buses, bicycles all wanted to use the same “lane” at the same time. It was best to close your eyes and not watch. That does not mean the driver of our vehicles could do that. We never saw an accident. All this happened as we drove around the sacred cows who are free to roam wherever they want. Some cows even rested in the median. Traffic sounds did not bother them. Indian drivers drive with one hand on the horn. That is the busiest hand in the world. Horns sound almost continuously. The horn is used to tell other drivers that a vehicle is coming and will soon pass you or cut you off.
 
In Delhi, we toured the Bahai Temple also known as the Lotus Temple. We had to wear our “temple sox” as shoes are not allowed inside. The Temple was designed by Iranian architect Fariburz Sahba and completed in 1968. The shape is that of a lotus flower with 27 petals in white marble. Nine pools on 227 acres of green lawns surround the temple. The temple is open to all as it believes that humanity is one single race. The auditorium has seating for 1300 people.
 
The National Museum was on the agenda. It contains over 200,000 works of art from Indian and foreign origins. We toured both new and old Delhi. We had a tour director who was with us the entire time. He seemed to know something about everything. He speaks six languages.
 
We had a good taste of the traffic and round-abouts there. Our bus driver should be a saint. We drove past the embassies from other countries, the government housing and the official residence of the president. Delhi has a population of about 16,000,000.
 
Meals were served at different locations so we got the flavor of India and it is very spicy. Our last evening in Delhi we had a multi-course dinner at one of the newest restaurants, Masala Library. The meal lasted about four hours. We were still recovering from jet lag and did not want that much food. Service was outstanding.
 
Then we were off to experience the wildlife. Our primary goal was to see tigers. As our tour director informed us, we would not see tigers unless they would reveal themselves to us. As most of our days would involve an early rising, 05:00 or so, we got used to the routine. We flew to some locations and drove to others. Bus rides were 3 1/2 to 5 hours with a stop in the bushes for comfort relief.
 
Our first national park was Bandhavgarh in central India. We stayed at the Samode Safari Lodge. They provided another pair of slippers for us. The routine became: up early, drink coffee, tea, eat hot cereal (porridge) with a little Irish whiskey added, fruit if desired, cookies. Then off to the Park with a naturalist to see what animals we would see. Deer, both spotted, swamp and barking, were everywhere as were macaque and grey langur monkeys. We rode in jeeps with three rows of seats. The driver sat on the right front and we filled in in the back. We climbed into the jeeps and climbed out. 
 
Following a couple of hours searching for and viewing wildlife from the trails, we stopped at certain spots known to the naturalists and they pulled out food and served us breakfast. They made coffee and tea and always had bottled water. Refreshed, we continued our wildlife quest. The Parks close at 11:00, when we returned to camp and had lunch.
 
We normally left at 14:45 to repeat the morning activity for the afternoon. This was the very hottest part of the day (upper 80's to 90's). I did get a tan and more freckles. We then stayed in the park until it closed at 18:00. We saw our first tiger at this park, but no one was fast enough to take a photo. He was a large magnificent male.
 
The camp served cocktails and dinner around 19:30 and then we went to sleep. We repeated the same the next day. Exhaustion works well for sleep.
 
From Bandhavgarh we drove to Kanha National Park. This Park covers 1175 square miles in the Maikal Hills of the Satpura range. The forests are full of Sal trees and bamboo. Caught our first photo of a tiger here. We stayed at the Taj Banjaar Tola camp. Both camps used elegant tented suites. We stayed there three nights. Slippers at each location awaited us.
 
“On the Road Again” to Pench National Park, a 4 ½ hour drive. Tented suites as before but less formal. Saw a mom tiger with her two cubs resting in the water, as well a leopard here. We stayed at the Jamtara Wilderness Camp. After three nights here, we packed up and flew to Jaipur, India. Then a mere 3 ½ hour ride to the fourth camp, Ranthambore, the most elegant of all the grounds and tents. We stayed at the Oberoi Vanyavilas. We followed the same agenda for animal tours and meals and slippers.
 
On March 13 India celebrated the Hindu Festival of Colors-Holi. After returning from the a.m. animal drive, we were given white linen pants and long tops to wear. We went outside to the party area and immediately were covered in powdered paint colors. They put it on our faces, in our hair, on our clothes and any place else paint would go. We seniors acted like kids eating and dancing to wild music. After cleaning up, we went for our final animal drive. It proved to be the best with a close-up tiger sighting and a leopard as well as the usual deer and monkeys, crocodiles, ground squirrels, peacocks, peahens, many bird species, jackals, etc.
 
On the way to Agra we stopped at Chand Baori to see the step well, a unique idea conceived by the natives to work as a water reservoir to catch and store monsoon rain water.
Another stop along the way was at Fatehpur Sikri, a World Heritage location built in the 16th century by the Mughal Emperor Akbar probably India’s greatest king.
 
Back in the bus we headed to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. It is a gorgeous site. We could see it from our hotel window. We stayed at the Oberoi Amarvilas, where, of course there were another pair of slippers.
 
The emperor Shah Jahan planned and built this monument for his wife to honor her memory. It is constructed of white marble, it was extravagant and it is graceful from any angle. The detail is amazing. The Mughal emperor commissioned the Taj to be built in 1631. It took 17 years to complete on the south bank of the Yamuna river. It stands 240 feet high. It is considered by some to be the most perfect architectural monument in the world.
 
After the Taj what could follow that would be appropriate. We went to the Agra Fort also built by the Mughal Emperor Akbar. His son and grandson added to this structure during their tenures. The palaces, mosque and audience halls contained within the massive wall of red sandstone are perfect examples of blending Islamic and Hindu traditions.
 
For our final bus ride, we headed back to Delhi. We had dinner, showered and repacked for the last time. Our flight left at 03:45. We napped on this short flight to Doha preparing for the long 13-hour flight from Doha to Chicago.
 
This was a rigorous adventure we gladly took. Not only did we see the tigers we hoped to see but also saw what we can do when we wanted to do it. It was a great trip, which we thoroughly enjoyed. Now we can rest at home.
 
Fran. O, Highland Park, IL