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Posts Tagged ‘holiday’

I am travelling these days. I just got back from one and am getting ready to go on another. From now on, I’ll be on holiday for two weeks every month. I’ll be going to Delhi, Himachal, Europe and Uttarakhand between now and September. And maybe, just maybe, I might manage to sneak in a weekend visit to Goa.

As you can see, my calendar is pretty packed. So I’ll be blogging infrequently. The thing is, when I’m on holiday, I don’t read newspapers. And the last thing on my mind is waxing on the golden rules of writing. Therefore, the only thing I can write is travelogues. And no one reads them. And why should they? They are booorrrrinnngggg.

Pico Iyer, I’m not. Not only do I not have his facility and versatility with words, I’m not even as adventurous.

One, I’m vegetarian, so most local cuisine is out of my palate purview. And who wants to read about how much more succulent cauliflower is in Himachal vis-à-vis in Bombay?

Two, I’ve reached that age when I’m not inclined to slum it out anymore. I fly to a place and check into a decent hotel. So I can’t write about the visual delights along the scenic route to a particular place. I will be driving in Europe, though. And I’m not sure there will be that much to write about that. Driving in Europe is hardly as eventful, or as death-defying, as it is in India. I mean what am I going to write? How novel and exciting filling one’s gas tank oneself is? It is exciting, though. Almost like learning how to tie one’s shoelaces.

Three, people are generally courteous, so there’s no drama there.

And then everything is orderly. Trains come and go when they’re supposed to, and from where they are supposed to. Taxis are generally clean and reliable. They’ll go where you want to go and their meters are accurate. Pavements are actually available to walk on.

As I said, booorrriiinnngggg!

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This will be the last entry in the Bangkok chronicles. After all, there’s only so much one can write about shopping. But it’s the writer in me insists on chronicling every little thing, often at my own expense, like a cringe-inducing mishap with the newly acquired bikini swimsuit.

The swimsuit was a regulation two-triangle-held-together-with-a-string variety. Unfortunately, the two triangles aren’t sewn together, the idea being unhindered movement to cover all sizes of endowments. As can happen often in fluid environments with many variables (the economy is a good example), you don’t exactly know which way the subjects will move. Without going into specifics, let me just say that the subjects moved in an undesirable direction. So that’s why all those people were smiling, not because I cut an alluring figure in my new swimsuit, I thought my face burning with humiliation.

Anyway, the swimming pool misadventure out of the way, I wondered what to do with my evening. What I really wanted to do was watch a sex show. And more-beautiful-than-women transvestites up close. I mean, I had seen them during day manning (womanning?) stalls, but that doesn’t count. Apart from to-die-for-eyebrows and maybe a lipstick application, there’s nothing really to tell them apart from men.

The question was where to find all this? And how? I could hardly walk up to the concierge and ask them to direct me to a sex show. I could but I also carried the additional baggage of being Indian. What would they think? Another tharki Indian. So I called a friend who told me to jump into a tuk tuk and ask him to take me to Patpong. Here again, my innate shame about my fellow countrymen prevented me from acting upon this advice. Alas, women shooting darts out of their vaginas was going to remain a legend – only heard about, never seen.

My advice for you, if you go there and want to watch one, is to get over your inhibitions and just ask. Everyone else matter-of-fact about it, even openly soliciting on the roads, so why shouldn’t you be?

The next day was a Saturday. That means time for the Chatuchak weekend market. So I hopped on the MRT subway and a fifteen minute train ride later alighted at the fabled market. It was more of the same, except, for a street market it was air-conditioned. Plus there are more handicrafts there, not only clothes, shoes and other fashion accessories. For that alone it is worth a visit.

That was it. I had time only to hit one of the luxury malls briefly – I splurged on a pair of Nike running shoes, the kinds I had been coveting but they weren’t available in my size back home – and then it was time to hit the Suvarnbhoomi airport for the flight back home.

Once again the haggling with the cabbie started. When I told him to down the meter, he thought for a while and said, “I go by meter but you tip me, okay?” “How much?” I asked suspiciously. “50 Baht.” So I said okay and off we went.

I still had three hours at the airport, tens of duty free shops and a strong determination to finish the remaining 6000 Baht with me. There was no point in paying a two-way commission to Thomas Cook by converting it back into rupees, I told myself. It really did not make economic sense. Best to finish off the currency. Three short hours and an additional debit of about ten thousand rupees on my credit card later I boarded the plane back home.

Another word of advice. While Thailand promises a VAT refund of 7% for purchases over 5000 Baht on a single bill, there really is no point in queuing up for it at the airport if your refund works out to less that 300-400 Baht as they deduct 100 Baht as admin fee.

 

Samudra Mantha scene as depicted at Suvarnabhoomi Airport

Samudra Manthan scene as depicted at Suvarnabhoomi Airport

A Buddha Shrine

A Buddha Shrine

Another shrine in Bangkok

Another shrine in Bangkok

 

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Pratunam Market! I woke up with the refrain of Pratunam Market running through my head like a mantra. The bangle seller of yesterday had mentioned it as well, but he also added that quality was suspect and that I best try MBK first. Well, I had tried MBK. Now it was time to hit the Pratunam Market. Again, Pratunam Market was within walking distance from my hotel (if you can call about 4-5 kms walking distance) and I was there in 30 mins.

The Pratunam Market area comprises a street market and a main shopping building. The main shopping building is nothing much to write home about, although I did pick up a pair of kick ass flats there for 230 Baht, the kind you get in Woodland for upwards of 800 rupees, 2 tees for a total of 150 Baht and a nice shirtdress for 220 Baht.

It’s the street market that’s buzzing. Very much like the flea markets of Goa and the street markets of Colaba, Fashion street and Linking Road, you can get fakes of practically every brand – Calvin Klein/Hugo Boss/Diesel chaddis for men, Diesel/Rolex watches, Ferrari jackets, Fendi sunglasses, you get the picture. And in all price ranges too, depending on the craftsmanship. Plus tailored dresses (Bangkok is huge tailoring market). All in all a shopping paradise for goras. And to some extent for Indians too since there is a larger selection of western outfits. I picked up a bikini top, boy shorts swimsuit there for 300 Baht.

It was time to do some sightseeing. Not that I was intrigued by the prospect of seeing Buddhist temples – I mean I like them but I’ve seen enough and then some in Sikkim, Himachal and Ladakh India – but because by now I had started feeling guilty. I mean come on, I’d been in Bangkok for two days and all I’d done was shop!

Thailand has a variety of public transport – the sky train, the underground, tuk-tuks, AC and non AC cabs. The tuk tuks and cabs are reasonable if you can get the buggers to go by meter (luckily, unlike India, meters are not tampered!). I hailed an AC cab and asked him to take me to the Grand Palace. “By meter,” I said firmly. “Ah!” he said, all enthusiasm dissipating, “you want to go by meter?” “Yes.” He thought for a while and said, “Okay, I take you but we make a stop on the way? Thai Expo?”

I had read about this. Most of these people are paid by shop owners to bring in tourists. “No,” I said firmly, also a little indignantly. What was he thinking trying to scam Indians? We invented scams! “I don’t want to shop.” “No, no, no shop. Only look,” he insisted. “No,” I said. “Then I don’t go.” Whatever the shopowners pay the tuk tuk walas and cabbies must be huge indeed because he was willing to let go of a lucrative fare in the hope of catching some other unsuspecting tourist.

Anyway, I managed to find my way to the Grand Palace only to find it shut for mourning! The King’s sister had passed away and the State Funeral was in progress. Which was just as well ’cos I wasn’t about to pay 300 Baht entry fee. I’ve learnt my lesson well in Europe where for the piddliest of monuments/places of tourist interest the entry fee is upwards of 8 Euros. You pay the fee and end up feeling cheated. Perhaps that’s an Indian thing ’cos we’ve been spoiled by truly awe inspiring monuments back home.

But now what? I’d come all the way to a distant corner of city and it would be silly to go back without seeing anything. I asked around and was told of the presence of another Buddhist temple in the vicinity – Wat Pho. So I took a stroll there, paid a modest entry fee of 50 Baht and entered. One of the big attractions there is Buddha in repose. Even if you’ve seen lavish Buddhist temples, it is certainly an awesome sight. I mean the statue is 50 feet long! And golden! Which is another thing you’ll notice in Bangkok. Lots of gold everywhere.

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Wat Pho is also the temple where one of the kings consecrated many statues of Buddha, picked up from deserted temples from all over Tahiland. It is quite a sight – numerous big, golden Buddha statues in glass cases lining the walls of the Wat.

After Wat Pho, a tourist guide, with a practiced eye for spotting lost tourists, nabbed me and advised me to visit the Black Buddha, the Golden Mount and the White Buddha, I think, in that order. It doesn’t matter because I didn’t go. He told me entry was free in all those places and helpfully charted out a circuit on the map as well. He then gently propelled me towards a tuk tuk saying, “He’ll take you all three places and drop you Rama VIII bridge. Only 20 Baht. You catch boat to Taksin Bridge from where you take sky train back to Sukhumvit.”

Like any good Indian, always on the lookout for scams, I smelt a fish. 20 Baht for a distance of over ten kms, plus waiting, was too good to be true. It was. That infernal Thai Expo reared its ugly head again. I found that if I didn’t go to the Thai Expo on the way, “no buy, only look,” I didn’t go at all. Anywhere. Period.

Plus there was additional confusion of which of these monuments were free and which were paid. One policeman, or so he claimed (actually I’m being uncharitable. He probably was a policeman) flashing an ID card at me asked me where I wanted to go. I told him. He then got very angry and said all those monuments had paid entry. “Who tell you to go there?” he demanded angrily. Like I knew all the touts’ names.

He told me go to some fourth place saying, “You believe me or not is up to you. But I tell you, go there, in this tuk tuk. Government tuk tuk,” he said pointing to a row of tuk tuks in front of us. “They take you there. No pay more than 40 baht.” I started to get elated. And then he added, “Only stop at Thai Expo on the way.” Sigh.

I decided to have a coffee at a nearby café run by Royal Thai Navy wives Association and generally asked them about buses to Rama VIII bridge. They told me that if wanted to catch a boat all I had to do was stroll down the adjoining lane for two minutes. Sure enough, two minutes later I arrived at the jetty (I forget the name) where another scam played itself out. Or at least tried to. Apparently they, taking advantage of tourists’ confusion, hustle them into tourist boats which cost many times more than the regular public transport express boat. Plus there an additional landing fee of 20 baht pax for tourist boats. Plus there is no information bureau. So you have to be very careful not to get hustled. I didn’t and a twenty minute boat ride later (14 Baht) landed at Taksin Bridge from where I took a sky train back to my Hotel.

Lest you’ll think Bangkok is a dangerous place, let me add, yes they do have scams but they are nothing on the scale of scams back home. Plus the public transport is really good. So you should be okay.

 

 

View from the Jetty

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I’ve been away, travelling again. This time to Bangkok. I had read so much about people going beserk shopping in Bangkok – buying everything from luxury brands to discounted export surpluses and cheap knockoffs of the same – that I was very clear that I was going there to shop. And time permitting, do a bit of sightseeing (A sex show was definitely on the cards).

So I packed three tees and a spare bag in a huge suitcase and took off. I flew Thai and the service was nice. What’s more, the flight was at the decent time and took off on time. I arrived in Bangkok at 5 a.m., local time and was whisked off to my hotel (Windsor Suites, Sukhumvit, a very nice hotel, reasonably priced as long as you don’t use their facilities), where, upon checking in, I crashed out for a full four hours.

At around 11 a.m. I decided to begin my day by taking a stroll down the Sukumvit area.

Bramha Temple near Sukhumvit

Bramha Temple near Sukhumvit

 

 

A little distance from the hotel in the general direction of the MBK centre I came upon two McDonalds and three Starbucks and many malls selling designer wear (Prada, Gucci, Armani, you name it and they’re all there). And yippee, a Haagen Daaz! Without further ado, I made my way to the ice cream parlour and ordered a double scoop, a good decision as it turned out.

After the ice cream I resume my stroll and came upon Soi 16, which I was told is the shopping area. I don’t know what I expected but a Thai variety of Janpath and Linking Road it wasn’t. But that’s exactly what I got – roadside stalls selling tees, underwear, belts, shorts, dresses.  The women were all slight and smartly dressed. Looking at them, I, in my jeans and a half-sleeved tee felt over dressed and dowdy. But not as much as I did in Europe.

I was also gripped with a fierce determination to never eat again. Which worked out well, because being a vegetarian, I wasn’t about to risk eating anything remotely Thai. Good thing too I had already had the Haagen Daaz.

I came upon a stall where a women was selling a nice, designer type evening dress for 1090 Baht. As soon as I put it against me to see whether it would fit, she snatched it from my hands saying, “This small. No good for you.”

“But I wear small,” I argued.

She nodded sagely. “Yes, it fit at waist but not here,” she said, patting herself on the ass. “Too fat. I give you medium.”

Too fat! Affronted as I was, I wanted the dress more. So I swallowed my pride and asked her, “How much?”

“1090 Baht. I give you for 1000.” At 1500 rupees the dress was a steal.

“1000 too much. I pay you 800,” I said pushing my luck.

“No, no, nice dress. Maybe 3000 Baht in a store. I give you for 1000.”

Anyway, the deal wasn’t struck and I moved on, figuring that if I didn’t get anything cheaper and better I could always come back.

Lunch. I walked into a food court kinda thing and ordered a plate of stir fried veggies, “But no fish sauce or oyster sauce.” At which the waitress looked uncertain so I changed my order to a Singha (local beer, very good) and packet of Lays.

Roadside Eatery

Roadside Eatery

 

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I was savouring my lunch when who should accost me? A fellow countrymen from the North selling bangles! He desperately tried to hawk them to me and I kept fobbing him off. But he was insistent and only let up when I told him that I lived in Hyderabad, the bangle city. “Why don’t you sell to goras?” I suggested. “How come I never thought of that?” he said sarcastically. “But the goras are in such bad shape, they aren’t buying anything these days.”

But we struck up a conversation and I asked him where I could find good quality branded stuff at cheap rates and he directed me to MBK, suggesting that I could either walk it or take the sky train. I decided to walk it.

MBK centre is the buzzing area. Not the main MBK building, which is also happening, but the area around it. That’s where the teens hang out. There were bright lights, loud music, lots of people and places to eat and shop. And lots of hair and beauty salons. A haircut in one of these costs between 250 and 350 Baht, colouring between 1000 and 1500 Baht and Botox also for a very reasonable price (I forget the exact rates). This was definitely on the cards – the hair cut and colour, not Botox.

The main MBK Centre building had it all. Branded stuff, as well as cheap non branded variety. And while everything branded was on sale, it was still too expensive. But I struck gold at one of the lower floors where a lot of shoes were on sale. 199 Baht. 100 Baht. I quickly bought three pairs, even though today’s trip was just a reconnaissance trip.

Later, when I came back to the hotel, I decided to hit the swimming pool on the 14th floor. My feet were killing me but it was hot (not as much as Bombay, but hot nevertheless) and the free form pool looked so inviting.

I hit the pool where, once again, I felt over dressed. For God’s sake, I was in a two piece swim suit. Agreed, it was modest swimsuit comprising a sports bra and boy shorts, but a two piece still! In my petulance, I hit out by swimming twenty lengths non-stop and wearing myself out beyond belief. After which I went back to my room and crashed out, wet swimsuit and all.

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The next morning, as discussed the previous evening (it is a bit of a stretch to call 9.30 p.m. night), the alarm goes off at 5.30 a.m. I groan and turn over, willing it to stop and for everyone to miraculously forget about this morning’s safari. I haven’t slept well at all, what with the tiger’s incessant growling and the elephants’ voluble and unceasing rampage throughout the night.

But no one forgets. Prompt as the evening news, Arif knocks on the door on the dot of 5.45. “Yeah, yeah, I’m coming,” I say grouchily, jumping out of bed and pulling on my jeans. “Don’t forget to put on something warm,” he says. Was he serious? It is just the end of October in North India, and even after accounting for the extreme exteriority of the jungle, just cold can it be? I disregard his suggestion and fling open the TRH door. And almost die as a blast of cold, I mean COLD, air hits me. With a yelp I scuttle back inside and grab my jacket. “I told you,” Arif says reproachfully.

As I am about to get into the Gypsy, Rampal, the caretaker, cheerily calls out from the kitchen. “Here, have a cup of tea. It’s ready.”

But Arif doesn’t even let me have my tea. “We can always have tea later,” he says amiably. “I’ve just heard a ‘call.’” I look at him mutinously and silently avow to kill him the next time he mentions the word ‘call.’ But I comply, contenting myself with a longing look at the steaming cup.

It turns out to be a good decision. Following a female’s pug marks (they are more elongated than a male’s which are completely round), Arif drives on to a spot called Waterhole number 3. He turns off the ignition and we settle down to wait. There’s dense jungle on one side of the narrow trail and a vast field full of tall elephant grass on the other.

There’s complete silence. A breeze whips up and gently whooshes through the vegetation on either side. Normally this would not even be heard, but in the early morning calm, this sounds loud and ominous. We snap our necks fearfully every time we hear a rustle. Arif pretends to be one Rambo but I can see him look over his shoulder warily every now and then.

And then after about half an hour, our patience is rewarded. I see the deer suddenly up and tense and I spring to attention. I peer hard, scanning the grass field. I can feel it in my bones. I know I’m going to see her. And I do.

I see the tigress get from the waterhole and walk languidly across the field, back into the jungle. I see her for a whole twenty seconds. She spots us as well and stares at us disinterestedly as she walks. It is an awesome sight, a holy moment. I have a camera in my hands but my fingers are suddenly nerveless. By the time I spring into action, she is almost out of sight. I snap a picture but it is an ordinary camera with an ordinary zoom. All I get is a blur.

When we come back to the TRH, Rampal, takes one look at me and says, “You’ve seen one. I can tell. People who spot a tiger have a special swagger when they come back.” No kidding. Arif is grinning too but for a different reason. He knows that a hefty tip is in the offing. People who spot a tiger are generous with tips.

The rest of the day goes by, doing nothing at all. Venturing beyond the electric fencing is not permitted except on Gypsies and there are only so many bone rattling drives you can take, especially when you know chances of sighting are remote (tigers are notoriously lazy, preferring to relax in the shade during the hottest part of the day).

In the evening, we venture out again. We meet Abba, another sardarji tourist guide, and he informs us of the location of a tiger, tigress pair. Arif drives us there and we again settle down to wait. Our patience is once again rewarded. After about forty-five minutes, suddenly, I see a tiger spring up and lunge at a deer. All this happens in a jiffy and it is all over before I can shut my jaw which has hung open.

Omigod! I can’t believe it. It’s like a totally National Geographic moment. Arif and I both look at each other in disbelief. Did it really happen? Was that really a tiger? We couldn’t be sure, but who else would spring at a deer like that?

I come back from Corbett, awed and convinced more than ever before that these magnificent creatures must be protected at all costs. I also vow to come back with a better camera, one with a zoom like a canon (the piece of heavy artillery, not necessarily the brand), like the one professional photographers have.

My love affair with Corbett has just begun. I’m already planning to go back in March-April which is the best time for spotting tigers.

 

 

 

 

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We have just dumped our stuff and are having a cup of tea when our attention is arrested by a high voltage screeching. Arif freezes up and listens intently. “Shhh, can you hear it? Sambhar deer.”

“Really?” I ask askance. “It sounded more like an upset bird.”

Simultaneously langurs whip up energetic activity on treetops and a flock of birds dash past with an audible whoosh. Arif drops his cup in his haste and running towards the Gypsy cries, “It’s definitely a call…a tiger has been spotted. Come on!”

We jump into the Gypsy, Arif throws it into gear and takes off at the bone rattling speed of 40 kmph (if you think I’m being hyperbolic, try doing that on kuchcha roads). We arrive at the designated spot, helped of course by pug marks along the trail, which Arif points out almost defensively. He turns off the ignition and gestures for silence. Then he only says, “A call is the only way to find out where the tiger is. Because much like dogs, tigers have designated territories which stretch to 10 sq kms each. Plus they are notoriously lazy and usually just lie down in wait in the tall elephant grass. You’ll never spot it if not for the Sambhar deer call which indicates that it is on the move.”

And we don’t. What we do see is evidence of unforgivable behaviour by Indian tourists. That is, several places, mainly spots around watch towers (picnic spots for day trippers) littered with disposable plates, empty plastic water bottles and wrappers. We spend the rest of the safari cleaning up other people’s mess.

We come back at five minutes to six, although Arif has heard another ‘call’ and wants to push his luck. But, as we drive past the FRH, he spots a top ranking forest official’s car parked outside. He swerves back towards the FRH at the last minute. He does not want to lose his license for time violation, no matter how compelling the call.

So we come back discouraged, having eaten copious amounts of dust, with only one thought in mind. A hot bath. But that proves to be a challenge. There is no electricity and no hot water. Sure, the inverter is on but that is only enough to weakly power a couple of light bulbs. Our requests to the staff to heat up some in the kitchen is met with uncertain looks. The reason – they’ve run out of cooking gas and the replacement cylinder will only arrive tomorrow. Since our food is itself being cooked on choolah, unless we want to trade our food for a bath, and unless we want to risk freezing our butts off using cold water, no bath it is.

Okay, what next? There is only one thing one can do – enjoy the great outdoors with IMFL. That’s the great part about going on these holidays. You can hit the bottle at six (p.m., not a.m., although, even a.m. won’t be sooo outrageous as it isn’t in Goa) without feeling guilty.

Glass in hand (rum with water at room temp) I step outside and breathe in the cool jungle air mixed with an appealing smell of wood smoke. All is calm save the chirping of crickets and an occasional animal howl. I look up and my word, the sky is a veritable sieve held up against light. I haven’t seen so many stars since my last mountaineering trip!

Out of respect for the jungle we make conversation amongst ourselves in soothing low-pitched voices. The conversation is pleasant, although it sounds vaguely conspiratorial because of our hushed tones.

Soon dinner is served. It is a simple meal of dal, sabzi, rice and roti but we are so hungry that it tastes like Turkish delights.

Afterwards, I try to keep my eyes open but it is a losing battle. Suddenly a panicked screech, incessant deep growling and loud crashing sounds, all in the vicinity of the FRH. I am shocked into wakefulness. Rampal, the caretaker comes running. “Do you hear that? It’s a tiger and an elephant.” I peer around in the inky blackness, thankful for the electric fence (one that vies with the inverter for precious solar power) that runs around the perimeter of the FRH.

The sounds continue for a while but we get used to them after the initial panic. I resume my tussle with sleep but it is a losing battle. So I turn in for the night. It is as late as 9.30. I don’t know it yet, but tomorrow is going to be an awesome day.

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We are about to be on our way when Arif casually tells that in 2200 we get one three hour safari. “Wait a minute,” I tell him, “when we signed you one you promised us three safaris.” “And three you’ll get. Two one hour safaris while we drive to and from the Jhirna Forest Rest House (that is also counted as  a safari because It is way inside) and one three hour safari whenever you want.”

 “Or you can pay me 2500 and get three three hour safaris.” Clever, very clever. He cuts his price to get noticed amidst the clamour and still gets his way. “Yet another option is to pay me 2200 as agreed and then fill up the tank to replace whatever fuel is consumed and you can use the jeep as you wish.” Arif outlines so many scenarios that my head reels doing complex mathematics. Not how I want to begin my holiday. I finally tell him we’ll decide later. I have a niggling suspicion that that is exactly what he wants if his broad smile is any indicator.

We drive through Ramnagar and, after about half an hour, enter the forest buffer zone. Electric fencing demarcates forest territory from non-forest territory. I notice there are a few huts inside the forest and ask Arif about it. He tells me that the forest is trying to relocate these people but they refuse to move out as they’ve been living there for ages. I can’t figure out why, considering it can’t be much fun living in proximity with tigers but I figure if I bring it up, I’d only be stoking then whole man versus animal debate which has no solution.

There is beautiful tube well created waterfall which looks deliciously cool. We want to stop there awhile. Actually it’s my niece who wants to frolic in the cool water but Arif looks quite worried. He looks at his watch and announces that we’d better hurry as it is a weekend and safari time is about to commence. They only allow thirty jeeps to go in at a time and if we are not one of them, then it’s bye bye jungle, till the next morning. So we shoot envious looks at the gambolling children and resume our journey.

We enter the forest gate, complete our due diligence with the authorities and are once more on the way to the Jhirna FRH. “It will take about an hour to reach,” Arif cheerfully announces. And it is soon evident why. Since it is a jungle, there are no roads, only bumpy trails. Also a reason why only four wheel drives are allowed inside.

The last thing the forest officials want is a car stuck for lack of traction power. Make no mistake, it isn’t for your safety, it is for the safety of the big cats. If you get stuck, a hungry tiger may attack you as a soft target, which will make him/her a man-eater and it will have to be put down. See? Also, a reason why at any time during the safari, getting off from the jeep is prohibited.

Arif suddenly stops in the middle of the trail and, in hushed tones, points directly ahead. Tiger, I think and excitedly jump up and see. I crane my neck and strain my eyes but nope, I don’t see it. “Where is it?” I ask. “Where is the tiger?” “Tiger?” he says, “Who said anything about a tiger? It’s a monitor lizard.” And sure enough there is a huge, and I mean gigantic, monitor lizard lying horizontally across the trail. Sure, it’s an exciting sight but I don’t see what the fuss is all about. I’m here to see a tiger, remember? Then Arif tells us, “It is very lucky for me. Every time I see one, a tiger sighting is assured.”

My sister and I exchange amused, incredulous looks. It is the same look we exchange when a guide tells us erotic stories about a temple’s sculpture. My sister is convinced that the stories are made up and what’s more, embellished even more for honeymooning couples. Someday I’ll write a post about all tall tales I’ve heard at various monuments.

Anyway, we don’t see anything worthwhile – just a few spotted deer – and arrive at the FRH. It is 3.30 p.m. and we have just enough time to dump our stuff, have a cup of tea and leave for the evening safari.

Some Corbett Facts:

Corbett is at a distance of 240 kms from Delhi and it takes seven hours to reach.

The Jim Corbett Tiger Reserve is spread out over an area of 1284 sq. kms.

It is home to about 165 tigers (official count). Unofficially there are about 200-250. At least that’s what the guides tell me.

It is divided into three zones – buffer zone, tourist zone and core zone (no one but forest officials are allowed into the core zone)

The tourist zone is further divided into four – Jhirna, Dhikala, Bijrani and Kaladhungi. Of these Dhikala is the most well established and popular. It is situated on the banks of the river Ramganga and you can see animals from your room when they come to drink water at the river. Dhikala is open from Nov. 15 to June 15.

When visiting Corbett, it is best to stay at one of the FRHs as they are inside the jungle. The private resorts are all outside and it takes close to an hour to enter sighting areas. Vehicles are allowed inside only from 6.00 am in the morning which means they arrive at sighting areas only by 7.00 a.m. and have to be out by 9 – 9.30. They are once again allowed inside from 3 pm. onwards and have out start back by 5.00 p.m. in order to meet the 6.00 p.m. deadline at the gate. Which pretty much means you miss the best tiger sighting times which are dawn and dusk.

No meat is allowed inside the forest.

 

 

 

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We enter the field director’s office. A flock of guide/Gypsy owners swoop down on us as soon as we pull to a stop and alight from the car and accompany us all the way inside. I’m don’t know how they knew we were tourists. I suspect our Delhi number plate and the fact that we drove inside the compound tentatively, looking around uncertainly and asking people if indeed we were at the right place may have had something to do with it.

Inside I walk to the reception and announce dramatically, “We have bookings for Jhirna.” The guy at the reception glances at me and then at the palm of his hand. “Smita Jain?” I peer at him. “Rajesh Bhatt ji?” He nods shyly. I remember that when I was making the bookings on the phone I had several conversations with him. At the time he was curiously reticent about revealing his name. “Why do you want to know?” I was flabbergasted. “So that I can say hello to you once I reach.”

Now I say, “Hello to you Rajesh Bhatt ji. Just like I said.” He blushes furiously. In his book this is just not the way girls talk. Not with our baaraat of tourist guides watching interestedly.

He hastily thrusts a form at me to fill out. I go to the seating area nearby to fill out the form followed by the tourist guides who all want me to fill out their names and their car numbers in the form. You see you cannot enter the jungle in your own car. You have to hire a Maruti gypsy locally whose drivers double up as tourist guides. Or so I was led to believe. Later I learnt that you can take your car in as long as it is a four wheel drive. But it is much more fun in an open gypsy since it affords you a 360⁰ view. Of course it affords tigers the same luxury but more on that later.

Soon a bidding war erupts with tourist guides outdoing each other in cutting prices. So what begins with an initial bid of 3500 for two days comprising three three hour safaris settles at 2500. One clever enterprising guy, Arif, does the unthinkable. He shouts out, “2200.” “Done,” I say and quickly pencil in his car number.

I take the form to Rajesh Bhatt who asks me at what rate the deal was struck. When I tell him, he professes astonishment and turns to his colleague and says, “Can you believe how much they’ve dropped their prices?”

Feeling rather pleased with myself, I exit the office and move to get into my car. Till I realise I’ve left my Mont Blanc at the reception. When I rush inside I see my pen lying on the counter. Rajesh Bhatt is busy with another new arrival and doesn’t see me. I hear him asking them at what price the deal was struck. The new guys tell him 3000. Rajesh Bhatt professes astonishment and turns to his colleague and says, “Can you believe how much they’ve dropped their prices?” I have a feeling they say this to everybody, irrespective of the quoted price, so that no one feels they are being ripped off at their beginning of the holiday. Damn considerate of them actually.

Later on we stop for a quick meal at the KMVN Tourist Rest House (TRH) at Ramnagar. While the meal is prepared we while away time by nattering with the TRH guys who regale us with entertaining stories and give us helpful tips on what to carry with us.

Tip: If you’re staying at Jhina carry torches, snacks, cold drinks and anything else we might need apart from food.

Soon lunch is ready and we stuff ourselves silly on simple dal, sabzi, roti and chawal. When the bill is presented I’m left reeling in disbelief. Our simple meal for four costs 300! Tea costs 10 a cup! Just a couple of years ago, we would have been done in less than half the amount. But I guess inflation has caught up here as well.

We settle the bill and leave for the jungle. The time is 2.00 in the afternoon. The drive to Jhirna Forest Rest House takes about an hour and a half from Ramnagar. If we hurry, we will be just in time to dump our stuff and leave for the afternoon safari.

All said and done, the system at Corbett is chaotic. Most tourist guides really harass tourists. Some even bully them into putting down their names on the form. I agree they are desperate for employment but still, a system can be put in place, can’t it? Can’t they have a queue or something where these guys register in the mornings and as and when tourists arrive their names get ticked off? I suggested it to the Forrest Officer’s and he promised that he would look into it. But till then, if you happen to go, be very firm with the tourist guides. If you display the slightest hesitation you’ve had it. Tip: ask for Puran, Arif or one Sardarji called Abba.

Tip: at the KMVN Tourist Rest House at Ramnagar, do talk to Pandeyji. He is a tall, hefty gentleman and sports thick-lensed glasses. His left side is kinda slow to catch up with the rest of his body. The reason: he was mauled by a tiger who tore up his entire torso.

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I’m back after a fantastic holiday at Corbett and Ramgarh in Uttarakhand. Thank you all for continuing to read my blog and leaving comments. I promise I’ll get back as ASAP. For now, here’s a little bit about my holiday.

It is the 19th and our bookings at the Corbett Tiger Reserve are for two nights starting today.  We are staying at the Forest Rest House (or is it KMVN?) in the Jhirna zone. We dare not be late for they will give our bookings away to someone else. Which by the way suits my sister perfectly well because the Jhirna Forest Rest House (FRH) is supposed to be pretty basic. No electricity save for three hours every evening, no hot water, no fancy food. In fact, whatever you need besides what they provide at the FRH you have to carry with you. Once you are inside you are pretty much stuck for the duration of your stay.

The Corbett Tiger Reserve is divided into four tourist zones – Dhikala, Jhirna, Bijrani and I forget the name of the fourth. Of these Jhirna is the most recent and therefore most rudimentary. Of course there are other private (and luxury resorts) around Corbett but they are all outside the forest and kinda defeat the purpose of being in Corbett.

Coming back to our trip, we all get up at 4.30 in the morning. Our plan is to leave by 5.30. It is a 7 hour journey from Delhi in spite of being just around 240 kms away.

We have a small child with us, my niece, but still we manage to leave kinda on time. No thanks to my sister who wants to pack important stuff like shampoo and conditioner at the last minute. I see through her plan and whisk everybody out by 5.35 a.m.

So far so good.  And then we realize that we forgot to tank up last night and no fuel pump on the way is open. So we take a long detour just to save the odd rupee per litre (fuel is more expensive in UP than in Delhi) and end up running behind schedule.

Still we manage to beat the traffic and stop just short of Moradabad for breakfast. We spot a lovely roadside dhaba and order aloo paranthas with butter for breakfast. Hardly do the paranthas arrive when one trucker, having juts partaken of breakfast pulls out his truck from dhaba onto the main road. For some reason he takes a wider turn than necessary and another truck coming along the road bangs into him. I don’t know what happened. Perhaps the driver of the speeding truck thought there was enough space for him to squeeze past the turning truck and the divider.

It is a loud bang and my heart stops. The cab of the speeding truck is completely smashed in and all I can hear is piteous hoarse howling. When the scene clears somewhat I see that the trucker’s handyman, a mere boy of about fifteen, is wedged inside the squashed cab. I wonder what to do. For a moment I don’t react. I’m paralysed.

A tractor passing by stops and quickly attaches a tug rope onto the smashes cab and pulls out the shattered metal sheet. The boy is pulled out. He has deep gashes on his legs and his bones can be seen but nothing seems broken.

A hefty man scoops up the slight boy in his arms and sets him by the roadside. The boy is more frightened than hurt and I can see his eyes are welling out but he is trying to be brave.

By now my muscles start responding to my reflexes and I jump up and run towards the small crowd. I have to help the boy. It is one of those moments in life when you know you just have to. Not because I’m noble or anything. I just hope that if something like that should ever happen to me, someone would help me too.

Except my arrival creates quite a stir and everyone abandons the poor boy and focuses on me instead. They stare and snigger at my suggestions of taking the boy to the nearest hospital. To add to my discomfort the injured boy is also shooting me black looks. I consider lighting up and making their day. Perhaps once the novelty of the jean clad, cigarette smoking city girl has worn off they’ll concentrate on the boy.

He needs to be taken to the hospital which is about four kilometers away. Somebody from the nearby hamlet comes on his motorbike and boy is whisked away to a hospital in Joya. While the two drivers try and sort out stuff. Soon policemen arrive on the scene like vultures. They figure there are pickings to be had. People say that Indians are resourceful and enterprising. I guess we’ve got to be in the face of official apathy.

Presently we arrive at a fork just outside Moradabad and stop to ask two young men by the roadside which road leads to Kashipur. They obligingly point to one road but they don’t look too sure. So I ask them where the other road leads. They don’t respond. So I ask again. In response they look at us in exasperation and one of them says, “Ye jaanke kya karoge? Aapko toh Kashipur jaana hai.” Why do you want to know? You want to go to Kashipur.

After some persuasion the boys relent and inform us that the road leads into a colony. “Oh, we don’t want to go onto that one,” I blurt before I can stop myself. And hurriedly put the car into gear before they can respond with a suitably cutting retort.

We continue the journey along bumpy UP roads and Mayawati’s face beaming down at us from large hoardings keeps us company throughout. Which makes me think Behenji hasn’t had much occasion to travel on these roads.

Anyway, the rest of our journey goes by without incident and we arrive at Ramnagar at the Forest Director’s office at 12.30.

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I’ve been in Delhi for four days now and so far the stay had been uneventful. Barring a stray incident where I walked into a lamppost and then walked around Connaught Place with a bloody nose.

The rest of the time, I’ve just been gorging on chaat and chhole bhature and some uncharitable souls have already started commenting that I’ve put on weight. Put on weight?! It’s been four frigging days! Delhi is an air pump or what?

I’ve also been answering some fan mail most of which is from people I knew at various educational institutions. This is not to drive home the fact that I’m famous…well, maybe just a tiny bit.  

To get back to the fan mail, some of the comments made me laugh out loud. “Our teachers said you were one of the boldest girls they’d known.” Last I’d known the word that was being bandied about was notorious. Makes you realize what a little success can do for your reputation.

Just to apprise you of the facts, I have been expelled from every hostel I’ve ever been to. The reasons ranged from wearing a too short skirt to smuggling in bhang during Holi to bunking and going off to a disco at night to being a groupie of rock bands to generally being too individualistic.

India, as most of us know, approves of acquiescent behavior. It is unforgiving of originality and independent thought, especially in women.

Enough cynicism. I’m off to the Corbett Tiger Reserve tomorrow and onto Rishikesh from there for a spot of river rafting. Terrible planning I know but what to do. Time is short and there’s a lot I want to do.

I especially want to see a tiger before tigers are extinct. I’m crazy about tigers and have been to Ranthambore and Sariska (this was before I was informed that there are no tigers left in those two anymore!) and all I saw after two whole days of eating dust were pug marks (which in hindsight are suspect as well).

Maybe I’ll be lucky the third time around. I did ask rather pointed questions of the KMVN and the Forest Service officials and have been assured that there are indeed tigers to be found at Corbett.

Otherwise, next stop, Bandhavgarh.

Ciao until later.

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