Saturday, January 18, 2020

India Day 13 and Final Thoughts

I woke up the next morning, had a standard hotel complimentary breakfast, and then waited for Amy to drive up from KC to retrieve me. It was more wonderful than I can say to see her again, and the bad weather had cleared the area before we made the trip back home.

So there you have the saga of my first experience with international travel. The blog entries were written a month or so after the fact and back-dated to put them in proper chronological location and order. The entries are based on 73 pages of notes and 3,924 photos.

Just sorting through the pictures took quite some time. Eventually I managed to settle on 14 of the best images for my portfolio.

I want to thank On Track Safaris in the UK and India Footprints in India for providing me with one of the most incredible experiences of my life. Also a quick thank you to Responsible Travel for serving as the way I found On Track.

Most of the places where I experienced discomfort during the trip were due to my inexperience as a traveler. For example, the Jabalpur airport shouldn’t have been anywhere near as nerve-racking as it was for me. Now that I know what to expect from such experiences, hopefully I’ll be less nervous traveling in the future.

Indeed, for the most part the uncertain moments worked out for the best. For example, my original itinerary had me in Bandhavgarh first and Kanha second. But going to Kanha first was much better. There I had Uday Patel’s expert guidance and a much calmer experience than I had at the second park. But by the time I got to Bandhavgarh I was much better prepared for the experience, even without a naturalist to help me. And after being so close to those tigers, Kanha might have been a bit anti-climactic, which it definitely shouldn’t have been.

However, I do want to note two big negatives for the sake of any readers who might wish to benefit from my experiences. First, I absolutely will never ever ever do business with Travelocity ever again. If you haven’t read my blog entry about what happened with that whole mess, please study it carefully before you ever trust your travel plans to that “service.”

And second, India (especially the rural parts of the country) is the land of cash. My card didn’t work at all. Fortunately, I exchanged enough currency to cover tips and other expenses. And most of the big stuff (hotels, transport, most of the food) was already covered by the tour package.

When I did the currency exchange in Toronto, I got such a huge pile of bills that I felt bad about how much money I was carrying. But I was down to financial fumes by the end of the trip. So the lesson there is to get more money than you need and don’t get freaked out when you walk away from the currency exchange counter with a Scrooge McDuck sized wad of cash.

My sole regret from the trip was not taking even more pictures than I did. That said, I have to remind myself that if I stopped long enough to take good photos of everything I saw that would have made a good photo, I’d still be there taking pictures.

Looking back, India might have been sort of a crazy choice for the first trip taken by a 53-year-old man who never even had a passport prior to a few months ago. I do wish I’d worried less and relaxed more, which might have been easier in more familiar surroundings. But I think what I really needed was exactly what I got: a total break from the familiar and a beautiful place full of fantastic photo opportunities. I’m glad I went. I’ll treasure the photos and the memories for the rest of my life. And now I feel ready for any other opportunity for adventure that might come my way.

Friday, January 17, 2020

India Day 12

The flight arrived in Newark around 4 a.m. Customs was much smoother and more polite than in India, even at that dark hour of the morning. I had to retrieve and re-check my non-carry-on, and of course my flight to KC was scheduled to depart from the farthest possible spot on the concourse. But I had some time, so no big deal.

Except it turned out I had a lot more time than I counted on. Bad weather back home delayed the flight. And then the KC-bound plane was up in the air and halfway home before they announced that KCI was closed, the flight was canceled, and we were going back to Newark. Plus we had to fly around aimlessly for another two hours to burn enough fuel to make the plane light enough to land.

After a long wait back in the airport, I finally got to talk to a United Airlines customer service clerk. She started by telling me, “You have a few options. First, we can fly you to Omaha today ...” and at that point I replied “Done. Omaha it is.”

So Omaha it was. One positive side effect of all this taking off and landing is that air travel now seems positively old hat and more than a little boring. So I’m hoping I won’t have any trouble with it in the future.

The flight arrived in the early evening. Of course my checked bag was still in Newark, so I filed the paperwork and got a taxi to the hotel I reserved online while still in New Jersey.

By the time I checked in, got China Express from Door Dash and finally settled in for the night, I’d been awake (other than dozing on the plane) for nearly 50 hours straight.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

India Day 11

I’m in Delhi once again, so of course it’s raining. At the start of the trip I intended to get some sight seeing in today, but at this point I’m exhausted, out of cash and not mentally up to much more big city traffic. So I had a quiet breakfast and then got a ride to the airport.

Or to be more precise, there was a mix-up about when I was being picked up. So I ended up sitting in the lobby for awhile before we got the schedule figured out. The grandfather clock in the lobby had a really pretty chime, and the manager of the lounge took pity on me, opened a little early and set the TV to CNN for me.

As my flight wasn’t until later in the evening, I had a long sit at the airport. The sitting part was okay, as I had email to get caught up on and some reading to do. And certainly there was no shortage of people watching and even some interesting art.

Customs, on the other hand, was a nightmare. At one point they literally had no clerks working on the long line of international passport holders.

Photographic proof
Then the security checkpoint made me unpack my carry-on because it contained cameras. I recognize that I’m not exactly a seasoned international traveler, but that’s the first time I’ve ever heard of cameras mistaken for weapons or other contraband.

Somewhere in the flurry of unpacking and re-packing I managed to lose my Kindle, which was super upsetting.

At least clearing customs finally gave me access to the food court (it was mid evening at this point and I hadn’t eaten an actual meal since breakfast). Many of the options seemed targeted specifically at homesick Americans. I loved my time in India and would gladly return someday. But I have to admit that was the best-tasting Filet-o-Fish value meal I ever had.

Then at the gate everyone on my flight had to go through another security check, presumably because the first one didn’t meet US standards (they let us keep our shoes on, for starters). So everyone who bought water for the flight now lost their bottles, and once past the second check there was nowhere to get anything else to drink.

The plane was another Boeing 777, this one slightly older than the one on the way to India. There was no air valve to get a comforting breeze going, and my seatback screen didn’t work for awhile. Once the flight attendant got it up and running again I couldn’t figure out how to connect headphones to it. So I watched movies with English subtitles for hours, dozing here and there.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

India Day Ten

From this point forward my account of the trip features no more fabulous wildlife encounters, and it resumes its status as a standard travelogue.

This morning I finally lost the battle to eat everything I was served, proving unequal to the massive breakfast in the outdoor restaurant area. As I’d settled my bill and packed my bags the night before, I was ready to go when the driver picked me up at 10. Farewell Bandhavgarh! What a magnificent place!

The drive back to Jabulpur was fairly uneventful. We were stopped for awhile at a railroad crossing, an interesting experience as the crossings are controlled by guys in a booth rather than automatic sensors. The road was closed for a few minutes prior to the actual arrival of the train, which I suppose was due to the potential hazards of having a traffic jam stuck on the tracks when the high-speed, non-stop train came through.

We got to the city around 1 p.m., encountering what I think was the same monkey colony I noted on the outskirts when I left town days ago. Shortly thereafter the driver left the main road and wound through back alleys and dirt tracks up a hill. I began to wonder what kind of airport might be found at the end of such a trek.

The Jabalpur airport reminded me a great deal of a bus station or maybe the main setting from the old TV movie Raid on Entebbe (only with fewer terrorists and Israeli commandos). I’d only ever been in sizeable airports before, so this was a new and not entirely welcome experience. The air in the terminal was hot, dry and still. The plane was more than an hour late, and the waiting area slowly went from deserted and silent to crowded and noisy. I had only a limited idea of what to do or where to go. My fancy new Apple watch helpfully informed me that my heart rate got up to 120 bpm sitting still, which is low intensity exercise level for me.

I was flying SpiceJet, which I’d never heard of. Their slogan: Red. Hot. Spicy. Not sure how that relates to air travel, but I figured at least with “jet” in the name that we wouldn’t be flying a propeller aircraft.

Nope. Not only was it not a jet, but all the passengers had to pile onto shuttle buses to travel from the terminal to the tarmac. The new experiences just keep coming!

Honestly it turned out to be an okay experience. The poor woman sitting next to me had a rough time of it, muttering a prayer or mantra the whole time the plane descended into Delhi. But we all made it just fine, bused once again from the plane to the same terminal where I arrived last week.

The ride from the airport to the hotel at night was surreal. It was an amazing blend of 21st century technology and ancient architecture, of high fashion billboards and people cooking food on sidewalk campfires. It reminded me a little of Syd Mead’s design work for Blade Runner.

My last hotel in India was the Ashok Country Resort, which despite its name wasn’t far from the airport. It struck me as the sort of place that had been quite luxurious when first built, though a bit decayed here and there now. The staff was very polite and helpful, and my one night there was comfortable. And it was certainly good to be back in the land of WiFi!

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

India – The Birds

I admit that I didn’t travel halfway around the world to take pictures of birds. Kansas is fairly short on tigers in the wild, but we have birds in abundance.

However, what began as a series of photos taken mostly to fill down time between other sights became a genuine fascination. It was impossible to not be affected by the simple beauty of the parks’ many avian residents. As a result, several of my portfolio pieces turned out to be bird photos.

Maybe I should give the birds back home a fairer opportunity, too.

The birds were hard to keep track of as I went. The naturalist and guides were good about telling me what I was looking at, but I wasn’t equally good at writing things down right away. Thus I am greatly indebted to my Aunt Kathy who went through the portfolio photos, figured out what the subjects were, and even sent links to their ebird entries, which include recordings of their songs.

The bird in the photo above is a red-wattled lapwing. The colors reflected in the water are from one of the Bandhavgarh plateaus in the background.

This is a bay-backed shrike.

This is a white-throated kingfisher (I actually did get a note jotted about him).

This is an Indian roller, which was even more beautiful in flight (though the photos weren’t as good).

The guide identified this as an Indian owlet. I’ll let y’all make the call for yourselves.

Serpent eagles were frequent sights in the park. I thought perhaps they got their name from their vaguely snake-like heads. But no, apparently it’s because they eat snakes.

And last but certainly not least, this bittern was enjoying a misty early morning in Kanha.

India Day Nine

My last day in the park proved much quieter than its predecessors. Frankly, it was a relief. I’ve seen so many amazing things in the past few days that it’s gotten a little overwhelming. If luck is a finite quality, then it’s time for me to pass my tiger sighting fortune over to another visitor.

In the morning the guide decided to take advantage of the lull in wildlife photo ops to head for the Bandhavgarh Fort plateau. Though the fort itself is off limits, there’s a colossal statue of Lord Vishnu that can be visited, one of the few spots in the park where it’s permissible to get out of the jeep and wander around a little.

The statue was on the side of the plateau, accessible via a series of narrow switchbacks. In addition to some hair-raising moments, the road afforded some interesting views.

At one point we passed a spot where stables for horses had been carved out of the bedrock.

And higher up we passed a similar rock-hewn structure that once upon a time served as a court for tax paying and other official business.

We also passes several ghost trees, so called because their pale bark glows an eerie white in the moonlight.

At the end of the trail was the statue at the top of this post. The main figure is Lord Vishnu reclining on the Sheshnaag, the seven-headed serpent king. A spring emerges from the hillside near his feet, flowing into a pool and from there down the side of the plateau to form a stream in the countryside below.

There are some places that somehow just seem to feel different from ordinary everyday locations. This was one of those. If nothing else, it was awe-inspiring to see a work of art carved from a single piece of rock more than 1000 years ago. I’ve seen art that old and older, but never in its original location.

After that experience we gave up a little early. The afternoon drive was uneventful as well. But as I said, that was actually welcome. It gave me time to contemplate, to process the experiences I’d had on this amazing journey.

Toward sunset we passed a large stork walking around a swampy area not far from the plateau. The guide said it was unusual to see that kind of bird away from herds of cattle or deer. They like to follow the heavier animals through marshy spots because their hoofs stir worms and snails out of the muddy ground. Good eating.

Monday, January 13, 2020

India – Ana

The jeep was stopped at the side of a road that ran between the forest and some open fields. We were listening and waiting, and then suddenly there she was. The guide didn’t know her name, so I decided to call her Ana (from a song by They Might Be Giants).

At first the encounter followed the same pattern as the Solo sighting: the tiger moves through the woods, and jeeps follow. But then Ana made a turn and crossed the road.

She walked right in front of my jeep. I was maybe 15 feet away from her.

Then she entered the tall grass on the other side of the road. The driver sped around to a side road, and we waited to see if she’d enter a clear strip between rows of grass.

She emerged from the grass, crossed the open space and went back into the cover on the other side. There was one more open row to go, and I figured she’d cross it as well and then we’d lose sight of her.

But when she got to the edge of the grass on the far side of the second clear space, I guess she decided the humans hadn’t gotten a good enough look at her. So she ambled up the edge of the grass ...

And crossed the side road, once again super close to me.

From there she moved through the undergrowth until she found a shady spot in a grove of trees. She settled where it was hard to see her, and as the daylight waned we had to leave.

As we pulled away, she started to roar. It was an incredible sound. I’ve tried to find a YouTube video or other source that reproduced what I heard, but nothing quite matches my memory.

EDIT: In early April I friended an Instagram user from India who tells me her official name is Dotty 3, which is also a nice name.