05.11.2010 - 18.11.2010
Diwali is crazy in Delhi. Fun to experience... but having done that, I was happy to escape, stage left, to avoid the traffic, noise and smoke from the gazillion firecrackers that are set off constantly over that weekend. We ended up taking a last-minute deal vacay to Bentota Beach in Sri Lanka. Or more aptly, the Hot-Young-Beach-Boys-For-Middle-Aged-White-Women beach. Seriously, it is crazy! All the hotels and restaurants are staffed with 20-something boys, with long hair and buff bods. Apparently it’s the thing, especially with married German and Russian women. Actually ended up being a bit annoying. I would not so subtly talk about my ‘boyfriend’ who was a jealous licensed-to-kill secret agent… but it didn’t matter. Apparently most of these women are married anyway, so not so much a deterrent.
Our first night started off wonderfully at the Wunderbar hotel/restaurant, where Lynn had stayed the previous year. We went down to the beach with a couple of the boys she had met last year to release a few baby sea turtles into the ocean. They had hatched the day before in the breeding program the hotel supports. Watching them scramble into the water, just like in documentaries on National Geographic, was pretty fantastic. I was a bit worried for my little babies since I know their chances of survival are almost nil, but I’m sure they will beat the odds! After all, they were mine! Then, it was drinking the local tonsil-stripping drink Arak, and Lynn having fun with her boy… and me removing hands, talking about said killer-boyfriend, and finally saying ‘back the fX$% off’ to no avail to boy #2. Long night!
Took a cool boat ride up the Black River the next day, and into beautiful mangroves. Lots of birds, water monitors and locals living along the river. Flying foxes were flying and roosting above the trees, similar to the sight we had seen last year in Rajasthan, but not so many.
Was a fun weekend – lots of sun, sand, rain, seafood and drinks, plus hanging with Lynn is always fun! Had a bit of a hassle coming back into India on the visitor visa, despite my apparent preparations to avoid this issue in Toronto and Chennai. Every official seems to have a different interpretation of what the rules are. So fun. Happy I was travelling with a diplomat though!
My next stop was the lovely Chhatra Sagar. A beautiful tented camp on a dam, southeast of Jodhpur in Nimaj, run by 3 brothers and their families.
It was such a peaceful place to be, whether sitting on my patio outside my tent watching the life on the water; having drinks around the fire pit; or, walking through the grasslands of the property. There were more birds in such a small area here than I’d seen anywhere else.
The family has several dogs and a cat to play with. Saco, a Great Dane pup who thinks he’s a lap-dog, would accompany us on our walks and on the way back from one, he caught a hedgehog. Nandi, the bird-enthusiast brother, pried his mouth open and I grabbed it up. Sooooo prickly – ouch ouch ouch! but had to get it up before the dog realized who had it. He’s certainly big enough to take it away from anyone he wanted. The gang took off to lure the dog away, and I put the little critter back on the ground. I waited till the sun set for it to open up, but it was too scared. So, with what sounded like a GIGANTIC wild boar grunting right next to me in the dim light, I left him on the trail, all rolled up and walked quickly over to where Nandi was waiting for me.
The area had had a record 4-days of heavy rain over the time I was there, which is highly unusual at that time of year in Nimaj. Still, hard to beat waking up to rain on a tent roof, even if it meant the morning village trip was cancelled. Instead, I got to hang out under the canopied dining area with the family and guests, and got to play with 2 cute one-month-old Jack Russell puppies. So much fun but too a short a trip, and another place to add to the ‘return to’ pile.
Back in Delhi for the weekend and then off to Kanha on the Sunday, or so we thought!
I’ll have to preface this next long story with a description of the Indian head-wag, or bobble so non-Indian readers, and non-been-to-India readers will understand. This wonderful, ubiquitous form of expression has many meanings. It is accomplished by wagging your head from side to side, almost in a subtle figure eight motion. It is very difficult to do properly, and has subtle variations almost indiscernable to the western eye, but I find myself starting to unconsciously use it now and again. A few of its meanings can include: a form of greeting; a general agreement; a way of underscoring a statement; a way of answering a question in the affirmative, but really saying “you can, but I wouldn’t” or ‘OK, but I don’t think it will really work very well’; and, in the case of the following story, “I can’t help you anymore, very sorry” but to us hapless foreigners under stress can seem more like “that is that, you’re S.O.L.”
Here we go… at Sunday morning, we got up to be at the airport for 4:30am, only to find that the airlines had switched terminals… and we didn’t know. We weren’t the only ones! So, at the domestic terminal early enough for the flight, but by the time we were shuttled to the international terminal (for our domestic flight), we were 5 minutes too late for the 45min shut-off time. No one seemed to know what to do – it was absolute chaos. Finally got a woman to check into alternative flights for us. She looked, typed, then looked up at us and smiled – yes, there was a routing through Mumbai! Yay! But wait… it’s sold-out… smile, head-wag, silence. Brilliantly I ask, “so, what can you do for us?” “Nothing ma’am.” Smile, head-wag, smile.
We had teamed up with a lovely young Indian girl, Rashi, and between her Hindi, and our completely unfair ‘foreigner’ leverage, we progressed through a variety of options, none of them viable, but all of them requiring a minimum of 3 people to determine that, till finally getting the OK for a ticket reimbursement. We then rushed back over to the domestic terminal, because I’d found an Air Indigo flight leaving at 9am with seats. The three of us jumped into a cab and raced over. I ran in to the ticket counter while the girls handled our bags. “3 tickets please” say I. “Oh, I’m sorry ma’am (smile – head-wag), I just sold the last 4 tickets.”
Out comes the laptop again, and we find a routing through Mumbai and Aurangabad, that would get us to Nagpur at 7 in the evening. The Mumbai portion was business class, so ridiculously expensive, but our Taj safari stay was already ridiculously expensive, and we didn’t want to throw that away without trying all options. So, back into a taxi and back over to the International terminal, because the Kingfisher counter at the domestic terminal was no longer able book tickets. They were just able to sit behind the ticket counter and tell us that they couldn’t do anything. Rush up to the International Kingfisher counter. “Oh yes Madame, we have business class seats, but the flight is late.” Smile, head-wag. “How late?” say I. “5 hours Madame…”
That was it, we gave up. Back to the Jet Airways counter, to rebook the Nagpur flight for the next morning. But uh oh, we had approval for a reimbursement now, so a rebooking was no long approved. It would cost 20,000 rupees. After almost crying at the counter, she allowed that since Ms. Chopra (the only person at Jet that morning that seemed to have any clue) had approved the reimbursement, she could also reverse that and reapprove the rebooking (still with me?). But, they didn’t know where she was and I’d have to re-enter the terminal and find her. But, say I, “security won’t let me in the terminal without a valid flight ticket.” “Oh yes”, says she, “show them your old one and they’ll let you through”. So, off I go, to security. Surprise, surprise, “you can’t enter without at ticket” (imply you silly foreigner here) “you must go back to the ticket counter.”
Back to the Jet ticket counter and to another woman and re-explain my recent transactions. “You can’t enter the terminal without a valid ticket Madame” says she. Sigh…. I politely suggested she (the supervisor) might want to train her staff on that very procedure. After which, she paged Ms. Chopra :-s Ms. Chopra arrived, approved the change, we got our tickets, which were handed to me along with the warning that the next day we “might want to make sure we get to the terminal on time tomorrow”.
Okay, I think I’m a relatively calm person, but that was the icing! Finally out of there and got home at 11am, ready to start the whole thing all over again the next day! Smile, head-wag…
We did the only thing we could do after that, called Remy and Matti and met them at the lovely Japanese restaurant Ai for a long, long and liquid brunch!!
The next morning we were back at the International airport for our domestic flight at 4:30am and, we made our flight! Yay!! And then the Taj offered to let us stay an extra night at no charge to make up for our lost night! We were finally in the park and driving with our friend Yugdeep.
Self-avowed city-girl Lynn’s first experience in the forests of India was a success, regardless of what she might tell you! The large wood spiders may have been a bit daunting, but aside from an uncanny knack of spotting every single one of them on our drives, she remained calm for the most part. I had to herd a few of the cute little critters out of the way for her… one in the lovely sort-of-outhouse-type-loo in the forest, that seemed to be guarding the entrance and waiting for her; and one on her tent door. Funny how that works – I had no sight nor sign of any creatures in my tent, yet city-girl had a gecko, 2 spiders and a “huge cockroach” on her outside patio area.
At the end of our first drive we saw a tigress! So exciting and lucky at this time of year when the forest is dense and green – and in Kanha, which is a large park for them to hide in. We saw her again the next morning, this time from elephant back and yep, Yugdeep got Lynn on an elephant! The fear on her face not-withstanding, I think she loved it ;-) Was most impressed with him (and her) for getting her up there and so close to the spiders too! She said he didn’t give her much of an option – put foot here, then here, then up – and she was on her way.
We had some lovely drives and some beautiful sightings, including an elephant-back sighting on the last day of a mother and her two 10-month-old cubs.
Loads of gaur, with one group grooming each other rather like monkeys. Had no idea they did that. The barasingha, or swamp deer, at this time of year had wonderful antlers, and the males have them draped with grasses and moss to attract the ladies. Had never heard of that before either.
But the best, Lynn learned to look up birds in the bird book – we’ll make a wildlifer out of her yet – next time Panna and Bandhavgarh.
Back in Delhi on the weekend and off to the Marine Ball held by the US embassy, which was fun but loaded with pomp and ceremony – the US does this almost better than the Brits I think. Had some tense moments during the speeches, when Lynn and I got the giggles, and then during the guest speaker’s recollection of war-time food, and spam. Spam with eggs, spam with milk, spam with… and lord help us, all I could think of was Monty Python’s “spam, spam, spam, spam….”
Next up, a trip to Panna National Park and then to Jaipur. We had got word that Yugdeep’s wedding had been cancelled because his father's elder brother died unexpectedly. But, as of late tonight we have found out it is back on, albeit in a more subdued and quiet way. So off to Jaipur on Sunday for his wedding.