India (6) – Bharatpur and Keoladeo National Park

This morning we visited the Keoladeo nature reserve.  The original schedule included a rickshaw ride, but we decided that we preferred to travel with a little more independence, all the better for photography, and rented 3 bikes.  After some consideration we also hired a guide, which turned out to be a great decision, as he pointed out plenty of birds to us that we surely would have missed.
It was fun to be by bike, but definitely a challenge.  Not only because of the 40 degree heat, but also because, like conference t-shirts, the bikes came in one size only – men’s extra large!  Fortunately I was just about able to get on and off, and pedal, though at time it was a bit precarious, particularly when I forgot about the crossbar.

This isn’t the best time to visit the park as all the migratory birds have left for their next destinations.  Still, there is plenty of resident wildlife, and we saw quite a broad variety, including Rhesus monkey, jackal, a couple types of owl, herons, egrets, storks and cranes.  The park also has quite a python population, but we didn’t see any.  Or at least, i saw a snake making a speedy exit, but I’ve no idea if it was a python or not.
We spent about 3 hours in the park, and were totally exhausted on our return to the hotel.  The first task we had was to try and upload our blog entries from yesterday, which turned out to be a challenge.  This hotel is certainly the most impressive looking, and has the nicest rooms and pool, but it has two things stopping it from being the all-round favourite on the trip so far – the disappointing food (no real improvement there today, nearly everything at lunch was western food) and the lack of wi-fi.  After a lot of fiddling around by one of the staff members (a continuation from about 1hr spent last night), we finally managed to achieve both internet connection on their pc, and get the usb working so that we could copy over our epic works from the laptop.

After lunch we recharged our batteries… I managed all of 13 pages of my new book before falling asleep.  Later, after some photo editing, we had a refreshing swim in the pool – dusk was falling, the pool was lit, and we were kept company by bats and birds flitting around us and drinking from the pool.
Tomorrow marks the halfway point of our trip, and we’ll be heading off in the morning for Agra and the Taj Mahal.

Links to my fellow travellers’ posts of the day: Arie (1), Arie (2), Marcel.

India (5) – Jaipur to Bharatpur

We left the hustle and bustle of Jaipur this morning, to head for Bharatpur and the nearby Koladeo national park. After the first long journey we had, this ride was a bit of a let down, as we travelled the whole way along a dual carriageway.  That being said, no dual carriageway as we know them at home.  The cars may have been driving 100km/h, but there were still camel carts, scooters carrying 3 or 4 people (the ladies always sitting side-saddle), and vans with people hanging off the back of them.  There were also a fair few occasions where we had oncoming traffic on our side of the central reservation… all part of the course here.

Along the way we stopped at a very colourful temple.  Like others we have seen, the decoration is only on the outside, with a very simple interior… the only adornments being about 80 strip lights on the ceiling.  After a short stop to take photographs of the temple, and a camel which happened to be stopped too, we continued on our way.

Bharatpur is a small town, which I guess no-one would visit if it weren’t for the renowned Koladeo park – apparently the best bird park in India, and formerly a favourite hunting spot of the maharajas.  Our hotel is therefore a bit of a surprise.  Two huge buildings, each worthy of a maharaja and all his friends.  Since we had nothing planned for the afternoon, we decided to relax in our deliciously airconditioned room, did some reading and had a bit of a snooze.  This is the first night where I actually have a real bed, rather than a camp-bed.  Looking forward to it!

Before taking a pre-prandial swim, we took some photos of the hotel in the fading afternoon light, and the more adventurous/daft of us (ie. me), took a paddle in the ornamental water display to try and get a good reflection shot.  Unfortunately, it didn’t really come off, thanks to the ripples I created.  After finishing with photography, we all took a dip, in the official swimming pool this time.  Very refreshing after the heat of the day.

Dinner and lunch are buffet-style.  The food was pleasant enough, but a little disappointing… Indian dishes, but with very little spicing, clearly dumbed-down for sensitive tourist taste buds.  For most of the meal, we were the only guests in the dining room, meaning that we were the sole focus of attention for all the waiters in the vicinity.  A little overwhelming.  Service here is very good, but usually a little overeager.

India (4) – Jaipur

After a quick, and rather uninspiring breakfast, we were picked up at 8am to visit the Amber Fort. Whilst we were in the car, our guide for the day explained to us about the elephant ride at the fort, and told us that we had to make a choice of elephant type – young and quick, middle-aged and average speed, or older and slower. Like with curry spicing in restaurants, we went for the safe bet, and chose medium! In the event, it turned out to be almost irrelevant, as the elephants follow one another up the hill to the fort, and rarely have the opportunity to overtake each other.

Each elephant can take two people, so we split up – Marcel and I on the first elephant, and Arie on the second. Of course we tried to take photos of each other, but sitting sideways, encumbered by photo backpacks and swaying around made it a challenge.

The fort itself is huge, and it took us a few hours to look around it. The guide was very informative, but a little hard to understand, so much of the information about the fort, the maharaja and his 33 wives (12 official, 21 unofficial!) passed me by.

As a bonus, we had a wildlife photography opportunity at the end – bats in the underground tunnel between the Amber and Tiger forts. With very little ambient light it was hard it was hard to focus, so the end results weren’t too great (Marcel’s are better).

After the fort we stopped briefly to photograph the water palace, so named because it is in the middle of a lake. There weren’t too many viewpoints available, and we were quickly distracted by a young boy who wanted to show us his magic tricks – very impressively done.

The next stop was a co-operative handicrafts centre, where we were given demonstrations in block printing and carpet making.  The visit really highlighted the contrast between our expectations (everything must be washing machine and tumble dryer safe) and the daily lives of those working in the factory, like the hard labour of the carpet washers below.

 It also housed a large textiles shop, where I modeled a sari. Quite comfortable, though I doubt I could ever figure out how to put one on myself. After a lunch break, we visited another textiles shop (with yet another sari modeling session), where Marcel found some scarves. Something to watch out for on his blog, when he does his next model photo shoot.

We were all beginning to flag a little by this point, but our day wasn’t over yet. We had a stop at the observatory, where we were shown a number of sun dials and other confusing but impressive looking astronomical and astrological implements.

Then for the almost final stop – the City Palace, with a textile museum, which was quiet interesting, though frankly the content was of less interest to us by this point than the air conditioning! Before we dropped, one final stop, this time at a jewelry shop, which we passed through as quickly as politesse allowed, before returning to the hotel.

Finished for the day, Marcel and I decided to relax with an ayurverdic massage featuring a full body massage followed by a ‘let’s drip hot oil on your forehead’ experience.  Extremely relaxing, and I nearly fell asleep.  Rounded off the day with a late dinner – palak (saag) paneer, one of my favourites.
Tomorrow we’re off to Bharatpur, some 4 hours drive away, where we’ll visit the Keoladeo bird reserve.

Arie’s posts of the day: India. Paleizen tocht in Jaipur.  India. Jaipur (2)
Marcel’s post of the day: Jaipur

India (3) – Ranthambhore to Jaipur

After breakfast, and the obligatory comment in the visitors book, we spent a little while in the gardens of the lodge photographing the birdlife, before being picked up by our driver for the journey to Jaipur.
The journey took about 4 hours, and gave us a close up view into both Indian life, and Indian driving!  The more you  experience the roads, the more you see the patterns through the chaos.  Roads are shared by pedestrians, cyclists, scooters and trucks as well as cattle, camels, wild boar and dogs.  Oh, yes, and the occasional car.  Somehow, through an intricate dance choreographed by car horns, everyone makes their way through the streets, passing within inches of each other, and rarely stopping.
Nearing Jaipur, we were taken to visit a temple, dedicated to the monkey god.  Needless to say, there were monkeys everywhere.  We kept ourselves busy photographing the architecture (which was grand, but had clearly seen better days), the monkeys, and also the children who were playing the pool.

Arriving in Jaipur, we were completely overwhelmed by the city, and the new scale of traffic we experienced.  We tried to photograph the stalls on the side of the road, but were invariably thwarted by passing scooters and rickshaws.

After lunch in the Peacock Restaurant, we were taken to our hotel, and shown around by the rather obsequious hotel manager, who told us ‘everything about the hotel, including when it was built, and when it was not’.  We have an impressive room, with separate sitting area (with my roll-in bed) and a balcony.

After a sunset visit to the Tiger Fort, at the top of the hills, and near the Amber Fort which we are to visit tomorrow, we returned back to town, and had fun taking photos in the dark of the crazy Jaipur traffic.

We finished the day with dinner in the rooftop restaurant at the hotel, accompanied by folk music and dancing, performed by 4 teenagers.  The (girl) dancers were impressive, the (boy) musicians, rather less so.

India (2) – Ranthambhore

392 square kilometres and 38 tigers.  Needless to say, we didn’t manage to meet up with the tigers!  We had an early start this morning, waking up at 5.30, after a warm and muggy night.  For all that we didn’t find any tigers, it was very refreshing to sit in the jeep in the refreshing cool breeze.
We started with photography over tea and biscuits this morning, waiting for the safari jeep to collect us.  And though we didn’t pick up any tiger shots, we did see plenty of wildlife on our safari, including peacocks, black faced lemurs, deer and a couple mongooses (mongeese?).  Unfortunately we had to share the jeep with another 12 tourists, which made things a little awkward for photography at times.
We returned back to the hotel around 9.30 to find breakfast laid out for us – some tasty stuff, though I couldn’t tell you what most of it was!  It did include aloo parathas, masala omelette, the ubiquitous toast, porridge and rather bizarrely, chips.  A bit of mango pickle on the side spiced things up nicely!
For the rest, a lazy morning looking at our photos and snoozing, followed by a dip in the pool before lunch.
In the afternoon, another tiger safari, with a different guide and a new set of passengers.  We didn’t set out with high expectations as the tigers are most active in the mornings.  By this point the temperature had increased markedly compared with the morning.
As this morning, we saw plenty of lemurs and deer, but no signs of tigers.  We followed the same track as the morning for the first part, and when we stopped for a small break we had an unexpected sighting of about 7 crocodiles!  We’d stopped at the same point this morning, and no sign of them then.  That said, they were well camoflaged, so perhaps we just missed them.
We continued up along a different trail up into the hills.  Although there wasn’t too much wildlife to be seen there, it was much cooler, and far more comfortable.  We stopped at the top of the hill where there were a couple jeeps lined up, and then suddenly after a frenzied conversation between the drivers, all the jeeps jumped into motion.  A tiger!  We hung on for dear life, whilst the driver drove us up to the edge of the ravine.  We looked down, and there was the tiger, sitting in the grass at the bottom of the ravine.  Far away, but there!
After watching the tiger for a while we were running out of time, and had to drive fast as we could back to the hotels.  It was a very bumpy ride, particularly for poor Arie who was at the back of the jeep.  We had a couple brief stops for a few more lemurs and a displaying peacock, and then back for another cool off in the pool before dinner.
Tomorrow we’re off to Jaipur, where we’ll be having an elephant ride to the Amber fort.

India (1) – Delhi to Ranthambhore

After all the stress of the last couple weeks, and the uncertainty whether Rupert would be well enough for me to travel, I was very relieved to meet up with Marcel and Arie at Schiphol yesterday morning, after staying up all night to write an assignment for my Infectious Diseases course. After stocking up on a few last minute essentials, our flight left on time, and we arrived into Delhi an hour ahead of schedule. Unfortunately, we were so early that our gate was still occupied, and we had to wait an hour before we could disembark.
Having expected to be hit by a wave of heat and noise in the airport, it was quite a relief and a surprise to find ourselves in a modern and not too busy hall. Immigration and baggage claim went fairly quickly, and we found our driver very easily. By this point it was already midnight, so we were taken straight to our hotel, through the overwhelming Delhi traffic. Our room looked over a mosque, and there was a (wedding?) party taking place in the street. Fortunately for us, we were able to appreciate the view, but weren’t disturbed by any noise.
This morning brought our first Indian breakfast, a mixture of spicy snacks, and very British toast with jam. After taking a few more photos of daily life on the street below, we were collected and taken to the train station. 
If we thought the roads had been busy last night, we saw a whole new scale of traffic this morning. The train ride to Sawai Madhopur took us 5 hours, with views on small villages and fields. We saw some birdlife, including about 50 white egrets, some cranes and what appeared to be a flying peacock. At our destination we were met again by our driver, who had driven the 300km down to meet us. We drove the 20 minutes to our jungle lodge, the Pug Mark, which is named, like all the other lodges we saw in the area, after the tigers which we are hoping to find.
After a relaxing couple drinks in the garden, we had our first Indian meal – paneer with peas, potatoes with green pepper and a dal makhani. We also risked the desert, a yellow liquid with strange floating bits (which turned out to be paneer also). Slightly strange, probably not to be repeated!
After enjoying the stars, time to head off to bed, as we have an early start in the morning for our first tiger safari.

Upcoming travel plans

One of the most important things you should do when you get back from holiday, is start planning the next trip…  So, here are my travel plans so far for 2010.

At the end of March, I’m going to Bavaria with a couple friends, for a photo workshop focusing on bears, wolves and lynx.

Then I have my next big trip – to India, in search of birds, tigers and the Taj Mahal.  And, of course, curry.

After that, I’m off to Canada to celebrate my Grandmother’s 103rd birthday with her.  Once I return, I think I’ll just lay low for a little while and recover… or maybe not!