From Agra we took a train to a little town called Sawai Madhopur, just outside the Ranthambhore National Park. Or at least, the plan was to take a train to Sawai Madhopur. The problem was that it was a connecting train, first from Agra to Mathura, then on to Sawai Madhopur. When we got to the train station, though, our train was delayed by at least an hour, meaning that we would miss the connection. “What should we do?” we asked an official. He suggested we hire a taxi to Mathura; if we left right away we’d get there in time to catch the train. “Can we get a refund on this leg of the journey?” No. Oh, and if the car gets stuck in traffic – by no means an impossibility in India – then we’ll miss that train, too, and be no closer to our destination.
So for $25 we hired a taxi and made it to the train with only a couple minutes to spare. Except that train was an hour late. Until it was 90 minutes late. And 15 or 20 minutes after that schedule, eventually our train showed up. Our experience from Delhi to Agra had been so good – train on time, comfortable seats – but this one, not so good. Essentially every train out of Mathura was late, some up to three or four hours late. And when we did get onboard it was definitely not as comfortable as the train from Delhi either. Mark has found the process of buying tickets online incredibly frustrating (one site he went to asked “What train do you want?”, rather than where you are going from or to, as though of course everyone knows the name of the train), and then this. First lesson, then, about traveling in India by train: don’t do a journey requiring a connection.
OK, so eventually we made it to Sawai Madhopur and caught a tuktuk to our resort. We were splurging to stay at an Oberoi, a very upscale place so surely this would work, right? Not so much. The security guard at the gate checked his list, and there was no Mark Sullivan scheduled to arrive that day. How could that be? Mark checked his confirmation email – he’s learned to keep those well-filed and accessible – and it sure seemed we had a reservation. They checked again and still nothing. Eventually we worked with the manager and she said they would honor the reservation we had even though they couldn’t find it in their system. Nice of her, particularly since our credit card had already been charged for the stay! But it would take 30 or 40 minutes to get the room ready, not something I was too happy about after our lousy journey.
Finally we got to our room, and a day or two later learned what had happened. Turns out there was another Mark Sullivan scheduled to arrive that day but he had rescheduled to arrive two days later. Somehow they either deleted our reservation or moved both of them; either way, that explained why they didn’t have us on their list the day of our arrival. If the resort had been full, we’d have really been in a pickle. Fortunately, though, it all worked out. We got to meet the other Mark Sullivan and had a fun 15-minute chat about all the Johns and Dans and Corneliuses in the family. Better yet, when we checked in they had told us our package included not just breakfast but free dinner and half-priced cocktails at happy hour. “Really?” we asked. “We don’t remember that on the reservation.” Yes, we were told, that was the package. In retrospect, we suspect that the other Mark Sullivan’s package included all that and by the time they figured it out they were too embarrassed to tell us we’d have to start paying full price. All in all their mistake worked out pretty well for us. The only downside was the way staff have been trained to pounce the second you move to make sure that you never have to pour water or wine or serve yourself food or … anything. Definitely a little annoying but if that’s all you have to complain about you’re probably doing fine.
Ok, now we can get to the tigers. The only reason tourists would ever go to Sawai Madhopur is because of the proximity to Ranthambhore and the tiger reserve. The reserve was created in 1973 when Prime Minister Gandhi recognized that India’s famous Bengal tigers needed protection from hunting and poaching. This was one of the earliest reserves created but even so the number of tigers is relatively small, maybe 65 or so, though that is a considerable increase over the 25 or so tigers there as recently as 2005. Ranthambhore is considered a good place to see tigers, though, as the deciduous forest in the park makes spotting them much easier than in the rain forests further south. Still, they estimate only a one-in-five chance of seeing a tiger in any one outing.
We got lucky. On our first morning we were paired with a friendly British couple who were on their third and last outing; they were leaving after lunch. They had been out twice the day before and saw a fleeting leopard but no tigers. So we’re bouncing around the reserve in a jeep with a driver and guide, stopping here, listening, watching, stopping, and so on. Suddenly after perhaps 90 minutes there she was, a beautiful three-and-a-half year old tiger out marking her territory and rubbing herself on trees, trying to attract a male while keeping other lady tigers away. She took little notice of us as she’s learned the jeeps are no danger. She’s not tame or anything close to it, though; the guide was clear that she’d eat us if we got out of the jeep and she happened to be hungry.
So for 10 minutes or even longer we watched as she wandered around. If she wanted to go where our jeep was sitting we moved the jeep. Simply put, she was magnificent, the colors, the paws, the fur, the eyes; just an incredible animal. Eventually she went deeper into the woods then, but those 10 minutes were pretty phenomenal. It’s worth noting that while tigers are the main draw, they were by no means the only wildlife we saw on our three-hour mini-safari: there were spotted deer, wild boars, a mongoose, a sloth bear, plum-headed parakeets, peacocks, lots of monkeys, even crocodiles. And we haven’t even gotten to Africa yet!
We could have gone out on more rides (if we wanted to pay for them, of course) but beyond the expense we just figured why? Given the one-in-five odds of seeing a tiger, another trip would likely have been disappointing and anticlimactic. So instead we spent the next full day just hanging around the beautiful resort. At one point in the afternoon after I’d done my chores (laundry, some tax stuff, time on the treadmill) I was lying on a lounge chair outside our room. The trees were lush, the bougainvilleas vibrant, birds were chirping, the laundry was drying in the breeze, and I was reading my Lenin biography while listening to Chopin. Life doesn’t get much better than that.
From here, then, it’s back on a train and on to Jaipur, known as the Pink City and capital of Rajasthan. Back to real India!