Friday, March 11: Jayne and I climb into the jeep at 6 a.m. for our tiger “safari” at Jim Corbett Tiger Reserve. It’s freezing and the jeep, like most jeeps, is open to the elements. As soon as we start riding over the bumpy roads, the morning air drives through us like thousands of metal knives. Brrrr. We are definitely not prepared for this.
Our “guide” stops and picks up a friend on the way to the reserve. We bump along about a half-hour through mango groves, teak forest and eucalyptus groves, listening to the chit-chat of the “guide” and his friend. The guide is not much of a guide as he really doesn’t speak much to us. At one point he discusses the large numbers of chickens we see along the way, acting as if they are some endangered species. He goes on and on about them and we are laughing and making fun. Yep, we’ve seen chickens before, we tell him, rolling our eyes.
We pass another jeep with three dudes in it. They all have professional-looking cameras with huge telephoto lenses. One of the guys has a black silky ponytail. They are intently snapping pictures of the brush along the road, and we peer into the thickets where they are aiming. We’re looking for what ever spirits they have seen. We see nothing, no trace of movement, nada. We drive by peacocks and deer. Again, our “guide,” taking a moment’s break from his continual prattle with his friend, points out the deer. Then he starts going into a long description about these rare creatures. We can’t hear him over the drone of the engine and his accent is bad. It’s a strain to understand him. Besides, we have no interest in hearing about deer. We brush him off: Thanks but we see deer at home! You don’t need to point out every deer! He can’t understand why we aren’t totally bowled over.
All of a sudden, around a bend, we come to a jumble of jeeps stopped in the middle of the dirt road. As we drive up, everyone shushes us. “Tiger! Tiger!” they tell us in loud whispers. We stop on the fringe of the other jeeps and everyone is standing up looking around. We ask our guide, “Where is it?” We can tell he can’t see the “tiger” himself, but he peers through his binoculars in the direction of some brush into which everyone else is staring. We see nothing. “See, it’s a flash of orange,” he points out. “He’s lying there.” We peer and peer into the bush, but we see nothing. After quite a long time, at least a half hour, with absolutely nothing happening, we decide to drive on. Jayne decides it was just a “pretend” tiger sighting. Something to get the tourists all riled up, to make them think they are getting something for their money.
We drive on. We make a stop at the “Banyan tree house,” where we climb to the top and look at the monsoon river, which at this time of year is just a dry rock bed. We go on our way again, passing trees whose branches are filled with chattering monkeys. We end up at a kind of resting spot for tourists, where we see monkeys hanging out and posing for pictures. Someone has given one of the monkeys a Bourbon Creme, a kind of cookie, and he’s munching happily on this. I try to take a picture of one and he hisses at me and climbs up a tree.
On the way back to the hotel we decide that this “safari” was a total farce and our guide didn’t actually “guide,” thus we will not give a tip. We jump out at our hotel, barely saying goodbye, and go eat a breakfast of an omelet, coffee, toast and some yellow rice. Then we are back in our car again for our trip to Agra.
On the way, we pass a guy with an elephant who sells rides to tourists. We ask if we can just pose sitting on the elephant, and he agrees, for a fee of course. After our pictures with our elephant friend, we are on our way. It is around 11 a.m.
Another long day of driving. We pass a wedding party south of Aligarh, all dressed in their finery, marching down the street in single file. The groom rides a horse all decked out and women in bright saris walk along beside him. Singh comments, “Tonight this man’s life is finished.”
We make a stop at a roadside snack stand where we buy Lay’s India Magic Masala Chips and a bottle of Sprite. We are not allowed to take the bottle with us as it must be returned. So we sit on a covered platform along the side of the road and drink and eat.
I grow to hate potatoes on this day as we get stuck behind literally scores of huge trucks carrying potatoes to put in cold storage. We can’t believe the numbers of these trucks, lined up along the roads, blocking our passage. They slow our trip considerably. We pass an overturned truck of potatoes. Another potato truck has a flat tire and to change it, people have stacked up tall columns of bricks which look very unstable. It’s like an exaggerated Jenga game. We pass a bus stuck in a ditch, its passengers sitting inside silently at an unnatural angle. Other rickety buses are packed with grimy people, hanging out of windows and doors and sitting on the roofs.
We pass fields of green with yellow flowers and women in colorful saris working in these fields. I don’t know what the crops are. We ask Singh and he goes into a long diatribe which we can’t understand.
Everywhere women in saris walk with bowls of cow dung paddies on their heads. Horns on Indian vehicles make every sound imaginable from “Oooooaaawwwwoooo” to “balabla balabla” musical tunes to “squeeeeaaaallll” and “eeeeeekkkkk” to “beep beep beep.”
The towns we pass along the way are clogged nightmares, where traffic tangles into muddles with no discernible rhyme or reason. Each town is a chaotic knot of filthy people, cows, animals, carts, auto rickshaws, and anything else imaginable. They swarm all around our car, pressing hands and faces against the windows, begging for money. We are totally surrounded and can only inch along. There is no clear path in any direction. We encounter this in every town along the way to Agra. Along the sides of the road are hovels with disgusting fat men covered in red betel juice, snoozing on their sides with bellies hanging out of their shirts.
On this day, I know what one billion people feels like. And it hits me hard that India does not have the infrastructure or the will to take care of 1 billion people. It’s horribly sad and upsetting that so many people are living in such squalor and disarray.
Finally, at 8 p.m., we arrive in Agra. We have spent another 9 hours on Indian roads and we survived. I don’t know how we did it. Frankly, I don’t know how anyone survives these roads. All I can say is that Singh must be a good driver if we have made it safely through this mess.
Singh wants us to go to his recommended restaurant, but we have a look at it and decide we don’t want to eat there. We have picked the Lakshmi Vilas out of the Lonely Planet and we insist that he take us there. It’s a vegetarian restaurant and our dinner is excellent. We have Idli, which is lentils and rice ground to paste and steamed in an oven with sambhar coconut chutney; Vada, or lentils ground to a paste and deep-fried, also served with sambhar and chutney. We have Mysore Masala, or Dosai, which is a rice pancake made in butter served with sambhar and coconut chutney, and mixed vegetable uttapam, or thick rice pancakes. All this topped off with fresh lime soda, an Indian specialty.
After dinner, we finally check in at the Hotel Pushp Villa. We are entirely too tired to think about what a dive it is.