GLYNIS O HARA finds herself enchanted and disenchanted in India
“I think you have many leeyers in South Africa,” said the young guide in Ranthambore National Park.
“What? Lawyers? Oh yes – far, far too many,” I replied, impressed he should know such a thing.
“That’s because you have many game parks,” he added.
I stared at him. Then it dawned on me: “Oh,” I said, “you mean LIONS! Yes, we have those too – but far, far too many lawyers!”
It was a truly South African moment, in Ranthambore looking for tigers in the middle of a two-week India tour. We’d made our peace with the fact that we were at the mercy of local guides and drivers, who vary dramatically in language and driving skills.
Still, it’s disconcerting when, on your first drive out, you find the guide speaks very little English, tells you almost nothing, and nogal has to borrow your binoculars because he doesn’t have any!
Still, he did find us a female tiger. At first just a golden glow under a bush on the far bank, she got up and walked towards us, padding silently past the packed vehicles without a second glance. Within a minute she was gone, but left a bunch of very happy tourists behind her.
We saw her in Ranthambore in the middle of our tourist trail through Rajasthan, and it was a welcome rest from frantic cities, museums, palaces and forts.
We started in Udaipur, a fairy tale town often called the “Venice of the East” (population 500 000) built around three lakes constructed by Udai Singh II of the Sisodia family in the 16th century. His elaborate palace dominates the skyline and makes for a fascinating tour. The present maharana is the 76th of the line, meaning the dynasty is possibly the oldest in the world.
And then there’s the magnificent confection of the “floating palace” in the middle of the lake, now a hotel and off limits to day visitors since the 2008 Mumbai bombings.
Our tour also included Jodphur, Jaipur, Agra and Delhi. So six places in two weeks. Do-able, but maybe we should have kept it to five and had a more leisurely time. But the trouble with India is that there is so much to see, it’s hard to rein yourself in when planning.
Talking of planning, you need to book at least a month in advance to use the premier class train service and avoid the roads, which are so difficult a 250km drive can take seven hours.
But back to Udaipur, where we stayed three nights and went to a delightful traditional dance and music show in one of the havelis (an old merchant’s stately home, influenced by Islamic and Persian architecture, and usually now hotels).
We were whisked there and back by our adopted tuc-tuc driver, a smiling young Kashmiri man who swore his heart would break if we ever used anyone else. You had to love him.
Temples dotted the town and the holy cows wandered the streets, as is the custom. But the cows forage in the roads, eat plastic litter and then die horrible, early deaths.
Next was Jodphur, with the fabulous hilltop Meherangarh Fort (started in 1459 and completed by 1678), housing a palace and temples, an excellent museum and craft market selling handmade goods, clothes and beautiful silver jewellery.
In Jaipur, the state capital, we ran into elephant issues. Tourists visiting the Amber Fort, started in 1592, can be taken up the hill on the back of an elephant, but have to get there very early because there’s a huge queue and the elephants knock off at lunchtime.
They work a half day because they were abused in the past and activists lobbied to limit the rides to two people per elephant and a maximum of six trips per day. The sharp ankush, the metal goad used by mahouts, has been outlawed in Rajasthan (though this is not always enforced) and free veterinary care has been provided for the elephants now. You can walk up the hill, or catch a jeep ride, and we opted for the former.
From Jaipur we went to Ranthambore, over terrible roads through very poor, very dusty villages. The entire state was covered in a layer of fine brown dust so thick it was a miracle the trees were still alive. The monsoon rains, we were told would come in June. It seemed inconceivable that anything could wait that long.
From the park, we drove to Agra, one of dirtiest and most polluted cities I’ve ever seen. The thick air pollution starts 145km outside the town. The guide told us that the belching chimneys have been banned within a 60km radius of the Taj Mahal, but clearly much more needs to be done.
And no, the Taj did not make up for it. By the time we got there, we were appalled by the smoke, the garbage and the massive crowds. Guards blow shrill, deafening whistles to keep the hapless locals moving. Neither pleasant, nor moving.
By the time we got to Delhi, we went straight to the Lodi Gardens for some greenery. “Rush hour” on main arterials goes on until 10pm. Still, Delhi offers art galleries, bookshops, international fairs, and more women walking in the street than elsewhere.
Back home, people asked me if I enjoyed India.
All I can say is: you don’t “enjoy” India, you are overwhelmed by it. It’s mad, bad, good, friendly, colourful, polluted, filthy, creative, beautiful, energetic, lazy, frantic, calm, centred – it’s extraordinary. And I only saw a small part of it – there’s still so much more to explore.
- Sure Travkor in Sandton and Go India, based in Delhi, attended to the details