India - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 202 (12)

Sariska Tiger Reserve

Sunday 26th September

Today was checking out day and would mark the start of a few gruelling days ahead of us. For the next couple of days, we are staying at our planned destinations for just one night only and there is a lot of travelling and moving around to be done in between. We already know from past experience that moving on after just one night in a given place is very demanding both physically and mentally but hopefully we will make the best of it.

The plan is to travel this morning to the Sariska Tiger Reserve for what will be our one and only chance at seeing a Tiger or any other indigenous predatory wild cat in the wild. With the number of these magnificent beasts dwindling to the very precipice of extinction, our chances of catching a sighting are close to zero but some safari game drives will at least make a bit of a change from the routing of the past couple of weeks. We plan on doing a game drive this afternoon and perhaps a second tomorrow morning before catching a taxi or bus to Alwar (about an hour from the park) where we will meet our afternoon train to Agra. We plan on staying in Agra for just the one night also before catching our next train to Delhi, our final destination in India.

So, we are now on the final leg of our tour around India, then, but first some breakfast to start the day off well. Hopefully, the day will progress better than did breakfast. My beloved poached eggs came out nearly raw this morning so I sent them back. About fifteen minutes later, we decided that the waiter had perhaps mistaken my meaning and thought I had simply cancelled the eggs altogether so we got up and left.

We checked out of the hotel with little fuss, save for the confusion about whether I should be charged for the poached eggs, which apparently found their way to our table after we had left. They did see fit to remove the R40 ($1) from the bill so you can’t say fairer than that.

Our taxi was one of the ubiquitous white Ambassador types - very rounded and really quite roomy and comfortable inside with a very large soft back seat that you just sink into. As with every other vehicle we’ve travelled in thus far here in India, there were no seatbelts, but why break with tradition (perhaps ‘break’ is not the most prudent word here). The drive was quite uneventful, in so far as driving in India can be uneventful. Somewhat expecting a bumpy ride, based on our previous taxi journey, we both took a Cinnarizine tablet to stave off any motion sickness. The ride wasn’t nearly as bumpy as the last so it’s hard to tell if the tablets actually did any good or not but neither of us felt sick and that’s what’s important. After a couple of hours or more of tedium, I noticed quite by accident that our driver has just missed the turnoff to our hotel and raised the alarm accordingly. The car screeched to a halt (thankfully nobody was driving close behind us) and we turned into the hotel drive.

The Sariska Tiger Reserve Park is out in the middle of nowhere and there are just two choices for accommodation. The government run RDTC Tiger Den hotel or a very opulent palace hotel that caters for the rich and very rich. The palace was well and truly outside of our budget range so it was the Tiger Den for us. Let’s see now; overpriced, badly managed, grotty and grimy rooms and, oh yes, arrogant and rude reception staff. Must be a government run place. This place looks nice enough on the outside with some neatly manicured lawns and gardens but the inside looks like a rundown dump. Immediately, I got into an argument with the guy at reception that wanted to take our full R990 ($22) for the room in advance. The norm here is to settle the bill at the end of your stay and I told the man that I would pay when we checked out. He insisted that guests without a prior booking had to pay in advance. I told him we had a booking because I called a couple of days ago and booked it by phone. Turning his register around so that I could read it, he pointed out that our names were not there and thus we had not booked. These ‘jobsworth’ type civil servants are easy prey for my slicing wit and I simple told the drone that the absence of my name in hit little book was nothing more than evidence of the hotel’s sloppy administration and I stood my ground adamantly (a ‘jobsworth’ is someone who upholds the most stupid and ridiculous rules in the face of common sense purely because they think it’s more that their ‘job’s worth’ to do otherwise). This little exchange developed into raised voices but the irritating little man buckled under the pressure eventually. They all do.

Although the room is quite grubby, the bed linen was clean and there was plenty of space. We even had a large cupboard in which to lock up all our things. I was initially shown a slightly cheaper room that had an air-cooler instead of an air-conditioner. The main problem with the air-cooler room, other than the horrendous noise of the unit itself was that there was no mosquito mesh around the window through which the air-cooler was precariously balanced. As a result of this, mosquitoes can quite easily get into the room and this is bad news. The difference in price between the two categories of room was not great (both are very much more expensive than they deserve to be) so we went with the better of the two.

The guidebook suggests booking the safaris directly and not through the hotel to avoid the extraneous surcharge they slap on top. I was also not particularly keen to ask for anything at the front desk so I wandered outside to look around for the safari park ticket office. I eventually found it after a quarter of an hour of searching and immediately struck up a rapport with a lovely old man with jam-jar glasses who seemed to take a liking to me. Within a few minutes we were discussing not only the park entrance fees but also our plans for where to eat (he confirmed my own suspicions that the hotel restaurant was not a good idea) and how to move on tomorrow. Running low in local currency, he even gave me the option of paying with dollars. We arrange the afternoon game drive and I went back to fill Sandy in on my progress.

I opted for a guide as well as driver for the addition R150 ($3) and the four of us set off into the park to see what we could see. The game viewing was not particularly spectacular (I think we have been spoiled rotten by our experiences in Africa) but there were plenty of various deer, some mongoose, monkeys, hoard of peacocks and peahens and a wealth of beautiful birds. We spend several hours standing up on the back seats of the open Gypsy jeep and passing over some extremely uneven terrain (as my backache can readily attest to) but, alas, not a tiger to be seen anywhere. Even the guide admitted that tiger sightings are very rare now and that he hasn’t seen one this year yet.

We were back at the hotel by sunset having given up on photography about thirty minutes earlier due to the fading light but we enjoyed the drive nevertheless. The jam-jar glasses man had earlier said that he could arrange for our transportation into a nearby town where we could eat at a nice restaurant but he wasn’t to be found so we pondered walking across to the palace instead. With the help of our guide, we eventually found him in a nearby house where he invited us in. His house was a concrete block type construction and extremely primitive. There was no light and no windows either. We saw mostly by moonlight and he took us upstairs into the kitchen area. Everything was on the floor and what I supposed was the oven was nothing more than a few piles of half burned word sitting in the corner of the room. A couple of blankets on the floor and a few odd food ingredients scattered in the corners completed the scene. It was like stepping back in time. When I asked him about our transportation he started to explain that we could eat with him instead, right here in his home. In fact, he had already been to the market to get some fresh chicken, and sure enough, there was a bowl of raw chicken meat on the side with some other ingredients all laid out as if ready to be prepared into a meal. I now felt suddenly faced with an awkward dilemma. On the one hand, this might be a one-off chance to eat a real home cooked meal from one of the locals and to do so as they do. This would surely be an opportunity not to be missed? On the other hand, however, I was very concerned about hygiene, not to mention feeling just a little coerced into this situation. Sandy and I discussed the situation briefly in Dutch and she was all for the idea of sitting to eat but I just couldn’t shake off my reservations. Something deep inside my sub-conscious told me that this was not a good idea. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it but red flags were flying in the back of my mind. The poor man tried hard to hide what was clearly his genuine disappointment of our refusal to accept his hospitality. This made me feel like a complete bastard in fact. I even started to feel sorry for the man, for whom this kind of close contact with outsiders might have been a rare occasion for him also. Pity or not, he finally but very reluctantly accepted my decision and a driver was soon summonsed. We were loaded into the back of a jeep and off we set. The tension in the back of the jeep between Sandy and myself was thick. Sandy was already starting to exhibit her typical food withdrawal symptoms and I think she was just as disappointed as the old man for us not having stayed.

A fifteen-minute drive later and we arrived in the pitch darkness at another hotel with an adjoining restaurant. Our driver waited for us whilst I went over to the bar to inquire about what food there was on offer. The restaurant was otherwise empty and it seemed like the entire staff came out to see the rare visitor. It became very apparent that this was a pure veg restaurant (no meat) and that the only dishes they could muster were not going to satisfy us. Somewhat irritated now with the lack of progress to get something to eat, we (or I) decided to decline to stay and this seemed to upset the restaurant staff for whom the opportunity to cook for someone had slipped away. For the second time during the evening, I felt like the killjoy who spoiled the party. Sandy’s hunger and now increasing tiredness and fatigue was reaching near epic proportions and our tempers were starting to reach bursting point. At this point I made an executive decision and had our driver take us directly back to the palace hotel just across from where we were staying, and be damned the expense.

Although still pitch dark, the palace hotel looked very nice from the outside and even better from within. We had to call the front desk from the guard station at the main gate to reserve a table so I knew this wasn’t going to be cheap, but when needs must. The meal was a buffet and there were a couple of different choices of chicken and mutton on offer along with potatoes, rice and a few other bits and pieces. The surroundings were lush and relaxing and staff waited on us hand and foot. One advantage with eating there was that I was at least able to make payment by credit card. Our local currency cash reserves are nearly completely depleted so that was a big bonus. The total bill came to around R1200 ($27) – way over our budget for a single meal but we do like to pamper ourselves once in a while so it’s not such a big problem.

Sandy was quite nervous about walking the several hundred yards back to our own hotel, what with tigers and leopards and such on the loose but we really had little other choice now that we had already dismissed our driver and I did my best to reassure her than we would be fine, all the while trying to suppress my own misgivings. The ten minute stroll back was otherwise uneventful save for a couple of loud scooter riders in the night that chose a point just a few yards from where we were walking to discard of a bottle. The noise they were making along with the sound of breaking glass sent shudders through Sandy but they passed by and we made it back in one piece after all.

Tomorrow morning will be a very early start. We are to muster outside of the hotel by six o’clock to meet our driver and guide for our second and final game drive.