India 2004

>Many years ago I had planned to go to India but didn’t make it because where I really wanted to go was Nepal. That might sound a little confusing but as didn’t have time to do both I decided to do neither. In retrospect I think it must have been a good decision because I had no reason for not going to India this time and it was great (although I still haven’t been to Nepal – which I would now like to combine with Tibet and another visit to China).

Now some of you may wonder how and why I travel so much but at least on this occasion I can blame it on my friend Donna. It was her who cruelly suggested that I go to India to see tigers with her even though this was supposed to be a non-travelling, hard working year for me. In such instances, where wildlife and travel are involved, I seem completely incapable of saying no and so it was that I went on the Exodus Tiger Safari.

Basically they market this 10-day tour to wildlife and photography enthusiasts. Instead of doing the regular India stops (Agra, Varanasi and wherever else), they take you to two national parks and send you in twice a day to spot tigers. There is a quick drive by/pseudo stop in Agra to check out the Taj but otherwise it’s all tigers if you’re fortunate enough to see them (which we were).

So I found myself flying to Delhi via Kuala Lumpur and Colombo on Air Lanka. I have to kill three hours in KL and eight in Colombo where there is supposedly only one coffee shop in the transit area. Total flying time from Melbourne to Delhi is only 14 hours, so 11 hours waiting in between seems a bit excessive and please slap me if I’m ever tempted to take a cheaper flight but more stops type of flight again! It brings back horrific memories of the eight hours I had to kill in Japan when I was so tired and fell asleep on a bench for four hours.

Luckily I managed to have a bit of a nap on the first leg of the flight. The entertainment system wasn’t working (which is perhaps better than not having entertainment at all as was the case on the second and third legs of my journey) and I had finished reading my book. The nap abruptly ended when my leg decided to spasm on the plane. Basically of its own accord it kicked out fiercely. It was quite lucky no-one was seated nearby else they suffer serious injury or otherwise notice my strange behaviour and ask for an explanation. I ended up turning the kick into a body roll / stretch to deceive anyone who may have witnessed the kick in the first place. Perhaps in my defence many of them had their own spasms to deal with. For the final moments of the flight I was just concerned that my bag of rice crackers might explode with the change in air pressure.

Just a note on transit delays … one thing which you have to love is that they allow you time to intimately get to know the airport. Take for instance the transfer desk. At KL international airport there are quite a few of them, every one of which is open except the one I need to get my boarding pass for Air Lanka. So whilst everyone else is ready to board, I have to wait until someone turns up to open my counter. The information desk gave me that look they reserve specifically for imbeciles when I queried when it would open, so now I’m just waiting to see.

On a positive note, the transit delay in KL at least gave me a few hours to catch up on my journal entry for NZ. I flew there just a few weeks earlier for a long weekend to watch the Olympic Hockey qualifier tournament. Without boring you with the details of the hockey … which to me are not in the least boring … I booked myself a Business Class trip with my Frequent Flyer points. Having never flown Business Class before it was all very special. The Qantas lady at the checkout counter in Melbourne looked like she would be much more pleased to put me and my slightly torn jeans in economy which I unfortunately find to be the standard niceness with Qantas.

As luck would have it, there were only a handful of Business Class passengers so the service was great. I had a three course meal. Not like the usual where each course is presented on the same tray just a different bowl. I literally had three full trays of food and when I mentioned to the flight attendant that surely there could be no more food she offered more if I so desired!

With food out of the way I settled back to watch the in-flight entertainment only to find that the chair was a little uncomfortable. It was too big and luxurious and as a consequence I was unable to touch the ground. My legs started to throb as they dangled uselessly over the edge. It was only on the return flight that I noticed another passenger flip out a hidden little foot rest thing that made everything much more comfortable. A trip to the toilet was just as confusing. I like to think of myself as a well travelled girl, but I have never before encountered cloth hand towels in a plane bathroom. Usually it’s just paper towel that you dispose of, but in Business Class they have cloths but I couldn’t find anywhere to put it once I used it. Well, there was a rubbish bin but that seemed a little wasteful so it ended up that each time I went to the bathroom I had to stuff the little cloth in my pocket and work out what to do with it later. My method on the flight back was to avoid going to the bathroom at all.

Back to more recent times … and my flight arrived in Colombo nice and early which wasn’t such a bonus at all since I had to wait seven hours for my connecting flight. I killed almost an hour walking up and down the hall then paid US$20 for a day room so I could sleep the rest of the time away.

Now let’s get back to India. The two National Parks we visited were Ranthambore National Park and Bandhavgarh National Park. Both of which are theoretically good for spotting tigers. Ranthambore feels considerably bigger but with the tracks covering only a small percentage of the park, the likelihood of spotting tigers is not as high as in Bandhavgarh. Regardless, it’s a beautiful park with an impressive fort on a plateau, which you can see from almost everywhere. I had to mention the fort because it really is incredibly impressive. It was built around 1140 AD, they’re not really sure who by, but when you see it you might, like me, be in awe at the size of it.

The wildlife in the park is diverse. Not only can you see tigers but also bush pigs (also known as wild boar although in Australia it’s a colloquial term for Australian girls who are very rough around the edges), leopard if you’re lucky enough to see them (I wasn’t), Sloth Bear if you’re lucky enough to see them (I wasn’t), Caracal if you’re lucky enough to see them (I wasn’t), squirrels (just kidding but wouldn’t it be great if you could, they’re so cute), peacocks (not really a highlight after you’re seen thousands of them), Jackals, Chitals, Sambar Deer, mongoose, loads of monkeys (common langur) which although they’re common always bring a smile to my face, crocodiles, eagles, owls and so many other birds that I have absolutely no knowledge of what they’re called.

In India I’ll generalise and say that they love their curry, uniforms and bureaucracy. I’m also very fond of the curry but the bureaucracy is annoying. In the park the bureaucracy forces you to stop to pay for cameras, stop to get hounded by hawkers and finally stop to pick up number plates which identify which route you’re allowed to drive. This route is the route that your driver and guide are allowed to take you on through the park regardless of where any tigers may have been sighted. It’s a little frustrating but it is also a fantastic way of seeing more of than park than you might otherwise see.

While we were in India the temperature was surely above 40 degrees every day and everything was quite dry which is supposed to be the best time to see tigers (I think it’s because the water holes are fewer). It’s not too unpleasant in the heat as the safaris are organised first thing in the morning, when your eyes are still crusted together and then another safari in the later afternoon, which is a bit warmer but eventually when the sun goes down it’s much more bearable. In the middle of the day we just went back to our accommodation (in Ranthambore this included a pool) to eat curry and relax.

As for the tigers, well it took me forever to see my first one, even though it was supposedly looking right at me. By quite a while I don’t mean nup, nup … oh there it is. I mean several minutes! First off I saw all the jeeps stopped on the track ahead, then as we approached everyone points in the direction of the scrub off to our right. Not much help really as the scrub is pretty thick and the tiger wasn’t just sitting there in front of it. You can’t imagine the excitement as everyone is clicking cameras or fiddling with their binoculars. There’s actually a lot of noise which surprised me as I thought we should be deathly quiet so as not to disturb the tiger. It gets worse though as the guys in the jeeps jostle for the best position (to get the best tip?) and arguments break out about who should be where and no-one can get through anywhere in the end. The jeeps become dodgem cars and if you don’t believe me, take for example the four accidents/bingles we had in jeeps (although a couple of those could be attributed to our driver chewing some local drug/stimulant).

Anyway, I’m still trying to spot this first tiger with directions such as “see the third twig from the dark tree stump 20 metres ahead, look 186 degrees and you can see a stripe”. This continued for a few minutes until the tiger finally decided to move making it a damn sight easier to spot. I saw two legs and then nothing until thankfully he came into the clearing and plonked himself down again. Then you just stand there (stand in the jeep I mean) watching for an hour or so until the traffic jam clears.

Now my unscientific view of tiger behaviour is that they’re lazy, just like domestic cats. In the heat they don’t mind lying around doing nothing all day and that’s basically what you see them doing. We watched one tiger for about an hour and a half and all it did was turn its head a couple of times. Oh, that’s not entirely true, it did get up to stretch at one point. So that’s why if you look at my photos they all look pretty much the same. We were lucky enough to see a few tigers moving around as well which is quite impressive as they lope along. They will rarely look at you but they always know where you are. There’s a sign in one of the National Parks which quite succinctly says “you may not have seen us, but we have seen you”.

We had a couple of great Tiger sightings in Ranthambore. My favourites were the very first sighting, the “I wont move” sighting which was pretty close at 10-15 metres. Then there was another sighting where a young tiger was watching us through some scrub. This only lasted for about 30 seconds but it was watching us quite warily and it felt like the most interactive sighting. Then there was the final favourite sighting, which was from no more than five metres. A mum lay there breathing heavily in the heat whilst one of her big babies (fully grown but not fully filled out) was lying under a tree not too far away. Mum was elevated on a little embankment and we were way too close for my comfort. The jeeps are like the MASH jeeps – very open and low and I was feeling a little apprehensive. Then again, that’s what this is all about, otherwise I could see them in a zoo with glass between us.

After four game drives in Ranthambore National Park we headed off to Bandhavgarh National Park via Agra and the Taj Mahal. I wont comment on the Taj other than to say it’s not very impressive from so far away and as it was closed (supposedly every Friday) I didn’t get to see inside it. Definitely need another visit there to do it any justice.

An overnight train journey and a long car trip later we arrived at beautiful Bandhavgarh. This National Park has a smaller, less commercial feel to it. No-one trying to sell us anything, no designated routes to follow. Not only that, but inside the park they have mahouts who ride elephants into the tall grasses to find more tigers that you can’t necessarily see from the road, even if you’re just metres away. Then for 300 rupees they will take you on the elephants to see tigers from very close range. The most vivid experience of this for me was sitting atop the elephant watching two tigers in the long grass. They were just sleeping and didn’t care that there were three elephants near them. Now in order for the two people on the other side of the elephant (two people sit either side back to back) to see the tigers, the elephant dutifully turned around which means that I’m looking at whatever is most interesting on the other side. I can’t remember too clearly but I was probably looking at the pictures I had just taken on my camera, or some such self absorbed thing, but then I looked directly down and there was another tiger, a very unhappy tiger, staring at us. The long grass meant that no one had seen this tiger and we had almost trod on him. We were on a biggish elephant but there is no doubt in my mind that the tiger could have jumped up and nibbled on us had it really cared. Luckily for me it just provided the very best photo opportunity and otherwise left us alone.

There were many more tiger sightings, a couple of turtle sightings and a snake sighting (not enjoyable) but that was pretty much it for the trip. I had hopefully managed to fatten up one baby puppy and a blind dog at the park entrance with biscuits from the accommodation in Bandhavgarh – possibly not the greatest thing for their digestion but they were such poor skinny things. The people on the trip were wonderful as always and I’m quite sure I have never met such a well travelled group of wildlife enthusiasts. They put my meagre adventures to shame so I’m all fired up to join the elite.

My apologies to Donna for whacking her every time I saw a tiger. On one occasion I was very excited and thumped her pretty hard and stammered “Tiger” which you could easily see as it was right ahead of us. I think the moral is, don’t sit too close to me when wildlife spotting (includes squirrels and all domestic animals as well).

If there was one disappointment from this trip it was that … ok, three disappointments … it wasn’t long enough, we didn’t see any little baby cubs and my photos didn’t turn out great. None of which are valid as I consider myself incredibly lucky to have been there in the first place. All of which can really be resolved by going back which I’m thinking of but not sure at this stage. I’m planning a trip to South America (Argentina and Peru / Chile) at the end of the year and next year I’m hoping to get back to Africa to see the Gorilla’s again so another trip to see tigers might have to wait … or not.

For the moment though you’ll be happy to hear that I’m working hard, or at least I have ATTENDED work for a grand total of 63 days for the financial year (July-June). Seems excessive I know but I have to pay for these trips somehow. I dragged myself out of bed this morning only for the money, as the shear joy of work doesn’t do it for me anymore. I have 4 working days left at my current contract and I will probably/hopefully renew here or find something better. The job market does not ever seem to be as grand as it was several years ago.

My hockey exploits have been temporarily interrupted as I recover from a calf tear. Amusingly I was still able to play a second match after the injury (not knowing at this point the damage I had done to myself). I played dreadfully so at least I have an excuse! Life is playing tricks on me now. I parked at a car park closer to work to avoid the walk but then had to limp/hop/cry down seven flights of steps as there was no elevator. If that’s not funny enough, the following night one of the cats I was babysitting raced off outside (I don’t think this cat has ever been outside in its life) so I had to try and catch it. Truthfully I had two friends there who sort of annoyed it enough that it raced back inside before I had done more than get my shoes (a 10 minute hobble) and find some kitty treats (another 10 minutes).

Otherwise, I’m quite happily not studying at uni for a change but I have been studying Spanish since the start of the year. Loads more work to be done.

That’s it for now. I hope that you are all well and happy and perhaps I will hear some news from you soon.

Cheers

Cheryl

New York Starring Cheryl

>Oct/Nov 2003

About 11 hours into my train journey I had read and mostly committed to memory my Lonely Planet NYC guide so I was primed to catch the subway to either 96th st or 103rd st on train route 1 as far as I could fathom. I managed to finish reading or at least turn each page of the crappy Lester Bangs book I brought on the train ride to keep me entertained. This was great news as I now officially had no books left to read and a trip to a bookstore was ahead of me. I stunned myself by writing at least 20 postcards in dreadful scribble due to the wobbly train ride and horrified myself and perhaps passengers around me with my food consumption.

Soon enough (800km) I was arriving in New York. I didn’t get much of a view as I just saw some lights on a bridge and then we were underground. It was pretty easy to get to the hostel after initially struggling to find the right line, then a tricky (not really) encounter with the downtown train instead of the uptown one. When I eventually hit the surface I took about five wrong turns in five minutes as I tried to get about one block from the subway stop. I thought I knew my N, E, S, W but obviously not when I have a full pack on.

I spent one night in the HI Hostel and then moved to the Big Apple Hostel in midtown. Perfect location on 45th st and great in every other way as well. I highly recommend this place if anyone is heading to NY. The Big Apple Hostel was to be my home for the next couple of weeks and again after I returned from Washington D.C.

The list of things I did, saw and took photos of in New York is huge, limited only by my energy and money as I think I had plenty of time. I wandered through Central Park and fed pecan nuts to the squirrels which were in abundance. They seemed to enjoy them but I’m not sure that it’s allowed as no-one else was feeding them. I promised to remember to look out for police before I indulged in any other dissident behaviour.

I popped my head into the Guggenheim museum but it was full of strange work that I really couldn’t get my head around apart from a few works by Van Gogh and Picasso. I sort of felt a little guilty that I didn’t try hard enough to ‘get it’, but there’s a lot to do in New York and not everything appeals to everyone. I wandered through Central Park again, my main purpose was to get to the upper west village to find and dine at a restaurant called Quintessence, an organic, raw vegan restaurant. The service was lovely and kind particularly as I was in their lunchtime rush of three people (their words not mine). The meal was kind of like the Guggenheim, arty but I didn’t like it. In fact, I’m not even sure what it was … supposedly nori rolls filled with some sort of digestive aid pate.

Later on it is well worth noting that I found a huge bookstore, the kind I have dreamt about. People were lying around on the floor, sitting on the ground in corners, singles and couples, young and old in every section of the store. I allowed myself only a small amount of time in there because otherwise it is always dangerous for me. I already have enough books to read for the rest of my lifetime.

I love the subway in New York, it’s fantastic to get around on but for the moment, walking was so much better as you get to see and hear everything: men running around Central Park talking about skinny girls, girls walking around talking about relationships they don’t want to be involved in.

What else did I do in New York … I saw a bunch of Broadway shows which was fantastic. Some of the shows I just went to see for the cast, other shows appealed to me for the storyline but in most all cases I had a great time. Admittedly I did walk out during the intermission of a couple but this was mostly due to fatigue rather than disinterest. The tickets were purchased at the 50% discount outlet but the tickets were mostly still about US$50 so the shows always set me back a bit.

Now here’s a list of things I have learnt whilst travelling.

1. Public phones are never in quiet areas because it’s deemed highly unlikely that you or the person you’re speaking to would ever want to hear what the other is saying.

2. Never cross the road for Starbucks. The act of crossing the road itself is not that difficult, it’s just that if you wander a few more steps you’ll surely find another on the same side anyway.

3. Never talk to strangers. They’re strangers because they’re strange. It’s not always the case, but quite often.

The United Nations was another highlight for me. So much so that I went there twice. The first time as soon as I arrived I was whisked away on tour like an important citizen, but in truth it was because they needed one more person on their tour and I was the only friendless sole to be found. I later discovered there was a horrible lady on the tour so it was no doubt because of her that no-one else volunteered to join the group.

Something I am not proud of but I will admit to enjoying was going to a taping of the Ricki Lake show. Definitely not my usual scene but it was hilarious! The show was about the best looking women who work at Walmart and the winner got some Playboy spread.

Of course I made the pilgrimage to Ground Zero but discovered there was not really much to look at apart from construction which is probably the honourable thing. If they had transformed it into a gawdy tourist spot then I think it would be quite disrespectful. Across the road was the Century 21 department store which I went to visit with my new friend Nicky. That place was scary and I’m sure it’s no surprise to anyone who knows me that I wanted to get out as soon as I went in. For me the only valid form of shopping is in a book store. It took forever to get out and once you’re in the ‘going in’ stream of people it’s very difficult to change direction.

I finally made it to see an Ice hockey game. It was a battle between the Rangers and the Red Wings. Hope this means something to some people out there. The Rangers won 2-1 but I was kind of barracking for the other team as the girl sitting beside me, who was kindly telling me the rules, was a fan and I had no other allegiance.

I had a great plan one day to go and see a Gospel choir in Harlem, then continue on to the Apollo Theatre, Harlem Market, Spanish Harlem and then the Bronx. The end result was that the church was full so we went to another recommended church just nearby. ‘Mothers’ was having its 207th anniversary we discovered which probably meant more babbling than usual ( I wouldn’t really know given that my lifetime visits to church is a single digit figure and will remain that way). I was frustrated with the stand up, sit down business all the time. When the choir did sing they were entertaining but for the rest of the visit I will be forever glad that I daydream exquisitely!

Stop two was no better although I enjoyed the walk through Harlem. The Apollo Theatre, venue of radical events and singing sensations, was closed apart from the gift shop, but I managed to worm myself into the washroom which would have been a highlight had it not been so smelly.

We (Nicky and I) continued to wander, stopped at a Soul Food Kitchen for lunch which included fried everything sold by the pound, very little of which was digestible. Soon enough we met one of those strange strangers I was telling you about and we couldn’t get rid of him for several hours. I blame Nicky as she initially started talking to him but then I think it was my fault as I was too pleasant and kept talking to him when Nicky had given up and was trying to run away.

The final stop of that well planned day was out to Yankee Stadium where the Yankees had lost the world series the previous night. There was lots of rubbish around and not much else. We didn’t realise until we were there that you can’t really see anything by walking around it and the best glimpse you get is from the train but we were happy to have made it out to the edge of the Bronx.

Another day my roommate decided that she had to go see Conan O’Brien so I tagged along not really knowing what I was getting myself into. The show tickets have long since been distributed so we had to line up in the wee hours of the morning for standby tickets. We arrived at 7am (9am is when they’re given out), found where we were supposed to be, lined up but as there was no-one else there we wandered off and came back a few minutes later. Still there was no-one there but this was definitely the place to line up. Shortly after, the security guy (Aboa) set up some crowd control gates so we moved there, took some photos and then finally another person turned up perhaps an hour later, then a few more, until finally at 9am there were people at least into the double digits. I had standby ticket number 1, my roomie had number 2.

That’s not where this story ends. We later found out that the stand by ticket is only valid if someone doesn’t turn up so you have to go back to the studio at 4pm and line up again for another hour. In between we decided to go to the Met. Now I’m not sure if this is the biggest museum in the world but it’s big and full of loads of interesting stuff. Unfortunately our early morning had killed me and I wasn’t able to stay awake enough to enjoy anything. Too tired to catch a train back to the hostel, we took a taxi (which takes about five times as long as the train). I slept a few hours and then it was time to go back to the studio. The bad news was that even though we had stand by tickets number 1 and 2, neither one of us got in. Depressed, we headed off to Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream where we got a discount (they pitied us). We met two guys in there who work for NBC who also pitied us so they offered us a tour of NBC (Bob liked us because we didn’t like George Bush). Just as we were about to sign in and have our visitor pass photos taken, someone offered us Carson Daly tickets which we gratefully accepted even though we had been offered them before but weren’t interested. This time we couldn’t really say no as they were being so kind. So off we went to Carson Daly where we saw Ted Danson and no-one else I know of. The show was really bad and it’s no wonder they have so many tickets to give away. Perhaps I should be more grateful, but it was really really bad which makes something I did later even worse.

The next morning we lined up again for Conan O’Brien tickets. This time we got stand by tickets number 6 and 7. Three guys from Israel had been in line since 4:30am and were saturated as it was raining. We didn’t have the heart to tell them we had tickets 1 and 2 the previous day and still didn’t get in. Positive thought will get you anywhere … and this time we got in. The show was hilarious, really funny and well worth the effort. We went to celebrate at Ben & Jerry’s (it works for all occasions). Against my better judgement we went to see Carson Daly again, partly because I thought it really couldn’t have been that bad and also because Nicky liked it and wanted to go again. This time the show was so much worse! The show is so bad that we turned up almost two hours late with no ticket and they still let us in. Worse still, they were taping for Friday which means it runs for an hour instead of the usual, more bearable half hour. The guests were abysmal. Some guy from Saturday Night Live who was a complete ass and a chick from That 70’s show who was almost as bad and certainly just as rude and offensive. I couldn’t wait to get out.

Like any good NY tourist I headed off to the Empire State Building. There are at least four different lines you have to stand in. If you’re planning on going will take you about two hours before you get to the top where you can see anything. The view is well worth it even if you’re only up there for 15 minutes like I was.

Another interesting (free) thing to do in NY is to walk across the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges. It sort of happened for me by accident. I was heading to Chinatown on the subway and got off at the wrong stop which was nearby to the Manhattan bridge. It seemed like a fun thing to do so I walked over, a little unsure if I was going to get mugged or anything. The Manhattan bridge is great because it gives you a wonderful view of the more famous Brooklyn Bridge and a view of the Manhattan skyline. The whole trip took about 1.5 hours (I walk slow). Sorry if I sound like a Lonely Planet guide. Just thought some of this info might be helpful if you’re planning a trip and wondering what to do.

I went to Washington DC, did a bunch of vaguely interesting things and most of the time wished I was back in NY. It didn’t feel safe at all if I walked a block away from the hostel AND there was a creepy guy staying in the hostel. No luck either way really.

For any Sarah McLachlan fans out there, I saw her play at the NBC Today Show Summer Concert series at Rockefeller Plaza. Well I didn’t really see her much as I was a few people back in the crowd and I’m not tall enough! I did hear her though. The next day I had a ticket to an exclusive in store performance she was doing. It’s a long story how I got the ticket, the short version is that Luka is an absolute gem!!!! We sat in the front row of a small crowd and listened to her play a small set before getting a cd signed and asking her when she would come to Australia. May she said and true to her word she will be here. I already have tickets.

Quickly to the flight home which was horrendous. 13 hours or so to Japan, eight hour delay then another 13 or so hours to Sydney, lines for security, lines for transfer, nice easy one hour flight to Melbourne, luggage lost, don’t care at all – too tired and I was home to big hugs and kisses from my two nieces with the rest of my family there to greet me.

A couple of weeks later I was back in Sydney for a volunteer stint at the Champions Trophy Hockey and it would be another two months before I bothered working in the real world!

As always I’m sure I’ve bored you senseless so wake up and do some work or whatever it is they pay you for.

Tigers in India were great. Hope you’re ready to read that one as well.

Cheers

Cheryl

PS Please forgive typos, grammatical errors, rubbish, junk and anything annoying.