Wednesday, January 20, 2010

India Road Trip (a post in-progress, updated Jan 25)

The Shields family will all remember India as an epic road trip. We covered lots of territory in our chauffeured Toyota mini-van; bobbing, weaving, honking. Breathing smoke, dust, diesel and dung-fire fumes -- all the while knowing that we would eventually crash in a head-on, but rationalizing that the mere 2000 kilometers that we covered would be statistically insufficient for our number to come up. In times of doubt we just inwardly repeated the Indian driving mantra "Good Brakes, Good Horn, Good Luck" -- as instructed by more than one of our drivers.

Our path:

In truth, our biggest fear was that we would be disappointed. Pam and I had both had grandly romanticized our visits to India in the past to each other (Jon: 1973, 1981, Pam on business in 1995-2001). Since our girls were born we have been plotting a return so that they could experience the wonder themselves. But what would India be in 2009? We knew of the robustly growing economy. And of the 1.1 billion people and attendant environmental problems. Would we see subdivisions, fast food, shopping malls and Abercrombie attire? Or would it be just the usual shoddy pursuit of these things at the expense of tradition, culture and religion? How much had been lost in the gain?

We dutifully started our tour with the standard four hour drive along the Great Trunk Road from Delhi to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. Our driver was Jogi (short for Jogindra), was an unflappable, well-groomed, polite and neatly dressed in his Nehru-style suit. Guides would come and go, but Jogi would be our companion and rock, really, for the next 10 days. The first hint that religion was not dead India was Jogi's small pious acts and the changing ornamentation of our ride, including strange talisman made of organic items dangling from the front bumper, marigolds hanging on the mirror, etc. all varying according to the day of the week (did you know that Tuesday is dedicated to Lord Hanuman, the monkey king?).

Every morning Jogi and vehicle would be awaiting us just outside the gates of our hotel (they pretty much all were gated, yes). The car was freshly cleaned and each passenger position was pre-loaded with a fresh bottle of water. Suitably well-slept, properly nourished and air conditioned, we would buckle-in and plunge into the chaos.

Along the way we gazed upon many wondrous, only in-india sights. The wide variety of traffic was a continual source of entertainment. All manner of beast being used to convey cargo, including oxen, camels and even elephants:

Another form of conveyance was not only colorful but also exemplified the "can-do" self-sufficiency of the local population. This is the "Jugaad" or home-made truck:

These beauties begin with a certain widely available diesel engine provided to farmers for use in agricultural water projects. The chassis is built-up from old carts, the steering and brakes harvested from lord knows where. The resulting vehicles are not particularly fast nor smoke free, but do seem to chug along, managing tremendous loads.

Jugaad in Profile

A Jugaad Navigator

There are two economic factors that result in the Jugaad. One is the money saved by not enriching Detroit, Tokyo or (more likely) Tata. The second is the savings on registration fees, as apparently the assessment is by make/model, so unbranded, home-made vehicles get by Scott-free.

And speaking of transit-related fees, we witnessed a little incident that gave us a first-hand insight into the rampant corruption -- estimated at $5B in bribes annually.

On crossing the border from the state of Uttar Pradesh en-route to Delhi, our driver needed to make his quarterly road tax payment. I was curious as to why this transaction took a bit of discussion, so I asked. He explained that he had presented his car's registration papers and tendered his 2000 rupee fee. But the agent then requested 2100 rupees.

"Please give me a receipt showing 2100 rupees, and I'll be happy to pay," replied our driver.

"I am sorry, it will be 2100 rupees if you want me to overlook your out-of-date registration papers," explained the agent.

"No, please it's OK. You can look at my papers. The registration is up to date and everything is in order," replied our driver.

But the agent went on: "But there is a problem, brother. You see, I am not an educated man. I cannot read, and therefore, I am unable to verify that your documents are in order."

The driver knew he had been trumped by this brilliant line of reasoning, and dutifully paid up.


Eventually we reached Agra, which itself was fairly grim. However, the Taj did not disappoint. We visited twice, sunset and sunrise. The hazy morning light was the best:

Encouragingly, we found that western tourists were vastly outnumbered by Indians. We sensed a definite pride in the locals -- with their newfound prosperity they now have the wherewithal to travel and tour. For example, this colorful gaggle of Indian women queueing to enter the inner chamber of the Taj Mahal:

The next day we drove on, crossing the state border into Rajasthan and landing in Jaipur for the night. Jaipur is the biggest city in Rajasthan and not all that pleasant on its own. Still, some good sights and shopping. But the highlight was the second morning, when we drove a ways out of town. Rounding a small mountain that forms one of the boundaries of the city, we suddenly received this incredible vista:

Completely unspoiled, looming above us in its medieval splendor, the Amber Fort. (Double-click on the image to see more detail!)

The road does not ascend to gate of the Fort, so you had two choices: walk or ride. We chose to ride:

On entering the gates of the fort there was a on-going greeting ceremony, including a small band with drums and bugles announcing our arrival into the main courtyard. We were told this fanfare was identical to that which would have been afforded arriving dignitaries in days of old. It was truly intoxicating; very cool.

The fort itself, including inner palaces, was very elaborate and unique. Here the girls admire the view from one of the balconies in the harem wing:


Our next stop was a welcome respite in a rural setting. This was the Chhatra Sagar Camp, comprising 11 luxury tents offering an updated version of the 1920s hunting parties hosted by the Nimaj family, who have owned the surrounding working farmland for the past century.

The camp is set on the rim of a dam built by Thukur Chhatra Singh of Nimaj and is operated by his descendants. It overlooks the resulting lake which hosts many migratory bird species and other wildlife.

The accommodations, food and hosts were outstanding. The girls luxuriated in their tent...

...and in the morning the crew were at work sprucing-up the decorations on the dung-plastered floor of the camp area:

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Snow Country

Don't know if this is making the news back home, but our little island is covered with snow. This amazing satellite photo was all over the papers yesterday:

Though we are keeping upper lips stiff, it is quite difficult to get around. Hoards have been stranded at the airports. Trains are stymied. Even parts of the underground are down (doesn't make sense, does it?)

Here is the situation on the ground, entrance to Regent's Park:

Speaking of modes of transportation, here is a study in contrast from the neighborhood, demonstrating different styles of self-expression. In the front, a G-Wiz electric; in the back, your basic "Chelsea Tractor":

Monday, January 4, 2010

New Years

Yes, we did finally make it to India. We're just back now, with a memorable family experience still bouncing around our brains. I will attempt to document it all, or at least the high points – and low points, which may be more amusing. As a first installment, let me recount our 2010 New Year's, this the year of the tiger.


Our wake-up call came early this New Year's eve, 5 AM to be exact. Five minutes later our personal butler appeared with a pot of masala chai, shooing away the monkeys from our porch as he arrived. Outside darkness prevailed, but birdcalls permeated the bungalow, laying as it was on the edge of a grassy clearing with the awakening jungle just beyond. We swaddled ourselves in our warmest clothing in deference to the unexpected chill. For Simone, this meant donning improvised 'sock mittens':

With our grips firm on the cold steel of our anti-tiger weapons (flashlights, actually) we steadied our nerves and set off down the unlit, meandering path through the bamboo and various creepers to the main lodge. Exclamations of "Daddy, this in NOT THE RIGHT WAY" notwithstanding, we eventually arrived at the stunningly appointed common area of Mohua Bothi, the Taj Group's outpost on the edge of Bandhavgarh National Park in the heart of India.

Awaiting was our guide Arwind, originally from Goa. He dove into a chalk talk on the game plan, hazards, and the all important do's and don'ts when confronted with large cats. Duly informed, we happily signed the liability releases, our heads swimming in a pre-dawn fog. Before long we climbed into our three-tiered game viewing jeep – at last I 'get' the vehicle of the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland.

We bumped and lurched along the pothole strewn road through the pre-dawn activities of the local village (mostly consisting of men imbibing chai and ganja), across the shallow river-cum-community-plunge, soon finding ourselves grid-locked with the 44 other jeeps awaiting the 6 AM opening of the park gates. At this point I feared we were headed into a sad developing-world disappointment, overcrowded, strewn with trash, etc.

But I could not have been more wrong. Once we passed the entry, the various jeeps fanned out into assigned tracks within the 1200 square kilometers. The first light of dawn revealed stunning landscapes, with pods of spotted deer along the road, and various other creatures roaming about.

At the dead center of the park lies its namesake, the Bandhavgarh Fort dating from the 2nd century and mentioned in the Ramayana. It is perched on top of a spectacular outcropping, with a winding, steep elephant track carved from the rock as its only approach. Our TATA jeep was capable, and before long we passed through the formidable entry gates.

I was convinced that not only did this place inspire the Ramayana, but also Jungle Book, complete with roots growing through the ancient edifices:

A tablet engraved with Sanskrit was resting in the weeds...

..and nearby a spectacular reclining Vishnu carved out of solid sandstone, alongside a mossy, spring-fed pond carved from the same rock:

It was in a perfect state of neglect and decay, simply marvelous.

We zenned on it all with our morning chai and naan. After warming in the sunrise...

...we again descended to the parklands.

Before long, we spotted rather large kitty tracks along the road:

Following these for about 600 yards, Elie was the first to spot a large beast lounging in the shade of some bushes. Pamela scopes in (follow her gaze)...

...on this magnificent creature:

There was a moment of pure adrenalin when a sambar (large ungulate) wandered by, then scented the tiger and started to run. The motion caught the cat's attention, and he bounded to his feet in pursuit. With three gigantic and incredibly graceful leaps, covering what I estimate to be 20 feet per hop, he closed some distance. But then apparently gauging that he was too late, he just watched the sambar disappear into the bush (above).

Much better than a cup of coffee to get your heart going!

For Pam, there was only one way to complete this amazing day, and finally dispel the chill...

...a marigold-strewn bath complete with sandalwood incense and India's finest Sauvignon Blanc, prepared by the staff immediately prior to our return to the lodge!