Cows, Tigers and Boars! Oh My!

Cows, Tigers and Boars! Oh My!

Getting to the Ranthambore National Park felt like entering a ticket line at an amusement park. There was one road that lead through the city and lining the streets were trucks painted in a plethora of colors, bright and festive like carnival stands. Boars wandered through the gutters and cows were parked in front of buildings with yellow bindi marks on their foreheads. The animals served the role of the actors dressed as cartoon characters, wandering through the manufactured streets, waiting for their photo op. 

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We had been picked up in topless jeeps from our hotel and from curving roads, to stops and starts in traffic, I couldn’t help but feel like I was on the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland. I was only waiting for the giant cobra to rear its head and dive for us on a shaky bridge road. Instead I was headed towards the next best thing: Tiger spotting in the jungle.

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Concession Stands

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As the city passed behind us, the one road turned into a landscape of large boulders, sparse green plains and cracked earth. What kind of jungle was this? We lurched up the hill than dropped down the other side of the mountain, emptying at the entrance to Ranthambore where we paid our entrance fees through our driver and continued to sidle in our jeeps on through to the real show, the jungle itself.

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Entering the park

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Finally the landscape was changing. There was tall green grass, more trees, thickets and bushes. Wild animals started to be spotted. A peacock unfurled it’s tail like a giant blue fan. Spotted deer gamboled through the trees nibbling on grass. Birds flitted in and out of mud puddles. Was this Bambi or the Jungle Book? Where were the tigers we paid to see?

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Our guide, Raj, warned us that on some trips there wasn’t a single tiger spotted. We were in the wild after all. It might feel like an amusement park but amusements were not guaranteed. There was no way that they could ensure that a tiger would be seen, we could only follow drivers hunches and where other guests had spotted something a day or two before. Unlike the Serengeti, this jungle ride was not as sprawling. There wasn’t a large savannah reaching in all directions around us. We had only so many roads to follow.

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We ended up in a line of jeeps, trailing along a river on a dirt road. There was only one path to follow, a track so to speak, and there were signs that this track was the right one.

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Tiger footprint spotted

Suddenly the jeeps ahead started to slow. We stood up and peered over the top of the metal bars, whispering between our two jeeps. What was it? Why are we stopping?

“Tiger,” someone spoke from up front.

The jeeps fanned out in a line so that everyone could get a view. Directly in the middle of the dirt road, a large tiger lounged, taking a nap and stopping all vehicles.

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Any position to get the perfect photo, even straddling between two cars.

We got our cameras out and shot like it was nobodies business. This was big game hunting, the catch of a lifetime. A real Bengal tiger in the wild. The drivers refused to get any closer. This tiger was the biggest one in the park and his name was the Cruel One. Rumors said that he got this name because he was the only tiger to have ever attacked anyone in the park.

Was this story true or just something the drivers told us to make the trip feel dangerous, making our visit special in some way? Was every tiger the Cruel One? I don’t know, but it worked. We gaped at the large beast as it suddenly rolled upwards, yawning in a large circle and stretching its limbs like a lazy house cat.

The Cruel One lumbered up and began to walk down the road. The engines of the jeeps roared to life and slowly we inched closer, keeping the same distance between car and tiger but following him down the path nonetheless.

The tiger moved to the side of the road. He stopped, he turned slightly and squatted over a mound of dirt on the side of the road. The tiger took a dump right in front of us as if saying, this is what I think of you and your jeeps and cameras.

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After a sufficient amount of picture time, the drivers decided that it was time to go. We wouldn’t be able to make our way past the Cruel One so each jeep had to do an intricate reversal and head back out the road we came on. As we made our way out of the jungle, a pilgrim walked through the woods with his belongings balanced on his head. Apparently there was a pilgrimage site dead in the jungle and for religious reasons, those who sought it were allowed to travel freely through the park. The drivers warned the man that a tiger was just down the road but he didn’t seem to care or hesitate. Barefoot, he continued on down the road, making his way to make his blessings.

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On our way out, we made our own blessings. As we idled in the jeep waiting for a herd of spotted deer to move across the road, we reflected on seeing an actual wild tiger. Had this just happened? Was this a hologram? No, this wasn’t an amusement park after all. This was the real thing. A buck with giant horns stared us down. It was time to move on, we were beginning to overstay our welcome.

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We exited the park and on our way out of town, we spotted children on rooftops flying kites. It was like the end of the day at Disneyland where children queue up to watch the fireworks at the end of the night and the characters parade down the road. Only we were the characters, we were the ones being watched as we drove out through the city. We, too, were part of the show. 

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First Impressions

First Impressions

You should know that when I went to India I had to wear a neck brace. Somehow I was so stressed out at the end of the school year that all the vertebrates in my neck were out of joint and had to be popped back in place by a chiropractor a couple of days before I would be taking an 18 hour flight in coach.

 

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I was told my neck was too fragile to not wear a neck brace for at least a few weeks. I diligently followed orders and not only stood out as the only non-Indian women on the flight but also the only one wearing a large collar around her neck. Let’s just say I was a favorite of the children on the flight over, perpetually popping over their seats to peer at me as if I were in a zoo.

 

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The only documented footage of my neck brace, prior to departure.

In Delhi, I was joining a tour for two weeks of travel through Rajasthan. I booked a room at the hotel we would be picked up at a day later, so that I could slightly adjust to jet lag and be presentable when I met everyone. I had decided to only wear the brace at night when I was alone in my room, but prior to the tour starting, I was wearing it whenever I was alone in general.

There was a knock at the door and thinking it was my room service, I opened it. Standing in the hall was a lean, clean cut Indian man. He looked at my face, at the collar and then back at my face.

“Elizabeth?” he asked in a tone that had me wonder if he hoped I wasn’t the Elizabeth he seeked.

“Yes?”

“I’m sorry, I’m Raj. Your tour guide,” he stuck out his hand for me to shake. “I heard you were here early so I thought I would introduce myself. Are you okay?”

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Raj!

“Oh this,” my face flushed red, suddenly very conscious of the fact that I looked like I had just escaped a bad car accident. “Just a small neck issues. No big deal. I won’t be wearing it during the day.”

Raj, my wonderful Intrepid Travel tour guide, went on to tell me the specifics for the start of our tour such as what time to meet and how many people would be traveling together. After a few pleasantries, he left me alone in my room. I thought all was well and good, the experience being over and went back to vegging out.

The next morning, I met the rest of my tour group and Raj proceeded to tell everyone about meeting me the day before while I was wearing a neck brace. I hadn’t intended on everyone knowing about my unsightly accoutrement. I was more embarrassed because I didn’t have any cool story to tell about why I had to wear it other than bad joints. I felt like I should tell them I was rappelling one handed from the side of a canyon or fighting off a tiger in the jungle or lasted a round in a lucha libre match before injuring it, but such was not the case.

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Some of our Intrepid travelers

But I quickly learned there was one great side effect to everyone learning about my injury: they all offered to carry my bag for me the rest of the trip. I became good friends with one guy from Australia and over the course of the two weeks, he made sure to get my luggage on and off the trains for me so that I wouldn’t get re-injured. I learned that sometimes a neck brace isn’t the worst thing to have while traveling.

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Thanks for carrying my bag Rob or I wouldn’t have been able to go camel riding at the end of the trip.

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I share this anecdote with you for one reason…I am about to leave the country for Thailand and I think it is nice to be reminded of first impressions, not only of us to others but of us to the country itself. Our experience doesn’t begin that first moment we walk out our hotel room and greet the day. Our experience of that trip starts from the first moment we put luggage wheels to floor and head out our front door. I could have let that neck injury ruin my whole vacation. I could have let it shadow the whole first week for me, complaining about pain or even choosing not to go, but I didn’t. I let Raj share his first impression of me and I laughed along with the others, and because of that, I met some great friends and injury or not, made my way through the bustling, vibrant country that is India.

My neck got better and I left that neck brace behind in a hotel room in Jaipur to lighten my load. Because that’s what you can do when you travel, you can physically and metaphorically lighten your load, off loading what you don’t need and move on. Stress from your day job, uninformed thoughts about people or a city, one bad day where everything goes wrong, leave it behind. Put it in that hotel room and let the maid clean it up (figuratively of course). Get those luggage wheels rolling again and head out that door and let the next day fill you with impressions, one after another, from first to last.

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By the end, my neck was feeling well enough to be be cramped into this “bed” on an overnight train.

I will not be posting the next few weeks because I will be collecting new impressions for more stories in the future. As this posts, I will just be landing in Bangkok. In the meantime, follow my Instagram account to see live updates of my travels. While I’m out of the country, I hope you go lighten your load as well and get those wheels rolling and travel.

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Pack your bags and go!
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Airplane view of Perú

 

Featured image is an airplane view of Hawaii. You will never see it, if you don’t go.

Bathing Beauties

Bathing Beauties

There are multiple times throughout the first season of Game of Thrones where Daenerys is bathed by other women. When I saw these scenes, I always thought, I would never ever do that, let someone bathe me. I am not one for being bathed, I usually keep that private time to myself. There are nooks and crannies that no one should be privy to but yourself.

India changed that.

The year was 2013. I was in India during monsoon season in the month of July. After two weeks of oppressive heat in the North and a bout of food poisoning, I was off to the cooling climes of Coonoor, a two and a half hour drive from Coimbatore at top speeds, up winding roads around the Nilgris mountains that rose up from the plains like an after thought from God.

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The city of Coonoor

I had booked a week stay in an Ayurvedic clinic housed besides a tea plantation. I was told no one can have serious Ayurvedic treatment short of four weeks so I would be receiving the massage relaxation package, which entails a massage twice a day and occasionally an oil drip. I was saved from the forced enemas and diarrhea-inducing cleanses that the rest of the four-weekers received.

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There were many rules I had to follow at the Ayurvedic hospital. No drinking, no eating meat, no sugar and no sex. The last one was the easiest as I was traveling alone but the rest were made simpler by the sheer fact that I could get none of these things in or around the premises. The days were highly regimented as well.

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The daily schedule

Pills and tonics were delivered to your door to be taken at 6 a.m. Directly afterwards, you could climb to the top of the hill for sunrise yoga in the circular yoga room but more often than not, I went back to bed until the breakfast bell rang at 8 a.m. We breakfasted on the lawn in mixed groups for about two hours. The guests were from all over the world and varied in age from 10-late 70s. The common language was English which made things very easy for a monolingual like myself. I remember feeling like the clinic was one of those seaside resorts for people to recuperate at that you read about in old British novels. We could pretend we were very posh while doing nothing but lounging around in robes drinking tea.

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At around 10 a.m. everyone would disappear for their morning appointments. I’m not sure what went on behind closed doors in everyone else’s appointment slot, but I knew my morning consultation was always a massage from Lolly and Neela. Imagine this: You are ushered into a dark room with dark wood everyone. The massage table is oiled wood, the floorboards are wood, the windows are covered with wooden slats and you are being heated by a small electric heater charging by the door. The room is fragrant with the different Ayurvedic remedies and herbal mixtures. Some of it smells better than others. There are wet towels hanging on a wood rack near the door, plastic buckets either full of water or not are scattered around the room. There is very little light as they want to preserve your privacy from the chatty Cathy’s still out on the lawn. Your privacy in the room is another matter.

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Lolly and Neela in the massage room

“Put your robe here, then tie this on,” Lolly instructs me the first time I come in for my massage. She hands me a strip of cheesecloth, essentially tissue paper, and gesticulates explaining to me that this bit of floss is meant to cover my naughty bits. I tie it around my waist and through my legs and Neela comes from the shower room in the back and begins to rub strong smelling herbs into my hair, my neck, my temples and dotted across my face at places where I assume chakras subside.

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Post-massage chakra dots

I’m then asked to climb onto the wood table that over the course of the next thirty minutes gets covered with so much oil one has to wonder if they’re marinating me for a feast. The massage is a fumbling sort of synchronistic ballet where Neela and Lolly approach me from both sides and match their techniques in parallel motion. They both lift my arms then proceed to massage them in a way that any fifteen year old boy would be highly familiar with in technique and maneuver. They follow this by doing figure 8s around my breasts with the tips of their fingers, no real pressure, but apparently it’s meant to open up something in my soul. 

I’m asked to flip over and when I do, the string holding my cheesecloth thong on is untied and pulled off. Now it’s just me as God intended. They do the same double maneuver on my legs and pour more medicinal oil on me and at some point the massage comes to an end. Since I’m now so lubed up with “medicine” I might fall out of the room like a baby being born, I’m not surprised when they tell me to go into the shower room to get cleaned off.

Sure. Only Neela follows me and tells me to sit down. She is now pouring water over my head and scrubbing my back with an exfoliating soap. I am slightly in shock but don’t want to seem a prude. After all, the two of them had just been massaging my naked body for the past 30 minutes, what was the difference in a bath. So I sat back and tried to let my inner Daenerys out.

When she finished my back and arms and was done tossing some water across my front, she motions down to the bucket of warm water. “You do front,” Neela points to the water then points at my crotch. “Of course. Yes, yes I can do that,” I mumble as Neela exits the room to give me some privacy at last. Apparently some things are still considered sacred.

This routine would happen once a day, sometimes twice, for the next week. I got to know Lolly and Neela very well. They told me about their children, their working conditions (some people warned me later that Lolly and Neela really knew how to work the stories for tips, but I tipped them large anyway, I mean, the women washed my naked body every day, how could I not), about their love lives, how long they had been at the clinic for, whatever information we felt comfortable enough sharing on that day. It was a strange friendship we formed, me on a wood table covered with oil with two Indian women hovering over me sometimes speaking an English I could understand and sometimes not trying at all, but it was one I treasured either way. I won’t be making this bathing ritual a habit though. I’ll stick to my wet hot American showers.

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My vegetarian meal waiting for me my first night.
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Fresh herbs from the organic garden for remedies and food.

Part One of the Relaxation series can be read here:

Hot Springs Time Machine