India and I just ended our two-week relationship. It was not an amicable parting. I think we just need some time apart.
Tommy probably described India better than I ever could. I think he captured the contradictions well. Now it is my unfortunate task to describe the frustrations. For while we encountered many of India’s backwards ways during our first week there, it was in our second week that they actually began to affect us in a way we could not ignore.
I should mention also, one person’s experience is not going to be the same as another’s, especially coming from different backgrounds. We would hate to offend anyone from India with our description of our time in the country. We have lots of Indian friends who have told us great things about their homeland, and we were looking forward to experiencing this ourselves. The fact that we were left a little disappointed may have stemmed from the fact that we were obviously tourists. The stares we received, the many times we were heckled or overcharged, and the misunderstandings caused by the language barrier would of course not be problems encountered by someone who is Indian themselves. We are not trying to be overly critical, only honest. If anyone feels we have misrepresented India, then perhaps we were simply unlucky. But we think we have traveled to enough places that could be considered “rough” to not overreact about little inconveniences. What we experienced in India was unlike anything we had been through before.
It began when we tried to leave Agra. Most tourists apparently do Agra as a day trip from Delhi, and there is a quick, clean, and expensive express train that will bring them there in the morning and return them in the evening. That may be why we saw so few foreigners at the Taj Mahal; we went in the evening when they were probably all heading to the railway station already. Anyone who does not take this tourist train is at the mercy of the highly complicated Indian Railway system.
Tommy’s friend Michael, who we met in Varanasi, was nearing the end of his time in India, so he gave us his copy of the rail timetable book. You would be hard-pressed to find a more complicated volume. Trying to determine how we would reach Amritsar had almost been a task beyond our abilities. Getting to Corbett National Park, our new destination, was a little easier. There is an express train from Delhi to Ramnagar, the gateway town to the park. So all we had to do was get to Delhi in time to make this train.
Since the railway book was so complicated, the train station so far away, and the internet so accessible, we decided to book our tickets online. This was our first mistake. There must be a disclaimer somewhere which states that online reservations are not actually guaranteed reservations, but if there is, we didn’t find one. After booking tickets to and from Ramnagar, we saw that they had a big “WL” on them. This, we found, indicated that we were “waitlisted.”
We went to the train station to try to determine exactly what this meant, but had a little trouble. There were lots of helpful people, actually, but the problem came again with that word “why.” It was all that was left to ask when we finally clarified that, although we had paid with a credit card online, we did not actually have seats yet. That, and how we were going to get seats.
Everyone directed us to a single window at the reservation counter, behind which was a stern man who seemed completely disinterested in helping us at all. Next to us, we heard two tourists in similar straights arguing with another railway worker. At least we weren’t the only ones who were confused. We saw a well-dressed man coming out of an office, and begged for his help. He checked something on a computer and informed us that one of us had a seat but the other didn’t yet. He seemed optimistic that we would both get on the train.
We suspect now, looking back, that no one who books online actually gets a ticket, and that the day of the train these large “charts” are drawn up with all the passengers. We think they fill in the online reservations on this chart until they run out of room, and then everyone else has to apply for a refund somehow. It seems strange, but the India Rail website is also the only site I have ever seen which closes–you can’t make bookings between 11:30 pm and 5:30 am. Everyone kept telling us not to worry, and that we would get our money back. We couldn’t seem to explain to them that we were only in India for a few days, and couldn’t wait around at a train station for most of them.
Then there was the matter of getting to Delhi. Trains can run chronically late in India. The reason for this, and the very complicated timetable book, is that one train will run for days, meaning that every delay on day 1 accumulates until, by day 3, the schedule is several hours off. It was for this reason that we knew we had better leave a good three or four hours of buffer time in order to make our train to Ramnagar, just in case. But none of this mattered. Every train, every class, for the entire day, was booked. This is one thing we can’t blame on India– we should have gotten tickets much earlier. But until we knew whether or not we had tickets to Ramnagar, it seemed silly to buy tickets to Delhi.
We hurried back to the hostel to ask their advice, and they were very helpful in getting us to the bus station to catch a 12:00 air-conditioned bus to Delhi. The bus station employees assured us it was coming. We waited. At 12:30 they said it would be a half hour late. Then they said an hour. At 1:30, we asked again and were told that it was cancelled. So was the 2:00 bus, but they assured us that a 4:00 bus would arrive.
Luckily, there is also a “regular” bus for non-tourists to Delhi which leaves very frequently. It was old, a bit dirty, and not air-conditioned, but it was just fine to us. We hopped on and were moving within a half an hour. Five hours after that, we were in Delhi, 120 miles away from Agra. We had enough time to check our bags at the train station and take the subway a couple of stops away to get some dinner. When we boarded our train to Ramnagar, we were really thankful we had gotten the air-conditioned class this time. It was so much cleaner, so much cooler, and they even provided sheets and pillows.
We arrived in Ramnagar feeling pretty well-rested. After a couple of cups of masala chai from a stand at the station (the tea in India is just always delicious), we took a rickshaw to the Corbett NP reception center in town.
“The only train into town, the Corbett Express, arrives at 5 am,” Tommy said. “Knowing India, what time do you think the Corbett reception center opens?”
“10 am?” I guessed. I was wrong–8:30. And we found a long line of people already there waiting, all Indian. Someone informed us that they were waiting for day passes, which are issued beginning at 6 am, and that overnight passes would be issued starting at 8:30. When the doors opened at 6, we snuck in after the initial onrush of people and procured a price list. It outlined not only permit costs, but also accommodation and some activities. We knew we needed a driver to get there and for safaris, and we knew a guide was required as well. But no one at the reception center seemed interested in helping us to understand how to procure either. We decided to get some breakfast, buy our permits, and then hopefully hire a driver near the reception center and a guide at the park.
We walked down the street with our bags and into the first restaurant we saw, a place called Govind. Over our pancake and porridge, the owner provided us with two books filled with comments from tourists who had booked safaris with him. Thankful for someone actually offering safaris, we talked with him about prices. He explained how it worked–everything was standardized by the park except for driver costs. Just to check, we returned to the reception center. We found one other person offering to hire a driver, for slightly less, but we felt much more comfortable with Govind. And we met two other travelers from the Netherlands who also wanted to do three days in the park. Together we booked a driver with Govind. By midday we were heading to Corbett.
The park is pretty spectacular. It’s made up of about 200 square miles, and boasts an impressive list of birds and other animal species. Of biggest interest to most tourists are the tigers, and Corbett is doing good things to take care of theirs. While tiger numbers are dropping in most of India, in Corbett the number of tigers has actually increased in the last few years. Some say it’s the highest density of tigers in India. Even considering this, most people are lucky to see one on their visit, but we were hoping.
Corbett has a lot of rules and regulations, but this probably adds to its success. Only a small fraction of the park is open to visitors, and this fraction is divided into three separate zones. Two are open to day visitors, but the largest, the Dhikala zone, is only available to overnight visitors. Even within it, visitors must stay within the Dhikala campsite, which is surrounded by electric fence, except when on safari with an official guide. Safaris are only allowed in the morning and evening; between 11 am and 3 pm, everyone stays at the camp.
We met our driver, Imran, at the park gate. He was really nice, and very knowledgeable. Even thought it was 1 pm, we had to drive to Dhikala, and Imran saw this as an opportunity for an impromptu safari. We saw baboons and black-faced monkeys, and three of the four species of deer found in the park: Spotted Deer, Sambar Deer, and Barking Deer. We also saw lots of birds, including a Crested Serpent Eagle and two Brown Fish Owls. Imran knew all of the English names of the birds, which was really impressive. Our safari guide in Africa couldn’t tell us much more except that male antelope were the ones with horns. The park is really lovely. We followed a river to the campsite, which was pretty dried up. It’s the beginning of monsoon season, so in a few weeks the park will be closed and heavy rains will begin to fill the river for next season’s visitors. The forest looked more temperate than we expected from the Jungle Book-inspired descriptions we had read, but it was beautiful.
We reached Dhikala some time later. It’s like a little compound which includes park offices, a buffet restaurant and a canteen, and several grades of accomodation from fancy bungalows to the log cabin dorm. We were staying in the latter, of course. It was pretty basic, just several bunks with rubber matresses. They gave us each one sheet and a pillow at night. There was nothing to keep mosquitos out, but Tommy and I bought a mosquito coil that seemed to do the trick. There were enough other bugs to keep us from recommending the cabin to subsequent visitors, but it was an okay place to sleep for the two nights we were there. Bathrooms were in separate buildings, and there were no working showers, so we were only able to do a quick rinse that night. The whole place looked like it had been really nice when it was first built, and had fallen into a bit of disrepair.
We got some stuffed parantha (flatbread) for lunch at the canteen, which was thankfully very reasonably priced. Then it was time for our afternoon safari. We were joined by an official guide who would stay with us for all our safaris. He too was very knowledgeable about the flora and fauna of the park. They took us on a road that went through the jungle along the river. We saw lots of birds, and the fourth species of deer in the park, Hog Deer. Along the road there were thick stands of wild marijuana plants. We heard an elephant crashing through the brush on the hill above us, and soon a small herd walked across the road. The Indian elephants look a little different from African elephants (you can famously tell by their ear shape–the African elephants have ears shaped like Africa, the Indian elephants have ears shaped like India). We thought the Indian elephants looked like they had perpetual smiles on their faces.
Another safari group came up the road and reported that they had just seen a tiger cross the road and head into the jungle. Our guide diverted us back to the main road in hopes that the tiger would cross on its way from the river. We waited there a while but didn’t see it, so we continued. We drove now into some high grass plains which flood during the wet season. There were more deer, elephants, and birds. As evening fell, the plains filled with Green Bee-Eaters catching bugs–I’ve never seen so many at once.
At night they show a wildlife video on an old film projector in an open building at the back of the camp. It was about tigers, and was in English. We watched most of it before getting dinner at the canteen and getting to sleep.
The next morning, our safari began at 5:30 am. We went along the same road, still spotting new species of birds at every turn. When stopped to see the sun rise over the river, our guide spotted a tiger moving in the grass. We all watched with bated breath as it emerged from the brush and swam across the river. It was quite far away, but even without binoculars it was a sight to behold. Unfortunately we were not the only safari vehicle on the road, and others beat us to where the tiger climbed up the bank and crossed the road right in front of them. We saw his tail disappear into the brush. We went up to the main road to try to intersect him again, but to no avail. However, we were all quite happy with what we had seen. We also went down to the river and saw the two species of crocodile in the park, Freshwater Crocodiles (huge!) and Gharials, which have very narrow snouts.
We went on a midmorning safari and an evening safari, but neither yielded much. We did see some tiger and bear scratches on trees, and we found a large porcupine quill on the road which Tommy and I kept. In between we ate lunch and set up our travel hammock between two trees for an afternoon nap. We’ve been carrying it with us for nearly five months and haven’t used it once, but it was worth it. The evening movie was in Hindi, so we got to bed even earlier.
On our last morning, we got to go on an elephant ride safari. It was something we had particularly been looking forward to, but when we arrived at the park we found out it’s actually hard to get one. There are only four elephants which can carry four people each, and Indian visitors receive priority. But we suspect Imran helped us, and we were able to do a safari. The elephant wears a saddle with a big cushion, and we climbed on with the help of a special concrete “elephant mount” with stairs. His lumbering gait made us sway back and forth, making it hard to take pictures or look through the binoculars while he was moving, but we were able to get closer to the animals than we would have in a car. Our guide spotted tiger tracks in the mud, and we followed them to where a monkey far above in the trees was making an alarm call. The guide was convinced the tiger was nearby, but combing the area produced nothing, so we headed on. It was okay, though–one tiger was all we had hoped to see!
After that, we returned to Ramnagar. Tommy and I wanted to catch a bus to Nainital, a town in the foothills of the Himalayas. Everyone seemed to agree that the bus was at 1:30, but nobody seemed able to agree where. Most people indicated spots along the main road, so we sat down to wait. Then a helpful fellow came along and told us it would come to the bus station, and insisted we should follow him. When we got there, while some people said it would arrive in a few minutes, most agreed that it stopped on the main road and not at the station. We went back in time to see it pulling up, thankfully marked in English. It was an old bus, with no air conditioning and an engine humming away beneath a metal cover next to the driver. We got to see it ourselves when the bus stalled about two hours later. A little tinkering and fluid exchange, however, and we were running again. We climbed higher and higher into the hills, with some lovely views of lakes and mountainsides.
Nainital was even more charming than we expected. Dubbed the “Switzerland of India,” it has a much more temperate climate and lots of European-style houses dotting the hills around a picturesque lake. It reminded Tommy and I more of Gatlinburg back in the States, however, with attractions like horseback riding and small theme parks and the endless rows of souvenir shops lining the lake selling mountain products like honey, candles, and wood carvings. We checked into our somewhat questionable hostel and went for an evening walk along the lake. We went in a small restaurant with lots of locals dining and had one of the best Indian meals of the trip so far. It was really delicious.
The next day, we didn’t have much time. We thought boating out on the lake would be nice, as we had seen many rowboats and swan-shaped paddle boats out the day before. Tommy was pushing for the more dignified rowboat, but they came with an Indian rower and a much higher price attached, so we opted for a white swan boat, to my delight and his disappointment. Sure, paddling along wasn’t too fast or efficient, but we were able to enjoy the lovely views and the peace the lake afforded, Indian families in passing boats taking photos of us aside. That is actually something we have forgotten to mention. Here in India, and nowhere else we have been on this trip, people want to take photos with you. We have had people beg to take pictures with us, and when we acquiesce, they will shoot off half a roll of film to get different combinations of them and their friends of family in the photos.
From the lake, we spotted the Swiss-made cablecar going up the hill. When we got back to the bank, we followed it to its origin and ticket booth. Because the cars can only fit six people each, there was a two-hour wait to go up, longer than we could afford. The top was called “Snow View,” and both of us loved the idea of seeing the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas. So we took a taxi up the hill for the same price. We were more than a little disappointed when Snow View turned out to be nothing but a circle of touristy restaurants with hawkers aplenty and a view of more tree-covered hills as far as the eye could see. Perhaps there is snow in the winter there.
After that we had to pick up our bags and get to the bus station. Prior to renting our swan boat, we had spent some time asking around about what time buses ran to Ramnagar. The man at our hostel thought they ran at 11:30 and 1:30. To double check, we asked at another hotel, where we were told noon and 5:00. Subsequent inquiries yielded answers of 1, 2, 3, and 4 o’clock, as well as a couple of people who assured us there was no bus to Ramnagar at all. Everyone seemed to agree that there were very frequent buses to another town located halfway, from where we could catch a bus to Ramnagar. So we decided we had best just head to the station when we were ready and hope for the best.
We’re used to this by now, but by “station” we don’t mean a building–it’s more of an area where the busses happen to congregate. Our taxi driver helped point out one to Ramnagar, which was leaving at 3:00. We got a quick lunch and some masala chai at a nearby restaurant and then got on. It was much quicker going downhill. We were stopped just outside of Ramnagar at a bridge where construction was going on. Someone informed us that it could be “one hour, maybe two, maybe more” before we would be able to cross. So we hiked the last bit with a friendly Indian couple who showed us the way.
Still nervous about our waitlisted train tickets, we went first to the railway station. They told us we were waitlisted 2 and 3, but that we did not have train tickets yet. We saw them drawing up the large, complicated “charts” behind us, which list the different passengers on the train. We kept asking whether they thought we would get a seat, but they didn’t seem to understand the question.
We returned to Govind very nervous. We had to get to Delhi. We knew there was a bus which could be our backup, but we weren’t too keen on spending the night in a cramped, non-A/C bus. The owner of the restaurant said sometimes there are train tickets that can be purchased for a little extra baksheesh (about 50% more). He took Tommy back to the station on his scooter to check, but even those tickets were gone. It was the bus or a very long walk. We got some samosas and snacks and headed straight to the bus station. It was a long night. We both managed to catch a little sleep.
When we arrived in Delhi, the door of the bus was filled with eager rickshaw drivers. They ignored the Indians getting off the bus and followed us, each trying to get us to ride with them. We always try to avoid over-eager drivers, who are apt to overcharge, so we kept telling them no and walked over to a man who was just sitting in his car. When we got in, one of the more forceful rickshaw drivers got angry and began arguing with the man. We couldn’t understand it, but he seemed to gesture back at us and say, “They chose me.” The other driver became even more angry and attacked our driver. Some of the other drivers actually tried to pull our bags out of the rickshaw. It was one of our scarier travel moments. Our driver got out and disappeared, and then all the other drivers began gesturing at the rickshaw’s wheels and telling us it was broken. We had heard this ploy before, when people say a train is canceled so you will take their tour bus, or a sight is closed so they can take you to another. We didn’t believe it. But our driver was gone so we got out. We walked far down the road, far enough that we lost the bulk of the crowd. Suddenly our chosen driver pulled up and gestured for us to get in. We hopped in and began speeding away, thankful to be escaping. It was 4:30 am after a sleepless night and we were exhausted.
But then, after only a few feet, the driver stops, gets out, and begins fixing his wheels! He got angry when we got out to catch another rickshaw, but he seemed to be making substantial repairs (or worse rigging the meter), and we didn’t want to wait. Just when we selected another rickshaw, a police car pulls up, preventing us from driving away. Suddenly all the other drivers are there, talking and pointing, at us, at the other driver, at the rickshaw we are in. We are completely bewildered. We tell the police, we are tired, can we leave? We’re still not sure to this day exactly what went on and why the police were involved. But when they let us go, our rickshaw driver proceeded to take us on an unrequested tour of Delhi to run up the meter. We might not have realized except he made the mistake of passing certain landmarks twice. By the time we finally arrived at our hostel, we were so exhausted and angry we could barely function. We were, however, cognizant enough to refuse him the additional night surcharge; he had driven us around so long it was already morning. The fare would have been the same had he not driven around in circles so we felt that our justice was fair. It was wonderful to go to sleep.
We slept until well into the afternoon. After a quick breakfast, we went into one of the many “saloons” in the area so Tommy could get a much-needed haircut. He decided to also get a professional shave. It was really nice, and very cheap–only 50 rupees, slightly more than a dollar. We thought for once we were getting a good, honest deal. But the hairdresser decided to throw in a 500-rupee “facial.” We were able to argue him down to 300.
Disgruntled, we headed to the subway, where we were charged 13 rupees each for tokens by the worker there, only to insert them into the machine and find out they were worth 8, and he had pocketed the extra change. We took the subway to Connaught Place, one of the major centers in Delhi for shopping and eating. We found a cinema and thought we might go see the new Indiana Jones movie, but they did not allow cameras inside, and there was nowhere to check a bag, so we could not go in. We visited a recommended bookstore and ordered a couple of drinks in the cafe, but after waiting 20 minutes we were told that they could not make our drinks, but we would have to order something of equal value because they had “already made the bill.” We had to argue a while before we could get our money back and leave. As Tommy mentioned, inquiring “why” doesn’t do much good in these situations. Even though this part of Delhi was probably one of the nicest in town, we still passed enough people urinating openly in the street to convince us that it was time to leave India. We got some dinner and hurried back to the hostel.
The next day we wanted to check out some of the markets in town. We went to the State Emporium, where prices are regulated by the government, but everything was very expensive. So we went to Chandi Chowk, a market area in the older part of town. There we were able to find masala for both tea and cooking to bring home with us. Our two favorite things about India were definitely the tea and the food!
When we headed to the airport that night, we both felt relieved to be leaving the confusion that was India. However, it wasn’t over. The Delhi airport was like two weeks in India summed up in one crowded, inefficiently-run building. First we panicked when our flight was not on the electronic board. All we had was a paper ticket we had booked months ago with India Air, and we were terrified that they had canceled it. We waited in line to check in and check on this, but were turned away to have our bags security screened first. Tommy waited in the immense line to have this done while I ran frantically to and from the help desk, trying to make sure we still had a flight. They would point me in one direction and then another. Finally I gave our tickets to someone who seemed to know what he was doing. He typed some things in a computer, disappeared for a while to check, and then directed me correctly to the check-in desk (across the terminal from the other India Air desks, incidentally). Tommy met me there. There were only three groups ahead of us, but it took an hour for us to get to the front and check in. India Air is one of only two airlines we have used on this trip which required us to have paper tickets with us that had been mailed to the travel agent back home. We think the man at the desk re-typed every single thing on the tickets into the computer.
Once we were finally finished checking in, there was immigration: a long, curving line that snaked through two forests of turnstiles and then doubled back on itself three times before it ended. We forlornly fell in step at the end.
We made it through immigration about 25 minutes before our flight was supposed to depart, and it was still on time according to the boards. Security was surprisingly quick. We made it on board, only to wait on the tarmac for about an hour and forty minutes before finally taking off. We suspect at least some of the waiting was for the remaining passengers–we were at the front of the check-in line, so no doubt others behind us were even later than we were stepping on the plane. It was with no small amount of relief that we took off for Bangkok.
Photos from Corbett National Park
Photos from Delhi
Video of a Rickshaw Ride in Varanasi