India

Earlier in the year, we had been looking for a trip to photograph tigers. When we got an email that Art Wolfe was running a trip to India in November, we jumped at the chance. The trip did not originally include going to Agra and the Taj Mahal. We asked if it was possible to include that in the trip and since it was a request by others also, they were able to book an extra extension for us.

Sunday, November 5
Our flights went well. We got off a little late from RDU but having the wheelchair (we got the wheelchair to assist with Karen’s bad ankle since it was definitely broken again) helped to make it all go smoothly in Newark. Sixteen hours later we arrived in India.

Monday, November 6
When we arrived, we were picked up and taken to The Claridges hotel. This hotel stays BUSY! Mostly with their three restaurants. The hotel is located in the area where there are several consulates plus the prime minister’s residence. The staff were very welcoming and showed us to our room. We were surprised with a terrific view of the Taj Mahol from our room! Despite our desire to explore, we settled in and took a 3 hour nap. Later we had dinner at one of the hotel restaurants, Pickwick, which was named after the Dickens book. We got “sizzlers” for dinner and went to bed early.

Tuesday, November 7
We had breakfast in the hotel, there were wonderful selections. Then it was back to the room and we slept for four more hours. Jet lag!! We went to dinner at hotel restaurant Sevilla, which is Mediterranean and Spanish fare. The food was great. We then headed back to room and got ready for tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 8
Today we are driving to Agra to see the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort. We met the three others from our photography group that wanted to go to Agra; Lon and Debi from Dallas; Patti from Connecticut.

Air quality in Delhi was very, very bad. The air quality index was over 550 – anything over 300 is considered hazardous. Although the air quality is never very good, the poor air quality this time of year is increased by the farmers burning their old rice fields after the harvests. In Agra, the air quality was 110 – better but still considered unhealthy for sensitive groups. Back home in Raleigh, a moderate air quality day would be about 60.

Our guide for this trip is “Harry” (real name Harendra). He has worked with Art Wolfe many times over the years. Harry works for Encounters Asia when he isn’t leading our group. He gave us an overview of the caste system in India, told us about the Untouchables, and answered our questions.

CASTES
Brahmins = religious leaders knowing the sacred texts
Kshatriyas = warriors and rulers, protectors
Vaishyas = farmers, traders, and merchants
Shudras = labouring classes, work for the upper castes
Untouchables = doing the unclean work, cleaning toilets, animal carcasses, etc.

We stopped for a bathroom break during our drive to Agra and Harry bought us some masala chai tea. This created a problem for Karen – she is hooked on the sweet spicy concoction now.

We also learned the three essential things you need for driving safety in India; good brakes, good horn, and good luck 🤣. There don’t seem to be rules of the road, it is more just very loose suggestions. As a passenger it is best not to pay too much attention to the driving conditions.

We were told that there are three religions in India; cricket, tea, and Bollywood. People from all backgrounds come together for these three things.

We arrived at the posh-posh hotel, The Oberoi Amarvilas in Agra. It has a beautiful view of the Taj Mahal from the balcony of our room, on the 4th floor!

After we got settled in and rested a little we headed off to the Tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah, aka Baby Taj. Then we headed to out to photograph the Taj Mahal from across the river.

Lastly we had some time for dinner with group and then went off to bed for our veryearly Taj Mahal wakeup.

Thursday November 9
We got up very early and to go see the Taj Mahal. When we got there we queued up and waited for the Taj to open. Seeing the Taj for the first time proved to be another one of those emotional moments for Karen. She needed a minute to compose herself as Harry told us about the history of the Taj as we walked about 2.5 miles around the grounds. We were able to go inside and see the replicas of the tombs of the woman and her husband, but photographing them is not allowed. As we were preparing the leave the main area of the Taj, Harry found a religious gentleman dressed in brilliant orange with wild gray hair who agreed to pose for us to photograph him with the Taj as the backdrop.

We returned to the hotel for a late breakfast and some rest before heading out to see Agra Fort. Agra Fort has a rich history in India, dating back to 1565. It also has monkeys.

After Agra Fort we visited a marble workshop where ancestors of the masters who created the intricate inlays plied their trade. We bought a trivet and a jewelry box.

We had lunch at the hotel and then shopped hotel bazaars.

Friday, November 10
This morning we got to sleep in before heading back to Delhi.

Harry told us more about the various deities of Hinduism, and how other religions branched off from Hinduism; Brahma is the creator, Vishnu is the preserver, and Shiva is the destroyer. Ganesha is the Hindu god that looks like an elephant. Ganesha is the remover of obstacles and thought to bring good luck. Lakshmi is Vishnu’s wife. Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism are offshoots of Hinduism. The Bhagavad Gita is the book that details how a Hindu should conduct their life. The order of creation is (the 10 avatars of Vishnu):

  • Matsya Avatar – Fish
  • Kurma Avatar – Tortoise
  • Varaha Avatar – wild boar
  • Narashima Avatar – half lion, half man
  • Vamana Avatar – dwarf man
  • Parashurama Avatar – brahman warrior
  • Rama
  • Krishna
  • Buddha
  • Kalki

Along the drive Harry spotted some sarus cranes and had our driver stop, back up, and let us out. Alan took his long lens and went down the steep embankment with the others and across a field to get pictures. He got some very good ones along with photos of an Asian wooly-necked stork and Indian peafowl.

We made another stop along the road to see some antelopes. They turned out to be nilgai, which we had photographed back in Texas. Closer to the city we watched a hundreds of pigeons along the sidewalk eating the food that was being put for them out by someone.

At dinner we met the other three photographers; Ben from Seattle, Steve and his wife Cindy from Los Angeles, along with Art Wolfe and his assistant, Gav.

Saturday, November 11
Today our first stop was Humayun’s Tomb, a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was the first garden-tomb on the India subcontinent.

Next we explored a Sikh temple. We all had to cover our heads and go barefoot; the men were given simple bandanas and the ladies also had to wear a “dress” with a length to reach between their hips and knees. With our bare feet, we were required to walk through a shallow water bath for our feet just before entering the temple. Harry told us about the holy book and that the people worshipped the book itself. It is brought out in the morning and placed on a barer with a blanket covering it and then the temple opens. In the evening it is put to bed, in an actual small bed with pillows, and covered with a quilt. At this time the temple closes. We then entered a communal area where people who need or want a meal sit on the floor and are fed by volunteers. You don’t have to be poor or a beggar to eat here, everyone is welcome without judgment. The only requirement is that you eat all the food you request and are given. We were then taken to the kitchen where they prepare the food. We watched women making naan and men carrying huge vats of curry and other such foods. To make the naan, one group of women would make and roll out the dough and the second group would cook it over a very hot surface.

Afterward we put our shoes back on (they were left, untouched, in a room of the temple), we drove to our lunch spot and had delicious Indian food.

After lunch we drove into Old Delhi and visited the Jama Masjid, one of the largest mosques in India. We walked up the 36 steep steps and took photos of the city below. We also had to keep a sharp eye out for pickpockets. Here the men would attend a temple service while the women stayed outside in the courtyard. Before the temple service both men and women would bathe their hands and feet in the communal pool in the center of the courtyard.

Standing at the top of the steps of the mosque one can see the sea of humanity of people out for the preparation of celebrating Diwali.

After the mosque visit, we took rickshaws for a speedy tour around old Delhi. At one point, we got off and walked through “secondary roads” (alleys), then got back in the rickshaws and rode them back to our bus. Our rickshaw driver was very sweet and pointed out things to us, we couldn’t understand half of what he said, mainly because of the noise. He also helped Karen in and out of the rickshaw by holding onto her camera each time, very sweet.

Karen did her best to photograph good feel for just how busy the streets were, and of the people themselves. Her last shot of the darkening evening was of two beggar-women and a young woman who was trying to help them.

Our rickshaws took us almost back to our bus. Streets were blocked off, so we all got out and walked the short distance. Dinner was at the hotel, and the conversation centered around old Delhi.

Sunday, November 12
Today begins the festival of Diwali and it was a travel day – we flew to Raipur.

Just a few words about airport security in India, first of all you can’t get into the airport area without a boarding pass. Then you must expect multiple security checks – our credentials were checked twice before we got 20 feet into the airport terminal. When we went through security carry-on screening, we had to pull ALL our electronics out of our carry-on bags. This meant cameras, lenses, batteries and anything else that looked electronic. Also no tools of any kind, including allen wrenches, which we all carry, are allowed in your carry-ons. I guess you never know when someone will dismantle the plane with an allen wrench. We then proceeded thru scanners and after that we were still wanded by security personnel. Women had to go into a privacy booth while the men got wanded out in the open. This is standard procedure at all the Indian airports.

Once we arrived at our destination, we were picked up by cars, given a boxed lunch, and driven four hours to the lodge where we will be staying for the next four days.

We saw tons of cows in the villages, and langur monkeys along the road as we drove the winding roads.

We arrived after dark at the lodge and were assigned our rooms. After freshening up we all came together in the common area, which had no walls, just a floor, roof, bar, fireplace in the center, and comfortable furniture. We were invited to participate, or just observe, whatever our comfort level was, in the beginning ceremony of Diwali. I sat cross-legged on the floor along with most of the others and several of the staff as a local holy man incanted prayers from Sanskrit, asked for blessings on the offerings, blessed each of us and tied colorful string around wrists. We all wished each other “happy Diwali” and Namaste. How fortunate we were to be able to witness and participate in an event like this.

Monday, November 13
Today we went on our first tiger safari. We rode with Art and Amit. We saw the same male tiger twice but no really good photos. The roads were so bumpy that Alan’s phone slid out of his pocket and fell out of the jeep. Luckily, it was realized right away and the only damage was the screen protector (it worked).

The morning start before the sun is up, so while spotting a tiger is exciting, photographing one is quite the challenge.

The jeeps are open air with two comfortable bench seats set behind the driver’s area. The first bench is higher than the driver’s seat, and the back bench is higher than that one. The lodge provides hot water bottles and blankets for added warmth during the cold mornings.

Mornings begin with a 4:45AM wake up knock on cabin doors. Tea, coffee and biscuits (small cookies) are offered in the common area. By 5:30 we all are piled into the jeeps with a diver. The park is only a few minute’s drive from the lodge. We arrive in the dark and wait for the park to let us in. One park naturalist joins each jeep, sitting next to the driver. The temperature is usually around 50 degrees, there is a heavy mist in the jungle first thing in the morning, so riding in the open air makes it feel colder.

As we make our way along the bumpy dirt roads of the park our driver and guide pointed out tiger tracks along the sides of the road. The roads are so bumpy that our pedometers log 28,000+ steps, when we maybe only really took 5,500 of them.

For ten to twelve hours we search for tigers, taking in the other wildlife as a bonus. We break for a brief breakfast and lunch, and the rare but necessary potty stops. Otherwise we stay in the jungle and fields looking for tigers.

The guides and drivers handle the laying out and service of the food for our meals. They use Indian “tiffins”, which are very practical stainless steel kits used for storing food, picnicking plates, etc. At this park we would go to the visitor center, which was not open for business but we had park staff with us in our jeeps, so they would open it up and our lunch would be laid out there.

When the sun goes down and it starts to get dark, we head back to the lodge, freshen up, dump our memory cards, meet in the common area for drinks, then have dinner. All the food at the lodge is made from scratch. It is delicious and spicy. I become the designated taste tester for spice levels for Alan and our fellow photographer, Patti; they couldn’t handle much spice. After dinner we head to our rooms and go to bed.

We would repeat this process for the next two days.

Tuesday, November 14
On safari today we rode with Amit. We didn’t spot any tigers but our trip was not without adventure. First we encountered park rangers out on their elephants to check up on the tiger population. They do this to see if any tigers are sick or injured. The next “adventure” was that, due to the bumpy nature of the ride, the weld on back seat of the jeep broke – our driver and guide worked up a quick fix, and we were on our way. At another point we had to get out of the jeep while a nearly bald tire was changed.

Wednesday, November 15
We saw two tigers today! A female who crossed the road in front of us, and a big dominant male strolling across a field, taking his time to mark a tree, then walking off into the jungle. We shared our jeep with two of the other photographers.

Thursday, November 16
Today is a travel day but we have some available time in the mornings so Alan and I went on a nature hike with one of the lodge’s naturalists. Some of the others went to the village to see the rice harvesting and other activities.

The hike was beautiful and we learned much about the flora and fauna, stopping to take photos of birds and a large female tiger footprint. We watched a kingfisher hunting along the river, and saw lots of butterflies and some dragonflies too. The most impressive bird we saw was the greater racket-tailed drongo, a dark long-tailed bird that proved hard to capture.

After our morning excursions we had breakfast, then we all rode for four hours to the airport in Raipur to board a plane for Kolkata, a.k.a., Calcutta. Because of how the airlines work their schedule, we had to make this an overnight stop so there was no time to see the city. We stayed at a very nice hotel with incredibly soft beds (what a change!) and had a buffet dinner at the hotel.

Friday, November 17
Another Travel day. After breakfast at the hotel we headed back to the Kolkata airport for our flight to Guwahati. Once on the ground we had another four hour drive, in which Karen decided to take pictures with her iPhone of the tuc-tucs and other items of interest along the route, and of some neat stuff at the airport.

Soon we arrived at our next, and last lodge. One of our travel mates told us that Prince Harry and Megan had stayed at this lodge.

Saturday, November 18
We began our day with a morning drive in the western area of Kaziranga National Park. The Big Five (large animals) of Kaziranga are the Bengal tiger, one-horned rhinos (about 2600+ in the reserve, a great come back story from near extinction), the Indian elephant, eastern swamp deer, and wild water buffalo. Almost immediately upon entry we saw a one-horned Indian rhino, and then we saw more rhinos, including a few with their calves. As we were winding up our morning someone spotted a monitor lizard up in a tree! Wow!

Boruf was our naturalist for this ride – he preferred to go by “Boo” as his nickname. He did a great job on this day, providing us with lots of fascinating facts.

In the afternoon we drove the central area of Kaziranga National Park. It was a pretty uneventful day, meaning no tigers, but we did see a nice variety of birds. We also had the Himalayas as a nice backdrop. Toward the end of our drive we had to stop for a large bull elephant that didn’t want any of the jeeps to pass. He had charged several of those who tried to pass, but a few made it by him. Eventually he changed his mine and walked back into the grass, so the rest of us got by safely.

Sunday, November 19
This morning we rode on an elephant. What an exceptional experience! While there are several ways in which to ride an elephant, we rode astride, like you would a horse. Situated so high up above the ground on top of one of the areas natural creatures gave us a chance to get some great up close photos of rhinos.

Once we wrangled ourselves off of the elephant, and worked the kinks out of our sore legs, we drove to the eastern area of the park. Our adventures continued as at one point we got stuck in the mud and had to get the guides/drivers from other jeeps to help push us out.

In the afternoon we went to the far west area of the park to see gibbons, but ended up tracking a tiger instead. We saw the big male cross the road after swimming across the river. We tracked him for awhile then got distracted by a pack of elephants and their babies. Back at tracking the tiger – we could hear him roaring in the distance – we watched him swim back across the river. However, a large wild buffalo on the opposite bank also saw him crossing the river and charged him, forcing him back. Not a happy tiger. It was very late by then so we headed back to the lodge.

Monday, November 20
Alan went back to the far west area with the guys to look for gibbons and tigers but didn’t see much of anything. I stayed back to get some rest. After the guys got back we packed up the cars and drove the four hours to the airport for a flight to Delhi.

Everyone gathered for dinner at the hotel, we sang happy birthday to Ben, then got a good night’s sleep for the next day when we headed home.