In all of our adventuring, we’ve been using the term “bumps” to express some of the cultural differences we run up against. Today though, we trekked across India via some very literal bumps. We piled our suitcases in the lobby in Jaipur, finally getting used to letting go of what we’ve been taught to cling tightly to, so the men at the hotel can load up our bus once again. We’ve been on the move now at a rapid pace since Mumbai – two nights in each hotel – and a nomadic life is something that takes getting used to, I think. But once again, a piling of luggage, a cluster of students, and we’re off, amusing ourselves on a long bus ride. Some look from the windows, observing, comparing, soaking in as much as possible without actually getting to meet people. Others talk – current things, past things, bonds that will be unique because you were with me in India, you saw what I saw, colors, pineapples, brightly colored head scarves. Dust and cows and camels pulling carts. Turbans, mustaches, poverty, wealth, tour buses and motorcycles and trucks so packed with cotton it seems impossible an engine could propel them from here to anywhere. And as we bump along, we giggle with half-delight, half-amazement as bodies are lifted into flight, like we’re on a brightly colored carnival ride in our orange-orange bus.
A brief stop at what we endearingly term “The 100-Rupee Tree,” possibly an Indian sister-store to The Dollar Tree. Everything inside – “100 Rupees.” Cookies and potato chips make it feel a bit like a brightly colored truck stop from home. Off once more, the countryside getting dryer, the saris and scarves getting brighter. Red and yellow and pink make women stand out and sparkle against the heat.
A quick glimpse of wildlife from the road (their name is blue bowls. Or balls. Oh, I mean blue bulls. Some times the Hindi-influenced vowels take us a moment to catch on to) foreshadows the next few days to come. Manjeet shares stories of times he’s seen tigers: the son named Challenger because at a young age, he dared to take on his father for territory; how in 2008, all the tigers in a neighboring area were killed by poachers and more were air-lifted from Ranthambore to restock the supply; the time a pair of tigers stuck around for two and a half hours, and they stayed with them the whole time. Our bus ride takes five hours – we’ll be pros at this commute before the trip is over (two more 5+ hour bus rides to come), but I think I can speak for everyone and say it’s more than worth it.
When we arrive at Tiger Den Resort, the green lawn and blue pool and pink-red roses stand out in contrast against a blistering heat. It’s hotter than it was in Jaipur. So we rest for two hours – sleeping, showering, doing laundry, and peeling mangos. We’re in cottages in a circle around the perimeter of a surprisingly lush lawn, giving the impression that we’re British travelers on some posh safari holiday. In the morning, they’re giving us tea and biscuits. Soon our time is up and we douse ourselves in sunscreen and bug spray, pile into a 20-passenger “jeep,” and proceed to our next set of literal bumps. We drive through a landscape that looks as if someone planted a forest on top of a desert – banyan trees on tan-red dirt. We’re as close to off-roading as you can get while still driving on a path, the guide warning us of tree branches that whip into the passenger space. Unfortunately, Julia gets smacked in the face on a few occasions when he’s too busy scanning for tigers. The driver takes most of the rocky patches slow but still I think, “We thought the bus ride was bumpy, we didn’t know what was coming.”
Our hearts jump in our throats and fingers scramble for cameras when Paul points & shout-whispers “THERE’S A TIGER!” But it’s only a spotted deer *. The guide jokingly reminds us that spotted deer have white spots, but tigers are striped black. He has more legitimate tiger-facts while we drive and wait, wait and drive: how much they eat, when they’re active, the age of the oldest female still prowling around (19 years). I’m short on the details, but I’m confident Paul will have a few more to sprinkle in here:…”The oldest female tiger in Ranthambore has had14 tiger cubs, 11 of which have survived (which is unheard of). She was also seen killing several crocodile, and is the oldest tiger in the wild, at this time.”
While we drive, black-faced monkeys jump from branch to branch above our heads. Green parrots dart between trees, a baby alligator basks itself on a sunny set of rocks. Samba (a tiger’s favorite food – it’s slow-moving, can’t see well, and tastes like salt) graze on tree leaves, stare, and lick their nostrils while we rumble by. Male peacocks shimmer blue-green like gems on a tan-brown woman, standing out like nothing else we see. I have the thought “This is like a 3D movie!” the real so exotically different than my typical real that I almost have trouble believing its truth.
Then things pick up – we stop at a ranger station to check for tiger-news and our driver quick-steps back to the jeep, saying something in Hindi that can only mean one thing – we’ve got a lead on a tiger. As we speed back the way we had come, the bumps in the road become outrageous and I laugh, thinking “This is it! There is no way we could be on a bumpier ride.” But it’s thrilling, this chase. Driver and guide and Manjeet all with Hindi words tumbling from their mouths but we need no translation. We’re going to see a tiger.
We make a turn ahead of a handful of other jeeps and the nose of our vehicle is pointed towards a small trickle of a stream. Everyone is (once again literally) on the edge of their seats. We can tell people to the left of us are seeing something – shouts and cameras all pointed in the same direction. Then, on my right, Manjeet whispers “There! There he is!” and for a whirlwind of seconds a tiger appears from behind some brush, crosses a tiny clearing, and then is gone. Everyone is buzzing, who got pictures, who didn’t get to see, and while we continue to crane our necks around branches that’s all we’re going to get for this trip. The rest of the drive is again filled with a supporting cast of wildlife, incredible in their own right but overshadowed by the possibility of a tiger. Manjeet says we’re lucky, to have gotten a glimpse on our first day. And tonight I hope to dream of a tiger, peeking around a bush and purring in a mysterious voice, “Come and see me again tomorrow.”
We can see the stars here, for the first time.
They’ll carry our love to you, from our tonight to yours.
* Paul wanted me to make it clear that it was Bre who told him it was a Tiger…he just got a little excited.