The 2 blind San Diegans and the elephant

Throughout the seven weeks we traveled in India, I thought more than once about the parable of the blind men and the elephant. It recounts what happened when a group of blind men investigated the strange new creature they had heard about. Each man touched a different part of the beast, and each formed a clear idea of what it must look like. The guy who felt the trunk said the elephant was like a snake. The one who touched its side said that was nonsense; elephants instead resembled walls. The man who stroked its ear concluded they’re like fans, and so on. Each was so convinced the others were wrong they eventually came to blows.

Before we left San Diego, I knew India was big and complicated. But our hands-on experiences were humbling. I blogged about our hellish midnight arrival in Kolkata where the line for prepaid taxis moved so slowly it took us more than an hour to reach the head of it. I could have (blindly) concluded we should never take another Indian prepaid taxi. But we did — at least a half-dozen times over the weeks that followed, including another time in Kolkata. On all those subsequent occasions, the service was fast and safe and cheap.

After a month of traveling in India, I wrote about how we had not once found anything resembling a modern grocery store. But then we went south, and in Kerala we found plenty of them.

Our final destination, the state of Kerala hugs the far southwestern coast of the subcontinent. Traveling to Kerala from Kodagu (the relatively isolated mountain district where we had our elephantine adventures) wasn’t simple. Interminable buses make the trip, but no trains. In order to fly, we would have had to drive east for at least four hours back to Bangalore and then fly west again. Finally, the simplest solution was to hire a car and driver. The ride would cost $157 and take about 10 hours, we were warned. Frankly, I didn’t believe it. How could it take 10 hours to go less than 220 miles?

We learned. Potholed two-lane roads in the mountains made the going slow at first. The flow would improve for a stretch, and our hopes would rise. Maybe the worst was over? But as we approached the coastal road south, we moved even more slowly. Traffic wasn’t as bad as what we saw in so much of the north, but the streets were narrow, and the constant flow of buses, taxis, tuk-tuks, bicyclists, animals, and pedestrians through them forced our driver to jam on the brakes almost constantly or at best creep along. I hunkered down in a back seat, trying to lose myself in blogging, but the twisty roads drove Steve up to the front seat. There all he could do was observe hour upon hour of our slog forward. In the end, it didn’t take 10 hours to reach Cochin. It took almost 11.

We stumbled out of the taxi, cranky and fed up with India. It felt irredeemable — until the next morning, when Peter Panathara took us on his “silent tour” of the local backwaters. Much of the coast of Kerala is broken up into a complex network of waterways. One of the big tourist activities here is to cruise them. Some folks rent houseboats and spend one or more nights sleeping on them, but day trips also are popular. I only read about Peter’s tour a few days before we headed for Cochin. He had an opening, a stroke of immense good luck for us, because he turned out to be one of the best guides imaginable.

In the 7 hours we spent together, we learned that before starting his tour business, Peter had worked for more than 20 years as an investigative reporter for one of Cochin’s daily newspapers, primarily covering crime and corruption. His knowledge of the region felt encyclopedic; his pride in Kerala palpable. The state towers over the rest of India in countless way, including average lifespan (at least 10 years longer); literacy and access to modern plumbing (100%), population growth (declining, rather than continuing to skyrocket), religious tolerance, and environmental consciousness. Cochin’s spiffy new airport is powered by a huge field of solar panels, the first we saw anywhere on the subcontinent. The state has already largely recovered from the devastating monsoon flooding and landslides that struck in August, the worst in a century, with a valor and vigor that would make a great action film.

Once we reached our embarkation point (about an hour outside the city), the experience grew even more magical.One bad thing about Kerala is its heat and humidity, but in Peter’s big canoe, propelled by a local villager armed with a long pole, a light breeze cooled us. Crossing a broad channel, we sheltered under a big umbrella……then slipped under a low gate……into a series of narrow canals shaded by coconut palms, mahogany, and other huge tropical trees.For a long time, Peter stopped talking, and we glided through the passages hearing only the birdsong and the swish of the water moving over the hull.

We stopped a few times, first to gather coconuts from one of the trees……drink their water…and taste their custardy insides.We continued on to a tiny island and met the man who first settled it and now lives there with his relatives and a few other families.We ate a delicious lunch prepared by two of the women in the family……and learned how to spin twine out of coconut fiber.That’s Peter. By the time we got back to our hotel, he felt like an old friend.

For me, it was probably the best single day of the whole 7 weeks. The next day, our last in India, couldn’t top it, but we still had a pleasant time strolling past the fishermen working just a few blocks from our hotelThe heart of old Cochin is 500 years old, and you can sense that.

That night, we had the strangest theatrical experience of our lives. One of Kerala’s traditional art forms is kathakali, in which actors and musicians present dramatizations of passages from the great Hindu holy books. In their classical form, these performances can last from 6 to 10 hours. However, visitors sample a vastly shortened form. It starts with watching the actors apply their makeup.Here’s what the stage looked like when we walked in.The make-up application had just begun.It continued over the course of the next hour.Then we listened to a short lecture about the performance elements. Actors don’t speak but rather communicate meaning with highly stylized hand signs, facial expressions (like this one. I think it was revulsion)…and eye movements. Kathalkali actors must train their eyeballs like athletes. I’ve never seen such amazing control over that body organ.

After the lecture, we watched a 30-minute excerpt.

When we emerged onto the street, Steve said, “We’ll, I’m certainly glad I came with you. If you told me about it, I would have thought you took some really heavy drugs.” We agreed it made kabuki theater seem as banal as a network sitcom. I cannot explain it any further than that, except to suggest it felt like we had touched yet another very weird part of the elephant.

Elephants and leeches

We didn’t go to Kodagu looking for elephants. We got interested in the area when a friend who has worked and traveled for pleasure in India told us Kodagu was a spice capital of south India, dense with gorgeous jungle. Then another friend put us in touch with an Indian friend who lives in Bangalore and owns two coffee plantations in Kodagu (also known as Coorg, the old British name). I emailed Sheila, asking if we might meet for a lunch, and in an amazing display of generosity, she invited us to stay in the guesthouse on one of her plantations. We made plans to spend three nights.

I haven’t written anything about our time in Bangalore and Mysore because we only had two nights in each. Both look more prosperous than any place we visited in the north, but sadly the air and traffic in Bangalore (“the Silicon Valley of India”) still wasn’t great. By far the highlight for us there was our rollicking three-plus-hour lunch with Sheila — a commanding, cosmopolitan lady with a surfeit of interesting opinions and insights and abundant good humor.

She had worried we might get bored with two and a half days in Kodagu, but this did not come to pass. I don’t know why the district isn’t on every Indian visitor’s list. For centuries (millennia?), Kodagu was an independent little state run by hundreds of clans. The clansmen were warriors but also farmers, growing rice along with spices and eventually coffee. Black pepper grows wild here. Trying to find a way to get to it is what led Christopher Columbus to stumble upon North America.

Kodagu didn’t become part of India until the 1950s, and it sounds like many folks today would like to go back to the independent old days. Living in their fertile valleys, shielded from the rest of the world by rugged mountain forests and the dangerous animals who inhabit them, blessed with clean air and a mild climate, Kodagu is a shangri-la — not just for people but for elephants.

We started our first day with elephants. Sheila’s farm manager, Arthur, found us a taxi ($43 for the whole day), and the driver headed northwest for an hour or so. Our destination was the Dubare Elephant Camp, an operation of the state (Karnataka) forest department. I sort of expected this to be a tourist attraction, and it was, but only in the loosest possible sense of that term.

We parked near a bank of the Cauvery River and joined a long queue of Indians waiting to board launches to ferry them to an opposing bank (43 cents per person for the boat ride; 29 cents for the camp admission).In about 15 minutes, Steve and I made it aboard a boat and quickly reached the camp. In the hour and a half we were there, no person, no signs, no brochures told us anything about what the camp is and how it functions. Maybe the Indians thought it was irrelevant. Most folks didn’t come here for helpings of wildlife education: the draw was watching the residents get their morning bath.

Young men were riding big old males and females and youngsters from an upper holding area down to the river… then using that ancient Asian-elephant-control tool, the hook, to make them lay down in the water…or stand patiently while their tusks were cleaned with a sand-paste rub.Poke this baby into the tender spot behind one of those big ears, and you can get a 10,000-pound beast to do what you want!

For an additional 200 rupees ($2.87), one could go down onto the beach and join in the elephant-spa activity. I (naturally) could not resist, but Steve claimed he didn’t want to get wet and so opted to stay on the cliff top and take pictures.

Down on the beach, I edged up to the action, simply watching for a while.It was hard to tell what the elephants thought.It didn’t look like they hated it. But was it pleasurable?

Once or twice, one of the young mahouts interacted with a visitor……as when one wrapped his charge’s trunk around this young lady’s neck, in response to a photo request. But most of the guys ignored the crowd gaping at them and concentrated instead on scrubbing the tough hides.They reminded me of car-wash attendants, irritable because of the long line of customers awaiting service.

I finally petted several animals…I tried to communicate good will with my touch. I ran my fingers over a few tusks, the source of so much elephant suffering and death. Then I rejoined Steve, and we walked to the high ground, where we found workers wrapping up brown rice within handfuls of hay.It did look to me like they enjoyed getting the tasty packages.

We made a couple of other touristic stops that day — toured a nature park; visited a large enclave of TIbetan Buddhist exiles. But our quirky, magical visit to the pachyderms overshadowed everything for me. That and the lunch we had with a friend of Sheila’s.

He met us near the nature park and took us to an exquisite riverside resort for lunch. Madhu is an amazing character: a coffee grower himself, but also a consultant to coffee growers all over the planet. His special (U.N.-recognized) expertise is in sustainable cultivation practices. We talked about coffee-growing and many other things; among them, the local elephants.

“You can kill a man and get away with it,” he declared. “But if you kill an animal here, you’re done for.” The Indian conservation and forestry officials were fierce and effective, he said, and in recent years, the local wild elephant population had grown well. We learned that elephants roam the roads and routinely barge onto fields in Coorg, mainly at night, when they’re foraging. When people harassed them or made them think their babies were threatened, encounters could get ugly. The elephants killed between 15 and 20 Kodagu residents annually, according to Madhu.

“But what does a grower do when a group of elephants comes onto his coffee plantation?” I asked.

The best course was to stay out of their way, Maddhu said. They would soon move on. Trying to chase them away was usually disastrous; frightened, stampeding elephants could do tremendous damage. Left alone, they rarely lingered. And in Kodagu district, an area about a third the size of San Diego County, elephants have lots of alternative eating grounds. Somewhere between a half and two-thirds of the district land is protected tropical rainforest. The only humans who can enter it are forest rangers and hikers with guides.

On our second full day in Coorg, Steve and I got one of those permits and two guides (the minimum acceptable number.) One carried a gun in his backpack, and the other, a 34-year-old guy named Chengappa, had a lot of experience and an okay grasp of English.He seemed to know a lot about the local elephants, so I pelted him with my questions. Elephants in India no longer can be taken from the wild and put to work (as they were for millennia), he told us. But the animals at the Dubare camp (all but the babies) were former “rogues,” individuals who had killed a human or otherwise caused great destruction. Such elephants were tranquillized and brought to a center, where they were (essentially) broken in spirit, re-educated, and used for a weird range of activities — everything from getting all gussied up to march in the biggest annual festival in Mysore, to helping with special logging problems, to being taken into the forest to participate in elephant funerals.

Cheng said in his 8 years of working for the forestry department, he’d never heard of a guide or trekker being hurt by an elephant, but it wasn’t unimaginable, and the forest harbored other scary creatures — the Indian gaur (a buffalo-like animal similar in ferocity to the African Cape buffalo), pit vipers, tigers, leopards, jaguars. The only mammal I saw was a civet, swinging through a giant tree, but the ground was dense with spider webs, some of which built complex tube structures.This guy was about a half-inch tall. The forest also teemed with little leeches…like this one, about an inch in length.

To protect ourselves from them, we all tucked our pants inside our socks, but several still fell from the trees and tried to attach themselves to my bare arms. Each time this happened I knocked them off with a yelp and a shudder.

We covered an eight and a half mile loop that included more tough climbs and descents than Steve and I have done in a while. The terrain we moved through was so dense and varied it felt Jurassic.Sometimes we edged ourselves downward by stepping into little ledges created by the elephant’s footprints, dodging fresh elephant poop. Even though we saw no actual elephants, it warmed my heart to know they still claimed such a breathtaking sanctuary as their home.

Besides sharing that space for a few hours, Steve acquired another souvenir from the hike. When he got back to Sheila’s and took off his shoes and socks, this is what he found:

All the leeches had fallen off, as Cheng said they would. We found them (fat and happy) inside Steve’s shoes, and we discarded them. Strangely enough, not one got to me. Another mystery of nature (or maybe sock mechanics).

Shopping in India

We still have eight more days in India, but I already know what has shocked us most: the retail shopping experience. We’ve been in few countries where so much of the commerce consists of tiny storefronts offering only one category of product. Last May, in the middle of the Amazon, we found a modern grocery store in the small town of Santarem (Brazil). But the only time we managed to find anything vaguely similar here was in Jaipur. Then, when we told our guesthouse operator we wanted a grocery store, we had to hire a taxi to drive us to one because it was too far to walk.

The dearth of general stores — even tiny ones — at times has been maddening. I think of our first night in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), last Tuesday. We’d picked up some vodka and wanted to have a drink in our room before venturing out in search of dinner. You can mix vodka with many liquids; our favorite is Schweppes tonic water or orange juice. People describe Mumbai as the New York City of India, and our hotel was in the Fort district (“a dining and shopping epicenter,” in Lonely Planet’s words.) How hard could it be to find a bottle of mix?

REALLY hard, it turns out! Steve and I tromped through street after street, all of them jam-packed with shops. We found places selling stationery-related products, snuff, laundry detergent, photocopying service, cell-phone covers, clothes, tailoring services, and much more I can’t remember. We passed eateries of all sorts, from nice restaurants to cheap Chinese food outlets to countless varieties of street food. But nowhere did we find tonic or even a boxed juice. We must have searched for at least 20 minutes before finally spying a bottle of sugary orange soda for sale. Grouchy and dissatisfied, we gave in, bought a bottle of that, and returned to the hotel to pour a stiff one.

I don’t want anyone who reads this to think no American-style grocery stores exist in India. We’ve seen photos online of glitzy shopping malls that look indistinguishable from the nicest in San Diego.

We’ve also seen plenty of expensive looking stores selling Nike shoes and Coach bags and Zara products like this, even on very decrepit streets. I’m sure there must be grocery stores near the the fancy malls. But Steve and I haven’t been staying in wealthy enclaves in major metropolitan suburbs, but rather in staggeringly dense city centers. We started to wonder if there were no grocery stores around our hotels because the Indian government had outlawed them for some insane reason.

That does not appear to be the case. We got some inkling of the true explanation in Udaipur. The day after we took Shashi’s cooking class, we ran into one of the British couples who’d been our classmates and joined them at a coffee shop. The guy, another Steve, was an engineering manager who’d been living in Bombay for 5 years, while his partner, Allison, spent part of her time with him and part back in England. We had a long delightful conversation, during which we asked about the mysteriously missing grocery stories. They reflected for a moment, then suggested there were a couple of factors.

Very poor people probably paid a few rupees less to buy their fruits, vegetables, and milk products from the vendors who brought those products in from the country and sold them on the sidewalk than they would pay at any grocery store. Also, grocery stores weren’t a part of the culture of the Indian poor.“But there are plenty of middle-class people in India now, aren’t there?” I interjected.

This was true, Alison and Steve agreed. But the reality was that middle- and upper-class Indians could have their servants go out and buy anything they needed. Toothpaste? Toilet paper? A can of tonic water? Send out Rahul, or call the store for takeout service. Bombay Steve told us about opening the door of his apartment one recent day to find a guy bearing a cup of Starbuck’s coffee. (He’d wound up at the wrong apartment.) Most middle- or upper-class Indians would find it beneath their dignity to dash off to a grocery store, Alison and Steve said, adding that in fairness, some felt they were providing needed jobs to their fellows by using their delivery services.

I felt a little staggered to realize I was in a place with such vast numbers of extremely poor people that their existence made grocery stores uneconomical. The absence of the grocery stores didn’t mean you couldn’t get anything you might want. It meant other people would go out and find it and bring it to you if you paid them little more than pennies.

They didn’t need to go to a grocery store to find whatever you wanted because they knew what the various scattered sources were. The importance of such local knowledge was driven home to us our second morning in Bombay. We left the hotel early, before the city felt like quite such a steam bath and walked past the fantastic Victorian-era train station. Here’s what a small part of it looks like:Just north of it begins a series of neighborhoods renowned for their maze-like bazaars. As it turned out, it was too early for many of the shops to be open, but we did pass guys carrying big tubs of fish on their headsand others selling them from tarps on the sidewalk.We passed trucks of suffering and doomed chickens that made me (briefly) consider never eating chicken again.The old Crawford food market (the exterior of which still bears beautiful sculpture work done by Rudyard Kipling’s father)was just coming to life, and within it, I spotted a booth carrying all manner of canned drinks, including our beloved Schweppes (in both Indian and foreign sizes.) Steve was ecstatic. He bought six (Indian) cans from this guy.

Later that morning, we took an Uber car to another nearby train station (Churchgate). I’d read that the famous dabba-wallahs of Mumbai could be found gathering there every day in the late morning. These guys pick up lunchboxes from restaurants and private homes (where ladies earn some money by cooking tasty lunch items and packing them into tins for their customers) and they fan out across the city around noon to deliver them to office workers. I’d seen a charming movie (The Lunchbox) a few years ago about one such guy, and our guidebook also talked about them. (The sidebar claimed that more than 200,000 meals were delivered daily, and a 2002 Forbes Magazine analysis “found that the dabba-wallahs had…a 99.999999% reliability rating.”)

At our hotel we heard that the dabba-wallahs were in decline; corporate canteens were increasingly putting them out of business. I still wanted to try to find some, but at the train station all we saw was this lonely trio.Had we gotten there too late? Were dabba-wallahs as endangered as those Rajasthani camels? I felt a wave of disappointment.

We strolled aimlessly up a prosperous residential boulevard and then down a big commercial street. We popped into a non-self-service pharmacy (where everything for sale is behind counters manned with white-robed clerks) and found the sunscreen/moisturizer I’d been needing. I was too embarrassed to ask those guys if they sold pantiliners (one of my secrets to life on the road with just a few pairs of underwear), but Steve barged into the next pharmacy and emerged moments later with an 88-rupee package of Carefree liners.

Continuing on, we came upon a cluster of men I thought were selling purses or insulated bags. But Steve exclaimed, “It’s them! It’s the lunch guys!”It was indeed a thick congregation of dabbah-wallahs, loading up their conveyances. I hadn’t immediately recognized them because they were using so many insulated bags instead of the traditional tin canisters. Some had dozens of the lunch bags piled up on wooden hand carts……while others stood by bicycles hung with motley receptacles.The face of the modern dabba-wallah.

They milled about for a few minutes, then dispersed to make their deliveries.

We almost missed them because we didn’t know where to look or even exactly what we were looking for. I think more than a few things in India are like that.

An early thanksgiving feast

The city of Udaipur in Rajasthan is famous for the beautiful lake at its heart. It’s been the setting for many movies, with the James Bond franchise’s Octopussy the best known by Americans. We couldn’t believe how many of Udaipur’s guesthouses advertise that they screen Octopussy every single night. Steve and I passed on that, but we did take a boat ride on the water one morning, and we enjoyed the splendid lake views from various rooftop restaurants. What I’ll remember most, however, are the hours we spent in Shashi’s kitchen.

We wound up there because a listing in the “Activities” section of the Lonely Planet’s Udaipur chapter raved about Shashi’s cooking classes. I emailed to see if we could join one and got a response saying the 5:30 pm Saturday (11/17) class had two openings. This was a stretch; on Saturday we had to set the alarm in Jodhpur for 6 am to catch a train. After that five-hour journey, our taxi got stuck in a giant traffic jam. But we didn’t want to miss the opportunity, so precisely at 5:30 pm we walked into a trim little kitchen on the upper floor of a building down the street from our hotel.

Along with Steve and me, the students also included two friendly middle-aged British couples and an adorable pair of French almost-newlyweds who were traveling the world on a six-month sabbatical. Shashi appeared and silently tied little friendship bracelets on each of our wrists (women’s on the left and men’s on the right.) She applied a red stick-on bindi dot in the middle of each woman’s forehead, and more red on our hairlines (the indicator that a woman is married.) Then she sat and told us her story.

She’d been born abut 50 years ago in a village 200 km outside Udaipur. At 19 her family arranged her marriage to a man she’d never met before. But he was handsome and understanding, and they were happy to be blessed with two boys. The kids were 7 and 5, when one day Shashi’s husband was murdered. She didn’t explain the circumstances, but today her face still bears traces of the depth of that tragedy.

It went far beyond the loss of her husband. Rules binding the Brahman caste (into which she was born) declared that she could never remarry (though she was only 32.) She lacked the education to work in any of the limited professions acceptable for Brahmans (traditionally teachers and priests or professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and engineers.) She had no relatives who would take in her and her little boys; no savings or social assistance. To survive, she washed the clothes of foreign tourists and cleaned neighbors’ homes, but she had to do this furtively, because of the caste restrictions.

She hinted at the suffering in those years. Eventually she and her boys got to know an Irish tourist who learned what a good cook she was. He urged her to offer cooking classes to tourists. That seemed impossible; she spoke no English. The Irish guy nonetheless encouraged her, and Shashi screwed up her courage. Somehow it worked. The tourists came. Little by little, she learned English. When a Lonely Planet writer included her in the guidebook’s Udaipur chapter several years ago, that was her big breakthrough. Now, even though her competition has exploded, Shashi teaches two classes daily 5 or 6 months of the year. She’s hardly rich, but through grit and hard work, she’s made a life from the ashes.

We glimpsed her drive once our class got underway. I’ve taken many cooking classes in my life, but none that approached the scope of what this woman covered. She started by teaching us how to make masala chai, the spicy tea that’s ubiquitous in India. We sipped it while we watched her prepare a spicy chickpea-flour batter in which we immersed onion and potato slices.We deep-fried them, then gobbled them down, dipped in two kinds of chutney (coriander and mango) both of which Shashi showed us how to make.

We moved on to the “magic sauce” that’s at the heart of so many Indian dishes. Shashi’s younger son Ashish (who assisted her throughout the night, both in cooking and teaching) explained that if you start with this, you can quickly spin off countless seemingly different dishes. At its base is garlic, ginger, and onion sautéed in oil and then enlivened with key spices: cumin seed, coriander, chili, turmeric, and salt.We made the magic sauce, then we used it to makes several dishes, including curried chickpeas….deep-fried cheese in a tomato-butter sauce, and a vegetable pulao.As each dish was completed, Shashi stacked it on its predecessors,a teasing metal tower that grew more maddeningly tempting as the hours went by, and we grew more and more tired and hungry. But there was more to learn, and lots of joking and laughter to distract us as we toiled. We made chapatti dough; learned out to knead it and cook it on a skillet.Many hands make good chapatti.

We made naan dough, and Shashi demanded that we all handle acquire a basic proficiency with that.

The naan rounds puff up magically as you fry and roast them.

It was well after 10 before we all took seats around the table and dug into the spread we’d created. I can report that everything tasted delicious; it ranked among the best food Steve and I have eaten anywhere on this trip. The conversation flowed, lubricated not by any drop of alcohol but by the common work we’d just shared.

Shashi confided that she doesn’t always enjoy the larger groups, those as big as our eight-some. Sometimes people don’t get along, and some are difficult. But we were good people, she pronounced. I felt as warmed by her praise as I was by the chiles in the food we were digesting. It was clear to me she was not just a good teacher but also a good human being. It was a pleasure to learn that about each other. Preparing and eating a great meal together can teach you that.

Camels in crisis?

Somehow camels have become one of my favorite animals. I think this started in 2002 when I rode one in Luxor (Egypt), on the edge of the Sahara. It felt a bit like being on a gigantic rocking horse — fun and exhilarating and more comfortable than I expected.

A few years later, my dromedarial affection expanded when camels carried Steve and me to an overnight campout in the Moroccan desert. I admired their big, beautiful eyes and sweeping lashes; the way their upturned mouths resemble smiles (not to mention their ability to stroll with majestic languor through harsh deserts). No camel has ever spat at me or growled or kicked or tried to bite me. They’ve been affable; good-natured.

So when I heard at some point about the huge camel fair that’s held every year in Rajasthan, I wanted to go. This wacky craving eventually bordered on obsession; it shaped our whole itinerary. I started with the camel-fair dates (mid-November this year) and built the rest of the trip around them, and I expected our time in Pushkar to stand out as one of the highest highlights.

I’ll have to wait until we leave India to judge what the actual highlights were. But I doubt I’ll ever forget the last three and a half days.

For one thing, Steve and I broke our longstanding habit of avoiding what we’ve condescendingly referred to as “the bubble.” By that we mean 5-star preserves where you can feel you’ve never left upper-crust Cleveland or Club Med. “What’s the point of traveling,” we have sneered, “if it feels just like home?” In Pushkar, our hotel was only $55 a night (including breakfast), but it was large and new and floored with gleaming marble, inside and out on the patio overlooking the pristine pool. It was also located far enough outside the town center that we never once heard a blaring bike or car horn. Every afternoon, after walking 5 to 10 miles through the dusty fairgrounds and jam-packed byways, we would return and sit outside in the shade to write or read or meditate. This was surprisingly soothing.

Part of what makes Pushkar so chaotic during the camel fair is that it coincides with an annual Hindu extravaganza. A few days after the camel-trading begins, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims converge on what’s said to be the holiest lake in India, at the heart of the town.The devotees trickle in over a ten-day period, and they revel not only in the religious activities (praying, visiting various temples, smashing coconuts, launching lighted candles into the lake waters, etc.) but also shopping and enjoying Indian-style tourist attractions. They ride on camels or in carts pulled by them.They photograph snake charmers.They ogle little girls walking on tightropes…or monkeys dressed up in little outfits.We spent hours wandering among the pilgrims. But I’d come for camels, not religious fanatics, so early on our first full day, we set out in the morning chill to find the hump-backed giants. (By noon, temperatures in Pushkar always climbed to the mid- to high-80s, but they plunged every night.) In the open grounds beyond the Brahma Temple, we found more camels assembled than I’ll ever see again in my life:thousands of them, most staked together in small groups or being groomed by their owners.

For the fair, some of the camel-herders shave designs into the animals’ coats, such as these:The backward swastika has nothing to do with Nazis. It’s an ancient Hindu symbol. Herders paint their animals in various ways to jazz them up.From the humans’ body language, we sometimes identified negotiations in progress. From the camels’, it appeared that some were bored…But some were curious.Overwall the scene felt surprisingly low-key, and we returned on our final day to see if the pace had accelerated.

On Friday morning the central thoroughfare leading to the camel grounds was indeed more crowded. Through the crush of fair-goers, one of the stalls lining the way caught my eye. It had camel-related products: soap made from their milk, scarves and rugs woven from their hair, notebooks composed of paper made from their excrement. I looked over the wares, and a portly guy behind the table surprised me by not haranguing me to buy something. Instead he started talking about the existential crisis confronting India’s camels and their herders.

Just a few years ago, he declared, five times the current number of camels converged on the Pushkar fair, he said. Although an NGO called Camel Charisma (a sponsor of the booth) had been working for more than 20 years ago on issues to help the herders, the current Indian government cared nothing about the animals, he charged. Powerful interests had confiscated a large part of the fairgrounds to build hotels; helipads had been built where only recently camels had grazed. We had noted some signs of encroaching development.A talk blonde older woman in the back of the booth joined our conversation. She was a German anthropologist named Ilse Kohler-Rollefson who’d spent 20 years living among the camel nomads (and almost as amazingly, had lived for several years in San Diego and taught at San Diego State). She and her colleague explained that the NGO had helped start the first camel dairy in India. They were also lobbying for protection of traditional grazing grounds. The aim was to find ways for the herders to continue earning enough to survive.

There would be a demonstration that afternoon, the two told us. Herders would be marching to the local government headquarters to voice their grievances. Steve and I promised to return.

We were back at the booth a minute of two before 1 pm, the putative starting time, but for some reason, the demonstrators had already marched and were returning to their animals, their banners rolled up. We ran into Ilse too as she was buying an ice cream bar, and she told us that someone had delivered a rousing speech at the municipal center.

All those months ago, when I was planning our trip, I also got inaccurate information about what would be happening each day at the fair. So Steve and I missed several events I would have loved to have seen — competitions in camel decoration and camel dancing and turban-tying and (human) mustache cultivation. I’m sorry, too, that we missed going to the fair a few years ago, when five times the number of camels covered the hillsides. I hope the camel-defenders’ numbers grow, and the camels don’t disappear from the Rajasthani landscape, but I’ll probably miss witnessing the conclusion to that drama too. A bittersweet lesson I’ve learned more than once while traveling is that you can only photograph what’s in front of you when you’re there. Sometimes the best stuff happened yesterday. Or is just outside the frame.

Happy Diwali

“Did you enjoy Diwali?” the young computer-science student sitting across from me on the train asked. She was beaming.

Hey kid, I thought to myself. I’d never heard of Diwali five years ago. “Oh yes, it was great!” I lied. It would have been impolite to say, “Bah. Humbug.”

Last summer when I realized Steve and I would be in Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, for Diwali, I was excited. By then I’d learned that Diwali is the ancient Hindu festival of light. It unfolds late every fall, timed with the phases of the moon. Two years ago around Diwali time, we happened to be in Singapore, which has a large ethnic Indian population. The lights in the Indian part of town dazzled us then, and I imagined it would be even cooler to experience Diwali in India itself.

As with Christmas, preparations for Diwali start weeks ahead of the climactic day. People clean and paint their houses; women shop for new outfits. As in the run-up to the American holiday, homes and businesses are adorned with colored lights. Folks stock up on weird-looking sweets…like these…and these.

Steve and I walked into Jaipur’s Old City on the night of November 7.We entered through this gate and saw ladies in their new finery making offerings to various gods.So many men and women and children were out to view the decorations and buy desserts, the honking of taxis and tuk-tuks made it hard to hear the Diwali music blaring over loudspeakers.

Steve was charmed by the fact that humans on opposite sides of the globe came up with such similar celebrations around the same time of year. I agree, and I also thought some of the lights were impressive…like this street.This was more the norm, though.

What made me less of a Diwali fan is the holiday’s other essential element: loud explosions. Some of these resulted from the setting off of fireworks. I like fireworks, and I don’t mind the noise they produce. But I dislike firecrackers — the sort that make you jump and wonder if someone hasn’t just exploded an actual bomb. Or a series of them! Cannon fire. Hand grenades. These are some of the comparisons we made as the explosions walloped our ears not just Wednesday night, but also Thursday and Friday. Besides the noise, the firecrackers produce so much smoke it contributes to northern India’s hellish air pollution, according to an online article I read. (Another huge factor is farmers burning their spent crops to prepare for the next planting.)

Whatever the exact cause, by Thursday morning, my iPhone was reporting that the air pollution level in Jaipur was beyond Unhealthy, beyond Very Unhealthy. It had reached the red zone of Hazardous (somewhere in the mid-500s. To put that in perspective, I think it was 50 in San Diego that morning). This was the sight that greeted us as we walked outside our guesthouse that morning.Not smoky enough for you? Burn some garbage!

We spent Friday being driven around for the day (for $21), and at one point, gazing at the beautiful ruin of a palace in the middle of a lake, I asked our driver/guide if the pollution was less bad at certain times of the year. He looked offended. “That is fog, madam!” he declared. “Not pollution!” He told me whenever he went to Delhi, the air was so bad it hurt his lungs to breathe it. But the Jaipur air didn’t do that. It was harmless fog, caused by the cold winds from the Himalayas blowing south.

Through the haze (whatever its cause), terra-cotta-colored Jaipur does offer a lot to see.The current maharajah, just 20, still lives in the palace at the heart of the city.That’s him, with the sword, surrounded by his grandmother, mom, and siblings.

The palace is filled with interesting objects, such as this giant silver vessel. One of the maharajahs had it filled with water from the Ganges, for him to drink on a trip to London. (Note that Steve prefers to travel lighter.)

The founder of Jaipur, Jai Singh II, was also a passionate astronomer. The observatory he built in the Old City, starting in 1728, is filled with sundials and other enormous instruments. He also started construction of the so-called Amber Fort, both monumental and beautiful.

You can ride up the hill to it on an elephant.

I thought it was the best fort I’d ever seen until we moved on to Jodhpur, whose Mehrangarh fort compares favorably with anything the CG artists have conjured up for Game of Thrones.The spikes in the door were supposed to deter war elephants from battering in the gate.

One view of the so-called Pleasure Room in the palace within the fort.

The ceiling in one of the maharajah’s bedrooms.

I’m pretty sure India has other unbelievably showy forts, but we won’t see them. We’re still in Rajasthan, but this morning we traveled to Pushkar for one of the greatest camel fairs in the world. Steve has forbidden me to bid on any, but it should still be interesting.

The view of Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort at night, from the little haveli where we stayed.

How to catch a tiger

Now I know the secret to seeing a tiger in Ranthambore National Park. Go in May or June, the peak of the dry season. Many of the trees in the park lose their leaves; streams dry up; waterholes shrink. With the undergrowth reduced and the tigers’ drinking sources limited, 90% of safari-goers encounter the animal superstars. The only problem: temperatures at this time of year typically are 110 to 120 degrees.

When we visited the park earlier this week, it was cold at dawn, particularly when we were racing through Sawai Madhopur (the town that adjoins the park) in a open-top 4WD vehicle that carried Steve and me, four Indian tourists, a guide, and a driver.Our crew that morning, minus the guide, who took this photo.

Even under the heavy blankets provided by our hotel, I shivered. It didn’t take long to enter the park, though, and soon Steve and I were too distracted by the landscape to be bothered by the chill.This was India, home to 1.2 billion humans, yet it felt like a less crowded place, say, a (smoggy) forest in Idaho after heavy rains that had made everything lush and green. At times the vegetation pressed in so close we had to duck to avoid being scratched in the face by branches. We passed marshland……and stands of banyan trees that took our breath away.Here and there, we glimpsed the 1000-year-old fort that topped a distant cliff top. (Later we read that the wall surrounding it is almost 5 miles long.)

We saw few other vehicles but many types of animals, many of them amazingly tame:Spotted deer…

Sambar deer…

Nilgai (a type of Indian antelope).

Wild boar…Crocodile.

And wonderful birds:A cormorant drying his wings in the sun.

.Owls snoozing in a tree hole.So many peacock they reminded us of seagulls in San Diego.

This guy is known as the dentist of the jungle. Guides told us that they all but climb into the tigers’ mouths, cleaning their teeth, a mutually beneficial service that the tigers tolerate.

Tigers are the maharajahs in this part of the touristic world. Guides promise solemnly they will do their best to find them. I whispered to Steve that they probably get bigger tips when they succeed, but it also feels like there’s more involved. The guides may lack guns, but they act like hunters, keen and fiercely competitive with the other guides; maybe with the tigers, too.

The landscapes and other animals were reward enough for Steve and me. We saw fresh tiger tracks, so it was clear the big cats were near, but when we left the park that morning without having seen any, we shrugged. Only 20 percent of safari-goers at this time of year ever get lucky, we’d been told.

We departed on a second safari just hours after the first, and three of our companions in the jeep were the same as from the morning: a charming mom and dad from Kolkata, on safari with their only son. He is a conservation biologist who as it turned out had studied tiger populations at a couple of other parks. We had a different guide for this second outing. Dark and grizzled, he seemed even more obsessed with scoring a tiger sighting for us than the morning guide had been.We all but ignored all the other animals we passed. We searched one area after another. With the sun getting closer to the horizon, we waited on a high ridge overlooking a canyon; listened to the birds. Saw no tigers.

The light was fading, and we were heading to the park exit when we came upon two other jeeps stopped on a heavily forested section of road. They had spotted a tiger, one of their guides told ours with excitement. Our guide grew almost frantic, scanning the brush, directing the driver to position the vehicle so we could see it too.

“Back!” He barked in Hindi. “Back, back, back BACK!” I aimed my new Sony with its marvelous zoom lens. This is what I got:So now I know a second way to see a tiger in India: get lucky.

Steve and I had one final outing scheduled for our final morning in Sawai Madhopur. We’d expected to be placed in the same vehicle as the charming Indian family, but the assignments are random, and instead we set out with an older South African couple and two young Germans. Once again our guide was obsessed with finding us a tiger, and this morning we again struck out. Later that day, however, I got an email from Arghya, the young Indian conservation biologist. (I’d send him my photo from the previous afternoon.) “Today we got 2 child male and one adult,” he wrote. “The two male babies were just within 2 or 3 ft from the car.” He sent several photos, including these:

Later he wrote me again, declaring (among other things) that “Nature is our mother..every part of it is her important organs..every large and small components of bio and abiotic diversity.” Some animals were so attractive people came from all over the world to see them, he noted. “Our idea is: make these attractive things the flagships and just draw attention of everyone to the other interesting parts as well.” Arghya was studying for the exam required to work in India’s central administrative service of wildlife and nature. He wanted to devote his life to helping Mother Nature recover.

So maybe that’s a third way to see tigers in India: acquire good karma.