Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

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July 28th 2012
Published: July 29th 2012
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Some of you may ask, "Why Jenni, how could you possibly have seen lions and tigers and bears at the ANCRiSST workshop you were supposed to attend today?" Well, my dear readers, there are two likely possibilities. The first is that the workshop hosts decided to bring a menagerie at lunch to entertain us guests--not an unlikely scenario considering the immense hospitality I've seen here--and the second is that I skipped out on the conference. As you may have already guessed, I did indeed play hooky today! After talking late into the night with Bala, Hussain, et al. I heard their plans to skip out on the conference and go see some tigers at Bannerghatta National Park. Naturally I was thrilled at the opportunity to a) get some extra sleep, b) have another adventure in India, c) hang out with my new friends from various countries, and d) see some wicked-cool animals.

My plan was to sleep until 9:30 or so, since we were up until 2, but that didn't pan out. Unfortunately the front desk called around 8:30 to tell me the bus was ready and that they wanted everyone to get on it. Ooh, side-track here. Another example of how India is different from the U.S.: on the first day Dr. Ramaswamy, one of the main organizers, told us not to be late and not to miss the bus. The problem is that they count the number of people on the bus and they won't leave until there are either 50 students on the bus or they've called every single room. This means that, now that people have figured out that they can skip lectures and not really miss anything, we often end up waiting for at around 30 minutes on the bus. Just another example of what I am beginning to affectionately refer to as "India time."

Well, I didn't get my precious beauty sleep because of the hotel call and I was not really able to get back to sleep after that. So there was nothing left but to stagger up, take a shower and go grab some breakfast upstairs. I then hung around for awhile, watched some TV, and waited for word from Bala and Tim about when we were going to go see some giant cats.

We ended up leaving the hotel around 11:30am: Yuuki (nickname: Shimapu), Bala, Hussain, Tim, Rodrigo, and myself. Our method to get there was bus to the central transportation area, then switch buses to get to Bannerghatta, which I would never in a thousand years have tried without Bala. You see, Bala grew up near Bangalore (in Mysore, I think) so he speaks Kannada, the native language here. This makes him invaluable because even though the national language is Hindi, not everyone speaks Hindi. And Bala also speaks Hindi, just in case, so we had an excellent companion to chauffer us around.

The buses were a fascinating experience. Apparently there are three classes of buses: the cheap, the slightly-less-cheap, and the not-really-cheap. I think we took the middle-class bus for both legs of the journey on the way there, but honestly I'm not really sure. We just all gave Bala 100 Rs at the beginning and let him do all the talking. When we got onto the first bus I stood with the guys near the door, but before long the conductor tapped me on the shoulder and indicated a seat near the front of the bus. That's right, the buses are gender-segregated here. I'm not exactly sure how much of it is out of respect and how much of it is to prevent harrassment. I had read on wikitravel before coming that if a woman sits on a bench or a bus seat where a man is sitting, the man may get up to give you the whole seat, and that in that case the man is being respectful and not rude. But then Tim told me that he had read in the paper that there was a huge problem with men harrassing women on the buses here. I think it's also a problem for women walking at night, because when I talked about walking about a block to the hotel by myself the Indian guys I was with told me to wait and they'd walk with me. I'm honestly not sure if I'd get harrassed walking alone on the streets at 8pm, since I'm not Indian, but even if it was a possibility I wasn't really concerned. I mean, what could they do? If they tried to verbally harrass me I wouldn't understand since I don't speak Kannada or Hindi. If they tried to physically harrass me I'd knock them ass over teakettle since I am usually at least 4 inches taller and 30 pounds heavier. I waited, though, for they guys' peace of mind.

Anyway, back to the buses. I sat up front with the girls, occassionally accompanied by Shimapu who had to give up his seat anytime ladies came onto the bus. When people get on the bus they stand around until eventually the conductor makes his way to you, asks where you are going, then takes your money and gives you a ticket. You don't bargain for bus tickets, just like you don't bargain for food. In India, there aren't little bell pulls on buses to indicate you want to get off the bus. If you're a lady I suspect you make your way to the front door and tell the driver or conductor that you want to get off. If you're a man you whistle to tell the bus to stop. It's the same whistle Indian men need to develop if they want to stop an auto. Apparently foreigners can make do with waving their arm, but Indian guys need to whistle to get an auto to stop. I had heard that whistling is rude, and Bala had told me a couple days ago that they did it to call taxis or tease girls. So as I was sitting on this bus, facing backwards because that's how my seat was, I heard a lot of insistent whistiling and thought "great, someone's harassing the blond chick on the bus." I didn't want to encourage the person, so I insistently stared out the window. At one point I tried to sneak a glance around the bus to see if I could find out who was whisting at me and accidentally made eye contact with a man standing about halfway back. Of course I went back to staring out the window and of course I heard the whistling again after that. So then I did not bother sneaking glances inside the bus, I just stoically stared out. I even thought I heard someone giving the whistler a set-down in some non-English language because I didn't hear any whistles after that. But when I asked Bala--who'd been sitting in the back of the bus, facing backwards as well--at Bannerghatta if someone had been whistling at me on the bus he laughed and told me no. The whole time it was people whistling to stop the bus. Aaaaaaaaaand since I'd stared out the window I couldn't have known that. Whoops.

The trip to Bannerghatta took about 2 hours total because our second bus stopped at basically every stop. We started getting excited when could look out the window and see what looked like a forest. The park was definitely a tourist trap: there were food stands, kids selling bubbles, and a ferris wheel, just to name a few. We purchased tickets for the bus safari--about twenty people squished onto a bus that drives through the enclosures of different animals--for 210 Rs per person, which is a pretty decent price (about $4). We then walked over to the waiting area, which was a square area surrounded by a waist-high wall with a granite-topped bench to sit and a roof with clay tiles. After waiting for around 5 minutes we were ushered onto a green bus lined with two-person seats on each sides, with holes for cameras on the grates that covered the window. Somehow in the maneuvering it ended up that Bala, Tim, Rodrigo, and myself were in the front, and after awhile we got Shimapu and Hussain in the front as well.

As it turns out, this was no accident. Anytime we stopped to see animals, from the spotted deer in the beginning to the lions near the end, the "guide" (in quotes because he didn't do anything but accompany the driver) and driver would take our cameras from our hands and lean out the windows to take pictures for us. I ended up just laying back a lot, or looking at the animals with my own eyes rather than on my camera screen. It seems that this happens all the time, they seat the foreigners up front and take their cameras to take pictures, knowing that a lot of Westerners will feel guilt-tripped into giving a tip at the end of the safari. It's how Fae lost a bunch of money at the Mumbai airport: guys kept taking her bags and carrying them places without her asking, then indicating that she needed to give a tip. And Fae, being nice Fae, gave all of them 50 Rs tips, even if it was one guy carrying her bag and accompanied by three others. So it seems this is a common scheme: do something nice for the foreigners to make them think they are obligated to pay you. Obviously it's a good scheme and it works. That being said, I did not tip the driver or the "guide" at the end of the safari. Rodrigo did, though.

The safari started off with the more tame animals, like spotted deer, alligators, and some other hooved creatures, and progressed to more and more exotic. The first animals are all in one really large enclosure, since the alligators probably get fed and are unlikely to want to eat the deer. The bus then passed through a double-gate into the bear enclosure. The bears in this enclosure were sloth bears, and they looked kind of like shaggy black bears with dog-like paws and goofy muzzles. As soon as we got into the enclosure there was a bear right next to the bus, and a bit later one of them put his paws up on the side of the bus to sniff. I would guess that sometimes people feed the bears out of the bus and this one was hoping to get a snack.

After the bear enclosure can the lions, which were my favorite animal of the safari. I'm not sure I've seen a lion up close like this, and these guys are beautiful. Their heads are gigantic--as big as my unicycle wheel--and their golden eyes are rimmed in dark so that when they turn their heads to look at you it seems like they can see straight into your soul. One of them was pacing next to a gate that either held food or a lionness, and watching him pace back and forth was amazing. He was so quick, so powerful, it was exhilirating and I was glad the guide had taken my camera because it meant I could just watch him move. After that we saw Bengal tigers, then Siberian tigers, but to me they just couldn't compare to the lions. They're definitely pretty, and I definitely decided that anyone who hunted tigers should be slapped in the face with a fish, but I still liked the lions better. Though I did not get to see a pair of lions mate, as I did with the tigers, since I think they keep the lionesses in a separate enclosure from the lions until they choose to breed them. Nor did I get to see a lion take a bath, as one of the siberian tigers did when we were near.

Once the safari was over we wandered around to scrounge up some lunch. Bala bought two ears of corn from a vendor-lady, one had been boiled and one had been cooked over an open fire. Both were very good; the boiled corn was basically the same as in the states except for the tasty spice on it, and the fired corn had harder kernels, almost like unpopped popcorn but not quite. Tim and Rodrigo did not partake, fearing the possible digestive repercussions that could come of eating street food, especially with a 2-hour bus ride back to Bangalore. We ate lunch at a restaurant in the park, but I didn't check its name nor would I have likely remembered it anyway. I ordered chicken noodles, since it was something I'd never had before, and was a bit dissapointed when I got something similar to what I might get as chow mein in a Panda Express. Turns out the noodle dishes here are approximations of Chinese food, just like we have back home. So I know now to not eat the noodle dishes if I want something exotic. I did get a Fanta, though, which is popular there. In fact, the most popular sodas that you see offered everywhere are the main labels you'd see in America, like 7up, Pepsi, Sprite, Coke, but also Fanta and the delicious non-carbonated mango drink Slice. I think the carbonation is lower here, which I really like, and the drinks are in glass bottles that look beat up and are fun to drink from.

The bus ride back to the central transportation hub was much shorter because we picked a nicer bus that didn't make as many stops. Another nice thing about it was that it was not gender-segregated, so I got to sit with Bala and the other in the back. Once we got to the hub we took an auto the rest of the way, because it was peak traffic hours and a bus would a) take FOREVER and b) be ridiculously crowded. And that was just the first half of the day.

That night we went out with a couple of professors to The Tavern, a pretty nice bar inside the Inn at Museum Road. I think it was made for foreigners because it felt almost exactly like any nicer bar back in the states and also played American music like stuff from The Fray and Pearl Jam. I had a chocotini for the ridiculous (at least in India) price of 330 Rs post-tax and got to hang with everyone. Sumedha had us play a game, basically charades where you chose what you want to act, and it was a lot of fun playing with kids from all over the world. We even got a little nerdy, too: I pantomimed a mode shape with my hand which someone guessed correctly, and someone else tore up a napkin to show the finite element method and someone got that, too. It was really fun! And since most of the bars in India close around 11pm, I still got back in time to get most of a good night's sleep. :D


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