The date of our departure from India, from Kolkata on the 18th of November, has been known to us for longer than that of our arrival in Mumbai three months ago. I really should have attempted to plan our means of getting there from Delhi much earlier than I did three weeks ago. I admit to a certain degree of naivety and laxity in planning; I should have known that even this far in advance, such popular trains as the ones I wished to take had the potential to be fully booked. It did surprise me however that even my second and third choice contingency plans were also derailed by massively waitlisted trains. There was, therefore, going to be no Sundurbans adventure and no trip to Bodh Gaya, indeed, upon researching my remaining options it seemed as though I would struggle to make it to Kolkata from Delhi at all without flying. In the end a plan of sorts was concocted, we would take a 23 hour train to Jabalpur, from where a 7 hour bus would deposit us at Kanha National Park, giving us a last chance to see a wild tiger.
Our hopes were high; we believed that
after getting so close so many times to seeing one in Nepal that in India we would make it seventh time lucky. Spoiler alert: we saw no tigers. We have been a little unlucky on occasions on this trip with having our visits to National Parks compromised by them coinciding with national holidays and therefore being massively oversubscribed by huge numbers of Indian tourists. We experienced this in Wayanad in Kerala, when our trip there coincided with Onam, this time it was Divali that was responsible for the massive number of visitors we encountered at Kanha. There were so many that it actually proved nearly impossible for us to procure ourselves a jeep to take us into the park. It was massively disheartening to have spent two days travelling so far out of our way to reach the park, only to find our hopes of a few days tiger hunting dashed by the numbers.
Because of the length of the journey to reach Kanha, and the even longer one we would have to take to reach Kolkata, we were left with only three days in which to explore the park. We did everything we could to try and secure
a place on a jeep. We waited at the park entrance before both the morning and evening safaris, searching the long line of waiting jeeps, hoping to find one that had a couple of free spaces. Unfortunately, almost all the visitors here, be they Indian or foreign, had come on multi day, pre-paid packages, and were unable to let us join them due to some bureaucratic park protocol. We did find a solitary American who was having an identical problem to us, but his story of woe was even harder to fathom than ours, as he was here doing some research for the WWF and was still unable to gain entry. In the end, on the second day of trying, we did manage, through a combination of belligerence and backsheesh, to find a jeep to take us in but, as the spoiler has already forewarned you, we failed to spot a tiger.
I must admit to feeling especially despondent at this point as this was, after all, supposed to be my fond final farewell to a country I have, over the years, come to have so much affection for, and all my hopes were being dashed by the exceptional
numbers of visitors, as well, it seemed, by the unwillingness of the park officials to take any notice of us lowly, independent travellers. Had it not have been for a fortuitous meeting with the splendid Amil, I believe I would have sunk into a funk of quite epic proportions. We found ourselves rescued however. Amil invited us back to his small guest house and, even though we were not staying there, took us under his wing for our final day and a half. He had a lovely family from Maharasthra staying with him who were long time friends and visitors of his. They also were unable to enter the park but had hired a jeep to take them for a safari through the buffer zone of the park and we were invited along for free.
We saw no signature animals on this safari but the countryside was beautiful, the villages we passed fascinating, and the company excellent. Speaking to the father of the family, a Doctor from Mumbai, we learnt that they often, when visiting Kanha, take a safari in the buffer zone and had seen tiger on numerous occasions. My hopes rekindled, I spent the remaining day and
a half taking long walks into this area, either on my own or with Amil and, even though I again failed to have a meaningful encounter, I was completely spellbound by the beauty of the forest, especially in the surprisingly cool, thickly misted mornings. Walking with Amil on my final morning it transpired that I had strayed quite a distance into the core zone of the park when walking on my own the day before. It seemed that gaining entrance to the park was not actually as difficult as at first it proved. The feeling of being alone in such a vast forest with the very real possibility of encountering a tiger or leopard is, or was for me, both a humbling and very scary experience. The slightest sound, be it a deer's bark, a monkey's howl or a crashing in the bushes, caused me to stand stock still, my heart thumping in my chest and my eyes scanning the undergrowth for the nervously half expected flash of orange.
Our journey from Kanha to Kolkata was another massive, two day affair, and upon arrival we were left with but one solitary day in India. Unfortunately, it was mostly spent
in trying to locate a replacement adaptor for my laptop, my old one having given up the ghost somewhere on route from Jabalpur to Kolkata. Thankfully, this protracted search for a replacement, rather than being the tedious and frustrating final day it so easily could have been, ended up presenting me with one final example of the generosity of the Indian spirit. I had already spent two hours in and around the Chandni Market area of Kolkata, being directed down countless different roads by well meaning Indians in an ultimately fruitless attempt to find a dealer of Samsung laptops. I must have been looking particularly exasperated at this point, as I was approached by a kindly man in his early forties who enquired if I was O.K. and if there was anything he could do to help.
I explained to him what I was searching for and he immediately informed me that my problem was now his and that he would help me find the shop. We did eventually find a Samsung dealership but they were unable, or unwilling, to sell me the required product and informed us that we would need to go to the Samsung service shop,
which was located on the other side of the city. Again my friend took it upon himself to accompany me there, a journey that necessitated the navigation of the Kolkata Metro, several buses and one tram. Four hours after having made my friends acquaintance, we were back where we started, having successfully replaced my faulty cable, but more importantly having had a truly memorable time. My fiend refused to accept payment for any of the transport which we took, he even insisted on paying for the lunch which I tried unsuccessfully to buy for him. I was, as he said, "my guest", and he would accept none of my protestations that I really should help out in some way. I was so genuinely touched by the fact that a complete stranger was willing to take almost five hours out of their day, solely to help a befuddled foreigner in his mission to by an electrical item. I really don't think this would happen in any country except India.
I only spent a short amount of time in Kolkata and consequently saw only a small portion of the city, but the small part that I did see I liked immensely.
Like other Indian metro cities, Kolkata has a large number of old colonial buildings, but they seem to be more prevalent here, even if many were rapidly being taken over by rampant foliage. I loved the rickety old trams that would shake and trundle their way down the wide roads past hoards of yellow, Hindustani Ambassador taxis. It was strange to see so many hand pulled rickshaws plying their trade in Kolkata, the only place in India where this is still allowed. I found it hard to understand why anyone would want to use one of these devices, quite apart from the hardship of the puller, there was no time to be gained by using one of these as it would always be quicker to walk. Kolkata had a much less frenetic feel to it than other large Indian cities we have visited but did seem to have many more beggars and unfortunates on its streets and pavements than, say Delhi. At night, especially in the area where we were staying, there was a large criminal element to be found; these guys were not threatening as such but it was quite obvious what their business was. On more than one
occasion, often in the middle of the day, we were witnesses to small groups of very young boys who were huddled together just around the corner from our hostel, preparing to share a needle for injection. Indian life is lived entirely on its streets, in the open and without shame, yet it was still a pretty shocking sight to behold, especially for Anny.
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