The Land of Tigers
By the time I’d taken a few steps, I could barely breath and my legs gave way underneath me. I sat down in the elevator and had to be helped out the door at the next floor. A paramedic was called, and I was given an oxygen mask and wheeled into the medic bay. A few phonecalls later, and I was being taken by ambulance to hospital. It’s the most ill I’ve ever felt in my life: dehydrated and dizzy, my body was giving in to whatever infection had invaded me, and it just couldn’t cope anymore. Unable to swallow, I was hooked up to an intravenous drip, and spent that Saturday night drifting in and out of a nauseating semi-sleep.
If I’d been shocked by those slums in South Africa, I was shocked by Delhi. It was the epitome of pollution and filth and utter chaos. Driving from the airport to our hotel, we passed elephants walking along the street with their cargo of wood, and weaving in and around the traffic were numerous noisy tuk tuks and scooters. If there were any driving laws, they were constantly flaunted. Red lights were ignored, right-of-ways were ignored, and oxen weaved in amongst the vehicles alongside people who seemed oblivious to the cars and buses and tuk tuks that fought to move round them. The pavements were littered with rotting waste, from which children and adults alike rummaged through looking for things of value or edibility. People would even openly relieve themselves in the middle of the road. In India, if you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go. It was my first experience of the constant horn tooting that is so rife in Asia and parts of South America. It made a clamourous noise that pierced my soul and awoke me from my post-flight tiredness. Following a brief respite, we headed out into the city, and enjoyed a tour from the back of a bicycle, an experience which meant being stared at by a lot of people watching us pass, not to mention having to weave through the busy market streets that littered the side alleys of New Delhi. I was disheartened to see the infamous M logo outside a burger joint. America’s invasion is far reaching.
Away from Delhi, the countryside was beautiful, though scarred from countless droughts and floods reshaping the landscape. We stayed in the town of Nawalgarrh where the locals showed us their manual skills, weaving and making pottery, and we were welcomed into the local school where the children eagerly awaited gifts. Camel driving at sunset was an interesting way to spend one evening. At the train station, we were the only ‘westerners’ to be seen, and the locals formed a circle around us in order to stare unreservedly at us. They didn’t speak a word, but stood in silence staring at us in turn, until the train appeared and it was time to board. Even then, we received a lot of attention. Our first class seats were the equivalent of a European 3rd class, and whilst they were fine enough for us, it was obvious that those locals who could afford such ‘luxury’ were very privileged. In the lower classes, people were crammed into the carriages like cattle, and people were forced to hang out the doorways and some sat on the roof.
For all my dislike of Delhi, I loved Jaipur. Heading into the land of the Maharajas, the palace and the observatory were glorious. Even our hotel was styled like a palace, and we had a lovely walled garden to enjoy the sunshine, overlooked by chipmunks and owls. Within the observatory, we were left in peace to marvel at the astrological devices of old, but outwith the grounds, we were hounded by beggars that wouldn’t leave us alone. It was difficult to turn a blind eye, but it was so incessant as to be a constant niggling annoyance for the whole holiday. Our guide insisted that we gave them nothing, it was a practice that was worsened by tourist generosity, and he enlightened us on the fact that many of the beggars were more than capable of working, and others were more than capable of stealing. Still, the sight of a man with such a crooked spine that he had to walk on all fours to get around, was a difficult sight to block out.
Away from Jaipur was the Amber Fort where I got to experience my first elephant ride. A 20 minute shuffle up the road to the Fort on the hill was a smelly affair, and a slow affair with countless elephants marching up and down the hillside. The view to the town below was delightful, and the intricacy of the design of the Fort was stunning. The many concubines and harem of the various maharajas through the years were gifted such beautiful gardens, and hallways lined with mirrors. From the walls, the macaques and langur monkeys played and surveyed their kingdom below.
The reason I had come to India, was to visit Ranthambhore National Park and go in search of wild Bengal tigers. A few months earlier, I had deliberated between going to Oman to go swimming with whale sharks or to go to Rajasthan to see the tigers. I quickly came to my senses given my general fear of swimming in water too deep to see the bottom, and booked the trip to India. It was an early rise for the first safari, and we weren’t disappointed. Fairly soon after entering the park, we happened upon a tigress who meandered in and around the bushes before disappearing. Following the road, we spotted deer and monkeys galore, and even a few terrapins lazing around a waterhole. Deeper into the thicket we spotted another tiger, this time a male. He sat, paws crossed, considering us from a distance, not moving apart from the occasional twitch in response to the offending flies that buzzed around. Eventually, perhaps bored with us, he stood up and walked away. Later on, we came across him again, and he once more lay down and lazed in the shade at a distance. He was beautiful, and it was hard to look away as we drove off and left him to his daydreams; watching him until we turned a corner and he was out of sight. Our second safari revealed no more tigers, but the abundance of langur monkeys stole the show.
Following a visit to Fatehpur Sikri, we continued on the Rajasthani triangle towards Agra. The city itself, whilst being nicer than Delhi, still holds nothing about it other than 1 of the wonders of the world, the Taj Mahal. Built as a show of love by the emperor Shuh Jahan for his favourite wife, she never got to see it’s completion, dying during the birth of their 14th child. It became her final resting place, and it has since become a site of great pilgrimage as well as a world-recognised structure of great beauty. With everybody else, we arrived early to watch the marble change colour with the rising sun, before wandering around the gardens and onwards towards the main structure, the central dome. Amongst the tourists, the macaques watched on with vague levels of interest, the youngsters taunting passers by before running away scared if anybody reacted to their faked bravado. It was a day for becoming lost in a world of your own thoughts and reveries.
After 2 weeks, our group returned to Delhi. My roommate and I decided to treat ourselves at the coffee shop that was attached to the hotel, and we chatted over coffee and chocolate cake. We had a last dinner with our guide prior to one final sleep before heading to the airport. Both of us woke in the night with suspicious noises and flutters coming from our bellies. By morning, whilst not 100% well, we both felt that we had sorted ourselves out. At Delhi airport, we had a long wait. Having plugged myself with immodium, my stomach was doing mini back flips, but by the time we had boarded our scarcely filled plane back to London, it had quieted itself. My next move was the fatal one. I ate the food on the plane. Not only that, I ate the chicken curry option. Thankfully, the plane was half empty, because I was able to spend those moments where I wasn’t in the toilet throwing up, lying prostrate across a row of seats, clutching my belly willing to be home already. It was an 11 hour flight, of which I spent 6 hours in and out of the toilets bringing up every millilitre of fluid that my wretched body contained. I’m not proud of this, but I’m pretty sure I blocked a few of the sinks with it all, but the last thing I was considering was my fellow passengers. Eventually, after having been missing for some time, due to rocking back and forth on the toilet floor groaning, I was met by a knock on the door by the air stewardess asking if I wanted some flat lemonade to settle my stomach. No thanks.
After 6 hours of acute fluid loss, I struggled to stay in my seat when the seat belt sign came on for the descent into London. Focusing on my breathing, I waited on the plane until everybody else was off, and then I slowly put one foot in front of the other, and disembarked. It was quite clear very early on, that things were not going to go how I’d planned. I had a night booked in London, before I was to transfer to a different airport for my flight back to Scotland the next day. But after collapsing in the elevator, I found myself being stretchered into Hillingdon hospital, and put in a cubicle next to the Saturday night drunks. I had a fever, and when they tried to get me to drink some water to swallow a tablet, I threw up all over the cubicle floor. I spent the night being disturbed every hour to have my temperature checked and to ask me how I was feeling. The anti-emetic I was injected with burned in my vein and made me more dizzy.
The next day, the doctor deemed I was fit for discharge based on the fact that I could now swallow. I was taking up a bed, and he didn’t care that I was 400 miles from home and without my baggage as well as without a ticket home. There was no way I would make it to Stansted for my flight home now. I had little energy, and whilst the oral issue was sorted, the immodium had worn off, and I was under strict instructions not to take any more in an effort to let whatever had invaded me flush out the other end. Whilst not as ill as the night before, I felt miserable heading back to Heathrow airport to fetch my luggage. Now without a way home, I traversed the terminals in search of a ticket to Scotland. Unfortunately, I had chosen to fall ill on the bank holiday weekend, and all the flights were booked. There was only one ticket available in the whole airport, and it was a business class ticket to Edinburgh. At the time, I lived in Aberdeen, but my family was in Glasgow. Either of these would have been a better option, but in desperation, I paid the £230 fare just so that I could reach my home country. Ironically, as part of my business class ticket, I got access to the business class lounge which had unlimited complimentary snacks and drinks. In any other circumstances, I would have lapped it all up. Instead, I spent the time in the posh toilets, sat on the seat, willing the ground to swallow me up.
The ‘business class’ ticket was for an Embraer-ERJ plane, which means it is a row of single seats on the port side, and a row of double seats on the starboard side. It only contained 19 rows of seats, so essentially, my £230 ticket was for the front seat of the single row. I couldn’t help but feel ripped off on top of my continuing malaise. Finally though, Edinburgh castle showed up in my window as we descended, and I finally felt like I was home, or at least on home turf. It was another 1.5 hours before I crawled into my childhood bed and pulled the covers over my head. It took a week before I could eat a normal meal again, I was off form for 3 months, and it was 6 months later before my weight bounced back to it’s previous numbers, having been at it’s lowest levels since I’d reached my adult height. I loved the Taj Mahal and I loved seeing the tigers, but India is the only place on my list that I will happily never visit again.