Where to begin? This was probably the most interesting and exciting part of the trip, which is surprising considering Mysore is a smaller, quieter (cleaner) town than Chennai and Bangalore. We stayed at the Ginger for only $22/night, which was fine but I hear there are hotels for the same price but closer to the attractions which would save rickshaw costs. In theory, anyway. Straight out of the railway station, a pushy guide declared we now had a driver for all of our needs. Before we made it to the hotel, he had our entire trip planned, including high prices for a car that drove us to many shops where the driver gets commission for bringing us and for any sales. That afternoon, Andy, Jesse and I visited the Mysore Palace where we got slightly swindled for a private elephant ride. It was a beautiful place, though not particularly old. My personal space bubble was quite invaded by Indians as we paraded through the palace which, less than 100 years after it's completion, was transformed into a museum.
For the rest of the trip, I didn’t have to worry about rickshaws or overpriced cabs. We had an invaluable guide who supported us and helped us the entire time. Early the next morning, I went to Bandipur national park with thanks to M. Shivinas (known as Sinha) - the guide extraordinaire, who knows everyone and where you can get anything (except a camera battery) in Mysore and for a good price, too. His completely uncharacteristic rickshaw bargaining strategy is “you pay me whatever you think I deserve,” and he was an invaluable resource, companion and friend.
We arrived at the park hoping to go on a safari trek only to find out that they were going out on a bus and not walking because it was too dangerous. There were no paths we could explore on our own and you have to stay at a resort overnight to trek. However, we didn’t have to worry about this because Sinha came to the rescue and quickly found a park employee (and resident?) who would take us on a 6 km hike through the tiger forest for only Rs. 150 total. The only wildlife we encountered was a flying peacock, but the trek was incredible. The guide watched for footprints and checked out some leopard poop, trying to find us a tiger. We wound up at the top of one of the foothills and could see reallllly far to the large mountain range in the far distance. On top of the hill was an ancient shrine with a small carving of Shiva and some engraved words that had fallen over long ago. The guide took off his shoes before clearing the weeds and sticks blocking Shiva, and then looked at it through my camera at for a long time without taking any photos. At the top of the shrine, I left a long peacock feather that the guide had found earlier. We each carried home a gorgeous tail feather that I found, apparently shed because it’s not mating season.
The boys lost theirs but I still have mine and I’ve discovered that peacock feathers have amazing recovery powers. An employee at Kabini told me they were restricted and to be careful, so I put it in my suitcase and it came out very smashed. I was ready to cut off the top part and call the rest a lost cause, but the maids set it up and with a little airflow, it was looking gorgeous again. I only hope I can get it through customs!
On the ride home from Bandipur, we stopped at the side of the road for watermelons literally fresh picked from the fields. An old country man spoting a purple cotton fabric turban-ish wrap on his head, an orange plaid scarf over his shoulder, a blue button down shirt, a white skirt folded up far above his knees, a wooden walking stick and red thick-framed plastic glasses walked up to check us out. We couldn’t communicate through spoken language, but he stared at us for a while and we stared back. We left with one giant, heavy watermelon and one small, round watermelon for Rs. 50.
Back in Mysore, Sinha took us to his house for some tea and a break, including the small melon, which he cut up and we ate sitting on the floor of his family’s humble, one room apartment. We discussed his family and the boys’ travel plans. As he stepped out for a smoke because he’s an addict (tea and cigarettes are his rickshaw break routine), he asked us what our favorite kind of meat was and told us he doesn’t like chicken but his wife cooks it all the time.
We spent the afternoon at the top of the hill overlooking Mysore, which is actually an impressively wide-stretching city. We visited the temple where we saw a monkey steal bananas from an offering bag of a man waiting in line with us. The sights also included a big demon with a sword that the city’s goddess had destroyed. Sinha told me that “yemma,” essentially my name, means “demon” in the local language. There was also a giant bull idol where they swindle you into Rs. 10 for a flower offering. You don’t find out it costs money until after you give it up to the priest. We saw an Indian in a cowboy hat and we talked about motorcycles and speed limits with a men working at a tea stall.
The next day we took an old van (cheap, courtesy of Sinha) though the Indian countryside, where road hazards include:
- Country people herding goats and cows with sticks and sounds
- Rickshaws of all sizes and cargo
- Giant lorries carrying all sorts of agricultural products
- People walking (always – India)
- School children walking, waving, yelling, running. laughing
- Oxen pulling carts and cargo
- Tricycle carts
After stopping at his home to pick up his sheets because he would sleep in the van overnight to drive us back in the morning and for breakfast, the driver dropped us at the Kabini Lodge and Resort much later than expected – as is the norm for India. We made it in time for lunch though, and dropped our stuff in our giant, luxurious rooms with no tvs and a Do's and Don'ts list including “Don’t listen to music.” “Do listen to the sounds of nature.” and “Don’t wear bright colors on safari.”
That evening and early the next morning we rode in jeeps out into the national park as the guides drove quickly over the potholes and told stories of tigers and leopards. I remember wondering, “How can we see any animals if we’re driving this fast?” We came upon stopped safari buses and jeeps where we saw three elephants, a baby who was always flanked by the mom and nanny, snacking in the trees and walking back and forth across the road to check out the humans in jeeps.
We left the main road and ventured onto forest jeep paths where we saw lots of spotted deer and Langmuir monkeys in action, and many different types of birds including a peacock, some woodpeckers, a hawk waiting to eat a snake, and the famed kingfisher. Unfortunately, that means there weren’t any cats in the area, though we did hear a deer warning sound in the distance. The monkeys and deer hang out by the jeep roads because the predators don’t. The guide killed some of the magic when he said the roads are maintained regularly and underbrush cleared in the area to make for better safaris. The bushes get so big, especially after rainy season, that you can’t see anything! And there are more animals during the dry season than now, when there’s water everywhere. They put out salt for the omnivores’ health… and to attract them near the roads. He showed us a video on his camera of a leopard on a tree. In the morning, after we got up so so early for this safari, he told us that there aren’t much animals out at this time of day. I'd venture that the bright colors isn't much of an issue, but rather they want you to get into character so it feels like you've got a chance at sneaking up on some rare animals. Overall, the resort was gorgeous and the stars were brilliant that night, but I preferred the nature experience of trekking through Bandipur behind the old man.
We had some hours to burn back in Mysore before a night train back to Chennai, and Sinha offered his daughter’s henna skills, which I couldn’t refuse, and brought us to his home. Two of his three beautiful, happy daughters were there in the small house where they have one room, one closet and one kitchen. His third daughter is away at college, studying to be a biomedical engineer. Movin’ on up! (The top level of society is engineers and doctors.) His wife doesn’t speak any English, but his older daughter who was tutoring cute little boys speaks perfectly. They were working on drills: Where do we live? We live in a house. Repeat ten times.
At the train station before boarding to head back to Chennai, I paid Sinha very well, as it’s a measly $12 dollars to me and to him a huge help towards his daughter’s education and his family’s well being. I also gave him one of each of the American coins for his young daughter’s collection. He’s basically my Indian dad, and demanded on the train platform that I call when I get home to America on Sept 1st. I have his phone number and address, and I have to send him the pictures of us in front of his rickshaw. It was thanks to this fabulous man that I had such a wonderful time in Mysore, and as he put so well, I will never forget the days I spent in that city.
I was oddly relieved to check back in to the Raj Palace, because at this point, it feels like home. The employees are happy to see us again, and I asked for a room NOT right in the lobby this time.