RANTHAMBHORE NATIONAL PARK(and tiger preserve!)
Another day, another remote town, another hotel (pleasant yellow cottages set about a large lawn). Then, before the crack of dawn, we set off in search of ... tigers!
The Ranthambhore National Park is considered one of the best places in India for chancing upon wild tigers. We were among the first people through the gate that day, arriving in the cold well before sunrise. We transferred to open safari wagons, were joined by a talented naturalist, and set off full of hope and optimism. But with the exception of some very large paw prints in the dirt path, the 43 tigers in the neighborhood stayed hidden from view. What did we see? A variety of deer in various sizes, lots of monkeys, a crocodile, a range of birds (including some large-ish ones that ate from our hands).
The varied landscapes within the park are attractive and our safari-by-open-van was an enjoyable experience regardless of the lack of tigers. From the valley floor, we could glimpse high above us the extensive walls of the thousand-year-old fort that we'd explored the day before.
KARAULI is a remote town a five-hour drive away, where we were lodged in a former maharaja's palace.
We pulled in at dusk to the Maharaja's pale yellow, Art Deco palace, built in 1938 as the heat of Indian independence was intensifying. It is still run by his descendants, whose employees/servants welcomed us to the large, airy reception hall with garlands of marigolds and with vermillion for tikals (red dots) that marked their blessing on our foreheads. The palace is now called The Bhanwar Villas Palace, operating as a heritage hotel with wide verandahs, historic family photos on all the walls, a drawing room with period furniture, pool room, maybe 40 bedrooms, and large dining room. There is a fancy-shaped swimming pool, stables for the trained horses, areas for cows and other barnyard animals, acres and acres of walled-in fields, and a multi-stall garage housing a small collection of vintage cars.
The night we arrived they had overbooked, and had to shuffle us out to bedrooms all around the property, in their guest house, and in their other house/palace next door. Dave and I, Louise and Bob, drew the distant pool cabanas toward the back of the compound. Scott and his roommate Carlos (from Colombia) were housed in a glassed-in room on the rooftop. Poor Frances, Susan, and Dana were put up in an exterior hallway with only a curtain at one end and a toilet down the hall, which gave them grumbling rights. The second night we were all reassigned to the main building, Dave and I to a huge and glamorous 1940s-era room on the interior courtyard with a foam mattress and a white tiled bathroom big enough for a barn dance.
That evening we were out poking around the property when we crossed paths with Mrs. Maharaja and her 18-year-old daughter. We enjoyed a long conversation with them, learning about their earnest efforts to bring better medical care and increased economic opportunities to the villages still considered to be under their care. They told us that they employ several hundred people directly, arrange financing for micro-businesses, fund a mobile clinic, fret over the quality of education, work with the populace so they don't beg on the streets and put off the tourists, etc. Mr. Maharaja is a compassionate conservative, we learned, active in the economic and political life of the area, and admired by most (although he had just lost a bid for office in the municipal election). On their grounds, an 85-year-old woman is "employed" to chase birds away from three plum trees; another woman lives in a traditionally built red sandstone house there in exchange for cleaning the fields. She invited us into the cold interior of the room - windowless, dirt floor, smoky, slab rock bed.