Playing Kabaddi with the school children. Photo: Fellow traveler.

A Semester in India: Ranthambore National Park & Rural Rajasthan

SAWAI MADHOPUR, Rajasthan— During our five hour bus ride from Jaipur to Ranthambore National Park, our eyes were opened to a new side of India: rural India.

With tidy farm fields extending far into the horizon, the landscape looked remarkably similar to the American Midwest. Numerous power lines — part of India Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s initiative to electrify all Indian households — hung above hunched over farmers and their families curating their crops by hand.

Passing through villages and small towns, we noticed a ubiquitous rural north India staple: cow-dung patties. Next to the road, on roofs, in front and backyards, on street dividers, cow-dung patties — cow dung mixed with hay and dried in the sun — were everywhere. Used for cooking and heat, the cow-dung patties are sold for 1–2 rupees (1–3 cents).

As we approached our destination city, we saw white domes peeking above a tree line. My mother said jokingly to our guide, “Som, can we stay there?” He smirked. Our bus took a left turn and bounded towards the palace. Sure enough, it was our hotel.

Left: The hotel in the distance. Photo: Fellow Traveler. Right: The hotel entrance.

After lunch, we headed to Ranthambore National Park in our safari jeep. Used by the Maharaja of Jaipur as a hunting reserve until 1970, Ranthambore contains Indian leopard, striped hyena, sloth bear, but most notably the Bengal tiger.

Ardent safari hat sellers and langur monkeys welcomed us into the park. As luck would have it, I spotted a leopard 30 minutes into our game drive. While the Bengal tigers alluded us on this first game drive, we would have another opportunity to spot the kings and queens of Ranthambore two days later.

The leopard. Photo: Fellow traveler.

The next morning, we visited a government school supported in part by the Grand Circle Foundation, which is a partner organization of Overseas Adventure Travel (the tour company with whom we are traveling). The school children welcomed us by singing the India national anthem. Midway through their peaceful singing, thundering, rambunctious Bollywood music emanated in the distance. The music rapidly got closer and louder, and soon, a farm tractor zoomed by. According to our guide, the tractor driver maxes out his speakers to hear the music above the tractor’s tumultuous din. During our time in Rajasthan, we often heard this sight more than we saw it .

Left: Children sitting in their class rows. Right: Two boys preparing warm milk for their fellow students.

After the national anthem concluded, two children served milk to their fellow students, and the head master dismissed the children to their classes. As we integrated into school life, we noticed that boys greatly outnumbered girls. Upon our inquiring, the head master said that more girls actually appear on the official enrollment; however, some of the rural girls’ parents prevent their daughters from regularly attending. Dismissing education’s importance when works needs to be done at home, some rural parents, the head master said, expect their daughters after marriage to be at home, not at work.

The children all enthusiastically displayed their academic skills to us as we went from classroom to classroom. In all of the classes, the teachers stood and the students all sat on the ground as chairs and desks were absent. The children loved seeing pictures and videos of snow from Idaho and North Dakota. We ended our school day by participating in a game of kabaddi, a traditional Indian team contact sport. The school children and gym teacher dominated our tour group. Similar to previous OAT trips, visiting the school was a highlight for nearly everyone on the trip.

Next, we ventured to a nearby village that the Grand Circle Foundation also supports. Upon arrival, a daughter of one of the village elders welcomed us; notably, she did not have her face covered as did the other women accompanying her. We learned that the other women are married to men in the village, and they covered their face when in the presence of male strangers or village elders. As this was the home village of the village elder daughter, she did not have to cover her face. Our guide said that while these women were Hindu, they covered their face due to the residual effect of the Mughals, an Islamic empire that ruled north India.

Left: Retrieving water. Right: The village elder’s daughter is the woman with her face uncovered. Photos: Fellow Traveler.

As we toured the village, our guide encouraged us to join in cow-dung patty making, but we all opted to watch him instead. He happily obliged.

After lunch (thankfully not served by our guide) at the village, we returned for a short hotel break before visiting a small market that employs villagers that were displaced by the creation of Ranthambore National Park. In addition to losing their homes, some people also lost their livelihood which included herding within the park perimeter or collecting forest products. While some resorted to poaching or poisoning the wildlife, these people recognized the increased market opportunities arising from increased tourism to the park.

We returned to the hotel and had an evening at leisure before our Christmas Eve dinner. After watching a documentary in the hotel courtyard, Som approached me and told me to go with the hotel staff. Soon, I was completely dressed up as Santa Claus. As they directed me to our Christmas Eve dinner (my mask greatly obscured my vision), I realized that we were not going to our normal private dining room but instead a huge courtyard where all of the hotel guests were having Christmas Eve dinner. Before I realized the magnitude of the dinner crowd, I began enthusiastically shouting “HO HO HO! Merry Christmas!” As I was about to take off my somewhat frightening Santa mask, Som said, “Keep your mask on, kids are running over to you.” I guess my enthusiasm as Santa Claus was sufficient to persuade the children that I truly came from the North Pole. After handing out chocolate and discreetly de-robing from my Santa outfit, I indulged in a sizable dinner and went to bed for an early game drive the next morning.

In the stinging cold at 6am, we departed for the park in our final attempt to spot a tiger. Due to the large number of people expected at the park for Christmas, our guide was concerned that park officials would divert us to a part of the park absent of tigers. Fortunately, we were allowed to go to a tiger-dense park sector.

Contrary to national parks that we have visited throughout Africa, Ranthambore National Park prohibits walkie talkies. Consequently, the drivers would always stop and speak with guides in oncoming vehicles to get animal sighting information. A speeding oncoming car advised us that they heard Sambar deer — common tiger prey — making warning calls. Our guide whipped a U-turn and followed the other safari jeep. Coming to a small open area, our jeep parked directly in front of a bush hiding a young, male Bengal tiger. As more safari jeeps entered the area, the tiger exited his hiding place and provided us a picture perfect view. After getting our fill of pictures, we returned to the hotel to warm up and prepare for our travels deeper into the countryside.

While the animals and landscape of Ranthambore National Park were breathtaking, the people of Rajasthan is the memory that will endure. Indians’ contentment and warmth to complete strangers, like me, continue to amaze me. Next stop: Abhaneri.

Bengal tiger at Ranthambore National Park. Photo: Fellow traveler.

Georgetown University student. I lived in India from December 2018 to April 2019. As it has done to so many others, India stole my heart.

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