Already time to get on the blog? But, I guess that’s part of starting something new. One suddenly has so many things to contend with – like the interesting couple of new assignments I am presently working on. On that, may be later.

Plus, my mac has a new keypad. A slight change in the configuration, but for conventional typists like me (my old keypad had to be replaced because a few letters had smudge marks from over-typing, covered under Apple Care) that could mean wasted time.

As I contemplate our recent adventures at Ranthambore on the journey back to Delhi, I’ve decided to present my take on our experience…..with the ‘tiger’ operators of Sawai Madhopur and with the tourist services accorded by the Government of Rajasthan.

The trip contingent included five, including Ahaana, our 20 odd month old cub. It was planned online, courtesy the Govt. of Rajasthan website. Accommodation was arranged at RTDC (State Govt.) ‘Classic’ category ‘Castle Jhoomar Baori’, a quaint ‘hunting lodge of yore’ nestled atop a small hill, overlooking the tiger habitat. We chose it for the location and the food and we weren’t disappointed. ‘Government’ has its privileges, in this case a view, which no other resort in or around Sawai Madhopur can boast of.

View from RTDC Castle Jhoomar Baori, Sawai Madhopur.

View from RTDC Castle Jhoomar Baori, Sawai Madhopur.

It also boasts of a Tripadvisor – Certificate of Excellence…the ‘Michelin-par for the course’ of the Indian tourist scene. From the reviews on Tripadvisor, it is evident that people have not rated it highly (even with the certificate to boast of, it comes a lowly 12 out of 17) and for obvious reasons – Quality of Service. If only people understood the actual reason for this. ‘Customer is King’ doesn’t exist in the Government Services Scene…and I don’t mean to extoll the virtues of the private sector, while lambasting the ‘culture’ of government. ‘It’s different’ is all I can think of, and I’m sure you’d agree based on the following idiosyncrasies we had to contend with:

1.         What you pay online is not the ‘total’ sum. You are supposed to pay taxes at checkout. Fair enough, even if one considers that no mention of the ‘taxes’ is tantamount to ‘hidden’ fairs in these days of ‘all inclusive’. It is possible that savvy advisors suggested this ploy to bait those still in two-minds about the place. Tourists, beware….and please read the fine-print, like we almost forgot.

2.         While professing ‘strictness’ for timings and rates, the staff nevertheless likes its ‘Baksheesh’, so much so that we found a couple of people lingering rather uncomfortably, not to mention the sudden improvement in service, if only for a fleeting instant. Upshot – do what your conscience tells you, but if you’re going to pay him, let him earn his keep. There is too much ‘kharcha’ without the ‘khatirdaari’ anyway in State-run establishments, IMHO.

3.         While I’m on timing, it is worth mentioning that our request to stay on in our rooms for a couple of hours after checkout (Noon) met no sympathetic ear. With no one to occupy those rooms, we did feel a little slighted, but then one can only sympathize with the operators, considering their own predicament in entertaining their special guests, due to arrive later. TIME is of the essence…keep track of it and stick to schedule.

4.         Another issue worth mentioning is the ploy for charging extra-lunch fees. Check-in at Noon implies ‘lunch’ on the house. But what if one checks in at dinnertime? In that case don’t expect that the lunch you missed would be adjusted forward. This ‘implied’ suggestion can by way of the manager when I called to confirm my booking prior to arrival. “Sir, its 1300h. We’ve already prepared lunch for you.” While I understand the operator’s lack of concern for wasted food, a single phone-call to confirm our plans prior to preparing the lunch would have sufficed. That there was no lunch in the first place was confirmed when I went about completing my departure formalities at the Reception, on the day of our departure – the bloke gave the same line to another arriving party due to arrive later in the day. Important lessons for the future – Read the fine print, discuss all your issues well in time and then ‘decide’ if you’re up to the task.

Serving with the government, I understand the psyche of the state-tourism operators, and under the circumstances, find their behavior and actions justifiable. But, expecting a different standard of treatment elsewhere, I would argue that the internalization doesn’t arise out of a sense of ‘work-ethos’ camaraderie, but from being able to tune the body’s response clock while straddling the time-zones between the government sector and the private sector. The benchmarks are different and the operator assessment is based on factors beyond the scope of the viewer reviews on Tripadvisor. (The fact that these may be growing apart is not the core issue here, but is reflective of the trends in the evolving service industry in India).

            Not over yet…or, come back later, for there’s more. Now, it’s time for the ‘tiger’ safari saga. Ranthambore is ‘evidently’ well populated with the big cats. With the recent exposé a lá Sariska, who know how many there really are…, I wonder. Anyway, we booked two tours, an evening gypsy ride into zone ‘6’ (Kundali) and a morning canter ride into the main zone (there are five zones – we got zone ‘4’ – the ‘creamy’ zone as our guide put it—-naturally!!).

Entering the Creamy Zone

Entering the Creamy Zone

            We saw no cats at all. Sloth Bear, Blue Bull, Sambhar, Indian Gazelle, Wild boar — the graziers were all there, remarkably calm and composed. Bad news, if you ask me – for the watchers and the cats. Anyway, that was expected. The pure thrill of passing through the tiger’s habitat was enough to satisfy our souls. What irks the senses is the big game that the guides and drivers have on show as they play to a narrative. ‘T-19 was seen on that hill, passing through that way so and so minutes ago’. What gives it away is the frequent reference to ‘the other guide’s later plans’, ‘offers to swap trips between the drivers’…and the mechanical, synchronized proceedings played to an eager audience…. the former soon tire of the game, as they ponder their future plans and the latter resign themselves to a ride sufficiently exciting but not to the level of the hype generated by the ‘tiger’ of Ranthambore. We came away more than satisfied, as our cub rose to the challenge of two back-to-back safaris, braving rain and the early morning elements with ease, waving a friendly greeting to one and all.

            The ‘Safari’ experience needs to be improved, if the quality of tourism is to be enhanced. While one can’t expect a sanctuary-like experience, modern-day technology plus other infrastructure developments can make the experience enriching for all.

1.         First on the list is geo-tagging the big cats. While we thought this to be a normal procedure, that is not to be. As the recent ‘Machli’ incident suggests (the grand empress of Ranthambore vanished for a couple of weeks recently before resurfacing), geo-tagging can help locate tigers, track their movements – providing important seasonal information that could help the conservationists, but also help tourists improve their chances of capturing the beast in action. The only downside I see is that the information can passed on to the highest-bidding poacher, a bright possibility, considering the fact that (as our guide pointed out) ‘The opportunity a guide/driver gets to ply his trade is infrequent (once in 4/5 days), hinting at the competition/lack of alternative opportunities in the local job market.

2.         Also, rampant ‘black money’ access to the park (indicated by the fact that no ‘online’ bookings are available for ‘gypsy’ rides most of the time while our driver offered us an ‘upgrade’ from canter to gypsy for ‘only’ Rs. 1000/-) indicates the flourishing underground economy for ‘all things tiger’ at Ranthambore – from tours, to memorabilia, to ..!!

            For the sake of all, I hope state lethargy and privateering comes to an end….before the reign of the tiger at Ranthambore does !

Every squirrel a tiger !

Every squirrel a tiger !

While we don’t expect much…. indeed, the quaintest things give most pleasure….but one can definitely try to make the experience a little better….everyday….and in everything we attempt.

Looking forward to the next time.