Published: October 16th 2010October 12th 2010
A week's break from school stretches out in front of me, as does endless choices of where to go in this massive continent that is India. A few days before the holiday starts, I decide upon Hampi, and with a friend's help (as the internet site wouldn't accept my India ING bank card), manage to book a train ticket on the Hampi Express, leaving on Sunday night, arriving after about 8 hours, early Monday morning in Hampi.
I've booked a taxi to take me to Bangalore City Junction, where I went the day before so that in theory, I'd know which platform the train left from. I queued (elbows sharpened) in the 'general enquiry' queue and eventually was told that it'd leave from Platform 7. It takes about 45 minutes to get from my flat in Yelahanka to the station, longer than I thought because the heavens decide to open just as I leave, throwing massive sheets of monsoon rain over the cityscape as we go.
The driver drops me at the station's entrance. Handing 300 rupees to him, I slam the door shut and go up the steps to the station. A teaming mass of
humanity is laid out before me. On the floor are groups of people sleeping, oblivious to the noise around them. Others queue for tickets and try to keep out of the way of policeman in khaki uniform waving long wooden sticks at passers by as if swatting troublesome flies. I squint at the small computer screen at the front of the station and see that indeed, 'Hampi Express' appears on it and it's due to leave on time, 21:00 hours, from Platform 7. Making a right, I brush past people as politely as I can with my considerably large backpack, and make another right to walk down the steps to the subway, connecting me to Platform 7.
As soon as I emerge, the monsoon rain, which stopped as I was in the taxi, starts again even harder than before, making it almost impossible to work out which carriage I need to be in. I decide to make a run for it and dart into the nearest carriage. A few metres along I find the first class cabins (A, B and C) and with the help of a stranger, swing out again into the rain to check my name is
on the list at the side of the carriage door. Blurred and rainsoaked though the list is, my name - even spelt correctly! - is on there next to 'B, U', which means cabin B, upper berth, I take it. Relieved, I dip back in and chuck my backpack onto the upper bunk. A few minutes later a girl joins me, who is taking the other upper bunk. Her name is Martha, from Columbia, living in the UK but travelling at the moment in India. We also discover we're staying in the same guesthouse in Hampi..oh and that she lives in Tunbridge Wells, which is not exactly a million miles away from where I was, in Edenbridge, when I lived in the UK. Those dreaded words again: 'It's a small world..'
I meet a few more people as I hover in and around my cabin, waiting for the train to leave:
-The train conductor, who does not seem impressed with my damp printout of my train ticket and makes a 'Sssschk' sound upon examining it. After marking it in Biro and checking my passport ('ID, ID' he insists) he thankfully allows me to stay on the train. He
then asks 'Do you have any money from your country?' Martha and I look at each other, both thinking 'Eh?' She digs out some English money along with a Moroccan coin, and instantly his mood is suddenly improved. He seems displeased with me however when I try to explain that I have been living in Bangalore for 2 months, so only carry rupees, naturally. Oh well, can't win 'em all.
-An Indian couple enter the cabin, take the lower berths. We share biscuits; theirs shortcake, mine chocolate chip. I stand in the corridor trying in vain to see something out of the windows; instead all there is is rain, rain and more rain. I get chatting to a man and his family that walk by. After a few minutes of small talk, he then promises 'I'll add you on Facebook!' Well, I guess Facebook 'friends' have been made in less time..
The train departs pretty much on the dot of nine. The air-conditioning in our cabin blasts from the vents above, and I wish I'd brought a jumper along. I make do with the camel-coloured, slightly bristly blanket we're provided and go to sleep to the sounds of
Bon Iver and Coldplay. Many would say that Coldplay induces sleep in any case...I wake up every so often but finally at about 6.45, the call comes. 'Hospet!'. We've arrived.
A rickshaw driver clearly spots us in the crowd disembarking from the train.
'Where you want to go?'
'River point,' I say, referring to the instructions I've printed out from the website of Shanthi Hampi, the place I've arranged to stay at. 'How much?'
'How much you say?'
I exchange glances with Martha and we both shrug our shoulders. It seems a fair enough price, there are two of us, with bags, and what's an extra 50 rupees as opposed to what my printout says, which is that the ride there should cost no more than 100?
'OK.' I probably do the customary Indian head-wiggle as I say this; I find myself doing it more and more with every passing day!
We make our way to his rickshaw, shove our rucksacks in the back and trundle off. Nothing like exhaust fumes to wake you up in the morning. Our rickshaw driver toots his way through the early morning traffic of Hospet, weaving his
way through pigs, cows, dogs, other vehicles and people straying into the street. A few minutes later, we are forced to stop at the train tracks to wait for an oncoming train to pass. He takes this opportunity to ask the usual 'Your country?' and then proceeds to demonstrate his language knowledge.
'I know Spanish, Chinese, English, French and Russian,' he boasts. 'You speak Russian? I speak very good Russian but not many Russians coming to Hampi.' He tests out his Spanish on Martha while I catch the eye of a little girl dressed in purple sitting in the back of a truck opposite us. We wave at each other.
The train rolls past and soon we're on our way again. We leave other traffic behind and all around are rows and rows of coconut trees as far as the eye can see, rice fields and the odd chicken pecking around in the dirt. Soon Hampi's famous boulder-filled landscape comes into view; how completely different to Bangalore it is, which is exactly what I wanted. We arrive at the river ghats around twenty minutes later. Our driver offers us his services as a guide and driver for the days
ahead and we say we'll think about it; it's hard to know what exactly we'll be doing over the next few days.
I see a brightly coloured motorboat at the bottom of the steps with about four people already in. When we walk down to it, we're told '5 minutes. Have to wait until the boat is full.' I spot a tall white guy with sunglasses who I recognise from MG Road a few days earlier, whose name turns out to be Chris and who's also interested in staying at Shanthi. 'Where you staying?' a boy around the boat asks us. When he hears our answer, he snorts 'Shanthi? Aah, too expensive. I know very good place, same rooms as Shanthi, much more cheaper.' We are finally allowed on the boat, told '10 rupees pay, 20 with luggage,' along with instructions to 'sit close, sit close' with the other people on the boat. The river seems very high and we're only a few centimetres above the water, but hey, let's see how it goes. In the few minutes it takes to cross, the boy again tries to convince us to change accommodation, but I try to ignore him.
We arrive on the other side. I roll up my trouser legs and get off the boat, stepping into calf-length-deep water. My feet enter muddy sludge as I and the rest of the boat party make our way up a slope til we reach a dirt track. My printout instructs me to take the first left. I do, and five minutes later reach the sign saying 'Shanthi', but not after batting away offers along the way of 'You want rooms?' One particular guy asks this, and after I say 'Don't need one,' he replies 'So, you going to sleep in the street?' Nice. Chris says he is going to take a look around at the many, many guesthouses that line the dirt path leading up to Hampi, while Martha and I continue onto Shanthi, check in and are shown our rooms.
Martha and I get rooms next to each other. They are in separate thatched cottages with a bedroom and attached bathroom, plus a small patio outside with a wooden hammock-type thing, overlooking the river, numerous boulders in the distance and rice fields. On one hand it's pretty basic - no electricity til the evening, cold shower, four walls
and a roof so to speak, but what more do you need really. We go to the restaurant and have a lassi, muesli with curd and honey (how I looove curd in this country) and a chat. Several other foreigners walk by. An hour or so later we set out for the boat once again, foot mud bath as part of the journey of course. Now we're told it's 15 rupees to cross! I don't really care that it's 5 rupees extra than it was before; it's just quite amusing that the price seems to fluctuate according to the boat owner's whim, a fact that is shared by other foreign passengers on the boat.
We wander down to Hampi Bazar, a few minutes' walk from where we caught the boat to our guesthouse. I end up saying 'No thank you' about a dozen times to offers of places to stay, bikes to rent, jewellery to look at, clothes to buy, fruit to eat. In the Bazar we walk to a nearby temple and outside it are soon accosted by both a young boy attempting to sell badly-written guides to Hampi and a rickshaw-driver offering a tour around a couple
of the main sites. Afer bargaining for a 300 rupee-round trip ride, we get on and are whisked off to the 'Royal Centre', which includes the Queen's Bath, self-explanatory but worth noting that it's absolutely gigantic, more than enough for the two queens it catered for; the Elephant Stables, the Lotus Mahal and finally the 16th century-old Vittala Temple, which has an amazing view surrounding it..the landscape has such a prehistoric air to it it seems to me that I wouldn't be surprised to see a dinosaur or two loping about from boulder to boulder. Keep your ticket that you purchase either at the Elephant Stables or the Vittala, as the one ticket can be used for both sights as long as it's on the same day.
Martha and I end the day by walking along to Mango Tree, which is a restaurant at the end of the path, past where you get the boat back to Shanthi. Again I refer to my guidebook for this recommendation but the rickshaw driver recommends it too and as we walk through the banana trees to the restaurant, countless other white people are either on their way too or on their way
back, which can be a good or a bad sign depending on how you look at it. I soon see though that a handful of Indians are also eating there, which is good to see rather than it being a total travellers' hangout. I have a lime soda and a malai kofta, and enjoy the wonderful view. Aaah.
On our return to Shanthi, we stumble into Chris again and he shows us his place at Mowgli, a guesthouse next to Shanthi. His room is slightly smaller, but the same great view, and he's only paying 300 rupees as opposed to our 1200 per night! Martha and I decide to check out the rooms they have at Mowgli and the owner shows us a 500-per-night room, which is in its own thatched hut, with an attached shower room and toilet, a bed of course, a little patio area outside and again a hammock overlooking the view.
'If you take this room from tomorrow,' Martha says (as that's the only one of these rooms free right now), 'and I stay in Shanthi, when you go on Friday I'll take it.' We agree on that and over a cup of disappointingly
watery masala chai back at Shanthi, also decide that Shanthi is quite a rip-off for what it's charging, as its rooms are basically the same as Mowgli's, but over double the price. Hmmm.
Unfortunately an hour or so later a cracking headache hits me and soon after I'm physically ill. Could have been the tea, the meal at Mango Tree, anything. Oh well, it doesn't last long and I'm early to bed to recover. It doesn't put me off from going back to Mango Tree in future; my thoughts are that you can get a touch of food poisoning from anywhere, no matter how posh (or not) the establishment is. The worst case of food poisoning I've had was in the UK.
After a breakfast of sweet lassi (can never get enough of those) and me switching abodes from Shanthi to Mowgli directly next door (500 a night for the same view, bargain!), Martha and I set off in the direction of the river in the hopes of catching a rickshaw to somewhere called the Hoova Craft Shop and Cafe in Anegundi, an area several miles outside of Hampi. We're soon rewarded by an offer
to take us to said place, wait for us and then show us one or two more places to see in Anegundi should we so wish. We agree on 400, which I think is and was tooooo pricey but at the same time, that's only 200 rupees between us for a couple of hours' (or so) drive and not much when you equate it to pounds.
'Rickshaw a bit far down there,' indicates the man. 'We need to go on bike first.' He points to the motorbike resting alongside where we're standing. What the hell, I think, first time on a motorbike! I get on behind our guy and Martha behind me. And we're off, winding our way up and down the dirt paths. It's surprisingly comfortable even on the bumpy road, and helpfully we're not going that fast! I don't really even need to hang on, just use my body to balance. After a few minutes, he stops us at a rickshaw and Martha and I clamber in.
After about 20 minutes of zooming past more rice fields, sights of boulder-strewn hills and people by the side of the road cooking or washing, he stops us outside
a handpainted sign saying 'Hoova Craft Shop'. Inside is a small but quaint little shop with bags, lamps, mats and suchlike all made by local women and mostly made of cloth, banana fibre and river grass. The craft shop is under the umbrella of the Kishkinda Trust, a non-profit organisation (google them to find out more). I don't buy anything as it's all too cumbersome to take home on the train (pity, as the tall lamps are great) but we do stop for a cup of chai and some wonderfully fluffy, savoury rice made for us on the spot by an elderly lady in the cafe next door.
Our rickshaw driver who says his nickname is 'Funky' and insists upon us calling him so, joins us in the cafe after a while. He has really good English and is very forthcoming about the history of the area, and also randomly telling us about his love life and the girlfriend he has who apparently is a lecturer in a nearby town. We say thank you to the lady who gave us chai and rice and bump along in the rickshaw to a place our driver promises is a 'lake' but
in fact turns out to be a reservoir, although it is pretty and the landscape surrounding it is, predictably now, stunning. A sign nearby says 'Warning: there are crocodiles in this reservoir.' Funky shakes his head, 'No, no, there are no crocodiles here. You can swim, is very nice, lots of people swim here.' I haven't brought my costume with me but not sure who I'd believe, the sign or him..
We get Funky to drop us back at the boat, and once again cross the river. We decide to climb up Hemakuta Hill, which is a steep climb for me especially as there's not so much as a gentle slope in Bangalore! The reward though is the magnificent view over Hampi, where it seems you can see everything worth seeing. We eat lunch at the Mango Tree and go back to our respective lodgings where I end the day lounging on the hammock reading 'The Inheritance of Loss' (I took mostly Indian fiction away with me on this trip, it seemed only appropriate!), listening to podcasts on my mp3 and retreating to bed early.
Martha and I had arranged to climb the 570 steps
up to Hanuman Temple in Anegundi to see the sun rise, so with my torch in my hand, I meet the rickshaw driver and Martha outside Mowgli's gates at 5.30am. Oof. It's still pitch dark as the rickshaw splutters its way across the landscape and about twenty minutes later reaches the site. I need my torch to help me see the steps properly, and as we climb we see traces of holi powder on the steps along with scrawls of 'Ram' in red paint against the whitewashed walls (many believe the temple is the birthplace of Hanuman, the Hindu monkey god who was Rama's devotee). After several pauses to catch our breath and gulp down some water, we make it to the top of the temple where we can see the light of the rising sun just beginning to appear. Taking off our shoes we make our way to what we think is a prime viewing point and sit down. Around us several men appear to be stirring and a woman in a bright wrap is sitting cross-legged sipping something as she watches the sunrise intently. The monkeys don't bother us too much although one does attempt to peer into
my bag, which I snatch away. The sunrise is somewhat disappointing as the clouds are just too murky and the mist in the distance refuses to clear, but about ten minutes after the sun has risen we are rewarded somewhat by a bright red disc in the sky, glowing over the landscape below. In some ways it is worth it for the view rather than the sunrise itself; I think I've been spoilt by many a beautiful sunrise in my life thus far, mostly in Africa.
After packing our shaky knees along with the rest of ourselves back into the rickshaw, we are driven off back to Mowgli. Martha and I part ways and arrange to meet tomorrow when she'll take my room. I have no inclination to stray from my side of the river today, so spend the rest of Wednesday finishing my book and starting another, then finishing that one, having food and drink breaks, and being generally lazy.
Again, I can't explain it, but I feel like doing as little as possible today. With each book I start I get engrossed in that world and am reluctant to join the real one!
I wake up and have a breakfast of sweet lassi with a Nutella pancake (yum), finish the book I'm on in my hammock, pack up, check out and say goodbye to Martha, take the boat one last time across the river, check into Shanthi Guest House, buy a book (Anita Shreve's 'The Last Time They Met' which is un-put-downable), sit in Mango Tree and read it from start to finish, come back to Shanthi, go to check the internet and update this blog, and return to Shanthi to read some more until it gets dark and then hope there's electricity to continue reading. Any thoughts of school that pop into my head I try to pop out again, and I enjoy simply getting lost in the books I read, knowing that I have 24 hours left before my train back to Bangalore. Shanthi Guest House is small and basic but perfectly fine. I took a 200-rupee-a-night room, which has a single bed with mozzie net and attached toilet and shower. Can't complain! No matter how many times I've had one, I never get used to cold showers, even after a hot day, so I make mine as short as possible!
As happened in Shanthi Hampi, the power cuts out at around 7.30pm for a good 90 minutes, during which I decide not to waste my torch's battery and instead listen to one of the BBC podcasts I've downloaded. The electricity comes back on at about 9pm so I continue reading 'The Boy Next Door' for about an hour before switching the light off.
Day/Night 6 (last day in Hampi):
I wake around 8am and decide to check out in case Lakshmi, the temple elephant, is having a bathe in the river a few metres away, as she sometimes does at 8.30. I'm allowed to leave my heavy backpack in reception and walk out in the hopes of catching Lakshmi but it appears she's not having her bathe today. I walk along to Mango Tree again - I'm a regular now! - and have a breakfast of sweet lassi and lemon and sugar pancake. I finish my current book and wander back out at about 10am. I really have no idea what to do or how to kill time until 7.30pm tonight when I need to leave to catch my train back home; the hours seem to stretch in
front of me somewhat. I head towards the Bazar and decide to catch a rickshaw to see any remaining sights of Hampi I've missed, assisted by the helpful rickshaw-driver who gives me suggestions about where we could go. I enjoy taking a last whizz around Hampi for about an hour and then he returns me back to the Bazar.
I have lunch on the rooftop cafe of Rama Guest House, just some momos and a pineapple juice. I spend the rest of the day reading 'Three Cups of Tea', purchased from a bookshop in the Bazar (thank goodness, as I had run out of books to read) back at Mango Tree where I have yet another pancake (Nutella this time) for my afternoon tea and try to hold my tongue as a group of girls sit down near me and one says to the waiter 'Can you recommend something with no spices as I cannot' (hands gesticulating wildly) 'handle spicy food?'. Why come to India if you aren't williing to overcome your apparent fear of spices? I can't help but think. It's an incorrect assumption to think that all Indian food is spicy, and certainly the food of the
south I've tasted isn't particularly, but on the other hand, hello, to come to India and refuse anything with a hint of spice? Good luck, silly girl.
I read at Mango Tree for a couple of hours and then decide to take my book up to Hemakuta Hill to watch the sun set over Hampi for the last time. I'm really glad I did as it's nigh-on perfect. I find a quiet spot overlooking everything. There's a cool breeze in the air and the occasional lizard pops their head up from in between some rocks. The sky starts to turn smoked salmon-pink and drums start as the square below celebrates Durga Puja. I alternate between listening to music and reading until the light is too poor to read, then make my way down to an internet cafe and wait until it's time to catch a rickshaw back to Hospet, where I hope my name is on the list of the train bound for Bangalore.
Mr Paul, owner of Shanthi Guest House where I've been staying the past night, takes me to Hospet train station for 150 rupees. I arrive at a few minutes past 8pm, plenty of time
to catch the 8.30 to Bangalore. The electronic noticeboard says the train is on time, but it's not until 9.30 - and after several attempts by me, all in the end successful, to appear 100% absorbed in my book rather than get into conversation with strange men - that the train finally pulls up. I climb up to carriage 1A and after about ten minutes, the conductor arrives. He has my name on his list, and I'm in cabin C this time, on the upper bunk. I end up going to sleep around 10pm and not waking up til a shout of 'Bangalore City!' disturbs me at just past 6am. One of the easiest train rides ever! The train soon stops at Bangalore City and I hop off, find a taxi and about half an hour later am home. It's good to be home but not so good that school starts again on Monday! When's the next holiday again..?
There are more photos below