09.02.2010 - 16.02.2010
As expected, Bangalore- my en route destination, was absolutely heaving. Millions upon millions of men, women, children, cows, horses, dogs, rats and cats writhing in this progressive city; known for its out-sourcing. A city so frantic that from above it must look like a petri dish of warm flesh and blood; all the time wriggling and threatening to take-over its surroundings. Bulls pulling carts, one red horn and one blue, market traders sat squat on the floor with their produce spread out in front of them, bicycles with baskets of coconuts trundle by, rickshaws pass people and other traffic within a whisker of collision and all the while the rubbish accumulates in the gutter, and the cows continue to eat it. I sat in my room- the room I'd buckled into paying for, due to the twelve hour lay-over here before I set off for Hampi in Karnataka before nightfall. When you're in need of a shower and a lay down, the money leaves your pocket that much more willingly. A small cockroach trailed along the side rail above the bed, I fidgeted and felt glad I wouldn't be sleeping here tonight. I sat silent for a moment when the door handle of the room twisted, but I'd locked it from the inside. It rattled again. I stood up and reached into my pocket, a small Gerber knife that doubled up as a money clip unfolded in my hand. There was silence, a second more, then the handle twisted fully- a key had unlocked it and the door began to swing open. My hand tensed around the small handle of the knife and my first instinct was to slam the door shut. I took a short breath and opened the door again to see one of the hotel employees stare me in the face 'oh...you are in here...' he said. I gave a nod, a nod that still clung to caution and defence and closed the door without a second breath. It wasn't unknown for hotel employees to steal things from their guests, as the saying goes- if you want to know who stole your things, leave them in the care of the hotel manager. Later that evening the door was tried again. After a few seconds I slowly opened the door and looked down the corridor to see a younger porter treading the hallway. I didn't trust this place.
I left that guesthouse in Bangalore and arrived with a couple of minutes to spare at the meeting point for the bus out, only to discover that it was running two hours late. Either that, or I was at the wrong stop. As long as they were willing to transport me where I wanted to go- I didn't mind.
I arrived in Hospet (the transport hub for Hampi) very early in the morning, the temptation in those ungodly hours is to take the easier form of transport to your accommodation. 'Rickshaw, rickshaw?' came the call, 'no, thanks, I'll get the bus' I said. 'OK, walk...one minute, bus, right-side.' I was slightly shocked and appreciative that I received directions rather than a lengthy discussion on why I should take his rickshaw for a hundred rupees. It was one of those moments of surprise when your faith in humanity is restored that little bit more. A line of local women earnestly swept the road free of any rubbish and debris, it seemed a job well-organised and pre-dawn in its timing. I stepped onto that bus with a genre of people that couldn't be more aptly described than the whole village. The traditions of dress became that much more remote, and therefore appealing to my Western eyes, and as we squeezed into that battered capsule, ten, fifteen, twenty standing, feet shuffled, eyes roamed and hands clung onto any available rail or surface. An old man who sat next to where I was standing pulled my bag's combination lock into his hand and thumbed it, testing its sturdiness, turning it one way, then the other. There was no intent to steal, of course, often the curiosity just materialises into an innocent tactile investigation of your belongings. A young lad circled his thumb and forefinger around my wrist to look at the bracelets I had accumulated from around the world. Two Koreans sat at the back of the bus looking totally unimpressed, they wore matching 80's spectacles and clung to their backpacks with a firm grip. The young lad that was looking at my bracelets pressed his forehead onto my shoulder bag, I pointed to his stomach and as he looked down I raised my finger to touch the end of his nose. The kind of trick a teasing uncle might play on you as a kid, and you play on your friends every time after that. His face formed a bemused little smile.
I looked at two guesthouses in Hampi bazaar. I settled on Sree Harikrishna for four hundred. The monkeys on the roof terrace and the centipede that crawled across the page in the registration book affirmed my decision, naturally. I sat up on their first floor open-air restaurant called Paradise rooftop and solidified my opinion within five minutes that paradise is never paradise when you can't relax. This was solely due to the flies. The sandflies in particular had a habit of hovering about 1cm from your eyeball, until you either swatted it away (which would discourage it for all of ten seconds) or it would make a crash landing on your cornea. Not a convenient place for the fly or for me; (the third option was to slap yourself in the face). The houseflies felt as though they could land on you no matter how many times you flung your hands and arms about, because they were quicker than you, and they knew it. The two insects were a constant source of inner rage that I barely managed to contain around India, as it seemed no matter who I sat next to, foreigner or local- I was the only one punching the air in anger and muttering swear words. And don't talk to me about mosquitoes. It seems as though these creatures discovered all the idyllic places in the world first and are not content to let us enjoy them.
A surprisingly loud bang clapped out across the air, I sat taught. Buswah- one of the young staff, looked over at me. 'Are you shooting the monkeys?' I asked. 'I no shoot monkeys, this holy place. I make boom...monkey go.' Buswah was in his late teens or early twenties, he had an attempt at a moustache and short, wavy, curtained hair. He wore fashionable clothing, urban shirts and jeans that took the term butt-hugging to wincing proportions. 'Do they give you trouble?' (The monkeys I mean, I was sure his jeans did). 'Yes, they come, take banana from inside and go.' Maybe he did think I was talking about his jeans.
'Haha, damn monkey thieves' I replied. He walked away in a half-dance as he often did, re-enacting a scene from a Hindi movie; I started talking with the other guy on shift. He smiled and revealed a missing front tooth, Dev was tall, slim and always seemed to wear sleeveless tops, showing his tattoo-green designs. He was a Nepali and his face shaped around a hooked nose, weak chin and strong, high cheekbones. He told me his name, but via the combination of his accent, his not so much broken as shattered English and my blocked right-ear I thought his name was Dave for four days, so when he told me his name meant God, I took that with a pinch of salt. 'This is very holy place' he said, 'no alcohol, no drugs no hashish.' Then in the same breath he began telling me about the joys of magic lassi and magic mushrooms, 'magic mushroom, ohh, you can have fun good.' he said through the gap in his smile. I sat for as long as the flies would allow me to while I ate my Indian breakfast and then got up to wander. I was looking for a bike to hire.
I located a TVS, another Indian manufacturer of bikes and set out for a ride around this crazy environment. The featured landscape that makes Hampi so interesting was the result of a volcanic eruption followed by subsequent weathering over time. It was the same set of circumstances that produced the unusual Cappadocian formations in Turkey. But due to the different nature of the stuff that was thrown out from the eruption, the resulting topography is starkly different - Geology lesson over - The boulders, numbered in their thousands, maybe millions, came in all sizes. It was as if Heaven chose this place to play a little game of marbles, and then just left the odd few in impossibly precarious positions.
Every time I rented a motorcycle, it seemed that I was facing more and more obstacles. In Hampi they were, man, woman, child, car, tractor, bike, cow, cow shit, buffalo, buffalo shit, chicken, dog, monkey, potholes and randomly-placed raised concrete. Children waved from cars, from the roadside or from trailers they sat in; beaming smiles of perfect white teeth. 'Hello!' I bibbed the horn with every overtake, as everyone did; mindful of what might lay in wait around the next corner. When the children, or adults for that matter, engage you in conversation, it's always- 'What is your name? Where are you from? First time India?' It amazed me that those last three words were always spoken in the same format, first time India? As if it had been taught in schools that way; a kind of shorthand for interviewing tourists.
The government in Karnataka state were in the process of trying to convince the locals that they should move away from the natural attractions here. As humans, we do our bit to screw-up the environment, we all know that, but I found myself disagreeing with the intentions of the Indian government for proposing this plan. I've been to fenced-off areas before, the attractions that require a ticket to get into. Cordoned-off land separated from human dwelling. As soon as I have to step through a barrier or leave my tripod at the counter, that place loses 90% of its soul. Any wholesome intrigue it once had becomes lost among the information boards and waymarks. Spectacular nature like this should just be accessible, a wander here and a gander there; free, as nature intended. I would much rather see the efforts of the government going towards educating the people on how not to pollute, or by providing a more convenient recycling solution. I have to give the Indians some credit on this last point, as much rubbish as they carelessly throw from train windows and simply drop at their feet, there is usually someone else who's scraping it up for a rupee or two later that day. But it's never enough, and that's the caviat of India's wild charms, it sits there for too long, not bio-degrading.
Hampi village charmed all, as its authenticity seemed mostly unaffected by the commercial slant that it took and life just seemed to go on, mostly as normal. Women beat their family's wares, rubbing out the dirt upon flat rocks, bulls roamed the tiny lanes. Goats, dogs and children scarpered about with equal connection to nature and dust rose from the ground in the trail of every motorcycle and rickshaw that came rumbling through.
On the last morning I arrived too late to see the bathing of Lakshmi the temple elephant in the river, and instead watched the villagers themselves descend the wide concrete steps that led down to the holy Tungabhadra river, and bathe. Whole families, friends, the old and young; the cleansing of the body was a large-scale affair, done with zero embarrassment and absolute efficiency. The smell of sandalwood soap whispered on the breeze as they lathered-up in the same way that I had done every morning and evening with a my bucket shower and sandalwood-oil soap. A garland of other pleasant smells from India that I'll probably never decipher in my lifetime persisted in the morning freshness.
I walked back into the village lanes and sat at a local restaurant for one of the most delightful breakfasts that I've ever experienced- fruit muesli with fresh curd and honey. I'd seen the bees flying about in Hampi, they were fat as a small bird and loud like a distant chopper, but God bless them for the honey they produced, light and delicately sweet. The fruit in the muesli was both dried and fresh, big chunks of cool melon and pineapple offset by chewy papaya and banana, and not forgetting the steaming cup of masala chai on the side. It was, as they say...fit for a King, but priced for a servant.
I spent my last afternoon at Mango Tree restaurant, a kind of bastion for jungle eating. It sat a minute's walk from the dusty roadside on the other side of a small village enclave. The type of enclave so basic in its form that it seemed to stem right from a movie, its function and characters on display in a unit of reel stretched out the length of its main earth road. Think of a stereotypical Indian village scene- and this was it. I'll leave that one to you, go wild. Mango Tree occupied a spot with a clear view out to the bouldered and river-streaked horizon, which was reached via minute's walk through thick banana plantations on a tiny dust trail. The two times I visited Mango Tree I found it an ideal place to relax, breathe the air, watch the giant bees hover past, swat the odd fly and generally just eat and write. A family sat at my table and after a while the man spoke up, 'can I ask you a question...how are you able to get email....'
'I'm not, there's no wi-fi here' I interrupted, 'I'm writing a book, or something like it.' The waiter came with the bill, I paid 120 rupees and put a twenty tip under the clear-glass sugar dispenser after he left. 'Oh that's great' he replied, 'I am also writing sometimes.' His name was Valentino, he hailed from Switzerland. His loose pastel-blue shirt and rough golden fair hair spoke of a free natured spirit. His wife and two boys sat at the corner of the table, attentive to the conversation and smiling, but not speaking a word.
'Well this place is quite good to sit and try and receive some inspiration' I said, 'but as it goes with relaxing places sometimes, my mind becomes mush and I just stare into space.'
'I think after a while travelling you need to stop' he said, 'because the mind and the body become tired and you need to slow down to build up your energy, and when the time is right... you can just move off again. This is my tenth trip to India. But I think this is a lesson for life also, like the boy', he pointed to his kid who was writing diligently in a school book, 'he's doing an exercise in writing, travelling is like an exercise in life. If you're following a path in your life and you grow tired, then you just need to stop and take some time to look around you.' I wondered as he spoke if I would ever get the travelling bug 'out of my system' and would it be such a bad thing if I didn't, as long as I was happy and had someone to share it with. We spoke some more when the waiter came to the table. 'Anything else, sir?'
'No thank you, I'm finished.'
'OK, some people are waiting for a table' he said politely. I gathered my things. 'OK, well it was short, but nice to meet you' said Valentino. I smiled, 'you too. Enjoy' and left feeling slightly rushed by the normally relaxed staff.
Some things do feel too short, but by that very nature, produce gratitude. I was grateful to be travelling as I knew it would feel too short in the timespan of my life. But then who knows what their timespan is?
I sat on the tiled floor of Hospet Junction train station amongst several hundred flies, sandflies and ants. A man lay slumped on the hard-surfaced ground, his white shirt browned around the waist, collar and shoulders. He lay sleeping in a foetal pose, showing his cracked and dusty feet; four toes on each foot. A thousand, two thousand other people sat and lay in the vicinity, some with all their toes in tact. They talked, frowned, smiled and stared at me. Stray dogs limped about, waiting for a scrap of something tasty. The vague sound of station announcements fought with the sights and sounds of everything and everyone else in a hundred foot radius. A tall, skinny man in a mustard-yellow shirt and loose, dark trousers wandered over once a minute and spat red paan juice into a small, disused doorway, too low for even a short Indian to walk through. He spat that juice, which came from the chewing of a plant that rotted and discoloured the teeth, just two metres from my feet. The cream door was stained pink at its base from all the spitting. I seemed to be the only one swatting flies, receiving all the attention from the shit-eating bugs.
'For the kind attention of passengers. Train number 8048, expected to arrive by 14:48, is running late by...one hour. The inconvenience caused to the passengers is totally regretted.' I laughed at the seriousness of the last two words and the accented English which gave them a comical note. I moved to the platform, away from the flies and dogs and into an even denser concentration of people waiting for the same train. After a short time voices began to rise close to where I was standing. A man was busy having stern words with a ticket inspector. The man was short, and vermin-like in appearance, but I felt sorry for his indignant expression, which never changed from extreme injustice. The inspector matched his level of shouting and pinched at his staff-issued tan-coloured shoulder bag in a sign of authority. A second man joined in, a friend of the first. Out of shape, ragged in appearance and with a towel slung over his shoulder, his fist clenched and shook menacingly at the growing opposition as the crowd seemed to side with the station staff; some of whom were playing referee and keeping the men apart. At one point, the ticket inspector slapped the first man's hand as he held out a presumably invalid ticket, the tension thickened in the air. Authorities in India thought nothing of grabbing people by shirt collars, and that's exactly what he did. Twenty minutes passed, threats were exchanged, shirt-pulling and lunges were intercepted by the self-appointed keepers of the peace and the whole debacle was over without serious incident. Indians were pretty good at fighting amongst themselves. I guess that with no clear system in some areas of life, there are bound to be a few scuffles over opinion.
I went to the other end of the platform where more people leered and sat and spat. The train rolled-up, and before it stopped, two guys boarded at a run. In a rush maybe? No, I was about to see why. The moment the wheels stopped turning, everybody on the platform charged at the open doors of the train, a few passengers managed to get off, but I could see through the sprawling mass of bodies, one Western backpacker struggling to make it near the train door at all. Her wincing face and one flailing arm barely visible through the brown mass, that brown mass that were now passing large parcels of goods onto the train before really letting anyone else off first. There was just no sense in it. I'm constantly reminded how true the stereotypical British sense of decorum is when I see such things. Even the Central Europeans thought nothing of barging in front of you when boarding a bus. I lost count of the amount of times I had to bite my lip on my own continent. How did we get to be so civilised? It was one of the points of British life that I came to appreciate throughout my travels.
Among the crowd I saw another Western girl in hippie-clothing, she had a shaven head, but her fair curls were beginning to grow a few millimetres in light swirls. Her defined features seemed to suit the hairstyle and she looked at me and smiled a warm smile, walking on up the platform and through the crowd of bodies. Before the pushing and shoving died down she appeared next to me. 'Do you know where you're going? I'm going to an ashram...' she said in an unusual declaration of volunteered information. I pulled out my ticket for the tenth time, failing to remember the destination again. 'Guntakal' I said. 'Yep, this is you, enjoy your journey' she said in a European accent. And then she was gone.
As soon as the animal fare calmed somewhat, I climbed up onto the top bunk with my two bags. Someone else's bag took up a corner of my bed, a black sports bag with red pipe-lining, which left me about one square foot of hunched space to arch my back into a crippling position and my legs dangling in the face of the woman below. When the aisle was clear I lowered the bag down to its owner and got comfortable; but only as comfortable as you can get on a thinly-covered hardboard platform, which is more than a bare floor but less than a hostel mattress- the other bain of my life.
A fat man lay snoring in another of the top bunks; his disgusting feet pointing in my direction. Everyone else was sitting down together, in usual Indian fashion; chatting and staring out of the windows. The fat man woke himself up when his own snoring reached epic levels. The sway of the train eased everyone from side to side as another argument broke out between a burly Indian wearing a blue and white stripy shirt and thick moustache and a middle-aged lady wearing an emerald-green sari. The bullishness in which the man raised his voice and spoke to the lady disgusted me, but then I realised after twenty or so minutes that he just had one of those voices, like a WWE wrestler screaming in deep, croaky bellows. Still, he was a foul man, who oozed filth and brashness in every intonation of his shouty voice and with the narrowing of his belligerent eyes. Just then, the fat, snoring man on the top bunk let out a fart so comical that it could have come from a BBC sound effects library. No one batted an eyelid. I picked up my book and began to read, but a series of loud claps and pauses echoed from further inside the train. And then again. As the claps came closer I saw a woman down at floor level whacking her hands together and saying something in Hindi, in a cheeky, demanding tone. She wore a golden dress rich in beads and sequins, her short, black hair held back by a golden hair-slide. Her head turned to the side and I could see instantly that it was actually a man. He clapped his hands in the face of a young Muslim, a good-looking man wearing a taqiyah cap and a smart, white zip-up shirt. The Muslim blushed out of embarrassment and the lady-boy clapped again in all their faces, his gold bracelets jangling in fake promises. He placed a hand on the Muslim's chin and swatted at it as if to say...such a sweet face, but no money. I remembered seeing a programme on TV about gangs of eunuchs in India who've been cast out from society and go around demanding money from local shopkeepers with surprising vehemence and high-pitched wails. Maybe this was one of them, I wasn't going to ask though, I fell back into my bunk, pleased at not having been noticed.
I stepped off the train and dropped my bag into a woman's face. Such is the mad rush they force you into, it was bound to happen. Just as that thought passed through my mind, a man with a large cardboard box on his shoulder ran into me, pushing the box into the side of my head. Scores even. Adam 1 – India 1. I waited for my connection there at Guntakal station and spent thirty rupees on the stalwart of my Indian diet- an egg biriyani. It was always a safe bet and my vegetarianism in India steered me towards it on several occasions. The white, flowery tiles on the wall led up to a dirty magnolia section, and painted, wooden plank ceiling. A notice on the wall read:
CUSTOMER AND RAILWAYS BUSINESS CONCERN
'A customer is the most important visitor on our premises. He is not dependant on us, we are dependant on him. He is not an interruption to our work, he is the purpose of it. He is not an outsider of our business, he is part of it. We are not doing him a favour by serving him, he is doing us a favour by giving us an opportunity to do so.'
I should think this Mr Gandhi would do well in a telesales team. Perhaps he was involved in outsourcing in Bangalore?
I had been on the train for eight hours when I woke at 03:30 to my watch alarm and began packing my things ready to get off for the next connection from Ahmedabad to Jodphur. A clarity of mind slowly came to me and I began to realise that I was a little ahead of myself. This leg of the journey was not eight hours, it was a day and eight hours. I was preparing to get off the train a day early. Bewildered as to how I managed to misjudge it by such a large degree I went back to sleep and tried not to think of the bugs and mini cockroaches that I knew were crawling around. At six-thirty I rose to the sound of hocking and spitting and phlegm-choked elderlies. A quick wash at the basin of the over-treated chemical stench of the toilet (toilet, definition: hole in train floor) and a fresh chai, and I was ready to face a whole day and second night on a train as the only white sheep in the herd. I sat eating the spicy mash and savoury doughnut thingy and talked to the other passengers. The freshness of the morning air whipped in from the train windows and the sunshine took its usual diffused form before reaching a full midday crescendo. After a couple of stops, the morning begging began. A man with one eye and no arm below the right elbow entered the carriage. The man next to me handed him a coin and a single chapatti wrapped in a palm leaf. I gave ten rupees to a man with sporadic vitiligo across his face; a skin disease virulent among the poor.
The afternoon sun blazes through the windows as the train sits still on the tracks, catching the skin on my arm and determined to turn me a deep shade of red. Refreshments are still being offered, vendors marching up and down the train at irregular intervals- the shouts come often and brassy. 'Chai!... Goan cigarettes!... Cooold drinks!' Everything but the one thing I wanted- coffee. Two women sit by the window, cross-legged. One reading a large hard-back book through convex spectacles, the other dipping a fresh-smelling roti into a masala sauce. 'Chai! Chai! Chai!' Three children squat by the far-side tracks defecating in a line. After a while only one remains, struggling to pass his breakfast. The smaller child dances about and jumps two-footed into a shallow puddle; his little brown legs now glistening in the intense sunlight. A man who had been sitting in the next row of seats stares at me from outside the train through the window bars and through slitty eyes, and only after an awkward stare-down holds up a bottle of water in offering. I politely refuse and look away. He was a rare individual whose face looked evil when he smiled, as if he'd been cursed as a child by an evil Aunt. Still no coffee. Two teenagers outside my window on the track side walk along the green water pipe that runs alongside the train and off into the converging lines of the perceivable distance. Water drips generously from a badly-sealed washer. An old grey-haired woman, looking slightly aboriginal in nature and wearing a sari that's as battered and grey as the plastic sack that she has slung over her shoulder scuttles past the window. 'Cooold drinks!' A young girl, no more than ten, creeps along the carriage floor on all-fours, sweeping dirt with with a hand-made broom and wearing a dishevelled expression of hopelessness. The hand goes up to the mouth: give me money for food. Before I can reach into my pocket, she slithers away. I play with a five rupee coin in my pocket. Ten seconds pass and the slight hand reappears from behind the chair, it has one and two rupee coins in the palm, I place the coin in the hand as it glides away, faceless. 'Egg biriyani! Veg biriyani!' The woman who was eating her roti is now talking on a mobile phone, stern-browed, arm across her body. A child across the aisle sits on her Mother's laying body and stares wide-eyed at me with a beautiful ochre glare. The water outside the window continues to drip and catch splinters of reflected sunlight in the corner of my eye. A mobile phone rings, a Bollywood ringtone, tinny and high-pitched, it sails out into the tunnelled carriage atmosphere. Meanwhile the station announcements continue to ripple out vacuously onto the emptying platform and the train refuses to move. The rag-bag lady walks past the window two more times. The flies begin their assault in a weak army of five or six. Without hint, the train begins a silent motion forward and the people flock back to rejoin the gliding cage. So it is, with the great Indian train journey, and so it continues.