Thursday, June 21, 2007

Hampi- Boulders, Bananas, Naughty Monkeys, Bathing Elephants, & Temples Galore

I've been a bad blogger, I admit it. I tease with pictures and then wait days until I sit down and actually write something. The problem is that when you have too much to say, you just don't want to start because you know it will take you forever to finish.

I've crossed the halfway point. I'm a week away from my original point of departure (need to call Singapore Airlines, NEED to do it!), but now that my time has been extended until September, I'm a little more than halfway through. I'm excited about the extra time, both because my job here is interesting and I love the people, and because now I can fit in the trips I haven't had time for. I've been doing a pretty good job of traveling since my 4 week haitus, and now I'm back for my first weekend in Hyderabad in 5 weeks.

My clothes have slowly migrated from the closet to a pile on my chair to the point that there aren't any clothes left in the closet. Maybe in all my spare time this weekend I'll be able to move them back to the closet so that they can start their slow and stenuous journey back to my chair, just like the penguins, taking weeks to march across the bed, through their day in the sun, the laundry, and finally onto the chair to meet their long lost mates where they huddle for warmth in my chilly 17C room.

I've started dreaming about food from home. I love Indian food, but ironically my favorite Indian dish from home, chicken korma, seems mysteriously MIA. I have yet to visit a single place anywhere in India that serves a chicken korma remotely similar to my favorite dish from home. I first became addicted to it at the Orange Sign Bengali restaurant on Brick Lane in London, so I have hope that it is native to Calcutta (now the only major city I haven't visited, and a stronghold of Bengali culture) and that I still might have the korma of my dreams in India. But mostly I miss salad- yummy, fresh salad with fresh spinach, avocado, mandarin oranges, candied walnuts and vinaigrette - fresh caprese with fresh mozzerella balls, grape tomatoes, and greek olive oil - tomates raillenos con ricotta e pesto - mmmmmmmm. I reached a point yesterday where I would have paid $100 for a grilled chicken tostada salad with extra guac and sour cream from Baja Fresh. Shannon and I have decided that we should create a Mexican restaurant in Hyderabad and name it Bajaj Fresh (Bajaj is one of the conglomerate companies like Tata that seems to own everything, including an Indian car label). We can serve real grilled chicken tostada salads to all the expats and become the hottest new hang out in Hyderabad. We can put this idea on the 'wouldn't it be funny if' wall with (which, btw is already an owned domain.)

Real monsoons have finally rolled in, although I've been told that they'll get really bad in a few weeks. Yesterday we had our first real storm. The sky turned black, and I have never seen it so dark during the day, not even in Richmond, VA before the dark summer storms. But now the storms are only lasting a few minutes. We can watch the lightening from our office windows, and watch the rain fall in sheets. I don't envy all the people who use mopeds as their sole mode of transportation. They must just be used to being wet all the time for 3 months. Apparently its going to be like this until I go home, thus I will have been here for precisely the worst 5 weather months of the year. I think it builds character, plus now I have a more realistic view of what its like to live here (or so I keep telling myself;)

So, last week after coming back from my awesome but tiring trip to North India with Yev I was ready to just crash and spend the weekend in Hyderabad. That was until I was given the option of taking a night train with a bunch of expats to Hampi, a place that everyone says to see, but no one can really explain why. One plus of the place is that you can't fly there so only really die hard tourists and expats ever get there in the off season (apparently its overrun by partying, teenage Israeli tourists doing drugs in the high season, or so the residents told us). So we got our '2nd class A/C' tickets (it turns out there wasn't any first class cabins on the train, so second was the highest you could get), and on Friday four girls-Shannon, Kerrie, Allison, and I- headed to the Hyderabad train station for our 12 hour journey to central Karnataka.

When we got on the train we discovered that none of our seat/beds were together and I was ready to abandon ship - dumping my entire weekend stash of cookies, crackers, water, and juice on Allison- until the conductor saved the day by giving us a cubicle of 4 together (with a curtain).

In bed in our night train 'cabin'

It actually worked out better than I could have imagined, and we hung out for a few hours and then went to sleep. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank the Grand Central Sheraton in Bombay for providing me with a gimmicky but extremely useful 'sleep kit' which I grabbed the last time I was in Bombay, which includes a sleep mask and the best ear plugs that I have ever tried. It turns out that with earplugs, an eye mask, a bed, and the rumbling train, I can actually sleep on a moving vehicle. We arrived at 5am, just pre-dawn, and were met by rickshaw drivers sent by our guest house. I'm really glad they were there, even though they drove the worst autorickshaws I've ever seen (an believe me, living in Hyderabad, the bar is low), because Hospet, the town with the train station, was pretty dodgy early in the morning.

We rode to Hampi for half an hour, as the sun rose, past sugar cane fields and banana plantations and villagers getting ready for their days. Some people were sweeping in front of their houses, many people were making chalk symbols on their porches, shepherds were driving their flocks, oxen were pulling carts of bananas and grass. Hampi is a very picturesque place, I'd say that it and the tea plantations around Munnar are tied for the most picturesque places in India. The entire terrain is the same as Hyderabad, huge rocks, left over from the oozing super-volcano of the Deccan flats millions of years ago, mark the landscape and make it look like a storybook. Except where Hyderabad's giaint round boulders are surrounded by dry plains, Hampi's boulders are surrounded by tropical foliage, soft green grass, and rambling streams of clean water. The sky was blue, and the air wasn't polluted, which we all noticed immediately once the sun came up.

A woman writes a chalk symbol on the porch

The sun rises over Virupaksha Temple - View from the roof of the guest house

Our guest house had a great location right in Hampi between the main temple and the river, and had a nice roof top restaurant where we all drank about a million litres of chai. If it weren't for our guest house's location it would have ended up at the top of the shit list. The rooms were dirty, gross, and not air conditioned. The sink drained water onto the bathroom floor so that if one person brushed their teeth, the pasty water would go through to the bathroom floor and stick to it, waiting for the next time someone needed to use the toilet so that they could get a foot covered in old toothepaste water. There wasn't any toilet paper or towels, the bedding was gross, the windows opened into the hallway so that even though the temperature outside was mercifully cool (probably about 30C), the rooms were still hot. On the second day a cockroach ran across Allison's bed while she was lying in it, and on the night we stayed there, Allison opened her door to find random people sleeping on the floor in the hallway. Had it not been for the location and the roof it would have been a total loss, but even with those, Lonely Planet really missed the mark with their 'extremely clean guest rooms' description. If these were 'extremely clean' I really don't want to see what the ones that weren't described as clean looked like. For those of you who may plan a trip to Hampi, this place was called the Rama Guest House and it may be the nicest place to stay in Hampi (yikes!) - it was so dirty that on our night train home we were all impressed by how clean the train was.Our sketchy bed with its mosquito net

The first day we got the rickshaws that picked us up at the train station to drive us around the many temples around Hampi. We got to the first one and the rickshaws were already broken down. The rickshaw driver who was the 'tour guide' didn't know anything about the temples, and after the first temple we fired him. He followed us around a while and finally said '"well, what do I do now?"and I said 'you lied about your rickshaws. They're broken and you don't know anything about the temples. Mayng Hyderabad Mayng Hoong (I'm from Hyderabad), and we know that you're cheating us." Then he offered to drive us home and I said, "No. We'll walk." I was so angry because not only was he trying to cheat us, but he was wasting our time. He had spent half an hour trying to fix his rickshaw and then tried to drive us in it while it was clearly broken and making horrible noises. I was more worried because here no one will ever admit there's a problem, he'd rather blow up the rickshaw by kicking it and doing weird things to the engine and fuel tank than admit that it was broken. So we walked back to a temple and ended up hiring a certified guide and two new rickshaws for the same price as we had been paying the first guys.

It was cool being there in the off season because at a lot of the places we were the only people there. After several hours we were beat and ended up at a government run hotel, which also happened to be the only place in the entire town where alcohol was legally served. We sat for hours eating thali and drinking kingfisher until we dragged ourselves out to finish the tour of the tons of temples. Hampi is the remnants of one of the greatest empires in Indian history and is completely surrounded by huge temples. The British and then the modern government have tried to restore a lot of the monuments to increase their tourist value, but instead a lot of them just seem fake. Some of the rennovations are still going on, and you can see temples being built up and 'aged.' One of the temples had very scandalous carvings, reminding us again that Hinduism in the distant past was very sexually liberal.

We pose on a temple overlooking tropical banana orchards
A blind beggar waits among the banana trees near some of the many temples left over by the Vijayanagara empire.

The four girls at the Lotus Palace

Shannon enjoys fresh coconut juice

The Vittala Temple

After a whole day of site-seeing we went back to the guest house and relaxed drinking chai. We went to dinner at a restaurant offering 'killer al capone pizza' - luckily we didn't die, but the pizza was so soggy Shannon ate it with a spoon (sarcastic mmmmmm). After dinner I went to sleep early and Shannon, Kerrie, and Allison had adventures in trying to open a wine bottle with no corkscrew or glasses.

The second day I woke up early and discovered that I was locked in our room. One of the many excellent features of the ‘hotel’ was that the door always needed to be locked, either from the inside or the outside. Kerrie had gone out earlier, and so, unable to lock from the inside, she ended up locking from the outside. I stood at the window yelling ‘hello? Anyone?’ until some passing kids and their amused mother came and let me out. Luckily, I got out in time to see Lakshmi, the local temple elephant, have her bath in the river (where everyone swims, bathes, and does their laundry). After her bath, the man and boy who had been washing her climbed onto her back and headed up the stairs back to the temple. In order to get a possibly brilliant picture, I made a beeline across grass, which turned out to be a foot of deep squishy mud, as a local curiously asked Kerrie, ‘why is your friend running through the mud?’Lakshmi, the temple elephant, gets her morning bath in the river as a woman does her laundry behind - hope Lakshmi didn't have to poo...

After changing my pants, shoes, and washing my feet for 10 minutes and putting my only shoes in the sun to dry, I sat back down on the roof with some chai.

Later in the day we made our way to the big temple in the middle of the town that is still in use. It was full of naughty monkeys who steal bananas that are brought in to feed lakshmi, the same elephant from the morning, as she ‘blessed’ worshippers with her trunk. I found the temple grosser than normal and was really glad to put my shoes back on at the end.

A naughty monkey waits in the shadows for a banana to steal from Lakshmi, the elephant (back right), who gets bananas and money for blessing worshippers with her trunk at the Virupaksha Temple

We watch the Tungabhadra River with our jasmine strings 'motia bahar' from the temple

We ate lunch at the mango tree restaurant where you sit on the floor at tables that are all facing the river. There is a giant swing and the food was good, even though were constantly bombarded by flies. With a lack of anything else to do, we decided to cross the river, where there are guest houses and the big drug parties during the high season. When we got there it was ghostly silent and there was no one around. The guest houses and restaurants were closed, and there were a few random foreigners wandering around, and a few villagers were working in the fields.

I swing, overlooking the river, at the Mango Tree restaurant - The best restaurant I've been to in India, even though we had to sit on the ground

After getting creeped out, we decided to head back to the other side of the river. On our way the clouds opened up and we had our first experience with the monsoons. The rain and wind were so hard that the speedboat motor could push us across the river until the rain lightened up, and we sat on the river in a speedboat getting completely drenched. It was a fitting place to get our first real monsoon.

After some final shopping and showers we headed to Hospet where we found a real hotel with a real restaurant. We had a leisurely 3 hour dinner (including a section on the menu labeled ‘titbits ;) and then headed to the night train for another 12 hours of fun. It was a beautiful place that I’m glad I’ve been to, and the trip was fun with the company, and I’m glad that I’m not going there again or taking such an adventurous trip without some time to rest and relax ;)

Hampi Historical Stuff:

1 comment:

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