Day 735 – 5 March, 2017
After several visits to the straw hut on the beach marked “Travel Agent,” Jill, Mel, and I all agreed to take a night bus to Hampi. Mel changed her flight to extend her trip. Jill convinced us all to book the lowest fare seats on a night bus with reclining seats. I had searched out a hostel that seemed to suit everyone’s budget. Things were going well.
Backpacks flailing out of the auto rickshaw, we left Om Beach for the bus station. At the bus station, we unload only to be told that our bus was leaving from a different location and that it was “very” far away. Suspicious that we were only being told it was far in an effort to garner a higher rickshaw fare, Jill wants to walk, which I would normally fully support, but we didn’t know exactly where it was, it was hot, and we had all of our belongings in tow. I wanted to hire another auto rickshaw. Meanwhile, we are surrounded within a very close proximity by about 20 drivers barking the price for a ride as Jill and I smiled at each other through gritted teeth as to whether we walk or drive. I offered to cover the whole cost of 100 rupees (less than $2USD) so we could stop debating and get moving. I’m all for saving money (and walking for that matter), but if I’m going to be cheap about something or even tolerate discomfort for the sake of it, I really try not to let my choices have any affect on other people. And therein is where the conflict began.
So far, I had made some decisions as part of this trio that I wouldn’t have made if I was on my own, but it wasn’t overly burdensome. I had been sleeping head to toe with two other girls in a full size bed with no air con. I had skipped eating at the most recommended cafe on Om Beach because Jill thought it was too expensive. I had just purchased a night bus ticket in a reclining seat (instead of an actual bed) so that we could all stay together. None of this had really bothered me up to this point, but it was beginning to compound. Don’t get me wrong; being frugal is how backpackers get by. It’s what we do. It’s how we learn to travel for extended periods of time without employment or a trust fund. In some ways, I admired Jill’s determination in sticking to her budget, but it was becoming a tiresome subject and beginning to detract from my independent experience.
Our second auto rickshaw dropped us off at a roadside bus stop. I only know it was a bus stop because there were lots of stalls selling spiced nuts and multi-colored spicy rice snacks and lots of people lugging heavy burlap sacks of something or other. A few token cows poked their noses into the stalls only to be given random scraps of plastic, which they seemed to savor with every scrawny rib protruding from saggy skin. We were told to board a small metal van that sort of resembled a bus. Except for the windows, the whole contraption was metal and I couldn’t help but think about what it would feel like to smash my nose into the back of the seat in front of me when I was thrown forward from my seatbelt-less seat during the inevitable head-on collision. Yeah, ok, my morbidity was in rare form in India. Somehow we ascertained that we would only be on this bus for a short while as we made a connection with the real bus in a different town.
Our real bus wasn’t much better and it was a learning lesson for sure. We had purchased 3 of the 4 reclining seats that were on the single side of the bus, meaning that Jill, Mel, and I would be immediately behind each other. The rest of the bus was either reclining seats on the 2 seat side with “extra” leg room OR actual beds like we had enjoyed from Mumbai to Goa. Completely my fault for not asking the right questions, but if I had known there were beds on the same bus and we all could still travel together, I would have chosen differently. As circumstance would have it, our reclining seats were so close together that when the first person reclined, all the seats had to recline and it was impossible to stand up or adjust position until all seats had returned to the normal position. Well, this is not ideal… There were no shocks and no muffler and the bus puttered along like a dead man walking. I didn’t sleep even one iota.
At one of the toilet stops in the night, we discovered that Donal, our Irish friend that we met in Mumbai, was on our same bus. He was sharing a double bed with an Indian man and was convinced that if he asked the man to trade with me, the man would do it. It was a nice offer, but I chose to suffer in my own poor decision-making. Every time we would get up for a toilet stop or coffee break, though, one man from another seat kept stealing Jill’s chair and falling asleep. I shooed him away at least twice.
By the time we reached Hampi in the morning’s bright sun, I was blurry-eyed and cranky. I had booked a hostel that I thought would be ok for Jill’s budget, but it was some distance away from the actual town, which would add to our commuting cost. I tried to ignore the passive aggressive jab since I clearly wasn’t the only one that was grumpy.
An auto rickshaw dropped us off at the edge of a brown sludgy river where we would take a broken little skiff about 10 meters to the other side before hopping another auto rickshaw a few kilometers into the rice paddies and arriving at our hostel. As I walked down the smooth stone embankment toward the river, we were followed by several local men offering a tour guide or a place to stay or another ride. I tried to concentrate on my footing because my flip flops tend to treat the wet stone like ice. In slow motion, my sandal slipped and I went down to my knees, but under the weight of my backpack, the momentum pulled me forward so that I also landed on my face. I was too tired to care so I laid motionless for a second trying to decide how to gracefully get up. All I could see were about 16 leather sandals and all I could hear was a chorus of “Ma’am! Ma’am! Are you ok ma’am?!” When I finally lifted my head, there were several hands thrust in my face offering assistance. I’m told that my glasses were also askew as if I had orchestrated the whole thing for comedic relief.
At the “hostel,” the little bamboo shack was open air as almost every domicile in Asia turns out to be. The common area had about 8 lounging cushions separated by tables so you could lay down to sleep or sit up to eat without moving from the same cushion. One hostel guest, Jeremy from California, spent almost two days straight just laying in one of these pillow beds, smoking weed, and talking to his girlfriend on the phone, “I love you. No, I love you more… no, no, I love you the most…(kissing noises)”. He told us he was planning to hop a bus to “Sari Lanka” and I just didn’t have the heart to tell him Sri Lanka is an island.
We were led up to the sleeping loft which was a room with about 6-8 thin foam mattresses, each covered with an individual mosquito net, and a couple of fans. The bathroom, back on the ground floor, was only accessible from outside. It had a toilet hole, a drippy faucet for the shower, a dim lightbulb, and an ample-sized toad that would peek his head out of the drain just when you weren’t expecting it. Now I know this sounds luxurious and why on earth would I have been disappointed, but in full honesty, the only part of this place that I didn’t like was how far it was from town and that we would have to take bicycles back and forth. In case you missed it, I despise biking and I was just tired enough to spout some venom and make it known. I was unfairly blaming Jill for the location of this place, but I was mostly mad at myself for not just making my own decisions in the first place. The tension between us builds with one concrete brick and then another.
Eventually, after a rest and refresh, we agreed to rent bikes and cycle back towards town. The countryside was dotted with rice paddies and the locals were friendly, eagerly waving to us as we rode by. There was one section of road where we had to go uphill (translated as hike a bike), but it was generally ok aside from the oppressive heat. Luckily, Hampi had its own version of the German Bakery (we were finding this to be a popular name!) and it was just at the river so was a good place to leave our bikes for the day since we couldn’t bring them with us. Back at the murky river, we discovered that just upstream there was a natural bridge if you leapfrogged over some boulders. I removed my flip flops this time before attempting any boulder hopping. Now that we had officially arrived in Hampi and had a brief rest, things were looking brighter.
The town was small and compact, famous for its collection of UNESCO-recognized Hindu temples and monuments in and around Hampi. It was touristy, but not in a flashy lights expensive attractions kind of way. It was touristy in a backpacker kind of way, stalls selling brightly-colored cheap dresses that no self-respecting Indian woman would ever wear, restaurants with lounge chairs instead of normal chairs and strong wifi encouraging people to while the afternoon away, lots of travel agents selling bus and train tickets, plenty of street food. Straight away, we bumped into Donal again. He was staying in a hostel close by and tried to convince me to change, but somehow I felt committed to my decision now and I stayed on. The mood was improving amongst my travel companions and I didn’t want to rock the boat so to speak.
In the Virupaksha Temple in the center of town, we got our first glimpse of Lakshmi the Elephant when she paraded out to the central courtyard for a drink of water. Mel was over the moon to see a live elephant walking around the temple. If you give her 10 rupees, she would bless you with her trunk after passing the rupees on to her handler. I looked in her eyes and could tell she was super bored of performing that trick so I just smiled at her, hoping she understood that I was sorry for her tiresome routine. We never arrived early enough, but every morning Lakshmi would take a bath in the river and put on quite a show for whoever was there to witness it. It was perhaps the only time she ever got to play.
Renting bikes again the next day, we sailed through the rice paddies back to our “parking spot” at the German Bakery. Jill and I rode ahead of Mel and were keen to eat egg dosas, a type of pancake layered with egg and sometimes curry, from the street vendor by the river. Plastic crates were scattered on the ground as seats at the roadside makeshift restaurant. The cook/server might as well have had 4 arms to manage such a high volume of requests, cooking, plating, and delivering them correctly in exactly the order of the queue. His chai was sweet and creamy and heavenly even while clouds of dust coated us every time a person, dog, or cow walked by. When Mel arrived, we skipped across the boulder bridge at the river to meet Donal back at Virupaksha for a cycling tour of the monuments.
The ride was hot and dusty, but it was flat and definitely allowed us to cover more ground. Monkeys watched us from the shade of the trees. Some of the oldest monuments date back to the 3rd century BC, with many more added by the Hoysala kings between the 10th-14th centuries. It changed hands several times between Hindu and Muslim rule before finally the Vijayanagara Empire took hold. By 1500, it was considered to be the world’s second largest medieval-era city after Beijing with the wealth and prestige that tends to imply, attracting merchants and traders from oceans away. Of course, these things never last and in 1565, an army of Muslim sultanates recaptured the city, beheaded the king, and burned it to the ground. What remains is 16 square miles of well-preserved monolithic temples baking in the desert.
I really enjoyed Hampi and I was beginning to think if I had more time, I would have stayed longer. I can’t exactly put my finger on what I liked so much, except that the people were incredibly hospitable and the vibe was relaxed. It turns out almost everywhere I went in southern India felt this way, but I didn’t know that yet. I had allowed six weeks in the country before I would be meeting Martyn in Nepal and then onward toward the dreaded place of HOME. I already began fantasizing about returning to India for a six month stay or six years instead of a measly six weeks.
For our last day, we tried to start early and failed. The unforgiving desert sun seemed to take on a life of its own while we did a relatively short hike to some of the closer monuments. I covered my head and it seemed to help block some of the oppressive heat on the exposed rocky path, but still the sweat poured in rivulets as we meandered in and out of one temple and then another. The most famous and extravagant monument, Vittala Temple, with its carved stone chariot, would be at the end of our loop before we would circle back toward town. About 100 school children were waiting at the entrance gate as Donal and I purchased 500 rupee ($7.50USD) all-access tickets to enter. Jill and Mel deemed it too expensive and decided to wait for us outside. The ornately carved pillars and maze of gateway towers pay homage to Lord Vishnu, who is worshipped as the deity for cattle. I had not really known that ruins such as these existed in India so I was fascinated, all the more with Donal who seemed to share my interest in the history.
In spite of the chattering and hyper juveniles inside the temple, I felt a sense of calm relief to be separated from my companions, even if only a short while. Our situation was not sustainable, but I didn’t know how to get out of it. We were relatively on the same timeframe and were planning to visit the same towns so even if I made an intentional effort to separate, we would inevitably be on the same path anyway. I felt trapped. And truth be told, I liked them, but we had different styles. So while sitting in the shade of an imposing Hindu temple, I decided the only way this would work is if I started making decisions for myself. If our plans aligned, then great. If not, that’s ok too. We did not have to be an unbreakable unit. We had come as independent backpackers and it was important for my sanity that I stay that way.