06.12.2012 - 07.12.2012
I gobbled down a mushroom mutter masala with garlic naan at a veg restaurant before going for the bus. Things were certainly getting cheaper as the meal came to under 140 rupees. A rickshaw dropped me off at the private bus station and I asked the first foreigner I saw if he knew which bus was which. He was french and said 'Ampi a lot which I took to be a good sign so I sat with him to wait. Next to him, also sat on his back pack, was an Australian by the name of Felix. He had blonde dreadlocks and was swigging from an ornate bottle of rum. The three of us sat in companionable silence whilst an Indian bloke ate an ice lolly with his teeth and unashamedly stared at me for a good 15 minutes straight. As I wasn't alone I found it quite funny - Felix found it hilarious - but sincerely hoped that he had not splashed out on the a/c sleeper bus as well. The french guy left on the non a/c bus and Felix started telling me about how he'd been getting drunk and riding mopeds around Goa for the last two weeks. He had lost his wallet bus seemed consoled by the fact that he still had some weed on him. I made a note to ditch him once we got to Hampi where I'd read they don't take kindly to drugs and where alcohol is banned. For some reason he reminded me vaguely of my Uncle Trefor (who for the record I have never seen smoke weed or swig rum from a bottle).
Boarding the bus we saw that there were rows of two tier single-sized beds lining the aisle and that two people were booked per bed. An obnoxious old guy got on and the conductor tried to direct him to the bed that I was on - I firmly pointed out that his bed number was below and prayed that a more suitable companion would come along. Felix was on the bed opposite me sharing with a German guy called Martin. They looked pretty cramped.
The conductor tried to show a russian lady to the bed below me with the obnoxious guy but she said firmly, 'not with man'. The bus moved off and still I had my bed to myself. I crossed my fingers but we still had a few more stops to make. Having seemingly drank a fair amount of rum, Felix insisted on a toilet stop shortly into the journey and we stopped in a lay-by where the Russian lady and I attempted to find a discreet place to pee. On the way back to the bus Felix offered me his splif and when I declined he laughed saying 'no drink, no drugs, what did you do in Goa?' I ignored him and got back on the bus. After two more stops I still had no bed mate and when the lights went off I attempted to sleep. It was a lot less comfortable trying to sleep over speed bumps, potholes and the occasional horn - not like the gentle rocking of a sleeper train. It was also pretty cold thanks to the a/c. I hadn't planned this well and was wearing a just vest top, thin trousers and flimsy scarf. Felix kindly gave me his 'bed sheet' and despite its dreadful smell I was grateful for the warmth - apparently he'd recently been using it as a beach towel. Eventually I nodded off and after what seemed like not too long it was light and we were arriving at 7am in Hampi. Getting off the bus we were swarmed by offers of rickshaws, rooms, guesthouses and maps. Ignoring them and picking up our backpacks, Martin, Felix and I wandered towards the bazaar that was just a 5 minute walk away.
Hampi was already incredible, I felt like I'd stepped into a movie set, or the flintstones. We agreed to stop for a coffee and consult the guide book to work out where we were and a find place to stay. We were still being harassed for rooms so we decided to look at one where we were having coffee, a place called Vicky's (owned by Vikram). 'Vicky' told us there was hot water and 24 hour electricity apart from 5 hours when there was no electricity... we didn't catch if these were a set 5 hours or not. It wasn't a great room, the worst i'd stayed in so far, but it was 500 rupees for a twin and, as I was only staying for one night, Martin and I decided to share. I hoped he wouldn't turn out to be a pscyho! Felix went in search of somewhere even cheaper but he popped up again later having found himself a box room with a shared bathroom for 200.
Avoiding yet more offers of rickshaws, the three of us made our way to the Virupaksha temple, the focal point of the Hampi Bazzar. The temple was teeming with monkeys and we met Lakshmi, the 24 year old resident elephant - I asked the attendant if she was happy and he assured me she had a very nice life. She looked pretty cheery and apparently has a bath every morning down by the river.
After the temple went down to the riverside. Here, as in most water in India, local women were scrubbing and beating clothes in the water. The river added a certain something to the already stunning scenery. We took a rickety boat across the water (15rupees for tourists, seemingly free for locals) - there are no bridges - the map in lonely planet 2012 shows one ruined bridge and one under construction. Lonely planet 2007 also shows the same bridge under construction.
The other side of the river is supposedly the quieter place to stay. With not much there it seemed except for some hut type accommodation and bars where you could lounge out on beds all day in the shade, that seemed to be the case. The old guy Emma and I had met before leaving Goa had told me about one specific bar/place to stay he recommended on this side and had told me to mention him there. Unfortunately I couldn't remember either his name or the name of the place apart from that it sounded a bit like sex pest... We saw a sign for a par called Shesh Pesh and figured that must be it and there was indeed cute little hut type accommodation and a lounge area where I had a late breakfast of a masala omelette. The rickety boats stopped running at 6pm (there are several boulders in the river so it would be tricky to navigate in the dark) and so I was quite glad I'd opted to stay on the main side of the river.
Back on our side we went back to the temple where the boys had left their shoes a few hours previously and climbed up behind the Virupaksha temple to the top of Hemakuta Hill. It was there that I decided that Hampi was my favourite place in India so far. The view was amazing, as far as we could see were amazing rock formations and crumbling temples surrounded by green countryside and palm trees. One of the most peaceful spots I'd been in India, it genuinely felt as if we were on a completely different planet.
Felix left to find a motorbike to hire for the afternoon and Martin and I decided to look for the Vittala temple, apparently a 2km walk in a straight line from Hampi, according to the lonely planet map at least. It started off well, after a few hundred meters a sign pointed us to the left. There the road stopped and we found ourselves on more uneven terrain and definitely off road. We were still following the river so I hoped we'd have a fair chance of finding our way back. After a while we came to a large arrow painted on a boulder pointing to the right with no indication as to what it was actually pointing to. Naturally we followed it and came not to the temple as we'd hoped but to what seemed to be a public bathing area. There were women filling large basins of water and several men sat around with towels around their waists. We could see a temple, although not one that fitted the description of what we were looking for, on the other side of the water. Although no one seemed to object to our presence I felt slightly uncomfortable and we left and backtracked towards the arrow before continuing in the other direction. Eventually, amid the boulders, we reached the ruined temple we'd been searching for. Apparently this temple had never been finished or consecrated and, I guess for that reason, people unusually wore shoes inside. As the sun went down we made the walk back to the main bazzar, encountering a lot more people along our way. Although we declined, some children offered us a ride in a 'fun boat', a small floating basket in the water.
I was still amazed by Hampi and we tried to come up with adequate ways to describe the landscape. Non really did it justice - Imagine a boulder the size of a house, now imagine a thousand of them haphazardly piled around in mountains and ridges, with mini-temples and ruins perched between them. Actually, just visit Hampi because that, the best we could come up with, is a terrible description. It certainly made Stonehenge look look like a complete joke! Then we settled for making descriptions of Felix's dreadlocked-hair instead: imagine you leave a horse in a muddy field all winter and don't brush it's tail.
After booking onwards sleeper busses, Felix, Martin and I made our way to the Mango Tree, Hampi's number one restaurant. It was a short walk out of the main bazzar along the river and, now dark, it was pitch black there. We encountered only a few people along the way but there were a couple of signs showing the way to the Mango Tree. After a couple of minutes wandering through blackness we found an unlit path to the right, seemingly into a forest (apparently a banana plantation), and a small boy sat on a plastic chair. With his torch he guided us along the path to the restaurant.
It soon became obvious why the Mango Tree was the number one place to eat. In spite of being slightly challenging to find in the dark it was busy with tourists and locals, the prices were all under 110 rupees for a curry and bread and, were it not pitch black, I assumed it would have a great view over the water. When our food came (I'd ordered a veg Hyderabadi masala) it was excellent. They also served lavazza coffee. Felix asked if they had beer and the waiter shook his head.
We sat for a long time, under coconut and mango trees listening to frogs and crickets and learning more about Felix. Having lost his job in mining in Australia he'd booked the cheapest ticket from Perth to India, arrived in Kochi, bummed around the south for several weeks before getting ill and spending his birthday alone in Bangalore. Shortly before I met him at the bus stop he'd had his wallet stolen and now had little more to his name than his passport and a first aid kit but seemed relatively unconcerned with his predicament. His plan was to stay in India until the money ran out completely before booking a flight home on his credit card. I had a feeling that he'd find a way to stay as long as possible and could probably be found months later still bumming around Hampi with his first aid kit, perhaps attempting to become the new Shantaram. Having heard his stories, he'd grown on me a lot and I was glad he'd stuck around with us.
Eventually we left the mango tree, vowing to return the following day in the light to enjoy the view. We made the very dark walk back to the hotel lit only by the light of a mobile phone. I was extremely glad to not be alone. The walk back was slow and, looking up, I'd never seen so many stars in a night's sky. Despite it having been a slightly overcast day, it was now clear and I stopped several times to admire the view.
Back in town, Felix stopped at a couple of places to ask for beer. I tried to tell him he wouldn't find any but eventually a shop keeper told him 'chill out bar, maybe something else'. Leaving Martin and Felix at the Chill Out bar where they'd ordered 'special cokes' (mostly rum), I went back to the hotel to use the phone to call my grandpa. We chatted for about 10 minutes and hearing his voice was a great end to a wonderful day in Hampi.
Feeling as though I'd seem much of what Hampi had to offer, I had a lie in the next day before retracing my steps back up the hill alone with a now fully charged camera battery to take some pictures. The view bowled me over once again and I sat in the shade on a rock to write some postcards before meeting Martin for lunch again at the Mango Tree. Felix had rented a motorbike and gone off exploring but the scrapes on his arms were enough to deter me from getting on a bike with him. He later told me he'd had a good day getting lost, seeing the under-construction bridge (seemingly construction had been abandoned and the half that had been built was now being left to ruin) and giving a hitch-hiking police officer a lift to work.
The view at lunch time was as good as we'd hoped for and we sat reading for several hours in the shade. As I was trying to get to Kochi by Sunday and it was Friday, I'd booked a night bus to Mysore were I planned to stay for just the day before another sleeper bus to Kochi. After brief goodbyes, I hopped in a rickshaw to the nearest town, Hospet, and the bus station. I'd thoroughly enjoyed Hampi - I defy anyone to go there and not be bowled over and just completely happy - but it was time to leave. Although Martin planned on staying a further two days and Felix a further seven, I hadn't yet slowed to their pace and, conscious that I had just ten days left in India, there was still a lot more I wanted to see.