29th March – Hampi, Karnataka It’s a week into our trip, so I thought it was time I let you know what’s been happening. So far Chris and I have visited Benaulim in Goa, and Hampi in Karnataka – next we are off to the Hill Station of Ooty in Tamil Nadu . . . which lies the other side of a forty-hour journey on a number of different trains. I’ve got a few photos online here to give you an idea of the wonderful sights we’ve seen.
If you read my last, you will know that I’m taking to the road again, this time for an eleven-month trip across the Indian Subcontinent. My boyfriend Chris is joining me for the first six weeks, and we’ve some grand plans including staying on a houseboat on Kerala’s Backwaters and tiger spotting in Ranthambore National Park. I’d intended spending the vast majority of the year in India – aside from the obligatory border hop after 180 days, as all those travelling on a tourist visa in India are required to do.
Three weeks before departure my plans dissolved when our passports returned from the Indian consulate with a six-month visa attached, rather than the expected (and paid for) one-year visa. I was a tad miffed, to say the least, but initially presumed that this would merely be an inconvenience, and that I would have to endure the week long procedure involved in getting an Indian visa from the embassy in Kathmandu. After researching the subject, however, I discovered that the situation was not so simple. In recent months, many travellers who have applied for a six-month visa in Nepal having already spent time in India have been refused, and given only three months or sometimes just one month instead; it is possible that the authorities may just issue a fifteen day transit visa.
So it looks like my hopes of attending the November camel fair in Pushkar, amongst other things, are dashed (at least on this trip). I had intended to scoot up to Nepal not long after Chris returned home, avoiding the worst of the monsoon in Northern India, and then head back south into India as the monsoon reached Nepal; now it looks like I will catch the rainy season in both countries. I also have some time to fill, so have pencilled in Bangladesh and possibly Sri Lanka. The former I am already looking forward to, being a country less visited it appeals to my sense of adventure. I know nothing of Sri Lanka, and envisage it as merely a beach-orientated holiday destination – no doubt this preconception is due mostly to my ignorance; I’m sure the country has a lot to offer. With the rest of my trip in disarray, I was doubly grateful that we had planned the first six weeks so thoroughly, and knew that we had a lot to look forward to.
I finished work ten days before our flight, and spent the remainder of my time in the UK packing up my possessions and catching up with friends. In the blink of an eye departure day had arrived, and my parents kindly drove Chris and I to Heathrow for our flight to Mumbai. We flew with Jet Airways (I was very impressed – lots of legroom), and had a five hour stopover in India’s commercial capital before transferring to Dabolim, the airport that serves the small state of Goa.
We had chosen Benaulim for our initial stop, due mainly to its proximately to Margao train station, which was where we would catch the train after our three nights at the beach. We’d contacted Felix, the owner of Castello’s Coco Huts, by email and had reserved a room for the first three nights at the price of Rs400, around £6 per night. The huts were less atmospheric than the name suggested – we were expecting romantic bamboo rooms on stilts rather than the metal-walled huts which we nick-named beach slums – but they were adequate, and the location could not be faulted – a mere sixty seconds from the beach, even at Chris’s slow pace.
Benaulim Beach is a favourite amongst Indian holidaymakers and Europeans on package deals, and as such is targeted by beach sellers, predominantly young women selling sarongs, clothing and jewellery. We had arrived at the end of the season, when tourists were thin on the ground, hence the proportion of sellers to potential buyers was higher than at other times. The frequent approaches by these women could be tiresome at times, but it was interesting talking to them too. We learnt that most of the women came to Goa from small villages in Karnataka, leaving their families and children behind. They spend six or seven months pacing the beach with their wares on their heads before returning home, where they work in the fields for Rs50 (about 70p) a day.
The weather was hot, but the breeze helped to cool us off – just as well, as the sea was incredibly warm. With the wind came waves strong enough to knock us off our feet, but fun for bouncing around in. We spent three days relaxing on sun-loungers and splashing around in the sea, freeing ourselves from the stress of everyday life. We ate at the simple restaurants dotted along the beach, enjoying tasty Indian meals at a fraction of the price we’d pay back home (although relatively expensive by Indian standards; everything is relative, especially money). On our final night we chose a place called Water’s Edge, which lived up to its name. The waves crashed on the soft sand just a few feet from our candlelit table.
Our first train was booked for Friday 26th March – a modest seven hour journey to the town of Hospet in Karnataka. We would be travelling 351 kilometres for a cost of Rs170, around £2.50. We booked all our trains in advance, thanks to the wonders of modern technology and the mostly efficient Indian Railways website. Our tickets were paid for and printed, and we knew our seat numbers, so once the train arrived at the station it was just a case of locating Sleeper Car S3 and stuffing our packs beneath seats 43 and 44, then settling in for the journey. As Chris soon discovered, you will never go hungry on a train in India, as a constant stream of hawkers parade past, their singsong calls announcing their wares.
Outside the window we were treated to views of lush Goan jungle, as the train wove its way through the Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary towards the neighbouring state of Karnataka. Later the scenery changed, to more open land – green paddy fields dotted with egrets, and cotton fields where women wrapped in vibrant saris stooped to pick the crop in the heat of the day; we wondered how they could bear it. I had brought a small thermometer with me, and by lunchtime it had crept up to almost 40 degrees centigrade. The breeze from the open windows cooled us . . . until around one o’clock, when a fifteen minute stop at a station filled the carriage with heat, which failed to disperse even once we were moving again.
We sat opposite an excited German couple – they were about to see their daughter who had been teaching English in a small Indian village, for the first time in eight months. Along from them was a young German backpacker, who was spending fifteen days in India after several weeks in Nepal. I gleaned a few tips from him to help me later on in my trip. Like us, his final destination that day was Hampi – an amazing place that has religious significance to Indians, and is just as popular with foreign tourists. The landscape is made up mostly of huge rocks, balanced precariously on top of each other. Almost everywhere you look are rock-hewn temples dating back to the 14th century. It is a magical place.
The train arrived at Hospet just a few minutes late, and the three of us shared an auto-rickshaw to Hampi, 14 kilometres away. We had been going to get the bus, but as there were three of us the cost was only slightly more, and it saved a lot of time and hassle. Three people, three rucksacks, plus daypacks is a tight squeeze on the three wheeled vehicles that are so common over here, but the driver invited Chris to have the “driver’s friend” seat – that is to squeeze up next to him on his seat.
As was to be expected, the driver had a friend with a guesthouse, and he took us there. Having visited Hampi before, I had some idea of the standard and prices of accommodation – and that there is plenty to choose from. We looked at three, and selected a very nice cool room, which we were able to barter down to Rs400. While cheaper rooms were available, this one was good value for money, and the lady who runs it was very nice. We dropped our packs, and showered off the grime and dust that had blown in through the train window, before heading up Hemakuta Hill to watch the sun set, and the monkeys play. There are almost as many monkeys in Hampi as temples – and believe me, that is a lot. As in Goa, the sun disappeared into a band of hot season haze a good while before it reached the horizon.
We ate that night at Vicky’s Rooftop Restaurant, where the food was mediocre and the service appalling. We experienced one of the more-or-less daily power cuts while we were there. On the up side, the restaurant had a generator . . . on the down side, this meant that all the flies in town were came to join us!
We got up early the next morning (some of us rather reluctantly – it’s not just work that Chris is late for!) in order to explore, before the heat of the day became stifling. We were very glad we had, as things had warmed up even by nine o’clock. We walked to the end of the bazaar, then turned left and followed the riverside path – where I had fond memories of watching the monkeys playing on my last visit. Our destination was Vitthala Temple – one of the main draws in Hampi, and one of three sites that can be visited on a combined ticket costing Rs250 (about £3.50). Along the way we saw much wildlife including green bee-eaters (birds similar in appearance to kingfishers) and a multitude of cute little palm squirrels. Chris rather bravely fed bananas to a large langur monkey, while I watched from a safe distance, coward that I am.
We arrived a little before eight o’clock, and asked the guards who sat outside if we could go in. They told us it was not yet open, but we could give them the money now and go inside, picking up our ticket on the way out. Call me untrusting, but I was reluctant to do so, as you need to show the ticket to gain entry to the other two sites. Instead we walked to a nearby temple, and sat in the shade enjoying the peace and relative cool. An old man had entered before us, shrouded in white cloth with a loose turban around his head. On his way out he came to speak to us, and asked us, “What country?” When we said English he mentioned – through a combination of sign language, his own language and the smallest smattering of English – the British coming to India four hundred years ago, and Mountbatten handing India back to the Indians. He waved us goodbye and continued on his way.
Soon after, the guard came to alert us that the temple was now open – the ticket men had turned up, and were settling themselves in their little booth. Once our tickets were safely in our hands, the guard followed us into the temple, and offered to demonstrate the famous pillars that sound the musical scale when they are hit. It is forbidden to do so these days, as they are delicate and have been damaged by repeated use over the centuries, but as we were the first people there he’d give them a bash if we slipped him Rs100; we declined.
Once we’d had our fill of the temple we strolled back along the river and took breakfast at a modest restaurant with a super view of the mythical landscape, feeling smug as we watched other folk heading out in the building heat. Although only ten in the morning, the temperature was nudging 40 degrees, so we returned to our room to rest and ready ourselves for the afternoon’s foray. We hired a rickshaw and visited the Hampi museum followed by the Lotus Mahal (a small, but beautifully symmetrical temple, which I got told off for climbing on – oops!), and the impressive elephant stables in the Royal Enclosure, before returning to town and watching the sun set from a peaceful spot.
As our early start had been such a success, we decided to repeat it the following day. Our plan was to take a boat ride on the Tungrabhadra River. The boats in question are round coracles, made of woven bamboo and covered with plastic sealed with tar to make them waterproof. We had been approached the previous day my Mentesh, a small and somewhat grubby boy who was touting for the guy running the boats. He had told us that he was too young to work on the craft himself, so helped to bring business to his boss. After some negotiation over price and routes we agreed on a half-hour boat ride down the river, to a point on the opposite bank that was a ten minute walk from the Hanuman Temple that perches high atop a hill (for hill read a collection of massive boulders piled atop one another). The trip would end with a further half-hour journey back up the river to our starting point.
We were rather surprised to find that Mentesh would be our oarsman, but he confidently helped us aboard, and settled himself on the upturned plastic crate that would be his seat. We set off, Mentesh paddling first to one side and then the other with his single oar. The journey was magical, floating through the boulder-strewn land, spotting white-necked stork and kingfishers hunting for food. At one point we passed over some gentle rapids, past pilgrims washing in the water next to an old riverside temple who stopped to shout hello and wave.
After a while we pulled into the opposite bank, where Mentesh tied up the coracle under a tree with a worryingly thin piece of string. He helped us ashore and led us through paddy fields to the foot of the Hanuman Temple. The hill towered above us as we began climbing the white-painted steps, but four years of delivering mail to the residents of Maxton once a week had well prepared me. Near the top were many monkeys. We could have bought some bananas at the bottom to feed them with, but past experience had taught me that if you have bananas with you, the monkeys become a little too interested in you for comfort.
At the top we removed our shoes and admired the views from the temple grounds; they were well worth the climb. We entered the small temple where we found a bearded guru and a number of his disciples, two of them Westerners. After a short time we left the temple and retraced our steps, pausing for chai at the bottom of the hill. Back in the boat we discovered something that should have been blatantly obvious to us from the start: it is not as easy to go back upstream as it is to go down. There was not too much of a problem in the wider parts of the river, but where the water narrowed the current became stronger. Chris took a turn at paddling to give Mentesh a rest, and soon got the hang of it.
The boy took us to the shore near to the ruined Rama Temple, and told us we must carry the boat over the rocks. We helped to lift the heavy craft – which was five foot across and could hold, we were told, ten people – out of the water and carried it a short way, but the terrain was hard going, sandy in places, with rocks and other obstacles too. I called a halt, and got Mentesh to show me where he wanted us to carry the boat to. It was quite a way, and I was worried that one or other of us would twist an ankle (Chris and I are both on the clumsy side, each with a past history of sprained ankles), and asked the lad if there was another way. He reluctantly agreed, and we carried the round boat back to the water and got back in.
After a paddling a further distance he again stopped, wanting us to carry the boat this time across uneven rocks with many crevices. We told him we were not prepared to do this, explaining that if we injured ourselves our trip would be ruined. We back-tracked again, and a short while later he steered us into a narrow dead end, leaving us with little option but to reluctantly agree to carry the coracle. At least this time the distance was shorter, and the ground more even, although not without some sticky spots. It was hard going in the 40+ degree heat of the day, and the tar from the outside of the boat rubbed off on our clothes We were not best pleased with the situation.
I’m sure there must have been another way for him to go. There is no way that a middle-class Indian tourist would have carried the boat for starters – plus we had been given the option to take a one-way trip downstream and take the bus back; how would the twelve-year-old have got the boat back to its starting point then? Shortly afterwards he tapped us up for tips, saying that we should tip him now or his boss would see and take half. The cost of the trip was relatively high, and we weren’t about to give him more. He’d been bragging about how much he charged Russian tourists, and telling us how his phone costing 4,000 rupees (£60) had been stolen, so he was hardly on the poverty line, despite his scruffy appearance.
That was our final full day in Hampi. Today we begin an epic journey, which will take around forty hours, and involve catching three trains, plus a number of buses and rickshaws along the way. Our final destination is the old British Hill Station of Ooty in Tamil Nadu. If we are in luck, the narrow gauge steam train will be back in service, and we can ride that for the final leg of the journey. It was watching BBC4’s series on Indian hill railways that inspired us to visit Ooty in the first place, so we were quite disappointed to discover that a landslide had taken out a section of the track, and the train had been out of action for months. The alternative approach is by bus – and given the combination of hairpin turns and the way they drive in India, I’m a tad apprehensive about it. Keep your fingers crossed for us!