Hampi, Bangalore, Mysore, trains, transvestites, monkeys and bed bugs
12.10.2010 - 25.10.2010
So after our spell chilling in Goa, we decided it was high time that we slung our rucksacks on our backs and got on the road to see the 'real India'!
We had heard good reports about Hampi so decided that this would be our next stop on our travels. We booked sleeper on the train to keep things easy even though it was a day time journey as it was a bit of an early start and we wanted to option of chilling on our bunk if we felt like it. Its was a morning train and on arriving to Margao station we saw it was chaotic with everyone packed into the platforms. Locating our platform was a job in itself as with everyone we asked, we managed to get a different answer! Once we found out which platform we needed, we negotiated the crowds of people pushing and shoving (not an easy task with our rucksacks!). I thought that was the hard bit done but we had to work out which part of the very long platform to stand in for the coach we had booked. Again, we didn't manage to get a simple answer to this question and so when our train turned up the whole platform burst into a frenzied mass of people literally sprinting up and down in a bid to get on board! Wow...in the haze of an early start and not quite awake yet this was quite a shock to the system!!! So rucksacks on our backs we too joined in with the locals and ran like the wind taking no prisoners as we went! After a panicked scramble we found our coach and managed to get on to the train before it departed! Even though we made it onto the train, there was a scrum to get to everyone's seats with elbows and bags flying about. But as we discovered, once everyone had their seats located and were sat down, everyone was as polite as could be! In the midst of the scrum, we had found our bunks and couldn't help but laugh at the madness of the previous moments compared to the peaceful, cheerful smiles as we said hello to our fellow passengers!
Despite booking a sleeper, the reality was that on a day time train there is so much going on that sleeping wasn't really an option but the sleeper meant a little more space than the standard seats and comings and goings on the train kept us entertained for the whole seven hours with the various wallahs (sellers) walking up and down chanting in a deep voice their rythmic songs of "Chai..chai...coffee...chai" "Samosa, samosa, samosa" "Biscuits, chips, biscuits, chips"!!! And if the endless opportunities to buy food on the train wasn't enough, at nearly every station we stopped at, the train would be inundated with more food traders selling various food items through the windows to the passengers.
Our seats were next to a family who were doing a similar journey to us, and it seemed that they were well prepared for the trip with what looked like a picnic of various Indian foods to munch on. Pretty much the whole journey consisted of different food items being passed around the family members and they made generous offers to include us in this feast while asking questions about our travels. Compared to the scrum to get on the train, there was a real contrast to the openness and welcoming nature of the people on the train once everyone had settled.
Once we arrived at Hospet, which was about 13km away from Hampi. We grabbed a rickshaw and headed to the main bazaar area. We liked the buzz of the main town and decided to find a guest house. We had heard about the selection of guest houses across the river but we coundn't see a reason to get a boat to the other side of the river and to drag our rucksacks up the bank of the river towards the nearest guest house so we agreed to stay in the main bazaar area instead. That said, we soon worked out why most travellers do this short boat trip and its down to the lack of booze and meat in Hampi town. Because its a religious place, it was pure veg and tea total. I was sure that this would be no issue as we had fully expected many places in India to be like this....but after only two days I was suffering from meat withdrawal and J was feeling the burn with the lack of beer, How very sad! So yes, we did eventually cave in and ventured over the river for an afternoon just to sample the very things we were missing!
Aside from this, Hampi was lovely. The quirky main bazaar, the most temples you could ever imagine in such a small town with monkeys climbing the temples and surrounding buildings and just as amazing (if not more in J's eyes!) was the wonderful landscape of the area.
The whole place was covered in these beautiful boulders, stacked on top of each other as if some giant had carefully placed each one there. Hiring a moped on the other side of the river gave us the best views as we explored the area.
With the river flowing through the edge of the town we discovered the very cool Mango tree restaurant which overlooked the river. Good food and great views, though we discovered it was best to go there for lunch rather than dinner as after sunset the flying bugs really came out in droves!
Soon enough it was time to move on and our next stop was Bangalore city! That was an interesting journey! We decided to book a sleeper coach rather than a train as it was quicker and cheaper. We hadn't done a coach yet so we figured it would be fun. We should have known better as we had seen the terrible state of the roads in India. So as we settled in our bunk bed ready to sleep our way to Bangalore, we soon discovered that sleep isn't obtainable that easily on a coach. It was as if Michael Schomaker himself was driving the bus and when we hit a big pot hole or speed bump, it sent us high up into the air and nearly right out of our bunk! Literally hanging on to each other and anything that we could anchor ourselves to, we could do nothing but laugh as we buckaroo'd our way along. I'm not sure if the road got better or if we bumped out heads and passed out, but eventually we managed to sleep a little and woke up in Banglaore the next morning.
We knew that Bangalore was known for its big IT outsourcing and new found wealth amongst the young IT professionals there and so we were keen to see what kind of vibe the place had. We read that the city itself wasn't full of architectural sights but we took a couple of days to check it out. It was a good place to get stuff done (including paying a visit to the Canon service centre to fix the camera lens I clumsily dropped on the floor in Heathrow airport on our flight out to India!) and while we went about our business we discovered that Bangalore had a very western feel to it. The clothes shops were carrying international brands such as Adidas, Nike, Levis etc and there was of course the famous Mc Donalds and even KFC there! The bars and restaurants were often frequented by groups of young Indian people, both men and women, enjoying a beer or two. We had seen young women in a couple of bars in Mumbai but none since so this was an indication of how Bangalore seemed to be adopting real changes in attitudes towards women and socializing. We would also see young Indian couples, dressed in western style clothes walking along the street holding hands (which was the first time I had seen that).
We had a couple of days here and in the local paper (The Hindu) we found daily listings of various sports, arts and culture events happening in the city and so decided to check out a few things. We went to a rock climbing competition and saw how the young boys and girls had a real passion and talent for climbing (and there were some impressive climbs to be seen by kids as young as 5 or 6 years old!)
We also found out about a music event called Shoonya which was a musical collaboration between Indian and African students in Bangalore. The event was to promote the integration of the African students who often find it difficult when they first arrive in India. It was an amazing night in which we heard a range from folk music, Carnatic and Hindustani music to West African rhythms. We heard for the first time the Kora — a 21-string harp-lute popular in West Africa. So beautifully delicate, this instrument was played by an African student who was in Banglaore to study his degree and was accompanied by an Indian lady who sang a traditional Indian song and in the background, the soft rhythm of an Indian drum. The guy on the drums was truly impressive and as the show came to a close the drums became louder and more intense as everyone on stage joined in to make the final performance go out with a big bang! A thoroughly enjoyable night!
We had also been invited to a night club by a couple of German girls we had met earlier that day and even managed to get on the guest list...but it was not to be. By the time the music performance was drawing to a close I realized that I was beginning to feel quite unwell so we changed our plans and headed back to grab some food before heading back to our hotel. Unfortunately I was deteriorating fast and food was not an option for me and we had to speed back. As soon as we got to our room it all went very very wrong! I wont say too much but it was a pretty bad bout of food poisoning and was very messy. Two days of back to back movies (how glad was I that we had booked a room with a TV!) and running back and forth to the loo. Actually, J was great at nursing me back to health, however his decision to try to feed me a masala dosa when I was still feeling a bit iffy was not a good one. I have not been able to look at one ever since!
Once I was back to health it was time to head out once more. We had heard good things about Mysore so we decided to head there...this time on the train, and this time on the very nice AC cooled seats (along with complimentary on board meals no less)! So off to a good start! We arrived in Mysore, expecting good things from what we had been hearing about the place but our first impression was not quite in sync with that. Aside from the very amusing sighting of a group of rather beefy looking sari wearing transvestites lunching together at a restaurant we were at (this, we discovered would be the first of many sari wearing tranny sightings!), and the very impressive palace in the centre of the city (which would be illuminated during festivals and sunday evenings, was really worth paying the entry fee for (entry fee Rs200 for foreigners and Rs20 for Indian), Mysore was not the place we had hoped it to be. (OK, this is the bit where I have a whinge, sorry!)
The first thing that hit us was the overwhelming noise (the mass honking of horns and crazed rickshaw drivers over taking, undertaking; pushing and shoving between cars) and the immediate presence of persistent rickshaw drivers mobbing us as we tried to leave our hotel, pressing their services upon us even when we made it very clear that we did not need a rickshaw! When we did need a rickshaw, negotiating a fair price was difficult enough but most drivers did no know where we would be asking to go to...it made getting a rickshaw a drawn out and slightly frustrating process. We also on one occasion had trouble actually getting the driver to take us to where we wanted to go (we wanted to check out Mysore's very famous wood carvings at the well known crafts emporium; but the driver was insistent that this pace was closed for refurbishment (and he knew of somewhere else he could take us...surprise surprise!). We knew that it wasn't closed, and a very stressed out conversation took place where he accused us of calling him a liar...which it turned out that he was by the way! We got there in the end, by asking another rickshaw driver but this was an exasperating process!
Our experience of Mysore was not helped buy the discovery by J that he had somehow broken out into a a collection of very dubious looking bites (that looked very like bed bugs!) which meant we had to change rooms (although to be fair to the hotel, they were very gracious and gave us a free upgrade to a deluxe room!) and hot wash our entire wardrobe; which meant a night of movies and room service as we waited for our clothes to dry! We're not sure if the bed bugs came from our time in Bangalore or Mysore but it was the final straw to swing our decision to leave in hope to find a more relaxed location.
Next stop, the state of Kerala!