Tuesday, 16 March 2010
Hot and getting hotter.
Respect for another country's beliefs and culture is important for the conscientious traveller and in India especially one must be reminded about covering one's shoulders, arms or head. So it was with some surprise, as we hurtled towards Mysore train station, that view was obscured by the enormous poster of a gentleman's groin clad in brief black briefs, urging to us to buy his underwear. Swiftly followed by another. And another. Indeed, India is mysterious and magical place.
We arrived in Bangalore with several hours to kill before boarding the night train to Hospet, not enough time to actually enter the city proper but too long to sit with our bags in the station, so decided to deposit them in the left-luggage and find somewhere to eat. But first we had to get us and our cases across 9 platforms. Fortunately in India every station is choc full of coolies, the red-shirt wearing porters who will carry your bags for a small remittance. Two strapping young lads quickly appeared and we set about beating the price down to what translated into a paltry sum, and act made easier when dealing in hundreds rather than the few pence it actually adds up to. We were feverish in our negotiations, having got into the swing of things, and fixed the price before they masterfully hoicked the suitcases onto their young heads and set off. They can't have been too disappointed with the meagre amount as they urged us to use them a few hours later, when we planned to return to the station, so we arranged a time and set off in search of refreshment.
The station itself although very big and very busy had limited resources, but if ever you find yourself stuck there I urge you to check out the large hotel a few minutes walk away with the aptly named D'lish roof-top restaurant. Here amongst the business men and super-sized water feature we did indeed have a delicious dinner, waited on by an inordinate amount of waiters. However, we were back in the station about forty minutes earlier than planned and so with nothing else to do, retrieved our bags from the left-luggage. Immediately two elderly gentlemen lurched forward and vied for our custom. In another country one would have been more likely to offer to carry their luggage but they were tenacious in their demands to transport our bags and so, reluctantly, we agreed, first having beaten them down to the same pitiful price we'd paid the strapping young lads. They weighed up the cases and then, with alarming difficulty, the shorter of the two got one bag on his head while his collaborator attempted to load a second on top and then came the tricky manoeuvre of putting the third on his own. With extraordinary speed they were off, me dashing to keep sight of the wobbling suitcases amongst the sari-wearing-turban-topped crowed, my friend and my mother following in hot pursuit. Despite their bent-legged gait they set a cracking pace. Eventually they found our train on platform 10, an expression of pride mixed with disbelief on the sweaty faces as they relieved themselves of their heavy burden. We all caught up, mortified by the ancient coolies exertions and fisted over a good deal more cash than promised and many congratulations. Stations are loaded with light-fingers so it is wise to keep all baggage in constant contact so I climbed onto the train while my friend passed the cases up. Suddenly the door to our carriage swung open and, unbelievably in a station of such size and traffic, there was one of the boys we'd failed to re-hire, a look of disbelief on his face, "You didn't wait" he said, his disappointment far out weighing our crime. "We gave old men work," I stammered, but he seemed unimpressed.
The early morning air was already hot when we arrived in Hospet and even hotter after the short drive to Hampi. It was 30 years since my last visit to the ruined city and the unique scenery was unchanged, a surreal landscape of sun-bleached boulders, many perched perilously one above another as if a slight breeze might topple them. A setting more suitable to dinosaurs or Fred Flintstone. However, when I had last walked down Hampi Bazaar there was just a handful of travellers, a rag-taggle band of hippies in search of the legendary Hampi chillum beloved of the many natty-haired Sadhus who lived amongst the temple ruins. Now, there were cafes and shops displaying all the usual suspects: carved soapstone, mirrored bags, cheese-cloth pantaloons, studded t-shirts and so on. And people. Lots of people. But, there at the far end rose the unmistakable Gopura tower marking the entrance to the Virupaksha Temple. We were staying at the quaintly named Mowgli Guesthouse, across the river in a street of guesthouses that hadn't existed the last time I'm was there. But first we had to cross the river. During the days we spent there we watched the little motorised row-boat take it's 2 minute journey back and forth, packed with adults, children, animals, bicycles and on one occasion 2, yes 2, motorbikes........The guesthouse was set near a bend in the river, flanked by the emerald green padi-fields, dotted with palm trees and the ever present boulders. A perfect place to watch the hot sun set with a cold beer. Despite my efforts to remind my party to cover up and drink plenty of water my mum did succumb to the heat and so elected to read in the shade on our second day of sight-seeing. Everywhere are the ruins of the once majestic city of Vijayayanagar, the most powerful Hindu capital in the Deccan between the 14th and 16th centuries, where the bazaars were filled with silks, precious gems, pearls and roses, and bejewelled courtesans wandered about the perfumed palaces. We chose to check out the fabulous elephant stables before retiring from the heat to the cool of the Mango Tree restaurant, and sip....well what else? Mango Lassis.
Sad to leave this extraordinary place, we took a hair-raising taxi ride at the unspeakably early hour of 4am, the full moon still high in the starry night above the silver-lit landscape, to catch the train to Goa. The boat doesn't cross the river at night so we had to take the much longer route to catch the 6am train. We soon realised why the driver had brought along a couple of mates for the ride when they were gainfully employed to change the flat tyre, then we off-roaded through the padi-fileds before arriving at the station, stirred and shaken. "I felt like I was being kidnap," confided my friend and as soon as I recovered the powers of speech, I agreed.
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