Peace, Quiet and Frustration in Hampi
Feb 2, 2007
|Hampi: you couldn't find a place more different from Bangalore. Our first view is from a rickshaw as we leave the Hospet train station and meander past heavily-laden carts pulled by oxen with green, blue, or orange painted horns. Women walk the dusty dirt road balancing bundles of wood or laundry on their heads. A few children wave from the roadside as we pass. Then we see the huge pyramidal temple towering over the dry, boulder-strewn landscape. Women crouch at the base of the temple selling bananas. Tourist restaurants line the street (the sort whose menus have British, Italian, and Israeli dishes and hardly any Indian ones). We have our first meal on the roof of our guesthouse overlooking the temple and the nearby river. It is quite beautiful really. There are tourists everywhere, more than anywhere we've been in India thus far. It feels like we're back in Thailand or Laos with its 'omelette and toast' tourist breakfasts. Not as tasty as the local food (who comes this far to have rubbery eggs and toast?) but I guess the tourists want it.
Before long, we are walking though the rapidly building heat toward the temples. The sun here is intense, easily 35 degrees at midday. We move slowly, water in hand, pacing ourselves.
First stop: the Virupaksha temple that we watched over breakfast and a stop at the police station to register ourselves. Who knows what the point of the registration is, but the police seem to like to keep track of who is here, who has used the internet, and such matters. We sign the registration book and show our passports, all while a guide tries to 'helpfully' lead us through the process and in turn pressure us into hiring him. Of course, we don't.
We enter the temple, pay our 50 rupee camera fee, watch some monkeys scrambling about on a ledge, and are quickly ushered out ("closed closed leave now sir finish finish"). Sigh. Why wouldn't they tell me they were closing in 5 minutes when we bought our ticket? My fault for not reading the aged, half-visible sign under the counter. Oh well.
The ruins are interesting; some simple structures built from huge granite slabs while others have ornate carvings. We wander slowly as the heat increases. It seems like no matter how organized we think we are, we're always wandering around in the most intense heat of the day.
We spend the day that way: strolling through the ruins of what was once a city of half a million people. In the town of Hampi, people have reclaimed the ruins, living inside them once more. The huge granite slabs rest precariously over them as they have for hundreds of years; I'd be nervous of them collapsing but I guess they have bigger worries. On the walk back to our guesthouse in late afternoon, we see a woman scooping up fresh cow manure with her hands, collecting it so it can be dried and used later as fuel for cooking. We puzzle briefly how the left hand is reserved for cleaning your own bottom, but one's right hand is used for eating and scooping up cow manure?? Perhaps because cows are sacred she used the right hand?
We find a restaurant near our guesthouse lit with red and orange lanterns and eat our dinner crosslegged on cushions while the movie "Narnia" plays on a large television. It feels like we were in Vang Vieng again, all curled up on cushions watching television.
The next day, I wake with bug bites across my back. Itchy, I figure we must have had a mosquito in our room.
We rent a bicycle to explore the more remote ruins, meandering slowly along dirt and gravel roads and between huge granite edifices, some in good condition while others have broken, tilting, or collapsed columns. In many areas, people work in the intense sun carrying gravel and rocks, fastening cables, and other construction work. They are rebuilding the ruins. Newly cut granite slabs are being transported into place where only the foundation of buildings now lies; gravel and dirt is excavated to rebuild the long destroyed temples. It looks less like restoration than an expansion of the existing ruins for the benefit of tourists. I wonder at how much of the standing structures have been rebuilt? There is no information on these projects shown on the signs surrounding the area.
We move slowly in the intense heat. It must be at least 35 degrees. This is a place for lazy meandering around the old palaces and temples. We explore the ornately decorated Vittala temple, then rent bicycles to the Royal Center to see the palaces, elephant stables, and other buildings for the royalty that lived here. Some of the stone carvings are beautiful. I struggle to imagine the largely empty place, strewn with huge boulders like a moonscape, filled with half a million people when this was the economic and political center of South India. We take our time walking about, but eventually -- after many photos -- make our way back to Hampi to relax, cool off, and get something to eat. We watch X-Men at the restaurant down the street, heading back to our guesthouse as the shops and restaurants start to board themselves up around 9PM.
I awake in the morning with more bites, a LOT more. They cover my back and arms and legs and look like flea bites. I remember laying half-asleep in the middle of the night and feeling the bugs crawling on me, telling myself to get back to sleep as there's nothing I can do about it. In the morning, ask the guesthouse to change the bedding. Reluctantly, they do so. I am hopeful that that will fix the problem. For some reason, Laura has no bites. Maybe I taste better or she just doesn't react to them?
We rent bicycles again and head back to the Royal Centre to see some of the structures we missed the previous day. I'm fascinated by the public bath, a huge and very well-designed pool-like structure fed by a system of aquaducts (that also link sets of smaller pools, wells, and what look like irrigation channels). Having spent many hours diverting and damming streams as a child, I am still fascinated by water channels I suppose! Scattered with deep bathing and swimming pools between ornately carved granite palaces and ceremonial buildings, the area would have been beautiful. As the sun beats down upon us, we wish those pools still had water!
It takes us a few hours to see the remaining temples. I wish I knew more about the history of the place, as the sheer volume of structures makes it hard to absorb, let alone appreciate and recognize everything. There are archeaological books available and I consider buying one. I don't. I think I'm enjoying the simple experience of looking at them for what they are, relaxing, and exploring. There's something to be said for discovering things yourself, speculating about the mysterious columns and structures you don't understand rather than having it all laid out for you (even if that does mean missing important details now and then).
Afternoon drifts into evening. We have a late lunch at a restaurant overlooking the river beneath a huge mango tree. It is beautiful and relaxing, though the persistent flies eventually chase us off. Dinner is tasty vegetarian food. We return to our guesthouse for our last sleep, hoping that new sheets will help prevent more bites. Little do we know that we would be ushering in one of our more unpleasant days of the trip.
As we prepare for bed, I burn a mosquito coil in hopes of discouraging the bugs. In doing so, I see them for the first time: large flea-like things that jump and fly and scurry around on the floor. They are everywhere. I squish 20 or so; Laura watches them hop into the beam of her flashlight as she reads. Flea-like bugs that appear only at night? We realize they must be bedbugs.
Looking back on it, we should have woken the manager right then and dealt with it. Or I should have taken photos of the bugs (which I briefly considered, more for the added creepy crawly factor for our dear blog readers). We did neither. We wrapped ourselves up as best we could and tried to sleep.
I woke with around 100 bites across my back and feet. Laura had none though she could feel them biting her as she slept (I guess she doesn't react). It was time for us to check out and we decided that a room full of bedbugs was not worth paying full price for. A discount of some sort was in order.
We approach the owner and explain that the bugs were still there, show him my back, and go with him to explain where we saw them on the floor and bed. Our first mistake is allowing him to clean, spray, or whatever they do to the room before settling our bill. We have breakfast and return to propose what we figure is a reasonable rate for the room: around 60% of the bill. The owner proceeds to variously refuse any money in anger, exclaiming he "is not a beggar"; speak at length with others in the hotel and the rickshaw driver waiting to take us for a tour; accuse me of having some "skin disorder" and that there were no bugs; exclaiming he keeps travellers bags and doesn't steal anything and other exclamations which really made no sense at all to us. It was going very very badly ... he is getting angrier and angrier and, in the midst of it all, all I can tell for certain was that it is something cultural. It isn't the money really, though we are obviously feeling swindled and upset for being told we are lying about the bugs in order to get a cheaper room. However, I am also getting increasingly nervous -- or maybe paranoid -- about the implications of an angry hotel owner and his friend the rickshaw driver both "having it in" for us in a very small town where everyone knows everyone. Angry but also just wanting to extract ourselves from the situation, we pay the full amount for the room and prepare to leave. The owner, then, smiles and hands us back several hundred rupees. We refuse and leave in a fury, I regret to say. Yes, we had let it get to us.
We immediately get rid of the rickshaw driver who proceeded to follow us down the road, claiming we had arranged to take a trip with him that day. We did not trust him. Unfortunately, we have no place to put our bags for the rest of the day (we were going to store them in the guesthouse). It occurs to me that there was one person in town we thought seemed reputable: the bicycle rental guy. We take our bags there and offer him 100 rupees to store them for the day. He then arranges for "his friend" to take us for the rickshaw journey outside town, and we soon find ourselves bumping our way along the dirt roads toward our destination: the temples across the river from Hampi. I try to put the frustration behind me and instead find myself reliving the experience. In the end, it seems to be all about saving face. By accusing him of having bedbugs, he "lost face" and we didn't offer him any other options but to admit he was at fault and accept less money. That, clearly, was why he wanted to give us some money back; that way he could consider it a gift and not compensation for poor lodging. That's my best guess, anyway. Should we have just paid the full amount and expected him to generously give some money back??!?! Or just have left without paying anything, thereby giving him reason and justification to come after us later on in the day? The best option, in restrospect, was to switch guesthouses after our first night; addressing badly provided service after the fact seems difficult, if not impossible. It was all VERY confusing and infuriating and seems to leave little alternatives for disgruntled travellers.
Well we do manage to get to the river and onto a coracle (a boat that's basically a really big wicker basket with tar coated cloth on the bottom to make it float) to cross the river. Lacking signage, we wander about and soon find ourselves in a very small village. We'd come a long way, we mused, so that we could wander about in a small village in the middle of nowhere, objects of incredulous stares, and feel reasonably comfortable. There was one problem. Upon crossing the river, we had been given new names without knowing: I was "schoolpen" and Laura was "ten rupees"! Every child we saw called out to us by our new names ("Hi schoolpen! Hi ten rupees!"), following us down the street, hands outstretched. I must admit to feeling anger -- even rage -- at the travellers who had in their smug benevolence decided that giving pens and money to children was a good idea. Do they realize that, in doing so, they have turned children into beggars? If they really want to make a difference, ask for the schoolteacher and make a donation of pens or money. Why compound the problem of poverty by teaching the children to beg?
We don't manage to find the temple that was hidden somewhere amidst the village, hills, and rocks. We have a pleasant enough walk, however. The heat, finally, leads us to give up and head home.
The coracle back across the river is more of an adventure: we join three motorcycles and eight people on our coracle (just over two meters across) to float across the river, defying a few laws of physics in the process. How do we stay afloat? How do they row it across with all that weight? I have no idea.
After checking in on our bags again and grabbing some lunch in a rooftop restaurant, we wander out into the nearby ruins to relax in the shade and pass the time until evening and our trip to the railway station. We decide to invent a new card game. We call it "Hampi". It involves doing your best to maneuver your way through several irrational rules and penalties, avoiding getting screwed by your opponents, and lots of luck in order to win. We'll teach it to you one day. Its fun. A group of Indian men gather around us watching us play, riveted.
The afternoon disappears slowly. We head to the Mango Tree restaurant for a snack (where Laura takes a turn on the rope swing), do some emails, and then grab some dinner. Midway through, the power goes out and we enjoy a very tasty candlelit dinner.
We had speculated all day about when our spurned rickshaw driver would turn up again. When it was time to head to the train station, there he was, standing beside another man with a rickshaw -- NOT the driver we had arranged with previously. Funny how our driver had mysteriously disappeared and the replacement was now more expensive! What a funny coincidence!
Despite a frustrating and exhausting day, we finally make it to the train station. Laura queries several men and figures out that our carriage will be at the end of the train (whew! no more rushing about trying to find where our car is!) and we make our way between people sleeping on the benches and concrete floor (awaiting trains?) to our train, our berths, and our beds. We sleep well.
Next stop, 12 hours later: Hyderabad!
Despite some relaxing moments, some beautiful temples, and miraculously clean air (compared to Bangalore anyway), I was happy to be leaving. The experience was tainted by our last day. Believe me, Lonely Planet will be receiving an email about that guesthouse!!!
-Strolling into the "underground temple" where a woman (presumably a guide) encourages us to enter, wading through the dark murky ankle-deep water to explore the inner sanctum. Laura takes one look and (she later tells me) thinks "no bloody way". I figure what the hell. So I find myself wading through dark slimy water into a darker room filled with bats (Laura would have liked that part) darting about. The woman urges me forward and I decide to leave and after a couple of photos, make my way to a lawn sprinkler/hose to scrub my feet, then apply alcohol hand cleanser. Sitting on the lawn waiting for my shoes to dry, I muse whether I'd keep my wading a secret. My mother might kill me ... but I'm too far away for the moment for her to hunt me down with ease.
Laura just shakes her head and thinks I'm an idiot, as did the two travellers who came in behind her while she was waiting.
-My first haircut in India! My hair had been driving me crazy in the heat, so I wandered into the shop near our guesthouse. The scissors snipped around my ears, filling my nostrils with the scent of heavy oil, and the barbers hands felt greasy when they touched my skin. Partway through, two men walk in, grab combs from the table, brush their hair, and leave. Oh yay ... lice and bedbugs! So far so good avoiding lice ... but it was an experience! In the end, the haircut was pretty good ... and cost me $3.