“All you white people get off the bus!” This is how we awoke when arriving in Hampi around 7am. I rubbed my eyes and sighed as I lifted my heavy MEC pack and nearly ripping Jansport bag off the bus. The sun had just risen and it was already so hot. Although there is nothing more thrilling then backpacking through a country, it is mornings like this one that remind you how hard and tiring it can be sometimes. But the destinations I visit and the people I meet make it all worth it. Like Jack from England, who we met waiting for the bus the night before. It was running just a little late (only 3 hours…) and the five of us sat around chatting travel, food and laughing at the similarities between the two of us, including the fact that we’ve both probably tried every job in the world but can’t seem to find something that makes us as happy as travelling does.
We crossed the Tungabhadra River in a small-motorized boat with about 10 Indians all staring at us as we travelled to Hampi Island. It isn’t tourist season anymore here in India, especially in sticky, sweaty south India, so we were the centre of attention on the boat and when we wandered through the entrance of our chosen guesthouse. Hema Guesthouse is owned by a hilarious and beer bellied man who goes by the name of Funky, which was fun to introduce myself too. Funky and Jazzy - we sound like a 60’s duo band. The guesthouse is an ensemble of about 15 small cottages, each containing one double bed, a small shelving unit and a bathroom. The restaurant sits at the end of the row of cottages and it can probably accommodate about 50 people. All seating is on comfy cushions on the ground with large rectangular tables. The restaurant was closed due to the end of the season but somehow they always had beer and coffee available whenever we asked.
I couldn’t control my excitement when we decided to rent motorbikes for the day to cruise around Hampi. After having Chacha teach me how to drive one in Pushkar back in March, when Ali and I visited before Holi, I couldn’t wait to put my skills on the road. Petal to the metal (except I could only get the bike to go about 60 km/h). With the wind in my hair, an open road surrounded by ancient ruins and monuments and huge clay coloured boulders like I’ve never seen before, I felt like I was in a mix of South America, New Mexico and Texas.
We stopped at Hanuman Temple, the monkey God temple, and climbed the 572 steps to the top in the blistering mid-day heat. The view at the top was well worth it though while listening to an on-going prayer. The hill is believed to be the birthplace of Hanuman therefore it is extremely sacred and many journey up the 572 steps each day to pray. A few men actually live in the temple doing the daily blessings, which include singing for long intervals of time (sometimes hours)! The sights were incredible and my mother and aunt got to experience a community meal of rice and lentils in the temple.
The landscape in Hampi is so different from every destination I’ve been to in the south so far. Mumbai, a big city with a mix of modern and ancient architecture with a salty sea breeze; Palolem, a beach town outlined in white sand, curvy roads and homes painted in bright colors; and then Bangalore, a huge metropolis that feels like Toronto. Everyone speaks English, the buildings are tall and modern, coffee shops sit at most corners, women wear short shorts and Dolce & Gabbana glasses, restaurants are serving up microbrews and beef burgers, and there are plenty of talented tattoo artists. I know that last one first hand since I’m writing the first half of this while staring at my mother who is laying side ways in a body chair as Veer, at Eternal Expression Tattoo, permanently marks her upper left arm with sharp black lines outlining an abstract elephant surrounded by beautiful water colour brush strokes of pink, blue, purple and yellow. My aunt and I sat to watch Veer do his thing while taking breaks at Monkey Bar next door, a super hip resto-pub with a décor of both old fashioned ad posters and written on coasters, and a menu of the most delicious curries, South Indian items and pub grub. I went to town on a coconut curry while dipping my fingers in my aunt’s paneer burger dish. Unfortunately the tattoo appointment ended in panic as we rushed to make our 8pm train to Cochi at 7:40pm in the crazy, Bangalore traffic. We rushed a goodbye with our Jack, who was setting off to Goa on his own, and sat in the back of our cab with hearts pounding, trying to avoid even thinking of a back-up plan for getting to Cochi the next morning. We needed to make that train!
We jumped out of the cab at 8:01pm, with my aunt dragging a little behind as my mother had forgotten a bag in the trunk. I ran into the station first, my eyes frantically searching for a sign with our train number. I saw nothing. I asked a policewoman in ears reach what the status of our train was. She flicked her right arm in the air while making a clicking sound, the Indian way of saying “ya missed it, kid!” I let out a defeated sigh and turned to stare into my mother and aunt’s fearful faces. “We missed it…” we all kicked rocks and cursed but something inside of me had a little smidgen of hope. I thought to myself this is India, nothing is on time. “You know what…follow me”. I waved my arm at them and approached the platform stairs. In the corner of my eye on a small screen, our train number was lite up in red with track number 3 written beside it. I let out a shriek. “HURRY!” I ran up the stairs, glancing behind as I reached the top to make sure they were following. As I ran to descend the stairs of platform 2 and 3, I looked over to see my mother helping my struggling aunt with her oversized and ill fitted backpack. “RUN RUN RUN!” They chased after me and we ran down to the train. It was already moving; only 5 carts were left on the platform! Once we were all together and mentally prepared, I took to the three small metal steps and launched myself onto the train. My mother followed suit, finding herself then stuck in the doorway with her massive green backpack and then my aunt, who stared up at us near tears as she tried to launch herself into the train but slowly began falling backwards from the weight of her backpack. A sweet Indian man, who was also in the same situation, gave her a massive shove then jumped on behind her. We were safe. We made it. I walked us to our cart where we sat to catch our breath and laugh for a good half an hour, all imagining what my aunt would have done if she hadn’t made it. Thank goodness for that Indian man otherwise she would have paid some ridiculous price for a cab to the airport, since she is horrible at haggling, and would have met us in Kerala via plane. What a night. This was all followed by horrible sleeps on upper bunks in sleeper class; my aunt and mother lying with bad backs on shitty, thin mattresses and myself spooning with a cockroach.
Unsure of where to go when we jumped off the train in Kerala, I opened my Lonely Planet and found the only spot open at 8:30am. We jumped in a tuk-tuk with our 800 bags and rocked with the bumpy road from Ernakulam to Fort Cochi. Crossing the bridge into Fort Cochi, you instantly enter the most adorable little town painted with pastels, cruise along smooth two lane roads and pass pretty flowers and beautiful grand churches. The south west of India is extremely Catholic. A young boy actually shouted out to us “find Jesus”…something I never thought I’d hear in India. When we jumped out in front of Kashi Art Café and dragged our bags in, the friendliest smiles and the coolest atmosphere greeted us. The café is also a gallery with tons of sculptures, art installations at the front entrance and cool paintings on the walls. Smelly and gross after a day in Bangalore and a disturbed slumber on the train, all thoughts of hygiene were waved when the smell of delicious coffee (REAL COFFEE) filled our noses and our incredible breakfast items of fresh fruit, muesli, cinnamon French toast and a thick omelet filled with cheese, mushrooms and spinach were placed on the table in front of us. After a luxurious breakfast and having had to put up with my 22-year-old cheap travel and accommodation choices, my mother and aunt made an executive decision to hire a cab to take us to Alleppey (which was PURE luxury for me). The hour and a half drive was so beautiful, as we cruised down Beach Road in an air conditioned Sudan passing Chinese fishing nets, pink houses and huge, modern looking churches.
I jumped out of the cab when we reached our guesthouse of choice for the two-day stay in Alleppey: Mandala Guest House. Before unloading, I checked out the room. As I walked up the steps of our beach view option, to my right in the tree house-styled hangout area was Jack from our bus to Hampi. India is seriously a small world for travellers. I am constantly running into people that I’ve met from all the major tourist destinations. Our room at Mandala Beach House was a little grimy but we took it anyways as it was the cheapest we’d found. The previous guests had just checked out so we tossed our bags down, threw on our bathing suits and sat out on the front porch while they cleaned our room and we sipped Kingfishers. By evening Jack had somehow become part of our group and we had officially gotten rid of one Jack and picked up another. We’d been Jacked! The four of us sat around at a local restaurant on the beach feasting on delicious Indian dishes, tossing back beers, myself challenging Jack to a hot pepper eating contest and engaging in two very hilarious conversations with very drunk Indian men. One was so drunk he was sleeping when we arrived and kicked out just before we left.
Our backwaters cruise the next day was the most relaxing and scenic little adventure. A private boat for four was actually quite cheap but we had to do a minimum of a four-hour cruise, and after 15 beers at the restaurant the night before, we all napped at some point during the ride. The backwaters of Alleppey are a must when travelling through Kerala. The sounds of different tropical birds, women beating their laundry against huge washing stones, the call the fish sellers make as they row from house to house, mixed with the sight of rice patty fields, pastel coloured homes, fully bloomed flowers and gigantic palm trees; it is the most relaxing and beautiful boat tour you will ever do. I would definitely recommend sleeping on a houseboat as well. We chose not to due to price but my goodness, they look incredible. The rest of the afternoon was spent swimming, or getting knocked out, by the massive waves along the beach at our guesthouse. The waves were so violent they stole my jewelry and left me bruised. I am not joking.
We spent the last day back in Cochi, where we enjoyed a delicious dinner of momos and Tibetan bread at the Tibetan Chef and watched a traditional Kathakali dance performance, which was extremely weird but seriously fascinating. The art form uses eye and hand movements to tell stories, making it extremely hard to understand if you don’t know it very well (which most don’t since even the performers have to study it for 6 years before performing). The makeup is incredible though and was fascinating to watch them apply before the show commenced.
Our last morning together (we had ditched all Jacks by this point) was spent at Kashi’s again, indulging in their incredible breakfast dishes, followed by last minute shopping for gifts and sparkly things that caught our eyes. As I walked my mother and aunt to the bus stop, with their 10 bags filled with pashminas, rings, harem pants, shoes and books, all our eyes filled with tears. It was hard enough to say goodbye the first time, now another goodbye unsure of the next time we will meet again? Oh boy. The moment the doors to the bus shut and it began to pull away, tears pooled in the corner of my eyes while staring into my mothers already sobbing face.
It’s funny; I haven’t even started to feel remotely homesick since I left in January. There are very few things that would make me want to return to Canada right now and my mothers sad eyes as she says goodbye to her “baby girl” again is one of them.
Today I am off on a 50-hour train ride back home to Bikaner. I have gained another bag, more weight in my MEC pack, a French press (!!) and a new pocket of memories in my already jam packed brain. What an adventure the last two weeks have been. The south of India could steal your heart but break it if you have to say goodbye to a loved one again.
Thank you India for again exceeding all expectations and filling the hearts of newcomers. I adore you.