time to come home

After Hampi, aware we were fast running out of time, we decided we needed one last town, before the bustle of Bangalore and the madness of Kolkata.  A new friend had recommended Gokarna, so we tooka train to Hubli, then jumped on a local bus to Gokarna.  Or actually to a nearby town, changed buses, then Gorkarna.  The whole day took about twelve hours.  Incredibly rocky roads, a soviet era bus with absolutely no suspension and a cowboy for a driver.  During the drive, we were doubting our decision and rubbing our necks.  But, as is often the case in India, it’s not the journey, it’s the destination that counts!

Gokarna (or Gokarn as most signs seem to say) is a small beachside town in Karnataka.  We didn’t know until we arrived, but a major festival was just beginning – huge chariots (2 storeys high) waited on the main street – after we left, they would be pulled along the main street, pelted with bananas, carrying gods.  As the festival got into full swing, we were kind of glad to miss the crescendo – it was getting more and more crowded and hectic, and it kind of didn’t feel like our place.  I still feel odd entering temples – I don’t share the belief (especially now!), so I feel a little like a trespasser (albeit welcomed).

Kudle Beach, Gokarna
Kudle Beach, Gokarna

Gokarna, too, is on the threshold of irreversible tourist-led chnange.  The beaches to the south of town are quickly becoming populated by guest houses, restaurants selling pizzas and pancakes and beer, women in bikinis facing the sunset doing yoga gyrations, young hopeful local boys selling necklaces… Not surprising, really – the intimate little coves are idyllic, the water (for India) crisp and blue-ish, the countryside green and pulsing with life.  The Goa of the future?   Still, the town itself has an incredibly strong and independant energy – a tangible spiritual intent, will, hope.  Even the sadhus seem genuine.  So, there may be hope for Gokarn.  Time will tell.

Tragically common sight, Gokarna
Tragically common sight, Gokarna

My last India post will be soon.  As I write now, it’s my last day here.  The relentless, smog-hazed Kolkata sun is setting, the internet cafe is crowded, another thali calls from Park Street somewhere.  My flight leaves in about 15 hours.  Rachael is already on her way home, via Thailand.  I miss her, the home we share, my friends, the drought and fire ravaged place that is deep inside me.  Next post will be Bangalore and some reflections, maybe even some photos (yes, 21st century slide night!)…

new india tourism slogans

In Hampi, Rachael and I decided it would be a good idea to rent bicycles for a day, ride to a nearby village and back.  For reasons which will soon become apparent, on the way back, Rachael said the day was “a bit traumatic but interesting”.  That has now become our unofficial new tourism slogan for India.  I can see the advertisements now.  Incredible India just doesn’t capture it.  The other slogan we accidentally came up with is, “it gets hot and everything smells of poo”, but that’s got even less chance of getting up.

Anyway, Hampi.  We took an overnight bus from Hyderabad, ironically named a “sleeper bus”.  Someone must have slept, because there was snoring, but we didn’t really.  Still, fascinating to see the arid, red-earthed Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka countryside up close, even in a daze.  We stop at village chai stalls under moonlight – men smoke and drink chai, throw their plastic cups on the road, half the bus pisses next to it, stray dogs wander around us, sniffing.

Approaching Hampi is jaw-dropping.  Impossibly balanced arrangements of boulders rise up from the hills, hugging clusters of temples from around the 15th century, surrounded by vast fields of rice and coconut palms.  In a way, the terrain reminds me of the outback, but its also somehow tropical and lush.  Not surprising that temples are built, as responses to the place itself – very human attempts to concretise something hinted at in stone.  A guide we had at Konark quoted Tagore saying “the language of stones defeats the language of men”, referring to the Sun Temple, but here it is entirely accurate.  A few photos for proof…

 

Hampi's boulders and rice-fields
Hampi's boulders and rice-fields

 

Brooding Hampi monkey
Brooding Hampi monkey

 

Temple built into and from stone...
Temple built into and from stone...

 

Lotus Mahal, Hampi
Lotus Mahal, Hampi

 

 

 

 

 

So, partly because of the torpor-inducing heat, but mostly because of its seductive and haunting beauty, we stayed in Hampi for about a week.  Just to mention – if you’re planning on going, I’d recommend staying on the other side of the river – it’s quieter and less touristy, though in Hampi, it’s all a bit touristy.  It captures perfectlly the dilemma of tourism – a beautiful place draws people who can afford to come, the locals in their desperate poverty flock to sell souvenirs and rickshaw tours and familiar food, and the whole dynamic can feel unavoidably tainted.  On our bike ride, as soon as we arrived, we had children run up to us, begging to be given pens or bags for school, or chocolate.  A reflex action.

If you stay on the other side, avoid Mowgli.  Stay somewhere more intimate and personal, less of a business, if you know what I mean.  If you feel you want the manic energy of the bazaar side, I’d recommend Vishnu Guest House.  Beautiful people, simple basic clean rooms, and almost quiet!

Hampi was very nice to us.  We met some lovely fellow travellers, people we had real affinities with.  We took way too many photos.  But who could blame us?  Boulders created by sheer erosion, shaped in ways modernist sculptors would be jealous of.  Ochre earth, vivid greens, the sounds of frogs, and the sight of kingfishers, cows, oxen, and humans in all their ragged, absurd behaviours.  So many little stories…

 

A friendly army man at "Mango Tree" restaurant
A friendly army man at "Mango Tree" restaurant

 

The things you can fit on a ferryboat...
The things you can fit on a ferryboat...

 

Homes built into the ruins, Hampi
Homes built into the ruins, Hampi

yes, I am a tourist

In Puri, on the Orissan coast, we met a British writer by the name of Mark Engineer.  Among so many things we talked about with him, he responded to an off-hand remark of mine, that “Andy, you’re a tourist, too”.  It lodged into my head.

Most of us like to think we’re travellers or some such, but that’s a euphemism – tourist it says on the passport, tourist I am.  It is, I feel, impossible to just waltz (or classical dance) into India and become part of it, or even to engage in instant cultural and social exchange.  And, in Puri, that gap is really obvious.

Puri was a hangout for the India-seeking hippies in the 70s, and a lot of them have either returned, or have just stayed on.  In the backpacker suburb, there are lots of little shops and stalls, selling what the locals believe the tourists will want, in a kind of echo chamber of mass-produced authenticity and spiritual consumerism.

Orissa is intensely religious, visibly and audibly so.  Driving through Puri and surrounding towns, there is always a public ceremony, a procession of devotees and musicians, raucous singing and trumpets, clouds of incense (alongside the fumes and traffic and cows and rubbish of course!).  Much more so than West Bengal, it seems religion is mingled in with everyday life, as well as the cultural (architecture, craft, music…) – Orissans are deeply connected with their heritage.  Of course, in many ways, in the tourist areas, they’re trying to sell it to us, but it persists with its own manic and irrepressible energy.

Puri beach - sari swimwear, icon dunking, fishing boats...
Puri beach - sari swimwear, icon dunking, fishing boats...

We stayed at the Hotel Derby, near the beach (which, by the way, is pretty polluted, rubbished and full of people wanting to sell you camel rides or “pearls”, but such a relief for Australian bodies to feel waves!).  It’s run by a kind of extended family, all a little bit misfit, genuine, calm, friendly people.  One night, we sat around in the evening heat, swatting mosquitoes, while one of the young men who worked there played us his favourite tunes on his mobile phone; and a man in his 40-s who walked the breadth of the town selling samosas and sweets for about 40 rupees a day to feed his family sat with us quietly, trying to communicate with Orissan, broken English and gestures.  Two Australians, a Brit, and two French, and two locals, meeting and yet not.

They don’t mention it in the Lonely Planet, but Xanadu, a great little restaurant in Puri, has the most astounding waiters.  Boys who are ten at the oldest greet you as you come in, lead you by the hand to your table, “another beer, sir?”, “you come in for breakfast tomorrow?”, all with more swagger and confidence than most adults.  At one point, one of them came out with a huge block of ice on his hand.  Bemused, we eventually worked out he just wanted to show it to us.  Yes, childhood is almost bypassed in India.  Almost, not quite.  I’ve seen so much world-weariness and stoic strength in the deep faces of children here, it’s unnerving.  Then, you also see kids giggling and playing in the dust or in the gutter.

The dogs, too, here stunned us.  On our first night, one approached straight away, wagging her tail, asking for food, nudging the backs of our legs in anticipation.  Normally in India, the human and dog cultures are separate, parallels.  Here, we suspect due to tourism, the dogs expect interaction and feeding, the kind of symbiosis they don’t get elsewhere, relationships which seem almost ancient.  They still live such marginal, starving, precarious lives.  After a few days, on the road the leads to our hotel, we saw a scrawny pup lying motionless, dead.  The flies started to gather.  A day and a half later he was gone, taken (we were told) by a government truck.

When I get my next chance, I’ll tell you about the Sun Temple at Konark, and the complexity of Hyderabad…