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"Hampi, Hampi" (with accompanying bollywood dance arms)

This weekend, Alex and I grasped the holy cow by the horns and embarked on a weekend trip. We decided to go to Hampi, some of the most impressive ruins in India. The place is a world heritage site, and I can see why -not only does Hampi display glorious ancient temples, it encompasses an entire ancient empire - royal compounds, thousands of smaller temples, markets, palaces - it's impossible to see it all. After a rigorous attempt over two days, our guide said we had seen maybe half of it. I think he was being generous. Ok, so I'll start from the beginning.

Hampi was an natural choice for our trip - it's about eight hours away from Bangalore and every India guide ranks it as a must. So, feeling a little tired of dirty, busy Bangalore Alex and I let gave into our traveling urge. Anita, the field trip coordinator and resident sweet heart, helped us with the arrangements - two round-trip tickets for an overnight bus to Hampi. Friday after school, we fed ourselves a big meal, packed up the essentials - clothes, blanket, camera - and headed to the train station for our 11:00pm bus. The train station was overwhelming - rickshaws zooming, buses backing up regardless of the presence of people, porters and travelers shoving their way through the crowd. I felt pretty scared - but it was almost too funny, like a scene from a foreign film, two girls standing, clueless, in a swirl of chaotic movement. We all the different desks to tell us where to go- mainly the just pointed in a vague direction. Indian train stations don't have the convenient light up destination boards that Western travelers are used to. We finally got and inkling of where the train was going to come, so we settled ourselves on a bench to wait.

Not to make racial assumptions, but apparently many Indians can sleep ANYWHERE. And I'm not just referring to the homeless men i have seen sleeping, literally, in the street. The hard, metal benches throughout the station were all covered with people sleeping - women in beautiful saris and men in button down shirts, all napping in the middle of the busy station. The Bangalore station was a great place to people-watch, and if we hadn't been anxiously awaiting our bus, I could have sat happily watching for some time. As our hour of departure neared, we spotted another western girl apparently traveling alone. Whenever we see Western people, we always assume that they are going to be really friendly and as excited to see us as we are to see them. Usually it doesn't turn out that way, but this time it did! Katie is a British girl in Bangalore on a travel/internship program. We discovered we were all going to Hampi on the same bus, so we banded together for mutual protection.

When the bus finally arrived, I was pretty pleased with the accommodations- the train was clean and the reclining seats were fairly comfortable. As we left the city, I predicted a good trip; the bus sped along with little traffic, and driver left the door open, letting a nice breeze flow through the vehicle. I curled up in my blanket and slept for most of the night.

We reached Hospet, the city nearest to Hampi, at about 5:30 - that's when we started to get the feeling that there might be trouble abrew. Rickshaw drivers came on the bus, warning us that we wouldn't being able to stay in Hampi and asking us to remember their names so we could hire them later on to bring us into Hospet. Never really trusting rickshaw drivers, we ignored it. When continued on to Hampi, and got there just before sunrise. We ducked into a small hut lit only by a wood burning oven, over which fresh chai bubbled. We had a drink - I was in such a hurry to get going that I burned my mouth gulping the chai - and headed out into the early morning, bazaar ruins in view. Our new friend Katie hitched up with a group of Indian girls so find accommodations, but Alex and I decided to go first to the ruins - supposedly, they should be seen at sunrise. We found a guide, who tried to charge us 800 ruppees. I asked for his badge, and immediately discovered the price should actually be 500 rps. The man already had clients, so he called another guide to come get us - the man, Hassan, came running out in his houseclothes, toothbrush in mouth, and told us he would take us around in about 5 min. He pointed us towards the main temple, and we walked over without him. We almost walked the wrong way, until a rickshaw driver that had been hounding us pointed us toward the temple - the view was breathtaking. The huge white monument towered over the small dwellings around it, and in the pre-sun light, it looked almost magical. We walked towards it as the sun rose, and got to watch the town open itself up like a lotus - shops rising their shutters, women sweeping, young kids on field trips walking in, all in line, still brushing their teeth as well.

Our guide finally met us looking like a completely different person in western clothes and a baseball cap. He led us up to the entrance of the temple, where cows roamed and women convinced us to buy bananas to feed the elephants. We left our sandals out side, and stepped over the ancient doorway into the main temple complex. It's nearly impossible to describe in words - this is one of those time when a picture's worth a thousand words. Every surface was covered with ornamentation - columns, flagstones, roofs, ceilings. Monkeys scampered across the parapets - Alex fed her banana to a pregnant one, who peeled and ate the fruit with as much grace as any human. We saw the different parts of the temples - the central idol, the lingam, the wedding hall, etc. One of the special qualities of this temple was a small room where the inverted shadow of the tower could be seen inside through a small window that acted as a pin-point camera.

The other people in side the temple made an eclectic mix. We weren't the only Western tourists - there were some other hippie looking tourists, but mostly middle-aged tour bus riders from france- but also so many Indian tourists, from young kids in school groups to older people, come to experience part of their heritage. We also saw many Hindu pilgrims, dressed in orange, with ash and vermillion on their foreheads. While we watched and surreptisiously photographed the women in traditional dress, sweeping the temple - the Indian tourists stared at us, and some even asked to take our pictures. It was bizarre, but fair, i guess, in it's way. Our guide said many of the people who visited the site were from rural areas and might never have seen white or western people before.

After seeing the main temple, we hired a rick and started to see some of the ruins around the complex. We saw a huge statue of a lion-headed incarnation of one of the Gods and another lingam - lingams are natural formations that are supposed to be representative of the Gods in the shape of a penis and vagina, that display the comic power of creation. From there, we drove into the a complex of noble houses in a valley littered with small temples that wealthy families had constructed from the abundant boulders surrounding the buildings. We climbed a tower to get a better view of the valley and saw the coupling of Indian and Islamic architecture in a beautiful domed guard house. Next we visited the Queens' compound - the protected area where the Queens resided when the King was absent. The compound was surrounded by guard towers on each corner, where eunachs watched the women from afar. Officially, the king had two wives, but our guide told us he actually had several hundred wives. They relaxed in a building called the Lotus Mahal, a beautiful two story arched building of which i took about a million pictures.

From their we walked into the Elephant Stables, which were just as beautiful as the Queens' quarters. The stables housed eleven elephants that participated in the holy ceremonies. Each elephant had her own room in which they were chained, loosely, our guide assured us, so that they were able to move around. Each of the rooms had its own decoration on the ceiling and the elephant care givers moved from room to room through little arched doors.

After the Elephant stables, Hassan took us to the Queens' Bath house, which was also incredibly beautiful and intricate, with carved Islamic arches and window boxes extending over what would have been a pool of scented, flower strewn water. Next we visited the palace complex, which had mostly been reduced to foundations. I climbed underground into the King's secret room, where he could converse with his ministers and no sound would escape the stone walls. I was petrified that in the dark halls leading into the open air room i would confront a cobra or some equally slimy and poisonous thing, but luckily, I escaped the King's secret room unscathed. After that, we wandered through the tiny archeological museum in the dark, because the power had stopped working.
Hampi closed at 12pm on saturday because, surprise!, the president of India decided to visit. We were not allowed to stay in the village as we had planned, so our rickshaw driver took us to Hospet. Hospet is icky, it's as dirty and loud as Bangalore, only smaller and surprising less interesting. Due to the president's visit, most of the reasonable hotels were full, so we checked into a more expensive hotel. It was actually fine that we couldn't tour more that day because we were so exhausted from the bus ride that we collapsed onto our beds and spend the rest of the day alternatively eating and sleeping. We also got to watch indian tv for the first time, which was a very interesting experience. Bollywood is more than popular, it's practically all there is.
The next day, we called Hassan and he informed us that we couldn't get back into Hampi untill the late afternoon due, again, to the presence of the president. We lingered in the hotel restaurant which was very pretty - outside, under the trees, alongside a canal. I explored a bit, crossing over two metal planks that constitued a bridge over the canal. I saw women farming, boys herding pigs, and lots of lush, green landscapes. I wish our college could have been out in this beautiful countryside; the area around Hampi felt a lot more like the India I had imagined.
We joined up with Katie at the restaurant, and split a rick with her on the way back to Hampi. Although Hassan had said we could get back in at 3, we were met at the gates by Indian army soldiers, who told us to wait. The other girls settled down to read, but I decided to walk up and down the road a bit. I found a beautiful spot - huge bolders enclosed by trees and sugar cane plants. I could have sat there all day, but it is impossible to be inconspicuous in India - every passing car, rickshaw, motorcycle, and pedestrian had to slow down and stare at me, so I reluctantly moseyed back to the safety of the group.
Finally, the soldiers allowed us in, but now we had no rickshaw! We began walking to the laughs of many of the soldiers and tourists who we passed. What else were we supposed to do? Finally, after walking several km. some western tourists in rickshaws asked their drivers to pick us up. We were very greatful, although we had to hang on the sides in posisitions that, had the rick taken a quick turn, would have guaranteed serious injury. But we finally made it to Hampi again, and met up with Hassan. This time we were taking a tour of the walkable areas. He took us in the opposite directiong from the main temple. We walked along a beautiuful river, met some monkeys, then hitched a boat for the next part of our tour. Wait, did I say boat? I meant basket. On this river, fishermen traditional used "boats" woven from reeds and tar that were probably ten feet in diameter, which could, according to the boat driver, carry 8-10 people. The boat's edge seemed to barely float above the water level, and my but was soon wet. Still, full of 5 people, the baskets were remarkably sturdy and we made it down the river without any problems. We told Hassan the story of Moses in the basket, and he countered with a similar story in Hindu mythology. Along the banks of the river were many temples cut into the rocks, incredible monuments to the individual's devotion to their gods.
As we reached our destination on the river, the driver offered to give us a little spin. He used his paddle to spin the boat around, faster and faster, untill I definitely considered being sick. Then we were pulled out of the boat and led up hill to the next ruins. After resting a bit, we walked on through a gate, where the king would come for festivals. In the gate, a scale would be set up, and the king would give away his weight in gold. I joked that Hampi citizens must have always hoped for a fat king!
Throughout our walk we saw innumerable carvings, collapsing temples, and protective walls. We saw another bazaar - this one, called the courtesan's bazaar. Hassan said this was a false labeling, but that some travellers had reported that Hampi did have a street where courtesans made their business and were supported by the government. As we came upon an empty water tank, our thirst overtook us and Hassan offered to run and get us some from a "nearby" restaurant. He came back sweating, saying he had to run half a km to get it for us. So, we shared the water with him and thanked him for his thoughtfulness.
The next temple had more kama sutra carvings. Throughout our tour, Hassan had been very academic about the carvings - explaining them to us without embarassment. He would simply say, oh, here's lord Vishnu, and here's a women having sex with a horse. So, at this temple, he showed us some women and explained how Indians liked women with very small waists because they are "good for the sex". He then went on to explain that Indian women have lion waists and Korean women have wasp waists. "So, what, Americans have elephant waists right?" I teased him. "We are no good for the sex," I said, shaking my head. Hassan could barely walk straight, he was giggling so hard.
We toured the final temple, then came out through a rocky pass for a sunset view of the main temple of Hampi. It was phenomenal - without any real planning we had done just as the guide books said - see Hampi at sunrise and sunset. We gave Hassan a big hug - I think he touched my butt, but I wasn't sure if it was intentional, and we parted, him much the richer for our big tips.
Katie, Alex and I proceeded on for dinner at the Mango Tree, the only restuarant in Hampi the Lonely Planet had recommended. It was a beautiful walk through the darkening streets of Hampi village, overlooking the river. We then walked through a banana field to the restaurant, which was composed of terraces cut into the cliffs over looking the river. We sat on reed mats in front of stone tables and had some of the best food I've had in India - coconut lassis, coconut and cashew curry and a nutella and banana pancake for desert. Scrumptious!
We reluctantly left the restaurant in order to catch our bus at the Hampi bus stand. On our way we saw what looked like a mongoose with her babies. When we reached the bus area, we were a little concerned to note that there isn't really any place that says bus stand. We began to ask around, and a rickshaw driver told us that the buses still weren't coming to Hampi because of the presiden's visit. We didn't know whether to trust the driver, but since things had been so haphazard and we didn't want to miss our bus home, we allowed him to help us call the help number for the train station. Of course, this being India, no one picked up, so we waited, a bit frantically on my part, untill the time the bus was to arrive. When it failed to, we agreed to let the driver take us back to Hospet, where the bus was supposed to stop before going on to Bangalore. It was a scary drive through the dark streets with only one rickshaw headlight, but we made it back to Hospet. That bus station made the Bangalore one look friendly - no one spoke English at the Inquiry desk - they just said "it's coming" over and over again. So we waited - for hours, with more people staring at us than we had ever experience in Bangalore. Beggars wouldn't leave us a lone, and we had no idea if the bus was coming, had left or what. Finally, Alex decided to call Naveen, the school coordinator, and she spoke with the unwilling inquiries desk in Kannada. They said the bus was delayed but should be there by 11 (our initial departure time had been 8.45). So we waited again, untill a man and wife came over to us and asked us if we were going to Bangalore. We said yes and they informed us that the loudspeaker had just said, in Kannada no less, that the bus had been delayed, we needed to refund our tickets and then they would arrange for another bus to take us all back to Bangalore. The couple was very friendly, and they said we carried ourselves like we had been in India for three years, not three months!
So we took care of the tickets, and the bus finally arrived - but it was a local bus, not a sleeper bus. We squeezed three people in seats big enough for 2 and spent the next eight hours in more discomfort than i would like to remember. The bus constantly lurched and the driver laid on the horn with relish. Alex fell asleep on me, and practically pushed me out of my seat. When I did fall asleep, I had less dreams than hallucinations that were not very restful. When we finally made it to Bangalore, I felt very lucky indeed. The trip was very challenging, but in the end, it was a great experience. Hampi was gorgeous and learning that I could handle all the ups and downs of travelling was invaluable.

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