Nov. 8th, 2009

When I left off last time, I was in Mumbai, and slightly overwhelmed and short on sleep and planning to head to Goa for some R&R. The short on sleep is still true (although at least I think my body is in the right timezone), and the slightly overwhelmed remains true. But most of the rest has gone the way all my travelling plans do.

The more I looked, the more fascinating Mumbai got - but I still wanted to leave. Still, I doubt after seeing Mumbai's local railway's I'm going to complain too much about London's again. I doubt even Tokyo residents can complain much - at least they can all fit inside the carriages. Rather than hanging off the outside, or holding on to the roof, or... (No, I didn't try riding in one). Mumbai's art galleries were interesting, with one exhibition where the artist had deliberately left off the faces to draw attention to the body (I found this slightly creepy) but ultimately were art galleries. I spent a nice morning and afternoon on a boat trip to the ruined temples on Elephanta Island (the Elephant in question being a stone one and having been put in a museum elsewhere). Hour long boat rides are always nice and relaxing, and the statues were well worth seeing (but looked as if they should have been painted). I hadn't realised prior to that trip that Shiva Nataraja is literally "Shiva, Lord of the Dance". I suppose destruction does fit dancing if you look at it that way.

Anyway. I already had my ticket out of Mumbai booked when I left. And needed to catch the train. So I left myself plenty of time and decided to walk, occasionally stopping to ask for directions (haven't these people ever heard of street signs?) The normal answer was "Straight. Fifteen minutes." Which I was told for about twenty minutes solid when I asked people. In the end I gave up and took a taxi. (It wasn't straight, but it turned out I was where I thought I was and only five minutes on foot from the station). Which brought me to my first Indian train ride.

Indian trains are packed. Fortunately I'd booked on to the sleeper, which meant we had three rows of bunk beds (each about 5'8" long - certainly a little too short for your 6'2" correspondent) and fairly hard, as all beds in India appeared to be. The train was very noisy until about 11pm when there was quiet to sleep in (and many people did - if only I'd thought to have my blanket or fake-pillow to hand). If I'd been in standard rather than sleeper class, there'd probably have been four people sitting on each of the upper and lower bunks (the compartments are, I think, exactly the same. But I'm travelling by sleeper class as much as possible from here on - especially as seats seem to be in restricted supply.

I arrived in Goa short on sleep. And then had to decide which resort I wanted to go to. And then wondered (not for the first time) what I was going to do for two days on beaches so decided to head to the ruins in Hampi instead of heading to the beach from Margao - especially as most of those heading to any of the beaches seemed to be the backpacking equivalent of Club 18-30. Upending my entire travel plans on ten minutes notice. I love backpacking.

But first I had to do things in Margao. Using my cards to take money out of the bank. I'd been informed by my mother that Lloyds had wanted to talk to me about possible card fraud after I'd used my cards the previous time. So I'd asked her the contact number - and the number she'd given me was incorrect. I'd asked again to confirm it before leaving. She'd got it wrong, so I'd asked her. But I found in Margao that Lloyds bank had cut off my cards on suspicion of card fraud. So I had several near-panicked conversations with the bank staff (who said there was nothing they could do) before running around to try to find an internet cafe to check if my mother had now sent the correct contact number (which she had, thank you) and what Lloyds said I should be calling (something else entirely for random suspicion). I then spent another ten minutes looking for somewhere which did international calls before I could call Lloyds. (Lloyds themselves had both cards stopped in under five minutes). All's well that ends well. But being stuck with extremely limited money and no cards in a strange town with some language barriers is scary to the point that I was working out how to contact the High Commission (or rather the branch in Mumbai). And many thanks to Kate who was also heading to Hampi for staying around to provide moral support simply because it was a scary situation.

I was asked when I did my South American travellog why I didn't mention people - mostly that I'd feel I'd need to ask individuals to mention them (I did in this case). But Backpackers tend to be a type. Almost all quietly confident either that we can deal with most things that will be thrown up by the trip or "Better drowned than duffers". Minimal care for comfort or major appearances (or we'd not be backpacking in the same way) - I've yet to meet a backpacker who wore makeup routinely (and see below for my creature comforts so far this trip - although that's on the extreme side). Hippy-ish tendancies in many many ways. Masses of innate curiosity and a desire both to see and to do. And two general attitudes: don't sweat the small stuff, and we're all in this strange country together so we should at least help each other out if someone needs it. I've seldom seen much active dislike (some people for the Israelis and one breakup) - even if you don't like someone and are in the same hostel you'll be doing other things and one of you will probably be gone within three days (so who cares). Means that most people you meet are interesting, worth talking to, and you're unlikely to meet them again. (The slight schism with the Israelis is that most backpackers don't like disrupting the place - Israelis straight out of the army are much much noisier than anyone else).

Anyway, Kate convinced me to take the overnight bus to Hampi rather than the train. This was probably a mistake - the buss was less comfortable than a Routemaster and the roads were utterly terrible.But still, I'm glad I've done it once even if I don't want a repeat experience. It also meant that my air temperature shower on arriving in Hampi felt utterly decadent.

And now we get back to the local geography. Hampi is the nearest village to Vijayanagara - the capital of a southern Indian Hindu empire that lasted 200 years and was founded as an attempt to hold the Muslim empires of the north back. That most of you haven't heard it shows whether or not it worked. Some utterly superb defensive terrain (natural rocky fortifications), and well built walls - mostly drywall to near Incan standards in three separate rings, combined with its own water source would have made it almost impossible to conquer. Unfortunately the cretin emperor when he was winning a battle using his main army decided to encourage his troops by sending them money by cannon. It would have been cheaper to fire cannister into the back of a tight mass of infantry - without much difference in the results. King captured, army crushed. And about the only reason the Muslim empire didn't follow this up with a Roman level salting of the earth would appear to be the price of salt in central India. The walls (both natural and mundane) are in ruins, the big (20m?) statue of Vishnu (see link below) had its arms broken, the statues round the ceremonial temple were literally defaced, and most of the population removed. But in its heyday, it was clearly incredibly opulent, with masses of wealth and industry. And now it stands as the crushed ruin of what was once a mighty empire (indeed almost all the Portugese trade in India was with this empire - and the Portugese weren't allowed much more of a foothold when it fell). That said, when contemporary accounts have such luxury - and an Emperor who can field more than a million men in an army, most of whom are almost naked and just carrying spears and shields I have ... limited sympathy. (Compare with my comments on Tipoo Sultan next time).

Anyway, after rambling for a couple of days, spending most of the first day with a couple of charming and slightly crazy Englishwomen (hi, Stephi!), and visualising much of how the place must have looked when it was still standing, it was time to move on. And so I booked a train to Mysore. Minor adventures later (including missing a connection due to a delayed train and having to work my way through the Indian railway system and work out how to get a refund, and having to jump off a moving train),. I am now in Mysore. The first thing I did after arriving was had a nice warm shower - which felt absolutely delightful (for those of you keeping score, I'd spent three days out of four sleeping on public transport and no actual warm showers since I've arrived in India). But with three days out of four on public transport, I'm sleeeepy, So more next time.



November 2012

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