Thursday, March 3, 2011

Back on the Road and heading South

Greetings! I am currently in Alappuzha/Alleppy, after a few final days of climbing and a long train journey. I'm a bit tired and experiencing my first mild case of 'Delhi-belly' but still in good spirits and looking forward to everything I still have ahead of me.

I ended up breaking from the usual climbing schedule and sat down to do some planning. I try to do a minimum of planning, but every once in a while you have to sit down with a calender and see what exactly is going on. I had a lazy morning writing for the blog, planning a bit and relaxing with some good food.

In the early afternoon, the heat of the day really, I headed out with three other folks to do some temple explorin', so we headed across the river and went for a walk. I'd already seen everything we were going to visit, but I didn't mind going for another look.

Due to the 250 rupee price and the fact I didn't find it all that impressive last time we skipped the one temple you have to pay for and instead went on the free walking tour. We wandered the ruins for about two hours before heading back to 'our side' of the river, haha.

In the afternoon, I resumed the normal climbing schedule, and went out for the evening climb. This time we headed to Little Cave, a spot with a number of excellent routes and one I particularly like because it has a number at my level. As usual, the group was large and we all had a great time climbing in the setting sun.

I'm no yoga master (I wish I had time for two weeks in an ashram here in India, but I don't...) but here I am doing the 'tree pose' after climbing one of the boulders at Little Cave. Most of the group stayed here until it was dark, then we moved on.

Rather than turning in for the day, we returned to TV Boulder to continue climbing by headlamp. Most of us were fairly tired by this point so it was more hanging out than climbing (plus these routes are all above my abilities) but even when you are not climbing, just laying out under the stairs between the boulders is wonderful.

The next morning a number of us were excited for 'The Big Event'. Two of the best climbers in Hampi at the moment, Luis and ….oh shoot, I'm blanking on his name right now... oops, anyways, they were going to doing make their major attempts at one of the very difficult routes here, a 7c. They had been planning, practicing and thinking about it for days and were both very serious about making the climb this morning. A small crowd gathered to watch, spot and photograph and cheer them on. With all of us watching, both climbers blasted up the short but extremely difficult route, making it look easy. Let me just say it is a lot of fun watching good climbers and seeing these two climb was a treat. Pumped from his success, Luis went on to another boulder near Cosmic Cave (I think I called it 'Crystal Cave' in another post, oops) and totally flashed another overhanging 7c route which I photographed for him, again making it look easy.

Once I was done ogling other climbers, I rejoined the main group at a different spot to climb some routes more at my level. These groups are really fun, because random people just drop in saying how they had just gotten into town, and right away others toss shoes their way and send them up routes. It's a great way to meet new people, the community is really open and supportive and every day you get to test yourself, have new successes and enjoy watching the success of other climbers.

During the previous night at the boulder, I had looked for my headlamp only to find the 'gadget bag' was not in my backpack. I'd thought maybe it was back at my room, but when I returned to my room I realized it was not there either and it was probably lost for good. I thought about it for a bit, and remembered where I'd likely left it. Yesterday, we had sat down to have a break in the shade of a cactus, and I dug into my bag to pull out some bananas. They had gotten smashed, and I'd pulled things out of my bag to clean it up, turns out I forgot to put that little bag back in my backpack.

I gave my bag to someone at the ferry and swam across the river (because it was hot out and to save 15 rupees! Swimming across the river has become my normal method of crossing, and a lot of fun!) and returned to that same spot. I found the 'gadget bag' alright, but it was totally empty. What I ended up losing was my nice Petzel headlamp, the Swiss Army knife I've had since I was a kid, my malaria medicine, my camera battery charger, my eye mask, ear plugs, spare batteries, whistle, hand sanitizer, chapstick and probably one or two more things I've forgotten. It was my first real loss of the trip (I left a towel behind in the Philippines) and I was pretty bummed. It will cost me more than $150 to replace I all....

Returning to the hangout spot (the Tibetan Kitchen) I met up with some friends, told them of my misfortune and we were about to set off on a mission to get some ice cream, but that got called off because of the setting sun. Oh well. I had a relaxed evening watching a movie (The Black Swan) on my laptop and laying about my room. Nothing special.

I slept in a little 'late', 7am and set off for the morning climbing session, but either everyone was taking a day off or had headed to an area I was unable to find. Despite this and the fact I had no chalk or crash mats, I made the best of it. I climbed atop the 'Eye Boulder' and spent about 45 minute stretching during sunrise, which let me tell you, is a nice way to wake up. After a few runs on that boulder including a new route for me, I headed off to another boulder, where I managed two more firsts for me before heading back in during the heat of the day.

At this point I was looking at the calender and realizing I needed to get moving. I'd talked about spending a few more days in Hampi, then heading to Badami (sp?) with the crew for more rock climbing, sport climbing (ropes) rather than bouldering, but I realized this wasn't realistic with my schedule. I went to the booking agents, and bought two train tickets heading south the next day.

After the evening climbing session, a few of us were excited to see a movie called 'Pilgrimage,' which is the rock climbing movie that put Hampi on the map as a top bouldering spot in the world. However, earlier in the day one of our fellow climbers, Palou, had taken a fall at Barry's Boulder which resulted in torn ligaments in her knee, putting her in a poorly constructed cast at the local insurance scam hospital, and a lot of pain. I didn't go to the hospital, but it was at the level where they had blood-stained gloves hanging to dry and be reused in the window... Because of this, we held off watching the movie until it could be done at a place that would require the minimum of movement for her, and watched a different movie on Trevor’s laptop.

In the morning I had another solo climb for my last bit here at Hampi, and thanks to borrowing a pair of shoes that actually had intact toes (instead of my 'free rental' shoes where both toes were visible) from Trevor I was able to have a few more firsts, which allowed me to leave Hampi with some feeling of accomplishment.

This photo is just of an insect with the tallest boulder hill in the background. These bugs are pretty interesting, I don't know the name, but they are large, fly very loudly, and chew holes and make homes in dead bamboo.

I had a goodbye lunch with Trevor and Larissa, took the boat across the river (I was going to be a few days till I was able to shower again and I wanted to stay clean and fresh for the train rides ahead so I didn't swim) and took the public bus to Hospet, the transportation hub in the area.

I had a few hours to kill in Hospet before my train arrived and the first thing I did was try to find a new charger for my camera to ensure I'd be able to keep taking pictures on the trip. The shop I found didn't have it in ('tomorrow') so I kept going, searching out a shave. I asked the price of a shave, and he said 40 rupees. I know this is already about twice what Indians pay (15-20 rupees), but it's still less than $1 so I said OK. Once he had shaved me, he tried to get even more money out of me for the normally included aftershave moisturizers and whatnot. Knowing better, I told him that I knew he was trying to rip me of and that I was unhappy about it. He of course pretended he didn't understand and I ended up leaving in a bit of a bad mood.

I know it's not a lot of money, but I'm really starting to get sick of nearly EVERYONE trying to rip me off because I am a western tourist. From my own research talking to Indians, when prices are not written down and the same for everyone, us tourists can usually expect to pay at least double for services, and sometimes 4-10 times more. It's the same buying goods in the markets, sigh... In most cases the Indian people have been very friendly and welcoming, but so many venders seem to make it their mission to rip off tourists off as much as possible, and it's getting on my nerves...

After reading my book for a while and talking to a crowd of locals who came up to me with all the usual questions (Name, country, married?) I got on the overnight train ride to Bangalore. This time I rode in the Sleeper Class, which I understand is how most locals travel. This is the non-AC car, where you get a fold-out bed without blankets or a pillow and no services such as food. To me it is a perfectly fine way to travel, and everyone was friendly.

The car was all locals except for an older French couple, and I took my seat next to this group of men. Having not rode Sleeper class before, I inquired about food sales, and right away one of the men offered to share their dinner with me. This is the kind of hospitality that India is known for, and has been almost the norm. Right after the barber rips you off, something like this happens and makes it all better again, haha. After eating, I talked to a group of Indian students for a while and went to sleep in my cloths using my bag as a pillow. It wasn't very comfortable, but it worked just fine.

At 6am, well before sunrise I arrived in Bangalore, which was just a transit hub for me. My next train left at 9:40pm, giving me a day to kill in Indians technology centered city. Looking at a map, I walked towards Cubbon Park, thinking it would be a nice place to relax and read for a bit. On my way I passed “Freedom Park” where ironically you are not allowed to eat, drink, smoke, bike, walk on the lawn or 'play' haha... I found Cubbon Park which was quite large but not all that nice, and passed through to the other side.

What I ended up finding on the other side after a bit more walking was a large soccer stadium, and something that really caught my eye, a large climbing wall! I stood and watched the locals climbing (none were very good to be honest, and only two even had actual rock climbing shoes) for a few minutes, when the leader of the group approached me. He told me about the wall and the program, and I inquired about a good place for breakfast. Before I knew it I was on the back of a scooter flying through Bangalore traffic to some local restaurant, where I had a tasty dosa and went on my way wandering.

Just like every city in America seems to have a road named after Martin Luther King (usually in the ghetto), every city in India has one named after Mahatma Gandhi. Rather ironically, this area is also the center of the Indian Army in Bangalore from what I could tell. Recruitment centers, officer quarters, parade grounds and posters littered the area, giving me a good chuckle. I've had a few brief talks with locals about the Indian Army and issues around it, and while all espouse a 'live and let live' attitude, some of the venom I've heard towards Pakistan (and I guess I expected it) has been pretty harsh. I think I've heard that 'Pakistan is all terrorists' more than once.

I guess this is the downtown area of Bangalore? I was a little confused to be honest. Judging by my maps I was in the heart of the downtown, but looking up at just a small handful of large modern buildings confused me. This city is the center of the technology industry in India, I believe it is the most educated state in the country, and the city of 5.7 million people. With all this, I expected the core of the city to be much larger and more modern. The downtown area seemed smaller than Seattle, which only has half a million people! Given my experience in Delhi and Mumbai, I expected Bangalore to look and feel MUCH larger than it did. I can report it wasn't as dirty or noisy as the previously mentioned cities which was nice, and the green space was a nice touch. Oh, and despite the cities technology reputation, my Tata 'wireless broadband' was still crawling. I'm wondering if something is wrong with it?

Another thing I noticed about Bangalore is that it seemed to have more of a preoccupation with America and the West. It seemed to have even more western shops than other cities, as well as stores called “USA Piazza”, “Stars & Stripes”, “American Corner” a fake 'Radio Shack' and a 'Jimi Hendrix' bar.

I spent the next few hours trying to replace the items I'd lost in Hampi, starting with the camera charger. After visiting a few shops and getting a 'no', I found a cellphone shop that could get it for me in 'one hour'. That's the way things work out here, often times they don't stock a lot, but when you ask for it, they can call their buddies and have one brought out if you are able to wait. I ended up paying 1400 rupees for the charger, the best I could due after shopping around. Next was a headlamp, and after a few hours I've decided no such thing exists in the state of Karnataka. I mentioned I was looking for one in Hampi to someone, and they said they had looked for hours with no luck and I did the same.

I ended up going into the 'City Market' area, which is a pretty interesting system of commerce. Rather than something like a mall or superstore like we have in the states, the City Market is more like a neighborhood of shops. Each shop is usually a tiny room with one side open to the street, and goods are piled high in unorganized looking shelves. I knew it wasn't exactly what I was looking for, but I went to the electrical/lighting streets, and began my hunt. I passed probably 60 different shops next door to each other, that sold nothing but light switches, light sockets, light fixtures and light bulbs. Each shop seems nearly identical, and some are down back alleys just a few feet wide. In a situation like this, how does anyone stand out? How do you pick one shop from another? How do they all stay in business? It was all very strange to me.

After a long time looking, I began to find some flashlights, but no headlamps. I finally found the kind of light I was looking for (a small AAA flashlight, since headlamps were out of the question at this point) but the shop owner wanted 320 rupees for it! It was the kind of junk light you can buy for $2 in the states, so I said no and left. Having almost given up, I kept walking and got a pineapple juice. Looking across the street, I saw one more place to check, and he had the same kind of lights as the previous guy who'd tried to rip me off. He Wanted just 120 rupees for what the last guy wanted 320 for, and had a slightly larger one for 250. I ended up getting the larger one for 220 rupees, and while it was no true replacement for my lost Petzel headlamp, I was reasonably satisfied.

As I was leaving the Market, I noticed this man sitting in the street drawing Hanuman in chalk. I had plenty of time to kill, so I sat down and watched for a while. Naturally as I arrived he pulled up his pants to show how crippled he was, missing a foot above the ankle and missing all his toes on the other. His hands were stiff, with mangled and missing fingers making it difficult to hold his pipe or the chalk. I don't know if the guy was mentally ill or just on drugs, but he was frequently giving crazy eyes, and rolling around the street laughing, As I sat there, a small crowd of locals began to gather, and the artists friend and I chatted. He left for a minute to get tea, which he offered to me as well as the marijuana pipe that was being smoked openly on the street. I assume he was just to butter me up in hopes of getting more of money out of me and while I passed on the pipe I took the tea. Maybe that's why I'm sick now, haha... I stayed a bit longer watching him draw, handed over a few rupees (which lead to another fit of laughing and rolling on the ground) and headed off to the train station.

I killed more time reading my book at the station and boarded the overnight to Ernakulam, Sleeper class again. It was late, I was tired, and luckily I had the top bunk so I was able to climb right up, lay down and try to sleep. The ride was quite uneventful, as I was uncomfortably asleep for most of it.

I arrived in Ernakulam in the morning, which wasn't exactly where I'd wanted to get. Due to my desire to leave Hampi as soon as possible (just because I needed to keep moving, not because I wanted to leave!) I found myself here, and after talking to the ticket counter bought a ticket for 24 rupees for the 60km ride that would take me to Alleppy, where I was actually trying to get to. Riding in the day is nice, because you can actually see the country you are passing through, and this is a particularly green part of India.

On the ride I met a few other Indian students and we talked for a little while about what I was doing. They were very friendly and helped me get off at the right place and also got me on the right bus into town.

My plan for Alleppy was to meet some other travelers and join them in renting a houseboat for a night or two, cursing the famous Kerala backwaters. I arrived and while I saw the boats, the water and the agency’s to book tours, I was having a hell of a time finding other travelers. I saw two my age and said hi, but they didn't offer much in return so I kept looking. I walked around until I found a room for just 150 rupees, then wandered the streets in search of new traveler friends. It was much harder than I expected. All night, I saw just a handful, and even fewer that were under 40. I was starting to feel like maybe my 'go somewhere and figure it out' thing wasn't working so well this time, it's usually perfect! I ate lunch in a little local shop with no menu and no English skills, they just brought me what they had which was good, and after dinner I retired to my room to spend some time on the computer writing and planning.

That is where it stands now. I'm still looking for people to share a boat with since I don't really want to do it alone, and I'm thinking about renting a motorbike and riding around for a few days maybe visiting a wildlife sanctuary. Today I bought a train ticket on the Himsagar Express on the 11th, the longest train ride in India. It goes from the very southern tip of the country at Kanyakumari, 3700km, 68 stops, and 75 hours north, to Jammu Tawi at the base of the Himalayan mountain range! It's going to be one heck of a train ride! That is, assuming they place I bought it from gets me the right ticket, they were a little confused... one again, cross your fingers!