Saturday, February 26, 2011

Hampi, One of the Best Yet

Ok, a little more reflection first. After passing the three month mark, I have one or two months left. I'm hoping I can stretch it and get that second month, but it's not a sure thing yet. My Indian visa expires in just over a month and I have so much I still want to see! I'm starting to see the finish line of this trip and it's a sobering feeling. Everything has been so wonderful out here that it's easy to never want to stop, 5 months will never feel like enough. I am looking forward to returning to Seattle however, because it is the city I love and I think I will return with a renewed energy and focus. So beginning to see the end of this trip isn't such a bad thing after all ;)

In the morning, I awoke from my shack, and I do mean shack. It was made of bamboo and corrugated sheet metal, without a real door and no light. At least it was cheap! A better room opened up, I took that and have been there for the last few nights. I decided to have a lazy day, so I loaded up my day bag with water, a book and my towel and headed down to the river.

I walked along the bank and went for a quick swim, circling some of the water-carved boulders and admiring their incredible shapes. It was about noon by this time, and I needed to find a spot in the shade to read. After some wandering, I finally found a good spot behind a boulder, and hid from the sun to read. I had picked up The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo from the guesthouse, simply out of name recognition and gave it a try. Maybe it was over-hyped, but I was not all that impressed. I've read a few thrillers on this trip and it didn't seem all that special to me. That said, I still read the 500 pages in two days. Sitting out for that long was really wonderful. As I read, I just sat and listened to the sounds around me. From my spot behind the boulder, I could listen to many different birds, the sound of the woman washing cloths on the other bank, the outboard from the ferry, men bathing in the river (they giggle a lot), drums and chanting from the temples beyond, a wedding procession with a marching band and the sound of cows and goats walking through the brush. A nice way to experience a new place.

The next morning I got up at 7am, took the ferry across the river (15 rupees), got breakfast (75 rupees) and rented a bicycle for the day (40 rupees). My first stop was the Virupaksha Temple, the tallest structure in the center of town. I went in through a side entrance, which I was to later understand meant I skipped the entry free of a few rupees and the 50 rupee fee for taking pictures. As I was there, Lakshmi the temple elephant arrived through the same entrance I came in from, and I watched the trainer give it commands to stand on its hind legs, and touch Indians on the head for a blessing.

Hapmi, much like the Angkor Wat area in Cambodia, is just littered with amazing ruins. You can walk for hours among the boulders and temples, never seeing the same thing twice. Because I had already seen some of the area with my Swedish friends earlier, I had a list of what was left and set off.

I walked along the river on the trail to the Vittala Temple, and this partly split boulder was on the way. Seeing how much stone is used on some of these structures is pretty amazing, and to see how the boulders were cut was pretty interesting.

This is the main entrance to the Vittala Temple, and unlike most of the ruins around here it costs a bit of money. If you are Indian, it is only 10 rupees, but if you are a non-Indian tourist it is 250 rupees! On the 2k walk to the temple, you pass countless amazing ruins, and the walk along the river is very pleasant.

This is one of the main attractions of this particular temple, a stone chariot. It's neat, and the wheels once turned (not that it could actually move) but to me the temple wasn't that much more amazing than the free ruins. So travel tip, if you are poor feel free to skip it.

Walking through the rocks you see a lot of lizards, I just liked this picture.

After a leisurely walk back through dozens more ruins, I hopped back on my bike and took off for another complex of temples and royal buildings. This particular building is the Royal Elephant Stables, and this is part of the 250 rupee ticket from the previous temple. The buildings here are in a little better shape, and the grass is green, but to me it felt a bit like just another temple. I was getting a little burned out on ruins to be honest, and the heat was getting to me.

As a result, I returned my bike and headed for the river. Wearing just my swim shorts and flip-flops, I walked a ways up the river. When I had found a suitable spot, I walked into the river, sat down and went for a float. I'd been in the river already, but I got to see and feel it in a whole new way. The bottom is amazingly easy to walk on, with all the rocks being nice and round, no sharp edges or sticks. At some places, the current was pushing me across huge smooth slabs of rock, in others I was walking through rounded gravel, in yet others I was being pushed through boulders 20 feet high on each side. At one point, I swam to a cluster of boulders that had a group of mud sparrow nests, and watched the birds enter and exit their cliff homes from the water. I kept floating down, and once I got to my guest house a ways down the river I went to shore, saying hello to a group of Indian men bathing as I went past.

The previous night I'd gotten connected with some climbers staying next door to me, and we woke up early to meet at the Goan Corner, at 7am one of the key climber spots here in Hampi. There I picked up a pair of shoes with holes in the toes (for free), one of the few places for people without gear to get it out here. Once the group had assembled, we took the short walk through the paddies and into the boulders a few minutes away.

We had left Goan Corner with just four of us, but as happens every time, we picked up a few new people on the way. We spent a short while in the Crystal Cavern, and then moved to another boulder with some easier problems on it.

I did a few routes, but most of the climbing here is at a level far above me. I have done quite a few of the easier problems, which has been great fun but most of the time I just watch other climbers who are much better than I am.

I just had to post this because it was interesting. This was a group of quite new, identical rooms for rent at one of the guesthouses. I asked why 6 of them had been destroyed, and I was told the government said those few were on government land and were not allowed, so they just knocked them down.

After a late lunch (as per the usual schedule out here) a few of us went out for an evening session, after the heat of the day has died down a bit. As it grew darker and darker, everyone else headed back in but Kim (from Spain) and I stayed out because he had a few problems he wanted to work on more. Once it got too dark, I held my headlamp to light the rock for Kim to work at, and I just stared out at the landscape and the stars. Not a bad way to spend an evening huh? Then, late dinner and off to bed.

The next morning we awoke at around 6:30am and met at Goan Corner at 7am to climb, and this has become the typical day. You get up early, get to the boulders around 7am, climb until 11am or noon, go eat breakfast/lunch, lay around for a few hours during the heat of the day, go on an evening climbing session until dark, hang out under the stars, then go back to the restaurant to eat and chat until late into the night. I have become part of this regular group of climbers, and every day we are hanging out, climbing and eating together. It really is a nice way to live, haha.

Despite the reputation of Hampi as one of the top boulder spots in the world, there still isn't much infrastructure to support it. Since I didn't have my own climbing shoes, I dug through the 'free box' to find a pair. Some are in pretty sorry shape. On the plus side, after leaving a smallish deposit, the shoes are free. I really wish I had better shoes and will try to find some better ones, but the price is right.

This is Luis. From France, he is one of the best climbers out here, and it's been great fun to see the strength and grace of his climbing. I forget the name of this rock, “that rock with the eyes painted on it”, but it has a few beginner routes, and this monster problem. A good place to play.

Katie (England) and Danni (Mexico) working on a different problem on the same rock.

And as the schedule goes, off to eat during middle of the day. We have all adopted the Tibetan Kitchen restaurant next to Bobby Guesthouse as our official hangout. It's a great place to just relax in the shade, and the food is all fantastic. I pretty much eat three meals a day here and am never disappointed. Around the table here is Alex, Kim, Paolu, Jenny, Katie and Will.

Due to the heat, we deviated from the usual schedule a bit and went for a dip in the reservoir. Rather than spending money on renting a scooter to get there, Kim and I decided to rent bikes for 25 rupees and ride. The ride was only 20 minutes or so, but it was very hot and the bike was the worst I've had yet! At water, a few of us did the big cliff jump again (this time being told it was 18 meters rather than 25, which sounds much more realistic to me) and cooled off in the water.

We then decided to 'float the rapids' which is just a minute away from the jumping rocks. This is an outflow of the reservoir and the current is very fast. What you do, is jump (or dive) off the bridge right into the middle of it (the sides could suck you in!) and the water carries you very quickly down a the channel. On the sides are nearly vertical cliffs, and fighting the current is hopeless. That said, all you do is tread water and let the current take you. It's a blast to go flying through the little channel for a minute or two like a little twig, and then a ways down it flattens out and you can swim to shore. We set up a shuttle system with the scooters, giving everyone a chance to ride the river and not have to walk all the way back. It was a ton of fun, and a perfect thing to do on a hot day.

In the evening, we went back to the boulders, climbed until dark, ate late into the night, and another wonderful day in Hampi had passed by, everyone satisfied, no one wanting to leave.

My plans are up in the air now. I've got so much of India to see yet, with the mountains being the big draw, but I'm thinking about spending more time south, climbing and renting a motorcycle, taking a long train trip back north, and seeing far less of northern India than I was hoping. Instead, maybe I can get to see one or two of the highlights, then go to Nepal and feed my mountain fix out there.... not sure if it will work, but that's the plan so wish me luck!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Goodbye Gorgeous Goa, Hello Heavenly Hampi!

As I mentioned last post, I am now in the town of Hampi, which is a truly magical place. But before I get into the pictures and story, I have some reflecting to do. I have recently passed the three month mark of my trip and I think that deserves some comment and thought.

(that's me being thoughtful and reflective, haha)

That said, I don't have a great deal to say other than “This has been an incredible experience and I am as happy or happier than I've ever been in my life.” Anyone who has been following my blog for the past three months probably could have told you that! I mean, I've met amazing people, learned so much, gone scuba diving, rock climbing, elephant riding, seen countless amazing ruins, huge and bizarre cities, eaten wonderful food, seen friends and family, gone to a wedding, seen wonderful new animal and plant life, hiked, ridden planes, trains, motos, boats and cars, and so much more. I've never been bored, in poor spirits or afraid for my safety. I was sick for one night, but really that is about the only bad thing that has happened to me the whole trip so far. I feel so fortunate that I'm am able to travel the world right now and have the understanding of my boss and the help of my family to make it all possible, so once again, thank you!

All this fun has also meant a longer term change for my life: that I want to start structuring my life around being able to travel like this again and on a somewhat regular basis. I'm not sure the best way to do this right now, or how often, but maybe doing a few months each year isn't impossible? Maybe 6 months off every other year? Ha, that doesn't sound like enough! The other complicating factor is that I absolutely love my house in Seattle and don't want to give that up, plus I still really enjoy my current job... Do I need to find new and seasonal work? Do I need to simply make more money? Should I find a housemate who isn't interested in travel and can keep up the house while I'm gone? Will I have to give up the house? I don't know, but it's a lot to think about, so I'll deal with it when I get home!

Finally, some thoughts on packing since I meticulously reported it all before I left. A few things have stood out for their usefulness, one of my favorite being my bag solution. I have two hiking type backpacks, a large one and a day bag. In the big bag I keep all my cloths and toiletries, in the day bag I keep everything else, including my laptop. The smaller bag fits in the larger one meaning I can have everything valuable, plus things like books and water, then when I get on a bus or somewhere else I can just pull the smaller bag out, keep it with me, and put the cloths below.

The cotton sleeping sack has been critical. It's not that I've stayed at many places where I was afraid of the sheets being unclean, but rather that many places just have a bed sheet and nothing to sleep under, so having your own is a must. The North Face zip off pants have also been good, and don't look too dorky at all, I even wore them to the wedding! Being able to wear shorts and then put the legs on was nice in Buddhist temples where you are required to cover up, as well as buses that get way too cold once they crank the AC. I didn't bring shoes and have worn nothing but flip-flops over than one day. I've worn everything I brought, even the fleece and windbreaker, and long underwear bottoms. A few mornings were cold in the north, especially when getting up before the sun, and it was nice to have them. I expect to use the more in northern India.

The other thing of course is the laptop. Having it has been great and I wouldn't be able to do this blog as it is without it. Being able to write whenever I want to, and being able to handle all my photos has been great and until getting to India free wifi was usually very easy to come by. Obviously it has also been extremely helpful for keeping in contact with all my traveling friends, my family back home, and killing time on bus rides. The 10” netbook is also a perfect size for traveling, a fact many other people have pointed out to me as well.

The only things I've brought and not used have been my mosquito bed net, and head net. Bugs simply haven't been a problem, and where they are even mild a bed net is usually provided. The only things I wish I had were all easily purchased. I've ended up wanting more cloths than I initially brought, and have bought some lightweight pants and shirts on the road.

Whew! Ok, back to the pictures and stories now.

Still in Panajin, I decided to take a bus ride out to Old Goa, the old capital for the Portuguese. It was begun in the 1500s and was called 'the Rome of the east', but was abandoned in the 1835 after massive outbreaks of cholera and malaria. The bus ride was about half an hour and only 10 rupees, so it was an easy day trip out of the city.

Today the only thing that remains of the once mighty city is a series of beautiful churches. This is The Basilica of Bom Jesus, begun in 1594. The large basalt building has a massive golden main alter, as well as holding the glass encased body of St Francis Xavier. For another 5 rupees you can go into the small art museum, which has a some photography and some interesting surrealist art .

The other main attraction in Old Goa is right across the street, the Se Cathedral. Built in the 1600s, it is the largest church in the whole of Asia. The outside of the building is actually quite boring, but the inside as you can see is very nice. I had gotten to the area fairly early in the morning, but by ten or eleven, tourist buses had arrived in droves. I went into the last of the three largest churches in the area (there are many) and decided to check out the archeological museum. I found it a little boring to be honest, as it had some stone carvings, and dozens of large portraits of the Portuguese rulers who had ruled the area, not a whole lot else.

I left in the early afternoon and had some time to kill in Panajin. I hung out in the park reading, walked around aimlessly, and eventually sat down in a coffee shop, primarily to use an outlet to charge my computer since the guesthouse room didn't have an outlet which I found rather annoying.

At 8pm I boarded an overnight bus to Hampi. I had opted for a bed, but I couldn't really sleep. One reason, besides for the frequent stops to pick up more people, is the fact it went on smaller roads which are full of speed bumps. This meant it was a bumpy and uncomfortable ride, and falling asleep was not easy. The 'bed' I had was a compartment with two flat cushions less than two feet wide. I was happy I had both to myself, but then at midnight, a final stop put someone in the cramped space next to me.

Luckily it was a very friendly (and rather small) Swedish guy named Carl. He is traveling with two friends of his, and we ended up chatting for about an hour and a half. Before trying to catch a few hours of sleep (I got maybe 3), we decided to room together in Hampi.

We arrived in Hampi at about 6am, before sunrise. After negotiating the gauntlet of auto drivers (the Indian tuk-tuk/three wheel taxi) and meeting a friendly Aussie named Ollie, we headed down to the river to catch the 'ferry' (a seriously overloaded dinghy but the ride is only about a minute and a half) across the river to get to the guesthouses on the other side we got to see this early morning ritual, going to the ghats and bathing in the river.

On the other side we found a place to stay and got two double rooms for the four of us. From left to right, this is Leo, Alex and Carl. We ate breakfast next to the rice paddies and then set off to explore this new wonderland.

Naturally, I saw the tallest thing around and decided I wanted to climb to the top. I set off out of the palms, past the paddies, and into the crazy boulder fields.

This is the view from about half way up, simply amazing. Looking over this from atop a house-size boulder, I was blown away. This is one of the most surreal place I've ever seen, like something out of a dream. I pushed on, up towards the top. There are no trails and I was alone. I crashed through the lower brush (tons of thorns!) took my flip-flops off and continued barefoot across the boulders.

Once I neared the top, I decided I'd gone far enough and it was too difficult to get any farther. The going was rather treacherous and I was rock climbing in sections, but getting hurt would be a real problem and my better instincts told me to turn around. I was unable to return the way I'd come, so I headed off on a new route, taking me into a large cave-type area created by massive boulders suspended overhead.

Right away, I got an idea and started to build. I cleared the leaves from the dirt and began to gather rocks. This was the result. I like the idea of creating a piece of art somewhere almost no one will see it. It was fun to build, and I hope the next person that stumbles upon the spot will enjoy it. I continued down the hill through the boulders, climbing and skidding down into more cave type areas, some full of bats. I got dead-ended a few times and had to turn around to find a different path, and ended up having to squeeze through a few tight spaces but I got out, and laid on a large boulder in the sun just taking it all in.

Once I had gotten back into the town, I caught this wonderful view across the paddies and through the palms of where I had just been.

This is looking back towards the Hampi Bazaar area, over the river from where we are staying. As I said, this place is a wonderland.

The next morning Alex, Carl and I woke up early for an 8am yoga class. Yoga is another of those thousands of things I've been interested but never tried, so it was on the list for this trip, especially here in India. It felt nice to get up and move in the morning, but I felt the instructor moved too quickly to really stretch out, and I wasn't all that pleased with it. I'll definitely give it another try at a different place though.

After yoga and breakfast the four of us headed out to explore the dozens of temples in the area. We took the ferry across the river, and went off in search of motorbikes to rent. To our surprise there were absolutely none available, they had all been rented. This was especially strange, because on our side of the river there were dozens waiting to be rented. As a result, we set off walking. We went into Virupaksha Temple, but it was closed for an hour so we walked up the hill and checked out the Kadlakalu Ganesha, a 4.5m tall sculpture made fro a single boulder.

As we walked farther up the road we walked past more and more ruins. I don't have the map so I forget the name of this part, but it is one of the sites where the (at the time) world famous Hampi bazaar took place.

After walking down the road a bit farther and visiting another temple on the way we arrived at the Kakshii Narasima Temple. This is a sculpture of the fourth incarnation of Lord Vishnu made in 1528. I like this one a lot, but maybe because the goofy face is hilarious.

A few temples later, we arrived in the old Islamic Quarter. We looked around briefly, but were all a little templed out (its easy when you visit one after another for a few hours), tired from walking in the hot sun, and hungry for lunch. I'll come back with a bike and see the rest of it another day.

That night we had dinner at the guesthouse restaurant and I had a bit of a feast. I had some really delicious Tibetan dumplings, a salad, pudding and water. This excellent meal cost me just about $4. The guys left the next afternoon, they were fun to hang out with and yet another example of the good people you meet on the road.

The next day I awoke at 6:30am and climbed up the biggest hill/rock pile again to watch the sunrise. Again I was scrambling around barefoot across the rocks, and eventually found a place to sit and watch from. I stayed up there for two and a half hours, just looking at the world around me, watching lizards and birds and taking it all in.

In the afternoon, I rented a motorbike and set out for a reservoir. I'd been told it was a short way out of town and that in addition to nice water and places to relax, it had some big rocks to jump off. I rode away from my room down some of the most potholed roads I've seen yet, my anemic little scooter buzzing away. I followed a dirt road along the side of the reservoir but shortly realized I'd gone to far. I had just turned around and two young Indian girls in bright red saris indicated they wanted me to give them a ride. I said sure, and they got on. It was a bit nerve wracking, since the roads were terrible and the brakes of the bike even worse, but after a quick ride they got off on the other side of the hill and thanked me.

I backtracked a bit longer and saw a spot with a few other bikes. I figured that would be a good place to enjoy the reservoir, and parked. I had in fact found the jumping spot. A huge mass of exposed rock jutted almost straight out of the water and atop that was a pile of three boulders. The local selling water at the spot said it was 25 meters down to the water (I think it may be a bit less than that), and I scrambled up the rock to give it a try. With a running start and big leap, I flew towards the water, it was quite a ways down really. A lot of fun, and certainly the highest thing I've ever jumped off.

Also at the spot was Elel (middle, sp?) and his friend, from Israel. He jumped after I did and as we got to chatting we decided to grab some lunch back in town. We had felafel and tea and went to his guesthouse to exchange our jumping photos we had taken of each other. Next was going up to the Monkey Temple for sunset, but we had time to kill so we hung out in the common area and played a game of chess. Now I haven't played chess in probably ten years so naturally Elel won but I thought I put up a decent fight!

Another short moto ride and we were at the base of another hill of boulders. Up this hill was a long and steep white staircase to the top and we began climbing. It was a lot of stairs, but didn't take more than a few minutes if you go at a quick pace. As you would expect, the view was amazing, the the light of the setting sun on the boulder covered hills was simply beautiful.

In Indian mythology, this is the birth place of Hanuman, the monkey-god, and the top contains a small temple in Hanumans honor. Inside, in one of the small rooms sit an alter to get your blessing, and next to it is another small room with men playing musical instruments and chanting, which they do all day long I am told. We sat for quite some time watching the deep-red sun go below the horizon and returned to the village.

Back at my guesthouse a few people were sitting around the TV and I was curious what was on. The movie they had put on was 'Hercules in New York' from 1969. Now for those who don't know, this was Arnold Schwarzenegger's first ever movie, and regarded by some as one of the worst movies ever made. Everything about the movie is bad, just awful really, but of course that makes it hilarious and worth watching. The part where Arnold fights the man in the bear suit is classic, the spray-painted re-bar of Zeus lightening bolts are a hoot and and and Arnold tears is shirt off every chance he can get. It is a classic.

And that is about where it stands right now. I'll probably spend a few more days here exploring the ruins and the nature a bit more then head south to Kerala and try to find a houseboat to join. Hampi is one of those places that sucks people in and doesn't let them go. I can see how easy it is to come for two or three days and spend a week or two and many people do just that. Until next time