Arriving into Hampi feels like stepping back in time to an ancient Roman empire. Centuries old ruins and temples dot this landscape of giant granite boulders and rice fields. If you get some elevation and look out to the horizon all you will visually feast on is God sized handfuls of boulders, towering over rice fields and long, thin roads, peppered with ancient granite ruins, way out over the 120km Hampi extends to. It is as ‘bewitching’ as the guide book said.
Hampi is also a world heritage site and the site of the original capital of the Vijayanagara Empire.
After spending a relaxing few weeks on the beaches in Goa, I was keen to get out into the countryside of India. I took a 12 hour bus ride on an overnight sleeper which leaves from Mapusa, Goa at 6:30pm every evening and arrives into Hampi at 6am.
One of the joys of traveling off the beaten path is that you’re introduced to a cornucopia of interesting people from far flung places engaging in unique ways of life. I’ve always had a reputation of attracting some quirky characters but when the first person I met at the bus terminal turned out to be a snake catcher from Russia (you just have to click the link and see his website, it will make the story so much more entertaining), who appointed himself my protector, I knew this trip would be interesting.
I was fascinated and within in minutes we were engaged in conversation (“How exactly do you catch a snake?) Despite informing him that I wasn’t drinking much these days, one of the first things he did was hand me a mini bottle of Johnnie Walker red label (maybe this was how he caught snakes!). “Forrthetrrip” he demanded with his rolled R’s.
Me: “oh, no, really, thank you – I don’t need it.” (Don’t know that I wanted to get wasted with him and all those knives in his belt!)
Russian: “You vill need. You take it”
Me: “Honestly, you keep it. I probably won’t drink it”
Russian: “You takhet. You vill like – c’mon”
Remember as a child, when an adult would put you on their knee and bounce you up and down and you laughed hysterically for the joy of it? The bus ride was a lot like that. However, by divine intervention my bunk was on the perfect side of the bus to see the full moon shine its guiding light on me the whole way. And you can open the window wide. So, with the night air, the country silence, the full moon (and a bottle of whisky) the start of my journey to Hampi had a slight cinematic feel in my romantic mind.
(I loaded quite a few photos of Hampi here.)
Considering Hampi has a reputation as a ‘spiritual’ hot spot, it all made this trip feel auspicious for sure.
Our bus’s arrival signaled feeding time at the zoo for the guest house managers (they were the animals, we were bait) as they pounced the minute we stepped off the bus onto solid ground, barely having wiped the sleep from our eyes. Negotiations, hard selling (“we have Wi-Fi”, “my place have hot water”, “I have good hashish”) and an irrefutable ability all Indian merchants have to give no space for thought, turns these mornings into a cacophonous buzz of overwhelm and hard decision making. All before 6:30am.
Neither the Russian or I (or most of the other travelers on the bus) had organized our accommodations beforehand, which is often the way to get the best prices, so we decided to team up and see what deal we could get. I let the Russian do most of the talking, although when your pectoral muscles make you look like you’re a stand in for the Michelin man and you go around kissing Cobras for a living, you don’t have to do much talking. You just stare.
Standing there, as the sun was rising, a bulky, bull-headed Russian to the left of me, a young, scrawny Indian kid with the gift of the gab to the right made this moment feel awkwardly like a Mexican stand-off. I just wished the theme song to The good, the bad, the ugly to play were playing overhead. We finally agreed to two rooms (huts) at Sunny’s guest house at the far end of the main street for 800rps ($16usd) per night.
With our rooms secured, though not available for a few more hours, the Russian and I sat at the German bakery for breakfast. Lingering over a hot coffee and rather doughy ‘croissant’, serenity was only shortly lived as our guest room manager approached to rent us motorcycles for 200rps ($4) per day. For a skinny little guy, this kid had big time hustler qualities.
The Russian didn’t hesitate to say yes and I, who had never ridden a motorcycle wasn’t so brave. Until, that is, the Russian insisted. Russians have an irrefutable ability to make every suggestion, compliment or request sound like a demand.
Russian: “You take bike. You vill love it”
Me: “Well, I’ve never ridden a motorbike. I’m not sure”
Russian: “You take bike. It is good”
Me: “Um, I don’t know. The roads are a bit dodgy here and….well…I don’t know how to ride a motorbike…”
Russian: “Do vot youlike. But, you take bike. You vill like”
Me: “Right. Yes, I’ll take a bike”
After a 1 minute lesson on where the brake was, how to start the bike, what brake not to use and how to accelerate, I was left with a motorbike to manage. The Russian handed me a map he had bought, watched me swerve my way down the little street ahead of him and then took off the other way.
So much for he being any kind of ‘protector’.
And, was a turban on my head as good as a helmet?
Once I got the hang of riding the bike, I just kept riding. I headed out onto the main road and turned left. I rode through little rural villages where local children came outside and ran alongside me. Young men on bikes passed and said hello. Families walking along the roads, waved. Cows, mawing on their morning feed might have raised a brow at my rumbling past, but they barely turned a head.
I spent the 3 days I was in Hampi visiting temples and roaming through ancient ruins so old and magnificent that occasionally I was rendered immovable.
There are three main temples in Hampi; Hanuman, Lakshmi & Durga. The Hanuman temple is particularly captivating. It’s set at high elevation, at the top of 700+ steps so it’s a perfect place to look out onto the vast landscape and to catch a sunrise or the romance of a sunset. Climbing the stairs, passing Indian families on their way down, the echo of our “Sita Ram” greeting to each other was the only thing that pierced the silence.
The Hanuman temple is teeming with monkeys too which is poignant since, Hanuman is the Monkey God. Ironically, it is the only temple with monkeys in such abundance but, India is like this, it is brimming with magic and mystery. The vendors at the bottom of the temple will try and sell you bananas to feed the monkeys. It’s not a lot of money but before I knew it I was walking to the top of a mountain with wild monkeys waiting for me and a cluster of banana’s still on their branch in my hand.
All I can say is that they’re greedy little f*&kers! Thankfully, I just looked like I was having a lot of fun and drew the attention of a few women who I enthusiastically gave banana’s to, to help get rid of them.
The Durga temple is a few kilometers along the road from Hanuman and Lakshmi temples and I had an unplanned and amazing time there, which I write about here.
For more on the temples and ruins, and Hampi, read here.
I befriended a young local Rickshaw driver named Anja who I ended up treating to dinner as a thank you for his enthusiasm and charisma. On our way to Hospet, the town closest to Hampi where I was catching the overnight train to Bangalore, Anja was talkative and excited to share all the different words he has learnt in various languages. When we had to swerve to avoid hitting a dog he said “In English. Dog” “Yes” I said, “correct”
“KuttA in Hindi” he then followed.
Me: “Ok, KuttA” I mimicked
Anja: “Sobaka in Russian”
Me: “Ok, thanks” being less and less enthusiastic about how long this could go on.
Anja: “Kelev in Israel”
Me: “Great. So, how long have you been driving a Rickshaw for?”
As we established more comfort, he asked if I liked to listen to music, “Very much” I answered. “Would you like to listen to some music?” he asked. “Yes, please” I said. “What would you like to listen to?” he then followed. “You favorite song” I responded.
Being young and living in a rural area I expected some fairly traditional Hindi music, maybe a Durga chant or two. He put the CD in, cranked the volume while the two of us sped along the roads, the wind whipping through my hair. It was dusk and the scene felt cinematic as we zipped through rural villages and brushed past other motorists and our soundtrack? Turns out his favorite music is Israeli love songs and Akon.
Hampi’s magic lies in its stillness and serenity. Climbing over the boulders at sunset for a dinner of dosa on a little restaurant on the side of the road, hanging out in your hammock, sitting on the banks of the little river and watching the families and elephant bathe, meditating in a temple or contemplating by a ruin….it’s that sort of place. Unless, that is, you know a Russian snake catcher.
After spending my first day exploring solo on a bike I returned to have a quiet dinner alone, hoping for some stillness. That is until I heard a familiar voice bellowing my name from a restaurant above. It was the Russian, of course.
“Lyn. Come. Zis is good place. Ithas gud whiskey”
All I can say is when a Russian snake catcher tells you to drink shots of whiskey (I know, blew the vodka myth out of the water – but he insisted he doesn’t drink crap vodka), you drink shots of whiskey. And, despite your protests he demands you have another, you have another!
“You drink. Ve have another. You vill like”
Namaste, my friend!
more photos of this beautiful place (not in consecutive order: