Bags considerably heavier than on our arrival in Goa, we climbed the steep hill to Hampi Island in the state of Karnataka, the 4 of us overheating, sweaty and a tad sheepish. As the capital of the old Hindu Vijayanagar empire, and now UNESCO World Heritage Site, alcohol is strictly forbidden on the Island. But it was Christmas, our friends Rob and Celia were terrible influences and since when did India ever adhere to rules. Having been reliably tipped off, we practiced the best lessons from our student days on drinking affordably and smuggled as much feni (deliciously cheap Goan liquor made from coconut or cashews best served with Limca), vodka, gin/poison and of course, port as we could inconspicuously carry out of tax free Goa. We had arrived in an enclave of Backpackistan, we had 2 weeks of climbing and Christmas festivities in front of us and our rucksacks were bulging with booze to share with friends we were meeting up with. We had a tough life…..
Despite being fond climbers back home, shamefully we had never heard of this climbing mecca until our friends Alex and Alice told us about it back in Kyrgyzstan. Over 4100 hectares of endless rose coloured, sharp granite boulders, interspersed with vivid green rice paddies, palm trees and fantastically atmospheric ancient ruins. Needless to say, it was now firmly on our radar and having packed our climbing shoes when leaving Scotland we thought it about time to dig them out and eventually put them to some use. It was a shame though that Hampi climbing is famed for having very few footholds to use our shoes on and the climbing is a suffer-fest of painful crimps which tore at our fingertips. The midday heat was also unbearable for climbing so we were forced out of our beds each day at dawn for an early morning climb, then we hid for the afternoon under the shade of a palm tree before embarking on a second climbing session in the evening as the sun set over the otherworldly landscape. Rice paddies would glisten in the golden evening light, bats would emerge from their mulitudinous caves amongst the boulders and often we got to enjoy this to the melancholic folktunes of a serenading frenchman with an accordian perched on a distant boulder. Bodies ached, fingers bled and holes quickly appeared in our shoes but this was our happy routine for the next 2 weeks.
As with all elite athletes on punishing training schedules, we were forced to take rest days from the ‘brutal’ workout. Thankfully Hampi is also a cultural highlight of India thanks to its rich history and fascinating ruins scattered throughout the bouldering arena. The Vijayanagar Empire was one of the largest Hindu empires in all of India, pushing back the earlier Islamic advances and ruling vast swathes of the Indian South for 200 years. At its height in the 15th Century, Hampi was a larger, richer and more important city than London with tradelinks from Beijing to Portugal. It took a coalition of Islamic Sultanates to eventually overthrow this Empire and lay waste to much of their granite hewn architecture. Now many of the buildings provide magical ruins to explore and it was easy to while away our days off, rebuilding in our imaginations the temples, palaces, treasuries and vast market spaces that we found ourselves meandering through.
Christmas day was no day off! Up at dawn we enjoyed a light climb after our Christmas dinner rehearsal the night before; Christmas hits from our speaker reflecting back off the rockfaces surrounding us. Back to our cosy shack at Manjus (highly recommended) we exchanged presents and settled down to our Christmas banquet. Our first Christmas away from home, it was amazing to be sharing it with so many old friends and new. The port was opened, carols were sung and we feasted on a very traditional Christmas Dinner of 12 different curries! Of course, the rest of the day was spent mainly digesting, a few digestifs to help the process, and watching the flames of our bonfire dance upwards towards a star-filled night sky. Not our typical Christmas day, but not a bad way to do it either.
All too quickly our time in Hampi ran out though and we had only a week to get to our next workaway in the south of the state. This also meant the end of our travels with Rob and Celia who we had shared our experiences with for the last 3 weeks. To find one person who you can happily travel with and not wish to scrape out their eyeballs is pretty special. We have found that in eachother, sometimes….However, to find another 2 people whose company we always appreciated, even during testing circumstances, was nothing short of miraculous and we were very sad to say goodbye. Rob and Celia, thank you.
Next stop Bijapur, which couldn’t have been more different to Hampi. Whereas Hampi is a Hindu site full of western tourists, particularly those of a spiritual inclination, Bijapur is an Islamic centre also crowded with tourists, but this time majoritively domestic families. With numerous impressive mosques, mausoleums, palaces and fortifications, there is plenty to attract in the masses and come they did. We didn’t come across a single westerner (which was refreshing after Goa and Hampi) but we were constantly surrounded by hordes of people all desperate to clic-a-pic with us, ie take a selfie. Over the 2 days that we had to explore the town, we estimate that we had easily over 100 requests which quickly became tiring as each picture turned into a photoshoot which simply attracted in more selfie vultures. Now Ryan has found selfie culture around the world annoying to say the least, and threatened to blog about this most narcissistic trait many times. Thankfully he has shown restraint but Bijapur took the craze to another level and the obsession made it very difficult to enjoy the amazing spectacles around us. At Gol Gumbaz, a Mausoleum which boasts the second largest dome in the world, Lottie was aggressively pulled by either arm in opposite directions as families squabbled for a photo with her. At Ibrahim Rouza, another majestic mausoleum which inspired the architects of the Taj Mahal, group after group of school kids would be herded around us as we were forced to pose for photos by their teachers mostly without even asking. The sanctity and reverence of the sites we visited was completely lost on them and difficult for us to experience because any time we had a quiet moment there would be another group of men jogging towards us for a selfie. The frustration was exhausting in the heat and it got to the point where we decided on rules for agreeing to a selfie.
If a selfie is requested from someone who has been friendly towards us, engaging in conversation first or perhaps helping us, then of course YES, no problem.
If a selfie is requested by a child or perhaps a small family then MAYBE, its hard to say no to a cute child after all, BUT ONLY ONE!
If a selfie is requested from a complete stranger whose only aim is to get a selfie with a white person perhaps somewhere interesting, then we’re very sorry but NO, we don’t like selfies.
This may seem extreme to those who have not travelled in India recently but it really is necessary. The selfie culture is endemic. Mobile phones are advertised by how good their selfie camera is and nothing else. The background and screensaver of every young mans phone is a picture of themselves inevitably pouting or looking menacingly at the camera as they impersonate their Bollywood heros. We have met western girls who agreed to a selfie only to find out later via facebook that they were the boys latest european ex-girlfriend. On asking why one man wanted a selfie with us, he replied it is because we look funny. We can hardly disagree with him, but could you imagine saying that to a tourist in the UK; “Hey funny looking, let me take a selfie!” Surprisingly the worst perpetrators were parents of teenagers and young adults who would push their unwilling child to ask for a photo, supposedly so that they could hang it like a trophy on the mantelpiece. It felt nothing short of being a zoo animal and really ruined our Bijapur experience.
So we were hugely relieved and really quite surprised to find Bangalore quite the opposite. A large modern city, boasting the title of IT capital of India, it had too much going on for its residents to notice 2 ‘funny looking’ tourists wandering its streets. We were invisible and left to just enjoy the city like anybody else. It was bliss. Bangalore may not have much to see in terms of sights but it had a cosmopolitan, trendy atmosphere and the best eating that we had yet come across. Each morning we enjoyed a delicious south indian breakfast in a fast food outlet that put the emphasis on fast. In a whirlwind of comotion, mini latte-like sweet coffees, huge dosas (fermented pancakes made from a mix of rice and lentil flour) and bulbous puri (deep fried bread that puff up into hollow balls) were made ready in no-time at all demonstrating that India can be efficient if the occasion deserves it. We also made a visit to the famous Methravali Tiffin Rooms (MTR) where we ate our weight in India’s best Thali. Despite this gorging we still found room for a visit to VV Puram, a.k.a. ‘Food Street’ where we found spiced potato corkscrews, freshly squeezed grape juice and hot-out-of-the-pan honey jalebis. All this we washed down in a few of Bangalores booming craft breweries that would be right at home in hipster Seattle or Shoreditch. With all this great food and booze available in a truly trendy city it was a great place for us to welcome in the New Year and make a wish that 2018 will be even half as great as 2017 had been for us.
We had only a few days before our labour camp in the jungle began but still needed to see arguably South India’s finest architecture. Halebid and Belur are small towns not well known to the western tourist contingent. However, between them they contain a collection of Jain and Hindu temples which represent the trademark of the Hoysala dynasty, a watermark for one of the most exuberant periods in Hindu cultural development. Work on the temples commenced in the 12th Century but most were left unfinished even after almost 200 years of carving. Predominantly sculpted from soft soap stone which hardens with exposure to light the temples are completely covered in a masterpiece of intricate carvings depicting religious texts, the Kamasutra and contemporary scenes. Huge statues of Nandi (Sivas holy Bull and method of transport) preside outside the Hindu shrines whilst inside the Jain temples a beautiful naked Jain figure 6m tall towers over the worshipper as they offer jasmine, milk and honey. All the temples share the similarly carved interior pillars which were carved on lathes turned by elephants and ring like bells when struck. They were simply magnificent structures the likes of which we had never seen and should not be missed by anyone visiting south India. Whilst exploring the temple towns, we were also fortunate enough to come across one of Karnatakas favourite pastimes; bullock cart racing. A drag race between teams from rival towns, enormous white bulls tethered to goods carts charged down a dusty field as their riders whip them to ever faster speeds. It is spectacle adored by Karnatakans who flock to the local races, and tourists like us who are just amazed that we didn’t witness any deadly crashes.
Next stop on our tour of Karnataka was Mysore, famous for; its silks, as a yoga centre and it’s majestic palace. The present palace was only completed at the beginning of the 20th Century following the alliance between the Wodeyar dynasty and the British after the 4th Anglo-Mysore war. It therefore contained many British peculiarities such as wall murals of Scottish military bagpipers and the steelwork for the impressive marriage hall was all manufactured and imported from Glasgow. We explored the palace in a state of constant amazement at the grandeur of the building and decoration. Teak ceilings, golden chandeliers, mother of pearl doors, it was simply breathtaking and worthy of its title as second most visited attraction in India.Unfortunately we weren’t so impressed with the rest of Mysore and felt that only 2 days here was plenty as we had no intention of becoming master yogi’s or of dressing up like Bollywood icons.
So on to Madikeri, high in the coffee filled hills of Coorg, where we would live and work with Rajen on our second Indian Workaway. Rajen and his Japanese partner Moe, live on a small 15 acre farm with their 2 dogs and cat. Their aim is to farm the land using organic methods and return much of it to natural rainforest all whilst enjoying the silence and peace of ‘the simple life’. As the farm lies at the end of an incredibly rough 4×4 track, it is completely offgrid relying on solar panels for electricity, a spring for fresh water and fallen wood for heating.
We spent 4 weeks in total at Rajen’s farm. Our typical day started with a breakfast of ragi porridge (red/purple flour based gloop) before a morning of working in the vegetable garden. By late morning it was getting too hot for digging so we would cool off with a dip in the waterfall before retiring back to the house and help Rajen to prepare a delicious lunch of lemon rice with peanuts or kedgeree. Bellies full and the sun beating down, the early afternoon was siesta time in a hammock under your favourite tree. By 4 o’clock it was cool enough to get back to work which this time may be in the coffee plantation clearing away the bush or hunting for civet poo coffee beans. As dusk fell we would return to the house, light up the wood fired boiler, wash from a bucket and prepare a dinner of egg curry or BBQ. Meal times were often occasions for lengthy discussions on Indian politics, culture and religion which spurred most volunteers to an early night or seek refuge in a book. It was a simple life of hard work, good food and rest.
On our days off we enjoyed exploring the surrounding forest, staking out the elusive elephants and visiting the nearby Tibetan exile settlement of Bylakuppe. Established in 1960, this town was built from the ground up by refugees forced to flee Tibet and is now a sprawling town with 2 large Tibetan Buddhist Monasteries. This made for a beautiful, fascinating town to explore with a completely different culture and atmosphere to the surrounding Indian settlements. Technically we actually entered Tibet for the day when visiting so we could almost say that we made it to modern day China, almost….
By the end of our four weeks at Rajen’s farm, we had made lots of new friends in Rajen and all the volunteers we shared the farm with, we had dug and planted a whole field of vegetables of soya beans, constructed a flight of steps fit for a King (who likes wobbly steps), laid a new waterpipe for the house, installed a new irrigation system for the field, served as kitchen slave and chauffeured Rajen countless miles. It was the most work that either of us had done in 12 months, it was often hard and at times utterly frustrating. It was also heartbreaking to see firsthand the damage caused by deforestation and poaching in the surrounding forest. There was little birdsong to be heard and no monkeys to be seen largely due to the coffee plantations that feed our addictions to caffeine. However, on the whole, it was a great experience where we learned a lot and have been inspired for a similar project of our own.
That won’t be happening anytime soon though, we still have plenty more travel miles left in the tank. Rajen’s marked the end of our time in Karnataka, and what a fantastic state it is. It has everything; beautiful beaches, lush forests, cool mountain top hill stations, monuments to dazzle, diversity of religions, rich histories and scintillating cuisine. It’s a crime that its neighbours Goa and Kerala are earmarked by tourists and agencies alike as bucketlist destinations whilst Karnataka goes almost unheard of. However, in our experience the tourist industry can be a felon like no other in ruining country and culture so perhaps it’s for the best and might allow you to go and immerse yourself in an untarnished gem of India. Enjoy.