A Hampi sandwich to go!

February 6, 2012 - Bombay, India

 1. Where the devil have I been?

Busy Bangalore mosqueWe arrived in cosmopolitan Bangalore early on the morning of Wednesday 25th January, hoping for a day or two of someting resembling normality. And for a while I wasn't disappointed. Our (expensive) hotel had hot water, free towels and soap, a TV with the BBC entertainment channel (for a Midsomer Murders fix) and they evenTaking the shortcut home through the paddy fields slid a free newspaper under the door in the morning! What luxury! But it didn't last long, and the following day the chaos resumed with a patriotic Republic Day parade and an accidental tour of all the grottiest areas of the city. Desperately in need of some natural beauty to feast our eyes upon, we next headed north on the train to Hampi, a tiny town famous for the hundreds of ancient temples which cover the rocky landscape. I could easily have stayed there for weeks...just whiling away the days cycling Taking in the view over Hampialongside impossibly green paddy fields, clambering up piles of boulders to find the best view and testing out the menus and the huge cushions in the town's many restaurants. But unfortunately, with too much of India left to explore, we only managed a four day stay before we were back on the rails, heading towards Mumbai, India's most densely populated city. Although slightly disappointed not to be scouted for a part as an extra in a Bollywood movie, we still managed toSunset at the beach in Mumbai squeeze a fair bit of action into the few days we had there. Highlights included a visit to Dharavi - the largest slum in Asia, a chance encounter with a local arts festival and watching a washing powder advert being filmed at the Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat - the massive and impressively well organised clothes washing centre of the city. Lowlights included a totally boring visit to the deceptively excitingly named Elephanta Island and the Gateway of India, Mumbaiindescribably bad aroma that greeted us at the door to our hotel's communal bathroom. With Soph jetting off to Uganda in a day or two, before we knew it it was time for us to say our goodbyes and part company after six months on the road together. So on the 5th February me, myself and I took our seats in the second class carriage of yet another train...destination Rajasthan!

2. Most Memorable Meal

This fortnight I discovered a new taste sensation! I first sampled Malai Kofta in Hampi, and it was darn tasty, but it wasn't until my second encounter in Mumbai that the dish made its full visual impact. There is no way to describe how the dish looked without saying that it very closely resembled a huge pile of steaming turd, presented on a stainless steel platter. But, ignoring that saying about eating with your eyes, I tore off a chunk of my chapatti and dived in! Wow!!! This one was even more delicious than the first. Since that day I have eaten Malai Kofta on numerous other occasions, although I still haven't got the foggiest what it actually is - some kind of potatoey, vegetabley ball cooked in thick brown sauce? But in India, there definitely seems to be some truth in the idea that the more the dish looks like poo on a plate, the better it tastes!

3. Photo of the weekLaundry day at Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat

Mumbai has to be one of the only cities in the world where the place the locals get their laundry done has turned into a tourist attraction! Probably one of the most organised businesses in India, the workers at Mahalaxmi Dhobi Ghat form part of a well oiled machine which deals with dirty drawers from all over the city with amazing efficiency. Filming for a washing powder advert (complete with Bollywood style dance moves) was taking place while we were there so we couldn't venture down into the ghat, but instead watched from a bridge as bare chested men dunked, squeezed and whacked the clothes before hanging them out to dry on endless washing lines.

4. Best Bargain

Alcohol, although often quite difficult to come by, is very cheap in India. Most towns and cities (apart from the really holy ones) have a few 'English Wine Tiddly Winks & cartons of rum!Shops' (which don't sell wine or anything English) crammed with bottles of whiskey, rum and vodka, available in every size imaginable. But glass bottles are impractical for the backpack wielding traveller so, imagine my delight when I discovered the humble carton of rum! Unfortunately it didn't come with a straw, but at 80 rupees (£1) for 180ml its a mega bargain! And the perfect accompaniment for a good old fashioned game of Tiddly Winks.

5. Favourite place name

I grumbled in my last blog about the habit India has of assigning more than one name to its towns and cities. Bangalore is another offender...although all was forgiven when I discovered that its alternative name Bengaluru is translated literally as 'Town of Boiled Beans'. Of course it is.

6. Fashion crime of the week

For those of you old enough to have been dedicated followers of fashion during the 1970s...Did you ever wonder where your high waisted flares and colourful tank tops ended up after you eventually realised the error of your ways and dumped them at the Oxfam shop on your way to buy some new leg warmers in the 80s? Well wonder no more! Because they are all in India and I can assure you that they are being very well used by the fashion conscious population of twenty something males!

7. Crappest tourist attraction

A boat trip to explore the cave temples on Elephanta Island...doesn't that sound exciting! Well don'tChased by the runaway train on Elephanta Island be fooled...its rubbish. A two hour round trip on a noisy boat is long enough when there's some nice scenery to look at, but when all there is outside the boat is grey as far as the eye can see, and everyone inside the boat is staring and attempting to take sneaky photos of you, it becomes pretty excrutiating. So after paying for the boat ride, we arrived on the island, paid some kind of unexplained tax, walked up a big load of steps lined by people thrusting their souvenir tat in our faces from every angle, then discovered we had to pay AGAIN to enter the temples. Hopeful that the caves and carving would make the journey and climb worthwhile, we reluctantly handed over the cash, pacified aggressive monkeys with any available food items and followed the crowds into the main cave. After wandering around, searching in vain for the carving described in the Lonely Planet guidebook as "probably the most serene sight in India" we eventually emerged into the sunlight with nothing but a few rubbish photos of crumbling carvings in the dark. Terrible. We didn't even hang around long enough to find out if there were any other caves...hot footing it back to the mainland seemed like a much better option.

More Hampi views8. Best view

After bouncing along the polholed roads on my hired bicycle "Fairy" and managing to slice the end off my big toe when fatigue set in whilst climbing the many steps up to the Hanuman Temple in Hampi (I blame the flip flops)...my prize at the end of it all was the amazing view out across the paddy fields. No pain, no gain! 

9. Div of the week

Understandably, following terrorist attacks in Mumbai and around the world in recent years, security measures in the major cities of India have been stepped up. However, there is such a thing as taking it all too far. After reading in the local newspaper about a Republic Day (national holiday) parade taking place down the road from our hotel in Bangalore, we decided to pop along and check it out. Armed with our normal day bags full of useful stuff like cameras, money, map and water, we joined the queue waiting to enter the showground. The crowd was being held up by an elaborate, twoHappy Republic Day 2012! layered security barrier, complete with metal detectors, loads of armed security guards and a special area for patting down / groping. A tad excessive for an event which consisted primarily of extra long, extra boring speeches and school children marching in silly uniforms. Anyway, as we reached the first security barrier we were informed that cameras were not permitted inside. Somewhat bemused, but thinking on my feet, I quickly replied that there was no film in our cameras. Amazingly, the guard fell for my cunning trick and ushered us through to the second gate. Again we were told it was not possible to enter with a camera. Luckily, having made the assumption that it was highly unlikely that two people in the same day would fall for the "my digital camera has no film" line, I had removed my battery providing the more realistic excuse of "my camera battery is dead". So, again I was allowed through the barrier. But as I started heading towards the spectator area, I turned around to find that Soph was still stuck on the other side, remonstrating with the over-zealous security officer. After having the bottle of water (which passed through the first security gate unnoticed) confiscated, Soph's bag had been thoroughly searched and they stumbled across a small, unlabelled bottle of clear liquid (her contact lens solution). Despite the bottle being small enough to comply with international airline regulations, she was forced to empty the contents onto the floor. With the div guard still not happy, it took a lengthy, heated discussion before Soph was eventually granted permission to enter with the empty plastic bottle! Crazy.

10. Dodgy moment of the week

A mouthful of bananaMonkeys, ahhh, aren't they cute! NO! Well not the ones which hang about in the temples of Hampi anyway. Finding myself separated from Soph and our new friend Brigitte after pausing to take a photo or two, I attempted to follow the route I assumed they had taken, through a shadowy section of the temple. As I entered the darkness alone, I managed to make out the red faces of four monkeys heading towards me from either side. With no fear, I continued walking, but the monkeys clearly didn't want me there. As they closed in on me, hissing and shrieking, I readied my only available weapon (removed the lid from my water bottle) and prepared to attack. With my head full of advice from David Attenborough, I tried to "make myself big" and replied with a war cry of my own. But the monkeys obviously felt they had safety in numbers and charged through the water barrier towards me. The largest (and ugliest) of the family swiped a hand at me, but I jumped back quick enough for his claws to do nothing more than brush the skin of my leg, leaving an unfortunately barely visible mark. Having given me enough of a warning, the monkeys disappeared back into the sandstone maze of the temple and I turned back to find an alternative route.

11. Motto of the week

"No walls required"

Hampi is a very popular place for backpackers, especially in the high season of Early morning view from our open air 'bedroom'January & February. Arriving in the afternoon (as we did) means you run the risk of there not being much accommodation left to choose from. Fortunately for us, some helpful soul directed us over a barbed wire fence and across a few paddy fields to The Blue Eye, a guesthouse that had a reputation for always finding space for more guests. So with none of the hut style rooms available, we were escorted up to "the rooftop", a slightly (when I say slightly I mean very) wobbly, creaky bamboo platform with thin mattresses on the floor and mosquito nets hanging from the roof. No walls. No door. No privacy...but for 100 rupees per night who cares!

12. Magic 8 Ball adventure of the week

What do you do when three different restaurants are showing three different, but equally appealling films at the same time? Ask the Magic 8 Ball, that's what you do! The Ball chose Into the Wild, described by an annoying American girl as "oh so beautiful". I didn't really like it.

13. Brit abroad moment of the week

Pleased enough to be able to walk to the local cinema to watch the new Sherlock Holmes film in English, imagine my surprise when I arrived on the second floor of the leisure and shopping complex in Bangalore to find myself face to face with a huge Marks & Spencers! Unfortunately it was late in the evening so I was unable to pop in for some fresh, comfy underwear, and even more disappointingly there was no food section...but still, if only for a few moments, it almost felt like home.

14. On another planet moment of the week 

To my knowledge, nothing like this has ever happened in England, but please feel free to correct me if i'm wrong...Whilst waiting for a train at Bangalore station, I observed a young mother and her two children standing on the busy platform. In true Indian style, the mother casually strode up to the platform edge, delicately placed one finger over her right nostril and effortlessly blew a stream of snot out of her left one, onto the tracks. Nice. Next up was the eldest of the two children, a boy of around six years old, who followed his mother's shameless lead, unzipped his trousers and urinated over the platform edge. Lovely. I thought that was enough, but this family had saved the best for last. A minute or so later the mother took hold of her toddler's arms and held him over the tracks as he squeezed out a nice big poo. Absolutely delightful. And noone other than us even batted an eyelid!

Chillin' on the hill with Brigitte15. Favourite person of the week

My favourite person this week was Brigitte, the Austrian nurse who we met on the train to Hampi and hung out with for the next four days. Her nursing skillz turned out to be handy when I managed to scrape the end off my toe and discovered that my Tesco value plasters weren't particularly adhesive. As well as being a generally lovely person, Brigitte also had lots of interesting stories to tell about her experiences in various yoga ashrams, silence retreats and fasting centres. Did any of it make any positive difference?...probably not, but when in Rome...

16. Snack of the week

The Lonely Planet guide came up trumps this week with its recommendation of a tiny hole-in-the-wall shop in Mumbai selling kulfi (Indian stylee ice cream type stuff) in every conceivable flavour. Once we had placed our order, the kulfi was cut and weighed on huge banana leaf lined scales, before being chopped into bite size pieces and served on a decorative 1970s plate. My pistachio piece was so good I went back for seconds!

17. Bizarre conversation of the week

Whilst attempting to order food at a restaurant...

Soph: Hello. Can I get an uthappam please.

Waiter: No (whilst head wobbling)

Soph: No? You don't do uthappams?

Waiter: Tomato uthappam, onion uthappam, cauliflower uthappam, ghee uthappam...

Soph: I'll have a cauliflower one please.

(Waiter head wobbles)

Waiter: (to me) What you want?

Me: Can I have paneer fried rice please.

Waiter: No (whilst head wobbling)

Me: No? I can't?

Waiter: So one cauliflower uthappam and one paneer fried rice?

Us: (confused) Yes, thank you.

(Waiter leaves, returns with the correct food, then stands at the end of the table and watches us until we have finished eating!)

18. Best game invention

"Distraction"

Indians love to talk to foreigners about anything (where you are from, where you are going next, whether you intend to get married soon, how much you earn, etc etc...), but they also enjoy bossing foreigners around when they hold a position of some authority. This week's game invention pits these two desires against each other to find out which one is strongest. All you have to do is find an Indian person with authority and wait for them to issue some kind of instruction (e.g. a request for you to move somewhere else). Then you must initiate a conversation about a topic of your choice (the most effective are those which allow the Indian person to come across as being knowledgable), and time how long you can distract the person of authority from their original instruction. Double points are awarded if the person is equipped with a whistle. Triple points are awarded if they are armed with a loaded weapon!

19. High point of the week

Another exercise related high point, but this time on two wheels rather than two feet. For a couple of days in Hampi we hired bicycles (of the highest quality) and explored the surrounding area, seeking out temples, lakes and little villages. Riding along surrounded by palm trees and paddy fields, with the wind in my hair and not the faintest hint of a car horn was exactly what I needed!

20. Low point of the week

In the absence of any distinct low points this week, my only real negativity springs from the increasing desire for a bathroom which meets my basic standards of cleanliness. All I require is a toilet with a (clean) seat, a functioning lock, no visible cockroaches, mosquitos or other creepy crawlies and an arome which doesn't offend my nostrils or make my eyes water. Soap, toilet paper and the option of hot running water would be a bonus! But I fear that's just asking a bit too much...


Pictures

Indian sleeper train
favourite bathroom
Getting measured up!
The best of Indian streets...
 
 
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