Rural India, it was safe to say we had arrived. The journey had not been pleasant; my travel buddy Ben had braved the onboard toilet, slipped and emerged covered in shit. He seemed genuinely traumatised and I didn’t blame him. Indian toilets are never good but the ones on trains truly are the worst, Indians will wipe their shit covered hands on the walls or even put the toilet lid down and take a dump on it. I have no idea why anyone would do this but it’s absolutely disgusting. Our train ride was made worse by a very persistent tout with an unfortunate skin disease. Huge splotches of luminous white skin covered his face and hands and he almost looked like he could be European. His lips looked like two large dead worms and although I felt extremely sorry for him I still did not want to buy any Hindi music CDs. A painfully slow train had carried us from the colossal concrete jungle of Bombay’s suburbs further and further into the heart of the state of Maharashtra. From here the railway guttered to a halt and we would travel by local buses. As the days merged into one the names of towns and villages fluttered by like leaves, some were possible to catch but others did not even have English translations and more still appeared to have no name at all. Many of these towns were filled to bursting with historic ruins and yet none of them appeared to have any tourist industry. At no point during this phase of our journey did we see another white face and the local populace were more keen than ever to meet and greet us as we explored the sights neglected, or maybe merely unknown, by most travellers upon the subcontinent. In Gulbarga we gaped at the second largest mosque in Asia, in Bidar a one hundred rupee bribe opened the underground escape tunnels, wide enough for cavalry to ride through, beneath an impenetrable fortress with walls 5.5km long and a three tiered moat. In Bijapur we whispered into the walls of the auditorium, a building which is engineered so that even the lightest sound from one corner can be clearly heard on the other side of the structure, dozens of meters away. Perhaps the most interesting of all the sites we beheld however was the agelessness of the scenes unfurling along the roadside as we passed by in ancient buses.
Red dust swirled thickly through the windows coating everything in a choking rusty hue. Through the dust snapshots of rural life could be made out. Wiry hogs snuffled at piles of garbage decorating the infrequent street corners. Crowds of women in black burqas haggled with vegetable sellers, children playing at their feet. Young boys rode atop bullock carts directing their miscellaneous cargoes to unknown destinations alongside troops of turbaned men with handlebar moustaches and dust covered, homespun dhotis herding groups of water buffalo. Five meters back from the road a shrine stood encapsulated in a small area lovingly brushed dust free by Hindu locals coming to perform puja whilst a small distance away children and old people alike performed their ablutions within sight of anyone who glanced in their direction. These traditional rural scenes were played out against a changing backdrop of sugarcane, rice and millet fields in various states of use; some were tilled, many were planted and occasionally they appeared sad and neglected. Every now and again a sugarcane juice seller had set up his stall with its rotating red wheels, run by a small diesel powered generator which crushed the juice into glasses of dubious cleanliness, 5Rs for a small glass, 7Rs for a large.
After a couple of weeks of exploring middle of nowhere towns and staying in some really basic accommodation we decided it would be good to get back on the tourist trail and jumped on a bus to Hampi. Ben had become increasingly ill with stomach upsets and needed to rest up in more sanitary conditions than those available in the dusty towns and villages lining the road. Once in Hampi thoughts of recuperation had to be delayed for it was my twenty-third birthday and it was therefore time to begin the great British tradition of getting absolutely shit faced and making a tit of oneself. The day began with a banana nutella pancake and my presents from the lads which included a pair of mutated action figure animals complete with swords and armour. It was apparent that my friends knew me too well as I honestly struggled to think of a better present. A few hours later and we were all ridiculously drunk having attempted to consume multiple beers and pair of 225ml bottles of rum apiece. I awoke doubled over a table in the bar to find that I had actually succeeded in finishing both of my bottles of rum and required carrying to bed, Ben promptly dropped me and then fell into the bushes to be violently sick.
The next day Ben was truly sick, rather than killing his stomach bug the booze seemed to have simply made it worse. I hired a motorbike and went off in search of a pharmacy to buy some antibiotics. The dirt paths were hard to ride on and we had a couple of near misses on sharp corners bordering decidedly wet looking paddy fields. Just driving around Hampi was amazing though. The rice fields are such an incredible green and are bordered by the huge piles of bronze boulders littered about the place like the building blocks of an unruly child. Temples and shrines burst from every crevice and the palm trees sway in a cooling breeze. Down a little known path is a huge lake where locals and backpackers alike come to swim and jump off the piles of rock into the waters. The current is extremely strong and so I hopped in a perfectly circular boat, a coracle, to explore the further reaches of the lake. The boat proved almost impossible to control however and just span around and around. Perhaps there is a reason that this is the only place I have ever seen circular boats. It wasn’t till we got out of the freezing cold water that I realised my phone was in my pocket and was, for lack of a better word, fucked. Luckily it was only a shitty Nokia but it was good to have a phone to arrange to meet up with CSers and it was going to be a pain to replace. I jumped back on the bike and began the ride back to Ben, the lake had been absolutely freezing but the hot sun quickly dried me and I felt truly chilled out. On the way back we became sidetracked by a small cafe with a projector screen and fresh fruit shakes, sitting back we sipped on a pair of mango lassis and amazingly got to watch ‘Inception’ … all in all, the best ‘day after’ a birthday mash up I have ever had.
The following day Ben was still sick so I spent the morning building rock piles on top of the huge boulders that litter the landscape. There are dozens of rock piles on almost all of the boulders, travelers and Indians alike seem to build them for luck. Some of the harder to reach boulders however are lacking the lucky piles and it was these we attempted to reach. By scrambling up steep inclines and jumping from boulder to boulder we eventually made out way to a massive slab of rock protruding from the face of the hill we had been climbing. To get to it I had to edge my way along an extremely narrow path before jumping onto it, if I had slipped I would have fallen around a hundred metres before reaching my bloody demise. I built the pile with rocks a fellow backpacker threw me from the safety of the path, took a picture and returned to my buddy via a complicated scramble down and across the rock slab. The sun was getting high in the sky and we were running out of water so we jumped on our shared motorbike and headed to a small cafe to while away the rest of the day with card games and mango lassis.
After a few days of chilling out we began to hear more and more about the Hippy enclave of Gokarna. I had heard very mixed reports of this up and coming stretch of coastline but everyone agreed on one thing; for better or for worse this was where the hippy scene was strongest in India. I was curious, a lot of the ‘hippies’ I had met thus far had been rather unadventurous and some had been downright boring. Gokarna was being hailed as the ‘new Goa’ and although I had loved my time in Goa I had to admit there hadn’t been a lot in the way of partying. We decided to find out for ourselves and boarded a night bus. Losing in a rock, paper, scissors championship of epic proportions I had to share a bunk upon the sleeper bus with a stranger whilst my two travel companions, Ben and Alexis, snuggled up together. This turned out to be no bad thing. Luke is a wild eyed, scruffy haired Englishman from Bristol with a great affection for hash, women and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. As it turned out we had a bit in common and we spent the journey happily smoking joints out of the window and listening to ‘By the way’ on loop. Eventually we fell asleep only to discover that the bus had, somehow, arrived four hours early and we were therefore stranded in an unknown area, which turned out to be quite a rocky cliff with a seriously steep drop, at three in the morning. Luke’s solution to this was to roll a joint and sleep on the ground and after weighing up the options we agreed that this was probably the best option, we rolled up and we slept.
With the morning light we finally started to warm up a bit. It had been surprisingly cold lying on the ground and we were all pretty hungry as well. We found a path with a crude wooden sign reading ‘beach’ and slogged down towards the sand; I was excited to see what Gokarna had to offer. I envisioned crazy parties, hot dreadlocked girls with low self esteem, hemp bikinis, hell I was planning on a hippy orgy. As I gazed along the slightly dirty beach and into the undeniably dirty water I was somewhat unsure as to why we had come here. My dreams of a hippy orgy swiftly began to evaporate. It quickly became apparent that when people referred to Gokarna as ‘the new Goa’ they were in fact referring to the easy availability of hard drugs rather than the location itself. Frankly, having been offered acid, mushrooms, marijuana and horse tranquilizer whilst in Goa it seemed that only the most hard core of druggies would be interested in moving along to Gokarna specifically to search for new highs. It was also apparent that only the most deranged of psychopaths could claim that this beach was more beautiful than Palolem or Patnem. Still, there are far less people in Gokarna and that was definitely an advantage. Unfortunately there was also a lot less to do and considering the extraordinary availability of whatever drugs you may fancy a lot of people seemed to literally just bake all day on the beach. Luckily Ben quickly discovered that we could hire some fishing line from the strange guy, who enjoyed greeting potential customers with a bird like shriek and a flap of his arms, who rented our huts. There really is nothing quite like fishing next to the sea. As I gazed out at the rising and falling sapphire etched waves and felt the heat of the rising sun upon my back it didn’t even seem to matter if I caught a single fish… “Aha! I’ve got you, you bastard!” I yelled into the sea as my hook finally latched onto something, “Its huge lads! I’ve caught a bloody Marlin! Quick, help me, it’s too strong!” I could barely move the line and as I yanked it backwards and forwards, sometimes gaining an inch and sometimes losing an inch, it quickly occurred to my watching friends that I had in fact caught a rock. They decided not to point this out for over ten minutes whilst I grunted, strained and interpreted the movement of the waves as the death throes of some great beast entrapped upon my line. After a morning of wrestling rocks we tended to head back up the beach and join Luke for his tenth, or perhaps hundredth, joint of the day before playing some very relaxed Frisbee or volleyball on the beach with whatever gaggle of hopeless hippies turned up.
After a few nights on the beach we headed along to a little shack frequented by Western Sadhus, that is to say foreign travellers who have come to India, found a spiritual calling and never left. Even though there was always a few of them around each seemed to prefer his own corner to the company of others. Some had obviously been here a really long time. Gently rocking and dressed in faded orange robes they stared at everything and nothing with deeply hooded eyes. Their faces were invariably badly sunburnt and most of them appeared ancient with numerous wavy flaps of skin showing the old dimensions of their bodies before voluntary malnutrition had set in. They were the most effective anti-drugs advert I have ever seen. Alexis and I were still recovering from a ridiculously potent special shake from the night before where we had become convinced we were under the sea and so decided to steer clear of drugs for a while. Ben, whom we had frequently sent out to get us water and snacks, looked decidedly relieved. A few of the Sadhus, generally younger and in cleaner clothes, were obviously hippy fakers and would obey the law by returning home to Europe or the US once they’re six month visa had expired. A surprisingly large number of these ‘fake hippies’ plague India. Often they come here for a mere couple of weeks before shaving off their beards, heading home and donning their suit and tie for work. Most of the time they are harmless but even so they can be irritating in their attempts to ‘preach’, almost always within earshot of bikini clad young women, about spirituality and free love. The only free love that I encountered whilst in Gokarna was that of Sandy. With long, skinny legs, a delicate gait and beautiful amber eyes she instantly caught my attention. Seeing me looking at her she gently padded over, blonde hair flashing brilliantly in the sun, and, sitting back upon her haunches, began begging for food. Despite the obvious assumption that this is simply the perfect women I am going to point out that I am in fact referring to a dog. We quickly adopted the mongrel puppy and would take to feeding her scraps and chasing away larger, predatory, dogs with a flurry of kicks. Finally, as is always the case with the humble backpacker, it was time to say goodbye to our new friends; Sandy, the weird bird like dude and chilled out, partially brain dead, Luke. Our next destination was going to be a hell of a change from the laid back, if a little bit boring, beaches we had become used to. Bangalore, the IT capital of India, awaited.
The five hundred rupee note disappeared up the khaki sleeve with all the speed and dexterity of a magician. Moving swiftly on, the corrupt police officer stopped at the next car to breathalyse another almost certainly intoxicated driver and extort more money to compensate his Government wage. At 10pm on a Saturday night the streets of Bangalore, one of India’s richest cities, were packed to bursting with sharp looking men in designer shirts escorting, or merely stalking, groups of scantily clad women with shiny black hair and pastel coloured high heels. Sensing his moment of freedom and anxious that the police might either ask for more money or try to impose the actual 2000RS fine, Saji half glided and half rammed his way through the bottleneck of traffic and back onto the highway where he was finally able to release some very impressive road rage. Once back at his place our host handed around beers and set about providing a truly scrumptious spread. Saji originates from Kerala which is famous for its tasty seaside cuisine and as a new, incredibly enthusiastic couchsurfer, he was keen to show us his own take on Keralan cooking. Mounds of mouth watering chicken delicately fried in coconut oil accompanied by soft white rice and pan fried slices of freshly caught King fish created a blend of mouth-watering aromas which drew us into the kitchen again and again to filch succulent morsels of chicken straight from the pan. The evening continued in a whirlwind of food, music, beer and cocktails until finally, spilling most of a mojhito over myself and Ben, I was forced to call it a night and pass out in the guestroom which Saji had generously provided for us.
The next couple of days passed by at a ridiculously fast pace, largely fueled by strong beers. Saji was keen to make sure we got the most out of our stay in Bangalore and was constantly arranging stuff for us to do. Saji is a truly genuine guy and the only problem is he absolutely refused to let us pay for anything, his generosity was so unending and so unnecessary that at times I was a little embarrassed as he insisted on paying not only for himself but also for all of us for almost everything. As well as paying for us he was already hosting, feeding and driving us everywhere. Thus is the nature of couchsurfing, the project had allowed us to penetrate, with the help of a gracious host, a side of a city which we almost certainly would not have seen otherwise. Saji took us to little known bars down twisting alleys, to one of the most amazing water parks I have ever been too complete with death-defying rides and to a chilled, plush hookah bar where we took it in turns to laugh at the unfortunate faces made by Alexis as he attempted to blow smoke rings. This side of Bangalore would almost certainly have been hidden to us due to the sheer scale of the city’s population, almost nine million people, and the choking fumes which conceal half of its best kept secrets. To my surprise I found that I really liked Bangalore, here was a city with modern comforts and a bustling night life which had not forgotten its roots. Everywhere I looked high flyers and software developers rushed to work, leather briefcases in hand. Few seemed to have forgotten the rural backgrounds from which most of them originated and even the best dressed and most successful looking businessmen flaunted golden tikkas smeared across their foreheads. Ultimately however the city had a very cosmopolitan feel and had it not been for the people residing there and they’re obvious affection for their roots it would have been too easy to imagine myself in Eastern Europe. With a cheerful goodbye to Saji and promises to visit again soon, we donned our packs and headed to the bus stand. Privately I was pleased. Cosmopolitan India is always fun for a few days but it quickly becomes samey and ultimately it is rural India which really captures the imagination. I was thrilled to be headed back into the unknown, the unfathomable and the unreal yet again.