Goa-in, & The Deccan plains (part 1 of 2)

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Forgive me friends for I have sinned. It’s been at least 10 days since my last blog posting. Technically I’m still within my self imposed day time frame, and since only 2 people left comments on the last posting, I don’t feel any obligation to the rest of you lazy monkeys.

Where to start? It’s been a whirlwind 10 days, I’ve travelled just under 1,500 km. Each place visited is vastly different from its predecessor.

The last posting was written from Patnem in Goa. Two days later I left for Margao – a Goan transport hub, it was convenient for my outbound journey and for it’s proximity to a diving center.

It couldn’t have been more different from the beach. This was off the tourist path, the Potters bar or Rugby of Goa. But it was fascinating for being so completely different from anywhere I’d been to previously.

I took the ‘bone shaker’ express – aka the local bus, which provides a transport service, plus a kidney and internal organ massage, dislocated shoulder repair, and whose driving style has also been known to free constipated digestive systems. In a strange coincidence, when the bus pulled into Margao, I spotted my old friend ‘little tike’ (remember him from the last posting, the kid I gave my stare of death’). He waved sheepishly and came over to the bus window to say hello. I felt incredibly guilty at being a arse to him, and marvelled at how small the world is that enabled me to meet him again, 100km south, surrounded by loads of people, from a bus window.

Margao was gritty, and no one looked at me twice. At dusk I walked to the local market. It was incredibly surreal, impossibly crowded, and with service only shops circa England in the 1950’s. Countless stalls each occupied no more than a square meter and were crammed with products of every kind. Pyramidal mounds of fresh fruit, all greens and gold. Piles of brightly coloured spices, red and brown. Rice and pulses sold in large hemp sacks. Toiletries, kitchen ware, and Indian sweets all glistening with temptation! But don’t be fooled, this was no Tesco. Each zone sold only one category of product. So endless stalls crowded together selling the identical products of it’s neighbours, crazy!

The bazaar twisted and turned. The crush of people, cacophony of sounds and unfamiliarity overwhelmed my senses. I walked in a dull zombified stupor, mouth agape, drinking it all in with surprising solemnity.

In the distance a familiar sound, awkwardly displaced. An eon of time passed before I finally recognised the voice of ‘Shakin’ Stevens’ singing a 1980’s Christmas song. It’s as far away from Christmas as I could have possibly felt at that moment.

Outside the market a small brightly coloured oval Hindu temple sat in a square clearing. Painted in primary colours of bright blue, yellow and orange, bells clanged loudly as devotees offered prayers to the Gods. Heartbreakingly blackened old women sat squat, hawking coconuts outside the entrance. Flesh taught across sunken faces. Their bright pink and purple clothes sitting awkwardly against the look of loss and regret, age and endless toil on their world weary faces.

Sparrows swooped and circled, flying home to roost in the failing grey-gold light. A small child ran up to a black bull sitting amongst the coconut sellers, and roared loudly. In return the bull blinked passively, its mouth relaxed in a contemplative half smile.

Decrepit buildings lined the narrow streets. Facades once white, now monotone shades of grey-black. New concrete structures being raised along side, covered in a crazy patchwork of bamboo and stick scaffolding. The grey concrete and recycled red bricks had an instance appearance of age, of being decades old. Everything looks old.

Then out of nowhere, a patisserie! All chocolate swirls and strawberry icing. Outside a small headless fish lay on the broken footpath. I couldn’t help but think I was trapped in a Dali painting. I kept walking until I hit the generous green lawned colonial town square. Itself surrounded by sans-serif communist architecture, all egg yolk and concrete cream. The traffic around it punctuated by the shrill whistle of blue beret’d policewomen. The final scene, a ragged beggar stood still, staring mournfully at nothing, nothing at all… Truly an afternoon scene I will not forget. I bought an ice cream and (surreally) a dominos pizza and walked back to my hotel room to watch Goldeneye on the TV. Washing away the day and mainlining a remembrance of home directly into my psyche.

The dive:
At first light I travelled the 50kms to the dive center by local bus. It took over 2.5 hours, by the time I arrived I was very late and very stressed. I caught the boat just in time, they were already packed and ready to leave. On the boat I suddenly realised I couldn’t remember a damn thing of my scuba training, which was unsurprising considering it was almost 8 years ago. But I had no time to think as I hauled on my equipment.

My mask was poorly sealed, so when I back flipped into the sea, I took a lungful of water. Then I started to sink as my buoyancy jacket wasn’t properly inflated. In a panic I overinflated it, constricting my chest and making it difficult to breathe through the respirator. I elected to tell the dive master I was feeling pretty shaky, but he shrugged it off, indicating for me to descend. I went down 5 meters but the anxiety I felt on the surface meant I was breathing too hard and fast, my jacked was on too tight, which meant I couldn’t take a full breath, my mask was faulty and I swallowed water. It was all too much so I chickened out and ascended to the surface. It’s really not a good idea to be that anxious under water, if you lose it, bad things can happen. I clambered back on to the boat, and lay staring at the sky, but the feeling of fear and anxiety wouldn’t leave.

It was stupid really, I knew it was all in the mind. But there was no point in pushing furher. What I needed and elected to do was to step back and cut myself some slack. At the next dive site, I tried finding my sea legs by jumping right back on the (sea) horse and diving just below the surface to regain my confidence. After 15-20 minutes I finally started to relax and got comfortable with the strange feeling and equipment, and started to enjoy myself. One of the safety divers buddied with me for 20 minutes. We swam to only 10-15 meters depth in the murky sea. The visibility was poor, but you could still see coral and accompanying fish. To be honest I was just pleased to be there, and fairly proud of myself for giving it a go after such an awful start!

It was a good learning experience. Sometimes we push ourselves too hard trying to satiate or conquer a fear. Sometimes it’s better to give it space, acknowledge its presence, and work slowly (at your own pace) to overcome it. There endeth today’s lesson…

That night, after an incredible meal (I later found out the restaurant was voted the best ‘Indian restaurant’ in Goa), I packed my stuff and hit the sack, ready for my first ever (7am) journey on the notorious Indian railways. The station was cleaner and much more modern than I expected. I wasn’t sure which platform I should have been on, so approached the nearest group of backpackers to ask. It’s always a surprise to be met with an English accent, and even more so when the individual behind it is a pompous, surly, condescending wanker! The way he responded I thought I was back in London at rush hour, the silly shit!

The train finally arrived, and boy it was long! The carriages looked a bit 70’s. With bars across the windows and pale blue/dark blue paint it looked like a moving shack/prison. Inside it was pretty basic (I was in second class), the seats were pale blue wipe down faux leather, very upright, and only a little more space per seat than you would expect on the tube, (and it travelled about the same speed). I found myself sitting to a ‘whitey’ and was steeling myself for another clown, but we hit it off immediately, and he had the exact same encounter that I had with a pompous Brit when he got on board. Peter was an Australian, and for some unexplained reason seemed to appreciate my poor sense of humour and wit. It was the first train journey for both of us, and we were headed to the same place, Hampi.

The Deccan plains (part 1) – Hampi:
The scenery sweeping past our open carriage was breathtaking. the long trained snaked and meandered through hills, over valleys, before travelling through long fertile and well farmed plains. Banana and cane sugar plantations dominated, closely followed by vegetables, various fruit trees, cotton plantations and even bright red chilli farms. Away from the sea, the air was much drier, and the buildings were no longer covered in the ubiquitous grey-green mildew. But instead were clean, clear, and bright pastel coloured. Modernity would creep in every now and then, and it really did look modern. We could have been in Southern Europe.

On the train I ended up chatting to a group of Indian guys. We had interesting discussions about Indian politics, corruption, SAP implementations, the West, the Mazda rotary engine, the politics of oil, and compulsory land purchases! Quite the bizarre collection. I put the case that one of the key issues with India that I could see was the self interest of the ruling political class, and was met with the oddest and most convoluted logic I’ve ever heard. But it made sense to an Indian. Truly an enigma.

When we reached our destination, Peter and I needed to confirm our outbound journey, as the timetable for all Indian trains had changed that day. That was when I found out the douff-nut travel agent in Goa had f***ed up and booked me on a train from the wrong station. But I took it in my stride, reasoning I could figure out a way round.

The sun had begun to set and the auto rickshaw journey to Hampi was tinged with a soft golden half light. As we neared the town, huge boulders appeared all around. Seemingly placed deliberately either to provoke pleasure at their sculpted form, or awe at their sheer size and precarious existence of the delicate balance of sphere upon sphere.

And then we caught a glimpse of the palace ruins, picture the best of Greece or ancient Rome, add the strange and sublime boulder strewn landscape, and sprinkle with light from the setting sun, and you get just a taste of the magical air which enveloped us as we entered the town.

The town itself was bang in the center of the ruins, the scale of which was truly mind-boggling. A vast temple (circa 15th century), a strange mix of Jain, Hindu, with western style columns and stucco mouldings, and multi-layered tiers towered in the center. Part ochre, part custard creams, it was a huge wedding cake gone askew. Black faced langour monkeys sat calmly atop the aged buldings. Grooming, hooting, or bounding playfully.

Lakshmi the beautiful temple elephant blessed visitors with her trunk (for coins). She was peaceful, gentle, and seemingly filled with love. Her tentative trunk entreated passers by for coins or bananas. Eyes softly gazing as small children dared to stroke her bristly deep grey hide. On my last day in Hampi I followed her and her mahout to the river and ended up washing her. I was rewarded with a 2 minute elephant ride at the end (for a RS 150 donation, of course).

In Hampi we used a guide (recommended to me in Goa), who proved very knowledgeable about the architecture, history, lifestyle, stories and religious beliefs of the Deccan empire which occupied and build the city. It’s reach was vast, at it’s pinnacle covering a good portion of India, including parts of Sri-Lanka, Burma, Thailand and Laos. Which ties up a mystery from my last trip 8 years ago as to why these countries use derivatives of the ancient Indian Pali script for their written languages.

The kingdom was extremely wealthy, and successive generations(in deference to Hindu gods) built numerous temples and palaces around the city. The current estimate is that at it’s zenith it covered over 76 square miles, and was occupied by over a million people. To put this in perspective the impeccably preserved old bazaar was almost 1km in length, with one shop occupying every four pillars on two storeys, with a road passing through the middle as wide as two airport runways – insert mental picture Oxford street here. Much of this market was alleged to have sold precious metals and stones, such was the wealth of the population.

It’s downfall came when internal power struggles allowed a confederate of sultanates to sack the city and desecrate all the temples. I couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t rebuilt or occupied until the guide told me, once a temple is desecrated it’s considered very bad luck to occupy, rebuild or pray. So they basically deserted the whole place. An incredible tragedy if you ask me, centuries of architechture abandoned, but such is the nature of war and conquest.

We journeyed through the ruins, and I was struck by not only how well preserved they were, but also how few visitors were present. In most places we were alone, or occasionally met with a handful of others.

Many ruins were only unearthed (under layers of mud or thick jungle) over the last few decades, and excavation work was still taking place. If anyone were thinking of investing in India, my advice would be to buy land or a guesthouse right here, as it’s likely to boom with tourists at some point! One sour note was the ‘restoration’ work carried out by the Indian government. A sacriledge of concrete pillars and brick supports, what were they thinking!

We ended the day watching the sun set from an old temple (still in use) perched on a hill top, surrounded by sculpted silhouettes of stone. Giant golden boulders set in a garden palace of the Gods.

The next day was more of the same, although Peter convinced me to watch the sunrise from a nearby hill top. Our tour guide was informative, but rushed it, cramming in loads of palaces and information. Whereas we would have preferred a more leisurely pace.

Of particular merriment and enjoyment were the various stories of Hindu Gods and their incarnations. My favourites were the stories of Elephant headed Ganesh, who after eating too many sweets ended up crushing his ride (a rat?!), and bursting his belly (which he subsequently tied up – after replacing the sweets, with a passing cobra as a belt)! Or the infant Krishna who was some kind of butter-holic, and would (with his gang of mates) steal from kitchens and mug local mothers back from the shops. Then would appear all innocent (butter wouldn’t melt etc) and saintly to his mum when people complained. These and other stories were captured beautifully in granite carvings in and around the temples.

My time in Hampi was soured by our auto rickshaw driver (now forever known as c*nt-face). Breaking the cardinal back-packing rule of always setting a price in advance, he proceeded to fleece us. It wasn’t the money that bothered me, but the lack of honour, his bullying and sense of entitlement. I was also pissed off with the local travel agent who had three days and still had not booked my train ticket (the lazy swine), and now it was fully booked. On top of that, because of the train timetable change, I was forced to leave a day earlier than planned! And I loved it there. The owners of my guesthouse were lovely and suggested a way round my dilemma – which was fatally flawed, although I didn’t know it at the time…(more on that later).

To compensate, the sunset was spectacular on my last evening. I spent it alone amongst the ruins, finally sitting on a boulder precipice on the edge of the hill face. The graduated sky deep blue, merging into blood red, set in a blanket of violet. Delicate pure white stars sparkled diamond like at the periphery. As I walked back in the descending darkness, pale blue moonlight lit my path and bathed the ruins; sharp stone, still, cold, and black against the sky.

**End of the Deccan plains, part 1. Stay tuned for part 2, coming soon to a blog near you**

Below are some images, also see this posting for more.

The Hampi crew

Hampi sun down

Hampi Sillhoette

Hampi temple - dusk

Hampi firestarter

Hampi moonrise

Hazoor Sahib - Nanded

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