A rather hairy road trip later, including a flat tyre and a near miss with a goat, Sophie, Sophia, Tom and I arrived at a small village and were ushered into a rustic courtyard. We were given four mountain dews (a fizzy drink that I’d become quite partial to) and then left to our own devices.
“So where exactly are the camels?” Tom joked, though there was definitely a touch of anxiety in his voice.
We were soon beckoned however, by a small boy with piercing green eyes. He led us through the various thatched huts and out into the open and most importantly to an abundance of camels. Turbaned men stood huddled in a group smoking beedis, but jumped up on our arrival and headed towards the stationary and seated camels.
Our Jeep driver appeared and told us to pick a camel – with an overwhelming variety and not being a connoisseur on what attributes make the best steed, I settled on one with the nicest patch-
work quilt. Hoisted up by a youngish, turban-less man, he told me to lean back and as a severe gravitational pull took its hold over me (which took all my might to avoid plummeting to the sand below), I also realised that I had picked by far the largest camel.
A horse rider back in England (well back in the day) the size of animal I was used to was about 15.2, this beast was a giant and I was so high up that altitude sickness could have been on the cards – a slight exaggeration but it’s a good job I don’t suffer from vertigo, put it that way.
Like a pea on a drum, I turned to see the others mount their rides. Sophia and Sophie (both fellow pony club veterans) were fairly calm and collected, Tom on the other hand, had a facial expression that looked like defecation was a serious probability, I laughed. All mounted, we were led off by our individual guides and set off into the depths of the Thar desert, stopping at a large pool (a sort of natural oasis), the camels quenched their thirst and filled their humps.
The three girls were all wearing trousers, not only due to strict cultural regulations, but also due to the well-known fact (for riders anyhow) that bare leg and leather results in serious chaffing. Though we had warned Tom, he failed to heed our advice and soon his awe at being on a camel in the desert dwindled and was replaced with the pain of a raw inner thigh. His shorts, on ground level just below the knee had also morphed into a set of tight hot pants wedged firmly between his buttocks; Tom was in pain.
It wasn’t until twenty minutes later that his smile returned – when we’d dismounted on the side of a rather picturesque sand-dune and were presented with a cold kingfishers. Sipping on our cold beers, two local musicians (another instance of companies and locals being in cahoots – all determined to make their bit of cash from the tourists) approached over the nearest dune, sat next to us, asked our names, and the proceeded to sing the same song four times, only taking a quick inhalation between each to change from Alice to Tom, then from Sophie to Sophia.
‘Embrace it,’ I thought, ‘just embrace it.’ So we paid them 10 rupees each (though they were trying to get 100) and they sauntered off, with decidedly different expressions than when they had arrived. Before they had encroached on our area of peace and tranquillity. Unfortunately a rather obtrusive cirrus stratus obstructed the magical sunset that we’d anticipated, so we set off a bit early to where we’d spend the night, but nonetheless we were all very happy.
After remounting the camels – mine apparently was called Bob Marley – we set off at rather a faster speed, relaxing the pelvic muscles and adjusting to the motion (and having flash backs of the copious riding lessons and ‘sitting trot’) I managed to maintain balance and felt secure in the seat. Then Tom galloped past, clenching his buttocks and bouncing erratically up and down and using one hand in an attempt to protect his scrotum – it looked like a scene from Mr Bean. Sophie and Sophia caught up with Bob and the laughter started and it continued steadily until we reached our camp site fifteen minutes later.
Bob and an elderly green-turbaned man remained and the other camels and guides left us – when I said camp site, this was rather an exaggeration – there were four metal mesh beds saddled together with pillows and individual thick blankets. Rajn (the name of the elderly guide) set up his plastic sheet a few feet from us and tethered Bob to a near-by tree, said goodnight, unwrapped his turban to reveal a bald weathered scalp and quickly fell to sleep.
Described as a night under the glinting stars, again the cirrus stratus defied us – we saw just the two stars, one of which, considering its erratic movements could very likely have been a flaying satellite of some description. But: we were in the desert, under the sky, together and it was really, really amazing. A situation, in the words of Tom, where: ‘you need to take a step back and really think about where you are, who you’re with and what you’re doing.’ Surreal.
No more than 13 years old, the boy smiles as he paddles his circular vessel -which appears to be nothing more than a large wicker bowl – to and fro across the Tungabhadra river. Catching me raise my camera, he looks over, blows a kiss and laughs.
This boy is the private river taxi, the gondolier as it were of Hampi, and just as when in Venice together we weren’t allowed to go in a gondola (as Father deemed it a rip off), here we stuck to the Vaparetto equivalent too. The Vaparetto equivalent – an old boat filled to the absolute brim with tourists and that looked as if it wouldn’t be too long until it was also filled to the absolute brim with water.
We’re both able swimmers. We got in.
“I have a job,” his alcohol infused breath slurs in my ear.
“Please, leave me alone. I’m not interested,” I shout. Serial Killers can have jobs.
“You’re angry at me, let me buy you supper to say sorry,” he responds, putting his leg on the ground to balance his motorbike.
“Leave me alone,” I scream, “Leave me alone!” It’s dark, so dark. He’s sent us down the wrong street, we stand in a backstreet and panic sets in. A dead-end. How do we get out of here?
I run past him. My brain is whirring. The lights flash. I’m in the middle of the road. Bus. Horn bellows. Brakes screech.
We’d been planning to go to Casa Del Sol, a restaurant highly recommended in the lonely planet and had set off from the Intercontinental in high spirits. Wednesday was live music night and 2 for 1 cocktails. We would get pleasantly pissed on the large balcony and dance the night away. Well, that’s what we thought when we set off in the tuk-tuk.
“Here you are,” the driver said.
In retrospect, we should have checked, but for some reason we were being naively trusting. Needless to say, we had been left on the roadside in completely the wrong part of town. Dusk was slipping over the city and to make matters worse no other tuk-tuks would pick us up (normally we were bombarded with them). One takes for granted, when you get into a taxi in London, that your driver will actually always know where you are going. Thrust abroad, ‘the knowledge’ does not exist. That’s why you have to stay in the main areas – god knows we’d have never found our way back the first hotel which wasn’t on the MG road. It may be more expensive being in the thick of it, but at least you’ll find your way back.
Slightly agitated, we carried on walking and tried to dissect the lonely planet map, when came our saviour (again naive) – a young man on a motorbike, who after looking at the guide-book told us that he knew the way to Casa Del Sol.
“The thing is, it quite far away. I know, I take you on my bike and then come back and collect other.”
Sophie and I looked at each other, a ‘yeah, there’s no way that, that’s happening’ look.
“No, no. We’ll follow you,” I replied.
He tried to persuade us, but to no avail and eventually succumbed to the reality that he wouldn’t have a young western girl on the back of his bike.
Thus began our traipse around Bangalore. Soon dusk was succeeded by darkness and we realised that the man wasn’t interested helping us navigate the capital, but was simply interested in us. We tried to shake him, but he was persistent. We changed directions, he followed, we went into a bar, he waited…
As we left the bar and saw the silhouette of him and his bike still waiting I started to get frightened. This wasn’t fair. All we wanted was a nice meal out together and now we were being stalked, why couldn’t people just leave us alone? Why did this always have to happen? Why couldn’t anything just be simple? I felt both angry and vulnerable.
“Look, thank you for your help but we’re going to go by ourselves now, ok. We’re going to find it by ourselves.”
“I know where it is, I will help you.”
“No. We’re going ok. Just leave us alone now.”
“I have made you angry. I’m sorry.”
“It’s ok, we’re just going to go by ourselves now though.”
He zoomed off down the road.
“Thank fuck for that,” I said to Sophie.
“I know, what a weirdo.”
“Right, I think we need to go over this crossing and then it should be just on the left.”
The crossing, that was a story in itself. There were five main roads that intersected eachother – Fort Road, Lavelle Road, Hayes Road, Richmond Road and Mission Road. The volume of traffic hurtling along towards traffic lights was deeply unnerving. Lorries bellowed their horns at the last-minute before undertaking mo-peds – who darted stealthily out-of-the-way before becoming road-kill.
“We need to cross this road?” Sophie questioned.
“I know, how the hell are we going to manage this?”
We stood watching the mass of metal stream past us and started to weigh up our timings – when would be the best time to cross, where would the best place to cross. Then came the familiar, tinny sound of a motorbike. He was back.
“I’ve upset you. I’m sorry. Let me take you for supper and make up,” he drawled.
“No, look I’ve been polite. Just go away. We don’t want your help, just leave us alone,” I shouted.
He persisted. Sophie and I interlinked arms, kept our heads down and walked away. Still he persisted. I was angry, frightened, annoyed and at the end of my tether.
“This is the way,” he slurred following us down a side-street.
Shit. I’d gone the wrong way, this was a dead-end, oh god we were alone with this maniac. He came up behind me.
“Calm, calm. I have a job you know, I have a job,” he leant over, balancing one foot on the ground and tried to stroke my arm.
“Enough!” I screamed. “Just leave me alone.”
Then all went black. I don’t remember running into the road – just being in it and the piercing cry of the lorry. I looked up. This was it, I was going to be hit. I dropped my lonely planet and screamed.
The following morning I woke up early, had breakfast and set off into the town. It was going to be a productive day. I was going to get things done. Alone.
After the shambles of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, I still yearned to have an Indian miniature train experience, and I would h ave it, even if it would be by myself.
Taking a tuk tuk I wound my way down into the centre of town, along the rather congested road, past a bundle of buses and then to the railway station. I paid the driver and went inside.
Wonderful, I had managed to arrive in the one hour that the office was shut. There was no point in leaving and coming back, so I sat on the metal bench by the temporarily out of service booth and waited.
It was 20 minutes later that he shuffled towards me and sat down. He wore a jacket that smelt like musty oats and his head hung guiltily down towards his chest, like a school child getting told off.
I was reading my lonely planet, working out how I was going to get to Goa from Ooty, when he spoke.
I looked up. He was about 25, had a furrowed brow – like he was constantly concentrating very hard – and a thin moustache. “Yes.”
I looked back down.
“Do you like me?”
Holy fuck this guy was creepy. I didn’t really know what to do, so opted to play dumb.
“Sorry, I don’t understand you.”
This was when, thank god, the ticket booth opened. I got up hastily, leaving the freak in my wake.
After a bit of a communication failure, I finally managed to get my ticket to Conoor for the following day. I would be travelling 2nd class (there were only two), I would be leaving at 9.15 am and getting back at 4.15 pm and I would have a seat by the window (so that I could see the view) and facing forwards (I hate going backwards on trains).
Happy that I’d achieved what I had come to do, I had forgotten about Mr Thin Moustache – that was until I got the sense of someone very close behind me, that horrible sinking feeling when someone had trespassed the line into your personal space – that feeling. I turned and he stood there leering.
He leant forwards to me.
“Do you like sex?”
I must have misheard him. “What?”
Louder this time, “Do you like sex?”
For the second time in Ooty when I wanted to use all the cursing words in my vocabulary, instead I offered relatively tame responses. This time, my brain for some reason went on a female rights tirade.
“HOW DARE YOU SPEAK TO WOMEN LIKE THAT! LEAVE ME ALONE. LEAVE ME ALONE THIS INSTANT.”
He didn’t leave me alone. He followed me – it was as if he seemed to be turned on by my ferocity. Creep. I broke in to a run and jumped into the nearest tuk tuk, where I recoiled in disgust at the thought of him all the way to Naturals. After that, I wouldn’t just be having a wax – I was going to have me some relaxation and cleansing.
It rises in one smooth motion, hovers and then taps the crown of my head. I briefly feel the bristles touch my scalp. I shut my eyes.
We’re in Virpaksha Temple, Hampi and I’ve just been blessed by the live-in holy Elephant.
Flecked with Orange spots, the symbolic Ohms imprinted on its ears and a bronze bell tinkling around its thick neck, the religious giant stood looking – well, actually rather bored. It’s keeper – a thin, gangly man, stood both by the Elephant and a large hat filled with coins and notes. Yes, in true religious fashion – you had to pay to get blessed.
The man barked ‘ten rupees’ at me, but I slipped five into the Elephant’s quick moving trunk. The surrounding Indians seemed to be getting blessed for free -a typical tourist pays scenario. It turned out to be a good job too, as I only had ten rupees in coins and father missed the first photo opportunity.
This was the second:
Market stalls line either side of the street, chickens squawk, cows exhale heavily and children run forwards and backwards dodging tuk-tuks.
My eyes strain against the last of the sun as we meander through Hampi’s chaotic yet somehow calm centre. My hands grip my wilting Lonely Planet – whose pages keep trying to escape with the Easterly breeze.
I glance back over my shoulder at a vast Temple which I later find out to be the Virupaksha and then we continue onwards to The Mango Tree.
“Hey, hey you,” an excited voice sounds behind me, “Hey I know you.”
I’d dealt with my fair share of shop assistant ploys, but this one was new. Father sighed as I turned back to investigate.
“Wait a second, I know you too.”
It was the guy from Manali who’d had the amazing gold necklace I had wanted to buy. His shop was next door to the music shop – to Jonnie’s shop! Out of a population of 1,241,491,960 I’d managed to bump into one individual twice – I really had been in India for a long time.
We went in.
A short, thick branch slaps across its hairy hide and we’re off. Max and I are on-board the largest vessel from the trip so far, larger even, than the giant camel Bob Marley, we’re on an Elephant.
The last time I was in India, Flash and I went to an elephant sanctuary near the Periyar Tiger Reserve and it was fantastic. The Elephants lived in glorious surroundings, were free to roam around their paddocks and really seemed to enjoy life.
We’d gone on a ride through some of Kerala’s finest terrain (lush forest, babbling wildlife, gurgling streams), we’d washed and fed them and even been washed by them (see picture) – so, I was rather disappointed to arrive in what looked like a building site, in which rested (or rather were chained to metal poles) five uncomfortably hot Elephants.
Walking towards these tethered beasts, I wondered why they weren’t looking at us with normal animal inquisitiveness – looking at their eyes I realised. Like cloudy days, their eyes were contaminated with cataracts.
Turning around wasn’t going to achieve anything. So, though saddened by the animals plight, I didn’t leave – I got on. We both did. Our walk didn’t consist of a trek through beautiful scenery, no, we shelled out 800 rupees to walk 50 metres up, and 50 metres back, one of Varkala’s particularly boring backstreets.
Smack, the branch whacks for the final time and we turn back into the yard. Dismount.
Periyar Tiger Reserve
Washing the Elephant
And vice versa…
Dewy water sticks to waxy leaves, fungi sprouts from a weathered log and Vervet monkey droppings litter the spongy ground. It’s 2 pm and we’re halfway through the Braveheart walk in Tranquil’s coffee plantation.
I breathe – a deep lung-filling breath – and continue uphill along the winding track, close on my heels Father puffs. Not hot, but humid the sky seems to wrap around my face. How much further? How much further?
“I knew it said tough, but this is a bit much isn’t it?” I say, turning to him, my hands on hips.
“Come on Noodle, we’ve trekked over the Throng La we can do this.”
He was right, three years before we had trekked over the highest pass in the world – the Throng La in Nepal. It had taken us just over three weeks to complete the Annapurna Circuit, to reach the whopping 5,416 metre pass and to return down to Pokhara. What was I complaining about?
Flash had been on that trip too. I had forced him out of London with the bait that on the trek he would pass the highest donner shop in the world (I kid you not) – Flash was rather rotund at that time. Shockingly, however, after realising that he wouldn’t be passing the highest fast food joint in the world and a brief stint of trying to break his own ankle, Flash took pretty well to trekking – he beat me over the pass and lost 3 1/2 stone in the process, which, incidentally, he has kept off ever since.
“There,” Father continues, “I think it’s just over there.”
I look, a wide stretch of rock shimmers in the distance, I can see it, but I don’t know far it is. Move legs, move legs. My hamstring burns, though I’ve lost weight, I’ve lost muscle tone too. Head down, keep walking, breathe, keep walking, look up. Look up.
Spread out before me, lies, like a Hardy Intro, swathes of green, a sea of trees, nature at its finest – untouched. I sit, the rock smooth beneath me, I stare.
It was the second day at the top of Monkey Temple that I realised that Hampi was the most beautiful place that I had ever been. It was as if bits of the world had collided together: the dry, huge boulders of the northern plains of Kenya, the palm trees of the Maldives, the banana trees of St Lucia and the river straight from the foothills of the Himalaya in Nepal. The terrain looked both haphazard yet perfectly planned, a testament to the great artist, to Mother Nature herself.