A Story of India — Parts 3&4

“Nah mate, don’t book the bus tickets, just turn up at the bus stop and buy your tickets on the bus, you’ll be fine.”, is possibly the worst tip anyone ever gave me during my stay in India. Let me run you through the motions.

The plan was to catch a sleeper bus for the 8-hour ride to Hampi, an ancient village and temple town about 400km north of Bangalore, and spend two days visiting this historic UNESCO World Heritage Site. Following the tip we were given just above, we looked online at what the bus route was, and loaded our backpacks in the Uber that would take us to what we thought was a bus station.

As the GPS started indicating we were closing in our destination, the Uber driver started to look somewhat uneasy and didn’t seem confident we were at the right spot. To be fair, neither did we, but then we didn’t know what we were looking for. He eventually dropped us off on the side of the road, muttered “Now you walk, bus this way”, vaguely pointing in the direction the road was going, and sped off into the distance. A quick look around brought us to the conclusion that we were, in fact, in the middle of nowhere.

What you need to understand is that when you reserve a seat in bus in India, there are a number of “pick-up points” listed during the reservation, and thus you get to choose where you get picked up from. The list has names of locations, which isn’t helpful, but it also has addresses and landmarks so you know where to go. Unfortunately, may it be Google Maps’ fault, or poorly indicated addresses in India, depending on how you interpret the address, you usually have a 2–3km radius of where the bus might stop. Even when the address is precise, the landmark which can be something along the lines of “Opposite Petrol Station” is also systematically miles away from the address it comes with, making it exceedingly difficult to catch buses in India. All in all, you’re usually left with 3 or 4 spots on the map where you think the bus will stop, and it’s up to you to guess which one is the most likely. How all the locals manage to catch buses is beyond me, because we sure as hell never managed.

I pulled out my phone to have a look at my own GPS and see if we could find what we were looking for, eventually finding something that seemed like the bus station on the map. We quickly make our way towards there, only to realise it’s a fenced construction site. The bus station had obviously been demolished a couple of years prior. Fantastic.

Thankfully however, we had a good hour and a half before the bus was scheduled to leave, meaning we had time to improvise. Being on the side of a road wasn’t helpful, so we made our way towards an area that looked slightly more lit up, in the hopes of finding someone that could help us out. After a while of going back and forth, not entirely sure what we are doing, we stumbled upon a travel agency. Unfortunately for us, the Indian manning the computer and reservation system doesn’t speak much English, but we managed to show him where we wanted to go, and he understands. We also decide it’s probably safer to buy bus tickets now instead of trying to buy them on the bus.

Having acquired bus tickets on a bus that, we believed, would take us to the right destination, it was then time to actually find the bus. After a few negotiations, we managed to persuade the guy in the office to show us exactly where the bus was going to pick us up, so we would be sure not to miss it. We waited in the streets for about half an hour, when the reservation guy dashed out of the office telling us the bus was coming and that we immediately needed to follow him. He took us just across the road and around a corner, and sure enough the bus arrived. We were surprised however, since we had booked a sleeper bus, to board a regular, overcrowded, city bus. Surely this wasn’t what we would be sleeping in all night? We didn’t have time to ask questions however, as the bus immediately took off and we were, once again, fairly clueless as to what we were doing.

Surely enough however, the bus dropped us off at what is known as “Bangalore Majestic”, which turned out to be a massive bus station, with buses coming and going in all directions. We took our tickets out and rushed to one of the information desks where we learned that we had about an hour before the bus even arrived, which incidentally meant we could have some overdue dinner.

We walked around the area with all our backpacks and gear, trying to stay reasonably close to the bus station, and eventually found a sketchy back alley restaurant. It was slightly too sketchy for my taste though, as there didn’t seem to be any Indians eating there, so I opted to buy crisps and biscuits which I had seen a couple of meters down the road. Crisps and chocolate biscuits would become the staple of my travelling diet, and would provide the perfect compromise between nutrition and morale.

We made our way back to Bangalore Majestic just on time and found our bus waiting for us. Against all odds we made it. Well, to the bus at least.

Now, when booking buses in India you get a couple of options, including if you want a “Super-fast” bus, and if you want AC (Air Conditioning). Since we didn’t exactly book, we had to take what was available, which was a Super-fast, non-AC Sleeper bus. A Sleeper bus is always arranged in the same way however, on one side of the bus you have two rows of double beds, one upper and one lower, and on the other side you have a single bed, same deal. As we were 6, we opted for 3 double beds to make sure we were all together and wouldn’t be sharing with someone we didn’t know. Depending on the company you book with, and the price you pay, your bed is more or less bare. In this case, all we had was a mattress, no cushion, no plug, no light, and definitely no blanket or box to store our things. I’ll be honest, this was a fairly cheap bus ticket. The second we took off we all wished we had spent slightly more and got an air-conditioned bus, as it was blazing hot outside and inside, and opening the bus windows meant you were exposing yourself to the noise and chaos of the roads outside. When we finally settled down and were ready to go, we all burst out laughing at how ridiculous this whole experience had been, and how ridiculously uncomfortable the bus was when parked, let alone when it was going to start moving. This whole episode felt truly surreal.

We quickly managed to fall asleep in our lightweight sleeping bags however, as we were exhausted from all the stress of finding the bus in the first place, but were rudely awoken at 3am when the “Super-fast” experience kicked in. The bus was swerving left and right, throwing us from side to side, at what felt like exceedingly high speeds. A quick look on my phone showed us doing speeds between 80 and 90 km/h, on small pothole-ridden roads in the mountains, at 3am, in the dark. We had been warned that buses in India were sketchy, but this was a whole new level.

By some miracle of chance, we made it to the town closest to Hampi on the bus’ route. We had no idea at what time we were going to arrive, or what the name of this town was, so none of us set any alarm clocks. Thankfully, the Indians have a great system. The driver gets out of his seat and walks up and down the aisle yelling the name of the town you just arrived in, ensuring that you are most definitely awake, and you know exactly where you are. It was about 4am when we arrived in “HOSAPETE!!!!”.

Rudely awoken, we jumped out of our seats and grabbed our things, with barely enough time to put our shoes on before the driver kicked off again. Groggy, smelly, and with only one shoe on, I made my way across the street where we had been dropped off to sit down and make sure I had all of my things, and put my second shoe on.

Peace was short lived however, as a battalion of tuktuk drivers swarmed us. I mentioned earlier that Indians have a different notion of personal space than we do; well, we had about 10 tuktuk drivers within a couple of inches of our faces, waiting for us to make a decision as to where we wanted to go. There were no Ubers in the vicinity however, so we had no idea of what a reasonable price was to get from Hosapete to Hampi. We negotiated for a bit with the guy who seemed to be in charge of this local group of tuktuk drivers, a scary-looking and slightly aggressive Indian-lookalike of Don Corleone, and we set off. In hindsight, we got completely ripped off.

The sky was slowly lighting up as the tuktuk drivers took us through the city, paddy fields, through the ancient village of Hampi, and all the way to our guest house. The rooms weren’t quite ready for us, but our host was ready to cook us breakfast, and we were delighted at the sight of “Nutella pancakes” on the menu. The guest house itself was fantastically located, with a beautiful view of the river that separates Hampi in two shores, and a perfect spot to enjoy the sunset over the river in the evening.

On the way to the guest house, our Mafioso tuktuk driver had explained that he had a package deal whereby we could get two tuktuks for the entire day, that would take us to see all the temples and sights around the area, for a set price which was the equivalent of 12 euros per cab, so about 4 euros per person. We mentioned that we needed to think about it and that we wanted to get changed and have some food. He, however, wanted an immediate response, and followed us into the guest house and into the dining area where he sat at the table next to ours and stared at us as we ordered and ate breakfast. He interrupted us every couple of minutes to suss out if we had decided or not. We finally agreed, because the price seemed reasonable, but mainly because we wanted to enjoy our breakfast in peace. The Mafioso gave us a rendezvous time, and told us not to be late. Charming.

Morale wasn’t at the highest, as we were hungry, hadn’t slept much in the bus, and were eager to get cleaned up. The peace and quiet and freshly made Nutella pancakes were, however, working a treat. All of a sudden the peacefulness was interrupted by an almighty ruckus and sounds of banging against metal all around us. We all raised our heads wandering what an earth was going on, only to see a group of 20 or 30 monkeys dashing across the rooftops and jumping from house to house and roof to roof, only meters away from us. All the monkeys in the area had obviously woken up, and were now busy climbing up the surrounding trees, hanging off people’s balconies, and scrapping on the roofs of all the guest houses around us. It was chaos like nothing I’d seen before, especially as it seemed to have come out of nowhere. We all dashed to grab our cameras to try and capture some of the magic and destruction that was taking place everywhere around us. India really is a place where things go from 0 to a 100 stunningly fast, and this was no exception.

Once the chaos had somewhat subsided, we decided to check out our rooms that were now available, drop off our things, and have a well-overdue shower. The rooms were extremely basic and not the cleanest, but this was an adventure, not a holiday. We did however have our first encounter with Indian showers. To this day I still don’t understand why all showers in all the guest houses we ended up staying in in India were all mounted above the toilet. This means you have to tiptoe your way around the toilet and forget about hygiene when you’re showering. Let me put a disclaimer in by saying that by the end of this 3-month adventure we were all used to these minor discomforts, and rarely paid attention to them at all, but at first they came as quite surprising.

Even more surprising was our first encounter with rain-water showers. I didn’t quite understand at first why there was only one knob in the bathroom under the shower head, until I turned it on and realised there were effectively only two water settings: on or off. Hilarity ensued as we each enjoyed our trickle of rain-water, tip-toeing our way around the bathroom, one after the other. I came to India to put all things material into perspective, this was definitely a good start.

As “agreed” upon with our Mafioso friend earlier on, tuktuks would come and pick us up around 9am. We left our rooms and made our way down the street, and surely enough our Mafioso Indian was shouting orders left, quickly providing us with two tuktuks and two drivers who would show us around the area all day.

We climbed aboard our tuktuks and headed off to visit the many temples of the area. Our tuktuk zigzagged between stalls, cows, and people on the cobble-stone streets, and we were soon out of the village itself and onto a main road leading us to our first temple. To give you a sense of scale, in 1500 AD, Vijaya Nagara, or “City of Victory”, had about 500,000 inhabitants, making it the second largest city in the world just after Beijing. The ruins of Vijaya Nagara now surround the modern village of Hampi, and that’s what we were set out to explore.

We made it to the location of our first temple and after climbing a few flights of stairs we reached what seemed like a small fortress. We weren’t alone however, as the area is now inhabited by hundreds of monkeys who were climbing from pillar to pillar and running through the temple. Admittedly we spent a lot of time taking photos of the monkeys instead of the actual historical site we were visiting, but they were right up in our faces and were downright hilarious. The smaller baby monkeys enjoyed acting tough and trying to scare us away, but as soon as they were alone face to face they would flee back to where they came from. Most of them however seemed fairly unbothered by our presence and just watched us walk by, only a few feet away from them.

We spent the whole morning cruising with our tuktuks from temple to temple, trying to take as much of it in as we possibly could. The area was huge, and it boggles the mind to imagine a city of such massive scale such a long time ago. The last temple before our lunch break however was within a huge fortress and was very well preserved, and thus required us to pay an entrance ticket. We negotiated as much as we could but there was no avoiding the tourist price, which is 20–30 times the price of the price for the locals. Admittedly not that expensive in the grand scheme of things, but still frustrating nonetheless. I’m quite happy to pay more than the locals to visit a fortress, but 30 times more? Not so much.

It was worth it however, as we found ourselves inside a very large fortress and got to visit some of the better-preserved temples and monuments of the area. As soon as we entered the main courtyard however, the girl in our group got swarmed by tourists and kids who wanted to take photos with her. Her distress and inability to escape from the situation was highly entertaining, and we applied our “leave all men behind” rule, and carried on.

Our next stop was lunch, at last. Our drivers dropped us off in an outdoor restaurant lost somewhere in the plains of Hampi, and we had the entire restaurant all to ourselves. The food quickly arrived and was served on traditional banana leaves. And it was glorious. We were all extremely tired from our short night on the bus however, and half the group fell asleep at the table, only to be awakened soon thereafter by the sound of mosquitoes who had figured out there was fresh victims in the area. We pondered the question of if there happened to be malaria in the region and if we should be worried, since none of us had had the forethought of checking online for malaria alerts in the region, let alone pack any anti-malaria tablets. Realising we weren’t going to get an answer to our question since none of us had any Internet, we decided it was safe after all.

As tired as we were, we decided to march on forwards and continue visiting, determined to make the most of this expedition and fight the sleep until later that night. We continued our visit from temple to temple throughout the afternoon until our last temple which was set at the very top of a mountain, giving us a glorious view of the area. We were lucky enough to find a couple of priests playing drums inside the main building, surrounded by monkeys that happened to be listening in and occasionally fighting between them. A doorway at the back of the temple led to some rocks we sat on, taking in the view of the area.

Our drivers then dropped us back in front of Hampi village, right in front of the biggest temple of them all, Virupaksha Temple, the entrance of which is a 50m-high tower. We weren’t allowed to take photos inside unfortunately, but it was extremely well maintained, and was buzzing with life. People were washing their clothes, praying, walking around, children were playing, and we even got to meet Lakshmi, the infamous Hampi temple-elephant, which we’d heard a lot about from friends who had visited Hampi before us. We would also catch a glimpse of her the following morning taking her morning bath in the river right by our guest house.

We left the temple and headed through the Hampi Bazaar to get back to our guest house for the night. In proper tourist fashion, I bought two pairs of colourful hippy pants that would become my adventure pants for the rest of our 3-month adventure. If I was going to live like a hippy backpacker, might as well play the part. Also, they are, to this day, the most comfortable thing I have ever worn.

Once we were changed and had freshened up at the guest house, we got to enjoy our first sunset in Hampi, sitting on our rooftop and overlooking the river and the giant boulders scattered across it. Definitely the perfect way to end a busy day.

To break in my new hippy pants, we decided to head to a hippy restaurant, and quickly found a calm spot in town to grab some food. The place was very basic and we sat on cushions and small mattresses on the floor, with soothing reggae and colourful posters all over the room, in true hippy fashion. It’s only after we had ordered a round of beers to start us off and asked why it was taking so long that we were told that alcohol was prohibited in the region. The owner was crafty however, and the reason why they were taking so long to arrive was because he had sent a kid to go the next town with his father’s tuktuk and buy some for us at the local store.

Once we were well and truly exhausted, we headed back to our rooms which we hadn’t properly inspected in the morning since we were trying to get ready in time to run off and make the most of the day. The first surprise was the presence of a huge mirror serving as a headrest. The mirror was several feet high, as wide as the double bed itself, and covered in fishy-looking white stains. The room itself was very red, but we didn’t want to start picturing what did or didn’t happen there before we moved in. I laid down on the mattress but quickly started to feel itchy. I got back up and, after a quick inspection, determined there were dozens of little bugs all over my cushion and inside the mattress. I killed as many of them as possible, wrapped myself as tightly as I could in my sleeping bag, and called it a day.

The following morning, after a brief rain-water shower and enjoying the end of the sunrise over the river, I had another Nutella pancake. The only difference with the one from the day before was this one happened to have a small fly in it. Call it extra flavouring.

Before leaving however, our Mafioso tuktuk driver stopped by to tell us he would take us back to the bus station later that night. We said we didn’t have anything planned just yet and would decide when we got back, but that we thought we might leave around 7.

Now, having explored one side of the river the day before, we had set our sights on the other, wilder, side of the river. We quickly made our way along the river to the crossing, took our shoes off to walk in the mud and water and climb onto a small raft that would take us to the other side.

The plan was to negotiate renting scooters on the other side to make our way around the area, visit some more temples and get a nice view of the countryside and paddy fields around the area. At the first scooter rental stop we found, we happened to meet a Scottish lad named Lewis who would share part of this journey with us. After examining how broken the machinery we were renting was, we rented 3 scooters for the 6 of us, and zoomed off into the distance. I would be passenger for this entire segment of this story, and it took me about 50 meters before I came to the conclusion that this was how I was going to die. My fears were only exacerbated as we skidded on sand and almost fell off after less than a mile on the road. Are tires meant to be smooth?

By some miracle we managed to make it to each temple alive and didn’t fall the entire morning. We eventually reached the famous Monkey Temple, where we were greeted with a flight of almost 600 steps to get to the top. The hike was well worth it however as we had a gorgeous panoramic view from one of the highest spots in the area, as well as a bunch of monkeys to play with. There was also a scary-looking “drinking water” fountain at the top. Thankfully I had my own water bottle, but curiosity got the better of me and I decided to follow the pipe at the back of the water fountain to see where it went. I climbed up a couple of rocks and followed it for about 50m, and was pleasantly surprised when I saw it dive straight into a murky-looking green pond. Always carry your own water bottle with you.

Our friend Lewis also happened to be a meditation and yoga instructor, who told us he was in India as part of a yoga “pilgrimage” so to speak. He gave us a quick initiation at the very top of Monkey Temple, making the whole experience even more peaceful. It truly is a wonderful spot.

We made our way back down the 600 steps and got back on our scooters to continue exploring. We had heard of a huge lake in the area that we wanted to have a look at, and headed in the direction we thought it was. We never found the lake, but we did, however, find an incredibly peaceful restaurant, hidden amongst the paddy fields and under a huge tent. We stopped there for lunch, laying down on the mattresses overlooking the paddy fields and watching the dragonflies whizz about as we ordered our food. We met a 60-year old French man who happened to be staying there and who was on a solo humanitarian mission, bringing basic school supplies for the children of the region. You really meet the most incredible people as soon as you head off the beaten track.

After what was possibly one of the best meals I had in India, we got back on our scooters and continued to explore. The road took us through paddy fields, zigzagging between rocky mountains and various small lakes and rivers, until we reached more inhabited regions. We made our way from small village to small village, stopping to say hi here and there. Each village was buzzing with activity and music, as they were still celebrating the festival of Ganesh Chathurdi. These villages were authentic rural villages, with not a single trace of touristic or foreigner influence. Many of the villagers seemed amazed to see us there in the first place.

The ride got slightly more aggressive as we started reaching main roads and could test out how fast our scooters could go. 90km/h is definitely not the speed I wanted to be doing on a rented scooter on a pot-hole ridden road without a helmet. Also, I wouldn’t recommend getting hit by a dragonfly in the face at that speed. They hurt, and they’re not fun to clean up.

We were still looking for this infamous giant lake, but the road we took landed us in front of a highway, at which point even the most fearless of the group agreed it wasn’t a good idea and that we should head back. Indian highways are dangerous enough if you’re riding in a tank, let alone a small scooter.

Time was running out for us anyway, and we made our way back to the scooter rental shack, covered in dust but having had a fantastic afternoon. We caught a raft back to the other side of the river and made our way ashore. While on the raft, one of the guys from our group showed us some very green and unripe bananas he had picked in one of the fields we went through, and that he planned on keeping until they ripened so he could eat them. His joy was short-lived however, as the monkeys in the area were getting increasingly agitated at the sight of the bananas he was carrying. He went for his bag to try and hide them as the Indians around were urging him to get rid of them, and before he knew it a group of monkeys ran towards him. He tossed the bananas over a fence and dove to the side, narrowly avoiding being hit by a mob of obviously starving monkeys.

Shortly before reaching our guest house, we were approached by an Indian who offered us a ride back into town. We told him we already had a ride later on, but he insisted and offered a significant discount compared to what we were going to pay our Mafioso tonight. He also seemed like a genuinely nice guy, so we agreed and decided that 8.30 would be the perfect time so we could freshen up, eat at the same spot as the night before, and catch a tuktuk all the way to the bus station just in time to get on our bus. Cheaper, more convenient, nicer, what more could you ask for?

As we arrived at the guest house, the manager asked us if we were ready to leave since our Mafioso friend would be arriving within the hour. We told him we had agreed to take another tuktuk, and that we didn’t need the Mafioso at all, at which point our manager turned very pale. It turns out our Mafioso friend had interpreted “maybe 7, we haven’t decided what we are doing yet” as “we will absolutely be there at 7 sharp, and agree to take your tuktuk”. Our guest manager was terrified of the consequences of us not riding with the Mafioso and choosing someone else.

A 45min altercation ensued where we desperately tried to make the point that we never agreed to anything in the first place, that the Mafioso was overly aggressive anyway, and that leaving with the other driver was much more convenient. It reached the point where our guest house manager was so scared that he was willing to pay the fare for us to avoid any trouble at his establishment.

Eventually, we caved, mainly because the manager had been so nice to us and we didn’t want to cause him any trouble. We left early, caught our Mafioso’s tuktuks and made our way back to Hospete, the nearby town where our bus would pick us up from.

We had an hour to kill and hadn’t had dinner yet, and a quick look online gave us the name of a restaurant that was right nearby our bus station. It had the added bonus of looking really clean and being air-conditioned. I went to the bathroom to wash my hands and face which were covered in dust from the tuktuk ride. And while I was looking at myself in the mirror, an Indian came in, headed to the sink next to mine, and blew his nose straight into the sink, snot flying across the room. I burst out laughing and ran out of the bathroom, both amazed and horrified at what I had just witnessed.

Knowing full well that we had an all-night bus ride home, I opted for the most basic meal I could find on the menu, a plain pizza. One of the guys on our team was slightly more adventurous however, and ordered a local dish that seemed exotic. He disappeared halfway through the meal however, and only reappeared much much later, very pale and covered in sweat. He had food poisoning, 15 minutes before having to spend all night on a bus. From that day onwards I made it a rule to never eat before a long bus or train ride.

The bus ride back to Bangalore was a nightmare for all of us, not only because our friend got off the bus at every stop, but also because there was a heat-wave and our seats were right at the front of the bus. This meant we had light in our faces all night, and were woken up every time the driver sounded the horn, which was every other minute. By the time we made it back to Bangalore city centre, we were exhausted, sweaty, and pretty miserable.

The driver parked the bus in the city centre and disappeared for a good half an hour. He had promised us he would take us all the way to the street where our campus was, so we went looking for him. We never found him however, and after half an hour of sitting around in an empty, open bus, we decided to make a run for it. We jumped off the bus, only to be greeted by several dozen rats running around the streets of Bangalore. We tip-toed our way to a safer sidewalk, and ordered a cab which took us all the way back to campus where we would be able to sleep for a few more hours before our lessons started. What a first adventure that was.