May 17th – The Big Blue

I woke that morning with the continued intention of reaching my beach destination at Malvan. My trusty map had told me that there was a beach there and that there was a fortress somewhere in the town. It was a fair target to reach.

As I rattled through the beautiful but varied scenery toward the coast, I began to warm to the idea of bussing the Konkan coast. Around me I saw no westerners, no tourist crap, no spoiled scenery and no help from the guidebook. As the jungle jostled with the roadside and cut though tiny towns, the idea that I was somehow in the process of discovering India’s ‘next big thing’ began to spur me on. I had found that the compulsion to explore every new, obscure corner of the continent was a pressing one. While the Lonely Planet guide was an invaluable one, the temptation to blaze your own trail and have a set of unique experiences that could trump any at the next traveller hangout was too great to ignore. I had fully entered the backpacker’s mindset.

Suddenly, the jungle peeled away and we leaped out into the harsh sunlight. The road jutted out across a rock-strewn plateau, deep brown and scattered with small tufts of yellow grass. Beyond, down toward the deep blue of the sea-and-sky horizon, lay Malvan. From here, it was nothing but a cluster of white buildings nestled between the gaps in the jungle, as if sheltering amongst themselves against the searing heat of the sun.

As I searched for the fortress along Malvan’s main street, I picked up various bits of food: cheap, sugary biscuits, a whole pineapple, some bananas, a packet of strange, salty hard biscuits that I suspected were designed to be fed to dogs. Perhaps they would have been a useful distraction a couple of nights back, I chucked to myself.

Malvan felt very undeveloped. Aside from the bus stand and some of the larger residences off the main street, much of the town had the lashed-up feeling that many of the houses that Alec and I had seen in Anjuna had – before they were pulled down.

The comparison did make me wonder how Malvan would cope during the monsoon: If Anjuna simply shut down during the monsoon season because there was no economic mainstay, what did Malvan do? Did it subsist entirely separately from the tourist infrastructure? Where did the money come from around here? Did people ever leave? It was an ‘ignorant tourist’ moment, to be sure.

At the end of the road that stopped abruptly at the sea, I found out how Malvan must bring the majority of its tourists. It looked as if someone had deposited a very wide, flat building several hundred meters off shore. At the jetty that struck out into the water, I joined the short queue of Indian tourists. A boat slowly chugged across the water towards us.

Our destination was silhouetted against the deep blues of the sea and sky of behind it, making it impossible to make out in the baking sunlight. It looked far too uniform and flat to be natural. Indeed, it was only as our small boat approached the island that this long form became more defined. Despite the sharp, angular edges of the island between the deep blue of the water and the deeper blue of the sky, there also stood palm trees jutting from the top of the profile, as well as a power line that bounced from rock to rock across the straits before disappearing into the island. The formidable cliffs repelled the boisterous waves that broke against them.

The island before us was what I had been looking for: Sindhudurg Fort. It had been built in the 17th century by the local king on a natural island that he had commandeered for military purposes. It was not hard to see why he had expended such mammoth resources to build it; it certainly lent itself to these purposes. As our boat drew alongside it, we begun to better see the solid towers that jutted out from the rumbling surf in its shadows. The walls were constructed of enormous bricks the size of a washing machines. The only clues before us to the natural origin of the island were the scattered rocks that jutted out of the water beneath them.

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“The formidable cliffs repelled the boisterous waves that broke against them” – Sindhurdurg Fort, India –

Our boat continued to chug around the imposing perimeter and in time arrived at a landing beach that housed a handful of other smaller skiffs and motorboats. The presence of an accommodating jetty and the colourful holidaymakers who wandered through the discrete gap in the walls felt like a violation of the fort’s integrity, as if a set of grappling hooks and barrel of gunpowder would have been a more appropriate way of gaining entry.

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– Sindhudurg Fort, India –

Still, I did feel like I was part of some kind of raiding force in Pirates of the Caribbean as I disembarked from the boat, moved up the white hot beach and weaved through the shady, narrow S-shaped chicane between the two walls. The entrance had been designed so that, from the distance that any invading vessel would have to keep at sea, it was invisible against the curve of the walls.

Inside, I wound back upon myself and up the narrow stairs that had no handrail to hold on to. I stepped up onto the high walls. Having conquered the castle myself, I could see that advantage that the defender had in such a place. Looking back out to where my boat had just arrived, I could see another small boat full of tourists slowly approach the beach. I pretended to light a cannon and let off a round, sinking the boat with all its crew. At least then I could explore the island on my own!

I began to circle the castle along the high ramparts that bordered it. They surrounded what was otherwise a natural and untamed island. To my left I looked out across the water: the green, shallow hills of the shoreline and the mighty, flat blue of the Arabian Sea beyond; to my right, there swayed a laziness of palm trees and yellow scraggy grass in between the bulbous rocks. It was only in front of me, beneath my feet and curling cunningly around the perimeter of the island, that there stood the gargantuan ramparts that made this island a fortress.

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– Sindhudurg Fort, India –

Stepping down from these high walls, I explored the interior of the island. Although the fort seemed unlikely to be invaded again anytime soon, houses did remain within the island, perhaps clinging on to the tourist economy here. In classic Indian style, the power line that had stretched over the expanse of water to the island was powering the small canteen right in the centre of the island. I suppose it was too much to ask for Sindhudurg Fort to remain unspoiled, wasn’t it?

However, it was easy to forget that I was on an island. As I moved through the undergrowth and smoothed rocks, I was almost surprised to be interrupted by a high wall with a small doorway at the bottom. Crouching through the doorway, I stepped down onto a shingle beach just as the latest wave was sucking the pebbles back toward the water with that crunching, sucking, grinding sound that is so unmistakeable. Before me lay a wide ocean, dotted with the profile of supertankers trundling along the horizon up to Mumbai, a hundred miles north. Above me towered thick brown ramparts that hugged my back and edged me toward the sea, which frothed white in front of me. Quickly, another wave ran quickly up the small beach, spilling over my feet and up my legs.

The fort conquered, our raiding party returned to the mainland. As the small boat chugged back across the water, I surveyed the area beyond Malvan whilst I still could. Separating the sea and sky’s shared deep blues was a strip of white and green that curved away from Malvan and far off to my right. I picked out a spot on the beach a mile away that I would swim at. Apart from the occasional human outline dotted along the beach, it looked deserted.

With my lunch in my bag, I set off down the beach towards my chosen spot. As I left the tiny waterside of Malvan and moved further down the beach, there lay lines of fishing boats similar to those I had pretended to fire a cannonball at earlier on. It seemed they were used to catch fish as well as transport tourists. Occasionally groups of people squatted in the shades of these boats or slept inside them, their feet poking out of the sides.

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– Malvan, India –

As I walked, I passed an assortment of dead sea animals that had been discarded from the fishing boats. Some were bloated and fly-plagued, others had been in the sun longer and had dried into a yellow parchment texture. Indeed, it was as hot on the beach as it was in the fort. Sun cream and sweat mixed on the back of my neck and, as I trudged on with the sun beating down on my head, I awaited the thought of a swim with relish.

Then that I saw the first pile of poo. It was sat on the beach near the water with a neat pair of human footprints either side of it. The owner was no-where to be seen and so I put it down to misfortune or the urgent call of nature and kept walking. But, not a minute later, I passed another. Further down the beach ahead of me, I saw someone producing a third.

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“There they were, literally shitting all over my chances of a good swim” – Malvan, India –

It was at that moment that I stopped to examine my surroundings in closer detail. Sure enough, small shapes of people dotted up and down the beach in the distance. Each person seemed to be in the process of producing more piles of human waste in the shallows of the beautiful beach that I had spent the last half an hour waiting to wade into. From a distance, I could observe each individual emerge from the trees behind me, walk out to the waterline and squat down before, in time, standing up again and disappearing back into the undergrowth. There they were, literally shitting all over my chances of a good swim.

Suddenly the sea did not look so inviting anymore.

I walked to the nearest strip of shade that a beached canoe provided me and lay down my heavy bag next to a stray dog. I was tired and disappointed at this turn of events. Unfortunately, the steady wind had carved a slick wind tunnel beneath the canoe, so that a steady gust of hot, dry sand stuck itself to my greasy arms and neck as I tried to recline and take stock of the situation. As I sat there, sweating, sun burned and sand-blasted, I wondered about what alternative these people must have had to shitting in the sea.

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– Malvan, India –

The reality was that the village through those trees clearly had no sanitation system to speak of. From my perspective, the idea of shitting in the sea violated some pretty basic sensitivities that I had grown up with about the natural environment. But in this case, there was obviously no alternative. Indeed, the fact that they clearly fished in these waters for food only exacerbated the apparent misfortune of the situation.

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– Malvan, India –

I continued to muse upon this wretched situation as I begun the long walk back up the beach. To this day, I can never hear the phrase ‘don’t shit where you eat’ without remembering that beach. So much is different in India than elsewhere, as symbolised by the shit-covered beach and the phrase that had been so visibly undermined by that scene. The cultural baggage that westerners bring to this country is rendered utterly  inappropriate by the lack of cleanliness, infrastructure, luxuries and basic safety that we enjoy in our home lands. These people were helping to destroy their greatest asset here through sheer lack of alternatives.

If tourism could be allowed to flourish here, so much economic and material growth could occur here. But until that process begins in earnest, the reverence that we have for the natural environment in the West will remain thoroughly out of place and indulgent. How could I reconcile the scenes that I saw around me every day with the cultural sensitivities that I had grown so ingrained in at home? How did this implicate the rest of my beliefs about society, individuals, poverty and money? Were they next in line for the chop?

These thoughts lingered with me as I returned to Kudal, where the clouds of toxic smoke from the rubbish fires greeted me in the hot evening air.

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May 16th – Going it alone

We awoke early that morning, despite both having sore heads from drinking too much and fighting off dog attacks.

Alec was going home. He had only planned on accompanying me for a month or two and he was finally running out of money. After a series of short bus connections from Anjuna to Mapusa, from Mapusa to Panjaji and from Panaji to Old Goa, we parted company at the train station. He was heading straight to Mumbai, from which he would fly back to London the next day.

As we waited at the quaint station, he chuckled at the contrast in the size of our respective bags. Earlier that day, he had gamely offered to take my 40 litre rucksack back to the UK with him so that I could downsize into my small shoulder bag. He didn’t need to offer twice; I almost bit his hand off. Emptying the entire contents of my bag on the floor, I managed to rife through what looked like half a camping-shop of supplies and equipment:

“Chuck…chuck…keep…chuck…keep…chuck…definately chuck!”

Having flung surplus items over my shoulder like wrapping paper at Christmas, I returned to him with only the slimmest core of items that I had used in the previous six weeks: my camera and film, the Lonely Planet guidebook, a novel, several small clothes items and a mosquito net. What I couldn’t throw away was thrust into the elephant-sized bag on his back.

I now watched as he leaned out of the back of the train to wave at me, his extra large profile jutting dangerously out of the side of the carriage. Before long, the train curved around the edge of the small platform and disappeared.

For the first time in six weeks, I was alone.

What to do? I had really did have a lot of options: The entire Indian subcontinent stretched out in front of me. With £1500 pounds in my bank account and a flight home booked for twelve weeks’ time, the world really was my oyster. I sat under a tree outside the train station, unfurled my enormous map of India and surveyed my surroundings.

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“I sat under a tree outside the train station…” – Old Goa, India

 

I had already decided to continue north along the coast and toward Mumbai. As one of the biggest cities in the world and India’s cultural capital, it was unmissable.

But in between Goa and Mumbai lay a 400 kilometer stretch of coastline that had a paltry two pages dedicated to it in my guidebook: the Konkan Coast. It was apparently little-visited by tourists, had poor accommodation options and bad food, and not much English was spoken there. Why?

It was possible that, because it was squished in between two massive tourist locations, most the fortnight-explorers would probably hop straight over the area from one over to another. It also looked like the railway and the roads that linked Mumbai and Goa ran well inland and away from the coast, which, unusually, also made the coastal area the backwater of the region.

It was too compelling to pass up on. I decided there and then to leave my Lonely Planet guide at the bottom of my bag. It would be of little use. I would be traversing the Konkan Coast on blind faith.

***

I had begun by attempting to reach the town of Malvan by the evening. It seemed like the nearest hub and, according to my fold-out map (and new best friend) it had a beach there. But I only made it some of the way. A train took me the first part of the hop before it curled off inland, leaving me at a town called Kudal.

Kudal was a strange place. The main road that wound through town was bathed in the orangey-purple of the late sunset. I wandered from where my rickshaw had left me, amidst the kinds of staring locals that I thought I had left in some of the rural parts of Sri Lanka. The stalls and shop-fronts that lined the busy street appeared functional and nondescript; above each was a sign whose wiggley, dense script told me that English was, indeed, in short supply here.

As I continued through the town, I passed piles of smouldering rubbish that lay unattended in the ditches by the road. A low, acrid smoke hung lazily in the air above them, enveloping the scene around me. The motorbikes, donkeys and carts, richshaws and bikes, all seemed in a hurry to make home before night fell. I began to wonder if this was the kind of place that a tourist could just turn up for the night and expect a room.

Following a collection of pretty basic interactions with various locals along the way – the guidebook did not lie about the lack of English – I found myself in what appeared to be the most solid and imposing building in the whole town. It was referred to by the various locals as “the hotel”, implying there was just the one.

Later, I opened the soundproofed window of my cold, air-conditioned room. Like an airlock, the seams sucked and cracked open, letting the warm, damp air of the night flood in. Through the darkness, the occasional bark and yell filtered across the smokey, quiet rooftops. I wondered what the Konkan Coast had in store for me.

***

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May 15th – The end of the season, pt.II

We spent the day on the beach today, enjoying the stunning sand and crashing waves. As ever, the calm ripples of the early morning sea had been whipped up to a rough-and-tumble by the time the sun was above us. We alternated between the tea-and-pancakes beachfront cafe and the sand below. While Alec took an extended buffeting in the surf, I finished the last hundred pages of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather.

As the early evening approached, we headed back over to the bar we had been at last night. We had both thoroughly lapped up the previous night’s entertainment and we ready for more of the same. However, we arrived to a strange and disappointing sight as we rounded the beach-head.

The bar was being physically pulled down in front of us. This previously vibrant and life-filled place was now dotted with teams of Indian men pulling ropes that wrenched at the very frame of the building. With the band, the drinkers, the furniture and the equipment all gone, it was clearer to see that the entire structure had been built with flimsy wooden beams and thin lattice screens. Now, they bent and crumpled easily under the heaves and groans of the men around us. It was a very surreal sight to behold, given the vivid and colourful experience that the previous night had been.

Beneath the bar, a concrete base was all that would remain after the splinters and beams are taken away. Suddenly the numbers of empty plots that we had seen dotting Anjuna beach made sense; they were similar wooden structures that had been pulled down at the end of the season. The alternative, it seemed, would be to leave these unsubstantial structures to the mercy of the heavy monsoonal rain, which would – evidently – destroy or wash away the building anyway, but in a much more chaotic fashion. It was a very strange and vivid insight into the seasonal life of a tourist resort.

That evening, we ate a delicious burger in a busy restaurant tucked over the hill and beyond the remains of the bar. Music for eclectic tastes drifted on the soft breeze. My burger was absolutely superb and it was followed by the surprise indulgence of a chocolate brownie and ice cream that I would have enjoyed even in a restaurant back home.

A variety of westerners ate around us speaking all kinds of languages. It seemed that this bar, as with last night’s venue, had attracted the remaining tourist population in Anjuna. In front of us, a group of French kids sat with studded leather jackets and scrappy mowhawks smoking a traditional Indian wooden pipe. They looked, as many of the crowd did last night, that they had been here for a long time. It was easy to see why.

We continued on to another bar further down the beach, where we sat on a wall overlooking the bay that was bathed in the eerie silver of the moon’s glow. It brought a mysterious chill as we walked home down the beach. Our faces washed pale in the light, we could only make our two-tone shadows on the sand ahead of us.

It was, therefore, with almost no warning at all that we stumbled across one of the packs of dogs that we had seen loitering and chasing each other across the sand that day.

Feral dogs are everywhere in India. The wider population do not regard these animals as domestic pets to be cared for and taken into possession, but the entire subcontinent nonetheless teems with dogs. Instead, they scavenge the streets for food, fight, breed, are chased away by humans and occasionally chase humans themselves. Most of them are clearly in ill health and frequent warnings are given to travellers about rabies in India. Rabid animals are not social creatures and most will fight other animals or be killed by them before they become infectious. But despite this, India still has the most rabid dogs of any country in the world, most of which are located in the countryside where solitary animals can roam for longer. Some estimates suggest that as many as 20,000 people die annually from rabies infections, of which 99 per cent are from dog bites.

The members of this pack, however, seemed to be just defensive, hungry and mangy rather than displaying the unnatural behaviour of rabid animals. As soon as one of them spotted us the barking began, which woke up the rest of the pack, who had all dug into small sand-holes for the night. As a result, we were suddenly surrounded by ten barking, growling dogs all around that appeared almost from no-where on an empty, dark beach. We had been quite literally ambushed.

It is times like these that you find yourself having resist the base instinct to run away, which would mean being chased and then perhaps falling and being attacked as you lay on the floor. This really would be bad news for you; staying on your feet is the most important thing to remember. A bite in the calf can be fought off and treated much easier than a bite in the neck.

Luckily, I was a couple of beers ahead of Alec by the point and had some of the Dutch courage that was needed in this situation. My waving my arms around and yelling at the top of my voice seemed to do the trick and, after some false charges and well placed kicks, we managed to intimidate the animals enough to break through the crowd and back away from them down the beach. A few kicks of sand and hurled sticks ensured that we were not pursued as we made a speedy escape up the beach.

It is illegal to kill dogs in India. However, it is hard to see how many such situations like that we had found ourselves did not end that way. Thankfully, everyone walked away from this altercation intact.

***

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May 14th – The end of the season

We moved off from Arumbol the next morning, heading further back down the beach to Anjuna. Anjuna beach was certainly one of the more famous locations in Goa. Despite being the location where a British girl had recently gone missing, it was also the spot where the epicentre of the nu-school hippy scene had settled itself in recent years. After the glut of dreadlock workshops in Arumbol, we were prepared for the worst.

What awaited us when we arrived was rather stranger than we had expected. The entire town was closing down for the monsoon, whose imminent arrival would drive away the tourists that usually teemed across Goa; most would not return until the autumn. The place was empty. Up and down the beautiful beach there stood empty cafes and restaurants with no-one in them and boards over the windows. Even the market stalls that were laid out amongst the palm trees overlooking the beach looked as if they were the last remaining stragglers of the season.

As a result, we were treated to a somewhat harder sell from many of the stallholders than we were used to. One girl even offered some novelty with a mock-British accent that certainly caught my ear. It wasn’t enough to make me want to buy a braided necklace, but it was a good effort on her part.

-Anjuna, Goa-

That evening we finally discovered where all the remaining tourists were: A busy, bamboo-made beach bar at the edge of town where a gig was in full swing in front of an assembled throng of reclining drinkers. If the band looked like they had been in Goa for awhile, then the psychedelic funk that they were playing seemed to have been forged in the very atmosphere of the place. The rambling songs, drawled lyrics and endless solos merged one into another, so that the entire gig felt like one long mood. Against the deep orange glow from the stunning sunset behind us, heads of the crowd bobbed and rolled along with the band.

There was a compelling intimacy to the gig. An occasional guest appearance was made by one or two of the audience for a song or two or a quick solo before returning to their seat. The lead singer, who looked like Jesus on his gap year, drawled something about that being their last gig of the season before they were heading up into the Himalayas for the summer, to return after the monsoon. This made sense: there was a special atmosphere about the music and the crowd alike. There appeared to be similar long-timers amongst the audience as well and the unshakeable impression that everyone knew each other and would return again soon. It didn’t sound like a bad life.

The band was called The Essence. I brought a CD.

-Anjuna, Goa-

***

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May 13th – Anecdotes in Arambol

After a breakfast of banana omelette and chai tea, we caught a bus up the road to Arumbol, a small village on the coast at the northern edge of Goa state. It felt good to be finally heading towards a beach of any kind after the last few weeks. Varkala felt like a distant memory.

Of course, this was Goa and we had prepared ourselves for the fact that the beach would be a touristy affair. Sure enough, that the road that wound down from the yellow-fringed highway and through the forest took us past trinket shops selling baggy beach trousers, earthy-toned shoulder bags with Bob Marley’s face sketchily weaved across the side and dreadlock care products. The place felt like a traveller cliche before we had even clapped eyes on the hammocks and sunset views.

But the beach was worthy of the attention that it attracted. After having squeezed past the remaining shacks, the road petered out as it approached the water, opening onto a wide expanse of sand on either side of us. To our right, the wide sand was abruptly halted half a mile away by a rocky headland that rose up and jutted out to sea, sending up silent plumes of surf against the edge of the rough water. To our left, the endless stretch disappeared unimpeded towards the rest of Goa. Around us, small groups of tourists and singletons strolled the beach or sunbathed on loungers that were available for hire.

It would have felt almost inappropriate, after so long away from the sea, not to have reclined almost where we sat and the nearest cafe’s view towards the sea fit the bill perfectly. The plate of pasta that accompanied my beach-watching was, though dull and tasteless, a nonetheless welcome break from the steady diet of dhosas that we had become accustomed to inland.

A various mix of people ate around us; I heard some French spoken and a north American accent somewhere. In the corner of the cafe, a group of Indian guys were talking and laughing animatedly while the waiter brought another bottle of rum. They were dressed smartly but roaring drunk.

After a long late afternoon of sun-lounging, we walked back up the path and towards some of the other restaurants that we had seen higher up the road for some dinner. We vacated our afternoon’s perch in time to avoid the evenings’ entertainment: a showing of The Aviator on a projector in the next restaurant along. Besides, I had found large bug in my pasta in almost the last mouthful of my lunch and so had been rather put off from eating there again.

Instead, we chose a restaurant housed by bricks and mortar as supposed to the seasonal arrangements of bamboo screens, wooden frames and portable equipment that seemed to comprise most beach-side dining in Arumbol.

Shortly after sliding ourselves amongst the long tables that filled the restaurant, we found ourselves in conversation with an old Irish chap who was sat alone beneath a large lantern smoking a small joint.

“I don’t recommend the momos”, he intoned, overhearing our discussion of the menu choices, “but if you must, don’t forget to ask for the sauce that goes with them”.

Although he had been settled in Arumbol for the last year, Frank was one of the early generations of travellers that had first arrived in the decades when a horse and cart had been the best way to get around. Goa had been his final destination on an over-land pilgrimage from London, following an end-to-end trip to Cape Town on an old Enfield bike. More recently, his fast food van had made him a fair old buck during the British music festivals boom and nowadays he spent his days inventing new consumer objects and smoking hash on the beach. His strategy, he said, was to buy a kilo of Manali and clear his diary for the next six months and he would usually come up with something in the mean time. He seemed to be hard at work as he spoke, if the never-ending spliff in between his fingers was anything to go by.

The long, meandering anecdotes that Frank recounted stretched credibility to the limit and were wildly entertaining. The evening’s tales rolled from meeting Jimi Hendrix in the 1960s to travelling with Afghan weapons convoys in the 1970s. Frank’s memories of the 1980s decade featured a particularly intricate hash smuggling operation out of Holland. The final tonnage that made it across the boats to Britain formed the punchline of the anecdote.

“Christ!”, I spluttered. “That’s more than Howard Marks smuggled!”

“I knew Howard”, grinned Frank, with a roll of the eyes that identified Mr Marks and his memoirs as something of a sell-out ticket.

“Yeah, I used to sell pot to him in Brighton.”

He had not always been in Arumbol. Frank lived back in Varkala for a few years and was in the village when the devastating tsunami struck on Boxing Day of 2004. He recalls watching the wave collide with the steep mud cliffs that separated the crystal-clean beach from the village. The water, washed brown from the mud, reached thirty feet into the air as it rushed up and over the cliffs.

Those further inland felt the impact of the waves hitting the cliffs. From two kilometres away, they said, it had been suspected that an earthquake had struck.

***

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May 12th – The River Princess

We awoke late that morning to explore the old town of Panaji, another relic of the Portuguese presence on the sub-continent. The shaded alleyways beneath the heavy walls and thick roofs buzzed with bikes while restaurants spilled over into verandahs above us. Moving through the town, we sampled a number of the small cafes that sat in small gardens and behind white walls, reminding us very much of Fort Cochin’s own secluded eateries.

The same Catholic influences are also vividly on display in nearby Old Goa, where we spent the afternoon. In fact Old Goa is one of the oldest colonial settlements in India, serving as the centre of the Portuguese presence there from their arrival at the turn of the 17th century to the abandonment of the wider area due to an outbreak of the plague. Easy come, easy go, I suppose.

The very Ibearian influence can be seen here with the two large cathedrals that square up to one another from across the manicured green lawns. Inside, the cool shade reminded visitors very much of exactly the same sanctuary from the heat that worshippers are provided in the southern European climes that these settlers came from. Who knows, perhaps the decision to make the church a cooler environment to be in than anywhere else was a pragmatic move on the part of the builders? It certainly felt like the coolest place to be for us and we spent an unnaturally long time admiring the heavy, earthen tones of the gold leaf and masonry. This was officially the oldest church in India, having been built in 1605.

Jesus Catholic Old Goa India

Cathedral Bom Jesus
-Old Goa, India-

That evening, we continued up the coast from Panaji and on to Fort Aguada. Clinging to the deep red rocks of the jagged coastline, the Fort was constructed not long after the church in order to protect the Portuguese settlement here from naval bombardment. During the 17th and 18th century, a number of other European colonising nations also arrived in South Asia by sea, with the intention of similarly occupying the land and manipulating the local rulers through military and economic means, just like the Portuguese were doing. Of course, the Portuguese spent considerable efforts guarding against attack from the sea, when they perhaps should have been defending themselves against the locals, who were, naturally, unhappy with their plans.

Walking beyond the thick red ramparts that held against the sea, the beach opened out and the land fell away. The view out to sea was dominated here by only one thing: Sat in the surf a hundred yards out to sea was an enormous supertanker that sat at an angle against the coastline whilst the waves crashed against its hull. It stood fifty meters high at the stern end and several hundred meters long in its broadside stretch along the beach. Brown and rusting, the boat looked in sorry and dilapidated state and it had clearly been there awhile. Indeed, the clothes line that stretched across the various walkways and cables suggested that it had provided a home for someone, however basic. As we stood and stared at the sad relic, a local explained the situation:

The name of the vessel was the River Princess and she had ran around during bad weather in the year 2000. Having been caught in a storm and having her anchor break off, her Russian crew had bailed out further off the coast, leaving the crippled ship to drift away of her own accord, eventually running aground here. It quickly became clear that the ship had embedded itself deep in the sand and was slowly leaking fuel and chemicals into the sea, polluting the beaches that provided Goa with so much of its tourist income.

Beached tanker in Fort Aguada Goa India

The River Princess
-Fort Aguada, Goa, India-

Of course, such a large boat would require a considerable salvage effort anyway, but it had sustained structural damage during the storm and continued to sink further into the sand month on month. Unfortunately, India’s lax maritime laws meant that the UK-based haulage business that owned the ship would only have been obligated to remove the ship if it had been blocking a waterway. The steady stream of silhouetted tankers that passed across the distant horizon proved that this was not the case and the company walked away from the wreck without culpability.

In order to try and raise funds for the salvage operation, various salvage companies had been allowed to cherry pick any valuable industrial materials from within the ship itself. However, this was only contributing to the physical degradation of the ship and further jeopardizing her structural safety whilst making the job even less lucrative for the eventual salvager. In time, the issue had become a political football for the Goa state governors who various blamed each other and their predecessors for the inability to remove or break up the vessel successfully. In the mean-time, the hull periodically belched chemicals onto the beach and dropped shards of metal and splinters into the sea. The guy who explained the story to us had no idea what was going to happen to it.

We watched as the sun dipped towards the horizon and past the hulking silhouette of the River Princess. It had a sad beauty to it, as it lay there while the rest of the world got on with its business. To ponder the future of the area with such a tourist eyesore cannot have been a pleasant task for the gentleman we talked to, nor anyone else who lived along the coast here.

[Thankfully, this video shows how the River Princess was eventually removed in early 2012.]

Sunset Indian ocean Goa India

-Fort Aguada, Goa, India-

Joining us up on our hillside viewpoint was a coach load of cheerful Indians who were also enjoying the view. We had struck up a conversation with some of them and they gamely offered to give us a ride back to the bus stop in their coach. They were, they explained, Christians, with proud smiles, as if this was somehow the underlying motive for their generosity. As we drove back through the cool forests evening, the entire coach sprang into song: Down by the riverside, endlessly repeated. We were strongly encouraged to join in.

***

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May 11th – Over the Ghats

We left Hampi early the next morning, taking pleasure in disobeying our orders to return to the police station for a further reprimand and – perhaps – a proper, scheduled and supervised beating. I have occasionally wondered what would have been in store for us if we had returned. Perhaps my potential attacker had sobered up from his power binge and would have been in a half-way reasonable mood?

Still, I realise how lucky we had been. Suppose the child-policeman had actually been more senior and capable of properly asserting themselves? We might well have been in trouble before our night photography begun. Suppose, again, that the child-policeman had been present at the station when we had piled out of the van? That certainly would have made matters worse.

We took an early bus over to Hubli, where I enjoyed a phenomenal Dhosa before jumping on another long, hot bus ride over the Karnataka countryside. In time, the Western Ghats rose up before us, projecting us briefly back into the cooler cloudscape as the roads became muddy and the scenery green. At one point, our bus pulled down a set of power cables that stretched over the road, which snapped in a silent, blue flash out of the windows above us. After pausing briefly to survey the damage he had caused, the driver drove on, leaving the severed black wires dangling off the telegraph pole.

In time, we emerged, at the far side of the mountains and trundled towards the coast. Finally, sweating and dirty, we saw the sea again for the first time in a fortnight. We had arrived in Goa.

***

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May 10th – The strong arm of the law

We awoke an hour before dawn. It was still cool. We had decided to beat the heat and find a vantage point above the town to watch the sun rise over the strange rocks. To our surprise, however, we walked out on to the main strip to find most of the rest of the town awake and bustling around as if the sun was high in the sky. Even groups of westerners wandered around, smoking in their overly-baggy red trousers and hanging out in waiting rickshaws. Perhaps this was simply what sensible people did in the desert.

Above the town and away from most of the bustle, we found ourselves an enormous rock to perch atop. From the deep blue of the horizon, we watched – as if we had forgotten where we found ourselves – the bizarre hills and formations around us begin to jut out of the clearing darkness. While the morning haze sat low in the valleys, the clearer rock-heads peaked up into the sky against one another as if to remind each other that they were there and were competing for an assembled audience.

Colourful sunrise over Hampi India

-Hampi, India-

It struck me there and then how prehistoric this place looked. It would not have surprised me at all if an ancient Greek Army were to suddenly rumble across the landscape and shoot arrows at an enormous dinosaur in pursuit. Other than the small town splayed off to our left, there seemed to little of the traces of modern life here like there were anywhere else. So unusual were the rocks around us and so striking the ruins that it felt as if we roamed in a theme park, dedicated to a fantastical interpretation of pre-history.

Beaturiful sunrise over Hampi India

-Hampi, India-

As the sun rose, the greyish-blue hue of the sky washed away the final remains of the dawn, bringing with it the blanket of oppressive heat and shimmering horizons. We headed in the opposite direction to yesterday, taking a richshaw to the other side of town. Here, over the ridge and the buildings petered out and melted away, leaving our path weaving through the rocks above the town and beyond.

Over the hill, we stumbled across another long and dilapidated temple complex nestled in the valley amongst the shrubs and the palm trees, as if we had somehow discovered this new place all by ourselves. As we entered the rubble-strewn courtyards that were clogged with crumbled masonry and tufts of grass, lizards scattered from their basking perches and crickets silenced their calls.

Mysterious carved pillars in Hampi, India

-Hampi, India-

Beneath each building stood scores of small carved pillars featuring creatures and gods dancing, fighting and re-enacting the various mythical sagas that these temples celebrated.

Detailed temple pillars in Hampi India

-Hampi, India-

I wished that I knew what they all represented. In some of the cases, I wished I even knew what or who the characters that were depicted were. It was not always easy to tell.

Enigmatic carved pillars in Hampi India

-Hampi, India-

Further along the road, the architecture changed towards a more preserved and manicured style. As if to contrast with our previous experiences of the rugged, chaotic, open-plan Hampi, we passed along a grand, manicured lawn and towards a regal gate beneath formidable walls.

Mysterious carvings in Hampi India

-Hampi, India-

Paying an inflated fee at the gate, we passed into what must have, once upon a time, been the seat of power in this small kingdom. Off to one corner of the estate stood a watch-tower gazing out at the surreal, baking realm around us. In another stood a long building overlooking a courtyard with twelve imposing archways – elephant stables. Of course, all of the elephants were long gone apart from a far smaller one that stood nearby posing for tourist photographs for ten rupee a go while its handler prodded it with a hook on the end of a rusty pole.

Elephant stables in Hampi India

Elephant stables: can you imagine what they must have smelled like?! -Hampi, India-

Architecture Hampi India

-Hampi, India-

Reaching an inner wall, we stepped up through another gate and deeper into this royal playground. Splayed out before us was a large stone courtyard with masonry slabs underfoot, broad, heavy and piping hot under the sun. Merging with the bleached grey of the buildings around us, it felt as if the architecture here had embedded its permanence even further into the landscape, so that it was almost becoming the landscape itself, saturated in the mysticism and beauty of the surrounding environment. In a sense, both the human and natural architecture were as enigmatic and striking as each other. There seemed an odd harmony between them. This place was beginning to get into my head.

stone carvings and architecture in Hampi India

Chariots of stone
-Hampi, India-

I was inside one of the intricately carved buildings that stood at what felt like the culmination of that particular courtyard. It was there that I realised where I had seen this architecture before, but in living form rather than these stone monuments: The giant chariot in Madurai! The very same style of intricately carved, angular steps, deep embossing, small images and pillars also now stood all around me. But in Tamil Nadu, it had been decked in multi coloured drapery and holy men as it trundled through a screaming, writing sweating crowd of fervent worshippers; here, it stood, silent and inert in grey stone, frozen and lifeless in time. The contrasts could not have been greater, but yet there it was. It seemed to me a poignant metaphor for the life and death cycles that belief and memory can take. In a place such as this, I thought, tradition and religion are forces of every-day existence, where in the west, they are at best regarded as quaint. If it was ever difficult to see what the appeal of India was to many people, it was here for me to see.

Ornate eaves Hampi India

-Hampi, India-

Beautiful archways in Hampi India

-Hampi, India-

Ornate carvings Hampi India

-Hampi, India-

Ornate temple architecture in Hampi India

-Hampi, India-

Yellow lizard in Hampi India

-Hampi, India-

***

That night, we decided to indulge in some night photography. Walking back from the temple over the rocks as the sun lengthened and deepened it colour, we picked out a number of vantage points that would lend themselves perfectly for some foreground scenery. The characteristic twisting, circular star-scapes that are the results of long-exposure photography are all well and good, but a striking foreground helps to really give a shot character and contrast.

We begun walking out of town from our guest house after dinner, through the cool, quiet air and emptiness of the roads. The sky was – as predicted – cloudless and, more importantly moon-less. This is another important component of long-exposure night photography: if the moon is out, the ambient light that it emits drowns out any clarity of the stars and the picture is lost in a washed out shot of blackness. The brighter the moon, the worse the loss at the development end. This actually testifies to the delicate nature of human eyes: the moon emits one millionth of the sunlight of the sun, but our retinas are so adaptable that this is barely noticeable on a bright, moonlit night. However, camera film is less forgiving and so a moonless, star-strewn night in these surroundings was a blessing.

On our way, we passed one of the temples we had visited earlier. This presented another perfect opportunity: The high walls would be able to filter out almost all of the ambient light that the town was emitting behind us, as well as any unexpected streaks from a motorbike headlights. But the best part would be the intricate, mysterious architecture of the temple stretching up into a bright, dense star-strewn cosmos. It was perfect.

Despite the sign forbidding entry after dark, the gate was not padlocked. We could just slide the latch and walk right in. Just as I was sliding the latch, chuckling once again at the lax way in which Indians treated the rules, we were greeting with an unearthly screech of metal on rusty metal, piercing the rural silence like a flare in the night.

>eeee-eeeeeeeeeeekkkkkssssshhhhhhhhh<

I stopped instantly, my hand frozen on the handle as we listened out for movement around us.

Silence.

Gentler this time, I tried to slip the latch across the metal, gingerly wiggling it to try and avoid the same banshee-like screech.

To no avail, we were subjected to the same grating howl, except for this time it had an additional lifelike quality to it, wobbling in pitch as my hand attempted to quieten the noise. There could have been no doubt to anyone in the area that someone was attempting to enter one of the temples.

Just as Alec and I were debating whether it was worse to draw out the noise by pulling it millimetre-by-millimetre or to simply rip it across like one would a plaster on a knee, we both froze on the spot. Coming through the trees towards us, swaying purposefully from side to side, was a torch beam.

In an instant, the debate moved on to an urgent new topic: Should we run or stay? To run would be to betray our knowledge that we had been breaking the rules and invalidate our pleas to have been ignorant, innocent tourists. If we were to stand our ground, we could employ that innocent tourist card and run the risk of facing a bribe. We could also, I hurriedly blurted out, admit we have been caught red-handed and bribe whoever it was that was approaching into letting us in? Alec quickly pointed out that raising the prospect of bribery was the last thing that two rich, western law-breaking tourists in India should sensibly be considering.

We decided, through indecision and apprehension, to stand our ground as the torch bobbed closer and closer. We did not have a plan.

As it slowly approached and drew to a halt in front us, the bright white beam shone authoritatively from my face to Alec’s and back again. Whoever was holding the torch appeared to be sizing us up.

“Temple forbidden”, said a male voice.

We said nothing, and a long pause ensued. They were waiting for us to make our move.

“Temple forbidden”, they said again. “You pay fine now.”

Shit. This was not what I wanted to hear.

I looked at Alec for a lead.

“No”, he said, flatly.

I think I audibly gasped. He was displaying real audacity and chutzpah, considering the circumstances. I was impressed. But my heart was also hammering in my chest.

“Yes! You pay baksheesh!” The voice was more shrill and urgent now, using the ubiquitous Hindi word for bribery. We had already heard it mentioned enough to know what it meant.

“Five hundred rupees you”, he said, shining the torch straight into my eyes and, as the beam swung back to shine into Alec’s eyes, “five hundred rupees you”. I watched his pupils dilate as they went from blackness back to bright light in an instant.

For the first time, my eyes caught sight of the man beyond the torch beam as he jabbed the torch aggressively into my friend’s face. Light reflected onto his shirt, shoulder lapels and the brim of his cap. He was, as I had suspected, a policeman.

Neither of us spoke. I was beginning to panic now. This was not a good situation to be in. I had no idea of what kind of a guideline we had broken by trying to enter a temple outside the prescribed hours. Were they especially protected? Had we violated some kind of religious sensitivity? In resisting a bribe, were we inviting the full weight of the law instead of a quick resolution? How much worse a treatment could we expect at a police station? What rights did I even have? After all, this was Hampi not Hampshire.

The frozen seconds dragged by in a silent slow motion. I had opened my mouth to begin reasoning with Alec to pay the fine and say sorry when the buzz of a motorbike approached, piercing the silent tension of the stand-off that had ensued. As the noise increased in volume to one side, the trees to our left became flecked in shifting light as the bike’s headlamp approached. Then, the bike turned a corner in the road and appeared, flooding the entire blackness in white light and noise.

Briefly, night turned to day.

Suddenly, the accuser and the accused saw one another for the first time. The policeman was stood before us, alone, still thrusting the torch upwards into Alec’s face. The arm that held the torch was bare, skinny and hairless. The shirt that he wore was short-sleeved and too big, so that the collar, despite being buttoned to the top, hung down from his neck in a deep sag. The hat was also too large for him, so it hung down over his eyes like a child dressing up as a policeman for the day. Aside from a dusting of fine hair on his upper lip, his face was nervous and child-like.

For a moment, the three of us stood in a circle, the situation laid bare while the harsh shadows shifted and the bike buzzed past us. And then, it turned a corner and disappeared again, the silence and the blackness descending once more. This time, however, I still saw the boy’s nervous expression and oversized hat imprinted in my retina.

“Alec, let’s go”, I said.

“Yes, let’s”, he agreed quickly. He had obviously made the same conclusion I had during those three illuminating seconds.

We begun to walk, brushing past the young boy as he begun to protect his authoritative edge:

“No! You pay fine! Five hundred rupees! You PAY!”

His loud protests had taken on a desperate edge and he begun to grab onto the corner of my vest weakly as if to somehow cling on to his control of the situation. Pretending to ignore him and the sharp pulling at my waist, I strode fast and purposefully away from the temple, while offering words of encouragement to Alec under my breath: “Walk-walk-walk! Don’t turn around! Keep walking!”

Trotting to catch up, the child-policeman ran around in front of us and begun to take point, as if he was leading us.

“Okay, yes”, he said, with a mock voice of defiance. “We go this way. Police station this way!”

We stopped.

Swivelling on our heels, we changed direction almost as one, trotting in the opposite direction as fast a walk could plausibly take us without breaking into a run. Again, the child-policeman found himself lagging behind us.

“Okay, I am very cheap”, he said, more pleading now than aggressive. “Two hundred rupees each.”

We walked faster, leaving his voice trailing behind us in the darkness as he negotiated with us from afar.

“One hundred?”

He was gone.

Poor kid. No wonder he was working the graveyard night shift. He looked like he couldn’t have been a day over sixteen. He probably wasn’t getting paid anything like a decent salary. It was no surprise that he tried to weedle a little baksheesh out of the silly western tourists breaking the law. Still, we were lucky it was only him and not someone more burly and intimidating. To think, technically speaking, we had just resisted arrest!

“Let’s not have any more run-ins with the police tonight, yeah?”

Alec laughed and agreed as we walked back the way we had came, away from the temple and the probably very sheepish-feeling child-policeman. I can only imagine how foolish and emasculated he must have felt at that moment.

Laughing and joking about the situation, we begun to relax and unwind again, revelling in our absurd fortune. We still needed somewhere to take our pictures though. Luckily, the road was leaving the town, climbing up the incline of one of the hills as the banana trees begun to fall away around us.

Soon enough, we stood out on a ridge overlooking a surreal, star-lit panorama of rocks and black shapes that bulged up into the sky, silhouetted against a rich, silver avalanche of stars. The Milky Way streaked like an enormous galactic baguette above our heads, arching from one horizon over to the next. Periodically, shooting stars streaked silently here and there, their movement increasingly visible in the stillness.

We begun to shoot. In the windless night, the only sound that interrupted the soft ambience of the crickets was the occasional snapping back of the shutters within our cameras. Alec had a digital SLR, whose silent mechanisms was only betrayed by the solid snap of the shutter. To contrast, I was using an old Olympus OM1 that I had bought especially for the trip. As I adjusted the rickety dial for the shutter speed, I could hear grains of sand being ground by the mechanisms, probably still lodged there from our beach photography in Hikkaduwa. Each long exposure would end with a satisfying snap of the shutter, the ringing of the tiny springs inside echoing like piano wire in the silence.

Before too long, an engine approached behind us. For the second time that evening, the area was bathed in an abrasive white light that drenched the two of us and illuminated our surroundings. Just as I was chuckling again at the already half-forgotten memory of our earlier encounter, the engine slowed to a halt.

My heart began to sink. What is it this time, I thought, wearily.

The engine reversed back up the road towards us, the window rolling down. It was a white van, with a lone guy driving it. But we had had enough hassle for the evening and were getting some good shots, so we received his attempted chatter with reluctance. Through his broken English, though, he was quite keen to tell us that where we were was not a ‘good place’ and that there were ‘bad people’ here.

This was not the first time we had heard this. Hampi had, it seemed, a reputation for isolated but violent robberies against tourists as they wandered amongst the ruins alone, clutching digital cameras and travellers’ cheques. Yes, we had heard this, we told him, but it was no problem for us. We knew the risks, so thank you, but we are fine.

Our new friend, however, was insistent: Here was a bad place and we must get in the van and he would take us back to Hampi.

My temper was beginning to fray with this guy. I was about to tell him that we were capable of looking after ourselves and that he should leave us alone, when the deep, coughing splutter of a large motorbike approached over the hill. It slowed as it saw us and came to a stop next to the driver’s window on the far side of us. Instantly, I heard a loud voice from beyond the motorbike headlight berating the driver of the van over the noise of the engine. Why was he getting yelled at?

And then I saw. For the second time that evening, there was, beyond the headlight, a policeman.

The yelling continued for some time and then paused. But instead of driving off again, the bike jerkily revved onto the gravel, twisted around the van and approached us. To my utter surprise, the policeman begun to yell at us as well, gesticulating and babbling in an unfamiliar, angry tongue. As the bike sputtered and the light glared in our eyes, I could make out a full moustache and an indignant face that almost threatened to knock back the hat that was tilted on his head. His big bike and booming voice suggested that it was not an adolescent boy that was yelling at us, but a policeman who was in charge. And he was not pleased with us.

The yelling paused. He held out his arm towards the van in expectation as if he had demanded an answer to a question. Our agape mouths clearly enraged him further, causing his moustache to twitch and his eyes to widen at our impertinent silence. He twisted the throttle. The bike roared and lurched forward, closing the few feet between us and spitting gravel at our feet so that we had to leap backwards to stop ourselves from falling under the tyres. Closer to us now, so that we could see the headlight shining in his mad, wide eyes, he pounded the door of the van menacingly with his meaty hands, as if to emphasise the message:

Get in the VAN!

As we drove back into town my heart was, once again, racing in my chest. Neither of us had even been expecting the ire of the law out here, let alone from a livid, chopper-riding, nutcase. Our friend and driver rather sheepishly explained that the police in the area were very keen to avoid any more violence against tourists and that if we had only listened then we might not be in trouble now. As he said this, we saw the policeman leading the way in front of us, the wide chopper cutting straight down the middle of the road ahead of us.

“Trouble?” we asked.

“Yes, trouble. Policeman problem. We go to police station now”, he said. “Hampi has….reputation”.

He did not expand on what kind of reputation Hampi had.

We pulled up outside the police station in the centre of the town. It seemed that half of the entire station had been relocated outside, with a desk and a long line of chairs lined up against the wall of the building. As our irate chaperone drew his motorbike to a halt, the policeman loitering outside the station in the evening heat leaped from chairs and huddles to assemble.

The policeman had already swung himself off the motorbike and begun to stride over to where our van was pulling up, so that as we climbed out, he was instantly bearing down upon us like a vengeful boxer back in the ring. With our backs against the white van, the unintelligible verbal battering continued where it had left off. This time, we could clearly see his wide belly bulging over his belt and the grey chest hair spilling over a shirt that was three buttons down from his collar. While the more junior policemen followed their superior and formed a respectful circle around us, his arms waved in the air and gesticulated as if he was giving some kind of lesson to the assembled cadets at how to discipline unruly tourists.

To one side, our driver now stood as an interpreter to this reprimand, providing halted English additions to the policeman’s rapid fire barks:

“Outside dangerous…many tourists robbed…”

He paused from time to time to protest to the policeman and receive a sharp blast back before continuing to translate.

“He say one, er, Japanese tourist…how you say, er, killed…last month…with robbers….Tourists not allowed out at night…”

At this final curfew order I unintentionally let out a derisive snort. I was beginning to lose patience with not only this situation, but this entire evening, which was turning out to be one disaster to the next, all exacerbated by the ridiculous police in this country. We weren’t allowed out at night!?

The policeman saw me roll my eyes. At this, his eyes widened, his moustache wiggled indignantly and his chest puffed out. He paced up to me and, with a sharp bark, raised his hand to strike me. It was only the cautionary yells of his recruits and a hand grabbing his extended arm that stopped his from hitting me full whack. Instead, I opened my eyes from having cowered from his blow to see the back of his hand raised above my head, while his angry face stared down at me, his teeth biting his tongue with anger at my sheer impudence.

Having been stopped mid-flow by one of his subordinates seemed to have also halted his tempter. As if he had somehow expended himself, his arm dropped from the freeze-frame above his head. He turned away from us and walked towards the door of the police station, the circle of trainees parting deferentially to let him through. The interrogation was over.

At his exit, the tension eased and circle broke loose. A much younger senior officer elbowed his way through the dispersing group towards us. We were to return at seven o’clock the next morning, he said, to “report to the police”. He would not provide any further details and instructed us both to go straight home.

Our friend who had driven us from the road had remained by our side throughout all of this.

“I am sorry”, he said, as he walked us away from the crowd of loitering cadets. “Police in Hampi..very bad.”

***

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May 9th – Hampi

It was a strange sensation to have awoken from a dream about my home and my family, to realise that I was gliding smoothly sideways across a strange, rocky landscape in central India. As I shuffled out of my carriage and through the sliding door that we had walked through last night, the clatter of the train, the stench of the toilet and the heat of the morning hit me once more. This change dispelled all doubt: I was not back in south west England.

But where actually was I? The landscape we rattled over reminded me more of Nevada than Karnataka, such were the hot and scrubby vallies that stretched up into red-brown rock formations reminiscent of the Road Runner Disney cartoons. Though not quite hills, these rocky stacks were deep in colour against the white-ish blue of the sky. Out and across this landscape, I saw almost no evidence of human settlement to speak of, other than the occasional two-story railway point-cabins and the tracks that twisted and danced beneath me.

In time, we arrived at the small but bustling town of Hospet, from which we took a bus through the choking dust and ever-yellowing landscape to Hampi, our final destination. Hampi is one of the most visited places in south India. The reason for this is the stunning blend of human culture and the natural environment that it sits amongst. This combination seems to be what India is particularly good at offering to visitors.

As we drew closer to the town, the landscape took on an increasingly distinctive form until we found ourselves encircled by amazing scenery as we reached the town itself.

Through some geological freak circumstance, the rolling sandy-coloured landscape around us was littered with round boulders that appeared to have been dropped into enormous piles by some kind of crane from the heavens. Some were only the size of the rucksack that I carried on my back, while others were the size of large houses, all tumbling over one another and scattered across the landscape in the chaotic stacks around us. It appeared like a heavenly deity had gingerly perched them into piles here and there for collection later and then hurriedly disappeared with their work half-finished, leaving human-kind to seep into the area and settle into existence amongst the divine rubble. Ruins of temples stood here and there, paths weaved apologetically around boulders, scattered heards of goats picked their way across the dust and, across the flatter land, splashes of richly-coloured palm forests grew like a green sea amongst the jagged rocks at a water’s edge.

Self-portrait with landscape panorama Hampi India

Self-portrait
-Hampi, India-

In a wide panorama beyond the chaotic rock-scape in front of us, the skyline that stretched against the haze wiggled and bumped up and down like a jittery hand had sketched it out against the hot, grey sky. Indeed, it almost appeared that the piles that peaked up across the horizon around us could be topped with a hearty push until you reached the foot of the mounds and realised just how large the rocks that made them were. How on earth did they get here? How have they been weathered and eroded to such uniformly-smooth, rounded shapes? How, if they have been subject to erosion, have they not clattered to the ground and smoothed out the landscape to a flatter, dusty environment that the rest of the region appeared to be?

Hampi, India

-Hampi, India-

As with any natural environment, the best way to attempt to solve these mysteries was to walk amongst the rocks and feel their warmth in the evening light, listen to the way the sound echoes around the strange formations and watch as the small gaggles of children chased each other up and down the twisting paths.

I walked alone that evening through the lengthening shadows. Alec and I had wandered apart and I periodically saw the recognisable white of his t-shirt and the brown of his hat dotted against the occasional rocky backdrop or, further away and some time later, perched atop of a boulder a mile away. We would likely drift back to the hotel as night fell.

Spectacular rocky scenery Hampi India

-Hampi, India-

In the meantime, I found myself periodically stumbling across the collection of ruins that seemed to be scattered across the area like the rocks that surrounded them: A small, run down shrine in a chapel of some kind that overlooked a hazy panorama; Further over the hill, a wide walkway stretched out from one end of a small valley to the other, like a grand promenade linking one temple to a smaller one at the other end, half-collapsed and neglected.

Hidden ruins amongst spectacular sceneryHampi India

It was easy to feel like you were the one to re-discover many of these ruins yourself.
-Hampi, India-

From time to time there were sunk into the ground large, shallow square or rectangular pools of water lined with steps down to the water’s edge and surrounded by neat pathways and awnings. Some of these were small and un-ceremonial, tucked away beneath ruined temples, forgotten and half-full of detritus and sticks. Others, however, were spectacularly-sized and clearly devised with aesthetics in mind, so that the still-intact architecture that proudly stood around them reflected off the water in a vivid image of symmetry and beauty. Whether these had been for bathing, ornamental purposes or even (god forbid) for drinking water, I did not know. Now, it seemed that they were merely ornamental, as the water itself was invariably green, stagnant and full of algae. But they were also still, peaceful and serene in the quiet, warm air of the early evening.

architecture reflecting pools Hampi India

..the architecture refleced off the water in a vivid image of symmetry and beauty.
-Hampi, India-

Sure enough, Alec was back at the hotel when I got home that night, stretched out on a hammock that hung in the courtyard of our tremendously-coloured hotel just off the main street. The courtyard stretched two stories up, while around us, low bushes grew in a small plot in the centre of the courtyard. Echoes floated in from the rooms around us and off the alleyway next to us.

During the darkness of a power cut, we produced the squished boxes of cheap anti-malarial medication from the bottom of our rucksacks. We had hastily purchased them online only days before we had boarded our flights and, as we headed further north, we had been putting off our course of drugs that we had been told were so necessary, knowing that they could yield unpleasant side-effects in some cases. However, as we entered India’s medium-risk malarial zone, the time had come. Dividing up the various pills that we needed to take at differing intervals for the next few weeks, we crammed a handful of white, bitter pills into our mouths in the darkness. For just a moment, I had a fleeting image of a pile of enormous rocks in my hand that I was about to scatter across a strange, dusty landscape like dice on a stone floor.

stunning sunset over gompurams in Hampi India

-Hampi, India-

***

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May 8th – India’s train system

This morning we made haste along the railway line to Bangalore, India’s IT powerhouse and perhaps the most modern, clean city we had encountered so far in this country. Of course, no matter how pleasant and temperamental the city seemed, we remained in India and within the network of confusing, unintelligible and bureaucratic mess of the Indian train system. At the station we were greeted with the same chaotic scrum of passengers that seemed to loiter in and around the train station, both using and fuelling the micro economy that seems to cling to such hubs as these. Street hawkers sat outside the station peddling all manner of street snacks and bottles of water produced from rusting cool-boxes, while beggars with all manner of physical disabilities and deformities shuffled from group to group with outstretched hands.

Just as is often seen in the west, homelessness and begging seems to gravitate towards these large transitional hubs, both on the platform and on the trains themselves. Chai and samosa peddlers paced up and down the train platforms babbling their repetitive call to potential customers (“samosa-samosa-samosaaaa”) and disabled beggars perform the same shuffle along their backside up each carriage or waiting lounge, scrubbing the mucky floor around them with a black rag before extending a palm to the seated commuters above them.

Alec and I wound our way through this morass outside the station and made our way into the booking hall to secure our onward overnight journey to Hampi that evening. It was a busy day and several queues stretched out in front of us and towards various booths on the far wall. What queue to choose? The Indians particularly enjoy dividing their queue systems across various categories of how passengers can divide themselves; as people that were not old or war veterans or disabled or government workers or any other division of Indian society, we opted for the largest queue, from which all manner of people were gravitating towards by the minute. We flipped a coin. I won the toss. We agreed to meet at the far wall of the hall, over by the two western guys we had just spotted. As I pushed through the crowd towards them, Alec made his way to the back of the long queue. Good luck to you, I thought.

As I approached the two guys, they sported an air bafflement that I was feeling myself. The two Americans had only recently stepped off the plane from Indonesia and had spent the past month in the rainforest. How was it, I asked? Real nice, they said, with an air of absent nostalgia, before tailing off into a shell-shocked silence as they stared at the chaos of the thronging hall. Before the reminiscence had too long to sink in, the other guy piped up:

“Dude, do you know how to these ticket systems work?”

“No I don’t. I was just about to ask you the same question. Have you got one?”

“Yeah, we spent an hour queuing for a ticket to Mumbai, but all we got was this…thing.”

He produced from his pocket what looked like a large lottery ticket. On it, a baffling collection of letters and numbers was arrayed across a template of printed categories. The identifiable features were limited to ‘Third Class reservation’, printed along the top and a large number ‘46’ printed along the bottom. My friend explained that the clerk behind the desk had sold this to them for a few hundred rupees, but – from what they had understood – this did not guarantee them a seat at all, but simply allowed them onto the train, from which there was no further elaboration on how their three-day journey would work out beyond that. Having heard it explained back to me, the previously nostalgic American roused himself, as if resurrecting an argument with his friend:

“Dude, I’ve told you, I am not standing for a three day train journey! Have you felt my bag?!”

Whilst comparing notes with the Americans, I periodically peered over the sea of heads to see where Alec had reached. In time, he progressed to the head of the queue and begun conversing with the attendant. The conversation continued longer and longer. I saw the attendant gesture and point. I saw Alec press his ear to the small talking hole in the Perspex booth against the throng of the noisy sweaty, hall. The attendant continued to gesture. Soon enough, he made his way back across the sea of people and towards us, looking hot, bothered and confused. He brandished two small pieces of paper and thrust one towards me:

“I think I might have bought a lottery ticket instead of a train ticket!”

He regaled a similar story as our American counterparts had just done. Apparently the Indian train system is so over-used that train seats are over-sold as standard. Delays, strikes, unclaimed tickets and other unexpected problems means that potential missed passenger connections are incorporated into the existing system, so that almost everyone is sold a seat or a berth on any given train, even if such a seat or berth is not, at that point, available. Instead, a waiting list system is used, so that any no-show passengers do not waste their seat and it is dispensed on to the next recipient on the list, all of whom have submitted addresses, phone numbers and everything else into the bureaucracy system. It didn’t sound like an idea system, especially when we found a large ‘94’ and ‘95’ on the bottom of each of our tickets. Did that mean that there were ninety people ahead of us in the queue for a sleeper berth that night?

Our train was not for another seven hours. Soon enough, we would find out.

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Bangalore provided a revealing insight into the new India that world is becoming more and more acquainted with. It is at the forefront of India’s IT revolution, being full of offices, technology firms and universities. As India continues to grow as a global economy, Bangalore will continue to exist as a strong player in the Indian IT maturity. Where the call-centre has become a stereotypical feature of India’s modern role in the world economy, India’s IT sector has become of world standard thanks to the expertise and English-speaking abilities of the sector here.

As such, it also served as a great pit stop for us. The city, rich and fascinating as it was, liberated us from the prerogative of soaking up the cultural sites to be seen in any given city – Bangalore had none. Instead, we went to the cinema to watch Iron Man and then lazily made our way back across town towards the train station. It certainly did feel rather strange trudging back across Bangalore’s busy central district with our heavy bags. As we passed clubs and open-fronted bars, it was hard to shake the element of role reversal of the situation: For once, I felt poor, excluded and shabby as I stood in road watching well-dressed, attractive Indians eat, drink and dance to last year’s western chart hits and enjoy disposing of their disposable income in expensive bars and restaurants. This was a vivid moment. For once, the shoe was on the other foot.

Outside the train station, the chaos had largely subsided. Instead, groups of tourists slept in neat rows on the train station forecourt in the cool evening, many with shawls and sarees wrapped around their faces against the flies and mosquitoes, which provided the unshakeable impression of us tip-toeing our way through an open-air morgue.

The platform, however, was as busy as it had been. The train was being loaded up by hundreds of pairs of hands passing packages of food and kisses through the open-barred windows of the train to their families within. Porters dashed up and down the platform with packing boxes and hastily-bound suitcases tottering from their heads as they wound through the crowds. Ticket collectors strolled officiously along the platform, sternly umpiring the proceedings with ticket clippers and various other implements hanging from their belts. We showed our tickets to one of them, who – with an expression of irritation that he had been interrupted from his strolling – pointed down the platform.

“Coach six.”

Coach six was as busy as the others. However, taped to the side of the coach was a printed list of small names, several feet long, reaching halfway to the floor. Sure enough, our names did appear next to one another halfway down.

Closer inspection revealed, however, that we were less than ten names from the top of the waiting list for berth allocations, meaning that we, along with the hundreds of names below us, had failed to secure sleeper berths or any kind of seat on this train. To the credit of the system, the eighty or so people before us on the list had actually managed to secure berths within this apparently chaotic and jumbled bureaucracy. There was, it seemed, method in the madness.

However, this did not aid our situation. As the train began to slowly pull away from the platform, carriage six was a throng of bustling families settling themselves into their seats, pushing bags into overheads racks, passing small children to one another and unpacking silver pots of food and chapattis wrapped in plastic bags. It seemed that the entire train had been divided into sets of seats which each family unit was now occupying. Feet, sarees and sacks dangled from various hooks and seats while small children peeped from around luggage and shoulders at us. We picked our way through the noisy, dimly lit throng.

Eventually we found a space large enough for ourselves and our oversized bags to sit. But as we sat, the family that had occupied these berths exchanged glances, as if this was not in the script. We both knew that this unscheduled incursion onto their space was not to end well. After all, it was about bed time.

As if on queue, the father of the family jumps into action as he busied himself and his family to unfold the beds that are racked up side-long against each wall of the cubicles. He practically clapped his hands to shoo us away to some other family’s berth. In time, we found another free space to squeeze ourselves, hoping that this new family weren’t so into their early nights. This family also promptly began to unpack their berths, sending us away. One by one, this pattern was repeated as we moved from berth to berth, until the whole carriage appeared to be unpacking their beds and turning in as we arrived in their vicinity.

Just as we were stood in the corridor wondering where else we were going to be ejected from, a train conductor as stern as the previous one we had encountered told us to move along. Fortunately, he was not advising that we exit the train, but rather that we upgrade our seats. Of course we would upgrade our seats! Why on earth hadn’t we done that earlier, I found myself wondering.

After the guard’s quick re-scribbling of our tickets, we were led through from the sticky, hot second class carriages and into a cool, quiet, dimly lit AC sleeper carriage for a small fee. We had beds, linen and a towel to send us on our way, too. The contrast was all the more pleasant after having psyched myself up for a night sat asleep outside the stinking toiled just a few meters away, beyond the sealed carriage door that kept the cool air in and the toilet stench out. It was a great night’s sleep indeed.

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