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.

***

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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May 7th – Artistic feats and street eats

 The palace that greeted our arrival to Mysore was something more of an enigma than we had originally realised. It was not quite the piece of Mughal architecture that it had seemed from several hundred feet away, but in fact a chaotic, tasteless hodgepodge of styles that became increasingly apparent as one crossed the ramparts, passed under the opulent front gates and crossed the grand approaching laws. Upon closer inspection, the entire placed seemed more akin to Brighton Pavillion than the Taj Mahal.

Mysore palace was built in 1912 by the then-Prince of the Kingdom of Mysore after his previous palace had burned down. Sensing an opportunity to update and contemporise his glamorous digs, the Prince added Russian domes, classical Greek pillars, dazzling gold ornaments, excessive amounts of gold leaf, stained glass windows and some enormous faux-Italianate murals depicting the various military exploits and developments of his Kingdom. None of these looked as if they had been pained any later than the 1930’s.

It certainly presented an artistic challenge to the more thoughtful visitor (and there were many visitors to be found); was it spectacular or phoney? One half of me felt that, whatever the strange amalgamation styles, it should be appreciated for its spectacle and effort, of which is clearly did not lack. The other half of me, however, couldn’t shake the feeling that it was really was Brighton Pavillion away from home- a sham and an imitation that didn’t know what the hell it was.

Ifelt both those feelings, however, rather than one or the other. After all, the previous temple that had stood on that site since the 14th century had burned down at the end of the 19th century, and this is what had sprung up in its place. So what might seem like the Mysore-eyesore should perhaps instead be viewed as a timepiece of Indian history, a statement about the state of the country into which it was spawned. In that respect, I think the palace was a vivid example of the strange fusion of infuences that India has experienced (endured, even) while attempting to remain its own culture. It’s just a shame there was so much gold leaf.

Mysore's palace illuminated at night

Mysore Palace by night.
-Mysore, India-

 ***

Later on we indulged in the endless choices of street food that Mysore had to offer. In the cooler air of the early evening, the wider avenues and busy alleyways that bisected them burst with evening diners sitting on upturned crates and plastic chairs whilst smoke, steam and sounds spilled out of the hotplates and spitting woks. One particular speciality of the city was the Mysore Dosa, which is an adaptation of the regular Masala Dosa. At least, that is the official line- the reality is that the Mysore Dosa is ubiquitous across India, probably because they were done here first.

They are certainly done here best. The batter is especially light and bubbly, the potato curry especially soft, warm and spiced. The real joy is watching the expert chef ladle out the white batter onto a vast, black, greasy hotplate the size of a large office desk. He would then swirl the batter outward with the flat bottom of his ladle to the size of a large vinyl record. The batter of ground rice and flour quickly bubbles up and expands as smoke skirts of the edges of the pancake. With the wide, flat spatula, the chef then expertly swept under the pancake and flipped it over with a deft jar of the wrist, revealing the crisp, golden-brown vortex that has been sizzling underneath. While the underside bubbles away, he reached into the vat next to him and pulled out a handful of turmeric-yellow potato curry. He rapidly tossed this from one hand to another like cricket-ball until, after a second or two, he placed it gingerly in the centre of the brown swirl. With the spatula, he would then curl one edge of the pancake up and around the potato, before doing the same to the other edges around the other side to produce a brown, scroll-like object, which he then flipped over and flattened with a soft pressure from the spatula to seal the pancake.

The sublime experience of tucking into this culinary delight whilst stood amongst the chatter and streetlights is enough to distract even the most hygiene-conscious diner from the dirty state of the hands of the chef who had just cooked your dinner. The bugs are worth it for the street food in Mysore.

Street food is not all that is on offer. While the original pleasures of the juice bar are all over the city, today we discovered a new contraption to tempt our money. The object in question resembled an old Victorian hand-washer with a large wheel turned by hand. Instead of a burly housewife, though, there was invariably a skinny, pre-adolescent boy manning these objects; instead of a pile of dirty washing, there was an enormous stack of what appeared to be bamboo cane in large pile. For the princely sum of 2 rupees, a friend of the child would run around the back of the machine with armful of these bamboo canes and jam them, three-apiece, into the teeth-claws at the back of the machine while his partner set about priming the pump around the front. Quickly, a lime green juice flows from the fibres pressed within, down a chute and into a small glass at the bottom. After what looks like shameful amount of straining from the small child, the glass is full.

The drink is flat, sweet and somewhat refreshing, if a little warm. I wanted another to really hit the spot, but it seemed like such hard work for a cheap and not-all-that-satisfying reward. In order to assuage my guilt at wanting another, Alec and I instructed the two small kids to change places with us, Alec taking the back end and I having a go on the pump. It was very, very stiff. The assembled crowd fall about shrieking and laughing at my pantomime show at pretending not to be able to move the pump. But only I’m not really pretending to struggle- it was actually bloody hard work. We eventually managed a glass and we shared it.

***

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May 6th – Mysore

The early sun was just poking through the tall treetops we parted company with our host- he had been a sterling gentleman. Rosie, Bilaji and the girls accompanied us as far as the road. There was a local shrine that they liked to visit when they were in the area. After that, they would be driving back to Bangalore. They gave us an address to visit them if we get the chance. We had made another set of friends.

Our bus ascended over the remainder of the Western Ghats and through the last of the soft woodland air, tumbling down into the dry, yellow interior that we had left behind in Tamil Nadu. Halfway to Mysore our bus broke down, causing everyone on the bus to migrate outside to the meagre strip of shade that the bus provided. While the heat of a moving bus may have been tolerable, the large, stationary tin can on wheels soon became a furnace that not even the hardiest of locals could stand. In the meantime, we sufficed on miniature bananas and dried biscuits bought from the roadside huts beside us.

In time, the city of Mysore emerged through the haze and heat. But instead of depositing us in a chaotic bus terminal on the edge of town, we were instead let off outside a magnificent classical building of spectacular domes, sweeping verandas, grand arches and broad lawns. Around the vast premises of this spectacular centrepiece were broad, tree-lined arcades that provided shade and space for the local loiterers. For a while, we joined them.

This piece of architecture set the tone for Mysore. The city, which was the seat of the Kingdom of Mysore during the colonial era, is the Karnatakan capital of culture and the second largest city. Much of Mysore is cast in a strikingly more tailored manner than rest of India’s ramshakle cities that all seem to clamber over themselves to eke out a space between the rubble and the pavement. Mysore feels altogether more carefully laid out and constructed. The streets are – while not a dull, grid pattern – still sensibly divided into narrower and grander roads.

The main streets are intersected with intimidating roundabouts that are devoid of any markings or traffic control other than a broad fountain or monument stood in the middle. As the buildings crowd in a wide circle around and the pedestrians warily hug the pavement, one cannot shake the impressions of a Roman gladiatorial arena, into which vehicles of all shapes and sizes try their luck on the inside lane before being run out again by larger, more formidable challengers.

Vendors outside Mysore market

Outside Mysore market

Across town, we passed inside one of the largest markets we have yet visited, within which all manner of wares were plied in a neatly organised tour of Indian street commerce. From fruit, meat, dry goods, and butter through to cleaning products, locksmiths, flowers, perfumes and chairs, few grocery lists could be left unsatisfied after half an hour in these dark, shaded labyrinthian passageways. As we strolled up and down the narrow alleyways, yelled enticements and sales pitch openers would be thrown out at us from the margins.

“Yes sir, yes sir, hello?”

“Come my friends, friend price for you, you need spices?”

My particular favourite was from a small, skinny boy whose father slept in the shade behind him: “Yes sir, come on, come on! Assta price, cheap as chips!”

I’m not sure who would be more flattered at that kind of exposure- David Dickinson or ASDA?

Enormous pile of green beans at Mysore market

Green beans: How did they get there in the first place!?
-Mysore, India-

Occasionally, a break in the grubby sheets and tarpaulins stretched between the stalls allowed a piercing white beam of sunlight into these depths, striking off whatever was passing below, so that a pile of multicoloured plastic kitchenware or a crate of tomatoes would send shifting, coloured reflections darting off into the shade and onto the faces of the stallholders behind.

Un-posed portrait of market vendor in Mysore, India

-Mysore, India-

The place was not just a visual assault. The smells were no less polite in their welcome. People often wax lyrical about the sights and tastes of India, but never the smell. It is perhaps the one of the five senses I would have no trouble leaving at the arrivals lounge, such are the thick and often unwelcome smells experienced in India. Again, this market provided them all, with a flower stall providing a rare, delicate fragrance and a perfume stall emitting a heady, pungent air about it. Meat stalls smelled heavy with blood and raw meat as fat, green flies rubbed their hands with glee at the entrails clinging to the sides of heavy chopping boards. Behind the stallholder, heads and limbs hung on hooks in the shade waiting for a brave customer to purchase them.

A tikka powder merchant in Mysore, India

This man is selling tikka powder, which is used for ceremonial colouring rather than cooking
-Mysore, India-

Further down, the sun fell heavily on the squashed tomatoes and brown-edged cucumbers that had been rejected by the presentation-minded grocer and thrown into the gutters that lined the alleyways. Here, the air was warm and thick with the stench of decomposition, with smaller, darker flies swarmed silently around the decomposing produce that appeared to have smell-lines wafting from them like an old cartoon.  Here and there, cows weaved in and out of the stalls, lazily shuffling through the remains and gorging themselves on the day’s leavings as their coarse tails flicked distractedly against the legs of passers-by.

A locksmith at work in Mysore, India

-Mysore, India-

Piled blocks of jaggory at a market in Mysore, India

This is jaggory, a syrup-like derivative of sugar cane.
-Mysore, India-

Vendor surrounded by potatoes and onions in Mysore, India

These vendors did not go in for half-measures.
-Mysore, India-

Large piles of tomatoes, ginger and garlic in Mysore, India

-Mysore, India-

Vegetable seller waits for customers in Mysore, India

-Mysore, India-

***

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May 5th – Hunting for tigers

Our jeep arrived at six-thirty this morning, as we had requested the previous evening. The early start was, for once, enthusiastically embarked upon on my part, although I couldn’t vouch for Alec’s enthusiasm. There was one very simple reason for our efforts to be the first visitors into the park and it was large, orange and notoriously elusive. India has, it is predicted, only a few thousand tigers left in the wild, many of which live in such national parks as the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary. Living in alone or in tiny groups, they are most active at dusk, at night and in the early morning, so that after the first few jeeps have roared through the undergrowth and the sun has risen high in the sky, the chances of catching a glimpse are all but gone.

As our jeep rattled and bounced up the driveway and along the smooth road across the park to the entrance lodge, the wind whipped around us and through the door-less jeep. The exhilaration of the ride through the cool early morning, however, was rapidly halted at the bureaucracy of the front entrance. Once again, the same ubiquitous, dusty, red book was creaked open on the park warden’s lap as we were invited to sit down outside his lodge. In his own, painstakingly slow time, he diligently documented each of our entrances into the park, pausing for his cup of tea and conversing with every warden that passed by his lodge. The excruciating experience was exacerbated by the sight of various jeeps spluttering in and out of the fenced gate next to us as more visitors arrived and milled around in noisy groups. I fidgeted and bit my nails as I watched the sun climb higher and higher as each minute passed, dispersing our chances of spotting a tiger like a morning mist.

But after fifteen long minutes, we were in, having hired a jeep for ourselves and- we were assured- securing the first entry to the park. On the recommendation of our driver, we opted not to sit face-to-face and under cover in the back of the flaking white jeep; instead, we mounted the back of the vehicle and, perched somewhat unsafely on the back chassis, held onto the roof-rack, giving us a 360-degree view of the park around us as it bumped along the rutted track through the forest.

Hanging off the back of a jeep in Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, India

Hanging on!
-Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, India-

There certainly appears to be something worth protecting here. The imaginary border that we crossed when we entered protected territory saw a return of the open woodland that is so often interrupted by logging, ramshackle housing or agriculture in rural South India. The rolling green hills and virgin woodland in this area enjoys extensive protection laws that greatly restrict construction, pollution, mass agriculture, hunting and other potentially destructive symptoms of human settlement. Along with all manner of bright, the fragrant and rare plant-life, such varied creatures as deer, bears, birds, elephants and tigers are the various reasons for the extent of the protection enacted here. In somewhere as seemingly unregulated and- unfortunately- polluted as India, this is no small feat.

Instead, the road we embarked upon snaked through miles and miles of unbroken forest and grassland, devoid even of litter. We buffeted and jolted down the rutted track, through the patches of cool shade and golden, slanted sunlight and deeper into the park. Craning our necks around us to make the first sighting of the day, we caught the soft morning air that rushed past us and felt the warm glow as we entered the bright clearings between the tall trees around us. Every so often, our driver would slow as we entered a clearing, so that the engine would calm and we could almost feel the silence and the still air being breached by our presence.

Suddenly, he signalled to us with a soft tap of his finger on the ceiling and a pull of the breaks. Amidst the waist-height undergrowth that peppered the forest floor, there lurked a dark round shape twenty yards away to our right. We hushed our excited voices to whispers. Reaching up to shield my eyes from the sunlight as we strained for a better view, I suddenly craved a pair of binoculars to close the distance between us.

But instead of stopping to observe the animal or positioning ourselves for a photograph, the driver hit the accelerator and the engine roared back to life with a hefty jolt and we sped down the bumpy road towards our target. With a crash of leaves, the bushes parted ways before us and out tumbled a young black bear, its silky body rippling and dancing as it galloped through the undergrowth. Kicking up dust and stones all around us, we quickly pulled up beside the animal as it careered through the undergrowth only ten feet from my right leg. At two or three feet high and more from its pale muzzle and lolling tongue to the thunderous hind legs, the stocky animal looked young but heavy. Black pristine fur caught the sunlight in a beautiful golden brown as it tumbled in and out of the undergrowth alongside the jeep, before peeling off to one side, kicking it’s padded feet behind it as it disappeared into the bushes.

Before too long, we settled back into a steady pace as the forest quietened around us.

Presently, as the forest began to thin out and open up around, we approached one of the low ranger’s lodges that dot the park. The lodge was sat atop stilts and surrounded by a deep, wide moat, so that it was protected against both animals and floods, of which the former danger appeared to be the most pertinent. The rifles that were carried by many of the rangers was the best weapon against animal intruders, although the danger appeared to be only relative; whilst three of the un-armed rangers squatted around a camp fire cooking breakfast in their underclothes, there strolled an elephant and its young only a few yards from us. Although periodically turning a wary eye to us just as we turned a wary eye to them, they continued their slow stroll past us, pausing occasionally to pull at the tufts of grass around them. Slowly, as we enjoyed a steaming round of chai teas, they ambled away into the yellow and orange mist, fading to a dark pair of shapes amongst the silhouetted pencil-thin trees.

Just as the elephants slowly disappeared into the park, so did our chances of spotting a tiger. Soon enough, we began to pass other jeeps that had come around the loop in the opposite direction, thereby having ensured that any big orange cats had very likely been scared off already. As each jeep passed, the drivers traded stories of the morning’s sighting so far while we marvelled at how lucky we had been hiring out our own jeep; out of the jeep opposite us, there squeezed perhaps ten faces, all eyeing our empty seats below us with envy.

***

Our host at the guesthouse shared our disappointment at having missed the tiger sighting. He was equally affronted that we were planning on moving on after only one attempt, and gamely offered to drive us over to one of the neighbouring nature reserves for another safari that afternoon. The Nagarhole National Park was a short drive over the state border into Karnataka. In contrast to the windy experience of riding in the open-doored range rover earlier that morning, we glided across the smooth tarmac of the Keralan roads in his air-conditioned sedan right up until the state line.

‘Kerala roads,’ he reminded us with a wave of his finger veeeeery good. Karnataka roads’, he added with a wrinkle of his nose, ‘not good.’ As if to emphasis the point, he knew exactly where the state line lay:

‘Entering Karnatakaaaa…’

He held this final syllable right until the hum of the tyres on the smooth tarmac was suddenly interrupted by the sharp jolt and rough shaking that accompanied the return to rutted, unkempt track.

‘…now.’

The Nagarhole National Park experience was somewhat different to that of the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary. We left the visitor centre on a crowded, rickety bus amongst families of day-trippers, screaming children and young couples. Perhaps the noise of the young girl in the seat in front of us was enough to scare off any wildlife as the rattling engine beneath our feet, but we did see more of the wonderful surroundings that have been protected here. I think the cleanliness of the air and the lack of rubbish and pollution is as striking as the wildlife that benefit from it. It is hard to overstate how…well…dirty India can be. Looking through the woodland around us, the rubbish that collects like flurries of snow by the roadside is absent, even if some of those in the bus still poke food wrappers through the cracks in the window like they were there. The noise and the traffic are noticeably absent. The cool shade and the soft scent of wood is a sharp contrast to the burning rubbish and sewers that blights any urban setting.

A giant squirrel in Nagarhole National Park, India

Mingling with the locals…
-Nagarhole National Park, India-

Instead, large squirrels scurry and leap from the branches above us. Birdsong twitches around in between the roar of the bus. Shafts of late afternoon sunlight beam down through the branches of the trees. Off into the distance, a field of termite hills stands undisturbed like grey-brown mountains, merging with the shells of dead tree-trunks and blending into their surroundings.

Sunlight through the trees of Nagarhole National Park, India

Something worth protecting…
-Nagarhole National Park, India-

Through a gap in the woodland, we paused to observe a herd of elephants bathing in a small lake. There were perhaps six of them slowly sloping through the green water, washing themselves and each other with jets from their trunks, which they used to prod and stroke each other like us humans would an arm.

Wild elephants seen through the trees of the Nagarhole National Park, India

Through the trees, wild elephants.
-Nagarhole National Park, India-

A trunk would occasionally disappear beneath the water, before emerging to emit an arc of water behind them, catching anyone behind them and sending a soft mist off against the slanting evening sun behind them.

Wild elephants bathing in the Nagarhole National Park, India

Wild elephants taking a dip.
-Nagarhole National Park, India-

Back in the guesthouse owner’s sedan, we passed by a large mob of deer by the roadside. The soft, elegant creatures seemed to move in large groups, darting out of the road as we slowed on our approach. Thankfully, our driver showed greater subtlety than during a previous natural encounter: he had earlier spotted a collection of small foxes sitting in the undergrowth, a collection of orange ears just visible over the vegetation. After a few seconds’ waiting and little to see, he issues a couple of sharp blasts on his car horn, from which the foxes bolted into away into the bushes in an instant. He had shrugged and continued driving.

Roadside flocks of deer in the Nagarhole National Park, India

Flocks of deer gathering by the roadside.
-Nagarhole National Park, India-

This time however, he kept his hands firmly on the steering wheel while Alec and I admired the Deer. While both males and females have the white dappled spots against the smooth brown fur all along their flank, males are adorned with the spectacular, ubiquitous antlers that, if the cliche is to be believed, reside more on the wall of the hunter’s lodge that atop the head of a male deer. Indeed, the delicate, elegant form of these slender animals appears to give them the air of being out of place amongst a natural world of hunger, death and survival of the fittest. They moved in graceful packs through the trees, silently tiptoeing through the undergrowth and gazing off into the distance, as if contemplating some otherworldly conundrum that the wild boar and elephants simply have not recognised.

A doe catches the sun in the Nagarhole National Park, India

These deer posessed a delicate beauty that seemed so out of place amongst mother nature’s harsh ways…
-Nagarhole National Park, India-

A deer family hides in undergrowth of Nagarhole National Park, India

-Nagarhole National Park, India-

Of course, the serenity that these deer bring can always be relied upon to be interrupted in a tourist attraction such as this. Not long after we had persuaded our hotelier to turn the engine off and sit in silent observance, another car full of Indian holidaymakers drew up ahead of us. They had also spotted the herd only a few meters to our left through the low undergrowth and all begun to pile out. This already turned the heads of the herd, although did not move them quite yet. Seizing this opportunity, the father of the family wasted no time and, box-camera in hand, gamely strode through the undergrowth towards the herd in the hope of getting a picture. Unsurprisingly, the deer at the edge of the herd begun to scatter into the undergrowth, causing others next to them follow. Undeterred, the father quickened his pace to a crash through the undergrowth towards the centre of the herd, camera held up in readiness, head darting from one side to another as if looking for the perfect picture. The entire flock of deer is in flight by this point, scattering off in all directions and away into the forest, so that all we are left with is the sight of an Indian gentleman with his polo shirt tucked into his trousers, careering off into the forest with his camera held up in front of him like a reckless David Attenborough imitator. We left the bemused family by the car and continued driving.

A pepper corn plantation in Kerala, India

On the way back to the lodge, we stopped off at our hotelier’s ‘plantation’, as he described it. They grew peppercorns there.
-Nagarhole National Park, India-

***

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May 4th – Drinking in the dark

From Nalimbur, we further trundled into the foothills of the Western Ghats. Having left the relative comfort of the railways behind, the high wheel-base of the Humvee-like public busses were our means up the windy roads and through the close, green confines of the hillside tracks. Despite there being a closely interlinking and well-used state transport infrastructure, the busses that connected the towns with their smaller satellite villages were inevitably crowded. Of the three connecting buses we caught, I was only lucky enough to secure a seat on one of them, so that on the others I was forced to stand in the aisle with most of the rest of the passengers. There was an added bonus to these rides of having my fifteen kilo bag on my bag because the storage was as full as the bus was, as well as being three inches taller than the available headroom. In hindsight, the experience of becoming intensely stressed and irritable whilst being forced to adopt a lopsided gait probably appeared quite funny to those around me, even if it didn’t appear funny to me.

From the town of Kalpetta, the central hub nestled in and amongst an array of protected state parks clustered in the North Eastern edge of Kerala, we pushed further north and into the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary itself, catching our final bus of the day. The last forty-eight hours had seen us ride (in order of appearance), a ferry, a rickshaw, two trains, three busses, another rickshaw, two more busses and then an army-green, open-top jeep that finally took us onto the guesthouse that we tumbled into, exhausted, just as the sun was burning orange through the trees around us. The guesthouse had been recommended to us by one of the rangers who had approached us off the bus, who then drove us down here for a small fee. The owner greeted all three of us with open arms and talked animatedly with the ranger only after we had been shown to our room. The stunning lodge he owned was nestled amongst land of his own, with the undergrowth and trees sloping up and away from us all around, so that it felt that there was little dividing where we stood in his garden with the surrounding national park. A walk further into the undergrowth and down his garden path did indeed reveal nothing more than a small metal gate separating his land from the path that sloped down and away from us, into the gloomy undergrowth and the park itself.

That evening we ate the meal his wife prepared with another family that was staying with him. Bilaji, Rosie and their two daughters were from Bangalore and were here for the weekend celebrating their daughter’s birthday. In their company, we were once again reminded of the disarming willingness Indians had of openly discussing employment, income, family situation and religion as freely as Brits would the weather or what was on TV. Both Bilaji and Rosie, speaking better English Alec or I, had jobs in the services sector in Bangalore and were the picture of India’s mushrooming middle class. We sat over dinner, gushing reverence for each other’s home countries and offering competing levels of cynicism toward our own respective nationalities, so that it became almost a satirical game.

After dark, we walked up the drive and into the darkness with a bottle of Rum that Bilaji had produced from his cooler bag. Amidst the soft rattle of the crickets all around us, we sat on a bench by the road and watched as a thousand fireflies twinkled and bobbed around us in every direction. The tiny green hovering dots would dance and blink against the pitch blackness, disappearing and reappearing behind invisible trees for as far as the eye could see, so that there appeared to be no form to the green blinking muddle of blackness around us, save for our four disembodied voices and the trickle of a cup being re-filled.

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