Saturday, May 15, 2010

Riding to Hampi and one bad lassi

The morning of the 11th was an early one. Our driver, Franko, showed up at 6:30 and we were off for a day’s journey – destination Hampi. He got us to the Margao train station by 7:30, where we desperately tried to figure out which platform and which train we should be getting on. India’s rail system is the worlds largest public utility employer, with over 1,500,000 staff. Unfortunately, they are terribly elusive when you need them. We eventually figured it out with the help of other equally lost looking travelers. I had a good chat with the golf pro from the nearby Intercontinental, who stood out due to his very unique luggage, and gave him my recently finished Good Walk Spoiled.

Booking train tickets had been challenging. The only ones available had been sleeper seats in a non-AC car. Fortunately, booking sleeper seats gave us more room than the average Indian, who all seemed to have to battle for space and were well accustomed to fitting 5 people in 3 seats, but it was still pretty jammed for all on board. It was about a 6 hour trip that I made pass by reading Cormack McCarthy’s The Road. It’s a terrific book and, if you’re a regular reader of my blog you know that I love McCarthy’s style, but it’s not a terribly uplifting read. Regardless, it was a wonderful distraction from the heat and chaos going on around us.

Hampi is several hundred kilometers east of Goa and it was amazing to watch the landscape change. We’d gone from a hot coastal climate to really hot plains. It was flat, dry and pretty damn inhospitable. But when we got nearer our destination the landscape changed again, with great piles of massive boulders cropping up here and there. It often looked almost artificial, like the set of the Flintstones.

We were going to Hampi because it had sounded amazing in everything I’d read about it. It was the capital, Vijayangar, of a kingdom established in this region in the 13th century and had grown to be one of the largest cities in the world by the late 16th, with over 500,000 people. It was a centre of trading and culture and one of the largest Hindu kingdoms in history. And then, around 1565, the whole thing was razed to the ground in a battle that I won’t pretend to understand.

The train actually goes to Hospet, about half an hour from Hampi. We were pretty exhausted from the heat and the travel, but we jumped in a rickshaw and took the half hour ride to the town and the basic accommodations I’d booked, the Padma Guest House, highly recommended by Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet and the best thing available in Hampi. It was perfectly decent and we got an A/C room facing some of the ruins. The only real challenges were that the A/C was inadequate to fight the heat of the Hampi sun, which beat directly into our windows in the afternoon, and that the bathroom was connected to other parts of the building and was a complete sauna that heated the rest of the room if the door was left open. Both theoretically manageable issues.

We booked our rickshaw driver for the next day for the 5 hour guided tour, and booked the hotel room for two nights, knowing that the next evening we’d be catching a late bus and we wanted to keep a room to shower and relax in before the bus.

We got cleaned up and decided to go get a bite to eat. It was already around 5:00 so we went to the dinner restaurant recommended by LP and by the Cheeky Chapatti folks in Palolem, a place called the Mango Tree. The walk to the Mango Tree was amazing. We started by passing the main temple, which the Hampi Bazaar is built around. Lots of Indian people were there checking it out, but we didn’t stop in because we knew we’d see it in detail the next day. We then walked down along the river that runs through Hampi. It was simply beautiful. The piles of boulders surrounded a relatively lush area and the river ran through it all. The sun was low on the horizon. The whole thing was spectacular.

When we got to the Mango Tree it was just as we’d heard. An incredible setting overlooking the river, the perfect place to hang out and have a bite. The menu had an extensive listing of Indian veg options, plus lots of drinks. Since it had been a long hot day we ordered a bunch of drinks including a couple of milkshakes and lassis. (The milkshakes are fruit and milk, no ice cream. And lassis are made with curd instead of milk.) They were a bit sour, but delicious after a long day. Dinner was a couple of curries that were very tasty.

After dinner we went back to our hotel feeling very full. Time to lie down and let the curries settle. Except it never did. Colleen got hit first. She hit the washroom for a cool down shower and never made it. (Somewhat graphic details follow. Stop here if you’re faint of heart.) She lost her curry and felt terrible. Feeling ill after a spicy meal is not totally unique for Colleen, who doesn’t have a strong stomach, but this time was special. My curry made its return about an hour later, and I do have a strong stomach.

I won’t go into detail about all of this. Suffice to say that there were many trips to our sauna washroom throughout the night. Probably a dozen for me, maybe a half dozen for Colleen. I know I kept our neighbours and the hotel management awake for part of the night with my bellowing into the porcelain amplifier. The manager, a terribly nice young guy, actually stopped by the room at one point of the night, to see if we needed a doctor. We didn’t hear him though, probably too busy moaning.

Of all our travels to all the dodgy locations, I’ve only ever been truly ill once before while abroad, and that was to the awful resort area of Veradero. (Cuba is amazing and its people terrific. Veradero isn’t Cuba and is not worth visiting. You want a resort, go to a resort.) This night in Hampi was my worst night of travel ever.

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