Thursday, January 19, 2012

Hanging in Hampi

It has been, I guess, a week or more since my last post. We left off in Goa at a beautiful beach town enjoying the solitude. From there we had a long driving day to Hampi, which proved to be another highlight of the trip. Hampi is one of those towns split in two by a river. On one side you have the small tourist town where we stayed, and on the other side a bustling small local town on the edge of a large site of active Hindi temples as well as ancient ruins. The ruins cover so large an area that we were all piled into tuk tuks to navigate through the temples and palaces. We had a very knowledgeable guide whose English was very good. In the time we had, we could only cover a fraction of the ruins, but we made the best of it and opted to continue with the guide for an additional couple of hours after a very nice lunch at a restaurant called the Mango Tree. It is situated on the cliff overlooking the river with tiered seeting allowing all its customers to enjoy beautiful views of the river, rice paddies, and the amazing rock formations that make Hampi one of the loveliest locations we have visited in India. Lunches there are served on a huge banana leaf and, of course, there are mango lassis on the menu!

As it happened, the day of our tour of the ruins was a festival day and we were able to watch the locals bringing their sacrifices (coconuts) to the temple, crack them open and spill the coconut milk over the alter, either to make their wishes or to be thankful for receiving them. The local elephant (The Elephant God Ganesh is very important!) all painted for the occasion was accepting 10 rupee notes in her trunk in return for her blessing, which was a pat on your head with her trunk. The locals have revered this particular elephant who lives in luxury at the temple in her own quarters, and I guess has been performing this trick for 20 years or more. She was very good at it and it really seemed to be performed with love. Although the elephant did not bless us, we did watch many of our group as well as many locals take part and it was actually quite a nice experience to observe it. There were times when a whole group stood together and she let her trunk cover all of their heads at one time. We were not allowed to bring our cameras in, so unfortunately I don’t have any photos, but it was a special experience that I wanted to share with you in words at least.

Getting to the other side of the water was also an experience, exacerbated by the fact that this was a festival day.

We met at the water’s edge at 8:00 to board some kind of boat to take us to the other side, which was only a four or five minute ride. When we arrived there were hoards of locals with the same idea waiting to board boats and hoards on the other side watching the elephant (the one I was just describing) being washed in the river. A bit of a madhouse in a semi dangerous situation. Hundreds of people. Small rickety boats. Overcrowding. Everyone in a hurry to see the Elephant. You get the picture.

When we were directed to walk onto a small boat already full of people, we all took a look at the boat, the water and the distance and did the mental calculation that we could always swim if we capsized. Everyone was uneasy but we boarded the slightly oversized rowboat with an engine, all standing, and closed our eyes and hoped for the best. When we made it to the other side (phew), there were other hurdles to get past. Indians are not the best for patiently waiting to exit the boat in an orderly fashion. We almost capsized at the edge of the river due to everyone seated standing up at the very same moment.

Then we had to walk through water on slippery rocks being pushed and shoved by the locals, and then negotiate a seven-inch stretch of pavement (sort of like walking a tight rope with a hundred people) to actually get to the grass bank. There, of course , the rest of the crowd was either watching the elephant, or involved in a bathing ritual (including one man with his finger down his throat clearing his system through induced vomiting!) or just standing in the way so that we could not get past.

All part of the Indian experience!

The tourist side of Hampi was a real treat. Very small and intimate. One street of small hotels and eateries, and as Israelis have made their mark here as well, most signage in the town appears in English and Hebrew. All menus have at least one page of Israeli fare, and comforting signs in Hebrew alert you to the spots with cooking as good as your mother in Israel cooks for you! Great marketing I must say!

As it happens, we ended up in Hampi and Pushkar (the two towns on our tour thus far frequented by Israelis) on Friday night. In both locations, there is a Chabad house and if we were so inclined we would have had a Friday night service to attend! We did not partake, but were happy to hear the familiar sounds of the welcoming of the Sabbath in both locations.

Many of the restaurants in Hampi offer movie viewing as part of the evening’s entertainment. The Big Lebowski was playing at a restaurant close to our guest –house so four of us had dinner there and watched the “Dude” on a huge screen in this small tourist town. Next door a large group of Jews from all over the world welcomed the Sabbath singing softly behind the vulgar language of the movie we were watching. Quite the juxtaposition indeed!

Another special delight in Hampi are the two German Bakeries and the real coffee to go with the best baked goods we have seen thus far in India. Nothing like a nice cappuccino and a cinnamon roll or slice of chocolate banana pie to smooth out the rough edges.

And then there is the setting. Hampi is nestled amongst fields of rolling terraced rice paddies. We walked out through the paddies at sunset, watching a woman bent to the knees harvesting rice. The work that goes into a simple bowl of rice is staggering. Makes you appreciate everything much more when you see what goes into making it ready for your dinner table.

We left Hampi wanting for more, just as we had felt leaving Goa. Southern India has been amazing so far and we haven’t even hit Kerala yet!

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