Within days of arriving in India we were ready for some dreadlock spotting in laid-back southern India. Our heads filled with the promise of paradise we set off on our first ever night bus to Hampi. The opportunistic guy who booked it for us obviously thought we looked like we needed some tlc and checked us into a snazzy AC class, unfortunately setting the bar verrrry high for the rest of the trip. Ode to the beautiful bus with fresh cotton sheets, a clean blanket, pillow and a chair back to lean against whilst munching the complimentary snacks. We arrived at sunrise considerably fresh faced and excited.
Hampi, nicknamed ‘rock city’, is a tiny undeveloped rural village surrounded by a picturesque landscape strewn with huge mounds of spectacular boulders, patched with vivid green rice paddies and clusters of palm trees that conceal crumbling temples. On the island side of the river you can go into full explorer mode; scrambling up the rocky giants one experiences the sensation of stumbling into an Indiana Jones movie with strong Jungle Book vibes. It’s actually amazing. It wouldn’t seem at all strange if you saw dinosaurs rampaging in the undergrowth!
Naturally, the first friend we made was the village elephant, who was enjoying his morning bath in the river along with half of the village. He is a God like figure and guardian of the main temple, living amongst beguiling monkeys in the holy relic. Fresh off the boat (literally) we hired motor bikes and drove to a popular river spot, which after heavy rain can be claimed as a waterfall and is also excellent for diving off the craggy rocks.
Accompanied by the resident parrot Bobo we feasted at our hostel (The Goan Corner) every night, treating our tab like an all inclusive. Luckily(?!) it’s hard to find alcohol, but lassies are a great replacement and suppress budding alcoholism. Several hundred later and I’d still say that those were the best, creamy yoghurt and fruit permeated by crunchy sugar crystals mmmm. I’ve become totally dependent upon the limitless breakfast options cooked for me each morning and washed down with chai masala.
Benefiting hugely from the off-season we found a bargain cooking course during which the ‘cooking master’ took us through several different Indian recipes. We chatted and did all the prep from the floor of one of three rooms in his little house, which he shared with all 10 of his extended family. The kitchen was tiny but well stocked, with a set of gas hobs on the floor- I reckon I’ll need just a few more decades to master their perfectly balanced crowching pose. First the ‘master’ made onion pakora, deep fried clusters of onions mixed with spices and chickpea flour- crunchy, delicious and the best I’ve ever tasted. For the foundation of the curries we made a paste ‘gravy’ consisting of ginger, garlic, tomatoes and spices- just like cooking them from scratch at home. This method varies slightly: some people don’t use a blender and fry those ingredients to make a base sauce before transforming it into a specific dish. Always start by heating oil and adding whole spices like cinnamon, curry leaves, cardamom and cumin seeds- add powdered spices after the tomatoes when there is more liquid in the pan. We discovered that southern cuisine is generally less flavoursome than the north. They favour coconut over normal cream and rice over bread.
It felt so friendly being invited into someone’s home, we sat down to eat with the teacher and a few of his male friends. The Indian style of eating on the floor is customary and rather posture improving, I really like the informality and intimacy of it. His baby daughter swung next to our heads in a mini hammock and he lovingly told us that he’d already begun saving to fund her education and dowry. Nearly 80% of marriages in India are arranged, with amazingly low divorce rates. Whether you reckon this is due to happy marriages or because divorcees usually wind up forever alone depends on your level of cynicism, I think it’s a mixture of both. Nowadays young people have the opportunity to be slightly more selective with choices that their parents offer them. From what I’ve witnessed families are incredibly happy, respectful and dedicated to each other.
Hampi being such a holy place they talked a lot about some of their religious customs. When a close relation dies the whole family spend a few nights sleeping in the temple to rid their house of bad spirits- we did wonder why so many people had set up camp in the main temple. The men also shave their heads, leaving only one tuft of hair at the back of the head. Once cremated the family scatter ashes of the dead in the holy river (yes the one we swam in), releasing and purifying their spirit for reincarnation.
Travelling long distances across different states meant that we had to get slightly more creative modes of transport, one being a very bumpy nine hour government day bus all the way to Gokana on the coast. Our first night was a slight disaster; we went a bit overboard with the whole spontaneous travelling thing, failing to realise that there are three beaches in Gokana. This resulted in us camping under the stars outside a restaurant, sounds dreamy but we were very confused and bruised. The whole stretch of sand was deserted except for a very thin, possibly deranged, scantily clad man who ran along the beach into the crashing waves. Upon realising our error we relocated to a beach hut on Om beach and soaked up some rays in the much more idyllic atmosphere and calmer sea.
Our last stop in the South was Bangalore- a developed, almost cosmopolitan city. The decline in the number of sarees and the presence of many bars indicate the large student population and less traditional culture of the city. All we really did was go round eating and drinking, praise the Lord that a friend recommended us the delicious dosas!! Being super hungry, slightly greedy and drawn to the low prices and simple charm of the fast food joint we ordered two each, gorging ourselves on the crispy batter pancakes folded over Masala potato or chickpea filling. Long journeys tend to facilitate full bellies of brunch; with those we boarded our flight to Jaipur in Rajisthan.