SOLO TRIPPING – HAMPI – THE FINALE

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So yea, Day Four and Day Five vanished from the blogosphere. And here I am, counting hours to the end of what has been an extra-ordinary journey (can’t think of better adjectives). Have pretty much seen and treasured most of Hampi, I’d like to believe. Since I’ve been very politely asked to leave the homestay because the owners have another guest waiting, I’ve thought of revisiting one of my favourite spots in Hampi – the VIjaya Vitthala temple before the final ride home. It’s scorching hot outside, but inside this construction that once served as the Sabha Mantapam for King Krishnadevaraya, a gust of wind blows across my face. (And that’s a very subtle way of boasting that I’m writing this straight from one of the most majestic structures in Karnataka history! Got inspired by a group of fine arts students who’re sketching here and decided to make myself feel all writer like!😉 )
So what’s it been like? The last two days (Dec 31 and Jan 1, to be specific) have been more like a film… everything seeming like a crazy time lapse montage… you laugh, you cry, but mostly it’s feels like a roller coaster ride leaving you at the edge of the seat.
The last day of 2016 begins with the foot feeling slightly better. (Bike accident, remember). But not willing to take too much strain (am lazy as well), I decide to experiment with this therapy called Float Void. The flautist and friends from day one, who I had bumped into the other day as well, have strongly recommended this. Sharan aka Baba, who runs it, is nice enough to come to the boat area to pick me up. (His place is really far. So even if you are the fit kinds, walking is out of question).
Cut to Float Void therapy. Imagine being trapped in a capsule, just slightly bigger than your actual body size and float inside it for an hour with zero light, sound or place to move! That in a nutshell is what the therapy is about. (Supposed to have become a rage in the US, or so Baba says). He matches the water temperature to your body temperature and with certain salts (not getting into scientific details) to create a Dead Sea like atmosphere and strangely you even stop feeling the water after a few minutes. You feel like you’re actually floating. The idea, he tells me, is for you to get in touch with yourself. I am not sceptical, but I also don’t want to be too excited before I actually try it out. And I have to admit, this next one hour becomes one of the most trying one-hours I’ve had in a long time. Endless voices race through my head. (Some of which are too personal to write about). Each voice brings with it a splash of colours. Of course, could be my imagination at work as well. But the brightest colour accompanies the voice that seems to want me to face my truth. In a sense, it re-iterates what a small part of me is already aware of. Just that now I am conscious about it… in a sense, more willing to accept and work on it. Honestly, I’m still unable to articulate what the therapy has actually done to me. But it was an interesting experience, to say the least.
Having spent an hour in water, I am really hungry. And Sharan is generous enough to let me eat up half his lunch. He also volunteers to drop to me to Pampa Sarovar – yet another of Hampi’s beauties… this one a waterbody. I try finding the most comfortable place in the rocks and sit there for over an hour.
Here I meet the Gal Pals from Darjeeling, who eventually become the life of my New Year’s Eve. Shreya and Shikha, both barely 20, are out on what seems more like a graduation trip. Their interest levels skyrocket, when they learn I am travelling alone. (Looks like this trip has done wonders to my coolness quotient, especially among the younger lot!) Perched on the rocks, staring at the slow lilt of the Tungabhadra, we among other things get down to discussing plans for the night. They invite me over to Woodstock 69 — the café style hotel that they’re put up in – also one of the few places to host a New Year party this time around. (Entry free!) I chat up with Sharan again who’s come to pick me up from the sarovar as promised and we vroom into Woodstock.
The girls haven’t arrived yet. But the gadda-pillow-low table seating (this seems to be a trend here) and music are good enough to launch me into party mood. Beer, cigarettes and natural intoxicating ingredients flow. The only Indian I can see really is me, followed by Shreya-Shikha. To be honest, the party is quite thanda by Mumbai standards. But what’s really exciting is the thought of completing letting go with a bunch of absolute strangers… eating, drinking and being merry. And yes, the letting go part does require a conscious push from within. After all, this has to be a trip where I surprise myself. The gal pals are extremely accommodating and offer me to share their room for the night. (Hampi goes to sleep by 10. Travelling from one side to the other by boat past midnight is unthinkable). I call up my homestay host and inform him I will be returning the next morning.
Save a few desi drunken jerks who want to act fresh, the next couple of hours are absolutely crazy. The New Year eve so seamless transcends into the New Year that I realize the transition only with the rumbling of the stomach. Not the best way to start the New Year, I know. But you got to face it!
I return to my homestay by noon and crash for three hours straight. It’s already late noon and it isn’t too long before sunset. (The sun here sets at about 5.45pm). I loiter around aimlessly… feel a bit stupid thinking about the things I could have done had I come back last night. (But then, I console myself saying I’ve covered most of Hampi anyway. And it was an experience to remember).
I go for a long walk on the boulders behind Virupaksha temple. The sun has just set. It’s not until I sit down on a random boulder that the enormity of it all begins sinking in… the orange sky that’s fast turning deep black… the skyline that’s dotted by several small temples and mantapam structures… and of course the mighty Virupaksha shimmering golden, courtesy the little light atop the gopuram…
I try taking a few pictures but realize that the best of photographers might not be able to capture the essence of its beauty. I am just an amateur. It’s something you must feel, immerse yourself in, not see. Sprawled out on the cold rocks under the star-studded sky, with no care of others walking by, I am so taken in that I can feel my eyes moisten.
I’m reminded of the lines:

Muaaf kar de mujhe, humnafas
Ke khubsoorat tu nahi…
Ke khuda ne tujhe taraasha hai…
Par khuda tu nahi…

Muaaf kar de mujhe, humnafas
Ke khuda tere aagosh mein nahi…
Ke Khuda hai iss sannaate mein…
Aadhe chand ki poori muskaan mein…
Taaro ki chhaav taley jhilmilaate pattharo mein…
Aur sukoon mein roshan meri rooh mein hai…

Muaaf kar de mujhe, humnafas
Ke mujhe khuda mil gaya

Unlike mentioned earlier, these aren’t the lines I’m reminded of. This is what comes from within. Embarrassing or not, I am going to embrace them. One of the things the trip has taught me. Yes, they are mine. If you don’t like them, so be it. At least I made an attempt. It feels good.
As I try to finish the last part of this blog on my way back to Mumbai, stealing an occasional glance at the fast passing Karnatak highway dhabas from my sporadically stained bus window, the smile on my face refuses to fade. The week that went by has felt like another lifetime. I stole moments from the arrogant cycle of time. Keeping with ethos of WH Davies’ poem, I did find the time to stand and stare. Have I discovered myself, given that solo trips are romanticized as such? Have I finally found a meaning to life? Have I sought what I was looking for? Or what was I looking for in the first place? Frankly, I don’t have an answer to any of these. All I know is, some small part of me is at peace… And this has to do with more than just the mystique of Hampi.
Whether it’s about taking the tiniest of decisions on your own, striking a balance between reining yourself and letting go, or facing moments of crisis (the bike accident and the new year revelry fallout in my case), even supposedly independent women (or persons actually) like us, may find ourselves thrown into the dead-end of the pool… with absolutely nothing or no one to fall back upon. And then it’s all about how to make it… and not just make it, but also love the journey of making it. Somewhere that is the essence of life, I’d like to believe. For, while it is only human to want companionship along the way, the path we choose to walk on is ours alone… Has this trip given me a sense of self-validation, then? To a certain extent, yes.

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SOLO TRIPPING – HAMPI – DAY THREE – Stories of a Broken Foot

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Had pretty much decided to not write this blog today. Just didn’t feel like it. Too tired and the foot still hurts. But then there is a certain sense of discipline I am trying to inculcate. Don’t know if this has anything to do with the whole self-discovery angle generally attached to solo trips. But yea, discipline is something I sorely lack. And one of the things that traveling solo does teach you – even if subtly in and small measures – is that you need to be disciplined enough to plan a day well, despite enjoying all the flexibility that the absence of a second voice offers.
Anyway I do intend to keep this one short.
So yea, the day begins on a rather sweet note what with Hampi’s signature Nutella pancake (a really big one for just 90 bucks; forgot to take a pic thought; was too hungry) and an interesting conversation with a Swiss man in his late 40s or so, who’s been chilling in HAmpi for the last two months. He claims to have spent almost 20 years in India — mostly in some parts of south and Hrishikesh as a yoga trainer, pashmina trader, masseur and what-not — before he went back to Switzerland eight years back. The conversation starter really is my bandaged foot. I tell him about the bike accident and he suggests I should get a massage done. (Interesting suggestion) Then he offers to do it himself. (Not bad!) And for free. (Whoopieee!) The conversation mainly revolves around how India has changed drastically in the last eight years and he feels, for the worse. Everything’s become way more expensive but services haven’t improved, making a Cambodia or a Vietnam look more attractive… Then of course, features the demonetization devil and how people are making money out of cash crisis. (A lot of travel agencies in Hampi are letting you swipe the amount you need cash for and charging a whopping 10 per cent. I argued with someone but paid 7.5 per cent nevertheless.) Of course I notice there’s something odd about the Swiss guy Andy’s style. And the fool that I can be, all I want to know is, what has he been doing in Hampi for two months?! He says mostly meditating and making music. I still don’t get it! He says he meditates in the caves. (Get it, dumbass! But I don’t.) I keep on asking silly questions, only to later spot a half-finished bottle of alcohol on his table at 10am. Of course later it turns out to be honey. But the point is, I do eventually figure he’s probably been smoking up for the last two months and floating in his happy space – meditation! (Of course, that’s his deal. But I want to be safe and there is something weird about the way he talks). But then, he does wait for me to finish breakfast. The promise of the free massage you see! The chicken that I am, I knew I would back out even before agreeing. He buys me a Rs 1 Navratna Ayurvedic oil sachet anyway!
I move towards the Virupaksha temple area. Lot of rickshaw-wallahs waiting to fleece me. Particularly because today I’m limping and can’t walk too much. After some solid haggling I hire a five-hour rickshaw to cover the basic touristy places that I had been avoiding. We start with the Vithala temple and the stone chariot. Yes, again! But from a different route this time. The more tourist friendly route I think. Coz I had to buy a 30-rupee ticket and another 20bucks for battery-operated cars plying from the starting point to the main temple area which is quite far. (My rock and boulder route on Day One was far more interesting. But couldn’t have possibly done it on a sprained foot). The architecture is mind-boggling. I think I can see it over and over again and still be awe-struck like a little girl. And then I am taking my own sweet time today, since limping can get a bit painful.
Honestly, I am feeling a bit low. The leg is hurting. But equally painful is the fact that the majestic ruins have turned into a picnic spot today. School children run amock like it is some public park… maybe because it’s a Friday and it is just bad timing. One of the most charming places I’ve seen has just been robbed off its peace.
I discover a really silent dark spot, deep inside one of the three temple structures that hasn’t attracted the school kids yet. And that’s when suddenly the young flautist (from day one) walks up to me. He’s evidently surprised to find me sitting alone in a dark cave. Taneesh, Tanvi and gang are concluding their trip with this temple visit. All college kids, their sheer energy lifts my mood. Like last time, they’ve given a lead on what I can do tomorrow. (I am yet to figure how to ring in the new year. Might just be sleeping in my room mostly, since everything shuts down by 10pm and no shack here seems to be excited about the New Year).
Anyway, I move on to the rest of the usual suspects – Queens Bath, stone sisters, the queen’s summer palace (which guides love to say, had natural A/C), the elephant garage (the Swiss guy called it so. Basically Krishnadevaraya parked his 11 elephants there) and many more.
And I am still walking like a fat old woman with a pronounced limp and totally not liking the feeling. And then of course there’s a sea of school kids again, who unwittingly manage to put me off even more. It’s not about them really. It’s just the general attitude. I don’t even remember the number of foreigners I’ve spotted clicking pics with these kids. What is it with them? Are these kids, (who did look a bit dishevelled and I do assume most of them were from humble families) mere props in their pretty frames? But as I hang around a little more, I begin to feel it’s really the other way around. The kids are loving it. They’re in fact the ones who insist on being photographed and don’t leave you until you take a click with them. Imagine being in a foreign land and being thronged by some 20 unruly kids demanding a click with you. Won’t you oblige? Besides, they are all insistent on shaking hands with firangis, as if trying to touch and gauge if they are as human as them.
And it doesn’t end here. A solo woman, who’s limping with a bit of a baby elephant gait, is also the hand-shake-click-pic material! Honestly, nothing against the kids. They’re just kids. Mostly 10 to 14 year olds. But what was it with the teachers who weren’t bothered enough to guide them, tell them that this is not how you behave! But what do you say, if you find even the teachers being all thankful to foreign tourists for breathing the same air and facing the same camera! (I don’t want to get into the 150-year-of-British-invasion space, what the hell is wrong with us? Does the fair skin still leave us salivating? Or do we see anybody looking or behaving differently as an object of experiment?)
So yes, a bit miffed I keep moving. A few more spots later, (the massive shivling and laxmi narasimha statues are extremely imposing), I finally reach the Ganesha temple, which is at the foothills of yet another sunset point. Foothills on a broken foot?! Right. But then I love watching sunsets (who doesn’t?) and I realize I have more than half an hour at hand. Slowly and unsteadily, I take ages to finish what would have otherwise been a very easy climb. But I do reach the top. It’s a huge space with more temple ruins offering an amazing view of the setting sun. I am only too eager to park myself on a rock and stretch my foot. Slowly, I begin taking the view in.
Day before, the Malyavantha raghunatha spot was mostly mountains and sunset. But today the gigantic Virupaksha temple is dotting the skyline along with a few smaller ones from the other side. And it’s all just so serene. I sit calmly, admiring the beauty… nature’s gift to mankind… long after the sun has set. I do have the task of figuring out an exit around the Virupaksha side, which is much closer to my homestay. But then, faint sounds of Carnatic music fill the air almost magically… I think it is part of the evening aarti at Virupaksha. I sit down on the endless expanse of boulders again. Yes, I know it is getting darker. My limp has become worse. But in this moment, I don’t care. It just feels divine. That’s all I know. This is what I want to take my home. I try taking a few pictures. But I fail miserably at capturing even an inch of what all this really means. I sit still… quiet…
Finally, even as the last of boys sprawling in rocks get going, I decide I should too before it’s too late. A kid selling postcards sees me having a tough time climbing down the rocks and decides to drop me all the way to the bazaar. I’ll sell postcards in the bazaar now, he says. I’m touched. I give him some cash, since I have no other way of repaying him.
The day of course ends on a more foot-friendly note. I get an extremely affordable foot massage done at Raja’s. Foot massage and reiki healing, really. He does just a miraculous job that I don’t feel the need of bandaging my foot anymore.
A minor limp still exists. But I think I can live with it… live to see another day… live to tell another story… Hopefully the other side of Hampi – Hippie islands today again. Let’s see what the day has in store for me!

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SOLO TRIP – HAMPI – DAY TWO – Adventures with Mowgli and Babu

Ever heard about whiskey in a frooti-like tetrapack? Or breadcrumbs cooked with veg biryani? Or a beer-fall in the rocks just like waterfalls? (No, this one doesn’t exist! But more on the other two, later).
So how’s day two been? Adventurous, to say the least. Could even call it a misadventure, but aren’t misadventures too largely made of adventures?
A bit exhausted after yesterday’s exploration-on-foot, I start the day as late as 10am. (Spent two hours before that trying to upload blog!) Now I have two options. Take a rickshaw ride and see the rest of Hampi – the temples, the palaces et al. Or go to the other side of the Tungabhadra, also called Hippie Island. Honestly, despite my online R&D, I didn’t know it existed before I got here. It’s only when a friend mentioned in a comment the other day that I started asking people around. Then the young flautist I mentioned about yesterday also told me he and his friends were staying in Hippie Island. They described cafes, live music etc and it did sound interesting. But it is not until my homestay host mentions about Hippie islands as a place that is ‘not nice’ because vile foreigners go there mostly to drink and smoke up that the teen rebel deep within suddenly does a summersault. (Slight digression, but I remember my first Goa trip with two friends, 12 years back. Barely graduates, a hotel owner in Panaji, also a friend’s father’s friend, advised us against going to Baga beach, because ‘we wouldn’t like it… because it had all foreigners and bad culture.’ And within the next hour, we found ourselves parked at Baga Britto!)
Cut back to present. My plan’s totally set! A quick breakfast at yesterday’s masala dosa place and I head straight to the boat area. A coracle/ulti tokri ride again, (is much cheaper today making me realize I got fleeced yesterday) and there I am. In the land that a ‘nice girl’ like me shouldn’t be – Hippie island! Interestingly, the locals started calling it so because there was a phase when only foreigners, mostly Israeli tourists stayed here for long periods. (An Israeli hunk coming in shortly!)
And this is where I meet the hero from the title of the blog – Mowgli. Running one of the many shacks on this side of Hampi which rent out bikes and organize treks, a man in his late 20s walks up to me asking if I want to hire a bike. I say I don’t know to ride one and ask him a little about the places to visit. He sells the idea of renting a bike with a driver-cum-guide to me and introduces me to the 19-year-old Babu. He in fact even tries hard-selling to me the idea of shifting to this part of Hampi, very innovatively labelling it ‘the sunny side,’ whereas the part that I’m put up in ‘the dark side.’ But then I’m staying in a really cheap yet clean homestay this side (Rs 500/night) and see no reason to spend more. Anyway, as Babu gets busy getting the bike ready, our man gets chatting. A Russian looking tourist (who Babu will later tell me is English) is already lounging around in his little shack. And our man introduces himself as Mowgli! And insists his parents named him so because as a kid his eyes were like the Jungle Book hero and he was born in the jungle-like areas of Hampi anyway! I still think he’s fibbing. But truth be told, I do hear other customers address him as Mowgli. (Btw, I also spotted a Mowgli Guesthouse here. What’s it with Hampi and Mr Kipling?)
Anyway, Babu is back. After a bit of haggling, we take off. Babu drives quite carefully, the reason for which I discover later. But for now, it’s a nice ride amidst rocks on one side and rice fields on the other. It’s growing hotter but I don’t seem to mind it just yet.
Our first point of visit is Hanuman Temple in Ane Gundi. 475 steps! I am a bit unsure of the climb, but begin with enthusiastically nevertheless. Babu accompanies me. I begin panting after 50. And at 150, I decide to abort the climb. I realize my fitness levels suck, to put it plainly. We go back and I do feel it’s a wise call. For, it’s a choice between this climb or doing four other places that will also need some amount of walking. That I need to start stamina-building is another story. But in this moment, I have to accept my limited capacity.
Next, we go to a famous Laxmi temple. No, this isn’t really supposed to be a temple-hopping trip, but it is here that I realize the heat is taking its toll on me. I was walking all of last noon without a cap and am repeating it today. Lesson learnt. Will buy a cap tomorrow.
En route queen’s palace, we stop at a medical store. I pick up a few instant energy ORS sachets and we continue, finally take a break at Chintamani temple. Unlike the other temples this side, this one is deserted. View from the top is really nice.
Yet another temple later, Babu decides I will not be able to do the underground cobra house trek. Despite the exciting ring of it, I discover it has some religious significance yet again and don’t feel enthu enough. I need to save my energy for a 20-minute ‘easy’ trek to the sunset point in about two hours from now. Babu says he’ll take me to a must-visit lake, where I can relax till then.
In anycase, by now he and I both know that my real interest lies in sunset and the music and the various jam sessions thereafter – the real charm of Hippie island. Babu, though barely 19, is full of stories about wild and crazy jam sessions back in the day. And by that he means, just about five years back… when Hippie island was indeed quite hippie. Quite the rock-n-roll place. Rolling behind the rocks really, and also some solid jam sessions. With an increasing influx of Indian tourists and some stringent government action, jam sessions are slowly withering away, though the rock-and-rolling culture continues to thrive. Of course many restobars still have live music sessions post-7pm and since Mowgli’s friend (also partner, I think) Jagan is playing drums tonight, I will join them post sunset. He’s also promised to arrange a coracle for me at around 9.30pm since the solo boat that ferries people from one side of Hampi to the other doesn’t run after 6pm.
Babu and I continue chatting as he takes me from a different route this time — visiting gypsy huts, learning why some people burn their rice fields after each season, and generally enjoying the uphill ride. Just when, in a very TV-like dramatic twist, comes a bike from the other side. Two firangis – man and woman, are coming down the slope. And suddenly the guy loses control and BAMMM! All four of us fall off bikes. We’re still figuring out who’s hurt, when Babu loses it and starts abusing the firang. Turns out, he had met with a bike accident just earlier this week, and now has sprained the same wrist again. Poor thing! The two foreigners are also quite badly bruised. As for me, I escape unhurt… almost. It’s only when I try getting up that I realize I’ve hurt my left foot. It’s probably just sprained and I am hoping there is no internal injury. (No, there isn’t ☺)
The next hour or so, the four of us just sit on the rocks, waiting for Mowgli to first pick up the phone and then bring a rickshaw. The firang guy is quite tense about bike damages. Yes, both bikes will need some basic repairs but I don’t think it’s much. But I do know the bike-wallahs are totally going to fleece the firang. He knows it too. Which is why he has spoken about going to a bike shop and getting it repaired himself some ten times by now.
A number of vehicles – mostly bikes and share rickshaws — pass by in the meanwhile and everybody stares at the four wounded stooges sitting on the rocks, the two bikes on the other side, make enquiries in Kannada with Babu, shake their heads, get entertained and push off. I am more irked with this whole zoo-visitor mentality than the German girl. Or maybe she’s just too rattled to react in a foreign land.
Meanwhile, the guy, an Israeli as I eventually discover, has taken off his shirt and is pouring water all over himself. With the initial shock now subsided, I do notice he has ogle-worthy abs. Okok, commoditising a just-wounded man is a bit mean. But then, my foot is hurting and I do have to pass time till Mowgli arrives. So out of sheer respect for his sexiness, I decide to offer him the dignity of a decent conversation! And I finally discover the reason behind Israeli food finding a special place on almost every menu card in the whole of Hampi. Turns out, Hampi was a hit with the Israelis way before young India discovered it. Roy, the Israeli in question, learnt about Hampi from his brother-in-law, who loved all the rock-climbing. Nobody knows when and how did the word begin to spread, but Roy says if an Israeli is planning an India visit, he will not skip Hampi. This is something that Babu has his own take on, which he tells me later. He says until five years back, most foreigners in Hippie Island were Israelis. And he pins this on the easy availability of weed and ganja, which continues to be the case.
Finally Mowgli arrives. Babu and I visit a chemist shop run by some doctor they know. He allays my fears of a possible internal injury, bandages my foot, gives some painkillers and that’s about it. I insist he do the same for Babu too. For whatever reason (money I think), I see Mowgli and Babu trying to talk me out of it. But I can only imagine Babu’s pain since he’s sprained the same wrist twice. So after Mowgli leaves, I request the doctor to bandage Babu’s hand and foot for the bill.
Babu though is quite thankful. I don’t want him to be. But he suddenly opens up a lot more. After finishing off the whole bike business, he and I go for some masala chai at a café run by one of his friends. I am still walking with a minor limp. He apologizes for messing up my first trip to Hampi and I tell him it’s not his fault and call him a nice kid. And he goes all out to prove he is not! “Mai kya kya kiya hai naa aapko pata nahi hai.” And he makes the biggest confession of his life – that he may well be only 19, but he actually got kissed by a 31-year-old English lady!! He goes all pink. And I find it so cute, I laugh my guts off. And he goes deep pink! My foot feels better.
I decide it’s time to call it a day. My music escapades in Hippie Islands can wait for another day or two. I’m here till the 2nd. Foot needs a little rest. I take another coracle home.
Post Script: Oh yes, about the tetrapack whiskey… Hippie island is the only part of Hampi that sells alcohol and an attempt at finding cheap liquor with a broken foot can sure led to interesting discoveries, courtesy interesting people.
As for the bread-crumb biryani, that was a decent dinner. Looking forward to Nutella pancakes for breakfast tomorrow. Cheers!

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SOLO TRIPPING – DAY ONE AT HAMPI – Of Promises Made and Kept

Dead tired. The only two words that come to my mind as I sit to type at the fag-end of the day. (Fag end at 9:15pm feels as strange as tiny eateries here advertising Israeli food as one of their USPs). But then, I did promise myself that I would give a certain sense of posterity to this trip and gloat over it, and hence the effort! (Koffee with Karan-ish confession?! Just wondering.)
So starting from where I left… the bus trip. Yes it was bumpy and took me about an hour to figure the best position to sleep in, but honestly, no complaints at all. I mean, imagine a bus with sleeper berths, well-controlled air-conditioner, private TV screens that work also, plus a blanket and fryums and a bottle of water! They even halted at two places offering open-air peeing facility even to the female folk. (Yes, I ran deep into the fields at 5am. No intention of damaging bladder because of shame, embarrassment, etc.) Felt so relieved that I even forgot that creepy uncle on the lower berth on the opposite side. Actually I think I had forgotten him long before. Three decades of being a woman and you do know how to deal with frustrated middle-aged jerks.
Cut to 8am. The bus finally reaches Hospet. Over an hour late but who cares. I am told buses going to Hampi stop right across the corner. But I am too lazy to walk to the corner and prefer breaking the first promise made to self instead… that there would be no unnecessary kharchas on this trip. Anyway, the rickshaw-wallah gets richer by 200 bucks and drops me to Revanth Homestay right in the centre of Hampi bazaar that I had pre-booked.
Mr Nagaraja and his family who own the place have been really warm and helpful so far. I think chatting up with him over the phone at least twice before coming has helped. A small discussion with him and I loosely figured out my POA for the day.
First up, is a really short walk to Mango Tree Café – something that a friend had recommended. It was supposed to have been a river-front restaurant with descending seating. But turns out the river-front portion had to be shut down a couple of years back. What remains is a cosy indoor restaurant, but grossly over-priced. I decide to just have a cup of tea here and explore the street for some authentic South Indian breakfast instead.
I go to this really tiny place with a road-side kitchen and barely two tables inside. Because single women travellers are treated with as much curiosity as firangs, I am politely escorted inside despite both tables being occupied. A Scottish group is nice enough to accommodate me. We bond over some masala dosa and yet another round of chai. They sound me off on their India travel plans – particularly Mumbai, while they double up as my Hampi trip planners. What I still cannot get over is that one of the women in the group is on a one-year-long maternity leave and has been in India for the last six months!! (Indian working mothers, you feel like biting a few heads off, don’t you?).
Anyway, I finally decide to begin my site-seeing with Vithala temple built in 1513. (For rest of the history there’s wikipedia). Although Virupaksha temple is the first you see when you enter Hampi, I choose to act on a random suggestion and walk right upto Vitthala temple which is anywhere between 1 to 2.5km away depending on the route you take. With Ekla Chaalo Re as the background score in my head, I stride ahead. There are those on bicycles, those on mopeds, but I am happy feet. (Because I can’t even balance on a cycle, forget moped!) And soon enough, I come face to face with my deplorable fitness levels. Puffing and panting, I somehow climb the rough cut stone steps hoping to catch a glimpse of the much raved about temple. I ask an occasional tourist-on-the-return how far the temple exactly is. I get responses like ‘as far as you can go.’ They don’t make help or make sense. Not until I actually make it. And when I do, nothing could have prepared me for it. I am actually in the middle of seemingly endless ruins. Majestic, enchanting, it isn’t like anything I have ever seen before. To be fair, my rickshaw ride to Hampi had given me the first glimpse of the rocks. And yet the Virupaksha temple and surroundings cannot possibly be compared to the grandeur here. In fact I realize how mesmerized I am only when I discover I am stuck between two really oddly placed rocks at a certain height and then lose the nerve while climbing down.
The funniest part is yet to come. I am joined by a really nice Hyderabadi lady in my search for the main temple! (Or so we thought). We can’t find moortis anywhere. Besides, there are no info-plates, no directions, and no guides. She, her husband, kids and I take a nice long round of the sanctum-sanctorum area in our idol-hunt, only to be told by a guard later that there is no idol. Of course that isn’t least bit a dampener because we are too busy marvelling at the ruins.
It almost feels like a town within a town. Just that, a town it never was. And what it was, never will be again. In search of I don’t exactly know what – mostly a way out of the temple I think – I keep walking on aimlessly and end up in front of the Tungabhadra river! I had googled about the coracle rides offered here. Crossing a river in a large ulti tokri really seems terrific. I bump into the warm Hyderabadi family yet again and we do the ride together. While secretly hoping nothing ends up toppling this tokri, I must admit I haven’t felt so close to nature in a really long time.
Extremely conscious of not coming across as a pile-on, post the ride I purposely take a different route. And well, get lost again! I walk on endlessly to God-knows-where only to take a huge detour later. With the sun right above my head, I am tired and hungry and frankly quite crabby. And that’s when mom’s theplas almost serendipitously come to my rescue. I don’t know whether it is the fatigue on my face or the way I am hogging or the entire idea of a girl eating alone in a corner, but I draw a lot of stares. To a point when I begin staring back out of irritation. It is only later that I realize I was sitting in the immediate exterior of yet another temple, though that still doesn’t justify the stares. Anyway.
I finally find a short-cut out of the Vithalla temple complex. And along the way, I get the golden opportunity to see the coracle-ride-mystical-Tungabhadra of the afternoon turn into dhobi ghat by late noon… get interrogated by a couple of school girls on a picnic who want to know how I am travelling alone and whether I am married and why isn’t my husband on this trip… find a toilet… and get robbed off my Bisleri bottle by pesky monkeys inside the Virupaksha temple.
Unlike the ruins at Vithala, Virupaksha with this awe-inspiring gopuram is still a regular temple. With still some time at hand, I decide to now finally take a rickshaw (after some six hours of walking) and head to Malyavantha Raghunatha to see the setting sun.
Some 8kms later, the spot arrives. A temple again?! That’s my first reaction. The only half-interesting picture here is watching firangs playing manjiras, I feel. This is nature’s way of telling me I need more exercise, I think. Anyway, now that I am here, I decide to go around the temple and climb more rocks. But it is only when I reach the top that I realize the sheer treat that I am in for. A bird’s eye view of the entire magical town… the sun on its way down the mountains… and a young flautist deciding to start making music impromptu! And it all just seamlessly blends, creating that enchanting picture. All I do is just soak in the moment. Just feel the rhythm. Just breathe.
As I write reliving the picture, I wonder if this isn’t bliss, what is! Yes, I live to see another day… hopefully as enriching as the day that went by

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THE JOURNEY BEGINS

So excited, as I embark upon my maiden….…… wait
And there, the first interruption. Got asked something in Kannada (I assume kannada because of where this bus is headed), which I couldn’t figure. Turns out, I’ve taken someone else’s seat. But then, one little perk of being a solo woman traveller is that people generally don’t trouble you too much. Or maybe it’s just the mess that my tiny berth has become within the first ten minutes of my boarding that intimidated the bus guy! Not too much samaan though… just my favourite big blue bag bursting out of its seams, a gadget store masquerading as my handbag (laptop, adaptor, phone, power-backup, kindle and more) and a big blue jacket since mom has mistaken Hampi as the Himalayas! (No, she hasn’t. She’s just being herself). While still on mom, thepla – check, khajurpaak – check, Good Day – check. (Ask any Gujju, how important these are).
Coming back, I love travelling (like who doesn’t?!). So far I’ve been to some 60-odd cities across seven countries, India included. Though not as much as I would have liked to, also realize I should just be thankful for what I could (not modest; the fear of karma talking). And yet, it’s taken me over three decades to embark upon what’s my first #SoloTrip. (Yes, this comes with a hashtag).
The Solo Traveller’s Handbook by Janice Waugh describes solo travel as “an experience like none other, which allows you “to enjoy a destination on your own terms.” (Didn’t know this book existed before I planned this trip though). And then of course, the internet is flooded with quotes about how solo trips are about connecting with your inner self and self-discovery and inner peace and blah and blah.
So what’s my deal? Frankly, haven’t even given it so much thought. I am just in love with the idea of exploring a new place totally on my own. To be honest, it has been a while since I’ve just run on the diving board without worrying about the height of the board or how hard the water’s going to slap me across the face. Just the thrill of jumping… the mid-air suspension… and thunderous collision with the water… and the desperate laps to rise up and breathe again. Can it be frightful? Can it be adventurous? Well, that’s a point of view.
What matters though is that right now this bus journey feels amazingly comfortable, despite me having to cling on to the handle-bar and exert extra palm pressure on the laptop hoping it will resist the temptation of head-banging with the bumps and slide off from the upper berth. After all, my belongings and I have a long-ish ride ahead. We should be making it to Hospet around 6.45am tomorrow, if my chariot is on time. Another 12 km then on. And Hampi it will be!
Guess, that’s that for now. Showtime begins. Cannot possibly miss this bad print bad audio movie on my little private screen. (Yes, each berth has one in this bus. Fancy shit, eh?)
Haven’t been much of a blogger so far. But heeding to a friend’s advice, I do plan to put out interesting bits of my travel, if any. More, later. Do keep reading.

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THE IRONY OF A MODERN MUMBAI WOMAN

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I wear what I like, I go where I want.

I am a modern Mumbai woman; no less than a man

 

I don’t care about what the neighbours say,

I ignore when boys down the road catcall,

I am a headstrong Mumbai woman… no less than a man

 

I choose not to spend life milling round the kitchen

I am at peace jostling shoulders in a crowded train

I am at home within the four walls of my office

I am happy arguing to prove a point

I am an independent Mumbai woman; no less than a man

 

I don’t take my husband’s surname

His chai is not my cup of tea

I am too busy charting my own course,

I am an ambitious Mumbai woman; no less than her husband

 

I take home a fair salary, fat enough to fund my Friday night escapades

I think nothing of going clubbing with a gang of girls; or boys

I think nothing of hailing a rickshaw alone in the thick of the night

As long as I don’t tumble down some gutter, I also think nothing of getting high with all my might

Yes, I am a free-spirited Mumbai woman; no less than a man

 

I think nothing of ogling at hot men, I find flirting harmless

I find virginity over-rated; pre & extra-marital sex as a talking points seem so passé,

Yes I am hedonistic; Yes I unabashedly stake claim at the pleasures of life

Because I am a self-made Mumbai woman… no less than a man

 

Then one morning I open the papers…

And there’s a woman at least eight years junior, who too had set out to claim her share of life

Name, fame, dreams and ambition; all things she thought she deserved

Because she too was a modern Mumbai woman; no less than a man

 

Little did she know, modern she was, but a woman.

Little did I realize, they’d much rather keep the woman but her free-spirit.

 

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AND I DISCOVERED THE TIME MACHINE

BY ALKA SHUKLA

Time machines they said were things of fantasy books… or science fiction films at best. But then they also said facts were often stranger than fiction. And it’s probably this realization that awoke me to the presence of the time machine right in front of my eyes.

I had spent 29 years of my life seeing it… staring at it… making timely use of it… but almost always taking it for granted. After all, in an era of ipads, iphones, foldable phones, convertible cars, domestic chore-performing robots and with quirky experiments like balloon powered cars, James Bond’s Aston Martin style amphibian sedans and of course the fabled time machine still on, a few good old gargantuan machines are the hardly the ones you’d even consider science marvels any more.

It was not until the 29th year of my life that I realized what I had chanced upon. It was the time machine. And it was not until I had returned from the bygone era and slipped back into the comfort of my torn shorts and unkempt T-shirt that I realized what had hit me. I had time-traveled! Just like the Michael J Fox of the cult Back to the Future. Or giving a more desi example, Aditya Roy Kapoor of the Akshay-Ash starrer Action Replay.

Just that my machine had neither the dozen-odd flickering disco lights that Aditya’s did nor the much classier vintage DaLorean of Dr Emmett Brown. Neither did it come in whimsical shapes and sizes. A standard crimson — reddened with sporadic ‘pichkaris’ of pan, tobacco (frequency depending on generosity of its travelers) covered the boring box-ish steel/ aluminum interiors. With the only little variation of its length, depending on the distance and time zones it was expected to travel, it was probably the most boring creation in the aesthetic sense. Hardly the super-sonic sexy time machine I had grown up imagining.

But functionally, even our adorable Doc Brown’s flying car could get a run for its money. After all, it had the capacity of transporting a good 1500-odd people back in time by half a century. Well, it did take 18 hours instead of fractions, but what the heck… it still did its job! And considering that none of the snazzier ones took me aboard, guess this one gets my vote…

Admittedly, there was nothing exclusive about this one. I was huddled along with another thousand and a half… But the difference? Well, the others were too consumed in their own little worlds to realize they were time-traveling.

To be honest, at first even I didn’t. But then, here we were. Landed without realizing we were in a different time zone. It was time to disembark. I looked around… There were no cars… forget their honking away to glory, no skyscrapers competing to make a bigger intrusion in the sky… no pin-striped men, no women in stilettos, no multiplexes, no bars, no pubs, no restaurants, no pandu hawaldars, no traffic mamas… and no 20-somethings lighting up– as if making a statement of their liberation.

Well, I knew rural India didn’t have most of those. But then I was pretty certain this wasn’t a gaon of my century. For one, there was no sight of cemented roads, just rocky path-ways… Do fine horses gallop here? Probably. (No, not the ones which run on Juhu beach, but the much classier stallions from Hollywood movies)… There were no buildings, just sprawling row houses, which could easily devour Mumbai’s dozen-odd match-box houses. And well-fed cows and buffaloes happily loitering in the backyard of each house – a site that would make Shashi Tharoor revisit this cattle class comment.

And the stereotypical rural poverty? Well, there wasn’t a sign of it. Go to think, the inhabitants weren’t exactly what I would call well-dressed but may be that had more to do with the general definition of style and class rather than a reflection of their economic status.

And yet something in the air made me queasy. It was probably the presence of throes of women whose faces I couldn’t see… I wasn’t supposed to see. That’s how it was meant to be.

The sharp contradiction of economic progression versus social regression hit me hard. Books had always taught me that with money comes education, with education comes progress and progress paves the way for more money. My entire academic universe – the books, the papers, et al – had convinced me into believing that this law was as infallible as the law of gravity. So if something broke the norm, it clearly had no business being in my world. The only plausible explanation hence was that this place belonged to a different era… a different time zone… Yes, I had traveled back in time.

But then what era was it? Could it have been 1947? Maybe. After all, I did hear numerous voices crying for freedom. But then didn’t the independence struggle have masses taking to the streets, men and women alike shouting, rallying, protesting till their vocal chords shriveled? This scenario was hardly as colourful as that.
And then, since there weren’t any white ladies in hats touring the town in fine carts — which my history textbooks and Hindi films would like me to believe, dotted every third bi-lane of the nation – the pre-independence era had to be ruled out.

So what era was it? With a lot of rumination and regurgitation (yes, the cows are coming!), I settle on somewhere in the 1960s… the era when abolition of privy purses was a ten year old story, feudal lords had also long been stripped off their powers, and by far it was settled that Article 21 (exhorting equality) of the Indian Constitution was not a myth but a reality. Yet for those who believe that time flies, ten years was too short a flight for the memories of lost glory to fade away. The huge loss of extra-constitutional authority and the struggle to hold on to the shards of power couldn’t be missed.

So yes, transported to the early 60s I was – the very time zone my mother was being brought to life. As much as it would have been endearing to watch my baby mommy cry, I was a few thousand miles away from her.

There were no innocent babies crying here. But cries were of full-grown women who had no place in a world of men who ruled it not like visionary kings, but controlled it like little fiefdoms. But the men weren’t really at fault. For it was the women who refused to understand their role. They needed to understand that they weren’t supposed to have a voice. They needed to know they were given birth to serve a certain community… the community called men. They were meant to cook, clean, rare kids, and show willingness to serve the master at all times and under all circumstances. PS: this is strictly pro bono.

After all, this was the only sphere that the thousands of landlords who’d just lost large swathes of estate — the power and position thereof – could continue to dominate unchallenged. How… just how could they let this slip away too?

It was settled then. The time had come to forget all the fierce rallying the very women had done just a decade and a half back and lock them up in the four-walled cellars called ‘ghar’ again. The ‘ghunghat’ was back. After all, the erstwhile landlords knew just how personal property is to be protected. Little girls in the family were being sent to school, but only so that they could grow up to raring fine sons. Many of them even pursued higher education. But only so that they could be married off to better grooms.
Beyond that, what mattered were the lessons learnt within four walls of the house. The first lesson that cooking was akin to breathing. The second that servility to husbands, fathers, brothers (or just any man) was the second name for dignity.

That explains why when a sprightly woman on the wrong side of the 20s struts around rather recklessly striking a conversation with anyone crossing her path (read: the superior species), jokingly threatens to disown her husband over his uncool choice of hair colour, is unapologetic about her inability to walk without tripping in reams of cloth popularly called saree, and the most scandalous of them all: makes no bones admitting she can’t cook to save her life, they seem too baffled to orally articulate their feelings. (Thank God… my addiction to TGIFs and Red Boxes of the world found no mention!)

The only expression I remember is gaping mouths and widened eyes… as if they’d just seen an extra-terrestrial outside their window. After all, nothing I said or did, seemed to satiate their curiosity about my life, my functioning, my world… all things MINE!

The initial amusement their reactions aroused in me was gradually taking form of exasperation. I felt like running a few million light years away from there. Was I, Ms Well-Read, Well-Spoken, Well-Traveled being naïve? Probably. For, they were much quicker to realize what I still hadn’t. That I indeed belonged to another world…. A world that was at least 50 years ahead of theirs. After all, I had quickly leapt into 2013, while they were still languishing in the 1960s.

Well, this does partly explain all those moments when I could sense their bewilderment turning into disdain. But how am I to find an answer to the secret admiration I saw in their eyes each time they spoke to me, away from the roving eyes of their husbands? Was it was an appreciation for my boisterousness? Or was it something far beyond?

As I brood over the question, a barrage of fragmented conversations I had with groups of them assail my mind. But as I let out a deep breath, I can clearly see what their eyes mirrored. They showed chaste adulation for my courage to remain free-spirited… For the courage to let nothing in the world cast its shadow on all things that stood for me. Not even her brief visit to the feudal 60s, which made no exceptions in reducing its women to the shadows.

Today as I sit alternating between fidgeting with my keypad and a broken tube strap within the confines of my 21st century surroundings, I wish to go back to each of them. And tell them that the incessant fight against feudal mindsets is a constant feature in my world too. The forms may be different. The concerns may be varied. But only as varied as my time machine and Dr Brown’s. But then, for a change, I don’t feel jealous about not possessing the swanky flying car. I’m satisfied with mine. My time… as well as my machine…

As I conclude this piece, I think of nothing. The pretty houses… the prettier cows… and prettiest of them all: the women silently giving them perspective… all fade away into the background. The only thing conspicuous is the smile on my face as I boarded my time machine again. This time to zip back into my world — Yes it did maintain its reputation of being three hours late, leaving me stranded on an ill-equipped platform on a biting winter night… but this time I wasn’t complaining.

All I wanted was a quick transport back to my time zone… back to the world of deadlines, pressures, cut-throat competition and cynicism. But that is my world. That is where I belong. Something that wouldn’t have pierced me like a nail in the wall, had it not been for my time machine… the good old Rajendra Nagar Express…
Which has by the way also made me realize just how easy it is to chug into a different era each time I need a reality check!

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