Going off radar

I’m in Kohlapur today, which is a pilgrimage town in Southwestern Maharashtra. I haven’t seen a single other westerner since I’ve been here, which means that no-one’s tried to rip me off yet. When I talk to other travelers about India, there’s a certain weariness in their voices about the touts and beggars everywhere, but I’m starting to think it all depends where you go. Most people who come to India go to Goa, Agra, Jaipur, all the places that are undeniably beautiful but also have hugely developed tourist industries and attract people who want to make a quick buck. It’s like going to the US and spending your whole vacation in Times Square. So although I also want to visit the big draws, I’m interested to see how my perspective on the country differs through where I go and who I talk to.

Anyway… I spent four days in Hampi, which was about perfect. On Saturday I spent the day on a bike again. This one was so bad it made the ones you rent on Nantucket (big basket and tassels on the handles) look like Tour de France equipement. In spite of my aching backside, I rode probably 20 kilometers to see a reservoir (looks like any other reservoir), a broken bridge, a natural fort and a temple. The temple, dedicated to the monkey god Hanuman, was on the top of a pile of boulders about 200 feet high. Not so surprisingly, there were monkeys all over it; the view from the top was stupendous. I was (stupidly) surprised to see that monkeys do in fact like to eat bananas; I had thought it a childish story.

The bridge, at Anegondi, had collapsed two days before – not long before being finished. It would have connected two parts of the area that at the moment are served either by a long dirt road or a small boat from Hampi. Depending on who you talked to, between 8 and 100 people died when the bridge collapsed. The newspapers say 10. When I got there it was like as festival — hundreds of people watching the police teams and ice cream vendors hawking loudly.

Speaking of the connection between Hampi and the other side of the river… My second night I had decamped to the far side of the river, as it was quieter (and you could get a beer). The boat only runs between 7 am and 6 pm, a fact that I declined to take into consideration when I booked my 5:15 am train ticket for Monday. I thought I would just take a rickshaw from the other side. Foolish me. The whole reason for the new bridge is that without it the other side is to hell and gone away from town.

So I got up at 3 am yesterday morning. The rickshaw driver who the ‘boy’ at the hotel had arranged appeared out of the darkness the moment I opened the door of my hut, which makes me think he had been sleeping in the hammock outside. (By the way, ‘boy’ is a term used to describe a gentleman of any age under say 50 who is attached to an establishment. The ‘boy’ will fetch it.) It was exhilarating to rattle along the dirt road in the dark, craning my head out the side of the rickshaw to look at the stars. I almost asked him to turn off the headlights so I could see better. In fact, I could have, as we got a flat anyway, as luck would have it right next to a poulty farm or something that smelled equally foul. It was fixed within fifteen minutes, and I thought we had plenty of time… until we ran into the mother of all trucking traffic jams at 4:30 in the morning in the middle of nowhere. Don’t ask. I had completely given up hope and resigned myself to staying in Hampi another day when we pulled into the train station at 5:30 — and the train was still waiting in the station. I had time to find my coach, kick someone out of my bunk, and curl up to sleep just as it pulled out.

After twelve hours on the train yesterday, we finally arrived in Kohlapur. I treated myself to a ‘nice’ hotel, which means screens on the windows, a western toilet, and hot water. It’s a place I would sneer at in the States, but I was so thankful for it last night. At 600 rupees a night it’s a splurge for the strict budget I’ve put myself on, but still less than 10 dollars.

After taking a long shower I went out for a walk. The modern part of Kohlapur looks like every Indian town I’ve seen so far: chaotic, dirty, broken, no sidewalks, buildings falling down or terribly maintained – and then in the midst of some bombed-out block, a brand-new gleaming palace of a store or house.

The one I particularly noted last night was a jewelry store; after some hemming and hawing I decided to go in. The doorman swung open the tall double doors. Walking the polished marble floor was a man who I presume was the manager; he was at my side immediately, smiling and gracious. I told him I only wanted to look, and he showed me around the glass cases, shining gold, diamonds, rubies, pearls. I was told about provenance of some of the designs and made to try on an armband. As I went to leave, the security guard requested a photograph of me, then a number of the employees did.

This is nothing new: I’ve caught men taking pictures of me on their cameraphones everywhere. I don’t know what it’s about other than maybe they just don’t see many white people. I haven’t experienced any real harassment yet. People stare, but having lived in big cities for a long time I’m used to ignoring men’s gazes. They make stupid comments under their breath every now and then — ‘sexy girl’ — but then I just feel sorry for them, as I know that in the heat I’m looking far from my best. I’m certainly not exposing any more skin than Indian women, and half the time I’m wearing a punjabi, which seems to help.

This morning I’m headed out to see the Mahalaxsmi temple and old town Kohlapur. At 1:30 I’ll get on a bus that everyone except the man at the bus station swears exists, headed for the middle of nowhere to stay with the Martins. The bus will take about four hours on back roads through the Western Ghats (hills), eventually arriving at Shangri-La, or so I’ve been told. I’ve been promised a cold beer waiting for me on the verandah, so how bad could it be? I have no idea how long I’ll stay; my hope is that this will be a fruitful alliance. There is currently no internet connection there, and all the power is solar. I hope to get to a town once every week or two to stay in touch.

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