Friday, January 14, 2011

Cows, Cows, Everywhere A Cow

So right now I'm in Gokarna and have been for a little over a week.  It's been a really restful time and is definitely a great spot to hang out in.  There are several different beaches around all offering the almost identical mix of multi-cuisine restaurants and beach shacks behind the restaurant.  Which is a shame, in Thailand at least some of the huts are closer to the water.  I've opted to stay in town where I found a nice guesthouse for about $6 US a night with attached bathroom and a balcony.  What has really made it is the balcony, I can sit in a chair and just watch life go by down on the street below.  Most of it is watchiung stray dogs and cows but today I spotted some girls going to the elderly Brahmin across the road who runs a phone booth shop (think phone with someone hanging around to help set it up and charge money) to have the old man give them a blessing.  Was kind of touching.

But mostly it's the feel of the town and the ways I can spend my day that have kept me here.   I've basically had two options for what to do each day, hike in the hills or walk along the beach.  Turning off my brain a little has been nice.  And the town itself is a Hindu pilgrimage site and way more distinctive than the concrete blocks I've seen in most of India.  Nothing too spectacular but a few architectural flourishes can do wonders for the aesthetics.  And the ol' sacred cow is everywhere around here.

They just tend to wander the streets, going through garbage and grabbing anything edible that they can.  And I've learned that cows apparently like to eat newspaper.

 Cow and beach aren't two concepts that go hand in hand for me.  Thank you India for letting my brain wrap around something outside the box.  Speaking of the beach, this is the beach I walked along the most.  It went on for about an hour and a half, about 30 minutes down the guesthouses stopped popping up and it was all fishermen, their boats and their poop.  But for those stretches with no one, and no poop, it was beautiful.

This guy below came up onto the front steps of the restaurant I've been getting my daily masala dosa at.  He just stood there and waited for a few minutes until the manager came out and gave him a plate of old idlis.  Smart cow.  And for explanation, a masala dosa is a thin rice and lentil flour pancake wrapped around some potatoes and onions fried up in lots of spices.  Served with sambar (a soupy curry) and coconut chutney.  Absolutely delicious and at 20 rupees (less than 50 cents) the best lunch around.  Their coffee was also pretty good, as I head north I get into tea country.  Good but not the same.

And this guy has to be the ugliest stray I've seen in Asia.  Thailand had some pretty nasty dogs but this guy could win a prize.  He ran off before I could get a better shot.

And just for my mom here's a photo of my $6 hotel room and the view from the balcony.  The room could use some new paint but was spacious enough and private.  The balcony view was a lot better in sunset when everything turned pink, or when you can just watch life go by on the street.  But overall both were nice and just relaxing.

So that's about it from Gokarna.  I've been saying I'll leave here for a few days but then decide to just stay a little while longer.  The guy at my hotel is ridiculously laid back so I'm under no pressure to vacate the premises on that front.  My next stop will likely be somewhere in Goa (ahh, more beach) since direct trains to Mumbai are all full.  Some were on waitlist 150 so I'm going to have to make due with local buses for awhile.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Hampi And Searching For The Unexplored

Hampi is located in the old capital of the Vijayanagara empire that was toppled by the Deccan Muslim Confederacy in 1565.  Without getting into the history of South India (which I don't know and don't particularly want to research at the moment) let's just say that whatever was left of the capital was literally left in ruins. And oh, what sweet beautiful ruins they are.

What got me the most though was the scenery.  The easiest place to compare Hampi to would be Angkor Wat in Cambodia which is loaded with the preserved stone temples of another fallen civilization.  In all fairness Angkor Wat is significantly more impressive architecturally speaking.  What makes Hampi it's rival is the rock-strewn hills that are dotted with temples.  Angkor Wat is located in some pretty thick jungle so you basically bike or take a rickshaw from one temple to another and can appreciate each on its own terms. In Hampi you can go hiking (or bouldering as many mountain climbers there do), come around the corner of one giant rock formation and suddenly see a whole new valley dotted with ancient temples. Keep walking over another hill and there on a mountainside are the crumbling remains of some building.  It's all very awe inspiring when you first arrive.

That said, Hampi isn't some unexplored corner of the world.  Like most places of significant cultural heritage its seen a growth in tourism to keep pace, especially as incomes in India rise and things like domestic tourism become more feasible.  Tons of tour buses filled with Indians pour into the place everyday during the high season between Christmas and New Years.  I had mistakenly thought the tour bus crowd was an Americans in Europe or East Asians anywhere phenomenon, I stand corrected.  And although a lack of classy accommodation means fewer Western package tourists, the backpacker crowd has its own strong presence.

I decided to stay at the slightly quieter area across the river.  The main temples were on the other side but the backpacker haven I stayed in is where you could get a beer and not be hassled by a rickshaw driver every 10 feet.  To get there you need to take a small boat that costs 15 rupees a person (about 35 cents).  Since these boats cross packed every time and since they run from morning to evening it must be good business.  Rumor has it they built a bridge down stream twice and both times it collapsed shortly after.  I'm pretty sure there's a boat mafia at work.  If you look closely there's a motorcycle on that boat too, only way across the river.

Now on the other side it's known as Virupapur Gaddi.  It's basically a small farming area peppered with guest houses cum restaurants.  As a side note, the word cum in India is used in it's Latin form meaning "and".  This is acceptable English accept that no one in England or America would ever use it and would probably get a good chuckle.  Imagine this sign from Mysore in some American city...

Back on topic...Virupapur Gaddi is loaded with these guest house/restaurants with basically identical 'multi-cuisine' menus.  Multi-cuisine there generally means Indian, Italian, Chinese (basically fried rice and fried noodles with some weird Indo-Chinese creations like Gobi-Manchurian or Chicken 65), limited Continental options and a whole section devoted to everything Israeli.  I like hummus as much as the next guy so for the first few days these culinary options were quite nice.  Regrettably, every menu said they served Mexican food but when asked they always said it was out.  Teases.

I said they were nice because about 4 days in my stomach troubles reappeared. The doctor I saw in Hampi made a big show of charging me 500 rupees for tests he didn't look at only to diagnose me with traveler's diarrhea.  The fact that I didn't have diarrhea and instead had severe gas, vomiting and a sour stomach didn't seem to phase him. I was happy to take the antibiotics though since I suspected I had Giardia (an intestinal parasite) and the stuff he gave me is used to treat that as well.  It got cleared up after a few days but has recently returned in a limited fashion, basically my stomach hurts whenever I eat more than a small meal.  On the plus side, I'm pretty sure I'm losing a good amount of weight and I've definitely got some to lose.

So getting sick definitely soured my opinion of Hampi after that, especially when I didn't have the energy to go hiking and was stuck reading or using my netbook in the backpacker haven that is Virupapur Gaddi. Now, I used to really like that sort of place and still do in a limited degree.  But it definitely isn't India and sadly it has the feel of tons of similar places scattered throughout Southeast Asia (see my earlier post about Varkala when we first arrived in India).  Christmas Eve and New Years Eve were both spent at the Tee-pee restaurant that had a really nice hippy vibe with people sitting on cushions having impromptu jam sessions, competitive dice and jinga games and other things that hippies do.  Those sorts of places are fun to be at, and the Tee-pee definitely had a cool vibe that set it apart from the other places in town.  It's just when every place in town looks the same that it gets old after awhile and can make the experience less enjoyable.

A conversation with a friendly German guy named Nicholas on New Years Eve brought it home to me.  He was asking how to get out of the tourist route and see somewhere that hasn't already been trod by a million feet.  My best advice was to get your own transportation like a scooter or motorcycle, don't expect much and just go with the experience. My own fantastic trip into Nan province in Thailand one New Years break kept coming to mind.  I was driving 6 to 8 hours on my scooter every day for 3 days to get there, drive around the province and drive back but it was an incredibly good time spent ordering food in broken Thai, buying salt from some hill tribe that mines it in the mountains and according to Lonely Planet has a cultural taboo against using metal in their houses, and stopping by the side of the road to get khao lam for lunch (sticky rice steamed in bamboo).  By the end I was a little sunburnt, had a sore butt and was definitely ready for some R&R but the memories of those deserted mountain roads and gorgeous high passes at sunset still bring a smile to my face.

It seems though that everyone backpacking faces the same dilemma.  They all want something new or different, sometimes to the point where people get competitive or snooty about it.  But at the same time the places people want to see with the most famous landmarks are already overrun by tourists. So in the worst case scenario (and I occasionally find myself slipping into this train of thought) you end up hating the other tourists around you for being tourists and being where you are right now.  Now some may make a distinction between tourists and travelers here and I believe that people definitely do travel in different ways, an independent backpacker is experiencing something different than a package tourist to Goa or Cancun.  But as my buddy Martyn would put it, "They're still fucking tourists."  And I have to agree, I'm a tourist to going through India right now and for the most part I've kept on the tourist trail which is absolutely huge and well-traveled in this country.  As a side note, those three brothers on Nat Geo Adventure who think they're the shit for going to Bangladesh or some remote area of Nepal need to be taken out and shot.  The Madventures guys are all right in my book though.

So anyways, I'm not exactly on a quest to find the unexplored but instead just want to experience the new which is all relative to your personal experience anyways. The wonderful thing about India is that the tourist trail is well-trod but in most places it's still India swirling around little pockets of backpackers.  And India is such a strong, at times in your face, culture that you're guaranteed to see something new. Hampi might have been too touristy for me, and getting sick didn't help my mood, but it was still an amazing sight and one I wouldn't mind seeing again.  So my parting thought today is, if you're ever in South India don't miss Hampi because it really is beautiful.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Getting Hustled In Mysore

South India is widely regarded as being more laid back and less of a hassle than the north.  From fellow traveler's descriptions of getting mobbed by 8 touts at a time in Rajasthan, all following you down the street as you emerge from a sleepless bus or train ride, I'm inclined to believe this stereotype.  Mysore has its fair share of touts and scams though and they pretty much defined my very pleasant few days there.

For those that don't know, Mysore was once the capital of a fairly powerful regional  kingdom that grew rich off the sandalwood trade and other such things.  To this day sandalwood (used for carvings, incense, etc.) is a major part of its economy and the sale of it and various essential oils keeps the touts mouths moving.  The city is named after a demon that tried to destroy the world because he got the blessing that no man could kill him from Shiva.  He overlooked the fact that women were still elligible and was eventually brought down by the goddess Durga or as she's known locally Chamundi.  Part of the reason I picked going to Mysore is reading my former professor's book Climbing Chamundi Hill (good philosophical read) and deciding I wanted to try it myself.  I wussed out and took the bus up but then walked down the 1000 steps later on.  I felt better about being lazy when I saw most Indian tourists taking cars and tour buses ;)

So anyways, back to the touts.  I arrived in Mysore from a 6 hour minibus ride (2 waiting for the bus to pick up all the Indian tourists from their hotels because I was the first stop, 4 hours on windy mountain roads).  So I definitely wasn't in a great mood as I got my baggage down from the top of the bus and tried to walk around to find a hotel.  Having 5 touts in my face definitely didn't improve my mood so by the time the 3rd guy approaches me after seeing two others fail I just answered "Goodbye" to his "Hello".  I had to smirk a little at the incredulous look on his face.

So then as I was walking down the street to find a hotel an auto-rickshaw (same thing as a tuk tuk) pulls up beside me and the guy starts calling at me.  I ignore him and keep walking for about 3 minutes until I need to stop to cross the street.  When he pulls up to block my path I actually get annoyed and start shouting at Chinese.  "Ni yao shen me?  Oh, ni ting bu dong.  Wo ting bu dong ni shuo de hua, zou kai, zou kai!"  All he could do is give me a puzzled expression, try to make fun of me by muttering a half-hearted "Waaaa" and drive off.  I couldn't stop laughing as I crossed the street and found a hotel on my own easily enough.

So the big thing to do in Mysore is to look at some old buildings built by the Wodeyar dynasty at it's prime such as the palace of Mysore.  These aren't ancient at all, most were built in the early parts of the 20th century.  What is impressive is the style.  It's called Indo-Saracenic and combines classical European forms, Mughal and Hindu motifs and modern European construction techniques like the use of iron in arches and stained glass.  The combined effect is really impressive, especially for the intricate carvings on most surfaces and the use of wide open spaces.  Sadly photography in the palace is forbidden so I can't show you the really beautiful insides, just take my word for it.  Nicest building I've seen in India so far, easily more impressive than most of what I saw traveling Europe.

Got hustled as I wandered the gardens but in the end it worked out well.  It started with a policeman guarding a gate coming over to me and asking if I wanted to see something.  Something tourists don't usually get to see.  Something special.  Now this is the point where the little kid in me is shouting, "Hell yeah!", the paranoid maniac "He's going to take me somewhere quiet and mug me," and the bitter traveler "Somehow this will end up with me losing money."  When I saw he was taking me to an open area (lots of places to run to) that had lots of people around the safety aspect was forgotten about.  But it's still really hard to enjoy a unique experience like this when you know it's someone trying to scam you for money at the tail end.  But to acknowledge that and start haggling right away ruins the experience and makes it just another transaction.  So I resolved to push all of that out of my mind and have a fun time riding the elephants.

I've ridden a few elephants in my day but none of them barebacked.  All this guy had was a rope around his neck and a trainer behind me to keep me from falling off.  The elephants are used in royal processionals in Mysore and to make a little extra money the trainers dupe tourists into paying 500 rupees for a 5 minute ride.  I decided to not ruin the experience thinking about money and to hustle the guys on the tail end a little myself.  When the inevitable pleas for money for 10 elephants and 7 trainers came I tried to hand them 100 rupees.  Initially they balked at it, wanting at least 500 but I made to put the 100 away and said thanks.  They called me back and accepted it grudgingly but in my mind it was a fair price (a 30 minute elephant trek for 2 people in Kumily was 700).  Then another 50 for the cop who brought me to avoid any difficulties with the law.  I don't mind paying a little for a great life experience, it's just hard to not let it ruin the experience while it's going on.

My days in Mysore were otherwise spent walking around the streets (2nd cleanest city in India, oh yeah) and looking at a few more buildings.  In the tourist areas it was hard to go 50 meters without someone offering to sell you hash or take you on a store to see an essential oils shop.  All a little too sketchy for me, especially when they start talking about it openly in the streets at 10 in the morning.  I had to turn to one rickshaw driver who was following me and ask "Are you a cop?"  A lying bastard replies, "No no, it's legal here.  Take you to coffee shop like Amsterdam."  Seriously, I wasn't born yesterday and would prefer my narcotics dealers to at least be honest.  Is that too much to ask?

Throwing this photo in because it was a cool one I snapped on the walk.  I was really wondering why there were so many hawks in the city whereas other areas of India seem to be dominated by crows.  Turns out the hawks and crows have a trice near the meat market district and are both just waiting to snag a little taste.