Day 89: Hampi
A lightning bolt of consciousness zaps Marnie and I simultaneously as we slumber between the four walls of our cow-pie-fashioned hut. I fumble for my phone and, half panic-stricken and half asleep, shut the damn alarm off. We pull on shorts and tank tops and plod over to the lounge for breakfast to feast on eggs and chai and coconut lassis. Breakfast is a rather quick affair, however, cut short by aggravated bowels (you can take the girl out of Delhi . . .) so we penguin back to the bungalow and the safety of a nearby bathroom. After depleting the toilet paper roll, we throw water and sunscreen in a bag and go out front to rent a motorcycle.
“A bike,” the rental guy puts his hands on his hips. “With gears?”
“Yes,” we say. “With gears.”
“Big bike or little bike? You want scooter? No? Bike with gears?”
“YES,” our voices unite in an exasperated huff.
“Okay okay okay,” he nods nods nods.
Marnie and I shred out of the village, onto the main road snaking between giant, cheddar-hued boulder heaps, emerald palms and water-filled rice fields that mirror the celestial sphere. Then, it’s Marnie’s turn to drive. I pull onto the dusty shoulder and dismount. Marnie scoots up to the handlebars. She’s never ridden a motorcycle before.
A pack of wild, rabid children surround us, swatting our arms and tugging on our backpack, screaming in a pitch that rattles our eardrums. The shrieks become an unbearable din and the swatting is void of playfulness, increasing at a staggering rate as they feed off each other’s energy. Marnie scoots back, I jump on the front of the bike and we peel away before being swallowed by the psychotic swarm.
Finding a deserted stretch of road, we pull off on a gravel patch. I stand to the side, demonstrating how the clutch works and how to change gears as Marnie sits in the drivers seat. She only stalls a few times before letting out the clutch and revving the gas in that perfect harmonical matrimony that glides the bi-wheeled machine forward on the Road to Anywhere. I run behind her as she wobbles forth, screaming and cheering.
“HOW DO I STOP!?” she cries.
“Let go of the gas!”
The bike halts abruptly and stalls; she revs up again and shoots forward. I sprint after her, backpack bouncing, and jump on behind.
“I dunno,” Marnie says. “It’s a lot different with someone on the back.”
“You’re fine,” I say. “Go!”
The gas revs, the clutch goes, and the bike wiggles. Like a nervous high-schooler approaching his crush at the school dance, the bike jitters forward apprehensively, then gains momentum as courage oils out the nerves.
The two of us whoop and scream, giving those crazy kids a run for their rupees. The motorbike rips down the road through the enchanted, sun-baked earth until Marnie is done riding shotgun.
I hop in front and steer down the road until the pavement falls way to packed, red dirt through a village. We veer right off the main road and up a side street that leads to a big retaining wall.
“Where’s the lake?” Marnie asks.
We are in search of a lake–the lake–that people in town had told us about.
“I think this is it.”
I straighten my legs on the foot petals and stretch my body to it’s full extent in order to get a glimpse over the wall. Water! Following the dirt path, we turn past a boulder with a sign painted on it–NO SWIMMING. CROCODILES.
We motor past the sign and delve into the rolling sea of planetary rubble, following the red gravel path until an Indian man appears down and to the left on a flat clearing, near the lakes edge.
“This is a good swimming spot!” he yells.
We don’t stop. The road winds away from the lake until it parallels a man-made canal that goes no where interesting.
A herd of goats walk by. A lone water ox passes. A group of lost, scooter-driving Russians ogle a map, their long hair billowing in the breeze like Fabio and his pretty posse of party girls at a Hollywood shoot. We turn around.
Back at ‘the good swimming spot’ are a couple motorcycles, but no people. We park our bike and head to the waters edge. No one here, either; just the two of us on this pristine lake, surrounded by a sprawling crop of teetering, Herculean cairns, the archaeological evidence of an extinct Bedrock, an ancient dinosaur municipality, the remnants of an exploded, golden comet whose sharp edges eroded to smooth, glowing granite.
We strip down to our swimsuits. Then, from around a pile of megaliths, a group of local men materialize, staring.
They pretend to talk amongst themselves, but their eyes are not focussed on each other. Marnie and I slip into the water, half for relief from the heat and half for relief from prying eyes on our nearly nude bodies. Even underwater I feel exposed and their gazes feel like hands creeping steadily nearer, hoping to land–whoopsie!–on a ribbon of exposed flesh, violating the freedom of a good ol’ swimsuit frolick.
“Do you mind if we have some privacy?” I call out to them.
“No problem, ma’am,” one of them responds. “We are just looking at the view.” He gestures to the lake.
Two of them move to the top of the ridge and one climbs a pile of boulders until he’s standing above us to our right. What, is this some sort of military besiege tactic? Gain vantage and surround?
“I thought you said you were going to give us some privacy.”
“Okay, okay,” he says. “We are going.”
The one on top of the boulder sits and leans against the rock. His three friends move to the base, relax against it and fold their arms. All eyes fixate intensely on us.
“I thought you were going.”
“No, I’m just not swimming,” he replies, as though this makes perfect sense.
“Look, man. We came here to swim and all of you are watching us. You can imagine that it feels pretty uncomfortable. It’s not like we own the lake, but we would really appreciate having some privacy.”
Finally, they make moves away from us, shifting into the foliage, just behind a row of reeds next to a nearby boulder. We can still see them.
“Seriously?” Marnie shakes her head. “Okay, whatever.”
With some inhibitions still in place, we focus our attention on wading through the cool, still water, paying hindrance to the astounding geological presence around us. I feel like an ant wading in a puddle at an inukshuk festival.
Within half an hour, privacy is abolished entirely–apparently this is a popular spot. A group of locals climb down the ridge; a bunch of fresh-faced travelers jump into the water off the giant rocks. I feel sort of stupid for asking those guys to leave now, but hey, they were being creepy.
A man walks around, asking people if they want drinks. Beer? Fifteen minutes. A muscly American boy lifts us on top of a boulder and we pencil dive into the lake, pull ourselves up on shore and bake in the sun until the drink-man returns with chilled brewskies. An Isreali man with crooked teeth and shag-carpet chest asks us to sit on his blanket with him. We shake our heads. A few minutes later he has lured some young girls to share a bag of chips. Drink service, swimming, creepy dudes–is this some Flintsone-themed Las Vegas resort? We doggy-paddle to the other side of the lake and clamber up the rocks and ascend a totem pole of boulders. At the top we stand, chugging in the reverse view of the lake scene.
We wade back to the populated side, agree it’s time to blow this meat market and scramble up the ridge to the slanted clearing of gravel where our motorbike is parked. I start rifling through the bag in search of the key, when a gang of Indian men climb up over the ridge from the lake. Each set of eyes stare unblinking in our direction. They trot toward us with eery eagerness. Marnie and I silently swing our legs over the seat. The wall of men close in like a flock of chickens at feeding time, clucking cascades of questions at us and clambering in for ‘selfies’ with their cellphones.
“No,” we say. Definitely not today.
They’re not here for ‘no’. Their banter crescendos in volume and beligerence. A couple hold half-empty cases of beer. I fumble the key into the starter and stall the bike, flustered by the commotion. Phone cameras click. The bike stalls a second time. Marnie and I wave them away and cover our faces. My hands are shaking and–shit–I stall the bike AGAIN! One of the men reaches in front of me and tears the key out of the ignition. I snap.
“NO!” I scream in his face.
I snatch the key back and shove it into the starter. This time, the bike roars to life and Marnie and I peel out from the clawing clutches of a hyper-curious culture and clicking cameras.
Shifting out of first gear, we steer onto the road and zip over a little hill. Just before dipping down the other side, the rear view mirror shows the convoy of overzealous fans pull out of the parking lot on their motorycles and turn onto the road in our direction.
One bike passes. The second bike pulls up beside us, matching our speed. Three young men are piled onto it, continuing the banter from the parking lot as though by NO we meant, gee, fellas, it’s time to go. Why don’t you join us on the road and we’ll discuss this over the passing pavement?
“Where are you from! What is your name?”
“Please just leave us alone,” we yell back.
“We want a selfie!”
“You speak English!” I say, in mock shock.
“Yes!” All three smile.
“Then you understand the word no.”
Three sets of brows furrow. They stay by our side as steadfastly as a sidecar, cameras out and ready to shoot us like this is some sort of photo warfare. Up ahead, pulled off on the side of the road is a man on a scooter with an icecream box attached. Gearing down, I screech off the road, coming to a stop directly next to him and setting free our invasive sidecar of aggressive paparazzi as they zoom on ahead.
“Goodbye!” the trio yell.
The icecream man glares.
We finally reach the road running along the retaining wall, but continue straight instead of turning left back to the village. The path continues up a slanted rocky shale face and into the boulder hills. An old man in a skirt stands off to the side and waves us forward. The bike takes sharp turns around random rocks and the steep face nearly slides Marnie off the back of the bike until a pipeline appears and thwarts our ability to move any farther. So, back down the road, through the village and in the direction of town. Marnie gets back in the drivers seat, albeit nervously. She handles the gas like a pro but she stops like a rookie. We pull over and as I am explaining the art of smooth braking, the rumble of a familiar motor cranks our heads. It’s the trio again. They stop next to us.
“What’s wrong, you need help ma’am?”
“No. Everything is fine.”
“One selfie ma’am!”
The three of them sit in their little row, grinning. I consider my size versus theirs. Getting up from the bike and stretching to my nearly six-foot stature, I plant myself directly in front of them, take a moment to settle into my husky heroine role and deepen my voice.
“We told you NO, so please respect that.”
The little leader starts nattering away when I notice the guy on the back of the bike pull out his phone and start taking pictures of us. Okay, then.
My hand shoots out and rips the phone from his hands. I raise it in the air above them as my face fires up.
“IF YOU DON’T LEAVE US ALONE RIGHT NOW, I’M GONNA SMASH THIS FUCKING THING INTO A MILLION FUCKING PIECES!”
There is a moment of silence so charged with electricity that I can feel lightning bolts shoot from my eyes into their stunned faces.
“Let’s go,” the guy in front squeaks.
I slap the phone back in the owners hand as they tear a strip off the pavement to escape the psychotic white woman threatening their communication devices. I turn to Marnie.
Both of us double over.
“I didn’t know how else to make them listen!”
Marnie and I get on the bike, cackling for kilometres, until noticing a row of motorbikes parked off the road, at what looks like the entrance to a side path. Foreigners are perched on their bike seats, eating fruit. We turn in the direction of our guesthouse, but curiosity gets the better of me.
I whip the motorbike around and back to the dirt path. The bikes and the foreigners are gone. The path is narrow, closed in on either side with thick brush and trees. It winds through forest, then rice patties, then forest. I sneak the bike between a four-strong herd of water ox and a lady with a basket balanced atop her noggin, none of whom acknowledge us.
After bumping along for ten minutes, a sign appears–“WATERFALL THIS WAY”.
Waterfall?! We always need to follow our guts, I think. We park the bike amongst a slew of others and slide down a grassy bank. The trees open up to reveal a river enthroned by spires of convoluted granite, twisting and scooping along its flowing edge.
Marnie and I squish through the mud and reeds towards the sunbathers dotted amongst rocks that resemble the colour of a wet elephant, through rushing tributaries and finally to a collection of large stone slabs where we throw our things down and jump into the water. Splashing over to the other side, we grab hold of the crags of steely rock, which stem above hollowed out portions of lower granite and climb up into the the spherical shelves, then jump back into the moving water. A giant, bowl-shaped wicker boat floats by. A little Indian man in tiny underwear stands in the soup bowl holding a wooden oar, transporting people up and down the river.
Marnie and I paddle upstream to the other side, where a wide, short cascade of tiered waterfalls tumble into the river. We sit in the frothy bubbles at its base until letting the current bob us back to our spot on the rocks.
Then, it’s back to the bike and back to the bungalow. Just before reaching home, an unexplored road yanks our bike onto it. It leads to the base of the biggest heap of boulders we’ve seen yet–a mountain of honey-hued stones, some the size of whole houses, some the size of a Manhattan bachelor pad–stacked and teetering, assembled and amassed to hundreds of metres high, rejoicing in the setting sun like golden treasure glinting in a pirates eye. If you played connect-the-dots with the people freckling it, the result would be like the web of a drunken spider riddled with dementia and a flair for the abstract.
This is where we will explore tomorrow. Turning around to face the bulbous, glowing navel orange of a sun, we go back to our bungalow and get ready for dinner. We walk along the row of restaurants, until the low lighting and swanky music of a hideaway nestled back from the path lures us into its moody realm. We melt into the floor cushions in a corner. Our server brings over a couple beers. He’s jolly and giggly, telling jokes and asking about our day. Marnie orders dinner.
“This looks yummy,” she says, eyeing the picture on the menu.
“Yummy?” our server asks. “What is yummy?”
A couple dudes at the table in front of us are eavesdropping. As soon as the server leaves, one of them lays back on his long, lanky body and peers upside down at us through his black-framed glasses. He introduces himself as Tal from Israel who is traveling India for two months after finishing his three years in the military. He puts his finger to his lips and waves us over to join him. After dinner, we promise. Marnie and I tell each other stories that make us crinkle our noses and guffaw like prepubescent boys. Our food arrives, Marnie takes a bite of her enchilada and points to it.
The server laughs. We nestle into the pillows and cozy up against the concrete, chatting with mouths full of dal and cheese until Tal’s friend, Eyal, spins around and plops himself on the other side of our table and delves in to conversation with us. He is charismatic and funny and his English is surprisingly excellent. Tal joins soon after.
“Let’s play your personality game, Eyal,” he says.
Eyal starts drawing on a little napkin, telling an entrancing story that ignites an animated conversation about love and values and power. Our little group sits in the glow of the dinner candle.
“There are three things you can watch forever,” Tal says, waving his lighter in front of Marnie’s face.
“Fire, moving water, and other people working.”
And naked bodies, I think.
At 10:30 p.m. we wave goodbye to the boys, trot back to our cow patty bungalow and fall asleep to the buzz of mosquitos.