Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Took The Midnight Train Going An-ny-where

As we waited on the platform at Bangalore's main railway station to catch our overnight train to Hampi, Dana explained the joys of sleeper trains to me excitedly. I was curious and excited myself at the thought of such a quintessentially Indian experience. Trains have always been my favourite form of transport and I love that India's rail network is so extensive. And while I wouldn't call it "easy," it certainly gets you where you're going. While we waited, a man approached us and struck up the usual "What country? Your name?" conversation with us, then asked if he could take a picture of Dana on his cell phone. He was a funny man, and kept on ordering Dana to laugh for the picture. I got a sneaky shot of him, too.

When the train arrived, we went through the usual fiasco of trying to find the right carriage - all of them are marked by at least 2 signs saying different things and you have to figure out which one is relevant and matches your ticket. Once on board, we found our seat/bed things and began negotiating for better positions. We were of course in the normal non A/C sleeper class - the same class most average Indians use for overnight journeys. There are "nicer" classes, but we aren't interested in that sort of thing. Each little section of the train has 8 beds - 6 on one side of the isle, and 2 on the other. The 6 beds are arranged in 2 triple bunk beds across from each other. The middle bed on each side flips down flat against the wall, so when it's not sleeping time, the 6 passengers can all sit on the bottom two beds like benches. Anyway, the top one is basically the best because it's less claustrophobic and you don't have to worry if other people are awake or not. Dana's bed was in the middle of one side, and mine was on the bottom of the other. She immediately put her feminine charms to work and got the dude who had the top bunk on her side to swap with her. I tried the same on my side, but my lack of feminine wiles caused a less favourable reaction. I ended up swapping with the old guy who had the middle bunk because it was a lot easier for him to get in and out of the bottom.

Despite my initial excitement, my night was pretty much Hell. In all I got about an hour or two of restless sleep as I was awoken repeatedly by mosquitoes (who swarmed every time the train stopped), the conductors flipping ALL the lights on to check the tickets of passengers who moved from seat to seat throughout the night, guys who turned the lights on and talked loudly while eating a snack at about 2am, the old guy below me getting up to pee, and finally, as I was in my deepest sleep early in the morning, a guy with no hands who woke me up to ask for money. He didn't speak any English, so he just waved his stumps at me. Not my favourite way to wake up.

Needless to say, by the time we got off the train at Hospet, a few kilometers from Hampi, I was not in a good mood. We aimed straight for the nearest snack bar, coming very close to body-checking the swarming rickshaw drivers out of the way and sat down with a warm, tasty, gloriously caffeinated and much deserved cup of chai. After a short rest, during which we were bothered by another driver, Dana left me with the bags to figure out options for getting to Hampi. While she was gone another driver struck up a conversation with me and seemed to understand that I didn't want to be hassled to hire him, so he politely talked about other things, not being pushy and letting me enjoy my chai and cigarette. When Dana got back with directions to the bus station, we hired the friendly driver to take us there - much to the offense of the pushier driver who though he should get the fare because he "asked first." This will not be the last time I talk about rickshaw politics.

Our friendly driver ended up cutting us a good deal, so we let him take us all the way to Hampi. He of course tried to take us to his "cousin's" guest house, which was much more expensive than we wanted, so we jumped out and started wandering around to find new digs for the next few days. We ended up at a tiny place with only two rooms for guests with a hut made out of palm fronds in front where the super friendly young landlord and his family lived. We dropped our bags and went to find breakfast and explore the town a little.

Hampi is an amazing place. The only reason any Indians live there full time is because of the tourists coming to see the ruins of an ancient Indian empire. Hampi surrounds the main temple of the empire and the ghats (steps) that lead down to the gorgeous river running past. The landscape is covered for miles around in piles of massive granite boulders. There are so many that it almost feels like you've been shrunk to microscopic size and every huge rock is a grain of sand. For miles surrounding the main temple, hundreds of other temples dot the landscape, some hiding in the shadow of massive rocks, some looking out across the countryside from high on the top of mountainous boulder piles, and others standing imposingly in the middle of flat areas, huge avenues of stone pillars leading to their gates. Each temple and pillar is made from massive blocks of granite hewn out of the solid rock. The detail in the decorations of the temples is amazing, too, and the sheer level of human effort it would have taken to build these places is astounding.

One of the interesting things about Hampi is that people live in and among some of the ancient buildings. While some of the biggest and most impressive temples are gated and guarded, you're just as likely to see a family living in one down the end of the town's main avenue, or a big load of colourful laundry drying on the steps of another. The other interesting thing about Hampi, and one of the main reasons I'm glad to have seen the place, is that way the tourist trade has effected the people who live there. Everyone is a salesman or tout of some description and everyone sees the tourists as income, not really as people. By the same token, the tourists see the Indians as servants and if they get pushy, they're an irritation. This is a huge departure from what I think is the natural spirit of the people of Karnataka, who in areas not overrun by tourists are sweet, gentle, engaging and genuine. The tourist trade, while an important source of income to many Indians, has had the unintended consequence of jading the people and removing what for me is the best thing about Karnataka - the generous and warm spirit of it's inhabitants. But more about that later.

On that first evening in Hampi, we climbed to a temple atop one of the huge piles of rocks at the other end of the avenue from the main temple. The view was spectacular, and from up there we got a sense of what the surrounding landscape had in store for us as we saw temple after temple and the river winding its way towards the horizon, flanked by banana plantations and rice paddies. As Dana stood and peacefully enjoyed the view, I left my sandals and watch on a ledge and bounded up the rocks to the very top to see what I could see and take some photos. When I came back down to rejoin Dana, she told me that the ten minutes I was gone had been anything but the quiet moments of solitary contemplation I had imagined. "Didn't you hear me yelling for you?!" she said.
"Nah, mate, I didn't hear a thing. You okay?"
"The monkeys attacked me!"
"Oh, shit. I'm sorry!"
"Then they stole your watch."

Dana then recounted her epic battle with the monkeys who had almost swarmed her. She bravely fought off the first wave by shaking her water bottle at them, then they had made off with my watch. That's when she started calling for me, but when I didn't respond or return, she thought "fuck it" and ran screaming at the monkey in possession of my timepiece, who freaked out, dropped it, and ran away. Let me take this opportunity to thank Dana heartily for going above and beyond the call of duty to rescue my watch from the thieveing (but very cute) primates atop that rocky hill. I have also named a new Kung-Fu technique after Dana and her water bottle tactics: In this corner, from San Diego, California, the unflappable Dana Maria and her amazing "Shaking Water" technique! Clearly superior to the more common but far less devastating "Monkey Style."

As we sat and enjoyed the sun setting over the banana fields and rocky outcrops, the monkeys proceed to involve themselves in activities that even I, hardened journalist that I am, refuse to detail here. Suffice to say that even the internet would be hard pressed to provide anything so graphic. Ahhh, India.

The next day we lazily wandered the ruins close to our guest house, ate some food, did some window shopping and pretty much chilled out. Having had a relaxing day, we weren't as tired as usual and decided to go for a wander after dark. It turned into a bizarre night. As we rounded a corner near the main temple, we heard the loud cries of a young girl and saw an Indian woman trying to pry her daughter away from two white tourists. We approached the strange and disturbing scene and after a while got the story. Apparently, the tourists (a young couple claiming to be Italian but looking and speaking to each other in a language that sounded Eastern-European) had allowed this little homeless girl to follow them around all day. They had bought her food and clothes and promised her that she could stay with them at their guest house so she didn't have to sleep on the street with her family. But the owner of the guest house had told them she could not stay, so they were bringing her back to the family, camped out on the street where we found them. As I said, the girl was freaking out. The couple was prolonging the trauma but trying to comfort her instead of just leaving her with her mother who was obviously embarrassed and generally distressed. I asked the couple how long they were in town for and they told me they were in Hampi for two days before moving on to the next town on the tourist route.

I was torn. Of course I understood the urge they had to help this little girl, but I couldn't help thinking it was naive and harmful of them to cause this family so much emotional stress for what really amounted to making themselves feel better. I can totally understand wanting to clothe and feed a young homeless child, but an offer of a bed away from you family when you know she'll have to return to the street the next day? Not helpful. Even giving kids like this clothes and food is questionable, as it perpetuates the business of begging in tourist areas - something the Indian government is adamant people not support. Countless Indian children are forced to beg for their families or beggar barons who take the profits for themselves. Many children are even deliberately mutilated to create more sympathy, and many people also mutilate themselves, as was likley the case with the handless man who woke me up on the train. It may seem callous to ignore these kids, and I'm happy to hand out bananas and rice to those who are genuinely hungry (most beggars will look at you like and idiot for trying to give them food), but in the end India has a billion people, many of whom live in abject poverty, it's government spends far less on education, health care and housing than it does on nuclear weapons, and that poverty is generally the result of a history of colonial exploitation perpetuated by the world economic system that makes us rich and them poor. My point is just that if you want to actually help people, donate to charities doing real work on the ground, support democratic movements in countries like India, and vote for politicians at home who aren't going to perpetuate the economic exploitation of the third world.

Socio-economic rants aside, after we left the bizarre and traumatic scene on the street, we went down to the ghats for a quiet cig by the river. As we sat and tried to comprehend what we had just seen, a man acting very suspiciously approached us. He did not greet us or tell us who he was, but simply demanded to know who we were and where we were staying. While he talked, he was constantly looking around like he was checking that we were alone, and never made eye-contact with us. He also had one hand in his pocket and it looked like he was holding something. Now, I've been mugged before, and this is exactly what it felt like. As Dana calmly answered his questions, I began to run through escape scenarios in my head. When he called to a companion who jumped off a motorbike down the road a bit and started coming down the steps towards us, I really got scared. I stood up from where I had been sitting and put my feet in an open stance, trying my best to be ready for whatever. "I think these guys are dangerous." I whispered to Dana in Spanish. "It's all good." she replied. "Just finish your cigarette and we'll go." So I did, quickly, and we walked past them as calmly as we could, back up the steps and into the lit street as they warned us against being out on the street after dark. As we walked away I heard the guy talking on a two-way radio.

"They were cops." said Dana.
"Yeah, I figured. They were the sketchiest cops I've ever met. I still though they might mug us." "You never know."
"Thanks for staying calm, anyway. I was freaking out."
"Sure. Let's get off the street. I need to sit."

We went into the first restaurant we saw was still open, ordered a chai and tried to bring the heart rate down (at least I did - Dana still looked calm and collected). As we began to relax, we ended up striking up a conversation with our waiter, Suni, a really sweet young guy from Dharamsala in the North of India. We found out that like many young men, Suni splits his year between the North and the South of India, following the tourist seasons and working in restaurants and guest houses. Despite his embarrassment, he spoke English very naturally because he had learned though conversation and not formal education. We liked Suni so much that we ended up chatting for the better part of an hour and agreeing to come back for a Hindi/English language exchange. The restaurant where he worked, although overpriced and obviously a tourist trap, became our regular hang-out because of Suni's wonderful company and for providing us much needed refuge from the strange and difficult streets of Hampi that night.

I was especially glad to meet Suni because of the obvious difference in the way locals interacted with tourists here. The incidents with the cops, the rickshaw drivers, the homeless family and countless other interactions we both witnessed and experienced between waiters, tourguides, guest house owners and salesmen of all shapes and sizes in Hampi pointed to an markedly antagonistic relationship between locals and tourists. The locals see the tourists as ignorant, rude and wealthy beyond imagination while the tourists see the locals as annoying and predatory. Neither group is doing much to make things better and we saw many acts of inhumanity on both sides, but the thing that really bothers me is the tousirst who see the Indians as a hinderance to their enjoyment here, not taking the time to get to know these people and appreciate who they are. After all, it's their country. As I've said before, India without Indians is just a piece of land, and if you put the effort in to try and get to know people and show them respect you end up meeting really cool people like Suni (who has invited us to stay with him in Dharamsala whenever we want) and making real connections. These are the best memories for me by far.

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