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Hampi, wow, what a place. It’s a sprawling group of precolonial ruins, set amidst an incredible landscape of giant boulders and rock formations. The town of Hampi Bazaar, where most visitors stay, is a small but nice little town built right in the heart of one of the groups of ruins. It’s a commercial place, with most of the town devoted to serving the foreign and domestic tourists that flock here every year, but the commercialism is still pretty low key. The town maintains a fairly relaxed feel, and anyone looking for an even quieter stay can take the little motor boat ferry across the river to the other town (I forget the name), which has much less going on. We stayed in Hampi Bazaar, and really enjoyed the mix of much better than usual travelers food (the best pizza we’ve had in India was at the New Shanti Restaurant) and cheap Indian street and restaurant fare. Probably the most intriguing aspect of Hampi Bazaar is how the locals have reclaimed many of the ruined buildings that the town is built around. I’m sure historical societies are none too pleased, but even what I think was the police station was housed in an ancient looking rock slab structure that had been filled in to suit modern tastes.
Foreign tourists don’t go to Hampi to see the modern town, though; they come for the ruins. They’re spread out all over the place, and minor sites are
littered everywhere in between. It’s easy to wander around for days at a time, checking out the sites and just relaxing. Hampi brought out a really unique combination of relaxation and desire to explore. Every day we’d tromp around for several hours checking out a new ruin, feeling like archaeologists unearthing a new find, and then go back to Hampi Bazaar and eat, maybe sit by the river, read, eat some more, etc. Our kind of place, also the kind of place where time slips quietly away without really announcing it. People kept asking us how long we’d been there, and when it got up to four days we started hearing some gasps of surprise. Apparently the average tourist doesn’t have much time to spend at Hampi. We had plenty, though, and although we ended up staying for eight days, during that time we just said we’d been there for three. It was just easier that way.
We spent a lot of time walking in Hampi. It was late January and the weather was perfect as long as you didn’t allow yourself to get sunburned, and we liked to sit in the shade at the various sites and ponder what life had been like back in their heyday (for some historical info check out the wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hampi). One day we went across the river and started hiking in a random but promising direction, following a scenic little goat trail that eventually petered out until we found ourselves scrambling through bushes and over boulders. Finally we deadended at a spot where the river intersected with a sheer cliff that we couldn’t get around, so we sat on a rock and looked out across the river at the crowd of Indians washing their clothes and laying the colorful laundry out on the rocks to dry. It was the perfect photo opp, but predictably we’d left the camera in the room that day. We didn’t really feel like retracing our steps, so we were pleased to see that one of the coracle paddlers had seen us and was paddling over, and soon we were on the other side having paid a higher than normal fee, as the paddler could see we didn’t have many options. Coracles are a rather hilarious (to a paddling snop such as myself) little watercraft that look like a big bowl-shaped basket, covered with tar to make them waterproof. They’re slow and get blown around like crazy, but the big ones held a bunch of people and even a few motercycles and actaully make a lot of sense as a low-tech ferry.
When we got tired of walking we rented a little Honda moterscooter, which was a blast to ride around the back roads. We buzzed out to some area villages, waved to the kids, and saw some of the more spread out ruins. We even did some dirt scootering, driving a little foot path that looked like it headed in an interesting direction. That’s about when we ran out of gas. I walked to the gas station, which was closed, then ended up buying some black market petrol off some guys nearby. It was spendy though so I didn’t buy enough, and later we ran out of gas again. We pushed and coasted it back to the rental place.
Despite running out of gas, that bike was fun! On one back road the track kept deteriorating until it dead-ended in a narrow spot, right where a large mission (yes I had to look that up) of big monkeys had settled. They were
just a few feet away and really eyeballing us as I did a hasty six point U-turn. Another randomly chosen back road turned steeper and steeper, until we were maxing out the bike trying to make it up a track carved out of the side of a gently sloping rock face. Finally we gave up, parked the bike and walked up to the top of the hill, where we found a small Hindu shrine. The place was looked after by a lady who was apparently some kind of guru, according to the man who prostrated himself before her and kissed her hands and so forth. Language barriers prevented us from getting the details, but they both turned out to be really nice people and we enjoyed some stilted and miming conversations for a couple hours. The lady fed us a delicious thali and chai, and seemed incredibly happy when we gave her 100 rupees as a donation to the shrine. A great experience and a good example of the random encounters that tend to be among the highlights of traveling in a foreign country.
In short, Hampi was awesome and you should go there. The beauty and hisorical significance of the place were incredible, and I was feeling nostolgic for it almost as soon as we left.