22 – Feel Good Lost

I’ve been back in the UK for a good few months now. I had half-planned a slow summer visiting friends, doing some writing, giving myself a little time to get used to being back and figure out what to do next. Instead, I landed myself with a job almost as soon as I got back, and immediately I was back in the fray or London life, sleeping on the spare beds and sofa cushions of friends until last week, when I finally moved into something a little more long term. It’s been hectic, and I’ve not been in the mood to write, and India feels like something lived by someone else, a long long time ago. I keep coming back to Gokarna, where I left off. I keep coming back and then writing nothing.

I don’t really know what to say about the week or so I spent on Kudle Beach. Up to this point there has been a story to tell, or at least some kind of point I can tease out from my experiences of a place and time. From Gokarna it’s just a tissue of scattered recollections.

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I had a room to myself with a bathroom (home to the occasional cockroach) and a bed which was too big for my mosquito net, which just had to hang there, limply. Better than nothing, but in the heat of the night I would stretch out and then wake to find that mosquitoes had been feasting on my limbs. One morning I counted fourteen bites on my right hand alone. That was the worst thing I had to deal with, though. Everything else was gravy. The days rolled by uncontested. Leisurely breakfasts at Shangrila, sitting on plastic chairs looking out at the sea; writing my journal and drinking bad coffee; making decisions about what to do with the day, which was usually nothing. Maybe there would be some thought of a volleyball game in the afternoon, or an acro-yoga class in the shade of the coconuts; or maybe between waking and sleep, the whole day would just drift by in a pleasant, sun-bleached haze.

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I had good friends in Gokarna.

Jack, Jess, Eve and Mike were lovely company. A lot of the people I met and spent time with on my little journey were a good fifteen years younger than me and came from every country under the sun, and while that hardly ever made a difference, and endless quoting doesn’t make for good conversation (probably), there is something nice about being able to drop an Alan Partridge reference without receiving a blank stare. I spent a lot of time with them before they skipped town to go on their various ways. Jack and Jess back to Brighton, Mike and Eve to Kerala and then on to southeast Asia.

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Jess befriending a cow

My taxi-buddies Miriela, Fede, Katherine and Laura moved into another room at Shangrila.

Laura the desert-cool waitress from Vegas, with her appraising half smile and her guitar. She had an atmosphere of calm seriousness, though the story I think about was a goofy one she told me about how in Hampi one day she was riding a bicycle along one of the narrow paths through the rice and the bouldering mat on her back made her lose her balance and she fell head over heels backwards into the field. It always makes me laugh to think of it.

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Katherine the marine-chemist was long of limb and sensitive to the sun (though she was adept at protecting herself from it by building impressive shelters on the beach. Polite and well-mannered in a way I often find in Americans, she was another rock-climber and, like Mike and Eve, was heading soon to SE Asia. Her facebook profile states ‘I like to have adventures. I am not afraid to pursue them solo.’. I couldn’t have imagined having the guts to travel alone as Katherine has done at age 20.

Miriela left Venezuela years ago, living in New York and London for more than a decade before hitting the road a year or so ago. From the outset she was my confidante, meeting my endless stream of near-midlife angst with a mixture of encouragement and gentle mockery which usually did the trick. Miri would talk endlessly with the constant stream of kids selling trickets and always bought something.  We had a running joke that she was everyone’s momma, myself excluded on account of my advanced years.

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For my part, I was honorary father to Fede, but it was a difficult relationship – he resented my absenteeism (‘I hate you, Daaaad’) and for my part , I was constantly disappointed by my Chilean son’s wayward nature (‘Why can’t you be more like your sisters?’). Fede had a tattoo on the side of this chest of a heartbeat monitor ending in a football, and the skills to match. A Chilean dynamo with an eye for the ladies and the glint of mischief always in his eyes.

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A Canadian kid called Charlie showed up and made camp on the beach, hanging a mosquito net from a coconut tree. He had been with the others in Hampi, along with a Dane named Silas, who also arrived after a while. We found Sigrid, too, and Rehan, another Indian from the festival in Arambol, who smoked black, masala cigarettes and wore a dashing trilby. Then halfway through the week Zuza appeared out of the blue. After Arambol she had gone south to the Sivananda ashram near Trivandrum (my current eventual destination). The endless rules and strictures of the ashram were not much to her liking, however, so she was returning to Goa, and had decided to stop in here on the way.

It was a good group. All these people so different, with such different lives and stories, all now hanging out in the endless Indian sunshine.

I was sitting with eating dinner everyone in one of the beachfront places in the evening, when, unannounced, a scrawny and heavily pregnant cat appeared on my lap and lay down in a little ball. She had some nasty scratches on her head and she was clearly exhausted. I gave her something to eat and she fell asleep for about two hours, nestled against my belly like a furry hot water bottle. The heat was uncomfortable, but I didn’t move for a long time. Giving that small creature sanctuary for a little while made me feel somewhat justified in being there; it gave me a small moment, if not of purpose, then at least of usefulness.

I saw a few lean, lizard-hunting cats on that beach. Tolerated rather than indulged, they lived amongst the people but they were no-one’s pet. It’s the same with the beach dogs, who roamed Gokarna in little packs, as they did on the beaches of Goa, or amongst the rocks in Hampi, or the the streets of Udaipur. The scrawny, mongrel hounds of India are ubiquitous. They tend towards friendly curiosity during the day, and at night they get down to the serious business of battling for territory and making as much noise as is caninely possible. From sunset though, and long into the evening, if you sit for long on the beach (better still if you light a fire), they will come along and dig out a little hole next to you to lie in. They like the company. I got annoyed with two Japanese boys one night who were amusing themselves by burying a dog up to its neck in sand as he slept. Looking back I don’t really think they were doing any harm; I just think it seemed disrespectful. I feel that if an animal trusts you enough to lie down and go to sleep in your vicinity, then you should take that seriously and not mock them or abuse that trust in any way. Anyway I reprimanded them in no uncertain terms, and I would do it again, I daresay.

Maybe it was just nice to be annoyed about something. Before I left England I wrote in my first entry on this blog about how I didn’t have a purpose, but from Delhi to Hampi I had always found something. Gokarna was the first time I really felt that lack. And it was uncomfortable, and it’s hard to write about – all of a sudden it feels unworthy. I’m writing this whole entry with the suspicion that I am wasting the time of anyone who troubles to read it, and in fact that after this one you will most likely stop reading it. Because it serves no purpose. It’s just someone chatting about a beach holiday they had, where a good time was had but nothing much really happened.

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And maybe that’s the thing. Perhaps there was a point to my time there, which was to expose me to an underlying truth, or at least remind me of one. That I was not on a quest or a mission. I had no reason to be there, no clear thing to learn, nothing to accomplish. And that was ok. When I had my chances to learn some acro-yoga, I chose to rest my back against the trunk of a coconut tree with Miriela and just watch the others do it. I didn’t go to Om Beach, or Paradise Beach, and I didn’t spend much time in Gokarna town. I stayed on Kudle and I mooched around, and I frolicked in the gorgeous ocean. That’s it.

But for all of that lack of drive, Gokarna did give me some time.  Not time to do anything really; not even time to think.  Just time.  And I suppose I needed that.

One other thing.  One day, bobbing in the sea around sunset, I was telling Zuza about all the serendipitous things that had happened in India, and how it had been the same walking the Camino in Spain back in 2014.  She said of course, like it was nothing.  Of course, because it is all an illusion.  It is what we make it.  I remember my dear pilgrim companion Kim saying much the same. Seek and ye shall find, you might say if you were so inclined.  And it felt right, then, floating in the Arabian Sea or walking across the endless wheatfields of the Meseta.  It felt wholly true.

And it is easy to believe that you are the glowing little centre of your own private universe when you are travelling.  But real life is not that.  Not really.  When there is work stress and money worries and family troubles and political strife.

Still, there is something there.  Maybe it’s just the power of a positive attitude, maybe it’s about being in the flow.  Something anyway. Who knows?

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21 – Karma Police

So back to the seaside, then. We loaded our bags on the roof of a beaten-up SUV and waved goodbye to Hampi. There were seven of us in the car.  Besides Fede and Laura who I knew already, there was Katherine from the USA, Roey from Israel and Miriela from Venezuela.  Then there was the driver, of course; a man in his 40s with red-raw eyes and a never-ending supply of paan, which he would spit out of the window in great red gobbets as he drove with the reckless abandon of the extremely tired or the dangerously unhinged. We made it to the coast in six hours, give or take. The bus takes twelve, but I think for hour saved the terror of the journey probably knocked a good day or so off my life expectancy. We all had a go at him to slow down after he hit a speed bump at about 80km/h, but he was heedless, continuing to overtake on every blind corner, mile after mile. Eventually I stopped worrying about it and concentrated on talking to the other passengers.  I chatted a lot to Miriela, who was sitting next to me. She cut through the small-talk with a barrage of personal questions, and since I found myself giving honest, personal answers, we were friends before we reached the coast.  She’d been in India for a few months already, and Nepal before that.  She used to work in high level corporate jobs in New York and London, but she’d been travelling the world for a couple of years, now.  She was quick to laugh and she had a wonderful Latina accent like Gloria from Modern Family.  I liked her a lot.  In fact I liked everyone in that car except for the driver.  I suppose it was the sharing of so many near-death experiences in such a short time, but the journey was a strong bonding experience for all of us.

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Stopped for thali in Hubli. This is the only picture I took.

We got stopped by a police roadblock on the way into Gokarna, and were ordered out of the car by two tubby cops with moustaches. They hustled us into a little hut by the road and searched us comprehensively, giving me special attention, no doubt on account of my beard and my Goan hippy clothes. I wasn’t too bothered, accept that for the last ten minutes or so I had had an insistent rumbling in my gut that spelled trouble, and now, as a man with a gun jiggled my private parts looking for contraband, it became clear that I would absolutely have to go within the next couple of minutes. This didn’t help my cause, because I started looking all sweaty and nervous. I managed to keep control through that ordeal, but then as the others climbed back into the taxi, I knew the moment of crisis had arrived. The road was lined with market stalls selling fruit and vegetables, but no bars or anywhere that looked like it might have a toilet. I turned back to the cops, but they just shrugged and shook their heads.

I scampered gingerly down a nearby alleyway and round the back of an Ayurvedic clinic where there was a little no-mans land of thorny bushes and broken bottles. It wasn’t perfect, but I was running out of time. I got myself as out of sight as possible, hunkered down and let nature take its violent course. One of my golden rules in India is never to go anywhere without toilet roll and anti-bacterial handwash, and I’ve never been so glad of it as I was then.

Feeling tremendously relieved, I returned to the taxi and we drove the last couple of miles to Kudle Beach, a crescent shaped stretch of sand about a kilometre long, closed in on either side by high rocky crags. I’d been in touch with Jess, Jack, Eve and Mike. They’d reserved me a room in their guesthouse, Shangrila, but I didn’t know if there would be room for all six of us, so we split up to reconnoitre, with the others checking the places close to the beach entrance, and me sweating my way along the sand with my bags and guitar as the sun started to sink towards the horizon. I was nearly at the far end when I heard someone calling my name, and turning, I saw my English friends bobbing around in the sea. They waded ashore and gave me damp hugs and took me off to show me my room. I was excited to be reunited with them, but I wanted to see how the others were getting on with finding a place to stay, so I soon set off back down the beach in search of my deathcab buddies.

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They too had decided to go for a swim and for the second time in half an hour I found myself being called out to from the waves. I stripped down to my undies and waded out to them.

Miri, Fede, Laura and Katherine had found a small room with mattresses on the floor for a mere 150rs each in the back of another of the beach bars, while Roey was staying at Shangrila with his friend Effie. The sun had set by now, but the sky was a dusty purple, and the sea was warm and glimmering like an infinitely faceted jewel of every colour that exists. Standing there in the water, being lifted by the gentle waves, I wondered how could I have harboured any doubts about returning to the Arabian sea. It was glorious.

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20 – Skippin’ Town

There was never a plan.  From the beginning I had been letting myself go where the wind happened to blow.  It had taken me to the Himalayas, to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, to dancing on the beach in Goa, and it had lately brought me to Hampi.  But now I was without direction.   I’d heard of a yoga ashram, Sivananda, near Trivandrum in the deep south of Kerala, about a thousand kilometres away.   I’ve been practising yoga sporadically for the last few years, but it’s been more off than on, and I hadn’t done so much as a sun salutation since I got to India.  Still, I thought it might be interesting to go and take a look, and besides my friend Kruti was there for a month, working as a yoga teaching assistant and it would be nice to see her.  My English mates Eve, Mike, Jack and Jess had shipped off to Gokarna; a beachy place on the Karnatakan coast.  Sigrid was heading there too.  I was sad to see them go but there was still sand in my bag from three weeks in Goa, and I hadn’t really come to India for beach-life, nice though it was.

Staying inland, Bangalore was a mere 15 hour bus ride away.  Not so far in Indian terms, but Delhi was still fresh in my mind and I wasn’t really keen on the idea of a big city at the moment.  By the same token I ruled out going northwest to Mumbai, which was anyway in the wrong direction.   A friend from Arambol had messaged me saying she was heading to Kodaikanal in the hills of Tamil Nadu.  I had a look in the guidebook and it sounded nice; hills, trees, mist, cold air – actually it sounded a bit like home.  It would be a long journey of at least a couple of days, but it seemed like the best option.

With no clear goal though, and with the condition of my gut keeping me from straying very far from the toilet, I found myself idling; dozing in a hammock, reading books, making friends with dogs, talking to other travellers and playing Carom.  Carom is played on a square wooden board greased with boric acid powder.  You use your fingers to flick a little ceramic puck around a wooden board greased with boric acid powder, trying to knock smaller, chequers-like pieces into pockets in the four corners of the board.  There are rules about where you can shoot from and how to score points, but that’s the game in a nutshell.  It’s a bit like Pool.  I learned it from a young Chilean guy with dark hair and bright blue eyes named Federico.  Not one for bouldering, Fede could usually be found at the table, along with a blond, Danish guy called Karl, his Belgian travel-buddy Cesar, and another lad called Shiva, who came from Greenwich in London.  They were a friendly bunch, and after some beginner’s luck, their banter kept me at the table despite a run of terrible form which followed me from defeat to bruising defeat (though I did manage to lure both Shiva and Fede onto a chess board, where I took my revenge).

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Karl, Cesar, Shiva and Fede playing Carom

This was all very well, but I wasn’t really sure what I was accomplishing here in Hampi besides losing weight and developing slightly better hand-eye coordination.

Accomplishing.  Walking the Camino de Santiago in 2014 I had had a well-defined sense of purpose.  Besides the overall sense of a destination, the day by day routine of walking, eating and sleeping meant that I very rarely felt the need to question what it was I thought I was doing, and anyway on days when I felt my focus slipping, I could rely on other pilgrims to provide me with whatever resolve I needed.  Out here it was very different.  Not that I wasn’t enjoying myself, and maybe I didn’t have to be accomplishing anything at all, actually, but old habits die hard, and having made the decision to leave my ordinary life behind for a while, I had a growing feeling that what I was now doing was insufficiently worthy.  I wasn’t even doing much writing (you may have noticed that I’m a very long way behind on this blog).

Anyway, eventually I figured it was probably time I looked into getting out of here, so one late morning I set off in the direction of the village to visit a travel agent.  I hadn’t gone far when I bumped into Fede, Shiva and Karl on their way to meet Laura and a couple of others for lunch.  They too were planning to consult the travel agent, so I tagged along.  We took a shortcut through some plantations, ending up at the Laughing Buddha; a classic traveller hangout overlooking the river, with low tables and mattresses and brightly coloured hangings depicting Shiva and Bob Marley.  I lay down against a cushion, ordered a plate of rice with curd, and reflected on how wretched I felt.  Kodaikanal seemed a long, long way away and the thought of even a single overnight bus ride was making me feel more ill than ever.  Fede and Laura were talking about hiring a taxi to go to Gokarna the next day and it came out that they might have space for one more person if they could find a six-seater (which would be as cheap and faster than the bus).  I volunteered straightaway; a few more days on a beach wasn’t going to kill me, after all, and being able to stop a taxi at will to relieve myself on the side of the road was appealing in a slightly pessimistic way.

There was a lot I hadn’t seen of Hampi.  The ruins go on for miles, and I hadn’t even made it to the Sri Virupaksha temple right across the river in Hampi Bazaar or seen its celebrated temple elephant having a bath on the ghats of the river (which apparently happens twice a day).  But I was keen to be on the move again.  There was so much yet to see of this curious and wonderful country; infinitely more than I had time for.

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The Road Not Taken – Sri Virupaksha Temple

And it didn’t feel like that at the time, but I had accomplished a fair amount during the time I was in Hampi: I had seen sunrises and sunsets on the ruins and rocks, I had tried my hand at bouldering (much easier once I had proper shoes), I had ridden a scooter and visited the birthplace of a Hindu god, swum in the river and learned to play Carom, had my hair cut by a nervous tattoo artist, and (perhaps most of all) I had made friends with some lovely people.  It wasn’t too shabby at all.

19 -Get Outta My Dreams (Get onto my Bike)

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Sunrise on the plateau

I was sitting at one of the big round candlelit tables at Goan Corner talking to Laura and two of her friends; one an American I’d not met before.  We were playing guitar and drinking a beer and chatting about whatever, and we got onto the subject of dreams; Laura doesn’t ever recall her dreams upon waking.  She never has.  For me, they come and go in phases, but sometimes I will have a dream so vivid and real that, good or bad, it stays with me for years.  I remembered a recurring nightmare I used to have when I was little.  I don’t know how old really, maybe six or seven.  Anyway I remember every detail of this dream like I just woke up from it, and in the flow of the conversation I started recounting it.

I’m in the barn.  That’s what we call the upstairs living room of the house I grew up in.  It’s night time and it’s just me in the house.  The lights are off and I’m scared.  I go to the window and outside on the street is a man.  He is standing across the road, in the shadows on the edge of the light from the streetlamp.  There is this overwhelming feeling of menace and malevolence and I know it comes from him, and I know that he wants inside.  I run down to the front door and briefly open it and he’s coming towards me.  I slam the door shut and lock it before he reaches me, but then somehow I know he has the key.  He has the key to every lock in the world.  And the key I just used to lock the door begins to turn back on itself.  I run upstairs and jump into my bed, under the covers.  But I can hear his feet on the stairs to my room sand I am absolutely frozen with terror.  And then I wake up.

The American girl leaned in and asked me ‘Was he wearing a broad-brimmed hat?’

I went cold and I jumped up from my seat in shock.  That strange black hat.  I’d never met this girl before.  How could she know that peculiar detail of a dream I had thirty years ago?

‘And you couldn’t see his face.  It was all in shadow.’

What the hell?  It’s true.  All I can remember is the suggestion of a grin.  A sly, wicked grin that told me I was powerless to stop him.  Nothing else was clear, like she said. The blackness of night was a part of him.  I had goosebumps on my arms in spite of the heat.

‘I’ve never seem him,’ she said, ‘but people all over the world dream of the same figure.  They call him The Hat Man.  I saw a documentary about it.  Some people think he’s some kind of extra-dimensional being. He enters into the dreams of children usually, but some people see him their whole lives.  He feeds on their fear.’

I didn’t have much to say to that, except that it’s been a very long time since I had such an encounter.  I’ve never been able to watch scary films, and I still get freaked out even if I just see an advert for one, or a trailer.  But who knows?  Maybe I’m not so much of an easy target than I was when I was a child; or else it was all just a bad dream and nothing more.  I was spooked though, and it crossed my mind that I might now have another dream of this evil figure.  I’d like to think this time I would be able to stand up to him, and maybe create some fear of my own.  So far it hasn’t come to that, though.  Since then there have been no such visitors, shadowy or otherwise, to my dreams.

Anyway, I had some other, more tangible scores to settle. A day or two after the fated expedition to the waterfall, Mike informed that, Jess being up and about, they were thinking of hiring a couple of scooters, finding somewhere to get lunch and going to the Temple of Hanamun for sunset.  Sigrid and I had already walked to the temple at the summit of Anjaneya Hill a few days before, but I wanted to ride a scooter.

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Sigrid and I on our way to the Temple; synchronised t-shirts not planned…

The year after finishing school I went backpacking around Europe with two of my school friends, Richard and Hannah.  We were on Lipari; one of the Aeolian Islands off the Sicilian coast, when we decided it would be a good idea to hire some scooters to razz around on.  I can still picture the square where we went to hire them – the Mediterranean bustle of the place; cars and bikes and ships unloading cargo on the dock.  There was a little test involved; a quick spin round the block.  Richard was first up and back in a moment, flushed with satisfaction and worthy of his new ride.  It was my turn next.  I shouldn’t have been nervous; it’s really no more difficult than riding a pedal-bike, but the bike shop manager was riding pillion and he kept throwing the whole thing off balance.  I was lacking in confidence and I wobbled and stopped once, then again.  And that was it.  He shook his head at me and told me he wasn’t going to let me take the bike.  I was gutted.  We sought solace in the arms of a gelato but it was no use.  That little moment of light humiliation has been bothering me for the last 18 years.  I don’t know what it is – maybe it’s just that it would have been so cool for us to be zipping around this sun-kissed island, hopping from beach to beach, wearing sunglasses and saying ‘Ciao!’, and it was entirely down to me that this didn’t happen (though I still blame my wobbly passenger) – anyway, it was a bigger deal to me than it should have been, but now, finally, was my chance for a bit of vindication.

Sigrid rode the scooter when we picked it up from the shop in Hampi Bazaar.  I didn’t want a repeat performance of Lipari, and Sigrid had kept a scooter in Goa, so I rode pillion as far as the place we found for lunch (where I ate an exciting dish of boiled rice and nothing and drank a soda water).  It may not have been the greatest meal ever, and my visit to the toilet was a grim immersion in a lightless, Stygian world of terrifying smells, unearthly wailing and relentless gnashing of teeth (though all of those things may have been caused by me), but the view of the river was lovely and there was an absurdly cute puppy there who padded around and nuzzled into us at every opportunity.

From there we were headed to a nearby town to find a working ATM, and then on to the temple.  It was my turn to drive.  With Sigrid sitting behind me I looked at the rough dirt track ahead and thought of how hard it had been to keep my balance in that golden piazza years before.  Then I opened up the throttle and felt the bike move forward beneath me.  I opened it up some more and we sped forward with the back wheel skidding a little in the sand.  I had to break hard to stop us leaving the road and disappearing into the bushes, but nothing bad happened.  Of course.  After that it was a breeze.  We pulled out onto the road and then we were flying along with the wind in our hair, tooting at pedestrians and roadside vendors as we buzzed past in a summery halo.

We parked the bikes at the base of Anjaneya Hill and bought fresh coconuts, while Jack’s myriad tattoos attracted a flurry of attention from the local boys and rickshaw-drivers, then we set off up the several hundred steps leading up to the temple.  Before it was Hampi, before it was even Vijayanagar, this place was Kishkinda; the realm of the monkey gods, and the birthplace of Hanamun, a muscular Hindu deity with a large mace and a simian cleft palate.

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It’s not a big temple.  An antechamber with an elderly baba reclining in an alcove surrounded by pictures of celebrated holy men of yore, and another room with two men sitting in the sweltering heat chanting from scriptures, and then an inner sanctum with the usual blessing procedure for the unenlightened foreigner.  You ring a bell over your head as you enter, and place a ten rupee note in a little dish, then a temple attendant daubs your head with orange tikka, and gives you something sweet as puja (in this case some large crystals of sugar) and you are on your way.  I’m never sure what I’m doing when I visit Hindu temples; they are hardly there for my benefit of course, but I’ve never felt like I’m learning much by visiting them.  Still, I’ll take a blessing and a bit of good luck wherever I can find it.

Outside on the rocks several families of monkeys were making the most of the pilgrims and tourists by soliciting offerings of peanuts, while the sun went down in its usual splendid style.  We lingered for a while taking in the beautiful views, before heading back down and riding back to Hampi Island in the dusk.

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18 – Licensed to Ill

There’s a line in Fight Club about how on a long enough timeline the survival rate for everyone reaches zero.  Edward Norton might be talking about men hitting each other in dank basements and using soap to blow up buildings, but it’s a rule that also holds pretty true for travellers in India; if by survival you mean not getting sick.  Sooner or later you will eat something that doesn’t like you, or you will swallow the wrong bit of water when you are brushing your teeth, or the mosquito bite or the scratch on your foot that you didn’t bother to use antiseptic on will get infected.  One way or the other, your days of health are numbered.

For my friend Jess, it happened on the way back from the waterfalls.

Located some distance up-river from the ferry crossing to Hampi Bazaar, we’d heard about this place, but no one I spoke to had been there themselves.  Some people said waterfalls, others said rockpools, even whirlpools.  Everything was second-hand and sketchy.  Someone said it was dry this time of year and the water-levels were too low. Elsewhere I heard that the falls were there, just further upstream and harder to find.  There was no map; just a cryptic entry in the guidebook.  We had a strong team for this expedition.  Sigrid and I, Mike and Eve the physiotherapists, Eve’s mate Jack the tattoo artist, and Jack’s school-friend Jess.  We also had Josh and Martin with us; two English climbers with an unerring instinct for tough terrain.  Being seven eighths British, we were short on language skills but well supplied with banter, 90s comedy references and all round joie de vivre (yes, I know that’s French).  We made the river crossing in good form and set off along the dirt track that would lead us away from the familiar world of ruins and coconut stands, and into the wild unknowns of the Karnatakan wilderness.

It was hot.  I know I say that in every post, but it’s only the truth.  It was baking hot, and once we emerged from the path through the banana plantations and into the exposed hinterland through which the river flowed, this punishing fact of life began to take its toll.  When you’re in good health, dehydration, sunburn and sunstroke can do a number on you quite easily, but when you are sickening for something the process is much quicker.  Anyway, we were still fine at this point.  A local man appeared out of nowhere and started walking at the head of our little column.  We weren’t sure what he was up to until he started pointing at things and telling us what they were, helpfully identifying bananas, coconuts, likely photo opportunities and, of course, the path we were already following.  Perfectly capable of finding the way without assistance, I was indignant and made it clear that I had no intention of paying this interloper, though eventually his persistence won out and I did end up coughing up some cash.

Josh and Martin solved the problem by just pushing on ahead on their own.  Caught up in a frenzy of path-finding, they disappeared from view quite quickly once we reached the badlands of water-eroded boulders which had to be traversed in order to reach the river.  Much of this was a scramble; crawling, climbing, and jumping across crevasses deep enough to be dangerous.

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Jess is scared of heights.  A lot of people say they have one phobia or other, but it usually just sounds like they dislike something or they find it creepy.  It’s not often you find someone with a proper terror of something.  The thing that makes it different is that it’s not about thoughts.  It is not a matter of thinking ‘oh no, look at that long drop, I could fall off there and die – how scary’.  It is a complete rebellion of instinct (and its bodily allies in the sympathetic nervous system) against the conscious mind.  I have a funny thing with water.  That is to say as soon as I am in it, I start to panic.  It’s not the same thing as fear.  I don’t fear water.  I love the sea, and rivers and lakes, and I would really like to be able to swim well.  But in reality as soon as my body breaks the surface, my breath shortens, my muscles tense up and it’s hard not to just sink.  Even if my face gets wet in the shower (which can happen), I can’t open my eyes until I have wiped away all traces of water.  I don’t give it a lot of thought in the day to day; but it’s definitely a thing.

Anyway, Jess has a phobia of heights, and it wasn’t long before the passage through the rocks was getting to her.  She started well, but then by the time it really kicked in we must have been halfway, and going back seemed as bad as continuing.  Through a team effort of reassuring chatter, hand-holding, time-taking and the occasional human-bridge, we worked our way through that treacherous maze of rocks and crevasses.  I’m not sure how Jess managed it all that way, but she did, and we figured there would be an easier way out on the other side.  For now though, we seemed to have reached our destination.

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Not a waterfall in sight, and thankfully not a whirlpool neither.  What there was, was a large rocky pool about 30 metres across at its widest point, surrounded by a smoothly undulating wall of lunar rock.  It was pretty stunning.   Everyone got in.  Some climbed, some jumped.  Josh and Martin were already here, swimming across to a cave on the other side.  Beautiful as it was, I was not keen about going for a swim in this pool of uncertain depth and who knows what lurking dangers.  I had done plenty of frolicking in the waves in Goa, but always where I could but my feet on the seabed and stand up.  This was different.  I’m not sure what exactly changed my mind –  How hot it was sitting there, or the how much everyone else was enjoying the water, or possibly Jess’s example in battling though her terrors and getting to this point.  Anyway, after a couple of minutes of vacilation I got into my swimming shorts, clambered down the rocks and gingerly lowered myself into the cold river.  I figured out a few years ago that the best way for me to be in the water is on my back.  With my ears below the surface but my face in the open air I can let myself relax enough to float.  It’s not swimming, exactly, but it’s a lot better than drowning.  I pushed off the side and quietly kicked my way across to the far side of the pool and back.  It was only a few minutes, but it felt like I’d scored some kind of victory against my phobia, and that was enough for me.

The way back was tough for Jess.  Josh and Martin’s scouting had revealed no easier way out that the route that had brought us in, so she had to do it all again, in reverse.  I talked her through the tricky bits and she made it through, but she was clearly worse for wear. Coming out of the rocks, Josh and Martin decided they wanted to try an alternative route back to Hampi Island, by crossing the river upstream of the ferry.  The rest of us began to head back towards the banana plantations.  It was at that moment that Jess, weakened already by heat and stress, began to vomit.

It took us a while to get there but we were lucky enough to find a rickshaw at the end of the track which could take the six of us back to the ferry.  There wasn’t really room inside, so Mike stood on the rear bumper and clung on like a long-limbed Welsh monkey, while I sat up front with the driver and tried not to get bounced out when we hit potholes.  We crossed the river and made it back to the Goan Corner, where Jess went straight to bed and stayed there for the next couple of days, being all kinds of ill.

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Sitting around having dinner that night, we were talking about Delhi Belly and the myriad bacterial illnesses which lie in wait for foreign travellers in India.  It occurred to me that I had made it nearly six weeks in this country without having so much as a single loose movement, and having thought this, I immediately made the mistake of saying it out loud.  “I’ve done pretty well. I’ve not been sick since I got to India” is what I think I said.  Such foolish complacency.  I woke in the morning to an insistent growling in my gut and sharp cramping pains, and for the next week or so I was fighting a running battle with bacteria, marked by frequent visits to the loo, friendly chatter about the consistency of my stools, and a depressingly boring diet of rice, curd and bananas.  I don’t know what got me.  A bit of re-heated rice maybe, or some unwashed hands in the kitchen.  It’s possible my brave attempt at swimming had exposed me to something in the river water.  It doesn’t really matter.  It was pretty much inevitable from the moment I disembarked in Delhi.  I’m just surprised it took so long to happen.

17 -Stone Free

My first sleeper bus was ace.  Twelve hours from Mapusa to Hampi on a cosy little coffin-sized palette with my day-bag for a pillow and Stella the guitar taking up way too much space.  I drew the curtain, opened the window wide and let the tropical night air blow across my face until I slipped away into a patchy sleep filled with pictures of the ocean I was now leaving behind.  We stopped a few times and drank chai in company with the raggedy dogs and little cows who live by scavenging around the roadside cafes, and I got back onto the bus and listened to Bob Dylan and The Walkmen and felt like a drifter off to see the world.

I had left Arambol with Sigrid; a teacher from Austria who I had met a few times drinking tea in Magic Park with others from the festival.  When you find yourself bleary-eyed and confused in the early morning and who knows where you are, and rickshaw drivers are getting in your face and you just need a minute to get your bearings, it’s nice to have a bit of company.  It doesn’t always save you from getting ripped off, though.  We were idiots to agree to the asking price of the ride to Hampi Island, but that didn’t make me feel any better when the rickshaw dropped us off and I realised we had paid probably five times what the journey was worth.  We should have argued, but we were just too tired, so we sullenly hauled our bags onto the street and tried to find some sign of life at the guesthouse someone had recommended to Sigrid.  There was no one awake, and we had no reservation.  It didn’t take long for a group of travellers with the sense to walk from the bus-stop to catch up with and then overtake us.  They were heading en masse to the Goan Corner, a guesthouse which a couple of people had told me to stay at if I could.  Sigrid’s plan being a bust, we set off in hot pursuit along the road as it wound between low fields of rice on one side, and a landscape of granite boulders on the other – reddish rocks in all shapes and sizes and piled up in curious arrangements.  It was strange and beautiful, but mostly I was thinking about how heavy my bags were and actually how tired I was (I’d been too busy enjoying the journey to get a decent night’s sleep) and how all these backpackers two hundred yards ahead would take up all the beds and we would have to spend the whole morning schlepping around looking for somewhere to stay.

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The Goan Corner is in a quiet spot surrounded by rice fields and banana plantations, but we arrived to a frenzy of activity.  The manager Sharmilla was bustling around dealing with the breakfast rush while cheerfully brushing off the enquiries of the twenty-odd new arrivals looking for beds with practiced wit and a few well-aimed noises of encouragement.  She wouldn’t be able to promise us beds until after 10 o’clock, but she took our names, and that was good enough for me.  We found a wall to perch on and ordered breakfast.

Over porridge and grainy Keralan coffee, I met Laura from Las Vegas, who was sitting on a climbing mat, strumming on a guitar.  She had been here a while and was taking a course in massage this week, but mainly she was here for the boulders.

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The weird geology of Hampi makes it one of the world’s best places for bouldering.  Climbing the rocks takes skill, flexibility, strength and considerable nerve.  Some rocks are as little as 8 or 10 feet high; others are more like 30 or 40.  Some of the boulders are well-climbed and have been given names like Crystal Cave or the Aeroplane, but it’s a fairly young scene and still a playground for pioneers and experienced climbers like Laura.

As for me, I was pretty keen to give it a try, but probably not today, and certainly not before I knew I had somewhere to lay my head.  We got lucky in the end; a double room came up for 700 rupees with its own bathroom.  Most of the people who arrived just before us had managed to get places on the rooftop where there were mattresses and mosquito nets for 200rs.  The ones who arrived after were turned away.

Modern day Hampi consists of two small villages on either side of the Tungabhadra River, occupying a tiny fragment of the site of Vijayanagar – in its time one of the greatest cities on Earth.  In 1500CE the city had a population of half a million, which means that of all the people alive in the world at that time, one in every thousand lived here.  It was a city of abundance; of waterways and gardens, palaces and temples.  Then the wheels of history turned and in 1565 the city was sacked, looted, and largely razed to the ground.

I love a romantic ruin, and I was feeling better after breakfast, so we crossed the river and (ignoring the flock rickshaw touts who met us off the ferry) set off to explore on foot.  We followed a path through an ever-more strange landscape of stone which is either the result of hundreds of millions of years of erosion or the result of a titanic battle between warring gods (I like this story better).  It was hot.  Really hot.  It turns out that granite gets pretty warm when left out in the Indian sun for a long time.  We made it to the beautiful ruins of the Achyutaraya Temple and while Sigrid looked at carvings outside, I hung out for a while in the lightless cool of the inner sanctum, trying not to be freaked out by the bats that came flittering past me every now and then.  We drank some water and a second wind carried us to the top of Matanga Hill to take in the panorama of palm trees, rocks and broken temples that stretched away to the horizon, and I thought of Ozymandias, and tried to picture this place as it might have been before the ruins and the tourists.

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We went back to the guesthouse to rest in the shade through the afternoon until it started to cool off and we ventured up into the rocks on our side of the river.  There was something otherworldly and slightly Mad Max-ish about that moment.  Somewhere towards the horizon a great plume of smoke was rising, while the sound of devotional chanting drifted in from the temple across the river.  The boulders were golden and lined with tiny figures watching the sunset, and somewhere close by but out of sight, people were drumming.  Sigrid and I sat there for what seemed a long time, then eventually the light was gone and slowly we picked our way back down to the rice fields, leaving the rocks to the night-time dogs and the snakes.

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The next day I tried bouldering for the first time.  We met our new neighbours Eve and Mike in the morning.  Newlywed physiotherapists on a kind of working honeymoon, they were plying their trade across Africa and Asia in support of a variety of good causes.  I liked them immediately.  They were friendly and funny and interesting and it was refreshing after all this time to hang out with people with the same language and cultural references as me.  Eve and Mike were both experienced climbers, as was Sigrid who had lived her whole life in alpine Tirrol.  They all seemed like decent people to have around me on my first attempt at bouldering.

I approached the rocks with an easy confidence that I would take to this new activity in a natural, duck-to-water-type style.  I felt in good shape; two weeks of walking in the Himalayan foothills and two more of dancing in Goa had caused me to lose a bit of weight and gain a little muscle-tone, and I’ve always had pretty good balance.  Also while my lack of climbing shoes could be a bit of a problem, I’ve always been good at picking up small objects with my toes; a trait which would doubtless transcribe to a monkey-like grip on any rocky climbing surface they met with.

I identified what looked like a suitable mass of granite, set out my mat, and began to plan my route, starting with finding some way of lifting myself of the ground.  I spotted a couple of likely handholds and a tiny ledge onto which I thought I might be able to get my foot.  Unfortunately the ledge was so high that even when I managed to swing my leg up there, I was in such an awkward position that I couldn’t move anywhere else.  And it hurt.  The granite edges were sharp and dug into my fingers and toes and before I could figure out what to do next I had let go and dropped clumsily down onto my mat.  Everyone else was making it look easy, and within a few moments they were all standing in lofty majesty on the rocks above me.  I tried a couple more times, but made little progress.  Eventually I decided I might have more luck somewhere else.  I found a smaller boulder and actually managed to get to the top pretty quickly.  I stayed there on my rock for a long time while the others experimented with different routes up their own.  It was a small victory but one I was happy to take.  I wasn’t a natural by any means, but I wasn’t actually terrible, either, and I might try this again while I was in Hampi.  With the skin of my fingers and toes feeling like they had been worked over with a grater, though, I felt I had accomplished enough for today.  And if there was going to be a next time, I would be sure to wear the appropriate footwear.

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16 -Slight Return

Three hot and crowded local buses saw me back home to Arambol and I reached my hut sometime in the afternoon..  It was quiet around but it didn’t seem like much had changed since I left. The little landscape of mosquito net, sheets and general disarray on my bed, picked out by the beams of light spilling through the two large gaps in the roof tiles, had a melancholy air.  I took a quick shower, washed some clothes and tidied the hut.  Then, feeling a bit better about the state of the world, I went out for a walk.  I found the road and followed it round to the Banyan Tree Café, where I bumped into Lucas, a professional juggler from Sao Paolo, who I knew from the festival.  He had been using the space to practice, and was just packing up his things.  He said he was so used to being busy that he hadn’t really stopped since the end of the festival. I said I was going to sit on the beach and watch the sunset.  He thought about this for a moment then said he would like to join me, as if this would be a fascinating new experience.  We talked about juggling and dancing.  He makes youtube videos and teaches juggling, but increasingly he just likes to dance instead.  I asked him if he was going to Ecstatic Dance tonight at the Banyan Tree but he thought probably not.  I wasn’t really sure I was in the mood either, but I didn’t have anything better planned, so I returned to the Banyan Tree at about eight.

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Ecstatic Dance is another curious little subset of this hippy-culture I was spending a lot of time with, and it’s a little hard to define.  Basically it’s like a club night, only there is no talking on the dance floor, intoxicating substances are forbidden, and everyone is free to dance as they please.  This last bit is the key of course.  Everyone is always free to dance as they please, but (in the UK at least) they seldom do unless they’ve had a skin-full to take the edge off the awkwardness and the discomfort of being seen.  Ecstatic Dance starts with a big sitting circle and there is an element of meditation involved at the beginning, aimed at bringing people into the present moment.  This then develops into movement, as it does in Contact jams, while the DJ (in this case one Rico Loop) builds an improvised soundtrack based on samples and live instruments which gradually builds through peaks and troughs to a great crescendo and then a more gentle coda, over the course of two hours.  And everyone dances in their own way as they feel.  I was pretty tired and wasn’t really in the mood, but there were quite a lot of familiar faces there and it was nice to see people again, and I danced even though maybe my heart wasn’t really in it.  When the music finished someone told me that a lot of people from the festival were going to one of the beachfront bars for food, so I tagged along.  There was a large crowd there, including a large contingent of Dance Exchange students, whom I thought had gone home.  I clambered over the bamboo fence, squeezed myself in between Aditya and Amitya and settled in to the candlelight and chatter around me.  This guy Princeton began to sing and shortly it turned into an all-out group medley of everything under the sun from Aerosmith to Shaggy, with a decent amount of Bollywood showtunes thrown in.  It felt good to be back here with these new friends who, after my two day sojourn to Margao, now felt like old friends.

Over the next couple of days I found myself settling into a new rhythm in Arambol; a quieter one now I didn’t have the festival to keep me busy.  I slept in until nine or ten and I took leisurely breakfasts at Totem next door, where there was fairly reliable WiFi (a distant and fantastical memory now), fairly decent coffee and really nice banana, honey and coconut porridge.  I would then go to Love Temple to sit on their comfy seats in the shade and drink tea and write before lunch.  I made a few massage appointments too (for free because it was nice to be keeping myself in practice).  By about 3.30 or 4pm it would be starting to cool off a little so I would sit on the beach and play some guitar, then go for a swim before the sunset.  In the evening there was usually a jam or a dance thing or a concert of some sort.  This would all be punctuated by meeting with people from the festival; some of whom I knew, some who were new to me.

There was Zuza the Polish-born Berliner who sang passionate Polish folksongs and did acro-yoga on the beach, Monica from Slovakia and Mira from Finland, both of whom I met on my first day in Goa.  Then Adi from Mumbai, Ines from Barcelona, and Lucas and his friend Oli from London (also now living in Berlin).  Ulli was still in town, and Carmen (another Berliner) and Sigrid from Tirol in Austria and a bunch of others. A lot of German speakers, now I think about it.  Everyone is so good at speaking in English that it’s easy to forget…

Hanging out at Magic Park (a very nice organic cafe) with Kruti, August, Lucas and a coconut

Passing by Samantha’s bar one afternoon I was hailed by a voice above my head and looking up I saw Vicky; one of the guys who worked there.  We had spoken a few times after he saw me with a guitar and he had asked if I would like to jam with him and his mates sometime.  Now he and two others were sitting with two guitars and a bass on a little platform above the bar, accessible by a ladder.  I clambered up there and we shook hands, and I took out my guitar and off we went, playing for about 2 hours straight as the sun went down.  They were considerably better musicians than me, but not so much that I couldn’t play along and bust out the occasional solo. Mainly I was just happy to be there, playing some tunes and looking at the sunset.

Having a guitar around often turns out to be a useful way of meeting people.  One night I was sitting on my own around sunset just in front of Love Temple, playing some songs to myself (I tend to play to myself at the lowest possible volume, and people usually need to really insist in order to get me to perform, though this is a habit I am trying to shake off) when Kruti arrived.  We hadn’t spoken much if at all during the festival, but she was one of the Dance Exchange group and she had been in the bar singing the other night.  She asked me to play a song and I mumbled through a rendition of something or other.  There was an actual concert performed by real musicians happening nearby so we went along and afterwards went to eat (unsurprisingly disappointing) momos at one of the myriad beach restaurants. Kruti is a dancer but she is trying to move into dance therapy and we had an interesting chat about that and the relationship between mind and body in illness and emotional stress.  She also told me how she had spent the day doing a theatre improvisation workshop with an Australian called Jonno (also from the festival but I didn’t remember him).  She had really enjoyed it and suggested I come along for day two (being such an old hand at acting, etc).  I was a little dubious but I like to say yes to things if I can’t think of a good reason to say no, and Kruti has an infectious enthusiasm which is hard to ignore, so I agreed to meet her at Banyan Tree in the morning.

I’ve not acted in a long time, and comical improvisation was never something I felt very confident with.  I can be clown-like, but it’s usually unintentional.  Anyway, I had mixed feelings about this workshop, and when I got there in the morning my ‘try anything’ mindset had been replaced by a ‘tried this for a whole decade and I think it’s safe to say I’m done with it’ mindset.  Still I was there now, and there were only a few people so it was way too late to drop out.  I muddled through the next three hours in a fog of ambivalence, unable to shake the feeling that I would much rather be sitting outside my hut playing the guitar or eating pancakes on the beach.  I raised a few laughs in a fairly unoriginal little doctor/patient sketch, but I just couldn’t get into it.  At the end we all sat round and Jonno asked who wanted to perform that night.  Perform?  It wasn’t in my mind at all that there might be an actual performance with an actual audience. Hell, no!  Looking around I saw nods of assent and raised hands from all concerned.  Still, I shook my head and said “I don’t think so, no.”

Over the course of the afternoon though, Kruti wheedled and pestered until eventually I said I would do it – for no other reason than that I felt bad being the only person to say no.  Also, while I was never able to make a living out of it, I did spend a lot of time and energy through most of my twenties making theatre and I was a bit embarrassed about opting out.

So I did it.  It was entirely unplanned; Jonno would call out names to do a short thing, in twos and threes, mainly.  Then I heard “Matt.  Do you want to do a solo?”  I was already onstage, so there wasn’t anything for it.  There was a small audience of about twenty-odd people sitting there on the floor in front of me, and I just started talking to them, more or less saying the first thing that came into my head, improvising a strange character whose exaggerated Englishness and colonial superiority was intended to be mildly offensive and ironically amusing.  Actually it went pretty well.  I got quite a lot of laughs and some generous applause, but I was still relieved when it drew to a close and I was free to go to a nearby bar for some food and a cold beer.  I used to love it, but maybe acting just isn’t my thing anymore.  Who knows?

Ten days idled by.  Nobody wanted to leave.  Kruti was perpetually on the verge of taking a train to the Sivananda Yoga Ashram in Kerala where she would be working as an assistant teacher, but somehow she always decided to stay another day.  Adi was stretching his resources as thinly as possible to stay on before he had to return to work in Mumbai.  For myself, I had no place in particular to be and I was perfectly happy to linger as long as there were nice people to hang out with.  There was always something to do – a dance performance in a village nearby, or a music concert.  I went to one last contact jam at the Banyan Tree a week after the festival ended, and for the first time it really felt like I was getting the hang of it – it felt like dancing.  Eventually though, the often-deferred end of our time in Arambol became a present reality.

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My last day in Arambol was a lovely one; all sunshine and sand and sea, lazing around on the beach with the remnants of the Contact crew.  Playing guitar and singing with Zuza, discussing Hindu and Buddhist philosophy with Kruti, foiling Ulli’s attempts to haggle with beach traders (I am a total pushover and a liability in negotiations, I have discovered).  Ulli and I had an epic sand-bomb battle in the sea which I must admit to losing after he caught me in the chest with a fist-sized lump of compacted sand which took me of balance and sent me sprawling beneath the waves.  It was the last day in town for a lot of us and we made the most of it.  In the evening we went to Ecstatic Dance again and this time I danced wholeheartedly for the duration, then we all went for dinner at Alladin’s, ending the night in a protracted group hug which we were all so reluctant to break that we shuffled out of the restaurant as a single, many-limbed, organism, much to the bemused amusement of the staff and the local dogs.

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Ulli haggling for shawls while Mira, Kruti and Zuza eat corn

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All good things must end, though, and we made our protracted farewells.  The next day I would be heading down to Mapusa to catch a sleeper bus to Hampi in Karnataka, and no doubt that would be very different, just as Arambol had been a world away from my time in Dharamsala.  I would just have to see when I got there.