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.
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.
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.
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.
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.