Thursday, May 30, 2013

Hot in Hampi

The following morning saw us with a bright and early wake-up call of 7:30 to beat some of the heat on a bicycle tour of Hampi.  The tour was run through Hampi’s tourist board/group, and took in most of the main sites in the area.  Jon, Koen, and I were the only people on the tour…it would seem that most people are too sane to bike around in 38C or 100F.  Clearly, the heat had already scrambled our brains a wee bit.  In honesty, I was pretty nervous about the biking ‘element’ of the tour, because it transpired that our guide was riding a motorbike, and 1/3 of our group hailed from the Netherlands.  Everybody knows that Dutch people aren’t born, they simply hop on bike and peddle out of the womb.  Notwithstanding, my spirits were feeling pretty high after I mounted my metallic purple steed, which was complete with a faux license plate on the back that said, “Miss India.”  However, I was knocked a bit by an early hill and a defective kickstand, a feature that was much less concerning than Jon’s lack of braking power.

Despite the heat, we enjoyed the tour, the guide was very knowledgeable and quite passionate about the site; it was evident he felt the destruction of the Hampi temples quite keenly, even though it happened about 450 years ago.  We did pick up an extra member of the tour partway through, a solo female backpacker who seemed fairly interesting, but her unfortunate proclivity for ranting at the locals made me keep my distance.   I'll let a few of the photos do the talking now.  

Underground temple.  This was completely buried until 1960s I believe.

Queen's summer palace. Well water sent through pipes built into the walls kept it cool.

We saw a really big millipede.  It was REALLY BIG.  But don’t worry, he didn’t eat us.
Interestingly, the historical, religious, and sexual elements of the culture were integrated in the temple carvings.  Please avert your eyes if you are under the age of 18, or my parents.
By midday, we had all nearly melted into the pavement, so we headed back.  At which point things got exciting when Jon nearly pedaled himself into an early grave.  Whizzing down a hill with 10% breaking power, a rickshaw pulled out in front of him.  Jon dinged his bell furiously.  Collision felt imminent, and in that moment, I would like to imagine Jon thought, “Hmm, it was really responsible of my woman to perform extensive research into the most suitable travel insurance policy available to us.  I think I made a wise investment decision when I put a ring on that.”  But, behold, the power of the bell manifested itself, and Jon skirted pass the rickshaw with two whole inches to spare.  (Please note, the retelling of said incident is not as dramatic as the incident itself.  I wanted to have Morgan Freeman narrate, but he was not returning my calls.  Again.)  
Before the big payout.

By the end of the tour, we were seriously short on cash.  This situation arose because I drink water like a camel and that shiz ain’t free, the bank was closed with some crazy opening hours, and the undeniable fact that we are notoriously bad for keeping cash on hand.  When the bank opened, we discovered they (a) did not exchange other forms of currency which we had thoughtfully stored away for such thoughtless emergencies, and (b) did not possess a cashpoint/ATM.  So we had to travel 12km to the nearest cashpoint.  Thankfully, our rickshaw driver was a gambling man, because we told him if the cashpoint didn’t pay us, we wouldn’t be paying him.  We hit jackpot on our second ATM, and there was much rejoicing all around.  

 After lunch and some R&R, we headed out for dinner at a rooftop restaurant, where we had to bid adieu to Koen, as our new friend was pushing on toward Bangalore.  The next morning we planned to get up early to visit Hampi’s Children’s Trust, a school for some of the kids in the area, followed by some more sightseeing. 
After getting to sleep sometime after midnight, things got a little crazy in the predawn hours.  I awoke to find Jon flopping around like a fish, which I promptly ignored.  It was only when he stuck his head under the mosquito net and began flailing about that I became interested in what might provoke such peculiar nocturnal activities.  (In the interest of providing an unbiased account of said activities, Jon, for the record, stated he was not “floppy like a fish” but rather, he was “tense, alert, and ready to hide behind me.”) 

Um, yeah, so at this point, you might be wondering what could make the typically calm and collected Jon behave so?  Oh, he might just be underreacting to an intruder in the room.  One with four legs, a tail, and a suspiciously simian stance.  MONKEY (!!!?!!!?!!!?!!!?!!!)  Naturally, I immediately thought, “Does the monkey intend to rob us?”  Because you never know, some of them look really shifty.  And some of them have a pretty big banana habit to subsidize.  Whilst we did shell out 180 GBP for rabies vaccinations, I had no real desire to test their effectiveness.

I decided the best course of action was to shoo the monkey, which consisted of me shrieking in a terrified voice, “Monkey, go away!  Monkey, go away!”  This was, of course, completely ineffective.  So Jon grabbed the bull by the horns (monkey by its tail?) and retreated from the safety of the bed to hit the light switch.  Partly because he was closer to the light switch, but mostly because there was no way in hell I was going to do it.  When the lights flickered on, we discovered that monkeys are not the only creatures with four legs and a tail and fondness for climbing through windows.  Cats apparently possess these traits as well.  (Jon opened the door, and the would-be cat-burglar shot out of the room like somebody lit a firecracker under it.  Poor thing!) 

Needless to say, it was a rough night’s sleep after that.  After our visit to Hampi Children’s Trust, we headed off to Vitthala Temple, which featured musical pillars and a stone chariot whose wheels—at one point in time—actually moved.  It was a lovely walk there due to the myriad temple ruins that littered the site, the scenic beauty of the walk, and the fact that a lovely little old lady with a kiosk up the road from our guesthouse hooked us up with some bottles of frozen water.   (She knew a junkie when she saw one.  As soon as we started walking down the road, she’d start rummaging around in her freezer for some sweet sweet bottles of the good stuff.)  

We saw some more baby monkeys (!!!), who were adorable, and—thankfully—not in our room.

On the walk home, we ran into some really stupid people.  A couple of guys had a motorbike accident, which was apparently related to the lack of braking abilities on their motorbike.  One of the guys had a fairly serious looking wound on his foot, and the two of them were both rather bloodied.  Jon was able to put his first aide skills into action, (winning!)  but his patients were less than cooperative.  After figuring out a course of action that best suited the situation at hand (i.e. a rickshaw takes them to a doctor while a bystander phoned their rental company and returned the bike), we tried to communicate this to them as effectively as possible.  While the badly injured guy may have been in a bit of shock, the other seemed fine, yet he apparently took umbrage with logical reasoning.   Fending off additional attempts at assistance, they climbed back on the brakeless motorbike, and drove off into the sunset where, presumably, they still occupy a place of residence in the gene pool.    

On the whole, we really enjoyed our time in Hampi.  Yes, it was quite hot, but the natural beauty of the site combined with the fantastic ruins really made for a wonderful experience.  I’ve got two more posts in the pipeline before I hand the microphone back to Jon, who will do his best to raise the overall tone of this blog…he’s classy like that.  Well, relatively speaking.  In the meantime, we offer the photos below.

Oh that Hampi Monkey!

Monday, May 27, 2013

Happy in Hampi

Our next stop was Hampi, former capital of a Hindu empire from 1336 to 1565, until it was sacked in a siege by a Muslim confederacy.  Described as “dreamy” by the Lonely Planet, it definitely lived up to our expectations.  And, for the record, it’s pronounced Humpy, a fact which would not make me giggle, because I’m a grownup.   
Ceremonial altar in front of Virupaksha Temple

Ceremonial altars pulled by 200+ Hindu pilgrims

However, before we were really able to take in the sights, we had to get there, and—as any traveler knows—getting there is often where interesting stuff happens.  I was beside myself with excitement for this journey, because the potential for interesting was strong:  we had reservations for a bed on what was dubbed a “sleeper bus.”  And, naturally, I was unreservedly excited.  Hello?!?!  Who wouldn’t be excited…it’s a double bed!  On an overnight bus!  It was a one of a kind opportunity to live out a dream as not-so-famous musician on tour, complete with my own personal groupie (i.e. technically husband, but whatever).  How very rock ‘n roll!

And it was very rock ‘n roll.  The bed was hard as a rock, and I rolled to and fro most of the evening.  Jon and I had made a rookie error by putting nearly everything under the bus, and even though it was non-A/C, it was absolutely freezing in the middle of the night.  However, the ability to open the windows meant that early on in the journey, I was able to hang my head out the window like a dog.  That was most enjoyable.  Fortunately, we had prime seats on the bottom floor over the back wheel.  Unfortunately, the bus was apparently not equipped with a muffler—neither the noise nor the vibrations could be considered conducive to the manufacture of Zzzzs.  However, despite these considerable handicaps, we still achieved a couple of hours of sleep, and I was still mildly thrilled from our overnight adventure.

Saying that, we were more than a bit groggy upon arrival, which made us prime targets for touts.  Retrospectively, I should have known things would be bad when we stopped briefly in Hospet—a city 15 km away—and were besieged at that time.  Since peak tourist season has ended, the tout to tourist ratio has subsequently increased.  And they had a presence of mind that we lacked.  Like skilled hunters, they moved swiftly, separating and confusing us.  At one point, we were bravely fending off a siege of seven.  “Where you going?  I’ll take you to very nice hotel. 24 hour electricity!”(Hmm…electricity as a selling point? Toto, I have a feeling we’re no longer in Kansas.)  We ended up walking the brief trip into town, and there were only 2 touts left standing, one of whom was nick-named ‘Mosquito.’  Yeah, I’m going to go ahead and say there was explanation necessary for that one.  After haggling over a room, we settled in and took a big looooong nap to recover.

Around 1 o’ clock, we headed into the main bit of town, meaning we walked around the corner.  Hampi really is a teeny place.  We had seen the main temple on the way in, which featured lots of monkeys (!) crawling around on the outside.  On the way, we ran into Koen, a friendly Dutch guy we had met on the overnight bus, and who we ended up spending a good deal of time with in Hampi.  We all headed to the police station to register ourselves, a compulsory process that revealed how toxically hot it was in Hampi.  I felt like I was fixin’ to die on the way down there (sorry about that—sometimes it is necessary to speak Texan to convey the magnitude of a given situation).  So we required a bit of R&R in the form of a light lunch (nearly all liquid for me) before heading to the Virupaksha temple itself.  This was my first Hindu temple, so it was a bit of a learning experience.  As far as temples go, it’s was a great one to start off with…very impressive.

Virupaksha Temple

We checked our shoes at the door, and wandered inside, where we could get some blessings from an elephant.  Unfortunately, we discovered the elephant charges more to bless foreigners, so there were none for us.  We also discovered how hearty some people’s feet were!  The combination of scalding sun, stone, and bare feet was not ideal by any stretch of the imagination.  However, the whole atmosphere of the crowds, the beautiful carvings, and dozens of monkeys (!) scampering about—including some baby monkeys(!!!), more than made up for the toasted toes. 

As we wandered around the temple, we had several requests to take photos with people, and sometimes requests to take photos of people (i.e. please take my photo!).  But as we approached the exit, it reached somewhat of a fever pitch.  Maybe it was because we are all really tall, or very accommodating, but it kind of got a little crazy.  People were taking photos of us taking photos with other people, whilst others were making requests for a photo of their own.  It was as if we were both the paparazzi and the ones getting ‘papped.’  (Maybe they heard about our starring role in Dhoom 3?)  All very funny but a wee bit out of control.

That night, we all had dinner at this German bakery, where the company was good, the food was not, and I got a couple of mosquito bites on my foot, that would later land me in hospital.  But that’s a story for another time.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Goa ... and relax.

 Following the hectic preparations for our trip, and a busy few days in Mumbai, it was with some excitement that we boarded the sleeper train to Goa, looking forward to some relaxation.  Mumbai’s main train station is a sight in of itself; hundreds of people stood/sat/lay all over the huge waiting area with all manner of packages and produce to be loaded onto trains heading all over the country.  The train wasn’t ideal (uncomfortable beds about 5’8” long i.e. not long enough for either of us to lie straight) but it did have A/C so the journey wasn’t bad, although I would certainly have got more sleep if it wasn’t for the persistent offers of chai every 5 minutes.  With the journey scheduled for around 12 hours, we arrived in Margao 15 hours after setting off; luckily we had been warned of the delay by a helpful passenger, as there was no sort of announcement otherwise.  From speaking to fellow travelers since, both the delay and the lack of notification appears to be fairly normal.

From what we had read, the liveliest parts of Goa are at the North of the state, and the further south you move, the quieter and more relaxing it gets.  We toyed with the idea of a couple of nights in northern Goa before moving further south, but settled on heading straight to Palolem, a tiny town in Southern Goa for some R&R.  The local bus from Margoa to Palolem took around an hour, and we hit upon a nice guest-house just off the main road in Palolem straight away.

The phrase “main road” should really be elaborated on, as it is extremely relative.  Palolem consists of two roads; the “main road” which runs parallel to the sea, and a very short secondary road which runs from the “main road” to the beach.  Both roads are lined with restaurants, small shops selling beach-wear, sarongs etc, and a few grocery stores (my personal favourite of which was entitled “General Store” but appeared to sell only pineapples and watermelons).  Apart from the handful of rickshaws, the main traffic on those two roads is created by cows.  In short we had found our relaxation spot.

The Palolem beach itself is very pleasant; not the white sands we have experienced in Thailand before, and fairly narrow but a very nice beach by anyone’s standards, lined with more restaurants, bars and touristy shops and cluttered by fishing boats and dogs and occasionally cows (and thousands of tiny crabs in the evening and early morning).   

What really makes Palolem beach special, however, is the geographical setting; it sits in a natural crescent between two rocky outcrops and in front of a thick line of palm trees, the effect of which is to make it feel really secluded even though there is the “main road” behind those palm trees, and other small towns on the other side of those outcrops.

Panorama from the rocky North end of Palolem beach

As you might expect from the above description there isn’t really much to say about our activities in Palolem; they pretty much exclusively involve lying on the beach, swimming in the and eating.  The heat (40 degrees C at a guess) limited the former apart from early and late in the day.  The sea was really quite choppy, and therefore not particularly clear, but nice and warm, and the irregular wave patterns made for fun in anticipating and trying to withstand the big waves (although nothing to keep the life-guards busy)

On a couple of evenings we walked out to the northern rock outcrop which made for a great place to sit on the rocks and watch the sunset.  The only downside was that the ankle-deep water we had to paddle through to get there became thigh-deep by the time the sun had set which has probably taken a fair few tourists by surprise.

We also spent a day at Patrem beach, a short rickshaw ride further south, partly to see whether we wanted to move there for a few days.  However, our stay in Goa was right at the end of the high season because by May it is simply too hot for anyone (including Indian people) to go to the beach.  Consequently the tiny town (village?) of Patrem was completely dead; we were two of around 10 people on the beach, and many of the restaurants and shops had already closed for the season. Patrem beach is wider and less cluttered that Palolem, however we soon learned (at the cost of Monique’s sunglasses) that without the protection of the crescent rock outcrops the Arabian Sea is really quite rough, and bordering on dangerous to swim in.

We decided not to move further South, as Palolem was quiet enough for our purposes and clearly the high season was due to end in the next couple of weeks.  By way of an example, we had heard that Palolem hosts a full-moon party and, not wanting to miss out, had gone looking for it on the appropriate night.  Having failed to locate the party we returned to our guesthouse, and the following morning we were informed that the “party” consisted of about 20 to 30 people who gathered at the same bar.  We also tried to attend a mid-morning yoga class only to find that, despite it being advertised throughout Palolem, it was no longer being run due to the lack of attendees at this time of year.

About the closest Palolem came to exciting was when I was nearly run over.  Standing in the middle of the street and chatting to a fellow Dhoom 3 extra (did I mention that we were Bollywood extras???) I was suddenly shoved out of the way by a rickshaw driver just in time to prevent me from being skewered by the horn of a cow who had decided that she was going to walk straight through me.  Having survived the Mumbai traffic it would have been somewhat embarrassing if I had then been run over by a cow on what could barely class as a road!

It is safe to say that Goa served its purpose of providing the relaxation that we were both seeking; a sort of holiday at the start of our travels.  Palolem wasn’t quite the tropical paradise we had hoped for from Goa, but it is certainly a lovely little place to chill out for a few days.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Bollywood here we come!

Prior to arriving in Mumbai we had read that it had been known for tourists to be asked to be extras in Bollywood films to give certain scenes a more “Westernised” look, and had joked on a number of occasions about how great it would appear in a Bollywood film (I imagined some sort of huge dance scene with us being the token white people at the back), albeit with the awareness that it was never going to be a possibility for us.

It was therefore with some surprise that just a couple of days into our stay in Mumbai that a member of staff at our (smelly and, we had just realized, bedbug ridden) hostel asked us if we wanted to be extras in a Bollywood film the following day.  I was skeptical at first, not least because of the location at which our talents had been “discovered”, and was keen not to fall for an in-joke at tourists’ expense, so I asked a few questions whilst trying not to appear too keen.  It started to sound like it might be legit, so we tentatively agreed and were provided with some extremely vague information about being picked up and taken to the studios.

Early the following morning we boarded a bus with about 30 other travelers, and were driven north through Mumbai for about 2 hours during which time the realisation that this was actually happening slowly dawned on us.  However, shortly upon arrival we were informed that the day’s shooting had been cancelled due to a collapsed stage.  The disappointment was cushioned by receiving payment of half a day’s pay (250 rupees – approximately $5 or 3GBP –each, which more than paid for that evening’s dinner).  We were suitably convinced that this was the real deal, and so agreed to return the following day.

After the same journey the following day we were taken into Reliance MediaWorks Studios, one of the most prominent film studios in India.  The talk on the bus was that the film was entitled “Dhoom 3”; we had somehow managed to miss Dhoom and Dhoom 2, so this didn’t mean anything to us.  After breakfast we were taking to our dressing areas.  For the men this consisted of an open air shed-type structure filled with a variety of mis-matched clothing, well used shoes and very Indian looking ties.  I was provided with a white shirt, an extremely ill-fitting polyester suit, and left to fight it out for shoes (I ended up with some backless loafers which ended a good half inch before the back of my foot as these were the only ones that I could get on my feet) and a tie.  No make-up required, I was ready for my debut in 5 minutes flat.  The ladies, on the other hand, had a relatively swanky dressing area (by which I mean it had walls and a semi-permanent roof) where they were provided with a variety of hideous dresses, and had their hair and make-up done.  Monique was allocated a rather fetching brown sequined number, a not insignificant amount of blusher, and a hairdo consisting of a hair-sprayed ‘poof’ increasing her height by around 2 inches.  We made quite the glamorous couple.

After some waiting around we were taken into the studio to find a quite impressive theatre set and what seemed like a huge number of studio staff.  It was explained to us that we were to play the audience of some sort of a show, and one-by-one we were filmed against a green-screen applauding, standing and applauding and telling our non-existence neighbours what a good show it was, the whole time being encouraged to be enthusiastic with prompts such as “you’ve just seen a great show”, “it’s a fabulous show”, “it’s an amazing show” but without any explanation as to what it is we were supposed to be applauding (I really needed more information to understand my character’s motivation in the scene).  We were amongst the first to be filmed, and as the morning went on our fellow extras were asked to add actions such as admiring the theatre, and watching someone flying over them and landing on the stage “you’re amazed, you're astonished” which resulted in reactions becoming more and more over the top (to the director’s encouragement).

This went on for what seemed like an eternity before we eventually broke for lunch.  In the afternoon the extras were seated together as the theatre audience, and it slowly (very, very, slowly) became clear that we were watching some sort of circus performance which involved performers jumping from the stage and swinging over the audience on a strap/rope.  After hours of the expert acrobat swinging around, and tinkering with the set-up to get it just right, a short Indian man with sticking out ears and scantily clad in leather and body-paint came to the stage to start shooting the scene.  The director’s standards appeared to be pretty low as the actor was praised for his efforts despite them being somewhat underwhelming.  This was followed by a similarly scantily clad and body-paint adorned, but much more attractive, actress doing the same scene.  She was significantly better than her male counterpart, but pushed by the director to film more takes.

The afternoon progressed on those lines; the actor and actress alternatively filming identical scenes painfully slowly.  He, Aamir, repeatedly received praise for his performances (including what was clearly his stock moody scowl) and slowed down the proceedings by insisting on having his hair and make-up touched up between every take.  She, Katrina, was pushed further to film more takes despite the strain of being swung around by her wrist taking its toll, but remained cheerful.  As extras, our only input was to watch the ‘performers’ in “shock and awe” as they dangled above us, and to applaud on command.

Only late in the day (around 7pm) did we find out more about the film from talking to two employees of the company brought in to handle the rope-swinging elements.  Apparently Dhoom is a massive film franchise in India, and Dhoom 3 is going to be the most expensive Bollywood film ever made.  Moreover, the guy whose performances we had criticized all afternoon long was Aamir Khan, one of the biggest Bollywood stars and a household name in India.  That explained why the director had been sucking up to him so much.  His female counterpart was Katrina Kaif, also a hugely popular Bollywood star (and who, it turns out, is British).  The actor and actress who had been performing all afternoon only a few metres in front of us, had been standing right next to us while discussing the scenes, and practically landing on top of us after swinging around the "theatre", were apparently the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie of Bollywood (although we think Aamir Khan is more of a Tom Cruise - make of that what you will)!  This revelation prompted a bit more interest from us for the remainder of the day (the long, tedious day mostly spent sat around waiting for something to happen had previously  been quite sleep inducing).  Even so, by 9.30pm, 13.5 hours after being collected by the bus, the extras had had enough and decided to leave en masse.  We collected our days’ pay of 500 rupees ($10) each and made the journey back to South Mumbai.

The long and tedious day spent sat around in awful clothes waiting for something to happen had been far from exciting or glamorous, but will all have been worth it if we make the cut into what will probably be the biggest Bollywood film ever.  Although we didn't make it into a dance scene, and I suspect our solo green-screen performances may be overlooked for some of the more over-the-top performances given by our fellow extras later in the day that are probably more in keeping with the Bollywood style, there is a good chance, given my height, the size of Monique’s hair and where we were seated, that there will be a glimpse of us in the final film.  Not quite our 15 minutes of fame, but the backs of our heads might well be seen by several million people.  For anyone interested the release date is set for 25th December 2013 and photos of the backs of our heads can be provided on request to facilitate identifying us.