Once again we were moved effortlessly from Waiting List to Confirmed, this time at about 8.30 on the evening before our 7.50am departure from Madgaon Junction station, an hour away from Palolem. We’d arranged a taxi to pick us up at 6am and it was still dark when we set off. It’s not difficult to see why the figures for casualties on Indian roads are so catastrophically high. In the dark there seem to be only two vehicle light positions: full beam or complete black out. The crowded bus which we overtook on a blind bend had no lights at all and nor did the family of four on the motor bike. Looming out of the darkness in front of us were unlit rickshaws, wandering cows – a whole herd of them at one point, wandering pedestrians, thundering trucks, hand-drawn carts, bicycles, dogs, goats and pigs.
There was light in the sky when we reached the station. We bypassed the information office, pausing briefly to watch a tremendous shouting match between the official and a customer, and found our way to Platform 2 where we drank little paper cups of hot sweet cardamom chai at 10rps from the tea wallah’s portable sliver urn.
On time to the minute the Howrah Express, which had started its journey from Vasco de Gama station in Mumbai the evening before and would end its journey in Calcutta, pulled in. Now there was a moment of frenzy. We couldn’t see our carriage. ‘Where is AC3?’ we asked the guard. ‘Backside! Backside!’ he shouted, pointing to the end of the train, 30 carriages or so away at the far end of the crowded platform. ‘Quick! Quick! Train going!’ Clutching our baggage we puffed up the platform against the flow of people, dodging the luggage carts, chai wallahs, vagrants, and sleeping families. At what point do we cut our losses and get on the nearest carriage? The problem is that we could be stuck there for hours until the next stop and the opportunity to change. This was the express. The doors are locked between carriages. Another guard stood and watched our breathless approach. ‘AC3?’ ‘Backside! Backside!’ he shouted as the first guard had done, pointed at a carriage behind him and began waving his flag. ‘Please to get on now sir!’
And we did, throwing up the bags into AC3 and climbing in after them as the train began to move off. We found ourselves in the fan cooled semi darkness where the passengers were stretched out and, for the most part, still asleep on the bunks and benches, including the ones we had reserved. But there was no problem. A little reorganisation and we had our seats and everyone went back to sleep, leaving us sitting looking out of the window as the train climbed up away from the coast through jungle and towards Hubli, Gadag and Hospet.
For mile after mile work was in progress on a new track running parallel to the one were on. We passed pile after pile of concrete sleepers, length after length of iron rail, mound after mound of stone ballast. Cuttings and embankments had been widened, countless new bridges and sluices were under construction, there were bulldozers, diggers, cranes, engineers, labourers and groups of spindly men constructing mile after mile of spindly split bamboo fencing to separate the old from the new. What a gargantuan project the building of the first railways in India must have been.
We were now in fertile central Karnataka travelling through groves of mango trees and acre after acre of cotton bushes and sugar cane.
It was late afternoon when we pulled into Hospet Junction, picking up a rickshaw ride out of town and then turning off on a road cut through jungle in the 1950s taking us though an extraordinary landscape to bustling, noisy, colourful Hampi Bazaar and to our room at the Gopi Guesthouse.
Hampi was the location of Vijayanagara, the 14th century capital of the largest Hindu empire in Indian history. At its height some 300 years later it was a wealthy place with half a million people trading in its bazaars and with the world outside. It all came to an abrupt end in 1565 when Deccan sultans attacked and destroyed the city. What’s left is what drew the hippies here in the 70s and keeps the travellers coming today. Amongst a bizarre landscape of vast boulders and between the green paddy fields, palm trees and banana plantations, some 3700 monuments, temples and ruins are scattered over 36 square kilometres, most now abandoned to nature.
Hampi Bazaar is now at the centre of things, a low key collection of guesthouses and eating places around the stone flagged streets of the 14th century bazaar in the shadow of the towering gopuram of the Virupaksha Temple.
Our room was basic, clean and cheap. Three days we spent at Hampi, getting up early to see the day start on the ghats on Tangabhadra River, taking a leisurely breakfast, exploring the temples and monuments before the day got too hot, in the afternoon taking the 10 rps ferry across to the other side of the river where the pace was altogether slower and to drink a watermelon juice or lemon mint soda in the roof top cafe overlooking the paddy fields. It’s not difficult to see how some travellers come here and, like the Lotus Eaters, end up chilling out for weeks on the low cushions beneath the fans while the world goes on outside – well, apart from the wifi that is.
We watched the sun setting over the boulders and monuments from a hill top temple and then went to eat at at the Mango Tree, all vegetarian fare as Hampi is a sacred centre and meat and, sadly, alcohol, are forbidden. I can’t say we’ve missed the meat. The coconut curry, vegetable biryani and the Mango Tree special pizza were terrific and though the lemon mint soda and watermelon juice were good, nothing beats a cold beer at the end of the day’s site seeing in temperatures of a 100 degrees.
It’s now ten in the evening and we are sitting on the platform at Hospet Junction station waiting for the Hampi Express which should have come in an hour ago. It’s still hot. There isn’t a breath of wind and the fans above on the roof of the platform are spinning away without making a difference. We’re looking forward to getting into the cool of the carriage and finding our beds and waking up at Bangalore at 6 am tomorrow morning.