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Matt & Mercaders - The World Tour

Mumbai, Hampi & Hyderabad

INDIA | Friday, 10 October 2008 | Views [1656]

Mumbai – Hyderabad – Hampi

As we touched down in Mumbai it dawned, on me anyway, that the section of our trip that I had perceived to be our first big challenge (clearly I hadn't put enough thought into what Egypt would be like) had arrived. With the advise of many running through our heads (don't touch the water, always make sure your hands are clean, don't ever put your fingers in your mouth, careful what you eat etc) we made our way through the dimly lit, and somewhat depressing, airport out to catch our first glimpse of India. The scene of chaos which greeted us, cars darting around, horns honking, taxi drivers shouting, near miss running over incidents – all this considering it was about 4am - did little to disperse any anxieties. Of course Matt was grinning and finding it all fantastically exciting. The near death trip to the hotel in Colaba gave us our first shocking sights of the slums and more poverty stricken areas of the city but the sight of a battered, skinny dog cowering at the side of the road just about finished me off and I spent the rest of the journey with my eyes closed. But that's the thing about India. It's a completely different culture, it's like nothing we'd ever experienced before and although I can't say I ever got used to the sight of desperately poor looking animals everywhere, or indeed the many other incredulous sightings that you will hear about, I came to accept it as part of a culture that I couldn't help but be charmed by and that I certainly grew to respect many aspects of

We spent that first day acquainting ourselves with Mumbai, and it is a CRAZY city! There are people everywhere – market stall holders bombarding the many tourists to look at their stuff, bedraggled children begging, women dressed in colourful saris.... one sight that really sticks in our minds is of one of the afore mentioned women, rooting around in the back of a dumpster truck. And then there's the traffic. Roads are gridlocked, mainly with taxis, horns are a constant noise for no apparent reason, rickshaws darting about, public buses with people hanging off the back or jumping out while it's moving. There are new and different smells everywhere from delicious curry, roadside snacks, herbs and spices, poo, wee, rubbish. It's a massive sensory overload and yet we were surprised at how much we enjoyed the atmosphere and how comfortable we felt there. Everybody we met was friendly and although the market stall holders didn't let you pass without trying to make a sale, they always did it with a smile on their face and a hint of amusement in their eyes......there was definitely a feeling of fun. Something everybody is told to do in Mumbai is visit Leopolds cafe and it didn't disappoint. Full to bursting most of the time with both tourists and locals alike, it had a buzzing, welcoming atmosphere that instantly made us feel, if not quite at home, as this would be impossible in a place so fundamentally different, then accepted and comfortable. And it was our first experience of real Indian cuisine......let's just say we enjoyed some amazing curries there over the next couple of days.

We also visited Elephanta Island whilst in Mumbai (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elephanta_Island). A somewhat treacherous ferry ride saw us there and back, claiming many seasick casualties along the way. We were taken round old temples with ancient carvings inside, depicting the unique symbols of the Hindu religion. I can't really expand on this anymore as I could only understand about one in every 20 words that our guide was saying, and Matt can't help me as, although he did a good job of pretending to understand, when I came to ask him to fill me in, he was unable to do so. Therefore, the highlight for us had to be the monkeys! There were loads of them just roaming around including some tiny little babies, it was hilarious. Oh, and this was also our first experience of having our photo taken by Indians, something which we came across on more than one occasion during our trip.

After a last meal in Leopolds we headed to the station to catch the first of many overnight trains. We were lucky with this first journey as not only had we managed to get into first class (no mean feat as we were to find out later) but we had also been put into a two person carriage. Now, I'm not going to lie and pretend that it was 5 star quality but I certainly felt it was acceptable – if I only knew what future conditions lay ahead! Our final destination was a little place called Hampi but we first had to stop for one night in the city of Hyderabad.

Hyderabad. Not a particularly inspiring name, and not really an inspiring place. It's main claim to fame is that it's a big player on the Bollywood film circuit. Having arrived in the main part of town with its stinky, gridlocked roads and been gawped at by everybody that saw us (including the ones who came over specifically to stare at us) we made our way to the more wealthy part of town where we were staying in Banjara Hills. This was a lot calmer and cleaner but just to put it into perspective, when we arrived a farmer was herding his cows past the front door – imagine a shepherd herding his sheep round the residential streets of Chelsea and you'll see what I mean! One thing that really touched us during our short visit to Hyderabad were the staff at the guesthouse, some of the sweetest, kindest Indian men we were to meet. After helping and assisting us throughout our stay we will never forget the scene as we were leaving when all 7 of them congregated by the taxi to wave us off!

One thing we did attempt to do in Hyderabad was visit a popular market. Disaster. There was a big muslim festival taking place at the same time and, apparently, same place (nobody thought to cancel the market for the day, obviously). The whole place was swarming, our taxi moved no more than one hundred metres in an hour and yet for some reason the taxi driver, who didn't speak english, wouldn't actually let us get out. After much gesticulating and miming we pretty much jumped out to be greeted by complete pandamonian. I won't go into too much detail but some of the things we experienced were: groups of young boys hitting themselves with chains until they bled; religious leaders YELLING through loud speakers; being separated in the swarms of hundreds of people, mainly women, who were just pushing and shoving us out the way and all this whilst being harassed by the stall holders – as if we were going to by anything at this stage, we just wanted to get the hell out of there!

To really put the icing on the cake, it started to really pour on the way back to the guest house and our taxi driver drove through an enormous puddle completely soaking an entire family in a rickshaw. The rickshaw driver was understandably none to pleased and so decided to stop his vehicle in the middle of the busy road and march round to have it out with our driver. Needless to say he didn't open the window but merely sat there looking at him, shrugging apologetically but also not moving. At this stage we were beginning to understand a little more as to why there is so much gridlock on the roads! For the family themselves, this gave them an excellent opportunity to have a good old look at us as they sat there shamelessly staring.

That evening we were back at the station boarding the overnight train for Hampi, for what we hoped would be our first stay in a more rural India and something we were both really looking forward to (dangerous – you never know what you're going to find!). Not so lucky this time, we were in second class sleeper, sharing with 2 other people. The standard of hygiene had dropped somewhat and there were some horrible smells, but luckily for me Matt was still LOVING the train experiences so was happy to prepare my bed for me so that none of me or my clothes actually had to touch anything gross!

The first sight to greet us as we arrived in Hampi was that of the local Indian men, and an enormous elephant, having a good old scrub in the river. Hampi is really a little shanty town so most families live together in one room that has no plumbing system to speak of. The men come down and wash in the river in the mornings whilst the women clean the clothes in it. This does of course mean that they don't have toilets either which explains why we saw so many men and children going to the toilet pretty much wherever they please. As for the elephant, she is Lakshmi the holy elephant who lives in the temple and gets brought down by her keeper every morning for a good wash.

Having read all this you are probably now aware that this wasn't quite the idyllic setting we'd had in mind and what with the mud streets and the cows wandering all over the place, I was pretty subdued. As well as all the locals who live there, Hampi is a popular spot on the traveller trail and so there are a number of little guest houses around, all ranging from about £2 - £4 a night. They are all pretty similar – double bed with river stained sheets, rusty bathroom, a fan and some even have little roof top restaurants attached. We took just such a place in the Gopi Guest house. However this was no ordinary guest house, this was the Gopi empire!! A mix of family members (although all referred to as brothers) take up a range of roles:

- Boss man Gopi
- Restaurant Gopi
- Gopi tours (we must have spent a total of about 8 hours with this guy as he tried to sort out our onward journey)
- Rickshaw Gopi

- Maintenance Gopi (this dude spent a day installing hot water in our bathroom. By this I mean he installed a second shower head! That's right, one to give cold water and one to give hot. We never had to worry about how this would work, we never actually got any hot water.)
- Chef Gopi
- Gopi mother, the original Gopi member.

Boss man Gopi, the actual son of Gopi mother, is basically a local hero. His day starts with an hour long run, followed by two, free, hour long yoga sessions with guests. He then spends an hour or so mingling with guests over breakfast in the roof top restaurant. A visit to the little local school to spend some time with the children comes next – he also regularly visits their parents to try and generate in them some kind of interest in their children's education. He may then spend some time visiting local residents to teach them about basic hygiene and preventions of malaria and other illnesses. He often spends the day at the house he is building, in the perfect setting, in the surrounding countryside. At the end of his day, he pays another visit to the school to carry out an exercise/yoga session with the children. He should be the prime minister.

And despite all earlier reservations, from the first morning we just relaxed and enjoyed being in this little village. Early mornings were spent in the gopi roof top terrace, drinking a mango lassi and smiling into the sun as we looked across at the children in the little school across the mud track. That is a bit of a lie as we did have some pretty heavy rain on a couple of the days we spent there, but it didnt do anything to diminish the charm and laid backness of this place! More often than not, both in the early morning and evening, loads and loads of mokeys would come swinging through the trees and running round on the roof tops, it was hilarious. Oh and Matt got taught the rules of games called caram and kabadi by Chef Gopi and Restaurant Gopi.

Another important hot spot for us was The Mango Tree restaurant which was in the most incredible setting. Its been carved into the hillside, overlooking the river, with split level seating curving all the way round. Everyone just sits on Mats on the floor, at natural wooden hand built tables. In the day the view was gorgeous and in the evening its all lit up by candlelight. The food was absolutely amazing! Its actually illegal to eat meat or drink alcohol in Hampi, but we had some of the most amazing vegetable curries there, plus they had home made houmous! We pretty much lived in this place

We spent two days looking at the ruins which Hampi is known for (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hampi). They were very impressive and all within walking distance in pretty countryside, so it was a nice way to while away some hours. That is until one of our return journeys. We walked round the corner of this track only to be confronted by a half naked (bottom half unfortunately) man, lying on the ground, muttering something incomprehensible (although Matt told me after he thought he was saying “water, water”). We beat a hasty retreat.

Hampi was also where we met Alison who was planning to spend months in India (and by God she did it, I dont know how but she did!). It was so nice to spend some time with someone who had so many travelling experiences and she also gave us some great tips for Hong Kong – dreaming about those cocktails got me through some of the more trying times in India! We were to meet up again with Alison a little further down the line.

But it had to come to an end at some point, although this was about 3 days later than originally planned, and so we were off to Cochin on what was to end up being a fairly epic journey...


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