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Exploring Karnataka

Yep, it's another long one, so for those of you with something better to do, here's the summary: I've spent the last month touring the southern state of Karnataka, exploring many of out-of-the-way places which has proved most rewarding. Unwanted attention from men continues to be a problem - I got touched up by a guy in his 60s on a bus - but the photographic opportunities have outweighed the hassle. Hundreds of photos online, but if you don't have time to look at them, take a squiz at my Photo-a-Day gallery to have a little peek at what I've been seeing. Want more details? Read on...

After two wonderful weeks of lazing around and doing nothing, the time came to say goodbye to lovely Varkala; to wave farewell to the bickering pineapple ladies, chasing each other around the beach like a gaggle of guinea foul, and the serene chai lady who rose above it all. To the blind beggar, with his laminated certificate proving his disability; the "many seeds" man, with his little tray of seed packets; and the guys selling stickers displayed in an upside-down umbrella. I took a last look at the cliffs and the soft sand below, watched the Brahminy kites (not sea eagles, as I had thought) soaring overhead chased by the crows, and gazed out to sea where a school of fish was leaping out of the water, hunted from below, then I turned my back on the town and left.

My next destination was Bangalore, which lay an overnight-train ride ahead of me. I only decided on this just before New Year, so I had a bit of difficulty getting hold of a ticket, and in the end had to plump for a 3AC ticket which cost three times as much as a regular second-class sleeper (SL) fare would have, had I made my mind up earlier. On boarding the train I found that the layout was identical to the SL carriages - two sets of three-tiered bunks facing each other, with an additional two bunks, lying lengthways on the opposite side of the train to these. There were also a couple of more civilised touches, namely a mirror and a two-pin electrical socket. There was also, of course, the air conditioning and consequently tinted-glass windows. The area was less crowded than the SL class, which often has about as many interlopers from the Unreserved carriages as passengers with SL tickets; there were no people sleeping on the floor of this carriage at night. The last difference I noticed, was that almost all of the Indian passengers were conversing with each other in English, with maybe the occasional lapse into their local languages.

I arrived in Bangalore at around seven in the morning, and took a rickshaw to the nearby hotel that I had selected from my Rough Guide; it was full. Fortunately it was in a street with numerous hotels - many of which were also full, and a few cost more than I cared to pay - so after trying six or so, I found one that suited. I had just one job to do in Bangalore: to go to the post office. I'd gone on a bit of a shopping spree iin Varkala - well, what with all those cool little shops, it would have been rude not to - and had a sizable package to post. I was rather apprehensive about posting parcels from India, as it all sounded terribly complicated; you can't just wrap a box in brown paper and scribble an address on it, you have to get the contents examined, get some cloth, find a tailor to sew it up, buy sealing wax and seal the seams. Fortunately there was a little booth at the GPO where a man kindly wrapped and stitched my parcel for a pound. He had no wax, so I signed along the seams to deter a would-be pilferer. I'd been advised to send it SAL, which is a mixture between surface and air mail. It cost 930 Rupees - around 12 pounds - for me to send 3.5 Kg, and they estimated that it would take a month to get there. It's already arrived intact, taking just three weeks; I'm impressed.

That done I was free to explore the delights that Bangalore has to offer (tongue firmly in cheek - even the rickshaw driver told me there was nothing to see there, and those guys are normally keen to take you on a guided tour). I did visit the aquarium, and pulled faces at the fish, and then took a stroll around the museum and art gallery before walking back to my digs though clouds of pollution. The pollution in Bangalore was the worst I've ever seen - I actually thought it was fog at first; truly shocking. Many of the hotels over here operate a 24 hour checkout, meaning that you have to vacate the room within 24 hours of checking in, or pay another day (I explain that, as when I first saw the term, I thought it meant that they had staff on reception during the night, in case you had to check out at some ungodly hour). I figured that I'd had my fill of the big city, so checked out early the next morning, and hopped on a bus to Mysore.

My guide book described Mysore as a "charming, old-fashioned and undauting town" and "a great city to simply stroll around", so I was rather disappointed to arrive in what seemed like just another dirty, ugly town - albeit with a rather impressive palace in the middle. I had some trouble finding a room, but that was more to do with me being fussy than anything else, as there were plenty to chose from. I settled on one finally, and had an argument with the man who had claimed to work for the hotels, and not be a cheating man, when he demanded backsheesh from me for walking with me from one hotel to another; I gave him 5 rupees to get rid of him. Once inside my room I did some washing - Indian laundry is expensive and comes back dirty, and there's no way I'd trust my undies to any of the men at the hotels - I don't think I'd be wanting to wear them again afterwards if I did. Chores done, my camera and I went out for a wander, and after some time pounding the streets, and weaving in and out of the stalls at the market, I found myself agreeing with the guide book; it was indeed a great city to stroll around.

Whilst at the town I visited the Palace (no photography allowed - boo!), took a bus up Charmundi Hill and walked back down, and went on a day trip to the nearby town of Srirangapatnam. There I visited the summer palace of Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore, who had the British invaders quaking in their boots, a dungeon and a temple; would you believe that this was the first temple I had been inside in India? Quite how I managed six weeks without entering one, I do not know; the fact that a number are off-bounds to non-Hindus, and a further few forbid filthy females from entering has a little to do with it, I guess. Whilst there I decided to put a bit of effort into my onward travels. In part, this is so I can justify a bit more lolling-on-the-beach time once I hit Goa.

First on my list was the town of Madikeri, in the Coorg region. The town itself isn't too much to write home about, but the surrounding countryside is most attractive. I went on a one-day trek, explaining that I didn't want anything too strenuous, being a lazy sort. I now know to ask for an Indian-style trek, as my guide told me that the middle-class Indian tourists are averse to walking. The route took us through harvested paddy fields, forests with thick undergrowth, and along the side of a vast valley, filled with a bluish haze. My guide was well informed and enthusiastic, not least about the environment; he is the first Indian I have met who sees the ubiquitous litter as a bad thing. Whilst on the backwater tour from Kochi an Indian tourist had shouted at his young daughter to throw her garbage into the water. She had seen the Western tourists around her using the bin on the boat, and was reluctant to chuck her plastic cup into the water until her father ordered her to do it.

I also took a side trip to a small Island known as Bamboo Forest (I forget its proper name), where the authorities have attempted to create a nature reserve. There are tree houses to watch the birds from, seats to enjoy the surroundings, a small deer park and smaller rabbit park, and an elephant and two horses on hand for "joy rides". My visit coincided with the arrival of sixty-odd school kids, who stood on rocks in the river screaming loudly, which kind of spoilt the serenity somewhat, but it was still enjoyable. An information centre attempts to foster some inclination to care for the environment, but the amount of rubbish strewn outside of the many litter bins shows that the message it not getting across, unfortunately.

From Madikeri I caught a bus to the town of Belur and visited the wonderful Hoysala temple there, whose walls are covered with fantastic carvings. Belur is more of a village than a town, and it was nice to be in that atmosphere rather than a polluted city. The next morning I caught a bus to Halebid. The temple here is even more impressive, and I spent a couple of hours marvelling at the exquisitely detailed carvings of elephants, musicians, gods, and dancing girls. The sight of all the enormous, gravity-defying breasts on display led me to the conclusion that either the workmen had never seen a naked female, or Indians were the first to pioneer breast-enhancement surgery. I also visited some nearby Jain temples, as a taster for my next destination, Sravanabelagola, home to a statue of a giant naked man.

I bussed it back to Belur, checked out, and caught a further three buses to the town. I arrived a little before six, and went to the accommodation office as directed by my guide book. The town being primarily a pilgrimage site for Jains, the rooms available are dharamshalas, rest houses for pilgrims. Most of the non-Indian tourists arrive en masse in coaches and leave a few hours later, and I got the feeling that that is how the town likes it. On my arrival at the office I was told that there was no accommodation available, as all of the 15-20 guesthouses with rooms to let were being refurbished. The official told me that I was best off returning to Mysore. Quite aside from my natural stubbornness, I had no desire to spend five more hours on a further three buses at night - daytime journeys are hairy enough. The official's stance was not totally unreasonable, as in a couple of weeks time Sravanabelagola will be host to a big festival that takes place once every twelve years, and the town was expecting 30 lakh visitors over the month of the festival (one lakh=100,000; one crore=100,00,000; the term million is not used in India). But of course there were still rooms available, and when it became obvious that I was not going anywhere (even threatening to sleep in the 24-hour office), I was allotted a clean room with private bathroom for 150 rupees (2 quid).

I flung my bag inside, and rushed barefoot up the smaller of the two hills that sit either side of the main road, as the sun set. The hills are basically bloody big rocks, and steps had been carved into these and handrails erected to aid climbing. As I ascended I looked up to see two naked old men being assisted down the steps; they were sky-clad Jains. One of two sects of the Jain religion - which holds all life, including germs, sacred - the Digambara (sky-clad) Jains take asceticism to the extreme, shunning all possessions including clothes. As I continued up I came across more sky-clad Jains in various states of undress, plus some Svetambara (white-clad) Jains, wrapped in white cloth, and sporting brushes made from peacock feathers. These brushes, which resembled giant powder puffs, are used to sweep insects out of the path of the devotee, so they avoid stepping on them.

The following day I climbed the higher Indragiri Hill, on the top of which stands the statue of Gomateshvara, which commemorates a prince of olden times who fasted to death whilst meditating his way to enlightenment - this is generally considered the best way to go if you follow the Jain religion. The 18-metre figure is carved from a single rock, and said to be the largest monolithic statue in the world. After taking a few pictures of the giant, naked man's willy (I never claimed to be mature), I returned to ground level for a late breakfast, before climbing back up Chandragiri hill, where the real-life nudie-men seemed to congregate. I explored the many temples on the top, and admired the views (of the landscape) before making my way back down and packing up my things.

The rest of the day was spent returning to Mysore, where I took a day off and sorted out the pictures I had taken, whilst planning my next move. I fancied visiting the remote town of Bidar, over 600km away as the crow flies. I figured I'd get a train to Bangalore, and an overnighter to Gulbarga, maybe stay there a night and check out the sights, then move on to Bidar. I could only get a lower berth on the overnighter, so asked the young Indian man assigned the upper berth if he wouldn't mind swapping with me, explaining that it was to avoid gropers. He said no, and went back to playing with his iPod; in revenge I asserted my right to go to bed at eight o'clock, and evicted him and the middle berth guy from my bunk. As it happens I had a great night's sleep, and awoke feeling fully refreshed - something which rarely happens. I'll have to go to bed early more often.

After two failed attempts to find digs in Gulbarga I decided to push on to Bidar, and caught a bus there, arriving 24 hours after I'd set off from Mysore. The first hotel told me that they had no rooms available (though they had many keys hung neatly behind the desk - I suspected they just didn't want my sort staying). At the second hotel I had a conversation that went something like this:

"Hello, Sir, do you have a single room available?"

"No, only double," the room rate posted behind the desk showed singles from 100 Rs and doubles from 200. "It's 300 rupees."

"Well that's too much for me, is it possible to have a single rate?" The manager insisted on showing me the room, which was OK for the money, but more than I needed. "Would it be possible to have it for 200?"

"No, not possible - how about this room?" Shows me a different, smaller room for 250. When I again asked for a single-occupancy discount he suddenly remembered the single room right next to reception which was available, with bathroom and TV for 150 rupees - perfect...but why couldn't he just show me that one when I asked? Uncharacteristically, I kept my cool and politely asked the man to explain why he had lied to me, and reminded him that, be he Hindu or Muslim, his religion frowned upon lying. He was nice as pie to me after that - to my face, at least.


My first job on shutting the door of my room was to begin killing the multitude of mosquitoes that had congregated there, many with other people's blood inside them; India is not big on mosquito screens or nets. I'd killed over 20 of them before I went for some food - due more to the concentration of the insects than any skill on my part. At times I'd clap my hands together and get two at once. There was an airbrick in the shape of an Om sign in the wall, so I knew I'd never be able to get a totally mozzie-free zone. Almost next door to the hotel was a compound housing the Badrid Shahi tombs, set in a garden and only open from 17:30. By the time I'd eaten it was that, so I paid my 2 rupees entrance and has a stroll around. It was one of those pockets of peace that are all too rare in India; while the noise from the traffic was still audible, it was easy to ignore it.

The next morning I set off on foot to explore the rest of the town; this was a rather optimistic move, as I'd not seen a map (couldn't even find one on the Internet - possibly because an air-force is on the outskirts of town, but probably not), but luckily it paid off. I was heading to a big wall that I'd seen from the bus, and assumed was the edge of the fort. It wasn't, it was the wall of the old city. Once inside I found the streets narrower and more atmospheric, and asked directions to the fort from a shopkeeper who had greeted me in perfect English. First I came across the madrasa - a Muslim religious school or university. What was left of the building was huge. I walked around the site, followed by an entourage of men whom I ignored. One was the caretaker, and for a small baksheesh he let me in through a locked door to explore the upper levels. I was already very pleased I'd decided to come to Bidar.

I continued towards the fort, past the roadworks that were taking place. Men and women were carrying trays of chunky gravel on their heads from piles, and placing it in a strip in the middle of the road. A steamroller was then rolling over the stones, whilst elsewhere women swept stray stones into place. I guess there must have been a reason why they were destroying the perfectly serviceable road, but I couldn't figure it out. Further on I was beckoned into a house by three Muslim sisters, who gave me chai while we sat looking and smiling at each other for a while.

The fort was magnificent, surrounded by a triple moat and seriously thick walls. I paused in one of the arched entrances for a while, watching as herds of cattle with amazing horns were driven inside to graze, amidst clouds of dust. My phobia of cows has passed, thankfully, and I'm back to thinking they're great, and wishing I could have one. I walked around the small museum, and an old palace where some reconstruction work was done. Five women labourers (labouring appears to be the one area where there is sexual equality in India - I've probably seen more women carrying heavy things than men) posed for a photo. Afterwards one of them became rather physical, trying (unsuccessfully) to extract money from me, grabbing at my arms and bag. I took it as being good natured, but later when I looked at the photo and saw the hatred in this one woman's eyes, I realised it had not been.

I spent a good couple of hours roaming around the near-deserted site, enjoying the views from the ramparts and exploring ruined buildings. I'd almost completed my circuit, and took a short cut back to the entrance through a small village, where the children clamoured for photographs. Near to the gateways some more small boys asked for their photo to be taken, and I obliged. When asked, I also photographed some larger boys. This in itself was a mistake, but I compounded it by breaking another of my rules, and shaking the adolescents' hands when offered. This was stupid of me, and predictably it ended with the boys following me, pushing each other into me, and telling me to go fuck myself. Males over the age of about ten are best ignored in India, or you are asking for trouble. It wasn't a biggie, as I was at the outer gate of the fort by this time, and there were plenty of people around, so it just fell into the general annoyance category rather than anything more serious. I paused long enough to photograph some really cool bullocks, then jumped in a rickshaw to the Bahmani tombs, a few kilometres out of town.

The tombs were again most impressive. As often happens a man approached me and began to tell me things about them in broken English. I normally brush these unsolicited guides away, but this guy was the descendent of the rulers who's mortal remains lay under the tombs. He seemed like a nice, gentle man, and his face lit up as he read some of the verses of the Koran that were painted on the walls. The paintings were spectacular, especially the section that had been cleaned. One of the tombs had been split open by a lightening strike, and only half remained standing. My guide led me up onto the roof of this one, and made sure I didn't get too close to the unsafe edge. It was a good end to the day.

My next stop was Bijapur, which is home to a great number of Muslim monuments. I thought the town would be a highlight for me, but hadn't reckoned on it being quite so dusty, dirty and chaotic. For some reason the fronts of most of the houses lining the roads had been torn down, leaving halves of rooms open to the elements, and front doors on the first floor with no access other than a ladder leaning up over the piles of rubble that lined the streets. Walking around the town was none too peaceful; each child would shout a hopeful demand for pens, money or chocolate (who carries chocolate around in the heat? Anyway, if I had any, I'd have eaten it already). I became official photographer, as countless groups of women asked me to take their pictures, and most of the children too. My camera was nearly ripped from my neck on one occasion - just enthusiasm, rather than an attempt to mug me, but it gave me a fright. I also ended up with a nasty, sticky fingerprint on the lens; the little blighters.

All this added to the fun, which is more than I can say for the men at the monuments. Any attempt to enjoy the sights in peace was futile, as I was dogged constantly. Even covering my head and face with my scarf brought little relief, and has left me determined to buy a burkha (black, shapeless coverall that some Muslim women wear) if I ever find a shop selling one. Bollywood, Hollywood and the Internet has convinced many of the male population of India that all western women are sluts that will readily shag anyone that talks to them, so there are always plenty of young men in polyester slacks and greased-back hair willing to try their luck. It's interesting that the hassle is much worse at the more popular tourists sights than anywhere off the beaten track; there are some who say that, for safety, single women should not venture away from the tourist centres - I'd almost say the opposite.

I soon left for the small town of Badami, where I found more tourists than I'd expected, but a nice vibe to the town too. Away from the main drag, it was more of a village, with boxy little houses and narrow lanes. Again, many children wanted their photos taken, and most thanked me afterwards. The main draw of Badami is the carved temple-caves situated on one of the two rocky hills which the town nestles between. These were okay, but I much preferred the other hill, where less people ventured and monkeys played as the sun prepared to set. I spent two afternoons up there, enjoying the serenity in between repelling advances from young men. As I dodged away from a group trying to take my photo, it occurred to me that I was a big hypocrite - some of the monkeys I'd been photographing hadn't looked too keen on having their picture taken, but had that stopped me?

I met with a couple of other travellers - something which I don't seem to do very often - and we spent an enjoyable evening drinking local rum and talking. One was an English guy, and we discussed how very different the experience of travelling India is for a lone man versus a lone woman. He was free to talk to whom ever he pleased (well, not Indian women) and be himself, whereas I have to invent a husband and be careful not to give men the wrong impression by talking to them, or smiling at them. I planned to visit the nearby towns of Aihole and Pattadakal by bus, but the timetable on the wall at the bus station was wrong. I had the choice of sitting for several hours at the bus stand and visiting only one of the two towns, or getting a cab. I decided on the latter and, for around seven quid, I was chauffeur driven in style. The roads were narrow and bumpy, but the car's suspension made the journey comfortable - a change from being bounced around in buses.

Aihole is a small village set amongst over a hundred temples, and Pattadakal is even more impressive; its cluster of experimental temples have been designated a World Heritage site. On the way back to Badami, the driver suggested making a detour to a live temple in the town of Mahakuta, where I was shown around by a priest. I asked him how long he had been a priest, and felt stupid when I heard the answer: he'd been born a priest. I knew about the Brahmin caste of priests, but had never considered the ramifications before. I'd done very well at avoiding sticking anything on my forehead up until now - no red dots, bindis or anything - but succumbed here.


Almost every morning, I have what I consider to be my breakfast argument. Sometimes it's with a waiter, on other occasions hotel staff or rickshaw drivers. That particular morning it had been with the hotel receptionist, who had told me that my room was booked by a school group that night, and that I had to move into a more expensive room. I said that I should have been told beforehand, and that I'd only move if I could keep the cheaper rate. The situation was left in a stalemate. I had my own lock on the door, so knew they'd be unable to evict me while I was out, and tried to put the matter out of my mind for the day. No mention was made of it when I returned; that's because it was a lie - the guy just wanted to get more money out of me. Some Indians have a very tenuous relationship with the truth. Often they lie to get you to spend money ("there is no bus, you have to take rickshaw"), sometimes they make things up because they don't like admitting that they don't know ("oh no, there is no Internet in this town"); who knows, maybe sometimes it's just for amusement. It's not seen as a big deal; telling lies is as acceptable as coughing in your face, or picking their nose when they're talking to you.

I wanted to get an early start the next morning and went to bed at eight, but was woken up in the night by minor food poisoning (which I knew I'd got from the hotel restaurant, as it was the only place I'd eaten all day). I eventually dragged myself out sometime after nine, and spent the whole day feeling sick. My destination was Hampi, and it took three buses to get there. On the second one, a man of around sixty sat next to me, asking me where I was from and even getting me to write my name and country down in a little book. As I leant towards the open window, getting fresh air and resisting the urge to chunder, I thought I felt something touch the side of my breast. I looked and saw that the old man had his arms folded, with the hand nearest me tucked under his upper arm. It occurred to me that he had deliberately touched me, but I dismissed the idea - he seemed like a sweet old man, it must have been accidental or imagined. I shifted my position, so that my arm was protecting my chest - which is how I normally sit when not feeling bilious. About half an hour later my nausea increased, and I again reached towards the window. When I felt his touch this time, I knew it was not an accident.

I turned to the man, and said in a very loud voice, "did you just touch me, sir?" He stared straight ahead, refusing to say a word - that's as good as a cough in my book! In and even louder voice I continued, "you just reached across and touched my breast, didn't you? How dare you! You are a disgusting man, and have brought shame on yourself - apologise to me!" He didn't say a word or look in my direction, which angered me. Had he been younger, I'd have walloped him, but I could hardly go punching a pensioner, could I? I needed to do something else though, and took my inspiration from Emily Lloyd in the film Wish you Were Here. I half stood and turned around to address the bus, shouting "This man just touched me, everybody, he reached over and touched my breast. He is a disgusting, dirty old man." I don't think anyone spoke English, as they all just looked at me like I was a total nutter, but it made me feel better - more in control. I went back to demanding an apology (which I never got), and insisted that the man get up and let a woman sit down, and he got off the next time the bus stopped. Excitement over, I buried my face in my scarf and cried. At least it took my mind off feeling sick for a while!

At the town of Hospet I changed onto the third and final bus, and we drove through lush countryside sprinkled liberally with hugs piles of boulders and the ruins of temples to Hampi, also known as the ruined city of Vijayanagar. Legend has it that even further back in time, this was Kishkinda, a land ruled by monkey kings. The monkeys remain, playfully fighting around the temple, and causing mischeif in the village. This is Hampi's peak season, so as well as the guesthouses in town many local people let rooms to tourists; there is plenty of choice around - although standards are low, and prices higher than you'd expect from somewhere with so much competition. A multitude of cafes and restaurants cater to the foreigners, many of who have arrived from Goa, and are taking a break from the beach. Every place serves pasta, and a selection of "Isrelly" food; I've taken advantage of this by having a break from Indian food whilst I've been here. I've even had treats like peanut butter and marmite.

At first glance I was a little disappointed at how touristy the place was, but the area is so amazing, you really couldn't expect it to be much else. Even without the ruins and history, the scenery is enough to make you believe you have slipped into a mythological land. Add to that the exotic colour of everyday Indian life, a constant stream of pilgrims passing through, monkeys cavorting over the rooftops, and of course the temples, and you've certainly got enough to keep this photographer busy for a while. I particularly like strolling by the river in the morning, watching the women mercilessly slamming their wet washing against rocks, in that ineffectual way (does nothing to get the clothes clean...but it does make noise, and that seems to be a high priority in India). There's a gentle hill (giant boulder) just above the bazaar area that's a favourite spot for sunset. It gets quite crowded, but it's still a peaceful place.

At the end of the bazaar is the active Virupaksha temple, which is an interesting spot for a bit of people watching. There I met Laxmi, a 17-year-old female elephant, who works in the temple giving blessings. Hand Laxmi a coin, which she passes to her mahout, and she'll gently bonk you on the head with her trunk. She must be a patient creature to keep her cool when surrounded by groups of squealing school kids, trying to fool her with pieces of plastic instead of coins (doesn't work). One morning I went down to the river and helped out at bath time, giving her a good old scrub as she lay on her side in the water.

I've been here a week now, and still haven't seen everything; I think it's the sort of place that I could come back to. It's time to move on, though; I'm feeling better than I was, and able to face the thought of spicy food again. I might not have to though, as I'm heading for Goa, which I'm expecting to be quite un-Indian. The beach is calling me, and I've got to answer. Unfortunately I'm a few years too late to enjoy Goa at its hedonistic best; the trance parties are a thing of the past, which is a shame. I've heard that the beaches draw a fair few Indians too - apparently coach trips are run from Mumbai where the passengers are guaranteed to see an undressed white woman on the first day. I'll let you know how I get on.


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