Over the course of a few days we crossed the subcontinent from the Indian Ocean westward to the Arabian Sea. We left Pondicherry, first stopping in Madurai where temple-goers celebrated the birthday of the elephant god Ganesh, and then to the hill station of Munnar to escape the south Indian heat.
The ground rose from the desert plains like exaggerated goose bumps until we were in the middle of a Van Gogh painting with fluffy clouds and Assam tea fields manicured in rows of stripes and swirls. The air smelled of freshly-cut tea leaves and at five thousand feet it was actually cold. I strutted around, stricken with happiness in my sweater while Brad removed Nacho’s starter and reshaped its mounting surface with a file to address some starting issues we’d been having I loved everything I saw, and I even loved the things I couldn’t see.
We had parked in front of an empty resort, and the next morning the security guard informed us that a wild elephant had ambled right down the street past Nacho while we slept. While this excited me, I was told that the villagers seriously feared the wild elephants. Over the course of the last few months, six villagers had been thrown like toys by the wild elephants and then trampled to death in the tea fields.
Munnar provided a refreshing introduction to the state of Kerala, and we left through the mountains to the west, dropping down in elevation until we were back at sea level at Kerala’s famed backwaters, a coconut strewn spider web of waterways that fringe the Arabian Coast. It was said to be something like an Indian Venice amid overhanging palms. We stationed ourselves in the city of Kochi, a sprawling place that still retained its pockets of Portuguese and English architecture, ancient mosques, and old colonial churches. Its coast was lined with six hundred year old cantilevered Chinese fishing nets, cashew sellers, spice traders and everything in
between. We found a guesthouse in Fort Kochi, the city’s historic center, where
all sorts of fun things were going on. When we left our guesthouse on the first
morning for a backwaters tour, a film crew was filming a scene for an Indian
television drama on the street right where Nacho was parked. Half of the crew
was staring at Nacho, while the other half was working on the scene in which a
beautiful Indian girl in a sundress was staged outside of a café, waiting for her
boyfriend. She looked down at her watch impatiently. Moments later her
beefcake arrived on his motorcycle and she threw on her helmet, put on her best
pouty lips, and stormed toward the motorcycle. The director yelled, “cut!” and
angrily chastised the girl for having put her helmet on backwards.
We rode in a van for an hour to where the backwaters tour was to begin,
and it dropped us off next to a small roadside stand. We bought some water and
then loaded onto a big lacquered wooden boat, its platform lined with big wicker
chairs. We picked two chairs at the front and settled in for the ride.
Our captain stood proudly at the front of the boat, a slender aging man
with guitar string muscles and a white moustache. He clenched a long polished
bamboo pole in his hands, and after all of the passengers had boarded, he let the
pole fall through his hands until it hit the river bottom. He leaned against it and
walked it along the side of the boat, and we slowly crept forward. Each time the
man reached the end of the platform he pulled the bamboo from the water and
repeated the steps. It went on like this for over an hour.
Eventually the boatman stopped the vessel and we climbed out,
transitioning into a canoe that cut down one of the many tiny backwater arteries.
We passed by the doorsteps of rural homes, stopping here and there to visit a
spice plantation or watch demonstrations of local toddy tapping—the cultivation
of a mild local hooch made from fermented coconut sap—or the making of coir,
a kind of handmade coconut husk rope.
The backwaters tour gave us a glimpse into India’s tranquil side, and we
met some nice people, among them a young Keralan lawyer who invited us to
drive south to his family’s house for Onam .
Everyone was talking about Onam , a festival specific to Kerala. It was to
be a celebration of the mythical King Mahabali, and is Kerala’s biggest festival
of the year. The air was electric with excitement, and everyone was happy. The
celebration would amount to ten days of food and family, during which time the
Keralans would decorate their doorsteps with flower arrangements and make
elaborate meals consisting of forty or fifty different dishes.
We very much wanted to experience Onam , but Brad and I had been
itching to continue northward, so we passed on the offer to join our new friend
and his family for the holiday. We hit the road the day before the main
celebration, crunching and smashing Nacho on our way out of town on India’s
terrible roads. After six hours of frustration, Brad pulled over. We couldn’t
believe that the road we were following could be considered a main highway. It
was just dirt and potholes, followed by more dirt and deeper potholes.
We studied our GPS in search of a shortcut, but none existed. Just before
we pulled back on the road, an elegant-looking forty-or-fifty-something couple
approached our window. They asked the standard questions.
“Where are you going? Where are you from?”
We told them that we were just passing through, which prompted looks
“But tomorrow is Onam ! It is the biggest holiday and our town has the
best celebration. The other towns are not as good.”
I decided to keep quiet and not mention that by evening we would be out
of Kerala, and thus out of Onam territory altogether.
“You must stay here for Onam .” They waved at us to follow them. “Come
to outhouse and stay. You can have Onam with our family tomorrow.”
Brad and I looked at each other and felt that we just couldn’t. There was
still time to drive a few more hours and we were dead-set on putting down
tracks. It would be a shame to stop now. We declined their offer and said
goodbye, and then pulled back on the road. I almost immediately regretted what
we had just done. These were the exact experiences we were looking for, after
I asked Brad to turn around and he reluctantly flipped a U-turn, but we
were too late. We drove back and forth, looking up and down streets, but we
couldn’t find the couple.
Brad looked bummed. “You know, now that I think about it, going to that
couple’s house for Onam would have been really fun.” We decided that we had to
stop making such stupid decisions for the sake of staying on our imaginary
The next day Onam festivities were in full swing. Elephants marched
down the street and people screamed with excitement in the backs of trucks. It
was fun watching everyone, but I still felt sorry about our decision. We made a
quick stop for lunch and left the restaurant feeling pregnant with food babies. As
we sat in Nacho, ready to leave, two men appeared on a motorcycle and pulled
up to my window. They asked the standard questions.
“Where you going? Where you from?”
We told them that we were just passing through.
“You come our house! Onam !”
I glanced at Brad for just a moment and then shouted, “Yes!” They
laughed in surprise and called home to report that they were bringing home two
Americans. We couldn’t believe our luck.
We followed our new friends: two Indian truck drivers who worked in
Saudi Arabia, one of whom spoke elementary English, and the other who spoke
none. We didn’t have any idea where we were going, and as the time passed and
we bumped down continually diminishing dirt roads into the middle of the
jungle, we started to question our decision. Was this smart? We crossed through
tropical fields of banana and coconut palms, and finally reached their home. The
men’s wives were waiting outside for us, and they led us inside to a sofa where
the women rolled a small card table out in front us and served us tea. We were
foreigners, after all, and foreigners eat at tables. The men sat Indian-style on the
spotless tile floor in front of us.
The women retreated to the kitchen while we drank tea with the men and
learned more about their work. They were brothers, and found that they could
make decent money, by Indian standards, by going to the Arab world to work.
They had been long distance truck drivers in Kuwait, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.
They would work in those places for nine months straight, and then would come
home for three months around the holiday season. This time they had come
home from Saudi Arabia.
The women emerged from the kitchen and arranged banana leaves in
front of each of us, and then served us food from pots: goat and vegetable
curries, spiced chutney, papad , and a massive portion of Kerala’s thick local rice
variety. We ate on the card table while the men ate on the ground, and we were
happy to have learned the proper way to eat with our hands from Terence and
the other Tamils back in Kuala Lumpur.
We encouraged the women to eat with us, but they insisted on standing
by and topping up our leaves as the food disappeared. There was a language
barrier standing in the way of effective communication, and when we had
emptied our plates and tried to refuse seconds, we were misunderstood and the
women topped up our banana leaves with enough food to constitute another full
meal. When we were finished they cleared our table and served themselves. The
food was delicious, and we would have been a lot more comfortable had we not
just finished impregnating ourselves with those oversized food babies at the
Dessert came out next: an Onam specialty called payasam made of brown
molasses, coconut milk and spices garnished with cashews and raisins. I
absolutely loved it and the woman who had served it could tell, so she brought
me another serving. My first food baby had eaten my second and third food
babies, and now I was pouring a sugary dessert all over its head. I looked at
Brad, and could see that his belly skin was stretched like a drum over his food
baby triplets. A few minutes later the husband grabbed his machete and began
sawing coconuts down from his tree.
His wife looked surprised and delightedly proclaimed, “First!”
The man explained that it was the first time he had cut coconuts from his
tree. He messily chiseled the tops off of two coconuts, splashing their contents
all over the place, and presented them to us, his face dripping with coconut water
from the unpracticed effort.
To finish off the evening, the family led us down the street to a relative’s
home where we ate more payasam and drank coconut water. By then we felt like
the gluttonous man from the movie Seven , who had been forced to eat canned
spaghetti until his stomach exploded. Finally, after hours of face stuffing, we
managed to convey to our hosts that we were too full to put anything else in our
mouths. At this, they gave us things that could be taken on the road to eat later.
One of the cousins was an experienced coconut-cutter, and quickly shimmied his
body fifteen feet up a palm tree until he reached a cluster of coconuts, and
commenced to let them fall with the well-practiced swings of his machete.
We left with warmth in our hearts and several food babies in each of our
bellies, plus several coconuts stacked on our back seat to keep the feeling going.
As we drove away we breathed carefully in short, painful breaths, and made a
“New rule,” I said. “We will never turn down an invitation.”
I touched my food baby with a mother’s love and looked at Brad.
“Deal,” he said, and then winced. I think his food baby had kicked him.
Route 63 to Hampi Bazaar
Back in Mahabalipuram, when we had gone to Santhanam’s house for
coffee, I had brought along my India map and asked for his advice on the must-
see destinations in south India. While we sipped our coffee he had worked
through the map, highlighting several places that I had never heard of.
“The Thillai Natarajah temple is there, dedicated to Nataraja, Shiva, the
Dancer of the Universe…”
He had continued to highlight cities scattered throughout the region, each
one chosen for its temple-centric highlights. This had made sense to us, as his
role as keeper of a temple meant that all of his travels had been for the purpose
of visiting other temples. When he had highlighted his last selection, he looked
me in the eye.
“Hampi. You must go there.” He put the cap back on the highlighter. “It
was the capital of the last great Hindu empire in our history. There is a temple
there called the Virupaksha, dedicated to Shiva. It’s also the land of monkey
Did he say monkey gods? It was settled, he had me at monkey gods.
Later on, Brad had looked at me with crazed eyes and reminded me of
his burnout on temples, which had occurred sometime way back in Guatemala or
so, solidifying my hunch that he would never survive Santhanam’s pilgrimage
route. Brad had decided that, for each of the world’s religions, if you had seen
one temple, you had seen them all.
Now Hampi piqued my interest, and for different reasons, Brad’s too. He
envisioned camping among the granite-boulder-strewn hills and I, in addition to
camping, was intrigued by its ancient temples and palaces. The village of Hampi
sits on the 14
th century ruins of Vijaynagar, described as one of the most
beautiful medieval cities in the world in its time, and whose people specialized
in the cotton, precious stone, and spice trades.
We rolled into town around midday and surveyed the area. Goal number
one was to find a campsite that was both scenic and far enough away from
anything so that we would be invisible to the locals, thus preventing the
inevitable gawking that would occur if we were to be found. We located what
looked like a potential camping jackpot on the GPS and wasted no time in
pointing Nacho in its direction.
One of the most exhausting things about overlanding, especially in Asia,
was finding places to sleep. Some days it took ten minutes, while other days it
took hours, and sometimes—more often than not in India—we ended up
camping at shoddy petrol stations, lined up out front alongside a half dozen semi
To find the area that we had pinpointed on the GPS, we would have to
pass through property owned by a holy ashram. In our attempt to do so, we were
denied entrance by a wise man. Two hours later, still attempting to find another
way to the secluded road, I was ready to rip my hair out and offer it to the
monkey gods in exchange for a little help. We gave up and began searching for
“Hey what about that road?” Brad asked. “It looks promising don’t you
think?” I glanced down the dirt road and saw neither buildings nor people – only
trees and rocks. Could it be? Seclusion in India?
We cut down the narrow dirt road and it squiggled along the curves of a
natural canal. To our right the land dropped down to an expansive agricultural
area full of banana trees.
“Monkeys!” I shrieked, mostly out of fear, but also somewhat out of
amusement. It was a species I hadn’t seen; they were gorgeous with long tails,
beautiful grey coats, and faces so black I could hardly make out their features.
Langur monkeys, I later found out. They were both amazing and terrifying at the
same time. I pictured them ripping my hair out, and I shuddered.
Brad looked surprised as he swiped the GPS with his finger. “Hey this is
that road I was trying to find! Somehow we’ve ended up on the other end of it.”
We came around a corner and were all at once engulfed in a herd of a few
hundred goats. The shepherd worked the livestock around us and then stared
wide-eyed through my window. He stood on his toes and peered back at our
living quarters and then back at us and held out his upturned hand.
If it weren’t for fear of legal repercussion, Brad would have surely
flipped out by then and wrung someone’s neck, but instead he came to rely on
angry gestures and private rants, bubbling and stewing with disappointment.
Shortly after the begging shepherd narrowly escaped Brad’s wrath, the
road widened enough for us to pull over before it narrowed back to one lane.
This spot may not have looked like much, but being that it was not a petrol
station, there weren’t any people in sight, and there was running water nearby, it
was the best campsite we had found in our first month in India. There was no
doubt in our minds that the gawkers would find us sooner or later, but we were
elated. We opened up our sliding door to a view of a hillside scattered with
granite boulders, and we breathed sighs of relief. In the distance silhouettes of
columned temples topped boulder-studded hills.
In the morning we awoke to the eerie sound of meowing peacocks in the
bushes and workers driving tractors past us to the banana fields. Back in town
we filled our bellies with idli , a south Indian breakfast made of steamed rice and
fermented lentils, served with at tomato chutney called sambar . We rented two
bicycles and pedaled into the countryside.
Hampi was fascinating, and unique in overdeveloped India. The small
town was more or less constrained to a few blocks in a valley near the river, and
a complex of ruins extended out like droplets of paint overspray into the
surrounding hills. We couldn’t go a hundred feet without seeing some sort of
ruin. A mix of granite boulders and giant hand-cut granite bricks had been used
to form walls along the road, and old temples provided a look into the past, their
floors dotted with worn pits from the grinding of grain. Other ruins sported
artistic bas-relief carvings on their walls; one depicted a strange battle scene
involving an elephant ripping someone’s legs off.
Hampi had its own battle roaring on as well. While it is a UNESCO
World Heritage site, its managing authority had struggled to meet its
conservation requirements due to locals continuing to use the ruins. Villagers
still grazed their livestock among the temple grounds, and occasionally we came
across families who had claimed the old stone ruins as their own, conducting
their lives in small communities of stone temple dwellings. Attempts at
maintaining the ruins in a UNESCO-worthy manner were futile; at one of the
ruins we watched a group of several women slowly working their way around an
expansive grassy landscape, mowing the grass with small knives, and setting
each clipping of grass into an ever-growing pile.
Like every great empire, this one, too, had fallen. It was conquered in the
1500’s by marauding Muslims, pillaged for many months, and left abandoned.
Most buildings were destroyed but many were left intact. The nearby Queen’s
Bath was a “royal pleasure complex” built for the King and his wives. Balconies
and verandas surrounded a central pool that once overflowed with fragrant
flowers and perfume-infused water. It was nice to imagine a place in India where
such peace and luxury once existed.
On our way back to Nacho we cut along the Tungabhadra River – the
most gorgeous river we had seen in all of India. Its appearance gave the
impression that it may have still been capable of supporting aquatic life; most
rivers we had encountered in India were garbage dumps, and seemed dead from
the unmetered dumping of raw sewage from river towns. This one was
something out of a fairy tale, with turquoise-blue water and boulder-strewn
banks. We rode our bikes along a cobblestone path that was built in the 1500’s to
protect the town from flooding. The path turned too rough for our cruisers so we
parked the bikes and continued on foot. Eventually the embankment ended and
we walked to the river’s edge. Far downstream I could see several temples
carved from rock, but where we stood held the most intrigue. Flat boulders sat
partially submerged in the water and dozens of lingas , the phallic symbol of Lord
Shiva, were carved into the granite surfaces. Indian tourists continued down the
path to the far temples, a woman washed her clothes at the water’s edge while
monkeys played on the rocks, and round teacup boats waited to be rented. We
didn’t make it to the temple, but instead sat on the bank and talked for over an
hour to a young man from Hyderabad.
Hampi was to be our final destination in south India. There were a
number of reasons for our decision to get out, among them the fact that we felt
exhausted, and couldn’t seem to recover. But above all, we craved the mountains
and we knew that if we drove straight north we would end up at the world’s
grandest mountain range: the Himalayas. We reasoned that if all went well, in
two or three days we would be crossing the border to Nepal.