India: Ferris Wheel of Death

Lily, Conor and I arrived in Hampi around 7am after a relatively easy night bus. After gurning my way through several hellish rides, at this point I’ve got night buses down to a tee. Long sleeved shirt and jeans to avoid the inevitable snowstorm from the pounding AC, a bottle of water, a massive, forced piss before boarding, headphones w/phone charged, an emergency jacket, and a seat rather than a bed – you can stabilise yourself far easier in a chair than a bed, where you’re left to roll around and smack into every surface available. I’m getting good at this.We were mobbed off the bus by a throng of rickshaw drivers – the norm. You have to elbow your way through the yammering masses simply to get off the bus. We got a cheap ride to the ferry – Hampi is split in two, with the local people and all the temples and ruins on one side, and the enormous rock formations and hostels on the other. We marvelled at our surroundings as we waited for the dinky boat to ferry us the twenty metres across the lilypad river. In every direction, house-sized boulders stack up to form orange mountains that are so impossibly precariously balanced they look fake. It looks like the background in the Flintstones movie. Bedrock!

On the other side of the river we trekked a mile or so up the hill through fields of gold and green, all lined with palm trees, everything skirted by the immense boulder hills. We found Goan Corner easily enough; I’ve been recommended it by everybody I’ve met since Ellie first mentioned it, way back in Pushkar a hundred years ago. The rumours were true; it was a beautiful place. Little mud huts dotted several acres of palm tree-hugged earth, puppies roamed free, newborn kittens peered out from a little enclosure as we passed, ranks of motorbikes were parked in the dirt outside the huge patio and bar area: this place would have been heaven, but for the fact it was empty.

There were perhaps 20 guests in the whole place, with a capacity that would have surely catered for several hundred. It was a shame, of course. I didn’t realise I’d booked to travel India in the down season – hence why I was so elated to find Jungle Hostel in Goa heaving with people. Everywhere else is fairly quiet. But then, everything is far cheaper now, and you get more time to get to know everyone, so there are good sides to each.

Conor and Lily were worn out after the night bus but I’d slept like a dream, and so I hired the absolute shittiest moped I’ve ever seen and chugged away to see what I could find. The bike sounded like it was ready to die at any given moment, and took about forty five minutes to reach its top speed of 30mph, but I wasn’t in any hurry. I laboured over the dirt track’s myriad pot holes, and wound my way down out of the village and onto the open jungle roads, passing by ancient crumbling viaducts on the way.

I drove and drove, singing to myself inside my helmet, until I came across a little town where some sort of festival seemed to be occurring. I ploughed right through the middle of it by accident of course, honking my horn and desperately ragging the handlebars about to avoid mangling half the town’s population. I parked up and dismounted and wandered the streets with my helmet under one arm. Little kids ran over to wave at me and say hi. I said hi back, and asked them what was going on. They pointed me to a towering, three storey ‘chariot’ that was part of a festival honouring the monkey god, Hanuman. It signifies the end of the season in Hampi. Local men were scaling the chariot, putting food and flowers all over every surface of the colourful carved structure. I was the only foreign person in the whole town. It was a strange feeling – not uncomfortable, per se, simply… alien. I felt like an outsider peering in on a guarded secret. Which, I suppose, I was.

I wandered the market for a while and to my surprise I was mostly left unmolested. It seems in the bigger cities people are more likely to view tourists as cash cows. In the little villages, people simply wave at you, say hello, and let you go about your day. It’s lovely. I watched a teenage girl in a sari manually operate a merry-go-round by spinning it with her hands, occasionally grabbing onto the rim and being flung around with it. Little kids were clambering all over the little bobbing horses, their parents keeping close by in case they fell. I couldn’t stop smiling.

I climbed back on my little motorbike and chugged slowly home over the pastoral landscape. On the way I passed a hundred strange sights; I slammed my brakes on as gangs of monkeys skipped across the tarmac, I watched a man cleaning his motorcycle in a stream, I weaved through sauntering herds of cows with heads all a-bobbing. I passed a completely naked man standing still by the roadside, staring out at nothing. I considered asking him if he was okay, but I was afraid.

At the bottom of a steep hill I found two smiling kids who waved me down. I stopped and with nary a word spoken they climbed on the back of my bike and pointed up the hill. I drove them up as far as I could, but my little 50cc rustbox couldn’t hack it and we all had to get off and push. At the top of the hill they asked me if they could have a go driving. With a grin I told them to bugger off; they looked about 6 years old, cheeky sods. Local kids are always chancers. Some people get annoyed, but it’s kind of endearing. They’re just kids, after all.

Ten feet down the road a man stopped me again and asked if I wanted my ears cleaning – it’s a scam. Almost every backpacker I’ve come across has been swindled. The guys point at your ear, point something out you can’t see, and before you can protest they’ve popped a little rod into your ear and removed a large amount of wax, or a stone, or whatever – supposedly. I’m dubious. I reckon they just do a little sleight of hand and convince you that you need yer lugs scrubbed oot. His scam attempt might have worked better had I not been wearing a bloody motorcycle helmet. I pointed this out to him and whirred away home.

Conor and Lily were still out cold at the hostel, and I felt so excited and restless to see Hampi I had no intention of waiting around. Luckily, I bumped into Ryan and Judith, the couple I met at Jungle some two weeks prior. I am totally in love with them as a couple; both unfairly beautiful, jolly, endlessly conversational and optimistic, smart and kind and silly. I swoon, I swoon. Never been in love with a couple before, but here we are.

This trip has taught me a lot about the kind of people I gel with. I’m no longer labouring under the illusion that I can be best friends with anyone – I mean, I can be friendly, sure, and I can genuinely like most people without much effort, but there’s a certain kind of individual that really excites me. They’re few and far between, but I can spot them a mile off. They’re giddy and open and a little bit naïve, they’re unafraid to be amazed or scared or sad; it doesn’t matter how they look or talk or how smart they are, what I really want to see is belief. Hope in the eyes of another is fuel for my own heart. I met a girl in Agra who’d been travelling for 3 years straight, and yet despite everything she’d seen, outside the Taj Mahal she stooped to marvel at a pretty flower. Appreciation of the world around you is a choice, and the ones who make that choice are the ones my heart goes out to.

A lot of people in Berlin are afraid to show the full spectrum of their emotions, opting instead for cool apathy, and that’s a large factor in my falling out of love with the city. If I could surround myself every day with Ryans and Judiths, Krishes and Gennas and Ellies – man, I’d be sitting on the moon. I get lonely sometimes; I long for somebody to really connect with, but the silver lining of the rarity of these special people is that it fills each day with gleaming possibility. Perhaps this is the day you will meet someone who will blow the roof off your entire world. Perhaps tomorrow. So much can change in one day.

Along with another couple of English kids called Hannah and Dom (I’m getting better at remembering names) we rode off to find a waterfall. It turned out not to be a waterfall at all due to the impossibly hot temperatures of the Indian summer, but rather a deep pool with little streams trickling in. Grey, jagged rocks towered five or six metres above the pool on the far bank, and we sat together on the searing hot boulders, put music on, and watched two local kids jumping in.

We swam around and hired a little wicker basket from a man snoozing in the shade for 50 rupees, and the two kids hopped in and pushed Ryan, Judith and I around the water. They were bossy little scallywags, telling us where to sit and when to paddle, and on/off trying to sell us cold beers, or weed, or Morning Glory seeds, which give an effect similar to LSD, apparently. I told them I’d have considered buying something from them where they not 8 years old. One kid was businesslike, continually nudging me and nodding and mumbling ‘you buy seeds brother?’, the other was more playful, splashing us with water.

Ryan, Dom and I jumped off a rock maybe 5 metres high, and plunged deep into the dark green pool, pencilling straight down without ever touching the bottom. The jump was so high that it felt as though I was falling for hours, having time to make plans for the evening and organise my work calendar on the way down.

We rode away after a couple of hours, back to the town where I’d found the festival earlier. It was still in full swing, a colourful, spicy little pageant filled with happy young faces. Dom and Hannah managed to lose us, but Ryan and Judith and I drank sugar cane juice and shook hands with a thousand tiny kids all waving and saying hello with wide grins. As I sipped my juice, Ryan bounded over and told us he’d paid for us to go on the ferris wheel.

Now, it’s worth explaining that the ‘ferris wheel’ was not like the ones we know from back home. This contraption was around ten metres tall, with rusting joints, a smoke-belching motor, and the carriages to sit in were simply wooden platforms and open-topped metal cages. We climbed in one at a time as two hundred village people gathered around to watch. The ferris wheel had been lying dormant prior to our arrival, but now everybody was clamouring to get on board. Each little cage was occupied, and I was quite comfortable with the pace of the ride – not realising that we were simply boarding, and the ride hadn’t started. Then the engine started pounding.

The acceleration flung me back in my cage, and I yowled in horror as my stomach began flipping. We lurched at horrible speed around the wheel, the Indian people laughing, the three foreign people screaming and clinging on. I was tossed back and forth like an old sock in a tumble dryer, and as we turned and turned local teenagers leapt up and grabbed onto the wheel, dangling from it as it span. Someone leaned in and plonked their kid beside me, a bored looking toddler with short hair and eyeliner and tiny pierced ears. After an eternity the ferris wheel of death began to slow, and we dismounted, laughing with sweet relief and sighing with shaky legs. ‘Best 30 rupees I ever spent,’ Ryan yelled.

We bumped into the only other foreigner in town on the way to our bikes, a French guy. ‘I drove through the town to see the festival,’ he said, ‘and I saw a huge crowd around three white people in cages. It looked so crazy!’ Poor bastard must have thought he’d stumbled into an Indian remake of the Wicker Man.

Together we rode our bikes home, parked up in the dust outside the patio, drank bottled cola and ate and ate.

2 thoughts on “India: Ferris Wheel of Death

    • Yep – far, far more introspection than I expected. Last time I travelled solo I was going on guided tours for weeks at a time so wasn’t ever really alone, but this trip has had long periods of isolation. And to be honest – I think it’s doing me a world of good

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