India: SpoO0Ooky Bats!

The first night at Goan Corner was pretty brutal. I slept alone in my dinky thatch-roof mud hut and starfished on the double bed beneath a light blue mosquito net. Through the cracks in the ceiling I could see moonlight. It was all very beautiful until the fan broke at 3am and I boiled alive, and a succession of coconuts crashed down onto the roof, and a pack of dogs got into a savage brawl outside my door. I forgot to drink enough water too, which meant I woke up periodically with weak trembling limbs, lurching in and out of tragic sleepy hallucinations of ex-girlfriends. But ahhhh, I’m used to it all by now.

In the morning I strode out of my cabin in a businesslike manner to find somewhere to take a shit. However, I discovered that the Goan Corner toilets are rather basic. Trying to take a dump at Goan Corner is like playing an escape room: you walk into the toilets, and see there is no toilet roll. You go back to your room and grab your emergency roll, silently thanking the lord that you had the foresight to pack it. You go back and are about to sit down when a thousand flies buzz out of the bowl and hover around the seat. So you head to the next toilet, several huts away. This toilet has no lock, so you must cram a metal bar against the wall to keep the door shut. You sit down and do your business, you throw the toilet roll into a big red bucket because the toilet can’t handle paper, then you stand up and find the toilet won’t flush. You stifle a scream of frustration, and lift the top off the toilet to have a tinker, but nothing works. Then you realise that the big blue bucket next to the big red bucket must be for flushing. You fill it with water from a tap on the wall and pour it down, and it flushes. You are relieved. You step outside to wash your hands and find that there is no soap. You wheeze in rage and stomp over to the first toilet to acquire the solitary bar of soap left on the side. But the tap doesn’t work. You take calming breaths and walk back to the second toilet and wash your hands with the soap and the running water.

It was as I was trudging furious back to my hut after this absolute fiasco that I heard someone call my name from the outdoor common area. It was Mandy, one of the two Irish girls I met in Palolem. I saw her in the corner of my eye but carried on around the corner because I still had the toilet roll tucked under my arm and didn’t think it’d look particularly becoming to approach them with one hand outstretched in greeting and one hand clutching a half-used roll of bum wiping paper. So I lobbed it into a cardboard box next to a sleeping dog and strolled back around to say hello.

The pair had just got off a night bus from Palolem, but were keen to see as much of Hampi as possible in one day so they could spend just the one night and continue to head south at pace. Conor and Lily were once more dead to the world – they took some weird sleeping pill for the night bus to Hampi and were knackered for two days after – so I headed out with the Irish girls. We went down to the river to cross back to the temple-heavy side of Hampi, but found that the ferry driver would only operate it if there was at least 20 people. It was 36 degrees and the three of us sat slumped in mardy silence for twenty minutes before we decided to simply bribe him a couple of hundred rupees to take us across before we all spontaneously combusted. Everything is possible in India; everything has a price.

On the other side of the river we met Hanuman, Mandy and Sarah’s rickshaw driver from earlier that day. He’d arranged to take the girls around Hampi’s temples all day for the princely sum of 700 rupees between the three of us – about 2 quid each. We climbed in his rickshaw – which was called Katy – and for the next seven or eight hours we wandered in wonder from temple to temple to achingly gorgeous old temple. Hanuman was 23 years old and the smiliest guy you’ve ever met. He doesn’t drink or smoke, and it shows. He’s innocent and full of beans; twelve months younger than me but years younger in spirit. He told us stories of the ancient city, of the gods, and showed us tiny little tricks of nature that we’d missed in our frantic exploring.

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I forget the proper names, but we saw the grand stone carriage, the queen’s baths, the stepwell, the lotus temple, the elephant stables, an underground secret message chamber where ancient generals would make plans, and so much more. We ate thali for lunch in an outdoor restaurant tucked away in some leafy trees, and when we were sufficiently bursting we made one last temple visit – the underground temple of Shiva. Hanuman stayed with his prized rickshaw, and we went to investigate.

I loved the temple. It was dark and cool inside, untouched by the burning sun for centuries. There was nobody else around, and our voices echoed off the cold stones. The floor was uneven, flanked by broken statues, and dozens of yawning doorways led off from the main hall. I crept into one and commented with revulsion that it smelled like piss in the room. I switched on my phone’s torch and shone it around, finding some carvings but nothing of note. Then something moved and caught my eye, up on the roof. I flashed the torch up and found, dangling, stretching and yawning and staring back at me, hundreds and hundreds of bats.

“Shiiiit! Shiiiiiit!”

I scrambled out of the room before the bats could fully wake and regained my composure. So that accounted for the piss smell. I hadn’t thought to look up this entire time. And then an uncomfortable thought struck me. I glanced coyly above me in the main room and, sure enough, dozens of snoozing little creatures.

We crept down a corridor together, with the girls marching off ahead and me idling along behind, gazing around with a goofball smile on my chops. It was every kid’s dream – exploring the temple made me feel like Indiana Jones, and my joy was heightened by the fact that the girls kept shrieking at every distant flutter of wings. I caught them up in a gorgeous chamber with a cracked roof that let beams of dust-dancing sunlight streak in. They were stuck to the spot, afraid to walk beneath the – flock? Shoal? Pack? Herd? Whatever – the large amount of bats that were sleeping soundly on the ceiling. I shone my torch around and said something to the girls behind, and the noise caused several bats to take flight. They dropped down and beat their wings and took off into a deeper, darker part of the temple. Elated, I shone my torch again and whistled, and watched in amazement as a hundred bats dropped from the roof and flurried away through Shiva’s temple. I was laughing in disbelief, the hairs on my arms stood on end. I’ll never forget that feeling. You can read all the books, meet all the holy men you want, but nothing will humble you like nature doing its thing.

We drank the very sweetest lemonade from a stall after, owned by Hanuman’s cousin, and headed to our final stop at the elephant’s temple. I was incredibly excited to see a real elephant close up, and the monkeys that played and lounged outside were a treat to behold, but sadly seeing the elephant brought me no joy. It was a majestic animal, of course, but it was doing tricks for money. People pass the poor thing ten rupees, it takes the money with its trunk and hands it to its master, then in return blesses the paying person by tapping them on the head with its trunk. It wasn’t chained up and showed no signs of maltreatment, but it was shifting from foot to foot, looking restless. Mandy walked away after a few minutes. Hanuman thought the elephant was gorgeous and brilliant and couldn’t understand why she was upset, but we didn’t bother to explain in any real detail. Sometimes you simply have to accept you’re in a foreign country and they do things differently.

After the elly we caught the last ferry home and sat on the patio with an assembly of friends both new and old. Pierre had arrived in Hampi from Palolem. He rubs some people up the wrong way, but I really like Pierre. He’s only 19 but he’s travelling the world on his own, and although he was the least immediately friendly out of my previous travelling group of Pierre, Jak, Bam, Lily and Conor, I warmed to him the most. He could be a little rude to waiters at times, a bit snooty perhaps, but beneath that minor aspect of his personality I sensed a kind young man who thought about things earnestly and had a desire to connect with people on a level deeper than cursory conversation – a desire I share.

Pierre wouldn’t speak much, took hours to do anything, often disappeared without a word, and usually had no clue what our plans were even if he was told a dozen times, but I liked him. More than most people I’ve met, he knew himself. He was at home in his own skin enough that he didn’t feel a desire to change himself to please others, not one jot. And some people disliked him for it, and he didn’t care. I admire that. That’s something really fucking rare in this world.

Back at the hostel we drank rum as the sun rode on without us. We lit candles in the dark, and the flame drew insects. The insects drew the fluttering of bats, soaring beneath the silent leaves of dark palms. Beyond the palms, stars.

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