Travel notes from my year in India (2004): Hampi. 7 of 16

There is an image in my mind of a magical distant world, mysterious and beautiful. A place far away from what I am used to, both in space and time. I had never seen it, just a mental creation after innumerable books and movies and stories. Until last morning, when I woke up to realize that it was here, all around me, real.

A lazy river slowly crawling like a snake through lush green rice fields, in turn surrounded by banana plantations, then palms, and finally the orange desert with immense granite boulders that have been shaped in surreal round figures by 3 billion years of wind. In the middle, the small village of Hampi, former residence of the Vijayanagara empire some 600 years ago. The magnificence of this rich distant time still easy to picture, like an image out of focus, through the hundreds of stone temples that hide throughout the landscape in a desperate attempt to resist the inevitable return of the stone to the earth. Many had to go through the humiliation of losing their former glory and accept new roles as staples, bus stops, schools, and farmer homes. Still better than the rest of their colleagues, which can only claim to be a home for the monkeys.

So here I am, under the shade of a huge mango tree, panting as my little sports watch informs me that it is again 38 degrees Celsius. Impossible to walk around in this heat; all I can do is to lay still and drink liters of water to avoid dehydration while I wait for the sun to become a bit more forgiving. Even the monkeys find it too hot to bother me. Only the local children seem to find the energy to run after empty bicycle tires. Occasionally farmers also walk by with heavy loads of bananas or dry wood. The black buffaloes hide under the trees and stare at the local ferry crossing the river: an over-sized round bamboo basket with up to 15 people inside moving like a merry-go-round that has escaped from her master.
 I smile at the little tourist restaurant that boasts Italian food such as 'spageti con basilica', 'pasta-al-amatucian', and 'lasania with tometo chease'. Not surprisingly the place is pretty empty. The owner looks with a little envy at his competitor across the street that has decided to narrow it down to only Israeli food and therefore is completely full of young kids complaining in Hebrew about how the service is not the same as back at home. I rent an Enfield motorcycle that must date before the British left this place and where everything seems to have been intentionally placed in the 'wrong' place: back brake on the left, first gear up, ignition key under the engine, light switch in the center….

I am heading for the Hannuman (the monkey God) temple. It will not be an easy journey: the bridge across the river is not finished yet and thus I will have to ride down a steep dirt track, cross the river on the big bamboo basket (considering my bike must weight close to 180 Kg., the ferry is VERY close to sinking), then up another hill. The final 'coup de grace' is the 586 steps that lead to the top of a large granite mountain that floats alone in a sea of deep green fields. And it is still 38 C.

Panting, I make it up in time to witness the game of shadows all around me: first those of the palm trees slowly munching the farmers, then the larger ones from the boulders eating entire fields, and finally those from mountains swallowing entire portions of the landscape.

I sit on the highest rock to be the last to be eaten by the shadow of a distant mountain chain. A monkey sits next to me and imitates my leg position.

Past, present, and future are all in front of me. So much so that I do not notice everybody else leaving, or the stars starting to twinkle. I am returned to this earthly dimension by the call of a priest from the temple. He has been observing me and has decided that I shall be their guest for the night. Without a word of English, I am introduced to everybody: the big Yogi, his 'second in command',

8 other disciples, 2 female temple keepers. We smoke together, we laugh at each other and at our own clumsiness, we perform evening prayers, play drums, smoke again, laugh again.

Without hesitation, a large meal is placed in front of me. Then we all head out. The monkeys have left for the night. I am offered a mattress, a blanket, a pillow. We lie in a circle, enjoying the nightly breeze and staring at the moon and stars, slowly falling asleep. I am the last one, and also the first one to get up in the morning, not wanting to miss even a moment of the return of the sun. The sky slipping from black to blue to red to yellow, the birds awakening with loud songs, the monkeys re-appearing. A bit of satisfaction in seeing that they are also panting! One of them decides to ride on my shoulder while I run around taking photos from all angles; she is utterly amused at me.

The priests get up one by one and greet me with a smile of complicity. I enter the temple with the sparkle of joy in my eyes and breakfast is placed silently in my hands.

I am asked to sit next to the Yogi, we converse with our eyes and hands. Slowly, to my surprise, the temple fills with hundreds of villagers. They fall on their knees, kiss the feet of their spiritual leader, and touch my own (better safe than sorry?). Prayer starts, with chanting and drumming. A woman falls in a trance, dancing wildly with both her body and her eyes. Nobody seems to notice. Then we sit and the Yogi starts giving personal advice. A young priest asks me to take some photos of his master as he scolds the village mayor for taking advantage of a poor farmer. I make a mental note not to walk around too much in this village. Only I do not know which village they are from!

As I admire the Yogi's ability to treat everyone the same beyond surface masks of status, sex, skin color, I understand that I have been welcomed for who I am inside, not what I carry with me on the outside. I part with the same simplicity: a hug, a comment on how I will always be welcomed by them, a blessing for my journey.

I return to Hampi and am instinctively drawn to the main temple, where I start chatting with the caretaker of the local elephant: a 16 years old cute female teenager that likes to play with my camera bag. I am invited to join them for the morning bath in the river the next day. Another invitation I cannot refuse, another early rise.  That is how I find myself celebrating my birthday knee-deep in water with a 6 tons cutie that shakes her legs when you brush her under the belly as she lies on her back. And that is when I come to another realization: life gives us only and as much as we are ready to receive.

That is how I know that I shall continue to follow my hearth with confidence that there is a path waiting for me. Even and especially when I cannot see it. I walk blindfolded and confident into the embrace of Gaia, the mother earth. The future is to remain unknown, the past gone, the present shining in all his glory.