The road to Hampi

We begin in pitch black at 4am or 5am. The first shock in the land of no-time-for-health-and-safety is seeing a parade of people walking along the small back lanes just beyond Patnem, Goa, carrying torches and sticks. Apparently, people carry these when walking to work very early in the morning, but do not at other times use a torch in the dark. The stick, I was told, is to beat off attacking dogs.
Onto the highway, not exactly the biggest road in the world but the biggest road in the far south of Goa, soon crossing the border into the neighbouring state of Karnataka. The smell of salt hits us, quite refreshing and astringent, as we reach Karwar Port, still pitch black and quite nippy. I mistakenly think that the air conditioning is on, but the driver’s open window is providing the chill air. Uphill, the ghats appearing in silhouette as the black sky lightens slightly, becoming pink, then apricot, then lemon, with ethereal mists and dramatic ghat formations appearing almost from out of nowhere. We say it looks like New Zealand, not that either of us has been there. Daylight breaks gently as we hit flat land again, pure countryside that feels much more like India than Goa does. Overladen trucks, buses, scooters, bicycles, ox carts, wildly decorated tractors pulling trailers packed with people. Monkeys, pigs, dogs, rabbits, goats, bison and oxen. Endless forest and amazing trees lining the road. Churches, temples and mosques. Morning roadside ablutions, mainly people standing outside their very small village houses brushing their teeth, well away from any obvious water source.
Approaching Hubli, where the driver says we’ll stop for breakfast. Not a mammoth city by Indian standards, it feels huge compared to the rural areas we have just driven through and even boasts a couple of traffic roundabouts in the centre. Tuk tuks everywhere, railway and bus stations, a small airport, quite the metropolis in the middle of nowhere. There is even a traffic jam approaching the railway level crossing in town. We stop adjacent to a bus and all the passengers are waving to us, grinning away. A few optimistic hitchhikers try their luck at thumbing a lift too.
We never do stop for breakfast there, something about the particular restaurant being closed. Back in open country, quite different as the landscape changes, we drive past sugar cane fields, cotton fields, chillie fields and picked red chillies being sun dried, sunflowers past their sunny yellow best. Vast endless plains. We decide that this landscape is just like the southern states of the USA, not that we have been there either. As we continue through small villages, we see kids in smart school uniforms waiting for school buses or school tuk tuks, ox carts, dried up rivers, fields full of laundry drying flat on the ground. We try, unsuccessfully, to count the number of adults crammed into a tuk tuk – some in the front with the driver, at least three inside and two more sticking out of the back. And, then, in a small town called Gadag, a huge towering modern Buddha statue, quite incongruous with the area.
Against the rural landscape, scarecrows in saris, pairs of oxen, horns painted pink or blue, wearing ploughing yokes and being driven along the road, suddenly the surreal sight of modernity in the form of turbine wind farms everywhere, harnessing energy from the air. Hundreds and hundreds of them.
Then back to rural village landscapes again. Stopping in a small town, we buy some coconuts for about 20 rupees each, goat herds being driven along the main road as we drink coconut water, our lives seeming about a million miles away from the people of this small town, almost as if from different planets, even though we are standing physically only feet away.
And, slowly, it becomes less rural until we hit a proper town and stop to buy fruit from a roadside fruit shop. Industrial quantities of bananas and of oranges for a ridiculously cheap price. Breakfast, eventually.
And then a wide toll road, taking us the final distance towards the cultural excesses of Hampi. About 7.5 hours of fascinating road journey before we think about the treasures still in store.

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