Thrills Without Spills in Quiet Hampi

I won’t bore you with the entire details of my three-day excursion to Hampi, but I’ll give you the cliff notes and then share the story of a four-hour motorcycle trip I took.

  • Took the train. Note to self: never take the bus again.
  • Hampi is a rural town that was once the former capital of a kingdom in India. Its ruins include hundreds of temples made half a millenia ago.

    Overlooking ruins with the small town of Hampi just beyond.

  • There was no wifi anywhere in the town (trust me, I looked EVERYWHERE), so ended up paying 100Rs ($2) per day for a cozy one-room accomodation with a mildly disgusting toilet and cold water, naturally.
  • My laptop went dead the second day, and I was able to figure out that I just needed a new charger. My 110v charger was no match for these 220v outlets. It took me four days to get a new charger, which I did back in Goa a few days later.
  • Hampi is alcohol-free. As in the hotel attendant said we’d be thrown in jail. I’m not sure if I believe that, but we did have to walk to the police station and register our names upon arrival. There are two ways around that, one being that restaurants in a neighboring town, ~5miles away, serve beer. In addition, there’s a certain restaurant that serves a certain cocktail if you ask nicely. I’d hate to get that establishment in trouble, so that’s all I’ll say.
  • I made the trip with three friends: Anders (20, Dutch novelist of fantasy/philosophy novels, twice published and currently at work on a third; Robert (29, Kiwi software programmer on a pan-Asia trip for two years and 20+ countries); and Aline (35, French teacher on summer holiday for two months). We met at a guesthouse in Goa, and had all independently chosen Hampi as our next destination . It was great company.

During my last day, I decided to rent a motorcycle and tour Hampi’s ruins myself. I’d been hassled enough that I knew all the places in town to get one, and five minutes after leaving my hotel I was $8 poorer and one motorcycle richer.

There are two sides of the river in Hampi, and I’d only explored one. I decided that I’d go put the motorcycle on the boat that makes the crossing and all would be good. To get down to the dock, you have to descend a steep and narrow staircase. You can neither stop nor go left or right more than a foot for the entire way down. It turns out going down isn’t the problem.

The boatman always waits for 10 people before leaving, and after waiting for 10 minutes with him on the other side, I got sick of waiting and decided to turn back. There was plenty to see on this side of the river, why should I waste a precious thirty minutes sitting around.

Going back meant ascending the treacherous stairs, but I’d have to at some point anyways and it might as well be now. As I drove the motorcycle across the rocks and to the base of the stairs, everyone in the area stopped what they were doing, stood up, and turned to see how I would fare. You’d have thought Evil Knievel was about to jump across the Grand Canyon with a rocket on his back.

There was a good reason they were watching. The 125cc motorcycle I was riding definitely had the potential to get me up the stairs, but it was a fine line. If I were to stall out going up the slope, I would immediately go into reverse. Momentum can turn on you in a second, and once you even start slowing it can be impossibly to regain acceleration. On such a narrow path, inevitably the bike would fall of the ledge, taking me with it. A fall backwards with a 600lb bike on top of me down steep concrete stairs would not have been a good thing.

To get up successfully, I’d have to get a strong start with the six feet I had before the beginning of the ramp, and then keep it full throttle all the way up. The biggest obstacle was that the ramp does a zig zag at one landing. The landing is small, so you can’t stop and then restart again; you’ve got to keep moving.

You can see a few of the people that watched here on the left, the rest are hidden behind the temple on the left. On the right, you can see the stairs, the ramp, and the zig zag.

My heart was racing with excitement and fear. With a crowd of maybe 40 watching, I revved the engine before kicking it into first gear, leaning forward in the seat to keep the bike from falling straight back on top of me on the steep climb.

It went by in a flash. There really was no time to think about anything other than “lean forward, full throttle, stay on the path.”

When I got to the top, I turned around to see the crowd abuzz. They were obviously disappointed at my avoidance of catastrophe.  There was no applause, but I raised my hands over my head triumphantly anyways.

I drove off, and began a long ride on some great motorcycle roads with ancient and beautiful scenery. Both green and with large rock formations, Hampi felt like a mix between Florida and Arizona.

After about 20 miles, I came across what I dreaded the most: the police.

Police and safety were my biggest concerns getting the bike, not necessarily in that order. Police in India are notorious for extracting bribes out of foreigners. The number one violation: no international drivers license. I have a Georgia driver’s license (and a motorcycle license at that), but not having an international ones is grounds for a 1000Rs fine ($20). Instead of filing the paperwork and giving $20 to the state, often a 500Rs bribe is accepted instead.

Back to what happened, as I pulled over the policeman waved me down. He asked for my driver’s license. Gulp. [smile] “I have a driver’s license. But, its not on me. It’s a motorcycle license. And its from the USA.” He would have been completely justified to levy a 1000Rs fine or bribe from me right there, and I was just waiting to watch things unfold and see how this goes down.

To my utter surprise, he told me to go on. I didn’t give him a chance to think twice about it, and drove through as confused as I was thrilled. I’d never heard the version where they let the tourist go.

I may have found an explanation though. At the end of the road was a standing area, and after parking my bike I walked over and was drawn into a conversation with three men: a businessman, an engineer, and (AHA) a local politician. Before I knew their professions, I mentioned that I was thankful that I didn’t just have to bribe the police. Looking back though, I wonder if the police were worried I would say something to the politician, who they doubtless knew had passed through just recently.

After a chat, they advised me to take the bike across the river on a different boat that was just around the corner. I wasn’t sure, but they insisted and I relented.

The “different boat”, however, is not a different boat. Its a wooden raft, paddled by two guys with sticks, with a pool of water slowly filling the middle. Just look at them!

After two hours, I recrossed the river and headed back to town  before dark. As I rounded the corner, a guy in a police uniform waved me down. There was no way I was going to get lucky twice, and I attributed my luck to the fates. I dutifully pulled over, trying to phrase my response to the inevitable question of a drivers license. Turns out, all he wanted was a ride into town, for a reason that still escapes me. Phew.

Back in town, I dropped by the Mango Tree restaurant to try and say goodbye to some friends that were leaving. I was too late, so I returned the bike, ultimately thrilled that I’d avoided health and legal troubles during the four-hour trip.

Path to Mango Tree Restaurant

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