When I last visited Hampi and its ruinous, romantic surrounds, the Tunga-Bhadra River was the northern boarder of the archeological monument. Today archeologists recognize the city of Vijayanagar extended north of the river.
And because Hampi has special religious significance to Hindus—meaning that neither meat and nor
alcohol is served where we are staying—the tourist trade has also extended north of the Tunga-Bhadra. A north-bank enclave of low-budget hotels and restaurants (situated just above the flood plain) caters to the steady stream of party animals that find their way here from the decadent beach scene at Goa. Many are Europeans. They need their beer.
So now, crossing the river is a necessity.
We don’t need beer, but we do want to investigate the north side. So, after our idly and sambar, and before the sun is too high in the sky, we sidle down the riverbank to sail on the westernmost of the three ferries that now ford the Tunga-Bhadra daily.
A very flat-bottomed boat, perhaps twenty feet long and made of aluminum and steel, is tied up on our side of the shore. A half-dozen western tourists are already seated at the gunwales. Though dented from long use, the boat appears commercially made, so our confidence blossoms.
Painted on one of Hampi’s ubiquitous six-foot-high boulders is the fare card. It shows prices for moving various items across by ferry, including people, large luggage, and bicycles. Our confidence is further buoyed: not only is the per-person cost clearly spelled out, but in bold letters the price for locals and the price for foreigners is the same. Ten rupees will keep our feet dry.
(Equal pricing for insiders and outsiders is not the rule in much of India. For example, our fee to enter the sites governed by the Archeological Survey of India is about six to ten times higher than what locals pay. That’s not a complaint; just an observation about what is true. My feelings about the archeological fees are quite the opposite: these wondrous remains should be affordable for the people who live here, and people who have—relatively speaking—a pile of money should help pay for their preservation.)
We climb aboard and take seats at the back, near the tired-looking Yamaha outboard motor. We wait perhaps fifteen minutes. Is the boatman having breakfast? Waiting for enough passengers?
On the far side of the river, two or three boatloads of the party animals have amassed, waiting on ferrymen to get them from their dens of iniquity to the ruins of yesteryear. We see two other men readying a second craft on the Hampi Bazaar side of the river. They are manhandling a second motor to a second skiff. Everyone in the boat business is taking their time…they seem confident that the river won’t suddenly dry up and their customers won’t suddenly find an alternate route.
A two-man team takes us across. One—a very small man in his mid-twenties—runs the motor. He has me lean way overboard during the startup phase so that I’m not knocked out by his vigorous yanks on the starting rope (That’s the only vigorous action at the docks, I can assure you.). A rail-thin man with white hair and weak-looking eyes is the conductor and load balancer. He takes fares and arranges people and other cargo to minimize our chances of capsizing.
His skill is up to the task and our five-minute journey from south bank to north bank is smooth sailing. We hit the far bank pretty hard, but my working assumption is that the maneuver is purposeful, to ensure that we’re stably grounded for unloading and reloading.
On our return trip, at the northernmost ferry crossing, we learn why the load balancer is so important.
We’ve hiked about seven kilometers along rural roads and crested the Hanuman Temple hill. Tired. Thirsty. A bit sun-dazzled. We arrive at the landing near the village of Anegundi to find a more sub-continental style mess awaiting the boatmen: a scrum of motorcycles, bundles, and locals. We are the only westerners in evidence. Here the water is faster, and the landing steeper. The boat, similar to this morning’s, is just casting off from our side of the river. It is overflowing with motorcycles. Sure, ‘motorcycles’ were on the fare board this morning, but it seemed more of a joke than a commercial reality. Not so.
The boat noses out into the current and you can see it sway. In turn, the motorcycles sway in the grips of their attendants and tipping motion is amplified. Will it capsize? Will a Hero Honda drop into the drink?
My attention is distracted by the screeching arrival of more cycles right behind us.
“Ah!” Exclaims one cyclist to another. “At least a half-hour wait.”
Alison and I discuss the possibility of hiring a coracle to cross. These wee, circular, manually paddled boats are primarily for the dreamy floating of tourists on quieter parts of the river. We see a some coracles pulled up on the far shore, but no oarsmen appear to be present, which is just as well, since this stretch seems too fast-flowing for these light, keel-free, rudder-free craft.
In my gaze across the river, I spy, upstream of the boat landing, a front-end loader and four dump trucks. They’re motionless, but appear to be engaged in building a ramp towards the water’s edge, in preparation for a bridge footing. With the traffic on our side, it seems a worthy public works project. Later, when I am safely across the river and much closer to the construction site, I see that the four dump truck are abandoned, and have been rusting in place at least a decade. Flat tires. Broken windows. The front-end loader? It seems a piece of comic performance art, new equipment placed in juxtaposition with the abandonment of progress.
The bass-boat, with another load of motorcycles, is making is way to our shore, wallowing, sluggish in the current.
As the boat grinds against the stone, we jockey for position. Because of their mass, the motorcycles are loaded on a first-come, first-served basis, but the foot passengers are more aggressive. The conductor, a bit younger than this morning’s man, starts earning his pay. He points at individual pedestrians and then at places in the boat. He delivers, short, sharp commands in Kannada, the equivalent of “You, there. You, there.” We don’t need translation.
After four people are seated on the gunwales near the engine (and motions for them to pack in tight), they load some cycles. It’s a rather delicate combination of lifting and rolling. He manhandles one end while the rider hefts the other. The deck has three levels and he wants bikes and their riders in extremely specific spots as well as plumb. No kickstands. After a few bikes he puts in more pedestrians. Alison is among them, near the group towards the motor. He is careful about where he puts ladies wearing saris.
I understand why in a moment. He commands more motorcycles and more pedestrians into place, including me. I am seated amidships, but on the port gunwale, to counterbalance a motorcycle across from me. The deck closer to the bow is raised compared to where I sit and the next motorcycle’s exhaust is just inches from my face. I feel it’s heat intensely, and if the holder looses control I will first be burned and then tipped overboard. The saris? He’s putting their flowing, delicate folds far from singe and melt of motorcycle mufflers. It is a gesture of kindness.
They must heave mightily to launch the boat: lots of cycles and one pale, over-tall westerner are providing too much ballast.
As the boat pulls out into the Tunga-Bhadra, the current tips us and I look down, hoping to take a burn on the hair rather than the cheek if the worst happens. Through the slatted floorboards I can see the bilge water, also rocking with the boat. With my peripheral vision, I can see the tires sway as their riders try to keep them steady.
My stomach is not settled and my heart beats fast. It is the functioning chaos of India: every day business as usual, crossing and recrossing, running near the edge of control.