We sat at the edge of a rock and gazed at the sun’s burnt orange rays diffusing out from behind the clouds and falling over the lost city of Hampi. We weren’t particularly hopeful of catching a glimpse of the setting sun as we waited; it had started raining as soon as we left our rooms and the sun was trapped by the clouds. Still we had wandered the ruins, inquiring about the best hill to catch the sunset from, walked slowly on slippery stone, managing to reach the top well before sunset. The view was a collage- a juxtaposition of fresh green plant life with old sculpted rock structures and the disturbing dissonance of order and disorder, today and history. What is so great about this view, I kept asking myself? It isn’t breathtaking. And yet I couldn’t look away, almost as if it were a challenge that I had to take care of immediately.
I had only one idea in my head when I told C, half jokingly, that I wanted to travel. That everyone I knew was going to Europe or America this summer and I had had enough of waiting for the right time and right place; that we should just take off on a trip of our own. She agreed and in a few days, had roped in four other girls and we had a plan-Hampi in the second weekend of June. Every detail was discussed on Whatsapp-accommodation, sightseeing and even sunscreen! And then as the dates approached, I developed cold feet.
For most of my life, I’ve played by the rules. And when I felt like the rules weren’t helping me get where I wanted, I started breaking them one by one. Still a part of me found it hard to understand what had possessed the other part to agree to set off on a trip to Hampi with five girls from Bangalore, three of whom I didn’t know and the other two I had becomes friends with through an internet site. I had met C a couple of times when she visited Mumbai but not R, though I had been chatting with her for two years. V, D and P are friends of C.
“Are you crazy?” part A1 kept saying to part A2? “You are going to travel alone in a bus at night from here to Hampi?” Part A1 was afraid because of all the recent cases of violence against women; but part A2 wanted travel and adventure. I kept vacillating between the two. Until a friend said, “Well it’s not always safe for a woman to travel alone; but if you do it you will feel like you accomplished something.” The decision was made.
Why do we travel? Or why do we like the idea of travel?
The morning was damp as we set out before dawn to catch the sunrise on Matanga Hill. We were chasing the sun from sunset to sunrise, from one hill to the next. It will only take 15 or 20 minutes to climb the hill, the locals had cheerfully told us. We were up to the task after a relaxing evening with wine and good conversation. So six sprightly women set off down the street from Virupaksha temple ready for what we thought would be an easy enough hike. So easy that we only had half a litre of water for 6 people.
Half an hour later we were parched and still climbing the steep steps of Matanga Hill. The sun was almost up and we weren’t. We puffed and panted and consoled ourselves with the thought that the sunrise wouldn’t be visible anyway because of the clouds, secretly wishing that it would be. R sat down 10 times. And 10 times she got back up. I mentally gave up 20 times and then started up again. Through all this, V was giving us breathing tips, while C, P and D raced up to the top making the rest of us feel like old hags.
Still at the end, none of it mattered. The ruins of the Veerabhadra temple on the top of the hill became visible and we each found a perch as close to the edge as possible waiting for the clouds to release the sun. The sun had officially risen when we reached the top, but we still couldn’t see it because of the clouds.
Soon though daylight spread and the mystery of Hampi was revealed. The neat rectangles of Achyutaraya temple way below seemed like the work of a dedicated four year-old working with stone-like blocks. It was a perfect piece of architecture, its destruction hidden away by the generosity of height, jarring against the raggedness of the surrounding terrain. The almost intact covered corridor that stretched out in front of the temple is known as “Courtesan’s Street”. I had walked along the ancient corridors the day before trying to imagine how life there must have been like centuries ago. This morning I imagined soldiers on guard at this temple on the highest point in Hampi, being able to see for miles around and alerting the king about impending attack from any direction.
Looking down at the faraway sights, I thought about points of view, perspectives and the bigger picture. Is this why we like to travel? To look at our lives from a distance every now and then?
I lay on the cold, hard granite of Anjaneya Hill and looked at the sky as it threatened to fall down on me at sunrise; touched carvings on the pillars of temples hundreds of years old,waiting for them to speak to me; sat is the open trunk of a moving auto rickshaw, hoping that the hills moving towards me would share their secrets and strolled in a paddy field chatting with C about why we travel. I stood on the fresh green grass in front of the erstwhile elephant stables in the royal enclosure of the Vijaynagar empire, lost between the past and the present; used a 20th century broken ladder to see from the top of a 15th century building; searched for clues from history in a lost cave temple by the Tungabhadra river; climbed the steps of Anjaneya Hill to reach a vantage point for another glorious view of the sunrise; was fascinated by the landscape filled with carved stone and raw rock- both the same until the loving touch of a sculptor changed ones destiny; became comfortable with erstwhile strangers-and in the process, with myself.
I pondered, I wondered and I explored, all the time hoping for the epiphany that would change me forever. Why do we like to travel? Why do we go chasing the sun?
Of course it never happened. So what did I gain? What was the point of it all? A vacation? Leave the world behind? Beauty? Art? History? None of these explanations seem sufficient.
A friend once sent me a message on Whatsapp. When was the last time you did something for the first time, it asked.
It seemed like the sun wouldn’t comply that evening as we continued to wait to see it set and the clouds kept getting darker. Then suddenly, as though colour had fallen from a painters’ palette, the sky behind us was golden. We saw the entire landscape in a brighter light. The ruins were happier and to show their happiness they threw a rainbow in the sky. I was rooted –I realized that I had never seen a rainbow before. Wait, that can’t be true, I said to myself. Never? But I couldn’t recollect any experience. So I kept staring at the sky to capture the memory. I was five years old, excited that a rainbow does in fact have all seven colours.
That evening I saw old stone gleam like gold rocks. And I saw that dark clouds clear and leave behind a rainbow in their place. For the first time.
Why do we travel? Perhaps because travelling gives us the greatest chance of doing something for the first time, no matter where we are. And no matter where we go.