Words & Photos by Sonnie
It’s hard to say if it was the bags under my eyes, or the tiny beads of sweat over my brow, but as I shuffled through the front door of my parents house in Toronto, all eyes were on me.
My girlfriend Lydia and I had just come back from the hospital, the day before that, we had returned home from the most incredible country on earth.
My family looked at me with a bit of concern, and my dad looked me up and down with crossed arms, “Well!” he chuckled, “We heard you got – the malaria?” The house erupted with laughter, and I felt like a guest star on a giant Seinfeld episode.
Malaria – it can’t be said on its own like that, not in our house anyway. Nope! In our house, it’s got to be “THE” Malaria. As far as my family was concerned Malaria did not exist without ‘the’. At least they have a sense of humor.
However, malaria is no laughing matter. Hundreds of thousands of people die every year from exposure. Luckily for me, the disease I contracted was the most docile of the bunch.
And so that night, me and the malaria went to bed for some rest, not knowing I’d wake up every hour either freezing cold or boiling hot, shaking uncontrollably with what seemed like vices cranking on every joint in my body. Sometimes I’d rise with a lump in my gut that could only be relieved by vomiting. Wrapped in a sweaty towel, I clung to the sparkling white toilet bowl and thought to myself, ‘India doesn’t have bowls – they have holes!’
THE DARK SIDE
On the plane, I sat next to a man who could not stop moving. When his leg wasn’t bouncing his fingers tapped, when his fingers stopped he turned magazine pages like he was searching for life’s answers. He picked his nose, shuffled his feet, he weezed and took short breaths. He seemed more annoyed than he was annoying, I felt bad for him. I wanted him to relax, I wanted to put my hand on his knee and tell him to stop. On my other side was my girlfriend Lydia, legs crossed in lotus, eyes closed and barely fluttering, deep rhythmic breaths, she was as calm as a glacier pond, in deep meditation. I was in the middle of two opposites, as I would be for the rest of our trip.
The way I see it, India is like a carnival tour, especially for those of us traveling on a shoestring budget. First you pay your money, then you step off the plane. You pick up what’s left of your luggage, grab a piss and some water and step out of the terminal for the ride of your life. All you can do now is hold on.
From the air, Bangalore looked like any other city I’d been to, but suddenly you’re outside shouldering your luggage and the air hits you in the face like a frying pan. The smell is so think you can taste it, and spit it back onto the street. I liked it immediately.
We paid too much for our rickshaw, but it was 2am and there was little point in arguing over a few extra bucks. Our driver was a short, slender man with a bobble head and a tidy mustache. He couldn’t have weighed more than a buck. His coif of black hair reminded me of some squirrels I’d seen only days before (back in Canada) and his big white grin told us he spoke no English, but he was so nice it wouldn’t matter. He looked left, then right and while his shoeless foot pressed on the accelerator he blasted his horn. Our ears were assaulted by horns! Horns for turning, horns for stopping, horns for passing, they say it numbs over time and lucky for us, it was a quiet night.
We turned down the alley of a street where we hoped to find our budget hotel, it was peppered with stray dogs, homeless old women and broken down motorcycles. The front door opened like a small garage door and the sign lit up reading “LUCKY”. We walked past half a dozen men sleeping on the cold tile floor to get to our room. We hit the lights, locked the door, dropped our bags and took a good look around. There was dirt on the walls so high I wondered how it got there. In the bathroom, a bloodstain lived on the floor next to the sink and the humming of our florescent lights got so loud, I shut them off and use my headlamp. We crawled onto the bed still wearing our clothes and painfully fell asleep to the squealing of rats wrestling in the hallway. Or were they pigs?
Every single moment in India is a true adventure, at no time is this more apparent than while traveling. You have to fight for your train ticket, push for your seat, grind for your food and barter for your taxi. When you finally arrive to where you’re going you can put your feet up and have a cold beer because everyone knows you’ve earned it, especially you.
One day, as I was coming back from the market, I saw a rickshaw smashed up into a crumpled heap of scrap metal, like discarded foil. Incredibly, the driver survived, but the story goes, his brakes failed and he slammed headfirst into a banana truck. Now imagine that, hitting a banana truck? After this, I was on my guard, but eventually loosened up again and let go. One has very little control over what happens in life, here in India (or anywhere else for that matter) and I think it’s important to not let what ‘might’ happen dictate our lives. If we did it wouldn’t be that much fun.
If anything, Asian travel will put a relationship to the ultimate test, whether it be husband, wife, girlfriend, boyfriend, best friends or family vacation. From hours spent on cramped trains to the small hotel rooms, stomach bugs, gas and jet lag, dirty feet, bad breath and worse hair. India is to reveal your weakness, test your patience and bring hearts together.
THE BRIGHT SIDE
Waking up to the sound of monkeys on my rooftop is not something I’m used to. But then, everything here goes against my customary lifestyle back home. Hampi has been good to us so far. Sharmilla of the Goan Cafe is a good host. She has a family and a business to run. My bunk is clean and rustic, a bamboo bed held together by twine. Hot running water, clean showers and a patio with a hammock and a view that could save the World.
Ten feet from my door is a gorgeous green rice field, to my right a rolling river and to my left, a trillion untamed blocks. If one were to walk past the restaurant and follow the dirt road into town, you’d find a busy Internet café, a German Bakery and a banana plantation all sitting perfectly under clear blue skies. We barely felt a drop of rain in 3 months.
Unfortunately the afternoons are too hot to climb hard, but good for drinking coconuts. So we motivate early morning with a cup of instant Chai, and again for late evening. This routine is especially good for the inner self, when the glow of the slow setting sun shows off our projects best and calms our busy mind. Dusk and dawn are very spiritual times of day, and it’s during these periods that we play on the giant rocks, like the monkeys. It is food for the soul.
One day while waiting for the heat to settle, we took camp under a palm tree and ordered bowls of fresh fruit. My friend Paul noticed two dead mosquito’s floating in his hot ginger tea and promptly asked the group, “Can you drink Malaria?”
In unison, our table broke into laughter (I wouldn’t see the irony until later), and I looked around at the company we kept. We had Danny and Pete from America’s bible belt, Julian a marijuana aficionado from France, Bjorn “the biceps” from Germany, Tom from New York, Rohit from Delhi, Kate from Whales, Analisa from Austria and Taka from Japan. At any given time you will find yourself surrounded by 10 people from 10 different countries. Never have I been to a spot with such a diverse mix of climbers.
The climbing was classy, the wind was strong, the sun was hot and the air was dry, but I found the most wonderful part of India to be the daily verve. It was the food, the people, the unlimited exploration and the remarkable nature of this unlikely landscape that struck my imagination. Try to envision 900 square kilometers of boulders and rice fields? One could lose their minds trying to map it all. Everything is simple, yet it’s hard to get enough. No phones, no appointments, no contracts, no nothing. There is only one day at a time here, then it’s tonight, and tomorrow will be today again.
THE PILGRIMAGE BOULDER A.K.A. Middle Way.
It’s been years since Chris Sharma and his team of American climbers put Hampi on the map. With his video and his countless first ascents Sharma put his golden stamp of approval on the World Class bouldering spot. His crowning achievement was a stand alone boulder called The Middle Way, a tilted egg shaped rock that looked as though gods own hand had placed it there ever so gently.
When I arrived in India, I was not looking for any sort of challenge. I merely wanted to slow down my pace of living, to engage in a cultural experience, to support my girlfriend’s yogic education and to smoke a phat bowl from the baba’s hooka.
Upon my arrival to the playground however, I was feeling anxious to dig into some crispy granite. Once a climber, always a climber and I wandered the boulders in flip-flops, looking for remarkable lines to try. And then I saw it. First from the wrong side, but I knew what it was, how could anyone mistake such a marvel? I walked around to the front and noticed it was higher than I imagined. The name in the guidebook simply states its obvious nature, the Middle Way.
I waited until my last two days in Hampi before trying it for the first time. They say it’s V12 from the low holds and V11 if you jump. I jumped. I had two bouts of Delhi Belly and I wasn’t feeling my best. At first, I couldn’t hang from the holds, which is the point because there really are no feet. It’s a campus problem with smears and sidepulls. Eventually, along with team France, it clicked. On day two I returned feeling stronger (I love it when that happens) and we layed down three pads. My spotters were there for me as I’ve been there for them, but I fumbled the first two goes and ripped my skin up pretty bad. I suddenly felt the pressure of my departure. Tomorrow I leave. But if India has taught me anything about myself during my time here, it’s to let go.
The sun dipped behind the temples and as usual, a purple haze filled the sky. I took one deep breath and clasped the opening holds. I stuck the jump move perfectly, without a swing, then, a textbook match and a grunt throw. Feet dragging on the boulder looking for stability and my fingers dug deeper for purchase. The last move is the hardest one, a long dyno for the right hand to a blind, flat edge. I wasn’t sure if I could stick it. I knew I wanted to, but I wasn’t sure if I could. And so with a rare moment of absolute determination, I lurched upward with all my slow twitching strength. My eyes closed tightly on impact as I latched the hold, the shock moved through to my shoulder like a tidal wave. I kept my hand closed and released a visceral sound. When I opened them, I was still there hanging on, and it all happened in a fraction of a second. A few more moves and I was soon standing on top of the most perfect boulder I’ve ever seen. It was a connecting moment I’m sure we’ve all experienced, where climbing crosses over numbers, athletics, philosophy, even over art and lands in the place of something spiritual. Perhaps divine. And what better way to ruin such a metaphysical moment, than to devour two Cobra Ales, and an entire pesto chicken pizza all by myself!
Best I ever had.