I’m nearly at the end of my alphabetic tour through travel memories and I’m glad, although I have also enjoyed travelling back in my mind and reliving good – and sometimes not so good – moments.
Venice, Italy Venice is beautiful, to visit is like walking into a painting. You’ve seen it in movies and it looks so romantic and maybe it is, except if you’re there on a hot sunny day with 5,000 people who just stepped off a cruise boat. The streets around Piazza San Marco are busy and crowded, the cafes are breathtakingly expensive, and the little alleyways nearby are lined with designer shops. But if you have time, and are prepared to wander at risk of getting lost, you can still escape the tourist hordes and find quiet streets and piazzas and see where the locals live.
To really get a feel for Venice you should travel by water. Gondola rides are stereotypically touristic but wonderful if your budget stretches. Otherwise the ferry system that connects the main island of Venice to the other islands will give you an insight into Venice from the water but for a fraction of the price.
If possible you should visit at least one of these islands. Murano is famous of course for its glass, not to be confused with Burano, famous for its seafood and lace making. The less-than-speedy pace of the ferries will also force you to relax, breathe, look around and take in the experience of being in Venice.
Varanasi, India Arriving by train, Varanasi seems a lot like other Indian cities – dusty, noisy, crowded. But then you get down to the river and – ah! – the big wide expanse of the Ganges provides some respite, because there’s a big watery space where tuktuks can’t go and people can’t walk.
We arrived on a Sunday and the city was busy and the air was smoky as the funeral pyres smouldered away along the river bank. A walk along by the river revealed the huge piles of wood used for the burning of bodies. At one narrow point on the riverbank, we had to walk through a kind of cafe area that was set up for tourists to watch the burning of bodies. “Sit, sit, and have chai,” the cafe owner called to us. “I have a good view of the fires.” My father had died the year before we went to India and I was disgusted at the tourists who seemed to think it was OK to sit and sip tea while watching other families process there grief at the death of a loved one.
Walking the streets around the river, you hear shouts from time to time and when you do, follow the example of locals who press up against the walls to make space – you’ll see a flash of a white-wrapped body being run down to the river. Varanasi is a city where the dead and living jostle alongside each other in a way they don’t in any Christian place I’ve ever lived. Is it better to live your life with an awareness of death or to live with death kept hidden and secret, like it doesn’t happen?
Once the fire has subsided, the remains are swept into the river, but because nothing should be wasted, there are ‘waste pickers’ who make their way along the river bank, looking for anything of value left behind by the fire – gold teeth perhaps, or jewellery. It may seem gruesome, but the dear departed has no need of earthly things anymore.
The living and the dead all make their own uses of the river. The ashes of the deceased are swept into the holy river, but believers will also bathe in the holy river to cleanse their sins. Our guide told us that the mineral quality of Ganges water will cure all kinds of skin diseases (but only two brave people on the tour joined him for a sunrise immersion in the river). The Ganges is also a water source for the city, and provides a space for dhobi-wallahs to do laundry. (Although I didn’t see any of my clothes laid out to dry on the river steps.)
Varanasi is a holy city, a city for the living and the dead, a city with a river, a city that perplexes and delights and perhaps disgusts all in equal measure.
Vladivostok, Russia When I was learning Russian, I was amused to find the word Vostok means East. After that, whenever Vladivostok was mentioned, I would say, “Do you know Vostok means East in Russian? And Vladi means a bloody long way.” That is my Vladivostok joke.
But I would also like to visit the city. Like Nizhny Novgorod, Vladivostok is a place name that is just fun to say. A nice soft beginning pulling up short with the K at the end.
It’s also a terminus for the Trans-Siberian railway, something that is sort-of kind-of on my travel wish list, so perhaps I will end up there one day. A bloody long way east.