I broke up the long-distance engagement with a trip to the subcontinent. The first port of call, as ever, was Mumbai to meet up with Sushil and spend a few days. Despite his warnings, I opted to stay in Navi Mumbai this time around as it's near his work (he couldn't take off the whole week), and I have an interest in urban planning.
Mumbai, like Manhattan, is an island city, and long ago ran out of space. To ease the pressure, the government built Navi (New) Mumbai across the bay. The idea was to provide an organised, planned urban environment for businesses and government - only the government was never actually persuaded to come, and, until recently, neither was business. However, companies, especially those that require large campuses, are starting to heed the economics of Mumbai and migrate across the bridges, and at least some people are following them; it's sort of an Indian version of New Jersey (Oh god - I'm marrying a Jersey boy!). But the city itself doesn't seem to have any unifying theme or direction, so rather than feeling like an Asian Milton Keynes, it's just urban India, only with straighter, wider streets.
Central Navi Mumbai
And a very Indian ad at the mall. Everything's at the mall.
After a few days of air-conditioned shopping it was off to Varanasi, the holiest city in Hinduism; it also played a central role on the development in Buddhism, and is one of the oldest continually-inhabited cities in the world. Lord Shiva was believed to have lived in and loved Varanasi, which lies on the bank of the Ganges River (Ganga). The river is itself a god, descended from Heaven, and bathing in its waters will cleanse your spirit. Hindus from across India will bring their loved one's ashes to be spread in Ganga. It is believed that dying in Varanasi itself will provide salvation and end the Hindu cycle of death and rebirth.
The city has an old, spiritual heart, and a chaotic, sprawling, newer hinterland. The streets in the old core are really alleyways, much like in Jerusalem, only, this being India, they are shared with cows, goats, bikes and motorcycles as well as the mass of humanity. The city spreads across many kilometres of riverfront, famously lined with 87 ghats, or stairways, leading to temples, homes, old palaces, hotels and hospices. There are acts of religiosity around you all the time - prayers, lectures, chanting, ceremonies, cremations - giving a tangible essence to the city's spiritual reputation. That, and its low cost of living, have guaranteed Varanasi is a magnet for Westerners looking to fill a hole in their lives, and Caucasians with dreadlocks in hippie clothing speckle the crowds of the devout laying their dead to rest.
One of the alleys leading to our hotel.
One of the more colourful ghats.
Riverside religious lecture.
One of two burning ghats, where bodies are cremated. Different castes are burned at different levels; the higher the caste, the higher the level, with Brahmans actually burnt on the temple structure itself, rather than the ghats below. The two larger buildings to the left of the red tower are hospices, where the poor wait to die. They're surrounded by the wood used for the pyres.
The Ganges is a working river, cleansing people of their sins, factories of their polutants, and clothes of their stains.
Along the ghats.
Even cows like a little retail therapy.
Beginning our evening bout tour.
At sunset each night the Ganga Aarti, a coreogrphaed Hindu ceremony, takes place on the central ghats.
Sushil making an offering to Ma Ganga, Mother Ganges.
And then much quieter...
...the ghats at night.
And then it hit: Delhi Belly. In my travels to Southeast and South Asia, I've managed to avoid it, but not this time. I'll spare you the details, but it's very unpleasant and very uncomfortable. I had a lot of walking in 40+ heat, the flight back to Mumbai, a "romantic" last night spent in bed there, and then the flight to London, all in its throes. Sushil was a trooper and took charge of everything and care of me. Proving he's the right man for me, while I was passed out in the hotel Mumbai, he canvased the local streets until he found a store that sold Sula wine for me to bring home.
Back in London I took the Heathrow Express and a taxi to home, then straight to A&E where I was hydrated, injected, and sent off on my week away from work. Now, hopped up on antibiotics, I am starting to feel healthy again, but will be taking the Eurovision weekend lightly, as prescribed.
My NHS tax pounds at work.
A terrible end to an otherwise great trip. But travel is like finance: no risk, no reward.
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