Freeeeeeeedom!

I drove today. Drove myself and two toddlers through the streets of Delhi, AND NO ONE DIED. No one got close to dying or even remotely close to getting into a fender bender! This, my friends, is truly a small miracle.

I should note here that I am a good driver on my own turf. My experience behind the wheel dates back to the tender age of ten, when my dad would let my brother and I take the battered mini-van on joy rides up and down our long rural driveway. I took my driving test at 16 on a stick shift. I’ve driven across the country and back. I had to teach Husband how to change a tire.

So my sense of triumph here is not because I’m some timid grandma on the road. It’s because driving in India feels very much like a hyped up version of Mario Kart, complete with strange creatures hogging the road and exploding obstacles flying at your windsheild. Add to that a few bicycle rickshaws, limited road signage, and a population of people who seem to have little sense of self preservation when trying to cross the street, and you have a typical Saturday morning driving experience in Delhi.

Oh, and did I mention the complete lack of rules? Sure, there are lanes. But they offer only the loosest of guidance, and the solid yellow middle one is a mere suggestion. Merging into the many traffic circles takes speed and agression–show any hesitation and you’ll be edged (or honked) off the road. Generally speaking, the bigger vehicles expect deference from everyone else. A packed city bus will not think twice about careening across four lanes of traffic without notice to make a lefthand turn.

Driving here requires your mind and reflexes to be on high alert. You could be cruising along peacefully when WHOA! WHERE DID THAT ELEPHANT COME FROM!? And then HOOOOONK a bus driving down the wrong side of the street! And SHITBALLS DON’T HIT THAT DOG! You swerve around that mess and then the guy in front of you stops dead in his tracks, gets out of his car and starts rummaging through the trunk. I am not kidding.

Meanwhile you’re still trying to get used to shifting with your left hand and keep turning on the windshield wipers instead of the turning signal. This is why we have a driver during the week, and almost always drive with a wingman on the weekends. You need that extra pair of eyes to warn of impending dangers and find another route on the map when you hit a random road closing.

Understandably, I haven’t felt too pumped to venture out on my own yet. When I pulled out of the gate today the gaurds looked worried. But I did it! I made it to the embassy and back. And I feel like I could conquer the world. Or at least a trip to the mall next weekend.

Just this side of oldness.

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5 years ago today I turned 30 in Paris. Husband was out at a work function and I hadn’t met any friends yet, so I dragged my lonely, non-French speaking ass to the cafe next door for a chocolate croissant and a Duvel. I may have cried a little bit.

5 years later I woke up to one three year old climbing into my bed and a 2 year old singing in his crib. I’m celebrating my 35th in India, with leftover fajitas and maybe a Corona if I’m feeling saucy. The Babe drew me a birthday cake. Husband wrote me a love letter. Cletus demanded presents. I may cry a little bit, but for all the right reasons.

I am a lucky lady.

Jaipur

A few weekends ago we took our first trip out of Delhi. This sounds like a simple thing: take a long weekend to see some of the many interesting sights within driving distance of the capital. And if we were still in Europe, it would be quite easy to skip on over to a place like Jaipur, the gorgeous pink city of Rajasthan, just 160 odd miles southwest of Delhi.

But it’s India. So that kind of trip involves taking a very long train ride at the crack of dawn or hiring a driver familiar with the area to make the 5+ hour trek with you. Why, might you ask, does it take 5+ hours to go 160 miles? Well, because the highways are really more like rugged streets filled with trucks and camels. From the back our our minivan it felt like we were on an off road adventure. A really, really long off road adventure.

palace for the ladies of the court to watch the city life

But we made it. And although just as dusty and hazy as Delhi, Jaipur was gorgeous with it’s salmon-pink walls and painted elephants. And it was a suprisingly kid friendly trip. Our first stop, after settling in to the quaint little hotel Madhuban: the city palace.

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We did a guided tour, saw some snake charmers, then hit up the handicraft hall for some souvenirs. Oh, and we sold The Babe off to a local weaver to help pay for the trip.

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That night, we made a stop at Chokhi Dhani, a recreated Rajasthani village, complete with games, food, entertainers, elephant rides and a playground for good measure. It felt a little bit like an Indian version of Ocean City, or maybe how Disney would interpret an Indian village. But the kids loved it.

The next morning we got up early to ride an elephant up to the Amer Fort. This was definitely the most touristy part of our trip, but also totally awesome. I mean, when an elephant is offered, you take it.

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But by far the highlight of the trip was Elephant Polo. Yep, that night we drove out to an old hunting lodge turned into polo grounds so I could climb a ladder, sit on an elephant and try to knock around a soccer ball with a very long stick. After sipping gin and tonics while my kids fed camels. It really doesn’t get much better than that.

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If you want to get in on the Elephant polo action and see the pink walls of Jaipur, here are a few tips:

- We stayed at the Madhuban, a beautiful old haveli with very friendly staff and a nice garden. But this place seems like an even better option.

- The elephant polo portion of the trip was booked through Csar Tours. Beaty is a gem and she will help wrangle together lodging, train tickets, driver…whatever you need.

- If the kids need to burn some energy, we drove by a nice looking playground at Nehru Children’s Park. Sometimes they can only take so many hours of historic fort exploring before demanding something FUN.

- Food is SPICY, and lunch and dinner are much later in India. Pack lots of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the littles. And hand sanitizer. Lots and lots of hand sanitizer.

A simple trip to the tailor.

Say you live in Delhi and you need a tailor to sew together the blouse that goes under your new sari. So you call up the guy that a friend recommends, the one that serves all the expats and comes directly to your house. He arrives, takes a few measurements, makes an extra hard sell for his bespoke suit services and then disappears for more than a week. You text a few times to see when he might be bringing back your sari blouse for a fitting, to no avail. Finally he calls one day out of the blue and says he’s on his way to your apartment. Which is wonderful, except you’re out of town. You make plans to meet the next day.

When your fancy tailor finally returns with your finished choli, you are slightly alarmed because it seems baggy and the zipper is misaligned. But your tailor assures you he has made it this way so you can breathe easier. You pay him 2000 rupees and after he leaves your housekeeper tells you your new blouse is way too big. And it’s on backwards.

Because your housekeeper is pretty much the most wonderful person on earth, she sends you to a tailor she knows. She has explained to your driver (who happens to be her sweet husband) what needs to be fixed on the blouse, so he can explain in hindi to the new tailor. At the market your driver leads you through ramshackle fabric stalls and past a random street festival tent to a dark and crumbling corner where a young man is working feverishly on an ancient foot-powered Singer sewing machine. You are sent up a steep ladder to the attic to change into your blouse among the long forgotten scraps of fabric and garbage.

Once back in the shop, the new tailor takes one look, a few measurments and says to give him 30 minutes. While you wait, some guys from the street festival burst in the door with huge tin cannisters of curry and rice, passing out plates to everyone in the shop and urging you to try some. And in less than 20 minutes, you’re back up in the changing-attic, admiring a blouse that has been expertly fitted and freshly pressed. You pay the tailor 100 rupees (about a buck 40), which your driver tells you is only so expensive because we needed the work done urgently. You thank him for all of his help, and make a mental note to stick with the locals next time.

The Truth About Traveling with Toddlers

Right before we left Vienna, we spent three weeks road tripping through Europe with Cletus and The Babe. One week in Slovenia, a short break back home, then 2 weeks through Croatia. It was an ambitious agenda by most standards, but probably sounds absolutely insane to anyone with small kids. Just getting to the grocery store and back with those animals is usually adventure enough. But, crazy world wanderers/gluttons for punishment that we are, we just couldn’t leave that part of the world without checking some stuff off our list first. So we hit the highway, packed to the brim with snacks and travel cribs and coloring books and DVDs (thank GOD for the DVDs). We saw castles and medieval cities, hiked through lush forests and felt the spray of magnificent waterfalls. We sat on rocky beaches met by stunning turquoise waters and drank cold beers while the kids looked for seashells. It was glorious.

Except when it wasn’t.

The thing about traveling with very little people is that while you will certainly have moments so perfect and spectacular that you can hardly believe your luck, mostly your time on the road will look like this:

I'M IN A GLASS CASE OF EMOTION!

And this:

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And this:

vacation is so much fun!

There will be tears. Someone will probably vomit. At some point you will want to burn your passports and forsake vacations completely until they’re 25.

Yes, when you have kids, what you used to call “vacation” instantly becomes The Amazing Race: Toddler Edition, full of roadblocks, insane challenges and stretches of time spent running through crowded tourist areas searching for something (a missing blankie, a dropped pacifier, a wandering child). Has this slowed us down? More than a bit. But I look at it this way: would I rather deal with another tantrum in my living room, or while sipping crisp white wine on the rocky Croatian coast?

The key to winning when you’re traveling with the under 3 crowd is embracing that Amazing Race mindset and rolling with it. For all the people out there wondering how we do it, here’s a brief look at our strategy:

Pack a multi-purpose arsenal of supplies.

The kids get to bring their blankies, a favorite stuffed animal, and a few small toys. Otherwise we try to go minimal, with a few helpful supplies thrown in – things like tin foil (to make instant blackout shades, wrap leftovers, entertain the tots with swan sculptures) and painter’s tape (homemade stickers, matchbox car roads, makeshift babyproofing on arrival). A small bottle of dish soap is critical (washing sippy cups, stained clothes in a pinch). Basically, if MacGyver had kids, this is what you’d find in his suitcase.

Book an apartment.

My husband and I fondly remember a time long ago when the first things we did upon entering a hotel room were crack open the minibar and flop on the bed. Maybe then we’d unpack, but not before sitting on the balcony for a while, contemplating dinner options. These days we swing open the hotel room door and launch into a SWAT-style sweep for baby hazards while simultaneously assessing optimal Pack-n-Play locations and checking to see how early we can get breakfast the next day. Or we just book a centrally located apartment through AirBnB and save ourselves a lot of headaches.

Adjust your expectations.

Do not plan on a 3 hour historical tour or a meal at the coolest restaurant in town. Do not even assume you will make it to all the major landmarks at your destination. Do ask around for playgrounds or green space near some of the things you’d like to see, and split your time between the two. Street food will be your best friend – easy, quick, and no big deal if they spill. Let the little guys take naps per usual and chill out for a while in front of foreign language cartoons (it’s educational!).

And remember: even the most well planned, toddler-proofed trips can and will go awry. Like that time in Mallorca when it rained for 3 days straight, the power went out, and the bed collapsed when I threw myself on it in despair. Or that time on the way home from Crete when Cletus, strapped to my chest in the baby carrier, puked so profusely that the vomit streamed down my chest and pooled at my feet while I waited at the baggage carousel. Or that time we drove 7 hours to the Croatian border only to realize we forgot our passports. That was a good one.

But when mayhem ensues, please remember that there will be moments of unparalleled beauty and days of awesome discovery. And wine. Lots of crisp white wine.

I know you’re dying to know.

It’s been nearly two months since I arrived here in Delhi, and I know you are all dying to know one thing: what my oven looks like. Or perhaps you’re wondering if it has tried to kill me yet. Well, I am overjoyed to report that I have a beautiful, boring old American style oven.

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It features a gas range and oven space wide enough to fit baking sheets and roasting pans I haven’t used in almost 7 years. The temperature dial is in Farenheit, there are no pictograms, and it seems to run reliably well. It is rather precariously hooked up to some decrepit old gas tanks out back, but other than that, I am sorry to disappoint you.

But before you decide to unfollow my blog on the grounds of insufficient subject matter, let me show you my microwave:

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This technological kitchen wonder has at least 500 settings, none of which I can really figure out. I usually just throw leftovers in there and punch the keypad blindly, hoping it will start making noise. But if I ever need to make that ancient Indian delicacy known as “chocolate cake,” I’ll be all set.

Monday musings.

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Absolutely nothing better in this world than sari shopping. An hour of being draped in luxurious silks will cure just about all that ails you.