Wats happening.

I am insignificant compared to ancient temples and teenagers

We spent a lovely week in Siem Reap over Christmas. The little bit of Cambodia that I got to enjoy was touristy but somehow still laid back, full of gracious hospitality and cool little tuk-tuks that looked like wooden chariots hooked to the back of motorcycles. We ate well and breathed in the sweet tropical breeze. So sweet, in fact, that when the Babe stepped onto the Siem Reap tarmac she looked at me with concerned eyes and asked, “What’s that smell, mommy?” I can’t tell you how much it pained me to tell her it was CLEAN AIR.

Even Buddha is laughing at me.

Other than reveling in the ability to inhale freely, we spent a good amount of time trekking through some incedible temples, eating wacky street foods (spiders, anyone?) and cruising on the Tonle Sap lake. But my favorite experience (other than when a giant toad jumped from the roof of our moving tuk tuk and hit my sister-in-law in the face – hilarious but traumatizing) had to be waiting in line for an elephant ride and overhearing an exchange between a gray-haired dad and his grown, twenty-something son.

Dad, in baseball cap and fanny pack: So I posted a shot of Angkor on my Facebook with the headline “WAT’S HAPPENING, SIEM REAP!” Get it? But it only got 10 likes. The photo I posted yesterday got 15.

Son, in Ray Bans and Nikes:  Hmmm. (supressing eyeroll with all of his power, making mental note to never check FB again)

I giggled to myself for a few minutes over that one. But then I realized: I’m probably closer to the old fart demographic than the young twenty-something one, mostly because I considered that exact same caption the day before.  Someone please teach me SnapChat so I can be cool again.

Nope. Still not cool.

Travel Tips

– While our hotel was beautiful, I’m not sure I would recommend it. Super close to the airport, but farther from town and temples. It was a bit disorganized. And there was a saw mill right next door, so we got to hear buzz saws all day and got treated to a huge trash fire one morning – the smoke made it feel just like Delhi! Better options in town, off the airport road. This place looks amazing for people without kids. This is where I wanted to stay, but it was already full when we tried to book.

– Siem Reap was actually very kid friendly. Restaurants were accomodating and the kids loved climbing all over the temples. When that got boring, we appeased them with coconut water or ice cream from the Blue Pumpkin.

– We are idiots and lugged both car seats along. Be warned: seat belts aren’t really a thing in Cambodia.

–  Kids will love the Banteay Srei Butterfly Center, which is on the way to the Banteay Srei Temple.

 

Breathing uneasy.

Let’s talk about the air. In most places there’s not much to say: you breathe in, you breathe out, end of story. But here in Delhi, the air is a common topic of conversation. Mostly because it makes its presence known much more overtly here than anywhere I’ve ever lived. You can smell it seeping into every crevice of your house in the morning. You can see it spread across the horizon in a brown haze. And you hear it going through the air purifiers, a gentle whirring reminder that it is now safe(ish) to inhale.

The air here is bad. Millions of cars and natural dust guarantee that every breath you take is not going to be the most pleasant experience. But come winter time, the fires start. Every evening as the temperature starts to drop, millions of tiny camp fires pop up across the city, sending plumes of soot and smoke into the sky. When the sun goes down you immediately start to smell it. If you happen to be outside, it seeps into your clothes and hair. When the sun comes up, its sometimes hard to see through the foggy, smoggy, smokey mess.

We are constantly wiping up black soot around the doorways and windows. The kids’ bikes outside need to be hosed down every few days. When we landed in Delhi after a trip to Cambodia last week, we were immediately hit with a cloud of smog – INSIDE THE AIRPORT.

I think this must have been what Dickens-era London was like: coal dust hanging over everything and hacking coughs on every corner.

If you want to get technical, the US, Embassy has an air quality monitor, which measures PM 2.5 particulates (otherwise known as crap in the air) on a scale of 0 to 500 (great to completely hazardous). Anything over 50 is where you start crossing into unhealthy territory. I think a bad day on the LA freeway is around 60. This time of year in Delhi it’s often in the 200-300 range or higher. So, much like Beijing, we should be wearing masks at all times when outside. Unlike Beijing, no one here really seems to be bothered, except for a few expats.

In a cruel twist of fate, this is also the most beautiful weather we’ll get all year – mild sunny days that hover in the 60s. So it’s hard to stay inside all day, really hard to keep the kids in all day, and impossible to make them wear tiny breathing masks. What can you do? We’re hoping all the clean crisp mountain air of Austria will help balance out all the stuff-I-don’t-want-to-think-about that we’re breathing in here.

But just in case, I’m also thinking about launching a Kickstarter campaign for a south asian Mega Maid in 2015.

 

 

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:

human pack horse

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.