Mumbai: It was full of beeping horns, throngs of people strolling beachside, disco horse carts, a lot of cricket, crumbling art deco buildings, late nite chaat stands, impromptu Bollywood moves and one mind boggling outdoor laundry system. Oddly, it was also the most organized place I’ve been in this country yet. #IncredibleIndia!
Happy Republic Day!
Camels, smog, and hot toddies (for me). Can’t think of a better way to celebrate India!
And…the magic chai float. Obviously.
Photo of the Year
So much to report back on – we’ve been to three countries in the last month and crossed the equator twice. I don’t have time to give you all the juicy details yet, but I do come bearing gifts: Behold! The Unlikely Diplomat Photo of the Year:
I call it “Parenthood.” But I welcome your thoughts on alternative titles and/or captions. Happy holidays!
If Jhodpur was the perfect weekend getaway, Fort Kochin was our Indian reality check: a hot, sweaty, rough 3 days to look at a few old fishing nets and a trash-strewn beach. Part of the problem was that I had envisioned a unique little European village on the waterfront. The other problem was that I completely failed at researching for this trip, and booked it at the very last minute, without realizing that
a) Fort Kochin is a 3 hour flight from Delhi PLUS a hellish 2+ hour drive in Indian traffic from the airport
b) Fort Kochin has European roots, but is still very much India
The two highlights: Our small hotel, which was in a great location and run by the friendliest staff on the planet, and the antique shopping in Jew Town (terrible name, I know). I could have spent days picking through the old relics and architectural pieces in the shops there. What I could have done without: the EPIC traffic jam we had to sit in to get there, which involved several delivery trucks, a motorcylcle, many pedestrians, our tuk tuk and one tiny street; and the half dead kitten my kids wanted to rescue, until they relized one of the poor thing’s eyeballs was hanging out.
Anyway, my advice is to plan better than we did and see much more of Kerala. Here are a few snaps from the trip:
Abandoned People’s League
Ice cream break
The Chinese fishing nets were pretty cool.
Catch of the day
The family that pulls in fish nets together, stays together. That’s what I say.
Highlight for The Babe: Getting a new toy cell phone for 20 rs. It plays some crazy loud music in Hindi, which a waiter later explained was the theme song from an old Bollywood film. He could not explain who “Benign Girl” is.
The past month has been full of 3 day weekends, and the next month has even more in store. So we took that as a sign to pack our bags and see some of India. My only requirements: the destination had to be an easy flight away. No 5+ hour bumpy car rides with 2 screaming kids, thankyouverymuch. Unfortunately in India, this limits your options. It seems like all the cool stuff requires planes, trains, automobiles and antimalarials. And even if it’s a cheap, easy flight away, it often requires a long, death-defying drive once you land.
Not so with Jodhpur. Less than 2 hours in the air, and 15 minutes on the road and we were at our spectacular hotel, tucked in the tiny streets of the blue city. We woke up to a panoramic view of the Mehrangarh fort, and the kids had their own loft room upstairs. There was a pool, great food, and other kids to play with – which means this mini-vacation was a win on all fronts. Here are a few snaps from the weekend:
Some kind of holiday procession going through town.
Our own procession wasn’t as pretty.
The hotel had its own blue auto-rickshaw. With gold tassles. I want one.
Pretty blue walls in the old city.
Some local kids insisted that we come to their house and meet their pet turtle.
A gaggle of ladies waiting to visit the fort – dressed to the nines, of course.
The ancient step well next to our hotel was otherworldly.
Beautiful sunlight on the walk up to the fort. It’s still privately owned by the royal family, and exceptionally well maintained.
Who needs playgrounds?
Every morning I opened my eyes and saw THAT.
At exactly 2am last night the ancient industrial air conditioning unit that’s about 12 inches from where I sleep started spewing smoke and flames. I mean, it has been running on high non-stop since February, so I guess I shouldn’t have been suprised by this violent uprising. But I bolted awake to see what looked like a jumbo sparkler whizzing and popping from beneath the machine, and immediately started screaming FIRE! FIRE! FIRE! while running for the door. Poor Husband leapt from the other side of the bed, unable to see the fire-breathing a/c but alarmed by the smoke and my screaming. By the time we both collided, there was a crackling POP and then darkness: the beast had exploded and fizzled out.
We took a moment to collect ourselves. Did that really just happen? Is there any damage? Did Husband believe that I was running for the fire extinguisher, and not to save my own ass?
The next morning we were greeted by a very nonchalant maintenance guy who didn’t seem concerned in the least by the fact that I seem to be plagued by blood-thirsty household appliances wherever I go. Apparently the motor burned out in the middle of the night. No biggie. Happens all the time.
I’m not sure why exactly that would happen all the time. But I can tell you this: I am actually excited for the cold smoggy weather to roll in so I can turn the damn things off for a few months.
In case you were wondering…
This is what I’m thinking about pretty much anytime I eat anything in India that I haven’t cooked myself. The aftermath is inevitable. YOBAGOYA!
Just a few shots from a recent trip to Anupamaa Haveli – the workshop of local designer Anupamaa Dayal. She specializes in bright, modern takes on traditional Indian textiles, and goes out of her way to provide work to the people of local villages. In other words, she’s pretty awesome.
I learned how to block print, fell in love with some fabulous printed silks, and may have done a little shopping. Ok, a lot of shopping. But I couldn’t help it! It was all so gloriously bright and pretty! Like Anthropologie on steroids! (they are one of her biggest customers, of course) Highly recommend a visit to her shop if you find yourself in Delhi.
Husband threw himself in front of a car today.
We were crossing a street with heavy pedestrian traffic. A street with an actual crosswalk protected by several speed bumps. A street with wide lanes and an unobstructed view. In other words, a street where you should feel reasonably confident that a car headed in your direction will see either you or the crosswalk and slow down.
Except that we’re in India. And in India, you can only reliably count on drivers giving exactly zero f&*# s about anything in their path. They’re more likely to speed up, or at the very least continue their forward trajectory without a care in the world, because it’s not their problem if you don’t get out of the way quick enough.
This can be frustrating/terrifying for us Westerners, who make the silly assumption that pedestrians always have the right of way, or that it’s common courtesy to not run over a human being you come upon in the middle of the road.
I guess this morning it was more frustrating than terrifying for Husband, because after one car nearly ran over his foot and another continued to plow toward us with no intention of slowing, he lunged from the crosswalk directly into the car’s path. The driver swerved, but didn’t seem ruffled in the least because that’s what he’s used to: human Frogger. But Husband lunged again, slamming his hands on the hood this time, forcing the guy to stop.
Everyone on the sidewalk was staring. I was terrified/embarrassed. When we finally reached the safety of the sidewalk a few feet away, I gave Husband my angry/WTF face.
“What?” he said. “They should stop! He SAW me and didn’t stop!”
I understood his frustration at this complete lack of logic, the utter disregard for the most basic principles of the universal social contract: see other human, don’t hit gas. But did he really think that stunt was going to change anything?
“Babe, we live in their country. We have to play by their rules. If you want law-abiding drivers, go back to Austria.”
Husband grumbled. We parted ways. But I couldn’t stop thinking about that crosswalk confrontation. It just speaks so clearly to the low grade fury that these tiny cultural differences can cultivate; the tiny but constant grind of a place that does things so differently, in a way that makes no sense to you. It can cultivate some nasty expat rage, usually toward really inane things. Grocery store rants, anyone?
But if I’ve learned anything these past 6 years, it’s this: don’t let yourself get consumed by frustration at the foreign world. It’s easy to do, and sometimes a necessary step in the expat adjustment period. But don’t linger in that stage. Find something to love. Find a way to laugh it off. Or at least find yourself a friendly crossing guard.
Varanasi. Whew! I survived. In and out in less than 24 hours, which was the perfect amount of time for me. Oh sure, you could easily spend a few days there, or weeks if you were making a pilgrimage or checking in to an ashram. But less than 24 hours was still enough to completely overload my sensory system and leave me yearning for the relative calm of life in Delhi with two screaming toddlers.
If India is a feast for the senses, Varanasi is a late-night bender: everything is amplified, more crowded, more frenetic, more colorful, more pungent. I have never seen so much shit in the streets – cow shit mostly, and dog shit, and surely some human shit, too. But there’s beauty to be found in the garbage and decay and crush of people waiting to bathe in the Ganges. There’s a strange calm as you float on the river at sundown, votives drifting through the boats gathered at the shore as pandits chant and clang cymbals.
I’m so happy I got to see it. I’m grateful to our guide, who answered so many questions and went out of his way to show us a piece of his faith. But man was I ready to get home and take a shower.
Where to stay:
We booked last minute, but enjoyed where we ended up: at a guesthouse right on the water in Old Varanasi called the Shiva Ganges View. Not luxurious by any means, but big rooms and bathrooms, all with river views. Nice rooftop terrace – although I was warned to take a stick with me up there to fend off monkeys. The guesthouse manager hooked us up with a wonderful guide, Vivek, and arranged a ride to and from the airport. Be warned: it was a looooong ride, spent mostly sitting in rickshaw/cow traffic.
Where to eat:
We didn’t venture out any further than the Lotus Lounge because it was next to our hotel and the narrow alleys of Old Varanasi were too confusing to navigate alone. Food was good, the terrace seating overlooking the river was better.
What to see:
Definitely get a guide, and definitely do a sunset boat ride to see the burning ghats and the Ganga aarti ceremony. We also did a 6am sunrise boat ride, then walked along the ghats to see some of the morning prayer rituals. Totally worth it. Afterwards, Vivek took us to a few temples, and was great about explaining everything that was going on inside – and there was a lot going on!
Don’t take photos at the burning ghats. It’s tempting, because it really is a spectacular scene – but it’s also someone’s funeral. Would you want Indian tourists streaming through the graveyard, taking photos at your burial? Photos inside the temples are also forbidden.