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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
– 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.