Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Cows, Shawls and Red – a Rajasthan Odyssey Part I

The Diplomat and I have just come back from a colorful, exhausting and fabulously gorgeous trip through the vast land of Rajasthan, India. We lovingly summoned the Inlaws from India to take care of Son who was delighted to enjoy 10 days of utter freedom and to play with his favorite toy – his grandfather. In exchange, we hopped on a plane or two and landed in Delhi on a cool November night ready to tackle this Rajasthan thing. I had the crazy idea that rather than spend a night in Delhi and go to our first stop, Bikaner, by car, we should save a night on the road and take the sleeper train instead. Interesting decision. So, from the airport we got ourselves a decrepit-looking old cab, classic Indian Maruti dating circa 1935, which sped through the streets of Delhi like the devil himself was behind him. Our two suitcases were placed precariously on top of the tiny car without being tied or anything, and every time the cab made a hair-raising turn, I fully expected to have my undies splattered all over the dark Delhi street from my falling suitcase. We made it without an incident, which to me proves that there is higher force somewhere out there looking out for me and my precious belongings.

We bid the closeted Schumacher adieu and trudged along the freezing platform – it was around 11 pm and we were booked on a sleeper train to Bikaner, where a car would meet us and take us on our romantic desert journey for the next 10 days. The reason I decided to take the train was that I had this foolish dream that we will travel in a luxury sleeper wagon, in a romantic compartment where the Diplomat was going to whisk me a la James Bond in one of his many unrealistic luxury train scenes. We were going to dine in a delicately appointed restaurant car and exchange pleasantries with the exquisitely dressed pretentious passengers. Not so much. Actually, not even close.

I entered the train only to find myself in the middle of a long compartment, separated by thin walls into several cabins with 4 berths each (2 on each side bunker style). Each such “cabin” was separated from the rest only by a tiny curtain. In one word – it was all very communal. See for yourself:

There were kids everywhere, food, ripe smell of feet and sweat, crumbs, shoes, screaming, giggling, crinkling of newspapers and plastic bags, and just a general sense of complete and utter lack of privacy. Romance abandoned, I climbed on the top berth and changed into my dark blue satin pajama bottoms to the utter amazement of the fella who was lying on the berth below diagonally from me. The Diplomat settled on the berth immediately below me and soon was in deep sleep as the train began to rock us gently. Slowly, everyone turned off their lights, drew the curtains and the wagon was enveloped by sleepy dark silence. I was lying quietly on my top berth, watching old episodes of “The Big Bang Theory” and was pretty pleasantly amused overall. 

Just as I was beginning to doze off around 1 am, the train stopped for a moment in Gurgaon (a Delhi white-collar suburb), and a second later, a gang of 3 white-collar dudes burst through the curtain into our section and without even asking a question, turned on the lights and sat unceremoniously on the bottom berths where the Diplomat and his neighbor were sleeping. Then they looked up to me and said to my astonishment that they I am in one of their berths. Sternly, I denied and triumphantly showed them a picture I had taken earlier of the passenger manifest posted on the train, which had my highly unusual, white-person name next to the number of the berth. The dudes were thoroughly unperturbed. They started chatting up our neighbor who apparently thought that the whole thing was perfectly normal and had no issues having two random people sitting practically on top of him in the middle of the night on a train. After some heated discourse, the ticket master showed up and it turned out that the guys had bought tickets for the previous day instead. This was already taking over 20 minutes so I tried to glare at them in the most eloquent way possible to hint that they need to get out and let us all sleep. You know the glare – the kind you use when someone is talking loudly in a movie theater and you slowly turn around to glare at them and teach them some manners in a quiet dignified manner. Let’s just say that Indian trains ain’t the best forum for subtle diplomacy. They did not seem to be impressed by my excellent glare or to be interested in leaving at all. So, I decided to tell them about things in life and they got an earful about rudeness and manners and people wanting to sleep and watch their damned show on their Ipad. One of them eventually climbed on the other top berth across from me and was snoring (and farting loudly, I might add) within 3 minutes, while the other one left. I sighed deeply, wrapped myself tightly with the prickly blanket and fell asleep.

The next morning around 7 am, I woke up to the Diplomat’s loud announcements that we have arrived and to the sight of my upper neighbor’s ass crack offered generously as he snored with his back towards me and the rest of the world.

Soon we were off the train, met our driver and jumped into the small Tata that would drive us around for 10 days and 2,500 km through the Rajasthani desert. We had organized our trip through a company called Swagat Tours who let us customize our package and pretty much were at my whim and mercy for a month before the trip. They were truly outstanding in their patience for my last minute changes and the choice of hotels and routes proposed. To top it all, when we were in Jaisalmer, we got a call from the guy who was working with us on the trip, one young and enthusiastic Nemish, telling us that there was a huge 3-day long music festival in the desert that was going all night long and would we be interested in coming by. Well, yes, we were – where else you’d hear Bombay bands playing original rock at 1 am under the moonlight in the middle of the Thar desert??

To be continued…

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Hotel Babysitting and Why You Can Have It All!

There is a huge risk that after this post I will either lose massive readership or be mob-lynched as a terrible mother. That’s OK, I have never really claimed to be a particularly good mom. Which is why I wanted to talk about getting babysitting services when you travel at hotels. Many of us don’t have the luxury of traveling maids, or grandparents at immediate disposal at home, or weirdly independent kids who can just take care of themselves magically while you chose to prance about town at night. On the other hand, folks like to travel and given the above limitations, they have to take the kids. Even if that means dragging a whiny screaming three-year old through Florence, smiling nonchalantly to passersby as you attempt to take in the beauty and calm of the Renaissance architecture and expressive statues of rather large naked men . Or explaining every three minutes that there is NO carousel in a 10-mile radius of the Victoria Memorial in Calcutta and refusing resolutely requests to carry the heavy tired child. Or taking 48 tiny pebbles from the artsy-fartsy golden fish pond in your Kuala Lumpur hotel under the stern stare of the hotel manager while your child is asking whether he can throw them back in a little later when the angry uncle in the uniform is not looking.

The point is, whether we like it or not (I actually do) we take our kids on trips quite often and sightseeing during the day might actually be quite fun as we point out to the gorgeous Marseilles yachts or let them run through the expansive mosques of Old Delhi. But what happens at night is an entirely different issue. Many parents end up either dragging the already incredibly exhausted, irritated kids to dinners at nice restaurants that (shockingly) do not end up all that well or get back to the hotel and hole themselves in since the kids have to go to bed, while staring longingly at the glimmering night lights of the city they just paid over $2000 in plane tickets to see.

There is a solution and that is to get babysitting in the hotel. Ever since Son was 2 months old, we have used hotel baby sitting services as needed. Back then, we were in California for the annual lavish Christmas party of his company at the stunning luxury Grand Del Mar. The company has just shelled out massive amounts of money to fly all employees from the East Coast to San Diego, put us up in a $500 a night room for three days and had a black tie party at the grand ballroom. Not going to the party was not even an option. Since then we have hired sitters at fancy hotels like the Fontainebleau in Miami, the Wintergreen tennis and ski resort in the Shenandoah Valley, we had sitters in Bermuda, in Kuala Lumpur, Thailand, even in Kolkata!
So, how does it work? So far, every hotel that we have been to (arguably, we have not been to Motel 6 since our early dating days) has had a list of either babysitting services approved and vetted out by the hotel, or names of sitters who actually happen to also work for the hotel . Depending on the place and country, price per hour can vary dramatically – from the $20/hr we paid in Miami Beach to the $10 for 4 hours in India. In most cases, you will need to pay for the sitter’s transportation and even dinner depending at what time she comes in (use your judgment, of course). We always get babysitting in the evening as we prefer to spend the day with Son dragging him around with us, but all babysitting services operate also during the day if you need them to. If the hotel you are staying in does not actually offer babysitting but you and the mister are itching to get loose on the town and see its infamous red lights district (strictly scientific interest, clearly), you can try a couple of other options. If you are a fellow FSO, write to the CLO in that town (if there is an Embassy or consulate) and ask for a recommendation – many local nannies love to get overtime (a quick shout out to a magic CLO in Kolkata’s U.S. Consulate who got us in touch with an amazing ayah!). If you are not, you can still call the American Citizen Services desk and ask nicely whether they can recommend one (trust me, crazier requests have come to that section). In Bermuda, we were playing tennis with the pro at the hotel whose teenage daughter happened to babysit regularly. She was great. And then there are always professional babysitting companies in all major towns. But I personally would not go that far – even I have my limits on whom I trust with my kid.

So yes, you can have your cake and eat it too. Now, there has been the occasional funky situation where you stumble upon some, um, rather eclectic characters who eventually turn out to be excellent nannies. At the Fontainebleau, when Son had just turned one, we had to get a sitter for the night to join yet another lavish company soiree. The hotel recommended 3 different companies, and I chose the one that advertised that all of its sitters were college students of child psychology, knew baby CPR and could pretty much feel good about themselves only the company of children. So, I quickly called and arranged for a sitter to come that very night. I happened to have my two best male friends from highschool visiting Miami at the same time and they came to see us at the hotel. They got really excited that a college-age babysitter was coming to the hotel room and since she was already running a bit late and we had to go to the party (at the hotel ballroom itself), they eagerly offered to watch the sleeping Son until she came in.

About 30 mins later, I hadn’t heard anything from them or the sitter for that matter, so I decided to walk the 3 kms across the massive hotel lobby and go up to our suite to see what was up. On my way, I stumbled upon my classmates who muttered something about gold teeth and old lady, and disappeared in a cab. Clearly disconcerted, I raced in my 5-inch heels through the slippery lobby almost bumping into Timbaland on the way (gotta tell you, the guy is stout!) and arrived breathless at the suite door. I knocked gently on the door not to wake up Son, and after what seemed like eternity, a hoarse voice asked, “Who is it?” Somewhat taken aback, I responded that it was the kid’s mom and after some fiddling around with the doorknob, the door swung open and a massive African American 50-something old lady grabbed me, flashed me a resplendent front gold tooth and squeezed me in a tight embrace. Then she jumped back and after briefly introducing herself, she told me that I looked gorgeous but that she did not mean it like THAT, ‘cuz she was into men, definitely into men. In fact, she got her husband waiting for her right now home but she loves kids (has 5 of her own) and so she likes babysitting. So I had nothing to worry about, but go and have fun with my undoubtedly gorgeous husband, into whom I was assured she was not interested in the least. All of this soliloquy took a little less than 2 minutes to pour out of her mouth, all the while her fantastic gold tooth kept glistening in the dim living room of the hotel suite. I was mesmerized, just kept nodding and, after checking on Son and suffering another massive hug, escaped back to the party. All was fine in the end. Phew.

Monday, November 5, 2012

A Very Secure Plane Ride to India

We have recently returned from a lovely family trip to Chennai. I have to tell you though, going from Bangladesh to India has turned into some sort of traveler purgatory. If you thought that taking off your shoes at the airport security checkpoint was a terrible inconvenience, I’d like you to take a trip from Dhaka to Chennai to get a bit of a perspective. After we entered the ever filled with vicious mosquitoes Dhaka airport, we had to scan our luggage before check-in while the observing officer was languidly cleaning his teeth with a small plastic fork. After was passed that bastion of security, we had to put the bags again through an X-ray machine right at the gate, where a feisty lady frisked me lovingly if haphazardly behind a rather dirty cloth booth and the Diplomat was even more lovingly and similarly haphazardly frisked right next to the machine. Once inside the waiting room, you’d think it would be over. Definitely not. There, a spritely fellow asked us to open up our bags and rummaged through my bras and feminine products serenely and without batting a Muslim eyelash. A stern looking woman took me behind a wicker partition and felt me all over again with fierce determination. You will excuse my impatience, but at this point we got a bit overwhelmed, and so I asked the lady why the heck we were being subjected to everything twice. She told me that the folks outside the gate were from the airport police, and the ones inside – from the airline. In her words, “We don’t trust them and they don’t trust us!” Speechless, I sat down and gave Son some crayons to draw dinosaurs.

Soon we proceeded to the plane, where a stern officer requested to see our boarding passes. I gave mine apathetically. 40 mins later and we were in Kolkata. Oddly, it took an additional 45 mins to get off the plane, which was a problem since we had a short connecting flight on a different airline. If you know Kolkata, you’ll know that the international and domestic flights buildings are apart and it is a brisk 5 minute obstacle course walk to get from one to the other (the obstacles being multiple men asking to carry your luggage, offer you a cab, something to eat, or standing just to stare at you along with a bunch of dogs). Running as fast as we can with 3 small suitcases and child in tow, we made it to the domestic flights building. We were promptly stopped at the entrance by an massive Indian policeman who resolutely requested our printed flight reservation and passports. Clearly rattled and worried about our next flight, I gave the man the papers and pretended to be telling the Diplomat loudly about how late we were. The policeman was not impressed. An eternity later, he returned the papers to me and let us through, only to be stopped a second later by another cop, sitting at a small wooden banged up bureau and writing slowly important stuff in an ancient-looking large note book. He also asked for our passports and reservations. Giving him an icy stare, I gave everything to him, fidgeting as if I had lice creeping up my butt. Again, I kept telling the Diplomat loudly that we were going to miss our flight. Nonplussed, after writing our names and destination  in the giant book with meticulous handwriting and the speed of an asthmatic snail, the cop turned to the Diplomat and asked him phlegmatically which part of India he was from. As I was about to choke him with a piece of Son’s plastic dinosaur, he finally gave us the passports and we raced to the counter. There, it turned out that our luggage was too heavy to be carryon luggage, which meant that we needed to go back and put it through a scanner and get a security tag. After a few uncalled for expletives directed at the perky Indigo Air staff, we ran and put the damned bags through. We raced back to the counter only to have her say, “Oh, too bad, you put it through Jet Air’s scanner, not ours – they are right next to each other…” Who cares, lady!!! It is a @#$%ing scanner, they are NOT going to show different things. Audibly upset, I let the Diplomat go back and re-scan the damned suitcases, all the while glaring at the counter lady who in turn was giving me most pleasant looks.

Finally done and boarding passes in hand, we ran towards the security checkpoint. There, we had to go through 2 separate lines for men and women, and had a bunch of tags stamped on our carry-ons. I was duly felt all over again by a disturbingly androgynous lady with a spurious mustache  Once THAT was over, we rushed toward the boarding gate as boarding was almost over. Before getting on the bus to the plane, we had to show our boarding passes to the airline agent, and then immediately to an airport policeman (yes, apparently they don’t trust each other in India as well). The bus took us to the plane, where ANOTHER damn cop checked the boarding passes. I was close to a nervous breakdown.

Soon we were up in the air, sitting squished in our chairs, which were extraordinarily small. Right in the middle of our ascent, my front neighbor decided that it was totally cool to recline his seat and fell 45 degrees into my lap, given the angle of the plane going up. It was a rather annoying flight. The final touch came when we landed in Chennai – leaving the plane, I was stopped by yet another policeman who demanded to see my boarding pass. !@#$%%???? I dared to ask why – after all, I have just left the God-damn plane. He said that he did not know why, he just had to. What do you say to that….

Our Chennai stay was lovely. We saw many of Diplomat’s relatives and even took a fabulous overnight trip to the beaches of Mahabalipuram, where his wonderful uncle had booked us a beachfront room in a 5-star resort. Son and Granddad had a ball in the infinity pool. IN the meantime, soaking in the deep end and gazing upon the ocean, I overheard the following exchange between 2 men in VERY tight long-john speedos threading water inside the shallow end and their lovely sareed wives, supine on the lounge chairs “Oh, come on, the water is lovely!” “Naa, yaar, I am in my saree, can’t come inside!” “Eh, saree-shmaree, no one can see you here!” followed by a hysterical giggle by all. Yes, dear friends, India is changing.

We are now safely back to the manic life of Dhaka. In two short days, the Embassy will be hosting a massive event with over 1000 local dignitaries at the Westin hotel to observe the Presidential election’s day. I cannot wait to explain the difference between the popular vote and the Electoral College at 5.30 am.