Sunday, January 25, 2015

Our Big Fat Indian Family Vacation - Part 1

So, we were due for our annual Rest and Recuperation vacation and decided to go to India. Now, you would probably think that typically people who serve in India would go rest and recuperate in Rio de Janeiro. Not us. We are not that kind of people, thank you very much. That is not how WE rest. Indeed, we scoff at rest (no, we don't). Actually, the reason for the trip was that the Diplomat’s mom was not well and we decided to go visit her en masse and raise her spirits. To add to the fun, my own Mom decided that it was high time she visited India and the InLaws – we have been planning this trip ever since we got married 11 years ago. The logistics were daunting:

1.       Mom flies to Mumbai to stay a week with InLaws before we arrive.
2.       We fly to meet Mom and InLaws in Varanasi, using a Rio-London-Delhi-Varansi route = 3 flights.
3.       After 3 days in Varanasi, we, Mom and InLaws fly back to Delhi for a 3-day stint = 1 flight.
4.       InLaws fly to Chennai to wait for us, while we and Mom fly to Kerala for another 3-day tourist stint = 1 flight.
5.       Mom and we then fly to Chennai to be with InLaws and selected other relatives = 1 flight.
6.       Mom and I return to Bulgaria and Rio respectively. I fly Chennai-Delhi-London-Rio = 3 flights.
7.       The Diplomat and Son stayed for an extra week in Chennai, and then came back.

So, if you counted, that is 9 flights per person to India, which was enormous fun. I found particularly fun the satisfying succession of a 9.5-hour flight to London and a 12-hour flight to Delhi, followed by a rapid and hair raising cab ride from the international to the domestic terminal there (a mere 7 km) in order to catch a fairly close domestic flight to Varanasi. I am flied out.

Folks, air travel is not as much fun as it used to be. I know this is a truism, but I still need to say it. It is NOT fun. For one thing, pre-boarding has turned into a farce! “Welcome to flight 666 to London. At this moment, we would like to invite the Queen of England to board. Then we would like to invite our diamond members. Now we invite ruby and sapphire members. Then the platinum ones. Then our gold, silver, copper, nickel and dime ones. Then the peeps with kids. Then those with cats. Then those with really large carryon bags so that they can take up the entire overhead storage bins quickly. Then we invite those of you who appear important. Then those who are really, really hot. Is there anyone else left? Oh, yes, and now the remaining 4 people lurking about the gate hopelessly can finally board. We sincerely hope that we have managed to show you just how unimportant you really are. If not, we will demonstrate that to you on board plenty when we repeatedly ignore your requests for water or the non-vegetarian meal option.”  

Once you are on board, you begin to ponder the 12-hour flight in front of you as the plane begins to taxi off. 12 hours! That is LOT of time to kill. You start by reading the magazine you smartly brought with you while simultaneously trying to convince your child that it is time to sleep for the next 12 hours. After some mutual unpleasantries, that works and Son is soon deeply asleep, freely prostrated across your lap. Clearly, this is very comfortable and adds to your amazing flying experience. That takes you through take-off until you reach the coveted “cruising altitude.” Then they activate the movie screens and you begin to frantically shuffle through the “Latest Releases” selection in hope to catch up on all those Golden Globes and Oscar winners you’d missed while you were busy working and all that. You’d think that the selection of movies in a 12 hour flight would be at least decent. Sadly, you discover that half of the movies are action thrillers of the Spiderman variety, and the other ones you have never, ever heard of in your life. Not to mention that they have been released at least 10 years ago. Almost none of them appear to be romantic comedies unfortunately.  Finally, you find a movie that sounds at least remotely familiar and resolve to watch it. This is when you find out that your headphones don’t work. Also, the child sleeping in your lap has wedged his head against the arm rest, thus making it impossible to open your tiny table tray to eat your tiny airplane dinner. You wiggle creatively for some time until you manage to somehow bend over without squishing your prodigy, and grab his headphones. Which also do not work in the left ear. You press the airhostess button to ask for new headphones. Naturally, she does not come. Your husband is next to you, pretending to be asleep. You try to read a bit more of the magazine with dark resolve. Finally, the drinks cart has come and you immediately order 2 scotches. Since this is British Airways, they happen to be Glenlivet. Your whole perspective changes suddenly. Also, the stewardess (are we still allowed to call them that??) finally brings you new headphones with a frown, and they actually work. Well, you hear much better in the left side, but who’s checking – you can now watch a movie!

We are blessed since Son tends to sleep like a log on planes and usually our long-haul flights are not that painful for both us and him. The Diplomat – not so much. Me – after 4 small bottles of Glenlivet, one unidentified piece of meat on top of pasta and two hours of Hugh Grant on a tiny screen, I fell sleep for solid 5 hours. Once in London, we were facing a 9 hour layover, which I thought we can use wisely by going downtown and meeting two very close friends. Two hours later, and we were still in the line for immigration check at the airport. I began to question the whole venture. Finally, we were free to roam the British land and we hurried to store our hand luggage and find the fastest way into London.

And then it hit me that in London, it was winter. Like, REAL winter, not winter Rio style. That was a small element that I had overlooked, and for which was woefully unprepared. Actually, I had taken a sweater and coat for Son, and a sweater for the Diplomat, but nothing except a long-sleeved summer dress and a woolen scarf for me. Not to mention that I was wearing sandals. So, we were quite the sight when we presented ourselves at Piccadilly Circus where it was 6 degrees Celsius and people were wrapped up in woolen coats and scarves and boots like it was the end of the world. We scoffed at it, and braved the cold to marvel the cuteness of pre-Christmas London. The Diplomat, who had never been to London before, was enthralled. I was not bothered by the cold anymore since 80 seconds after coming out of the Tube, I lost all sensation in my extremities. All this lasted a solid 4 wonderful minutes until Son, still sleepy from his 45 minute nap on the way from the airport on the tube, began to whine that he was cold and resolutely refused to walk just about anywhere where it was not inside. So, we picked the first pub that crossed out path and bravely walked in to dine on fish and chips, burgers and excellent local brew. Everything was exactly as I remembered it from 15 years ago when I spent a year studying in London. Except that now I actually could afford to be INSIDE the pub, and not staring at them mournfully from the outside, on my way back from school. I was a rather penniless student at the time.

After an hour and half in the warm, enveloping insides of St. James Tavern, we hurried back to the airport to catch the next 12- hour flight to India. All went well, and exactly 35 hours and two days after we left, we landed in Delhi, India. Where it was cold. AGAIN! For the love of Pete! You’d think this would be the end of our trip, but why should things be that simple? We landed at about 10.30 am on Saturday, and had a local flight to the old sacred city of Varanasi in about 3 hours. I those 3 hours, we had to collect our voluminous luggage, hop into a cab so that we can get to the domestic terminal of the airport (which happens to be 7 km away??), check in again and make it to the flight. Well, we made it. In Varanasi, we were greeted by the team of grandparents who were ecstatic to see us (well, mostly Son really) and we were all whisked away in a couple of Innova minivans to the stately Taj Varanasi, courtesy of my fantastic Father-in-Law.

Next installment will give you some details from the next 2 weeks of frenetic travel and sightseeing – I promise to spare you all the gritty details and only regale you with the more “fun” parts. Among those – a 5 am, 4 degree Celsius loooooooooooooooooooooooooong boat ride on the Ganges, a 20-year college reunion, an overnight trip on a houseboat in Kerala, along with a sumptuous cockroach and the call of the muezzin at 4 am; a peculiar New Year’s Party in Chennai and how to leave your mother alone in the middle of the night in an largely unknown large Indian city in the hands of a savage looking cab driver who has no idea where he is going.