Day 1 – Florida Roadtrip – Woodstock, VA

We left Friday at 5:30 pm instead of planned 4:00 pm and that was a personal record of leaving on time. We hit almost no traffic as we left the city. A very rare thing as well, since it was Friday rush hour and beginning of spring break. We drove till 11:30 pm and stayed at some cheap hotel in Shenandoah Valley. Our kinds had a blast jumping on the bed singing “5 little monkeys”. Our room was cold and the heater was loud and the blankets were paper thin. I slept with my children, so nobody was rested when we woke up. Renzo was freezing all night and I was waking up at every move of my children. After a granola bar for breakfast, my darling husband found us a very nice coffee shop in Woodstock, VA. It had espresso and a wine shop which are both rare on a road.

Day 13 – Kiptopeke State Park, VA -> Brooklyn, NY

Another lovely campsite, another nice meal, followed by red wine by the campfire. And then, sadly, our last day – off we go, driving home. But we have plenty of time, so we book a spot on the Lewis, DE to Cape May, NJ ferry, thinking the boys would love to take the car onto a big boat. And they did! The weather was great, although the boatride a bit more rocky than we would have thought. It took a good 2 hrs, but we settled in the bar for a Bloody Mary and Beer for us, while the boys were busy flirting with a little girl at a neighboring table.

And then smooth driving on wonderful Garden State Parkway back to Brooklyn. Home isn’t so bad either, but we could have done this for a few more weeks…

Day 12 – Wilson, NC -> Nags Head, NC -> Kiptopeke State Park, VA

When I said it was last day of camping I guess I meant last in Georgia. Seven hours on 95 and a crappy hotel was too depressing, so since the weather was warm, we found a nice camping site in Kiptopeke State Park in Virginia. It was a bit crowded with prepubescent, boys but the noise was reasonable and not too late. In fact, we were the ones who stayed up the latest. Unfortunately, we arrived late and had to leave early so we could not enjoy everything that this park has to offer: beach, fishing and trails. This was a very nice spot – I hope to come back.

Yesterday we did not find anything but beautiful paved hiking trails in Alligator River NWR. It was time to have lunch for us, so we moved on to the beach town of Nags Head, NC. We picked a place with a Mexican name that promised tacos from Yelp. It was the most popular place around. It was an imposter though. It was a little spiced up American kitch bar with tacos on the menu. We had a beer and our food was not as greasy as it could have been on 95. Then we went to the beach and the boys must have run two miles in circles. To the water and back to the dry sand. There were little birds that were doing the same thing right behind them. When the waves go back, the birds run forward and poke in to the wet sand as fast as they can until the next wave comes and they run away from water really fast.

After that we decided to camp, so we needed to get some supplies from supermarket. I made rice with fish and asparagus. Yelisei ate all the tops of my asparagus. I think we’ve never had so many meals together with the children at the same time. This morning Yelisei was even waiting for oatmeal without screaming. Before I had to give him cheerios just to put something in his mouth to prevent him from screaming. I am not sure this trend will continue at home though.


In case I ever said anything about Mumbai being polluted and having bad air, I take everything back. Now that we’ve spent five days in Rajasthan, we can proudly announce Bikaner to be the most unbreathable place we’ve been to in India so far.

But let’s start at the start. Our flight to Jaipur was uneventful enough. Deepak insisted on driving us to the airport, and we survived the usual shenanigans of chaotic security checks, travelers cutting in line and middle aged men picking their noses with gusto in public. We arrived at our hotel (the Umaid Bhawan) quite early in the morning, and the place was very nice with a lovely rooftop.

We took off in a car to the City Palace, which wasn’t all that great, followed by the very nice Amber Fort, where we spent a long time wandering around. There was plenty of Western tourists and the appropriate number of touts and hawkers to match, but overall, it was a lot less hassle than we had anticipated. The weather was quite cool in the morning, but it got pretty warm later in the day. Jaipur really is quite nice, thanks to one of its founder, Jai Singh II (1688-1743), who according to our travel book was a bit of an urban planner and introduced some revolutionary ideas, namely hygiene, beauty and commerce. Of these, only the last one seems to have survived into the 21st century, but at least the wide roads of the old city are still pretty wide, the town is still mostly pink, making it almost possible to walk around relatively unscathed, at least in the morning.

Unfortunately, hygiene standards don’t seem to have been upgraded in the last 200 years, so there are plenty of open sewage canals, everybody is spitting and snotting everywhere (just like Mumbai, only more so), and an abundance of camel and cow shit takes care of the rest, not to mention the autorickshaws, which are (thankfully, slowly) replacing the bicycle rickshaws. Some of the sidestreets really are an incredible sight of disgusting filth. Nevertheless, Jaipur is a shopping heaven, at least in terms of quantity and curiosity; quality not so much, but we are almost used to that caveat by now. Even the hawkers and touts we could deal with, or maybe that’s because we had feared the worst and therefore immediately shut up anyone who got on our nerves too much too quickly.

We left for Bikaner by late afternoon the next day. We’ve know by now that train stations in India tend to be the cleaner parts of town, and at least when we are leaving a town, there’s less of a chance of getting hassled by some rickshaw driver about which country we are from, where we want to go, and that he will drive us anywhere we like. Of course, there’s still always someone who will try to lure us into his rickshaw back into town, even as he sees us walking fast and straight towards the station entrance. The train arrived 90mins late in Bikaner, but on the upside, we only had to stand in line for half an hour to fill out the application for seat reservations, which as usual required vital information such as our gender, age and address. Since the clerk was unusually slow even by local standards, the crowd got proportionally more pushy, as if rubbing belly against backpack could speed things up and as if ruthlessly cutting in line were a matter of spiritual pride and honor. When we told someone to back off, the helpfully happy and proud explanation was this is the system here.

Late as it was when we finally made it to Bikaner, the town came as a bit of a shock even to us jaded expats. The rickshaw ride from the train station to the hotel was like cruising through a garbage can in a desert, which incidentally describes Bikaner quite well. The town is dusty as dusty can be and the rickshaw fumes eat at your eyes like little ants. Someone said traveling India is like traveling for Graduates (Thailand I guess being for amateurs), but at this point we are wondering whether it maybe isn’t more for the demented. Then again, as we now look at our pictures, the explanation is clear: all pictures lie, because they are never able to show the dust, and the stink, or record the cancerous coughing and yacking all around you. All the Rajasthan travel books show gorgeous colors, graceful women, majestic forts and beautiful landscapes, but the predominant impressions, at least this evening and most of the next day in Bikaner, are incredible dirt and filth, unbreathable air, and enormous pollution. If I had to go here in the summer, when it gets as hot as a frying pan, I’d shoot myself, even though there were a lot of gorgeous empty houses in Bikaner’s old city.

On the other hand, our hotel in Bikaner (Bhairon Vilas) was the best we’ve stayed at so far in India. The owner is a descendant of the Maharajas and of the Prime Minister of Bikaner, a young guy who decided that he likes restoring old furniture and stuff, so his hotel has a lot of character and is quite lovely. Maybe we should have stayed in the hotel all day, because there was a film crew doing some shoots of a traditional Rajasthani music and dance troupe, but we went to the fort instead, which was rather shabby.

We also went to a camel farm, which was a bit sad looking (although the two minute camel ride was surprisingly comfortable), and to the Karni Mata Temple in Doshnoke, where hundreds of unhealthy looking rats live in and run around in filth, enjoying being worshipped as the reincarnated relatives of the local villagers. There were a few equally scrubby looking Western tourists around, who may have thought this temple was the greatest thing since sliced bread, but we kind of thought that it was … well, interesting, and sheer insanity.

Back in the hotel, the film shoot continued as we were having dinner. There was a British guy who had spent five days at the temple shooting a documentary and a female Spanish dope head who we speculated was doing the hotel owner. As they were finishing off a bottle of rum at the bar, three middle aged Germans talked loudly and waltzed right into the film set, twice. We briefly considered joining the bar, but then thought better of it, so we could get up in time the next day for our train to Jodhpur.

The train ride to our last stop was another 7 hour affair, but the 3AC class is comfortable enough and you get a pillow to sleep on. Our hotel wasn’t exactly nice or beautiful; in fact, it seemed to have on offer a large number of small imperfections. Some call that charming, we find it inexplicable, whether it’s the layer of oil swimming on top of the coffee, the curtain rods being installed in all manners crooked, the curtains being of wildly varying length, the hot shower being cold, the bed sheets missing, the paint being applied rather liberally at the wrong places (i.e. on the windows and lamps), etc. etc. In an effort to save electricity, the city shuts it down from 8am to 11am every morning, but at least it wasn’t as cold as Jaipur, and the roof top restaurant was actually quite nice (well, not the rooftop, nor the restaurant, but the view was). In terms of air quality, Jodhpur was only a marginal improvement over Bikaner, but the fort is high enough above the rest of the city that it was ok.

That fort was actually quite nice, even though one would have to be a real nut for armor and weaponry to appreciate a lot of the exhibition in these Rajasthani forts. It was the first such place that offered an audio tour (more expensive than a live guide; I guess they know how annoying those guides can be), and it was pretty well restored and preserved, with money from both the Getty Foundation and the UN. The tour was well done, although at the end they lost it a bit, when two female descendents of the Maharaja were asked to talk about their lives now. One was shamelessly promoting her publishing house, while the other was blubbering incoherently about how looking at the fort to her is like looking at a computer window and how she’s crying thinking about it and how it’s all for her family god.

Anyways, at that point my camera battery was empty and we were pretty exhausted after all this, so we just made a quick stop at the very decent Jaswant Thada memorial to Jaswant Singh II, and then took off to the airport. Arriving back in Mumbai, we had to yell at some tout as soon as we left the terminal, since he wouldn’t take our ignoring him at first and then saying no twice for an answer. Soon after that we took in some fresh Mumbai air, realizing that maybe this place isn’t so bad after all; there’s always worse, apparently.

We are still a bit puzzled about the great allure of Rajasthan to Western tourists. The British guy in Bikaner had told us about Peru, and slowly walking up the Andes or floating down the Amazon river sounds so much nicer right about now. We are also wondering whether we could possibly be the only Westerners prepared to tell the endless touts and hawkers and scammers to fuck off, because they obviously keep trying and sometimes seem genuinely surprised when we respond unkindly. Could we possibly be the only Westerners who are wondering what people must be smoking when they talk about spirituality here? We see a lot of in-your-face religiosity and a lot of praying and talk about god, yes. Everything seems religious here, but spiritual? Not so much. We can’t see much spirituality in driving like an ass, talking out of your ass, cutting in line like an ass, or feeding plastic garbage to your holy cow. Another one is warmth and hospitality. Getting asked literally fifty times a day which country we are from stops feeling warm and fuzzy real quick, as does getting stared at like a two-headed Martian in the zoo. The usual mix of having people bend over backwards to crawl up our ass on the one hand and getting scammed and taken for a ride on the other doesn’t help much either.

Anyways, enough of that. Not sure where we’ll go on our next trip, maybe Orissa, maybe Gujarat, and maybe we’ll have a little less to whine about then.

Downtown Mumbai

Friday night, my boss took out a few expats for a bit of bar hopping downtown. Our first stop was the Dome, a nice lounge bar on the roof of the Intercontinental Hotel right on Marine Drive, a.k.a. Queens Necklace. Nice view, a pool, and expensive cocktails. After that we went to the Gymkhana. I had been told that this is probably the most exclusive private club in Mumbai, so I was quite afraid that this will be some sort of Connecticut Country Club place, with men in white shoes and white hats or something like that. It turned out to be a very laid back and relaxed place where everybody seemed to know everybody. Some people looked like a bit of show-offs, but generally it was pretty apparent that money alone doesn’t get one into this club, what matters most are relationships, so presumably a lot of the members have been downtown Mumbaikars for generations.

I thought the atmosphere was quite different from a few places that I had been to in Bandra. I guess like many big European cities, there is always an invisible divide between the newly rich and the old money spots. Where the nightlife of the Mumbai suburbs of Bandra and Juhu seems to be dominated by Bollywood people (or those wanting to become Bollywood people) and the growing call center brigade (a term I saw the TimeOut Mumbai use twice), this place seemed quite different.

Afterwards, we went to Indigo, a very happening bar and Italian restaurant, which the wife of a British diplomat whom I had met on the way from St. Petersburg to Delhi was raving about. I remember thinking then that I don’t really want to go to some posh downtown exile for Western diplomats, but the place was actually quite nice and laid back as well – and now that I live here, I realize that this town would be simply unlivable for me without these sorts of places. Sadly but true enough, now that I have a car, I don’t even take the riksha anywhere – it is just too exhausting to be sitting in these things right next to the big stinking busses and passing by open sewage systems and mountains of garbage. So I drive in my air conditioned car with the windows rolled up and Madonna or Eminem in the CD player – kind of like a submarine floating in stop-and-go speed through a zoo approaching hell.