Day 17 – Florida Roadtrip – Washington, DC

Having survived that last sketchy motel near Washington, DC, our first task in the morning was to find some drinkable coffee, so we are prepared for a day at our final tourist destination, the National Museum of the American Indian in DC. Good old Google showed us a Starbucks nearby, so we entered the address into our GPS, and off we went. Car fully packed, we passed some Air Force Base, and oops, the GPS tells to make a turn there. Ok, so lets see where this leads – if it’s a Starbucks on Google, surely it can’t be right in this military zone, right? Wrong!

Before we realized and could turn around, the military checkpoint appeared and we already envisioned our car getting searched endlessly for bombs. So we were apologetically blamed Google, but the guard basically grinned, asked for our ID, duly recorded it, called some other guys about some ‘unauthorized vehicle coming through back’ and made sure we understood where exactly we were supposed to turn around. Probably happens to him a hundred times a day…

Eventually we found a non-militarized Starbucks nearby and then made our way to DC. Our iPhone also told us about the best price for parking nearby the museum, but it actually turned out that street parking was free and unlimited on Sunday, and we had no problem finding a spot right across from the museum, since we were very early.

The museum itself was great. The boys had a lot of fun building an Igloo, and even more fun destroying it, and it was quite interesting for the grown-ups, too. The best was probably the museum restaurant though. It’s quite pricey, but was exceptionally good, with very unusual (for us) American Indian food.

And that was the end – it was time to make the trip home. Almost 4000 miles later, the last stretch had pretty heavy traffic, but we made it, and the kids were happy to be back and re-united with all their toys and a bathtub…

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.


A few weeks ago, Savatri, our maid, had invited us home for a late lunch, which was very sweet. When we got there, after an hour in traffic, her husband just got out of bed and looked pretty miserable, but her two daughters and one son were pretty excited and shyly curious. Her son is 17 and dropped out of school. He is working as a DJ to hire and wants to become a famous professional DJ, much to the distress of our maid. One daughter is still in school, the other works in a call center.

Savatri lives in an area that our Mumbai map designates as a slum area near the Eastern Expressway. For about $7000, she owns a very small house with a cramped living room and kitchen on the ground floor and another bedroom on the top floor. Her children sleep in the living room – the two daughters on the floor and her son on the little couch. It’s all very cramped, but it’s clean and homey, and the television was on the whole time. Soon, the entire neighborhood is going to get replaced to make room for new constructions, and Savatri thinks that the government will provide them with new housing.

As Ksenia and I we were sitting down having lunch while the rest of the family watched us, some curious neighbors stopped by to say Hello. In between Hindi television commercials, the daughters and her mother kept serving us food and orange juice. After the Hellos were said and the lunch was eaten, the maid took us to a visit at her childhood friend and neighbor. Savatri is originally from Kerala and her friend from Goa, but they had moved to Mumbai for better prospects. Savatri’s friend finds Goa boring now, especially since her husband spends most of the year in Dubai. He used to live in Kuwait and was there during the Gulf War and had sworn never to go back to the Middle East, but then he went to Dubai for the money. One of his sons works for Dell now; he still lives with his parents and was sporting a baseball cap.

Savatri is thinking about going to Dubai, but she doesn’t want to work for a Muslim family, because, she says, their families are too big and they don’t treat Indians very well. After yet another tea with our maid’s friend, we took off to make our way home through the Saturday afternoon insanity called Mumbai traffic. Due to the bird flue panic, chicken prices fell from Rs100 to Rs15, and fish went from Rs300 to Rs1000.

The Cigarette Lighter

When we got back from Goa, we found a dead rat stuck in the A/C grill leading out to the terrace. Ok, maybe it was a mouse, but it would have had a decent size if it hadn’t already been well on its way to decomposition. We never got into the right mood to remove it, until Ksenia and the maid decided to take action. Well, more like Ksenia decided, and the maid took action. The same maid that only a few weeks ago complained about our neighbors throwing their food onto our terrace – although I think it seems to be dry food only now, no more wet French fries. So she fingers the thing out of the grill and without much looking throws it over the wall onto the driveway to the parking lot. Luckily, there was nobody walking around there, or maybe there was, but nobody seemed to mind.

Maybe it’s the same thing with the ongoing road construction saga. A few months ago, pretty much the entire stretch of 13km road between Bandra and Malad was reconstructed. Well, at least the sidewalks. Not there was much of a sidewalk to begin with, but in any event, they built nice new walkable lanes to the left and right of the road. It stayed sort of nice for a few weeks, so nice in fact that at least some of the pedestrians chose to walk on it, instead of on the road itself. That was over after a while, when cars started to park on it, the garbage and dust piled up, and it slowly turned into a public bathroom again.

So far so good, no news here. But what’s amazing is that last week or so they ripped open the entire stretch of sidewalk/bathroom again, the entire new stretch of 13km. Maybe they weren’t happy with the first results I thought, but in fact it turns out that apparently they had forgotten to put in the electric cable and sewage pipelines. No big deal, let’s just do it all over again and take care of it. I am willing to bet that they’ll do a third time in less than a couple of months, maybe for the telephone lines.

It is this sort of spectacular incompetence or corruption or maybe both that’s the most mindboggling about Mumbai. The fun part of it is that during the last almost two weeks, I had to make this trip in the auto rickshaw, because that’s how long it took the service station to do the regular 10,000km maintenance and a bit of a paint job on my car. Going in the rickshaw in Mumbai inevitably means being stuck between a hot stinking bus on the right side and a pre-war truck on the left, preferably with the truck’s diesel exhaust pipe sticking right into my face, which always makes for a good dose of black fumes anytime the traffic jam moves a meter or two.

I guess I could take a regular black cab or even a cool cab instead, but that only means four to six times the price of a rickshaw, plus the regular cab’s exhaust pipes quite often seem to end right in the passenger cabin themselves, and the cool cabs aren’t that cool, because the A/C typically doesn’t work as advertised.

I took the trains a couple of times, but watching grown up and relatively well-to-do men fighting for their lives in a desperate attempt to get a seat in the first class compartments is not my kind of fun early in the morning. Nevermind that the first class cars going uptown in the morning are actually not crowded at all, people nevertheless seem to think that unless they knock someone over while jumping onto the train as it enters the station they haven’t done a good job upholding the traditions of good train travelmanship.

Meanwhile, it took Ksenia and Deepak an hour or so to explain to the car service station what needs to get done to the car. After plenty of nodding and reassuring Yes, Madams, they said the car would be ready three days later, last Saturday, but then changed their mind to Monday. Monday turned into Tuesday, Tuesday turned into Wednesday, and then it turned out that they did the paint job, but forgot about doing the regular 10,000km maintenance. Instead, they seemed to be genuinely surprised that you would want to do the 10,000km maintenance when the car only has 9,761km on its clock.

The paint job was equally so-so – in fact, Deepak speculated that maybe they didn’t have enough light on the right side, which looked substantially less polished than the left side. Ok, so the maintenance job would take another two days, but unfortunately, they are out of stock on a number of spare parts needed – including suspension pads and petrol tank lock, both of which we needed, especially the lock, because it regularly takes half an hour at the gas station for the attendant to figure out how to lock the tank.

Anyways, to get those spare parts would take another month. Two days later, they hadn’t done much and the job obviously wasn’t finished. Deepak observed dryly that at least they seemed to have washed the car. But there was not much left of that when we went back again today. In fact, some of the interior was black with oil, and the brake pedal was squeaking and one door was rattling more than ever. Not to mention an entirely new big scratch they’ve added for extra convenience.

So, what have you done? we asked and the guy tried to convince us wholeheartedly that they’ve done everything, all painting, all maintenance services, and new lock for the gas tank. I tried to check out the new lock, but was immediately assured no, no, new lock, new key, but then we wondered, wait a minute, so where did you get the new lock from, we thought you were out of stock on those? Maybe not surprisingly, it turned out that there was no new lock and no new key after all, the guy was simply and completely talking out of his ass.

So we talked to the manager instead, who was reasonably straightforward, and we explained to him that we’d like to see the list of things they have done. Well, we’ve done everything as per the regular maintenance service (as per is always a good expression to impress with). Ok, we asked, what does that regular maintenance service include? As expected, just like the other guy, the manager also answered this question with the attempt to reach for our service handbook, so that he can read its contents to us.

Well, we were not in the mood for a little reading session, and the obnoxiously demanding foreigners that we are, we asked for their checklist, some work list that shows that some mechanic has checked of on his the oil change, and the transmission fluid, and maybe even the brake fluid. After some shuffling around someone comes back with that list – except it didn’t mention brake fluids or engine oil, it only listed the really essential parts of the regular service: side mirrors, backseat reading lamp, and most importantly, the cigarette lighter.

At that point, I almost lost it, but there it was: a signed and approved checklist for the cigarette lighter, but no such thing for brake fluid or engine oil – after eight months in Mumbai, some things still manage to shock me. The manager’s explanation was that the engine oil and brake fluid and such they have to do, but the cigarette lighter they do, because people complain, so they make a checklist to their customers’ satisfaction.

Anyways, so that was our Saturday afternoon. Three hours at the service station. The rest of the time there we spent waiting for them to fix the door rattling and the brake pedal squeaking. The door they managed, the brake pedal apparently was a lost cause, and we didn’t even bother with the steering wheel squeaking. After that, we took refuge at the mall, which, given our contempt for malls under any normal circumstances really says something. At least we passed on McDonald’s though – I think we’d rather drink that new brake fluid that our car may or may not have gotten than go there – but we did end up at an Italian restaurant, which wasn’t half bad.

Meanwhile, our little adventure in Mumbai is drawing to an end. We’ll go trekking in Sikkim for two weeks in April, and then we are out of here. Not that we regret having come here, not at all, it was definitely an experience, but maybe Central Park in May won’t be so bad either. We’ll ride our bicycles around Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan, in the middle of traffic on 2nd Avenue, and we’ll think: aahhh, New York City, fresh air, quiet roads, laid back people. But we’ll also search for the perfect Dosas and masala chai, we’ll miss Deepak and our maid, and if we ever find a dead rat in our A/C, we’ll know what to do with it, no problem.


Ahhh… Goa! The hippie paradise, the charter destination for potbellied middle aged Germans (and plenty of Russians, too), the weekend destination for Bollywood celebrities… Well, we had put off a trip to Goa for all these reasons, and also because it took me a while to convince Ksenia that we should be driving down there. As it turns out, it was a lovely drive and Goa is indeed quite lovely, especially if you make a big circle around the hippie, raver, and charter destinations.

Since the 9th this month was a holiday, we had five days to play with, taking off the Wednesday and Friday as well. We wanted to leave Mumbai at 6am, but as usual, we packed last minute and didn’t leave the house until 7am. Still, there was no traffic to get out of Mumbai to Panvel, where the NH17 starts. National Highway is of course a bit of a misnomer, because it’s a pretty narrow road, one lane each direction, no dividers, but plenty of pedestrians, bicycles, and cow carts for added entertainment and diversion during the 600km trip.

Nevertheless, I had been a bit worried that the road would be the standard pothole infested diet we’ve come to love to hate around here, so that it would indeed take 15-17 hours to get to Goa, as some websites had said, but in fact the road was for the most part quite good. Narrow, but smooth and curvy – apart from a few stretches up and down some mountains, it would have been fun to go on a motorbike. Plus, there were surprisingly few Horn Ok Please trucks on the way, and even fewer maniac bus drivers. The landscape is very nice all the way, and it changes quite often between lush green fields and dry yellow mountains, but I kind of forgot taking pictures, because I had two much fun driving.

We stopped over for lunch halfway at some posh hotel in Chiplun and reached North Goa at 6pm. It took another hour or two to find a place to stay that wasn’t booked, but then we ended up at the very nice River Cat Villa in Mandrem. The next morning, we walked to the beach, spotted the first topless tourist and were surprised to find that the water does indeed resemble the color blue, which is an enormous step up from the brown sewage at Juhu Beach in Mumbai.

Shocked by the sight of so much blue water and almost empty beaches, we left and drove down to Old Goa, the former capital of Portuguese India. There seem to be more churches then souvenir shops in Old Goa, and there’s not much else, but it was nice to walk around without much bother, and with vendors restricted to a small area around a main parking lot, which was almost empty. Goa is close to completely banning plastic bags, so it is probably the cleanest place we’ve been to in India so far. Of course, a lot of tourists seem to have an addiction to potato chips, so there’s still that, but ah well.

Our next stop was the Savoi Plantation, a tropical spices farm pretty far east in Goa. When we got there, there was an army of charter tourists being served some yummy organic food, a traditional Goan dance and music performance, and a very efficient spice sales show. Thankfully, they got bussed back to wherever they came from, while we stayed to sleep in a most quiet and lovely little farmhouse on the plantation. The owners were very nice and not too pushy or in our faces, so it was very relaxing.

Having gone so far east and away from the beach, we went to a nice little 13th century Hindu temple the next day, deep in the forest. There was a Brahmin family stopping by for some prayers and it was all very laid back. Then we drove to the south and made a lunch stop in a little restaurant. The owner was some local politician, and it was quite interesting as he told us that he’s first of all a Goan, then an Indian – he still speaks Portuguese and even has a little Portuguese flag in his car, much to the dismay of some people who consider such a display anti-national, he told us. He complained a bit about the foreign invaders in Goa, by which he meant Marathis from Maharashtra – apparently, there was a row about what the official language in Goa should be, and it almost became Marathi instead of Konkani. There’s also some discussion about whether the Roman Konkani script should be on equal footing with the Devanagari Konkani script.

Anyways, Goans, especially women, are by the way considered the lazy, laid back, catholic and fun loving people of India, with the loose morals to match, even though Christians are a minority here (nevermind that being catholic anywhere else doesn’t exactly signifies loose morals). And speaking of stereotypes, hippies are generally despised, while Israeli tourists are now even more loathed than Germans, the reason being that they are all fresh out of the Army and hence prefer drugs to sauerkraut with beer, and a good fight to lazily drunken roasting in the sun. All of this according to our Indian Goa travel book, which marveled about the story of a bunch of Israelis being kidnapped in Afghanistan, who then proceeded to close combat their kidnappers to death.

So we drove further south to Agonda, after we made a quick stop in Colva, which seemed packed with lobster red vodka infused Russians walking around town half naked. Agonda in contrast is a very laid back little strip of lovely beach, so we stayed there and actually went for a real swim the next day. Of course we had to also check out Palolem further south, which was predictably overcrowded, but the Oceanic Hotel, outside of Palolem, was one of the nicest little places we’ve been to in India so far.

The next day, it was back to Mumbai. We decided to take the NH4A from Goa to Belgaum in Karnataka, where we’d get onto the Bangalore – Mumbai express highway. Unfortunately, a large part of the 150km to Belgaum was on the most horrific stretch of road ever. There were literally thousands of trucks loaded with red dust from the Goan ore mines, and the road itself was totally destroyed; it basically didn’t exist anymore. The dust from the trucks and the road was so thick that we felt like we were in the middle of a heavy red London fog, so we chugged along in first or second gear for many many miles.

But eventually reached the express highway, the pride of Indian civil engineering connecting Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai, and Delhi, and from there it was a nice ride at 120km/hour all the way to Mumbai – then and again interrupted by trucks and cows going the wrong way on the fast lane, while we were passing some rickshaw or cows going the right direction on the slow lane. Quite obviously, after spending probably billions of dollars on the highway, there wasn’t enough money or thought left to also build underpasses or overpasses at the exit points, so instead the cows and the rickshaws and the trucks just cut over to the other lanes and go the last bit against the traffic. We had seen people parking their cars on the highway, preferably on a bridge or in a sharp curve and where the highway has no shoulder, just to say a prayer or to take some pictures, but these cows and rickshaws going the wrong way were a bit like the icing on the cake.

Anyways, we got home eventually, where we noticed that our building had yet another watchman (they kind of change like people change their underwear), who immediately rang our door and asked for money. We also noticed some bite marks on our couch that strongly suggested mice, and sure enough, we saw a mouse running around in our apartment, plus a dead one caught in the grill of our A/C. Well, maybe they eat the mosquitos, of which we have more than we can kill. On the plus side, it’s 35 degrees Celsius in Mumbai every day these days, and we don’t even really feel it anymore – we’ll be freezing during New York City summers when we come back.