December 28, 2016

The Womb Life, Part 2

We’re only 4 days away from the due date of our second baby girl! I thought she’d already be here by now, and in reality, she’ll probably arrive as I finish writing this.

Physically, this pregnancy has been about the same as the last one…smooth sailing. I’ve been blessed with two relatively easy, healthy pregnancies. Mentally and emotionally, however, this one has been a roller-coaster of stress, anxiety and pressure. Between managing a full house renovation, starting a new job, trying to do a good job of raising Piper, and prepping for the baby, we unintentionally took on too much all at once. The past 6 months in particular have been very hard on us. And the craziest part? I haven’t been able to have a drink in 8 months! But I’m happy to report that we’ve gotten to a good enough mental space to finally feel ready for the baby to come. If you would have asked me a week ago I would have had a different answer, but I’m at peace now and ready to do this! Here’s a look back at the highs and lows of the past 39 weeks… 

Week 3
We had been trying to conceive unsuccessfully for 6 months. One-by-one we watched other friends get pregnant or already deliver their second baby, and time started to feel like it was slipping away from us. Some very faint lines on a pregnancy test have me wondering if our luck has turned, but I don’t want to get my hopes up. 

Week 4
We venture off to Maui as a family of three and come home from Maui as a confirmed family of FOUR! We tell Piper but she has absolutely no clue what we’re talking about.


We unofficially calculate the due date: December 26. Oh dear…not at all how I had planned or wanted this to go. But when you’re given the gift of life, you welcome it unconditionally!

We tell ourselves that we have to aggressively push for a start date for our house renovation, which is already 2 months behind schedule. 

Week 5
I arrive back at work and find out that I’m going to get a big promotion. While it’s so exciting, Steve and I also worry about how we’re going to keep it all together (spoiler alert: we barely do). 

Week 6 
We meet with our contractor and hammer him on start and end dates. We tell him that we HAVE to be finished with everything before Christmas. He does not seem worried at all…

I’m so tired that I fall asleep while Piper lays next to me banging her wooden hammer toy next to my head for 10 minutes straight. 

Week 7 
I begin feeling nauseous most of the day. It’s hard to remember exactly what it was like with Piper, but I don’t remember it being this bad. My previous cravings of pickles and salsa are back in action. I also notice that I’ve unintentionally started a new diet that I coined the 3C’s – carbs, cheese and chocolate. I look like I have a little bump forming…WHAT?!? This is much, much earlier than the last time. 

Week 8 
We go to our first doctor’s appointment. While we’re waiting, I tell Steve how much more relaxed everything feels this time around. Then as the doctor is about to turn the screen around for us to see the ultrasound, I am most definitely nervous and my heart is beating so fast. I imagine no matter how many times you’ve been through a pregnancy and no matter how relaxed it might feel, the very first time you see your baby will always be a nervous, exciting and anxious moment.

Our doctor tells us that we didn’t get a Groupon…no twins. She then smiles and lets us know that the due date is set for January 1, 2017. New Year’s Day! We’re pretty sure that it should be ~5 days earlier than that, but we’re going with it.

On the way home, I tell Steve I think it looks like a boy.


WEEK 9 
We fly up to Lake Tahoe to spend the week with my parents. I want to wear my airplane “uniform” of spandex workout gear, but it’s all a little tight-fitting and I’m worried that they’ll see my baby bump before we can surprise them with the news.

Later that day we sit down to exchange some gifts and I hand over the ultrasound picture with the grand announcement, “We’re having a baby!” to which my mom replies, “I KNOW!” Apparently the bump was just too obvious.

It must be the salt in the virgin bloody marys that my mom is dealing me all week…I look and feel huge. Second pregnancies play some serious body image mind tricks.


WEEK 11 
Somebody should really warn you that it’s not nearly as fun telling people your exciting news the second time around. Everyone’s reaction is, “I figured.” 

Week 13 
I decide to tell everyone at my company about the pregnancy. Two of my team members say that they’ve noticed me wearing the same outfits over and over again :/ 

Week 14 
I start feeling little bubbles in my stomach – the baby moving! All of the books say that it’s impossible for me to feel it at this point, but I know that feeling.

Our friends start coming out of the woodwork with their baby news. Just as before, we have several friends who are expecting within 2 weeks of us. So fun!

While we’re at a party, a friend asks me if we want a boy or girl. I give her the obligatory, “We’d be happy with either,” speech before confessing that we’re really hoping for a boy. She’s the first person who has ever told me that she had hoped for two girls. I am so surprised…I honestly have never heard anyone say that before. I ask her why and she very matter-of-factly tells me, “So that they can be sisters”. Of course! Sisters! That would be cool, too! This one conversation single-handedly changes my perspective on gender. Steve and I talk about it that night and we both agree that we would honestly be happy with either. 

Week 15 
I have an appointment with the doctor who happened to deliver Piper. I haven’t seen her in 2 years. It’s impossible not to get choked up as you thank the person who helped bring your child into the world. She gives me the okay to fly to India for work at the end of October. 

Week 17 
My career coach tells me that of the top 10 stresses of life, I will be going through numbers 3, 4, and 5 (new baby, new job, house renovation) over the next 5 months. Sigh.

We go to our third ultrasound and have the technician put the gender in an envelope for us to open later. We don’t have a plan for when or how we want to open it. The baby weighs ¾ of an ounce. 


Week 20 
We reach the half-way point of the pregnancy. Our house renovation STILL hasn’t started yet.

While watching the closing ceremony of the summer Olympics in Rio, Steve feels the baby kick for the first time. It must be a sign. Future 2040 Olympian on the way! 

Week 21 
Our contractor finally gives us a start date for our house renovation. It’s 8 months later than we had wanted, but at this point, we’re just happy to get an actual date. 

Week 22 
After taking a quick poll amongst our friends for gender reveal ideas, we land on the perfect way to find out: paint balloons. We research on the internet and try everything from finger paints to food coloring. Nothing works well until we find a concoction for “chalk balloons” – corn starch, water and food coloring. By the time we’re done, our kitchen looks like a mad scientist has been experimenting. 


We hand the balloon recipe and sealed envelope with our baby’s gender off to our friend, Angel, who agrees to fill the balloons up for us.

The next day is our street’s annual block party, which has been taking place every year since 1969. Our neighbors have been hyping it up since we first bought our house 10 months ago, so we invite all of our close friends to join us.

Towards the end of the party Steve, Piper and I change into our white shirts, the paint balloons are passed out, and everyone gathers around us in a circle. Steve and I hold hands and brace for the balloons as they hit us, only...THEY DON’T BREAK!!! Even though they were made only a few hours before the party, the corn starch solidified and we are basically pelted with hard rocks. It looks like a modern-day stoning.


As everyone winds up to take a second shot, one of the balloons bounces off Steve, hits the ground right in front me, and bursts open…it is PINK! A GIRL!!!


That night we pull up the list of names that we had considered for Piper. It’s funny how your tastes evolve over the course of two years! Some names that I used to love, I now hate – probably because I can imagine what it would be like to say it 100 times every day. 

Week 23 
We spend Labor Day packing up our kitchen, master bathroom and office to prepare for the house renovations starting the next day. It is a long day on my feet, and even though I currently have a lot to distract me from the pregnancy, the physical reminders are ever more present.

The work begins the next day, and boy, do they make an impact! We are shocked at how much they can demolish so quickly. It is very clear by the end of day 1 that there is no turning back now. 


Week 24 
I am exhausted and overwhelmed with my lack of time. Every night Steve puts Piper to sleep at 9:00pm while I take a nap. I get back up around 9:30 or 10:00 and we stay awake until about midnight working on house research. I keep up this routine for 4 months straight. There’s just no time to even think about baby names, nursery design, or shopping for anything remotely related to the baby right now.

The one thing I do work very hard to keep sacred is the time I give myself for physical activity. I try to make it to the Tri Club swim practice at least once per week. It’s strange to think that I’ve gotten more in shape as the pregnancy has progressed, but that’s how I feel. My dutiful little family makes the trek to La Jolla with me every week after work so that we can be together as much as possible. While I swim laps, Steve and Piper swim in the open pool or hot tub. It’s an important time for me each week, and I’m so lucky to have their support. 

Week 26 
A major heat wave hits San Diego with temperatures getting up into the 100s. Our air conditioner decides to die. At one point it is 92 degrees in our house. 

Week 27 
We visit friends in Phoenix, and one night while Steve and I are trying to sneak into our pitch-black bedroom without waking up Piper, we smack right into each other. Steve gives the baby a massive head butt. I’m pretty sure she felt that one! 

Week 28 
The 3rd trimester! Not ready, not ready, not ready! Need more time!!!

The house renovations slow way down because our contractor pulls two guys off of our job to work on someone else’s. This upsets me so much that I’m in full-on meltdown mode. I want so badly for this house to be in somewhat working order by the time the baby gets here, and it all feels so far out of my control.

Call it retail therapy, but I walk into a baby store to return one item, and walk out with $250 in baby clothes. Steve and I both thought that we’d save so much money not needing to buy new girls’ clothes, but the second I see them, I just have to have them. I justify it by telling myself that the baby deserves something of her own.

It’s funny how colors come into play during this stage of pregnancy. I am planning to decorate the nursery in differing shades of peach. When I get home from my little shopping spree, I realize that I’ve bought the baby four different peach outfits that look almost identical.

I realize that the reason for my meltdown earlier in the week was my biological nesting instincts kicking in. My heart, body and soul are telling me to get things ready for the baby’s arrival. It feels so good to get some things squared away for her, even if that means a few outfits placed into a plastic bin amidst a construction zone of a house. 

Week 29 
Going on about 4-5 hours of sleep per night, I’m off to India!

I squeeze my legs into my old triathlon compression socks and board a 19-hour flight from San Diego > Newark > India, pretty anxious about how it will go. When the plane finally touches down in New Delhi I thank God that we have made it safely.


When I finally get to my hotel room I take off my compression socks and can’t believe that I have absolutely zero swelling. Amazing!

The next day I travel with four co-workers to see the famous Taj Mahal. I love that the baby is along for the ride. Much cooler than Piper, who only made it to Tijuana, Mexico in the womb.


Week 30 
My trip to India continues with a self-guided walking tour of an intensely chaotic, dirty and intriguing section of Old Delhi. Along with some co-workers I walk the back lanes among the paper, d├ęcor and spice markets. With my travel bag slung over my body, most people on one side of me probably can’t even tell that I am pregnant. The others most definitely look me up and down, but I never feel that I am putting myself or the baby in danger.


After the first day of sitting in a lot of meetings, I notice that my ankles have started to swell. By the next morning the swelling has not gone down, which is highly unusual. As the second day goes on, the swelling becomes worse – especially in my left ankle and foot. I sleep that night with compression socks and my legs elevated. When the swelling still hasn’t gone down by the third morning, I call my doctor back in San Diego. She tells me not to worry but that if they become significantly asymmetrical I should go to the hospital. With tears in my eyes I tell my closest friends so that they can take care of me in case things get worse.

While I’m on the phone with the doctor I also receive the okay from her on that henna tattoo I had gotten on my hand the night before. Whew :)


The swelling never gets better, but it also never gets any worse. Several hypotheses include salt, MSG and the pollution – which is 8x higher than Beijing on the day that I fly home.

The journey back to the US is also an adventure. After sitting on our plane for 3 hours in New Delhi, United cancels my flight and there is no one at the airport who is willing to help re-book me. Miraculously with help from my assistant back in the States, I’m able to score a seat on a Turkish Airlines flight from Delhi > Istanbul > San Francisco > San Diego.

Everything looks to be working out until I go up to the check-in counter to get my boarding passes. I see the boy look down at me and then call over to a girl and whisper, “She’s pregnant”. The girl asks me for my doctor’s letter, which I produce for her, but she insists that it must only be a week old. My letter had been written 20 days earlier. I have to call my doctor’s office and have them email over a new letter. Thank goodness it is 3:00am in Delhi and only 2:30pm in California! They still question the letter once it comes through, but finally a manager gives it an okay, and my tickets are issued. Many, many, many hours later the baby and I are back in the US and reunited with Steve and Piper.

All-in-all it is a great trip and one that that I’m extremely grateful that I was able to take. The baby was a trooper through every aspect – the flights, food, time change, long periods of sitting and also standing, heat and emotional rigors. 

Week 31 
Steve and I venture off to a refresher childbirth class. Several people ask me why I need to go to the class if I’ve already had a baby. I am sure the information hasn’t changed much in 2.5 years, but like an athlete visualizing before a race, it’s more about getting in the right head-space before delivery. If I don’t force myself to go to it, I’m worried I’ll just show up at the hospital without having thought about labor once. This is my way of dedicating time to process what is going to be happening very soon.

Even though I stopped running at 16 weeks with Piper, I have felt good enough to continue jogging into my third trimester this time around. I begin dialing it back to an alternating jog/walk every quarter mile for 3 miles. Even though I look ridiculous jogging around town, I feel good doing it. 

Week 32 
I fly to Denver for a week-long work conference. It’s my last trip before the baby comes and I’m so excited to just get past it and be home with Steve and Piper. The first two days are very long and exhausting. I work 16 hours and then go up to my room to work more in bed until about midnight or 1:00am. By day 3, I tell myself that I have to take my foot off of the accelerator.

While watching the presidential election results come in from my hotel room, the baby is extremely active. I text Steve to let him know that there is an alien in my belly.

That weekend the three of us head to Buy Buy Baby. We open up and then close out our registry on the same day, only 7 weeks before our due date. Who does that???


Week 33 
Steve and I have another major expectation reset when we have a talk with our contractor and come to the conclusion that our upstairs and kitchen probably won’t even be done by the time the baby arrives. I’m extremely upset and call my parents (again) for some perspective. They tell me that of all people, Steve and I can do this. If we traveled the world with next to nothing, we can certainly provide for our family in a home that’s not perfect. I have no doubt that we can do it; it’s just not HOW I wanted to do it. After a very sad day of letting my new reality sink in, I feel better that some of the pressure is off now. 

Week 34 
My doctor listens to the baby’s heartbeat and says that she’s a very mellow baby – 120 beats per minute. That’s a relief because I was sure that my stress had rubbed off on her.

The day after Thanksgiving we go on our annual hike at Torrey Pines State Reserve. I print out the list of baby names that we have narrowed down to, and we spend most of the hike saying them out loud to each other. By the end of the hike we have decided on one and even have Piper practice it. Let me tell you, there is nothing sweeter than hearing Piper say her future sister’s name in her little kid voice.

By Sunday afternoon I’m starting to feel mentally and emotionally down again so I go out on a jog/walk to clear my head. I get a later start than I had wanted, so it’s starting to get dark outside as I am finishing. As I cross the street less than a quarter mile from home, I foolishly trip on a piece of asphalt that I can’t see through the darkness. I fly forward and land right in the middle of the street. My hands catch most of my fall, but by the time my body catches up with the ground, the left side of my belly hits the street. I am in pure shock. I get myself up, get out of the middle of the street, and walk the rest of the way home.

As soon as I get cleaned up, I spend some time googling falls in late pregnancy. Nothing makes it sound too serious as long as I’m not bleeding or feeling contractions. I brush it off at first, but by 9:30pm I feel guilty enough that I call my doctor’s office to be safe. They calmly suggest that I go to the hospital to be monitored overnight. Steve and I feel that they’re being overly conservative, but we can’t in our right minds not take their guidance. Ironically I have on my to-do list for that evening to pack my hospital bag :/

Steve stays home with Piper while I drive myself to the hospital and am admitted around 11:00pm. It feels very surreal to be back on the labor and delivery floor. A piece of me even wonders if it’s a good thing to experience the hospital first-hand to help get me in the mindset for the birth. I do better without surprises when I can visualize the situation ahead of time.

I am really clam through the whole hospital ordeal, probably because it feels like a formality more than anything. I am just disappointed in myself that I made such a stupid mistake. I don’t want jogging during pregnancy to get a bad rap; I would do it all over again. But my idiotic combination of running at 34 weeks pregnant, in the dark, on a torn up street, while I was upset was not my smartest moment in hindsight.

My nice nurse wraps two monitors around my belly for the night to keep track of the baby’s heartbeat and possible contractions. Everything checks out just fine, and I’m discharged at 6:00am.


All-in-all it is a smooth, quick and uneventful trip to the hospital. It’s not one that I ever want to make again, but I’m so relieved and grateful that the baby is safe and sound. I promise to take good care of her, and to take better care of myself for her sake. And much to my mother’s delight, I hang up my running shoes. 

Week 35 
Steve travels three days for work, and I’m left to fend with Piper at 35 weeks pregnant. I can barely keep up with her even when he is around! She is a really good girl and doesn’t give me much of a hard time. But even still, the stress of getting her to school, picking her up from school, making dinner, cleaning dishes, entertaining, getting lunches ready, showering and putting her to bed all on my own takes a toll. On the first night I can tell that I’m having contractions. They aren’t painful, but I can feel my stomach tensing up. I worry all evening that they’re going to turn painful and that I’ll have no one to take me to the hospital. It turns out to be nothing of importance, but it’s so hard to know what’s going to happen with a second baby. You always think they’re going to come early.

That weekend Steve and I go to the hospital to take a tour of the labor and delivery floor. Even though it’s the same hospital that I delivered Piper at, the rooms have been renovated since then. They look like a Las Vegas hotel room. I want the old rooms back.

I ask Piper what the baby's name should be, and without hesitation she says, “India!” 

Week 37 
We stage a mutiny with our contractor. The baby could realistically come any day, and we still don’t have a single room complete. The two rooms that are furthest along – the master bedroom and baby’s bedroom – still don’t have floors, closets or doors. We decide it’s time to take matters into our own hands, and we schedule all of the sub-contractors to come in and crank out the necessities. By Wednesday the nursery has floors!


Later that night I wake up at 2:45am with pains that would get stronger every 8 minutes for about 30-45 minutes. I am completely freaked out that the baby is on her way 3 weeks early. The weirdest part is that even little Piper was stirring in her sleep during that exact same time! It ended up fizzling out after 45 minutes, but it was enough to completely frazzle us.

A couple of days later Piper informs me that, “The baby is gonna come off mama’s belly with a hammer” – LOL! She has been hanging around a construction site for too long.

On Friday I walk out of work with a 4-month maternity leave in front of me! That weekend the crib and dresser arrive and we start piecing the nursery together. It’s so unusual (and wrong) that I don’t actually see the nursery come together until 2 weeks before the due date.


I go into full-on nesting mode the rest of the weekend. Steve, his parents and I work so hard getting outlet covers in place, speakers and curtains hung, closet systems installed, bookshelves assembled and painted, clothes washed, and drawers filled up. I tell Steve that it’s my greatest decorating masterpiece that I never actually had the enjoyment of decorating.


Week 38 
I realize that this pregnancy has been different from Piper’s mainly because of the time of year that it is. When I was 38 weeks pregnant with Piper I just wore slip on sandals all of the time. It’s chilly now, and it’s nearly impossible to bend over and get socks on and shoelaces tied. I don’t know how women in snowy areas do it!

I have been wanting to take some maternity photos and worrying that the baby will come before we can get to them. In between rain storms, we head to Balboa Park and Steve does a great job as the photographer while Piper chases the ducks around.


My doctor tells me I have a 50/50 shot of making it to Tuesday (2 days after Christmas). Steve’s parents and brother really want the baby to be born on Christmas day while everyone else does NOT! 

Christmas rolls around and we have such a great day, but the clock is on the back of my mind the entire time. I keep thinking, “Only 12 more hours, only 8 more hours, only 5 more hours until I can stop worrying about it!” Finally when it reaches 10pm, I know we have made it. Pure relief. 

Week 39 
I really never thought we’d make it this far given the odds of a second baby coming early, the stress we’ve been under, and believing our due date should be 5 days earlier. I’m so incredibly grateful that our baby girl has hung in here long enough to give us time to get things sorted. We've also been able to spend some much needed one-on-one time with Piper while she's still an only child. My parents arrive in San Diego today. Could she be waiting for them to get here???

What a roller-coaster it has been. The house is still a mess with the exception of 2 rooms, the baby book isn’t filled out, and we’re already starting from a sleep deficit. But despite all of the imperfections which we’ve come to accept, we’re happy and so excited for her to get here. I’m most looking forward to seeing how tiny she is. I can’t wait to hold her in my hand…while holding a tall glass of wine in the other.

October 28, 2016

An Indian Adventure

About three times a year my company has all of its marketing leaders from around the world get together to bicker plan for the coming year. A lot of times it’s held within California, but more recently they’ve made the investment to get us out into the local markets so that we can better understand the culture and people who we’re talking to. I believe I was about 2 months pregnant when I found out that our next meeting was going to be in India.

When Steve and I did our trip around the world, we found that most travelers were on roughly the same itinerary in terms of countries. We were one of the few traveling through Southeast Asia and not continuing onto India. We heard stories of how much there was to see, and how it was their favorite place they had been to. And yet while I had hoped to visit one day in my life, it was nowhere near the top of my priority list. I always told myself that if the chance to go for work ever came up, I would jump on it. And so I did the math and figured that I would be 7.5 months pregnant at the time of the trip.

The cut-off date for me to fly internationally because of my pregnancy is November 1. My trip was scheduled from October 21-28. Aside from that, there were lots of reasons I could have easily decided not to go, the most concerning being the (1) long flights (2) potential for food or waterborne illness (3) Zika/Malaria/Dengue Fever. Ironically, in an effort to protect the baby, I was told that I couldn’t get certain immunizations (Typhoid, Yellow Fever) because they are live viruses.

Despite this myriad of issues, I got the okay from 2 doctors to make the trip. I asked them multiple times in several different ways, and they both did not seem worried. So I tried not to be worried. But still, there were many things on my mind: the swelling and potential for blood clots on a 19-hour flight, the treatment of women (especially an obviously pregnant woman), how hot it was going to be, how acceptable it would be to wear form fitting clothes with a baby bump, the smoke that had been reported in the air, and the safety of the food and water. But there had been just as many worries – albeit different ones – when Steve and I traveled, and we developed a pretty thick skin for getting through them.

In the end my desire to go to India won out over my worries. I got the immunizations I could (TDAP, Flu, Hep A, Hep B), packed a full bottle of my trusted Ben’s Deet Insect Repellent, dug up my compression socks from my triathlon glory days, and mentally ran through my checklist from South America and Southeast Asia – no tap water even when brushing my teeth, no raw fruits or vegetables, group safety.

The one mandate from my doctor that I absolutely had to have in order to go on the trip was an airline seat that enabled me to lay flat. My flight plan consisted of 5.5 hours from San Diego to Newark and then another 14 hours from Newark to Delhi. My company was supportive, and so I got to fly Business Class internationally for the first time in my life. I have to say, it was even more comfortable than I had imagined. 

 
I had peeked at a flight map the day before my trip and saw that we were going to be flying in some unfriendly airspace through the Middle East in order to get to India. I was worried given all of the passenger plane accidents that been happening in the region the last couple of years, but I didn’t dare tell anyone because there’s nothing I could do about it. I kept telling myself that this flight plan was very standard. I popped an Ambien (doctor approved) somewhere over the Atlantic and woke up 8 hours later to see that, while we had made it safely over Russia, our current position was Uzbekistan. We were headed straight towards Afghanistan, flying almost directly over Kabul.

When we finally landed in Delhi, the time change from California was 12.5 hours. You read that right…there is a half hour time zone difference. Have you ever heard of that before? I had not. Steve and I thought it was going to be hard to stay in touch, but it was actually extremely easy. I didn’t even change my watch the entire time I was there. All I had to do was look at the time and then tell myself that Steve was 30 minutes earlier. When I woke up, he and Piper were having dinner. When I went to bed, they were just waking up. I got to talk to them much more than if I were in someplace like Europe.

My company had arranged a driver to pick us up from the airport to take us to our hotel. Even though he was a hotel employee in a hotel van, they still checked his engine and trunk for bombs when we arrived. What security measures may have surprised me on that first night, quickly became commonplace by day two.

I made it to my hotel room by 11:00pm and was back up at 5:45am to start our journey to Agra – the city that houses the legendary Taj Mahal. It’s a 3.5 hour drive to Agra if you time the traffic right. 
 
 

The farmland that we gazed at the entire way gave way to tuk tuk, motorbike and cow chaos once we entered the outskirts of Agra…and it never let up. Our driver, Shivom, navigated the streets expertly. 


I can’t say the streets felt that much different from what Steve and I had seen in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The two main differences were the size of the cars – the motorbikes of Vietnam had been exchanged for SUVs, minivans and large blinged-out trucks. 
 

The other main difference were the cows. Cows are sacred in India, and we were told that they actually belong to people. They wander into the streets during the day to eat trash "be fed by the community". In the evenings they make their way back home for dinner (I’m guessing more trash).

 
We met up with our guide at our sister hotel in Agra. Her name was Nehe, and she was both extremely knowledgeable and also stuck in her ways.

Our first stop of the day was the venerable Taj Mahal. There are several gates you can choose to enter from, so Shivom parked the van and we had a small walk to the entrance of the East Gate. 

 
Along the way I could catch little glimpses of the top of the Taj Mahal from above the trees. It reminded me of the first time I had glimpsed the Parthenon through the streets of Athens…a truly surreal feeling that you are actually in this place.

Walking through the main gate – perfectly framing the Taj Mahal – was a magical moment. 


While not as smoky as the drive in had been, there was a little haze in the air that makes it feel like you're looking at the backdrop of a movie set. In reality, the haze makes the pearly white facade of the Taj Mahal stand out like the jewel that it is.


It was 10:30am and the crowds were already in full effect. We spent some time enjoying the Taj from afar and then slowly made our way through the shade trees on the left-hand side while Nehe gave us the story behind this incredible building. 

I’m sure like most people, I didn’t know what the Taj Mahal really is or why it was built. Nehe explained that it was commissioned in the early 1600s as a mausoleum for the emperor’s favorite wife. Its name means “Crown of Palaces” and it’s a monument of love.


It is made out of Makrana marble – the hardest marble in the world, which comes from a little over 200 miles away. It’s inlaid with incredibly detailed semi-precious stones in floral and geometric patterns. You are forbidden to bring anything sharp into the Taj Mahal because even something like a nail file could be used to chip out the gemstones. 


This building is so precious that the 4 minarets that surround it are slanted slightly outward. In case there is an earthquake, they will fall away from the dome. They are in the process of cleaning the Taj. They started with the minarets, hence why there is scaffolding on one of them. If you look closely, you can tell that the central dome is slightly dingier than the towers that surround it. 

 
I have to say that the Taj Mahal is really to be enjoyed from the outside. Inside are the two tombs of the Mughal emperor and his wife. 


I hesitated even sharing this picture because it is extremely misleading. It is so dark inside the Taj that you cannot appreciate the beauty or see much of anything. It’s also much smaller inside than it looks from the outside, and having that many people crammed into such a small space does not make for a peaceful or spiritual experience AT ALL.

Upon emerging back into the daylight, we made our way around the mausoleum and into the gardens that house the famous pools and fountains that dramatically give way to the Taj.


Amidst the swarms of people, a man with a whistle emerged and began parting the crowds for us. He guided us right up to the front where we could capture some perfectly people-free pictures.


At first we were confused – he has a whistle, so he must be official, right? No…he’s just a very clever guy with a very unofficial whistle who is using his entrepreneurial spirit to make $1.50 in tips. It was brilliant and hilarious. One of my only regrets was not getting a picture of him.

After spending about 2 hours in the relentless heat, we had a nice lunch at Pinch of Spice, where we were able to regroup in the air conditioning before touring the commanding Agra Fort.


The fort is occupied by the Indian military today, so only 15% of it is even open to the public. Still, it felt massive and special.

 

It’s from this fort that the emperor who built the Taj Mahal was also imprisoned by his own son. His prison cell was the grandest I had ever seen, and had a beautifully expansive view of the Taj Mahal perched amongst the countryside.


We ended the day at the Mehtab Bagh Gardens directly across the river from the Taj Mahal. It wasn’t until we were inside the garden gate, listening to birds singing amongst the silence of nature, that I realized what an assault on my senses the streets of Agra (and India) had already been. It was so nice to spend some peaceful minutes gazing at the Taj from yet another vantage point.


We had originally planned to stay for sunset, but the smoke in the air was enough to make the sun non-existent once it reached a certain point on the horizon. It was 6:00pm and time to leave Agra, but not before making our way through the city one last time to see people filling the streets and the night markets coming alive. 



Unlike in Vietnam or Bolivia it was mostly men outside working. There were very few visible women, who we were told were in the factories. By this time the cows had also started to disappear from the streets.


Agra was a great way to get out of Delhi and experience a little bit of rural India. In a matter of hours we saw cows, goats, monkeys, dogs, buffalo, pigs, and even 2 camels walking through the countryside on a leash.

 

Before my meetings started the next day, I had about 2.5 hours to get out of the hotel and experience a little bit of Delhi. My original plan had been to see the government buildings around New Delhi, but after the drive from the airport it was clear that was pointless. New Delhi, while chalk full of neat buildings, is almost entirely walled off. In a strange way it reminded me of how you can’t see any of the houses in Palm Springs because of the walls lining the streets. Instead I left the hotel at 7:30am with two co-workers to do some adventuring.

After a 25 minute taxi ride through the city, we hopped out at a crowded intersection and began a little self-guided walking tour along Chandni Chowk, one of the oldest and busiest markets in Old Delhi
 

While walking had not been advised by some other co-workers, and even our taxi driver, it honestly didn’t feel any different from the travels that Steve and I did in Vietnam or other parts of Southeast Asia. With my travel bag slung over my body, most people on one side of me probably couldn’t even see that I was pregnant. The others most definitely looked me up and down, but I never felt that I was putting myself in danger.

At first we stayed along the larger streets, walking past temples and taking in the chaotic early morning scene. 


But after a while we decided to turn onto a back alleyway in search of the bazaars.


The markets don’t really begin operating until around 11:00am and we were there more like 8:30. Unfortunately most everything was still closed off behind hundreds of metal doors, but it also allowed us more room to walk in what would otherwise have been a claustrophobic and completely overwhelming atmosphere once full.

There were lots of people transporting goods, uniformed children on their way to school, cows, rickshaws, an unbelievable rats nest of power lines that would put Brazil and Vietnam to shame, and people showering in the streets.

 




After awhile we began looking for the spice market. We could smell it before we could actually find it. Following the strong scent of spices, we turned up another alleyway. We knew we were in the right place because of the smells, but everything was hidden behind the metal doors. By this time it was getting close to the 9:30 deadline we had set ourselves, but some of the little doors had begun opening. 
 

We saw stalls of piling nuts, colorful spices, and amazing displays of sugar.


It was time to get back to the hotel, but we were lost somewhere in a labyrinth of alleyways in Old Delhi. Unbelievably, all of the alleyways – no matter how small – showed up on Google Maps. Like a real-life game of Pacman, we made our way out of the labyrinth following our little dot on one of our cell phones. Just as we were about to burst out of the alleys and onto a more major road, the walls started closing in around us to the point where we had to squeeze our shoulders through to get out of this intriguing and complicated section of the city.

 
We had finally made our way out of the alley maze, but where we emerged wasn’t exactly the main road we had hoped for. It was practically dirt. There was no way we were going to find a taxi here, so we hopped into a tuk tuk and rode it to India Gate where – believe it or not – we caught an Uber.

 
The rest of the week was full of meetings in the hotel, but we did have one special night out at Lodi Gardens for dinner, live music and henna tattoos.
 
I had never seen anyone doing henna before, and I was fascinated. The girl used was looked like a tube of icing to decorate my hand in the most intricate fashion. These tattoos are like fingerprints – no two are alike – and they are all done free-hand. These women would be the best cake decorators in the world! It felt like a fancy layer of dark mud on my hand that I was told to let set for at least 45 minutes before sloughing it off. It’s smooth to touch and very fun peeking out from under my sleeves in work meetings. I’m told it should last about a week.


After my first half day of meetings I noticed that my ankles had started to swell. By the next morning the swelling had not receded, which was highly unusual and put me on alert. As the second day of meetings went on, the swelling became worse – especially in my left ankle and foot. I slept that night with compression socks and my legs elevated, but when the swelling still hadn’t gone down by the next morning, I called my doctor. Luckily the doctor who delivered Piper was on call and she is Indian. She told me not worry and that if the swelling became significantly asymmetrical and started to hurt, it could be a sign of a blood clot and I would have to go to the hospital.

I spent the next two days being militant about having my legs elevated in meetings. I tried to cut back on some of the Indian foods that looked like they might be salty, but that was nearly impossible given my selection. Oddly enough, the swelling never did get better, but it also never got any worse. I had several other female co-workers tell me that their ankles were also very swollen. Hypotheses included salt and MSG in the food.

Speaking of food, I tried so many new dishes that I can’t even attempt to list them all. We did have lots of lamb, chicken and vegetarian meals.
 

The most memorable foods were:

Dal – a lentil stew that we ate with Naan – which by the way is thinner in India than it is in the US. One of the restaurants in our hotel supposedly had the best Dal in India, which by default, would mean the world. It was very tasty.

Jalebi – we jokingly called this a miniature version of a funnel cake made of what tasted like honey. In our hotel they served it with a warm cup of cream. Down in Old Delhi, we sampled it at the world famous Jalebi Wala where it’s served sans cream.


I also enjoyed the post meal ritual that we saw in nice restaurants. First they would bring a little bowl of water with a lime at the bottom to wash your fingertips. 


Then they would bring out fun treats to aid in digestion like pomegranate seeds covered in tamarind (dislike) and seeds that tasted like blank licorice.

 
I will say that the majority of Indian dishes felt like a variation of each other. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen so much brown food in my life. There was an occasional cooked spinach “cake”, but that’s just about the only vegetable I don’t enjoy eating. The little bit of raw vegetables and salads I did encounter at the hotel were off-limits because of food and water safety concerns. The first food I had when I got back to the US was a huge salad.

Before I even flew to India, weather forecasts had called for "smoke". Confused by this at first, I later came to find out that it’s due to the farmers. It’s harvest season and they burn the stubs of their crops to clear their fields. We saw this first-hand on the drive home from the Taj Mahal – the fields were full of haystacks on fire. While not the most pleasant thing to breathe, it did make for a glowing orange ball during sunrise and sunset.

 
Sadly we missed the Indian festival of Diwali by only 3 days, but as the trip progressed, the air quality got worse. What I thought had merely been smoke was now clearly pollution. On our last day in India, the air quality in Delhi was 8 times worse than Beijing. On that note, it was time to come home. By the time we flew out of New Delhi, the visibility had gotten so bad that you could barely even see the airport terminal from the airplane. Someone told me that Delhi’s pollution was India’s best kept secret.

We were greeted at the Delhi airport by an Indian lounge singer belting out a pretty impressive rendition of Shania Twain. Then there were the female security offers who escorted all female travelers into little booths with curtains. This was my only negative experience in India. My lady was so judgmental of me traveling during my pregnancy that she made lots of scornful faces and asked me several unnecessary personal questions. It was probably an omen that something was about to go wrong.

After sitting on our plane for 3 hours at the gate in New Delhi, United ended up cancelling the flight because there was a light out in the back cabin. As I had experienced once before in Shanghai, no one at the airport was willing to help re-book us. Instead they tried to automatically shuttle people to a hotel. Luckily I happened to be flying with some co-workers who had taken matters into their own hands and started looking for alternate options via their assistants back in the US. It was a miracle that I was able to score a seat on a Turkish Airlines flight from Delhi > Istanbul > San Francisco > San Diego.

Everything looked to be working out until I went up to the Turkish Airlines check-in counter to get my boarding passes. I watched helplessly as the ticketing agent looked down at me and then called over to a girl and whispered, “She’s pregnant”. The girl asked me for my doctor’s letter clearing me to fly, which I quickly produced for her. She insisted that it must only be a week old, which is ridiculous because I had been in India for the past week. My letter was dated 20 days earlier. Thank goodness it was 3:00am in Delhi and only 2:30pm in California. I quickly called my doctor’s office and had them email a new letter to the airline. They still questioned the letter once it came through, but finally a manager gave it an okay, and my tickets were issued. That was the most stress I had been put under during the entire trip.

Despite always suffering from swollen ankles on flights, as soon as ours took off from Delhi heading towards Istanbul, the swelling in my ankles started to go down. My new hypothesis is that it was caused by the pollution, but I guess I’ll never know.

Unlike in Vietnam where you can’t walk 10 feet without being asked to buy a knock-off Lonely Planet or a library of CDs, no one ever stopped me to buy something while we were in India. We hardly encountered any beggars and never ran into a safety issue. The hotel staff was extremely professional, discrete and kind in keeping an eye on their female guests.

Many people outside of the hotel – especially school children – were very happy to see us. I had always heard that being mobbed for pictures was a common occurrence in India. Perhaps it was because we were in locations where foreigners are a common sight, but this really didn’t happen to us at all. Several of my co-workers were stopped only once or twice to have their picture taken. I was never asked – I guess I just don’t have “the look”.

The trip was not without some challenges. Even though it's supposed to be winter and the coolest time to travel in India, it was still very hot – 95 degrees at the height of the day. I constantly grappled with whether to wear long clothes in order to cover my skin from mosquitoes or risk over-heating. I also made a major mistake when packing my bag back in the US. I grabbed my credit card instead of my debit card, and so I had no way of getting cash out at the ATM stations. Luckily I was with some co-workers who were willing to float me some money during the first few days of sightseeing. It wasn’t until after I did the conversion on what I owed them that I realized it was only $35.

While I wish I had more time to spend out exploring Delhi, I’m extremely grateful for the experience of being in India. The baby was a trooper through every aspect – the flights, the food, the time change, the heat, the long periods of sitting and also standing. Everyone who I encountered – from my co-workers to the airline flight attendants – couldn’t believe that I was traveling so late in pregnancy. They called me brave. I just call myself adventurous and very lucky.