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.

2 comments:

  1. Nice post on the challenges of flying while pregnant. What you share is equally applicable to many travelers.

    I enjoyed your descriptive content about India, and you time exploring what you could. How cool is it that your employer was as supportive. More companies could learn from this example.

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