If ever a year deserved a round-up/wrap-up senti look-back type post, it was this one. 

And that's all I can say without falling into maudlin stereotypes that won't begin to do it justice. So I'll stop there, and wish us all a very happy new year. 

May 2015 bring you more luck, more laughs, and more opportunities to throw caution to the wind in the heady pursuit of real happiness :)

Having a Baby in Hyderabad

One of the things I struggle with after moving back to India is the lack of information online. I'll see guest houses on the road, but they won't have websites, or even a listing on MakeMyTrip/TripAdvisor. I know restaurants offer home delivery, but there's no way of ordering other than to call them up. And perhaps most irksome of all, there are very few online reviews of any product or service. 

... All of which is to say that I had to resort to asking people about maternity hospitals in Hyderabad, rather than just resorting to good old Google. The internet was almost no use - it couldn't even tell me the average cost of having a baby (up to delivery). So to potentially save someone else some time, here's what we found. I should preface this by saying what we were looking for:

* A hospital within 8-10kms of our house in Madhapur/Hitech City. Not only do you not want to deliver your baby en route, but also, it just makes it simpler for check-ups.

* A reasonable C-section rate. I have nothing against medical intervention, but I also didn't want to go to a place with a statistical history of repeatedly interfering. 

* Low to no wait times. We waited five hours (not even exaggerating) at Vijaya Diagnostics for a TIFFA scan. It makes me BP-hopping mad. I'm the type that makes appointments well in advance, and I expect hospitals to honour the time slots they give me, barring an emergency of some sort. 

* A trustworthy doctor whom we felt comfortable with. I just can't relax around a doctor who says things like "They deliver breech babies naturally in the US because they don't care if it dies," or "The only reason people can't breastfeed is because they don't try hard enough." That kind of BS is annoying enough coming from elderly relatives who 'don't know better,' but to hear it from a medical practitioner was terrifying.

* I preferably wanted a place that understood the relevance of skin-to-skin, lactation consulting, and so on. I'm not saying I'd necessarily want an active labour or remember to do Lamaze. However, I'd be happier if the hospital's philosophies weren't stuck in the 1980's. 

There were four hospitals we considered - Fernandes, Rainbow, Motherhood, and The Birthplace. Fernandes was out straight away because of its location near Abids. While they have a clinic in Jubilee Hills, that one only offers Day Care procedures. Rainbow was incredibly close to our house, but had a C-section rate that scared me. I'm not suggesting they don't have a good reason for it. I'm only saying I was spooked and didn't bother looking any closer. 

That left us with two serious contenders - Motherhood, on Road No 12, and The Birthplace on Road No 2. Both were easily accessible. Both had senior doctors with good reviews from people whom we knew. Both preached the value of an unmedicated labour where possible. So we decided to schedule consultations with the gynacs we had been recommended at both places, and see whom we felt more comfortable with. Honestly, what it came down to wasn't which gynac we clicked with - both were fantastic. Instead, what it came down to was our experience at their waiting rooms. 

Motherhood was much busier, and our appointment was delayed by 20 minutes. On the other hand, Birthplace only has 23-25 beds, so it's far less crowded. We never felt rushed. This is a tiny thing, but I also appreciated the fact that the bathrooms were cleaner, and the labour suites looked less used. The Birthplace is, overall, much more sophisticated.

Those are all really small, subjective things. I could just as easily have gone with Motherhood, especially since the price difference between the two is considerable. The Birthplace costs (much) more than any other hospital, though they do include things like epidurals which other hospitals often add on as extras. However, we decided on The Birthplace, and I've been very happy with that decision. A few things that really stood out for me:

* We've never had to wait for an appointment or a scan or a test. Everything happens with clinical precision. Even blood work is usually turned around in 24 hours, and the results are emailed over, along with a follow up phone call. My doctor's available by email as well as during our appointments.

* The way they carry out scans is fantastic. Their experience even beats the ones we had in Toronto. They project what the sonographer's seeing onto an HDTV in 3D/4D. It's pretty amazing that they also let A stay in the whole time, rather than for the last ten minutes.

*  They have some fairly useful classes over the weekends, on topics ranging from nutrition to Lamaze to prenatal yoga. I like the flexibility involved in choosing the classes you want to go to (and I lurve the whole wheat cheese sandwiches they serve at the end, but that's irrelevant).

* Dr. Pratibha Narayan came highly recommended. She specializes in high risk pregnancies, and what I love about that is the fact that she doesn't stress about the small stuff. A chilled out doctor is your one raft of sanity in India, where most people are just so intense about pregnancy (Don't lift that! Don't travel! Eat for two! Baaah. I push back, but it's even better when your doctor pushes back too).

As for what it all costs, here's a rough rundown of what you can expect to shell out at a high-end place and a more average place. I wasn't in India for the first 4.5 months, so some of these are estimates (I've no idea how many times blood work is actually done here). Don't freak out at the big numbers, insurance will usually cover the bulk of this. Do remember to check the terms though - most providers won't cover maternity for the first 2-3 years after you take the policy.

The Entrepreneur's Wife

Last Monday, A's company's website went live. The response? Stunning. Two hundred Likes in two days. And that's just on Facebook. The encouragement and interest has been amazing to see, and I'm so happy for him. When I shared the site on my own page, I was flooded with congratulations and well wishes. I'd love to accept them all, but the truth is, this one is A's baby. I'm just the Entrepreneur's Wife.

There have been many articles about being married to a start-up founder, and how it affects you. I can't deny any of the points they bring up:

* Life without insurance, literal and otherwise, can be scary. You watch your bank balance go down, and you have a lot of time to think about safety nets and risk. The opportunity cost of sticking to a 'safe' job is far higher than that of taking a calculated risk, but knowing that objectively doesn't always drive away the subjective moments of doubt.

* Any 'auto-pilot' your relationship may have relaxed into will crash and burn. No matter how many years you've been married, or how in love you are, you'll have to really work at it, given that schedules are often changed last minute, and time's a scarce, valuable resource. I simply put dinner out on the table and go to sleep, because I know A will come in at 11:30, eat, and go on to work till 2, before sleeping till 10. Sometimes, it does seem like we're in different time zones. 

* Instead of having a whole office full of people to trade notes on and talk about, suddenly you are one of the few people your spouse interacts with. YOU are the idiot they've been dealing with all day, not their manager/colleague/report. In my case, as I've the year off, the reverse is true too. Impatience levels certainly run high - we expect the other person to be perfect, when the truth is, their perfection was especially clear on a relative scale. 

That said, there are a few factors which make the whole experience even more worthwhile and easy in our case.

* I do some freelance work for one of A's company's partners, so we invariably go into office together. It's been nearly three years since we worked out of the same space, and doing so just reminds us how our strengths and weaknesses nicely complement each other. We save each other a lot of time by talking business problems through (before you ask - no NDA's apply in this case). And it's always nice eating lunch together, or talking on the way home before it's work, work, work again.

* I'm in the uniquely lucky position of working in the same industry as A. I never wanted to be a start-up partner, but I enjoy helping out with his marketing, and I will absolutely demand a salary when his company starts making money. Until then, it's just nice not to helplessly watch from the sidelines as he powers through this.

* I'm often alone at home while A's out doing field work, or schmoozing. But, (a) I like having the house to myself every now and then to get all the chores out of the way, and (b) he shows up for doctor's appointments and anything important, no matter what. His schedule's his own, in a way that it couldn't have been at even the most flexible job. It pays off, in that he's never once missed a pregnancy related meeting, and sharing the experience with him has been special. 

For me, the most rewarding thing about watching A work on his company is seeing how much he's capable of. I eavesdrop on customer calls and marvel at his efficiency and the friendly-formal tone he manages to strike. I read his blog posts and marketing drafts, and am surprised by how much my generally reticent husband can think of to say. He's funnier, smarter, more driven, and more efficient than I could have ever imagined. 

Being unconstrained by someone else's rules has unleashed his potential in pretty much every direction, and watching him conquer areas that I know he struggles with has been amazing. I can't begin to describe the pride and happiness I feel in knowing that he isn't just subsisting from one day to the other. That, more than anything, convinces me that this experiment has been successful, no matter where we go from here.

Here's to TruckSumo.com. 

Oh, The Thinks You Can Think!

Now that I'm entering the third trimester, I wanted to stock up on the baby's first library - just 5-6 books. You won't believe how absurdly hard it is to find baby books in India. You get plenty of the paperback know-your-alphabet, know-your-numbers variety, but books that don't serve a specific (fairly boring) purpose don't seem to be in vogue. 

I shop online for the most part, so I checked BabyOye, Firstcry, and Landmark. No books for infants. Crossword had a children's fiction section, and I got excited, until I realized it included Twilight. Enough said. Flipkart actually had the best collection of all, but you wouldn't know it if you didn't search for specific titles, eg: Goodnight Moon. Otherwise, whether you sort by popularity or by price, the first few pages of search results are full of the read-to-learn type books. 

It's pretty depressing. Is no one reading to their infants just for the fun of it any more? Given most of the classics cost above Rs. 400 (for the paperback version!) and online pricing tends to be demand-driven, I'm guessing Indians aren't buying them by the bucketload. Dr. Seuss books seem to be the exception, so hopefully someone's reading those and/or they're being published here, instead of all being imported.

This super funny video says it better than I could:

One bit of silver lining was discovering a Facebook group called 'Best Book Deals for Kids.' Parents sell their used children's books here on a first-come first-served basis. I really like some of the titles posted. The only downside is that you can't guarantee seeing titles in the age range you're looking for, or that you'll be the first to grab them when they do. 

Meanwhile, if you'd really like to read to your infant but aren't sure where to start, here's my top ten list:

* The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle
* Mother Goose by Iona Opie/Sylvia Long
* Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown and Clement Hurd
* Balloonia by Audrey Wood
* The Cat in the Hat by Dr Seuss
* Dr Seuss' Sleep Book
* Dr Seuss' One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish
* Love You Forever by Robert Munsch and Sheila McGraw
* Each Peach, Pear, Plum by Janet and Allan Ahlberg
* Guess how much I love you by Sam McBratney

I have nothing against Indian authors, but I haven't heard of any books with alliteration or simple language for very young babies. If you know of any Indian authors who write for infants, I'd love to check them out. 

This is just a list off the top of my head, and I hear it's a fact that your brain literally shrinks in the third trimester. So are there any classics I'm missing? Let me know! Reccos are also welcome for slightly older babies.

Why I Quit My Job At Google: A 4-Year Lookback

Everyone seems to be writing these, recently. And unlike most of those authors, I've had more than four years of retrospective wisdom on my decision to quit. 

Google was my first job outside college, and it was fantastic. I met some of my favourite people in the world there - I even married one. I loved having resources to what was going on in the bigger organization, and in the internet space in general. It was easily the easiest job I've ever had (the brand sells itself). And it goes without saying that the perks made my life in a developing nation  more privileged than that of many people in first world countries. So why did I quit? 

1. I was scared I was getting too comfortable.  There's a limited amount of time you can spend in a cushy job before you get entrenched there out of fear, or inertia. It's like the frog in the frying pan - turn up the heat slowly, and it'll never notice it's being cooked.  
2014 Me says: Pschah. It was the right decision at the time, since this was my first job, and I wanted to make sure I wasn't a one-trick pony. My resume's definitely the better for it, not to mention my self-esteem. But if this isn't your first job and if you don't have some burning passionate career ambitions/start-up dreams, just stick with it. This is as good as it's going to get in any job where you aren't your own boss. 

2. Without sounding like a complete baby, I missed being home. Many of my close friends at Google had already quit, Hyderabad was a strange city, and I was craving some place familiar where I could be taken care of. Plus my parents were going to start looking for marriage matches, and it just occured to me that I'd never get a chance to get spoiled by them again.
2014 Me says: When you've stayed away from home for that long, you find it hard to be someone's child. I totally enjoyed it after the initial disorientation, but I think a long vacation may have served me just as well.

3. Honestly, cutting out all the diplomatic stuff, I thought I was capable of bigger, better, more creative, more challenging things. I was learning a lot from the organization and some people in it, but not enough from my role itself. And was I really going to work with just one product all my life?
2014 Me says: Again, not a great thing from your first job. Not the worst thing if you plan on an office job all your life - especially given how easy it is to move horizontally within Google, so you're constantly picking up new things. Since I'm being honest, I think our generation believes each of us is destined for greatness. And the truth is, we're not necessarily. Not for lack of talent even, but just for lack of discipline, or luck, or the guts to say stuff like money and social comparisons don't matter. I have this theory that the smartest people are the ones who don't bother. There is nothing wrong with doing a really great job at something that comes easily to you, and spending your time outside work learning, and doing whatever really energizes you. 

4. I was getting increasingly disillusioned with some of my colleagues - not because they weren't smart, but because I saw shortcuts being taken, and politics were becoming visible in certain factions.
2014 Me says: Every organization has idiots, and empty-boasters, and work shirkers. So Google wasn't an exception, despite the myth that only the best are hired. Big deal. It's not the end of the world.

So, to sum up, quitting Google was exactly the right thing for me at the time. Not because I've since found a career that fulfills or completes me, but because I've realized from working in different roles in different organizations that it's not up to a job to do that. It's up to me.

Changing the Rules

I'm completely rubbish at being Indian - I didn't think twice about leaving my husband at home while I travelled around for two months, but the idea of staying at one of our parents' places for the last two months of pregnancy is absolutely untenable. 

I have a great set of parents - natural, as well as the ones I inherited when I married. Both sets go all out to take care of me. But that's hardly the point. Marriage, as I see it, is a partnership. If you choose to parent, that becomes an inherent part of that partnership. Why, with all due respect, should we change the rules during pregnancy? Anyone else who wants to get involved is welcome but not, to be perfectly honest, vital.  

Is this just one more of those traditions that everyone takes at face value because it's too much trouble to question? I agree that if you stay in a joint family rather than with just your husband, you may be happier at your parents' place when you're heavily pregnant. But otherwise, I just don't see the logic. As long as you marry someone who's really your equal in every way, it's absurd to suggest you'd be more comfortable at your parents' house than in your own. I genuinely don't think I could be pampered at my parents' place any more  than I already am in my own. 

When he realized we're going from Double Income No Kids
to No Income One  Kid
Yes, I obviously do more work in my own house. But cooking for two or three people is hardly a hardship, especially given I'll have a maid around to clean up and wash the dishes. India, of all countries, really isn't a place where house work is ever very hard to conquer. Outsource the cooking if it gets too hard, or even the grocery shopping - in my opinion, it would be worth the slight additional expense to have A around.

He has been my partner on every step of this journey. He comes with me to doctor's appointments, and inspects maternity wards, occasionally even without me. His role does not - it can not - end when I'm seven months pregnant and begin again once I come back home with a 3-month old baby. He deserves to experience the birth of his baby... he has no less right to any of this than I do. He's the one I'm having this baby with. He is not some person who has visitation rights over weekends.

There are quite a few things that I do because I'm Indian, regardless of whether I personally believe in them or not. As I see it, if doing something doesn't trouble me, and if it pleases my relatives or my in-laws, I'm happy to oblige. But this is one of those times when tradition's just going to have to suck it up. 


"Don't do it," several different cab drivers advised us, on different occasions. Or, "Makes sense. Why stay so far away from family?" 

... In Canada, any conversation is an open invitation for everyone to join in!

Seriously though, it seems like everyone has an opinion on whether to live in India. Several of our friends have decided to move abroad over the last few years. Some get official transfers, and others decide to go over and try their chances. At the same time, people who have spent years in foreign countries have also decided to move back to India in the recent past. 

For us, the question wasn't, 'Should we move back to India?' 

It was, 'Should A start his own company?' 

The answer to the latter question is a resounding yes from my side, and a slightly shakier amen from A. Moving back to India is the inevitable side effect. (We seem to believe in each other's dreams more than our own, so it all works out).

I'm not saying we didn't talk it through, going over the pros and cons ad nauseum. But at the end of the day, it really boiled down to one thing - it was where he could get started with the company. His network is here. It's cheaper here. The business problem he wants to solve is more relevant here. And so here we are. The daily cons we experience - no sidewalks, no zebra crossings, and of course literal con men - don't make life easy, but are easy to ignore given we have a very good reason for being here.

That said, here's my tuppence's worth on whether you should move back to India, or stay here - nope. Not unless you have one of those solid reasons that cancel out everything else. Otherwise, even the richest person in this country still can't buy clean air, to name but one thing. 

I'm not one of those foren-returned snobs who turns up their nose at everything. Give me a break, I'm from here. None of this stuff is hard to get used to. But at the same time, it's just stupid to accept it all, when there's an alternative. I can't be one of those people who say India is the best, we invented the zero, etc. Of course I love being home and having friends and family close by (not to mention great food). But I think it's more patriotic to accept that for all its strengths, this country has some serious flaws. If you don't fret and fume about the flaws, how can you fix them? 'It's always been like this,' is just not good enough. I could spend my entire life trying to improve things in India - I've fund-raised and volunteered; I even pick up trash that's not my own - but I'm rather cynical about the outcome. I'd like to imagine this country can be fixed by the time my grandchildren grow up, but I wouldn't hold my breath. 

There are many people whose entire lives have been built here, and who are happy. But I firmly believe that they can be much happier elsewhere. Maybe there are exceptions to this rule. The strictly orthodox older demographic who've never lived anywhere else may just not be capable of change when it comes to dietary habits, for instance. My opion is addressed to my own generation, not theirs.

If you only live once, surely you'd want to live without having to fight to get the most basic necessities? I don't mean clothing and shelter, I mean efficient healthcare and decent breathing spaces. And that's why I wouldn't recommend living here if you didn't have a very good reason to.

Travelling While Pregnant: Do's & Don'ts

This is my favorite pregnancy pic. It says it all! This baby's definitely a traveler. We went to London, Scotland, New York, Vancouver, Banff, Lake Louise, the Athabasca Glacier, Jasper, and back to Toronto again... all just in the first trimester :) 

As for me, I realized that even the most seasoned traveler will find it's a whole different ball game when they're carrying more than just their luggage. Here are some things I learned, often in retrospect, over about five months of travelling with a baby on board.

- Your body doesn't belong to you any more. The same person who woke up at 5am in Rome couldn't be dragged awake at 9am when pregnant. For you, pregnancy may come with nausea, or fatigue, or any of a variety of unforgiving side effects. Factor the changes into all your decisions - what time you leave, how much you drive or walk, what time you start sight-seeing... and, of course, if it's even worth the effort of going. There's no shame in changing your plans. Speaking of which...

- Get travel insurance. The rate of miscarriage in the first trimester is cruelly high, and it's always better to be safe than sorry. I never had to use trip insurance, but you'll feel better knowing you have it. You can cancel a trip if you need to, or get medical help easily while travelling, without worrying about the bill.

- Pack smart. Like it or not, you ideally shouldn't be lifting weights. Find luggage that you can wheel everywhere. Put it under the seat in front of you, rather than in the overhead compartment, if you don't have someone to help you with it.

- Web check-ins are no longer optional. Do your best to get an aisle seat, or you'll be forcing someone else to get up multiple times while you use the restroom. You'll also have to get up to stretch your legs. Quite apart from all those scary stories about DVT, the fact is, your body just doesn't fit snugly into awkward plane seat angles in the same way as before. 

- Water, water everywhere. You're meant to drink at least 8 glasses of liquid a day while pregnant, very few of which actually stay in your body. Rest-room hunting can put a serious dampener on sightseeing. Look around and spot the nearest loo at all times. Carry change so you can use paid restrooms. Try to use the ones in restaurants when you stop for meals. On that same note...

- Plan your meals. A granola bar no longer counts as breakfast (note to my mom: I never passed this off as breakfast pre-pregnancy! Really!) and dinner can't be conviently skipped after loading up on junk. Not only are three full meals to be eaten, but it's also a good idea to have some snacks on hand.

- Cut yourself some slack. You just can't walk eight km a day like you used to. You want to sleep early. You want to sleep in. Your energy comes and goes. So figure out a list of things you absolutely don't want to miss, and make your peace with potentially sitting out the rest. Incidentally - also prime your company for this eventuality, or you'll be stuck with a grumpy companion who didn't plan to travel everywhere solo. (Major kudos to A for going canoeing alone. Especially when he can't even swim.)

- Plan around important test dates. A doctor can tell you exactly when, and if, you need to test for various things, depending on your history. From a fetal dating scan to stress-tests for gestational diabetes, these tests are often time sensitive. Make sure you have access to a clinic you trust when you need to take these. 

Most importantly - check with your doctor to see if you can travel, for how long, and by what means of transport. Each pregnancy is different, and I'm not the leading expert on anyone's except (possibly) my own.

Home Away From Home: An Ode to AirBnB

It makes my day when people say they used my notes on their European travels. A frequent follow-up question is: Where did you stay? Being my age or thereabouts, these folks have mostly outgrown hostels. For a night or two, sure, a hostel's okay. But for longer term stays, I swear by AirBnB.com

AirBnB is an online platform where you can book a room or an entire house in different cities. You can choose how much space you want, what amenities the house should have, which part of the city it should be in... anything you want, really. The trust-based review system is pretty awesome. You enter your payment information, but aren't actually charged until you get to the place, and don't complain to AirBnB. Ideally, you'd pick a place that has many positive reviews so that you don't find yourself in that position at all. 

As a digital marketer, I'm in awe of their system. They've figured out a brilliant alternative to accommodation. Personally, it's often made my trips even better. It saves me the most important commodities I can possess while travelling - time, and money.

Location, location, location: Staying in the city center, or near the places you want to visit, can save you a lot of money, and, even more importantly, can save you valuable time. I've noticed (affordable) hotels are rarely near the places I want to visit as a tourist. AirBnB's, on the other hand, are all over the city, and you can often find one in an ideal location for a fraction of a price you'd pay at a hotel.

Home away from home: When you're away for a while, it helps to have the stuff you're used to at home. A functional kitchen to grab a lazy bowl of cereal... because you shouldn't have to head out early when you're on vacation. A washing machine. Wifi! You'll find hotels in many countries charge extra - and exorbitantly - for perks like these. At an AirBnB, apply the right filters, and you can have anything you want. It also helps to have someone welcome you in an unfamiliar city, and answer all your questions.

Group vacays: I've used AirBnB as a solo traveller before and had absolutely no complaints. But the site really shines when you're travelling in a group. While you'd have to pay for two hotel rooms, or cramp together in a hostel dorm otherwise; with AirBnB you can have the run of a house to yourself. Even if you're just travelling with one other person, it's always more fun to have a house to yourself rather than be confined to one room.

From a shotgun house on St. George Street during Mardi Gras (for less than $50!) to a XVII century apartment near the Seine in Paris (for $55 a night), AirBnB has enriched my trips, and helped me create memories I couldn't have otherwise experienced. 

This isn't a sponsored review, just some thanks sent their way. If you do decide to use AirBnB, let me know - I'm happy to share the tips that have helped us find the best places.

Where we've been

We've been working on a new-age fairytale.

Baby Rao is due this Valentine's!

... And that's as good an excuse for not posting in a while as any (eg: we were busy moving our finances, shifting our stuff from one continent to the other, finding a new house, starting up a business, and so on. In comparison, growing a baby does seem ridiculously easy).

Seriously though, I have been writing, just not on this blog. I'll take a look at my drafts and start posting bi-weekly again. Hurray for the return of a wireless internet connection! 

Exhaustion & epiphanies

Yesterday, I said, "Let's not go anywhere for at least a year. Maybe even two." And I meant it. Travel fatigue has hit us, and hit us hard. Don't get me wrong, the world's still beautiful - but home feels like the best part of it, for now. I could sleep for a week.

While I do that... here are some not-so-tired thoughts I had on travel earlier this year. You may recognize some of these photos/thoughts from the Europe posts. I put this together for A when he asked me what I thought about while travelling solo.

I am nothing if not quotable. And now, goodnight.

Where we're going next

A friend messaged me recently, "Didn't you go somewhere else also after Europe?"

I did. I went somewhere else before, as well. Sadly or otherwise, I don't intend to blog about it all, mainly because I don't think there's value-add from my writing about places where I haven't put in the research time. But the question did make me look back at all the holidays A & I have taken since we got married. I estimate we went to more than 7 places a year... and that's excluding repeat visits to the same places, solo vacays, and visits to what I call the 'home' cities of Madras, Bangalore, Hyderabad & Tirupati. (How did we get any work done? It's a mystery. It's been a charmed life, that's for sure).

We're putting all the air miles we've collected over the years to good use with our next trip. They're going to be paying for us to see Vancouver, the Rockies & Newfoundland in Canada. And after that, we're going on another very special adventure - one where we don't anticipate any 'holiday time' for at least a couple of years. Unlike our usual vacation planning ("Hey, cheap fare. Want to go?"), this plan's been obsessed over, on & off, for as long as we've known each other, and even before that. *drumrolls* A's going to be starting his own company, while I continue taking the rest of this year off to write my book. 

It's a bit odd - we've lived together in Toronto for longer than we have back home! It's going to be interesting going back, especially since we'll be going to Bangalore, where neither of us has ever lived full-time. A new public transport system to figure out, new furniture to buy, new routines to settle into. But I'm thrilled to be in the same city as many members of my family & quite a few friends. It certainly tilts the scales nicely. I've no doubt it'll be well worth it... if only because there'll be no looking back and wondering 'What if?'

Call it irrational, but in between being terrified, I'm actually kind of excited! The next three years are likely going to be the polar opposite of the first three we've enjoyed, but I have no doubt they'll be just as fun in their own mad way.

PS: That picture was taken at the Toronto Harbourfront last summer. We're going to miss this gorgeous city.


Scotland throws up all kinds of philosophical questions.

Like, what did Indians listen to on road-trips before Dil Chahta Hai & Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara came along?

Or, if you see unbelievable beauty everywhere you look, will it start becoming humdrum?

Can any accountant/lawyer/similar in Scotland not also be a musician/poet/artist of some sort?

Is there a more foodgasmic experience than the sticky toffee pudding at Cuan Mor in Oban? 

Do the guides here occasionally make up folk tales because it's so hard not to believe the ones that are 'real' are conjured up?

And, how do you pronounce Edinburgh anyway?

Scotland's a place with as much vastness as there are pronunciations of Edinburgh, sheep in the fields, storm clouds in the sky. Driving through, it felt like we'd gone right into another dimension, and could keep driving on, with the amazing views stretching to eternity. It makes you feel very small, in the best possible way (I didn't even feel this dwarfed in Rome!).

We stayed in Edinburgh for a day and a half, and decided we needed new informants, because everyone had assured us there wasn't much to do there. No one had warned us we'd want to spend the rest of our lives right here. This was especially the case after being walked around by Sandemans - if you're in the city, this is the tour to go on (thanks for the tip, Vimal!)

Then, we drove down to Isle of Skye in Portree, bypassing Inverness, and had to revise our opinion of Edinburgh. This was, if possible, even better. The cherry on the cake was the amazing rainbow we saw stretching across the sky as we drove through in search of dinner. It wasn't the usual quarter or half rainbow that you see; this was a full-blown, expect a pot of gold at the end kind. 

We spent a day just driving around Isle of Skye, marveling at how much natural beauty the island contained. Of course, we had to stop by the Talisker distillery to see how the famous Scotch was made. We earned our scotch passports here, and went to another distillery, just to get an extra stamp on them :)

Finally, going through Glencoe/Fort William to Oban, we found the best food we'd had all trip long, served alongside a picture perfect harbour. By now, we'd been exposed to awe inspiring views for four days straight, and coming back to London, pretty though it is, was a bit of a shock. Which answers one of our questions anyway - you do get used to beauty disappointingly fast. The good news is, with some distance, you start remembering it all properly, and it starts making your heart ache again, just the way it did when you first saw it.

Scotland is completely under-rated. Yes, the weather's often gloomy, and there's no telling when it'll start raining. There are no sidewalks, so there's no way to enjoy it on foot. But if you have a car, Scotland is the closest you'll get to heaven on earth. And that sticky toffee pudding is... just... (I don't even like desserts - famous last words!)

And with that, it was back to regular life. Given regular life is attempting to write my book, I can't complain. A keeps calling this a trip of a lifetime. I like the fact that he uses 'a' rather than 'the.' I've no doubt we'll do something of such epic proportions a few more times in this lifetime.


The UK's home to many legendary creatures - changelings and faeries, the Loch Ness, Jack O' Kent, and, of course, the romantic hero, as epitomized by Hugh Grant. I came across the real life version of that last mythical creature the minute my train from France pulled into King's Cross station. Fresh from a 12 hour flight journey, A clearly had his priorities right, and had dragged over his luggage, our friends, and their luggage (thanks, guys) to greet me. And this three years into our marriage. Who says things like that only happen in movies? 

I was thrilled to see him after nearly two months apart, and promptly revealed which parts of travelling solo hadn't come naturally to me by letting him take over all of them. Through our time in England & Scotland, I refused to carry more than five GBP. I took ten pictures over ten days (none of the pictures in this post are mine). I surrendered my maps cheerfully, along with my obsessive notes. Ah, the joys of having someone else be the responsible one. 

At the same time, I won't deny that it was strange to suddenly have company... not to mention hearing all that English around me! No more waking up at dawn. No more walking all over a city on foot. A lot more coordination and planning. It would have been an even bigger adjustment if I wasn't travelling with these particular people, who all had very similar interests. I think we'll all agree that the highlights of London were:

Seeing The Phantom of the Opera. Weirdly enough, I hadn't seen a live musical before, just televised ones. The real life spectacle was magnificent. The props and lighting, in particular, inspired the kind of awe that we've grown immune to when we see special effects on other screens. I can't recommend this show, in particular, highly enough. And if you do go, can you please send me a postcard with the Phantom on it? It was the one thing I didn't have time to find, and I'm still kicking myself.

The Natural History Museum, particularly the dinosaur exhibit. I vaguely remembered this from the last time I'd visited, back when I was eight or nine, which should say it all. This definitely isn't just for kids.

Visiting Oxford, especially because my childhood friend, Vimal, took time out to walk us around, showing us things we wouldn't have otherwise seen, and telling us what we wouldn't have otherwise known. This wouldn't have been nearly as amazing without him (Cambridge wasn't!). 

Bath, particularly The Pump Room, which was just as proper and grand as I'd imagined. I suspect the group came along to humour me, an ardent Austenite, but they probably enjoyed the scones nonetheless. Everyone agreed it would have been nice to spend a couple of days in Bath, regardless of the literary associations, just to admire the quaintness of it all. 

Wimbledon, which I missed since I was visiting relatives, but which I was told had a very informative tour and scrummy strawberries and cream. I'm not too fussed, not being a big tennis fan myself, but I loved seeing A & R's happy faces outside Wimbledon. I imagine it's the face I had on when I encountered the Rosetta Stone. (Can you imagine if all knowledge of English were lost, and someone generations from now found the key to decipher it? Suddenly, Shakespeare, and Tennyson, and the script of Gilmore Girls and everything would be available to mankind again. </geekjoy>).

I also geeked out over the original Beatles manuscripts/Austen folios in the British Library, and really enjoyed Stratford upon Avon when I went there earlier too. So I'd add these to this list of absolute must-do's for anyone visiting London. My aunt & uncle are there this month, and I can't wait to compare notes!


I started this series talking about the incomparable experience of  walking through Rome before the sun rose. It seems fitting to end the narrative of my solo trip by saying that a Parisian sunset is similarly unparalleled, especially when experienced ('seen' seems too small a word) from one of the city's many bridges. It inspired me to stop thinking about writing, and put pen to paper. I wish I could say more, but I'm trying to save it for the book. So for now, I'm going to resort to telling you other peoples' stories of Paris; focusing on the ones you don't hear about as often.

The oldest bar/cabaret in Paris, Au Lapin Agile was, and remains, a haunt of 'unknown' artists. Picasso, Utrillo and Modigliani, among many others, were patrons at one time. Picasso painted Au Lapin Agile and gave the painting to the bar owners who later sold it, in 1920, for US$20. It was auctioned at Sotheby's, in 1989, for US$42 million!

Abbesses is one of the only two remaining Art Nouveau stations designed by Hector Guimard in Paris. I was surprised to see an elevator in the station - the only one I saw in Paris, a city which gave my legs a thorough workout. It was only after climbing down about 150 of the curved steps Guimard had designed (and seeing no end in sight) that I realized I should have taken it.

The Père Lachaise cemetery was founded in 1804, when the need for a new Parisian burial ground became urgent for reasons of space and hygiene. The cemetery wasn't too popular, so as a marketing move, the body of Moliere was shifted here. Moliere was the French comedian who ironically suffered fatally while performing the part of a hypochondriac in a play. More than 1 million burials have happened here since, and space now has to be leased out and renewed.

Le Palais Royal is one of those buildings which could be used as a history text book. Louis XIV lived here before Versailles. It became the HQ for duc d'Orleans, who used to host 'debating clubs' here, the precursors to political parties. In 1781, he had to rent  it to raise money & Madam Tussaud's first wax shop was built here (you should read about her part in the French Revolution; it's grisly to say the least). It became a 19th century mall. Today, it's a government building.

Le Bon Marche is 'the other building' created by Eiffel. The oldest department store in Paris, it contains the exorbitant, the exotic, the over-the-top. I was particularly fascinated to find over fifty different kinds of salt, and furniture that looked too decorative to be used - this place really does sell everything.

A special shout-out to a couple of places which aren't often on visitors' agendas, but should be. The first is the Memorial des martyrs de la Deportation, which provided me with the most evocative sense of life in a Jewish ghetto, and absolutely has to be experienced. The other is the Petit Palais, a free museum boasting an impressive collection of pieces by Cassatt, Monet, and others. If the building had nothing at all in it, it would still be worth seeing, especially for its indoor garden.

Most tourists know to go here already, but it must be said - a visit to Shakespeare & Company will change the pace of your day, even if you're not a book-lover. At the funeral of the owner, George Whitman, it was said 'He lived in a way that made the rest of us ask, “Why should we be afraid of life?”' You'll find yourself reveling in that simple optimism for as long as you're in the store's vicinity.

For more logistical details about these/other sights and how you can fit them into a day's sightseeing, here are my notes. Here's my FAQ doc on Paris; and here's the last installment of my photo-stories. 

And some day, when I finish my book, I hope you'll read what I really want to say about Paris, because something this objective definitely isn't it. Not all who wander are lost, but when you wander the streets of Paris, you may unexpectedly chance upon yourself.

Food Round-Up: Austria & Germany

I was excited about eating my way through My Favourite Things (crisp apple strudels, schnitzel with noodles...) but a little daunted by recollections of my dad's trip to Frankfurt when he'd found very little to eat other than bread, and very little to drink other than beer. As it happened, I found more than enough to eat and love. However, I realized that local dishes which were inherently vegetarian were sometimes off menu or only available in a couple of restaurants, and I was glad I'd put in some compulsive research time before my trip. I'm going to save you some time and put down a list.

Brotchen: Bite sized open faced sandwiches with toppings you don't see anywhere else. I had onion and mushroom, carrot and cream cheese, and tomato chutney. The cost of these little things start to add up, but they make for a satisfying meal in between meals, and Trzesniewski is a Viennese institution.

Schnitzel: Usually made of tenderized meat, Vienna has several options made with tofu or TVP. I'm not usually a fan of food that's, essentially, processed, but in this case I'm willing to make an exception. The schnitzel at Landia in Vienna was a-ma-zing. I also went a little overboard and ordered their goulash with dumplings, another traditional dish which they veganized with great success.

Käsespätzle: Called 'little sparrow' since the hand shaped noodles resembled little birds, this pasta dish melds grated Emmenthaler cheese and fried onions in a pre-ordained love-match. There are other versions which include minced cauliflower which are equally good. Other cheese based pasta/noodle dishes are Kaspressknödel, and Kasnozk'n. You'll find nice versions at Andreas Hofer Steingasse in Salzburg.

Liptauer: I've told this story before, but Andreas Hofer Steingasse went out of their way to make me this traditional bread dish. It's a spicy spread made with sheep/goat's milk cheese mixed with sour cream, finely chopped spring onions, and some combination of flavours that make the whole thing sing. If you don't experience it in Salzburg, try the similar obatzda, served at most beer halls in Munich.

Currywurst: More commonly associated with other parts of Germany, Bergwolf in Munich nonetheless serves up an excellent vegetarianized version. This fast food dish consists of a full plate of fries (fake meat optional) seasoned with curry ketchup.

Special mention must be made of the Mozart balls in Salzburg, which, while commercial, taste like they deservedly won prizes (Cafe Furst has the best, though they're more expensive); butter brezel in Munich which is the only salted pretzel I actually like; schneeballs in Rothenburg which were the size of my head but well worth the calories; and the infamous sacher torte, a layered chocolate & apricot cake which turned out to be less dry than I'd feared.

Also - I should mention that I usually check out the McDonald's menu in every city I visit. It's a helpful index of prices and tastes. I was delighted to note Munich had the only vegetarian burger I've seen outside of India, and it honestly tasted incredibly good, way better than the McAloo Tikki. Clearly a lot has changed between the time my dad visited Frankfurt and now.

A full round-up of food reccos for Germany/Austria is here.

Around Munich

To give you some context, I visited Italy for the food, Austria for nostalgia, Paris for the arts, and Munich because... I had to visit Dachau. Of course there’s more to the city, but this was the main reason I was here. Dachau was the first camp, instituted before concentration camps were conceived of. It was mostly used to house people who opposed the Reich, to begin with. It eventually became a worker’s camp, where people were put to work until they died. It was a very powerful moment for me to come face to face with the doors proclaiming 'Work will set you free,' and remember all the atrocities I'd read about.

German school children mandatorily visit a concentration camp and learn about its history. I saw two or three groups at Dachau - in fact, I saw teachers talk to kids pretty much everywhere I went in Munich. I've to say, I really admire the German education system. They've fast & slow track learning systems based on both ability as well as inclination, which strikes me as being right. They've a rigorous test to get into college, but college itself is cheap. I think they've cracked something - Germany has one of the highest average earnings in the world; and, despite being roughly the size of Montana, consistently produces 1/4th the GDP of the entire United States. 

They've clearly moved past WWII but you can see it's irreversibly marked the country. I was told that very few people know the words to their national anthem, and that the German flag is rarely flown in the country. It's almost like they've the opposite of nationalism now; which is a shame when you consider what else Germany has produced - Martin Luther, the Gutenberg press, Wagner, Beethoven (the last two weren't Austrian. Hitler was, but everyone assumes he's German. As my husband pointed out - tremendous PR work by Austria, there). 

As for Munich itself, it rained non-stop while I was there. I was staying in one of the most character-full buildings in town, so I didn't mind being rained out. Only 4% of the buildings in Munich survived WWII bombing, and this was one of them. Another place I enjoyed when it was pouring down was the Hofbrauhaus (beer of the royal court) - it's the most famous beer hall in Munich and had a really authentic recreation of the old hall from the 1880's + a museum where it's easy to while away a couple of hours. I know a lot more about beer now. Munich's drinking culture really amuses me. I came out of the train station at about 7am, and overheard a customer ask for a refill

In the brief interludes of sunshine, I decided to ignore the 6 degrees temperature (I live in Canada, after all), and sought out Munich's outdoor offerings, including hikes up the Olympic Park hill and urban surfing in the English Gardens. 

I also got to see a little bit of Bavaria when I took a day trip out to Rothenburg ob der Tauber, the poster child of the Romantic Road. I was expecting to see another Lucca, but was pleasantly surprised. Rothenburg is like no other place in Europe, or really, the world. It belongs in fairytales. I loved everything about it - the views, the castles, the moats, the carefully handcrafted wooden toys... I really think it beats the Disney franchises in terms of sheer magic appeal. I'd happily come back here with kids, preferably around the time when they're starting to question Santa Claus, or shooting stars, or whatever else. No easier way to reinstate belief, all around. 

My notes on getting to Rothenburg, as well as on top sights in Munich are here. Photo-stories are here.