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Stopover in Athens (with a toddler)

Nearly every “traveling with a toddler” article emphasizes the importance of managing your expectations, and I couldn’t agree more. We used to land in a city with a come-what-may attitude—no particular itinerary or schedule, just a list of things that might be interesting to check out. But underneath that free-form agenda was the expectation that we would see and do a certain number of things. Now that we have a toddler, we have to be a lot clearer with ourselves and with each other about what we want out of a trip.

First and foremost, of course, we want Veeru to be safe and reasonably happy, which is more demanding outside the systems and routines of home. So when we visited Athens for a long stopover on our way from Philly to Muscat, we had just two goals (aside from the primary be-decent-parents goal): (1) get over jet lag and (2) see the Parthenon. This seemed more than reasonable for a 4-day trip, and I’m happy to report that we did those things and a few more! Here are some highlights, in roughly chronological order.

Airbnb on Praxitelous

The Airbnb we chose was in Monastiraki, near the metro, with windows on all sides looking out onto the neighborhood and a terrace view of the Parthenon. Knowing that we would be home for Veeru’s 7:30pm bedtime each night, having a place where we could hang out and feel that we were still in Athens was important. The view was, as promised, incredible.

I was a little nervous about the flat, however, because one of the reviews noted two fairly serious drawbacks: the blinds did nothing to block out the light in the morning and the loud church bells started at 6:30am. Both of these things are great for getting over jet lag, but that’s the thing about getting over jet lag: The fastest and most effective way to do it is also the most painful.

Here’s the beautiful, noisy church.

The natural light definitely helped reset our clocks, and it was nice to have Athens all around us while we putzed at home. (We supper-n-Skyped one evening.)

Veeru never did sleep before 8 pm because it was so bright in the flat, but ultimately that was a reasonable price to pay for such amazing scenery.

National Garden

We’ve always enjoyed happening upon a nice public park in our travels, but now that we have Veeru, we’re like greenspace-seeking missiles. The National Garden in Athens is large and busy enough for decent people-watching without being chaotic. The gravel paths are not great for strollers, but the point was to let Veeru walk around so it didn’t matter much.

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There’s a little zoo with some peacocks and goats and this turtle pond.

Veeru took his midday nap in the stroller, and we enjoyed a quiet lunch on nearby Tsakalof Street, which is closed to traffic and lined with restaurants and pubs.

We headed back to the much-lauded playground at the National Garden, but alas it was closed for some reason. So we enjoyed the tree-lined promenades. The jacarandas were just starting to flower.

Who needs playground equipment anyway?

National Archaeological Museum

Our Airbnb host pooh-poohed the archaeological museum, probably because it’s in a relatively grimy (but not dangerous) neighborhood. That’s not really a deterrent for us, so we went ahead. The longish walk was made longer by a wrong turn, but we like long walks.

The plan was to tire Veeru out in this open space in front of the museum and then look at the exhibits while he napped.

This didn’t work, probably because of the morning’s long stroller ride. He was definitely tired but refused to sleep. By the time he settled down and closed his eyes, we needed a sit-down ourselves. The museum cafeteria is in this lovely little garden in the center of the building.

We did rally and look at some of the statues and vases and so forth. I’m used to archaeological museums displaying a shard of something here and a snippet of something there, but this place had tons and tons of fully intact artifacts—so many that I started to wonder if ancient Greece was… less ancient than I thought. (It was, in fact, quite ancient.) Anyway, after seeing 20 examples of one style of vase, it’s kind of cool to see how they differ from the style of vase that was popular for the next couple hundred years. And the next. And the next.

Okay, maybe that’s why our Airbnb host wasn’t calling this place a must-see. Still, I’m glad we went. It was interesting as a whole, if the details were a bit repetitive (though still impressive for being so old), and the grubby grounds outside were charming.

Pedion Areos

This Pedion Areos park is very close to the National Archaeological Museum, and I might’ve forgotten we went there at all except that apparently I took a ton of photos.

It’s not as well-kept as the National Garden, but Veeru did not care in the slightest.

He enjoyed throwing rocks and, as we were leaving, finding new ways to ride in the stroller.

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On the way back to our neighborhood, there was a lot of interesting street art.

Our outings focused mostly on the area south of our Airbnb, so it was nice to branch out north a little and see some variety.

The Acropolis

We used to avoid guided tours like the plague, but things have changed, and for something like this, it’s worth it just for the line-jumping privileges. (Next thing you know I’ll be rationalizing a Caribbean cruise….)

Veeru took an abbreviated nap that ended as soon as we started up the hill, so he was strapped to my back and squirming whenever I stopped walking. I paced back and forth at the periphery of our group while the tour guide explained that this was the world’s first theater.

I didn’t catch much more of what the tour guide said on the way up, but Karan got a lot out of it. This was his pick, so that was fair enough.

It was blustery at the top but the views were spectacular…

And of course, the Parthenon itself is pretty incredible.

I will readily admit that I was not looking forward to this adventure, and I would’ve been relieved—though somewhat ashamed—if we had decided to skip it. Veeru doesn’t like to be confined, and if I hadn’t kept pacing, his squirming would’ve been unbearable. All in all though, it wasn’t too bad. Veeru did not enjoy himself, but he did not pitch a fit, which is impressive for a person with virtually no impulse control.

This is not the first family selfie at an internationally renowned tourist site where Veeru looks unimpressed.

Karan took over Veeru-toting duties for the descent.

So I could take a couple more photos.

It did feel like Veeru had given us a pass after several days of running around in parks, as though he knows that we’ve turned our travel habits inside out and upside down to accommodate his needs and preferences. Maybe?

Here’s Veeru with sweat-and-sunblock-stung eyes, listening to a dulcimer at the foot of the Acropolis.

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Metropolitan Cathedral

On our first night in Athens, we wandered around Plaka in a jet-lagged stupor and then had supper at a restaurant in a cobblestone square near the Metropolitan Cathedral. There was space for Veeru to run around, so we took turns amusing him while we ate our meal.

The Agios Eleftherios Church sits in the cathedral’s shadow.

At the end of each day, when we were fried from touring but Veeru still needed to run around before bed, we came back to the cathedral so he could run up and down the ramp.

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Or climb on the lion.

We never even went inside, but when I think of Athens, I’ll always think of how this place was safe and familiar.

These trips, though fun and interesting, are kind of like an endurance sport. There are moments in the midst of the exertion when it feels like why? why? why? do we do this to ourselves?! But looking back, it’s clear that it was definitely worth the trouble.

I was a bit more aware than usual of how different it would be if we were still traveling as a couple of barflies. The nightlife there is robust, from what I could hear from the terrace, and the ubiquitous sidewalk cafés looked so very relaxing. But that’s for another traveler, or perhaps another visit!

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Let Me Sum Up

I’ll dispense with the blah-blah-blah about why I stopped blogging and why I feel like starting again now. Let’s just catch up on the last 2.5 years, shall we?

I realized a few months after I stopped posting here that I wanted some record of our travels, so I resurrected my flickr account and have been uploading photos there a few times a year. If I could go back and do it again I would include a lot more tags and captions, but it was already a bit tedious to sort and choose the photos after such long intervals so I didn’t bother. Anyway, here are albums of the places we’ve visited in Oman, some of them more than once:

And because Muscat is on the other side of the planet from Philadelphia, we’ve taken a few opportunities to explore a few places that would otherwise be prohibitively far away:

  • Istanbul – K had a conference and I tagged along
  • Bucharest and Sinaia – to visit our friend, Matei
  • Sri Lanka – traveling with Philly friends Pedro and Len
  • Srinagar  and Leh – the majestic Himalayas, with K’s Mumbai cousins, Shyam and Ami
  • Kerala – the first democratically elected communist state, again with our comrade Matei
  • Goa – traveling with some Muscat friends, Cristina and Iñaki and their 10-month-old daughter, Erica

And in an effort to soften the blow of jet lag when traveling to and from Philadelphia, we’ve taken to stopping in Europe to poke around and adjust our circadian rhythms (some of these albums have photos from long-ago visits):

  • Venice – we definitely slept through a lot of this trip
  • Ireland – Dublin, Cork, and Sheep’s Head Island
  • Spain – Madrid, Panticosa (in the Pyrenees), and Barcelona

In other news, I did a CELTA course, which was grueling but worthwhile for many reasons. I taught a few classes at AMIDEAST before they closed down their Muscat office last summer, and I did quite a bit of freelance copy editing – always my favorite. I started studying Arabic with a tutor and Spanish more casually using online learning tools. We also moved house within Muscat, which was kind of a pain but we like our new place much better.

Last but not least, at the end of November 2016 K and I welcomed our son, Veeru. I have it on good authority that he is the best baby ever made.

I’m not sure how or if I’ll proceed with updating this space. So if you have a minute – dear handful of friends I’ve reached out to – let me know which of the places or topics I’ve mentioned above you’d like to hear more about. TIA!

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Wadi Shab

Last Friday, K and I went on a hike in Wadi Shab, which is a couple of hours’ drive down the coast from Muscat. It’s a scenic drive, though this doesn’t do it justice.

highway scenery

Wadi means “valley” or “watercourse” in Arabic. Two posts ago I mentioned that it means “hamlet” in Hindi, but I’m guessing it’s Urdu and shares some etymology with the Arabic word. For what it’s worth, I think most of the hamlets in Oman would be found in or near wadis, because a lot of the countryside doesn’t look particularly habitable (see photo above).

Anyway, there was parking and public bathrooms where the wadi passes under the highway, and because it was the weekend, there were lots of people around picnicking and such. To get to the trail, you have to cross this river.

River

Normally there are boats to take you across for a small fee, but none of the boatmen were working that day and the river is only about waist-deep, so we waded across. I’m not sure what clothes are best for this sort of adventure, but I was wearing hiking pants and semi-disposable canvas shoes that were pretty comfortable even when sopping wet. K said that he would go across barefoot next time and carry his hiking boots (he was wearing sneakers this time), but I was kind of squicked about the squishy riverbed, so I probably will not be doing this part barefoot.

The trail starts in this grove of palm trees on the other side of the river.

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Which is pretty and all, but the scenery gets more dramatic as you go into the canyon.

canyon

 

canyon 2

And then the canyon narrows and the real fun begins.

wadi 1

There were tons of people grilling and chilling here, and I noticed that in some spots the draft was as cool as air-conditioning. I’m sorry to report that there was a lot of trash around, too, which is really sad. I’m not sure if a crew comes and cleans up occasionally, but in the meantime, ick.

wadi 2

Still, the water was beautiful.

K’s sneakers were full of pebbles from the river, so we paused at a little pool to rinse our feet.

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And later to watch some kids cliff-jumping. cliff-diving

When the canyon widened a bit, there was a huge boulder field that we didn’t think to photograph because we were still looking for the trail that had disappeared and trying not to break our ankles. After the canyon turned left, we kept going up and up and then realized that the way to the cave K had heard about was through the pools at the bottom, not along the sides. We were probably standing somewhere above it here.

pools

Some of the pools were too deep to wade across so we left our backpack near a pile of other backpacks and began the swimming portion of our outing.

pool

Everything beyond this was essentially a natural waterpark. In fact, I think some waterparks are designed to approximate these kinds of rocks and pools. It’s weird when natural things remind me of fake things.

Kids were jumping off ledges and paddling around, and the water was lovely. We’re used to swimming in the super-salty sea though, so staying afloat in the freshwater required some effort, especially with shoes on. K removed his sneakers to go investigate the cave at the back but I’m a coward and have seen too many scary movies, so I stayed back. He reported that he had to go underwater through a passage about 8 feet long to get in, and that the cave was very beautiful but there was nothing on the walls to grab so everyone was sort of awkwardly treading water as they looked around. Sounds like a death-trap to me. Maybe next time.

When we’d had enough and realized the sun was going to go down soon, we made our way back through the boulder field.

boulder field

I love bouldering, even in flimsy canvas shoes.

It was definitely getting late as we made our way back.

canyon 3
We really should start these hikes earlier in the day.

Anyway, this was pleasantly tiring (we walked, bouldered, swam, bouldered, walked—almost like a triathlon! or something) and unlike any hike we’ve ever done. It is high on my growing list of stuff to do with visitors, should we be lucky enough to get any. Come see us! We’ll take you to Wadi Shab!

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Pune Notes

In the middle of our trip, we took an intercity bus (sort of a cross between a Megabus and a Greyhound, I guess) from Mumbai to Pune, where K lived for a few years as a student. It took forever to get out of Mumbai, but once we did, the scenery was breathtaking. There were all these little waterfalls pouring down lush, green mountainsides. Unfortunately, I have not mastered the skill of taking decent photos through the rain-streaked window of a moving bus, so you’ll have to take my word for it.

Taking cellphone video from a moving rickshaw, however, I can do. Pune is much more chill than Mumbai, and there are a lot more young people around. Just imagine the smell of diesel to complete the sensory experience of this next video.

Pune Rickshaw 1

It’s strange that I’ve written two posts about India without mentioning the absolutely insane traffic. This next video gets that across much better, though because it’s in Pune and not Mumbai, it’s not nearly as extreme as it can get. Rather than let the incessant honking stress me out, I thought of it as more casual than hostile, like “Hi! You there! I know you won’t use your indicator or look over your shoulder before changing your trajectory, so meep-meep, FYI, I’m here!”  (Also, I realize it’s unsettling, but people cover their faces because of the pollution, not for modesty or banditry, for the most part.)

Pune Rickshaw 2

Anyway, we visited some family friends, walked around Ferguson College, did a little shopping, saw some tourist sites. I’m so behind on this chronicle that it seems absurd to keep going, but for old time’s sake, here’s me standing beside a giant banyan tree.

Banyan Tree

This was in a park outside a shrine that we visited, which I described in my notebook as follows:

…a basalt cave with straight pillars and swept stone floors. There were a few older women sitting around looking out at the courtyard. There was the smell of incense coming from the shrines, which were smaller, deeper caves that we didn’t enter or photograph.

To be super meta about it, here’s a picture K took of me at the German Bakery, where I probably wrote that last bit.

German Bakery

Whoever designed those mugs was not thinking of the south-paws in our midst, though I guess drinking coffee with your nondominant hand isn’t that big a deal. Our hostess in Mumbai had a set as well, so they are not super uncommon. Anyway, this is what I wrote (later) about the German Bakery:

There was a metal-detector, bag search, and (for K) a pat-down at the door because there was a bomb blast there a few years ago… What makes the security measures especially strange is that it’s a coffeehouse, a small one. We had americanos, served with heart-shaped cookies we didn’t touch because we’ve been overeating so constantly.

It appears that years of technical writing have killed whatever poetry used to inject itself into my notebooks, but the crisp little reminders of moments and moods are fun to collect, and they’re not always quite as dry as these. Also, during those moments and moods, a little scribble break is pretty refreshing regardless of what comes of it, and it’s a break for K as well because it forces me to stop talking for a few minutes.

And this has officially gone off the narrative rails.

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Foggy Hamlet

I realize this continues to be a superficial account of our trip to India, but I’m very conscious of how my worldview as a Westerner colors things, which makes a deeper account of it time-consuming and fraught. So I’ll continue with the pictures as I sort things out.

A few days into our visit, K’s cousin took us out to his mango farm a couple of hours north of Mumbai.* It’s near a little village called Dhundalwadi, which means “foggy hamlet.” The farm is extremely beautiful, especially in the rainy season, which K and I were very much enjoying after our last couple months in the desert.

Monsoon K

We sat on the veranda by the little courtyard chatting for an hour or two.

Courtyard

That is K’s cousin’s wife, Ami. If I learned nothing else from this trip (though I hope I learned another thing or two), I learned that it’s much easier to place everyone on a family tree when you actually meet them in person instead of just hearing their names. This next photo is K’s aunt whom I know as badi-mami-ji (“mami” means that she is the wife of K’s maternal uncle, “badi” specifies that it was the elder of the maternal uncles, and “ji” is respectful—these things get very specific).

Badi Mami Ji

She is an excellent person and all of her outfits were as beautiful as this one.

For lunch we drove to a roadside restaurant for kebabs. It was called Parsi Dabba, but K said the food was Punjabi. (I’m not equipped to argue the differences between Parsi and Punjabi cuisine. Someday.) The customers sat under tents in a garden and the server carried a monsoon umbrella to deliver the food from the kitchen to the tables. If I had to choose a favorite meal in India, this one would win for atmosphere. The food was good, too. Paneer tikka is my new favorite thing.

Parsi Dabba crop

After lunch we came back to the farmhouse and the ladies took a nap while K and I had a couple beers with his cousin, Shyam. (Shyam-bhaiya, to us.)

Shyam and K

We were sitting on this… raised gazebo-like thing?

gazebo treehouse

I wouldn’t have noticed that the wood is just a covering on the concrete construction, but it seems obvious now that actual wood would not survive a single rainy season. Wood disintegrates quickly in this climate. Except the live stuff, of course.

wood concrete

You can’t tell from the pictures, but the water came up beyond our ankles, so walking through this was more like wading.

Most people in the area farm the rice-paddies, and this was the big season for that. We could see them at working in the distance. This photo is terrible, but it’s just as well because it doesn’t seem right to post sharp photos of unsuspecting strangers, and this has a sort of impressionist feel that suits the mood of the day.

farmers

The conical rain-jackets make sense for this kind of work, and in this picture, you can see them from the back, front, and side. Like in a catalog. This was not intentional.

I’m trying to quit while I’m ahead with this stuff so… More tomorrow! (Famous last-post words.)

*I’ve heard that it’s a very American thing to measure driving distance in time instead of miles or kilometers, and I nearly edited that last sentence to be more precise, but I’m leaving it for a little American flavor.

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Mumbai Tourist Trail

Our trip to India was more about seeing family and friends than sightseeing, so it’s hard to know what tone to take in this travelogue. I didn’t even bring my fancier camera, ostensibly because it would be raining the whole time, but the truth is, I don’t love taking pictures when I’m traveling in cities, even though I love city photos. So some of these pictures are K’s, because he doesn’t have this hang-up. Moving on.

Our first day was spent meeting and greeting and having tea and such. (Please forgive my glossing over all that in the interest of actually posting something and not just writing in circles, as is my wont.) On the second day, K and I took an auto-rickshaw (more on this later) to the station and took the local train downtown. His family was adamant that this was a terrible, terrible idea, but he convinced them that public trans is of great interest to us, which sounds weird but is true, and after some time they stopped protesting.

I guess what’s most different is that the doors don’t close. This is from the platform at Goregaon East.

Goregaon East train

People do fall out sometimes. The general sense of what’s an acceptable risk is different in Mumbai, and it is evident in many aspects of the city. It did not bother me as much as I thought it would, which I realize isn’t exactly a good thing.

It was nearly midday when we went, so the crowds weren’t too bad, especially in the first-class carriage. (There’s also a ladies-only carriage, but it’s optional. If it was rush hour I might have separated from Karan to ride there.) You can sort of see through the bars at the back that the other carriage is a lot more crowded.

Mumbai Local

One thing that amused me was that the stops were announced in Marathi, Hindi, and English, but because all the station names are pretty much the same in each language, it was only the “next stop” being translated over and over again. I’m trying to think of other cities that do this; I’m sure there are a few.

We got downtown and walked around. It was beautifully green, especially after the sun-bleached landscape of Muscat.

Mumbai shade

We made our way to the Gateway of India.

Gateway of India

There were some security measures in place for getting into the plaza. Because of the 2008 attacks, protecting “soft targets” is a priority, which changes the atmosphere of these places. I feel like every single detail I mention deserves its own post. This is hard!

We also went to Nariman Point, where we saw the epic coastline of Mumbai from an interesting vantage.

Nariman Point

We were gently scolded for this next one. I wanted to show how big those things are, but I understand why it’s not allowed.

Nariman Point, me

K probably has enough of these sorts of shots for a series we could call “Rachel, For Scale.”

Okay, enough of a photo-dump for now. I think the only way I’ll be able to post more about this trip is to let it be sort of disorganized and choppy. Ta ta for now!

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Solitary

So we’ve been assigned a house and we’ll be moving after Eid, the big holiday that marks the end of Ramadan. It sounds a lot like Christmas: family gatherings, huge meals and lots of sweets, gifts and general goodwill toward men, and so forth. We won’t be around for any of this because…

We’re going to India! (Er, there will probably be some Eid-celebrating there as well, but Islam is not the majority religion.) Karan and I have been planning this trip with varying degrees of seriousness since we got married seven years ago, and it’s finally happening. It’s so much easier to get there from here than from the States, and I’m pretty pumped that an epic flight and brutal jet lag will not be part of this experience.

I’m not sure what to expect, and that’s totally okay with me. I took a break from studying Arabic about a week ago when I realized my time would be better spent brushing up on my Hindi, which is meager, but I’m way closer to understanding it than Arabic. (That is not saying much at all. I wrote a whole post about studying Arabic, but it puts my ignorance in bas-relief so I’m still screwing up the nerve to post it.) A lot of people in Mumbai speak Marathi, but K’s kin speak Hindi and Urdu, so I will probably hear plenty of it. I also reacquainted myself with the Devanagari alphabet, so maybe I can read a sign or two, though Marathi has its own script as well, so who knows. I should mention that I’ve never had even the shortest conversation in any foreign language, so I’m managing my expectations on that front.

It’s monsoon season in Mumbai, and I haven’t seen a drop of rain in over two months, so that is exciting. And although I appreciate how Ramadan has made me reflect on my wanton hedonism (no sarcasm), I think I’m ready to get back to my regularly scheduled program. That is, I plan to buy a beer at the earliest opportunity.

But I’m most looking forward to meeting K’s friends and extended family. He’s met most of mine, and I’ve met very few of his, so this is way past due. I have to admit, though, that I’m nervous about socializing again. Ramadan has been lazy and quiet for us, and I’ve gotten very comfortable doing my various solitary activities and being more or less alone with my thoughts. I’ve always considered myself an extrovert, so it’s been a surprise that I’m actually enjoying this social isolation, which I will acknowledge is somewhat self-imposed. I just don’t have a lot of energy for braving the heat, the unfamiliar environs, and awkward social situations all at once. Frequent calls to the States have helped, as has knowing that things should pick up in August.

All this to say, I’m bracing myself for the crush of humanity in Mumbai. I couldn’t be coming from a more sedate, sanitized environment, so this should be interesting.

On some level I’m embarrassed to admit how much we’ve been keeping to ourselves, especially because this blog was supposed to be a window onto another part of the globe. (This was uncharacteristically ambitious, I now realize.) We have been going out and taking care of business and making friends and so forth, but we have not done much intentional exploring. Earlier this week we figured we should get out of the house, so went to the Muttrah Souq in the evening. Even though the souq is a pretty popular tourist destination and very much on the beaten path, going there made us realize the extent to which we’ve been in our little expat bubble. It’s hard to explain, but the neighborhood actually looked like a neighborhood, and the energy was both very unfamiliar and also more normal for us dyed-in-the-wool city people. Like I said: hard to explain. It was too dark for decent photos and the shops were closing anyway, but I’ll make a point to go back. It was already late and there was a very real possibility of getting lost, so we only wandered far enough to see most of the jewelry and some fabrics. I want to find the produce and the fish. And maybe get a little lost.

So! There’s my update and I am resisting the urge to apologize for this insipid report and lack of fun photos.

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