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Mosquito nets: less romantic than you think.


I’ve been to southern India five times in eight years (my husband is from there), twice with a small child. I learn a few new things each time; here’s the baker’s dozen list for this trip.

1. If you bring white linen pants to India, you will look fabulous for approximately five minutes. Then you will look like a wrinkly, dusty mess. But if you’re willing to put in the necessary time hand-washing them, then by all means, bring your silly white linen pants to India. 

2. Bring the extra bottle of insect repellent. Indian insect repellent products are stinky and/or less effective than what we brought (and ran out of). 

3. I no longer get culture shock here, though I’m still curious about cultural differences — and I still get homesick. 

4. Divali in India is very fun, and very loud. Bring good earplugs and a large bottle of Benadryl, or be prepared to stay up all night watching/listening to fireworks go off way closer than seems safe. 

5. Oatmeal, peanut butter, almond milk, wheat bread, Dove soap galore, and Sensodyne toothpaste are available for purchase in southern India. Graham crackers, Cheerios and NutriGrain bars are not available, so pack what you need if you bring a picky eater (ours tried new foods there, but didn’t fall in love with anything substantial).

6. Indian bananas are divine. So many different kinds, and they all taste different. It’s almost a fair price to pay for three weeks without a crunchy vegetable. 

7. Watching the light in an Indian person’s eyes as they greet a child is a transformative experience.

8. The closeness to the natural world can be gross to Western eyes (so many bugs in the house!) but it’s also one of the loveliest things about the country (my mother-in-law feeds a chipmunk and a crow every day, and they yell at her if she’s late).

9. Bottles of makeup must be “burped” before opening mid-flight. Unless you want foundation on the only pair of pants you brought on board. It’s up to you. 

10. Leaving the house/hotel? Bring hand wipes, tissues/toilet paper, snacks, and water. Every time. 

11. Explaining that you can’t have milk/yogurt/paneer because of lactose intolerance will get you some very funny looks. Also responses like, “But we boil our milk!” and “But it’s yogurt!”

12. Taking a preschooler to India is both delightful and nervewracking, especially if the child isn’t good at looking where s/he’s going. 

13. I will probably never be able to decode the various looks I get here. I’m not okay with that, but I’m trying to accept it. 

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You went to India for three weeks in October-November 2016.

You did very well with international travel once again, though your increasing independence made it tougher to keep you close by as we waited in security lines, boarding lines, and immigration lines. 

You asked Mama to read you the safety card in every airplane we were in. We were in 10 airplanes. On one of them, we bought you a reusable shopping bag printed with the plane’s safety information.

You watched far fewer cartoons on the planes than you did during the same trip two years ago, and slept less.

You ran straight to your Avva (Indian grandma) at the airport, and gave her a big hug. (Two years ago, you burst into tears when she said hello to you.)

You were again fascinated by the light and fan switches in every house we visited, and figured out that you could only reach them if you stood on a chair. Thus, you started asking for a step stool in every house we visited. 

You asked Mama why you had to use your right hand to give someone a gift. She told you it was the tradition in India. 

You were told the story behind the leopard your great-grandfather shot (it was a maneater and he was the chief conservator of forests for the state of Madras). The animal’s skin lives in a storeroom in your Avva’s house, and you had a lot of questions about it. 

You loved all the Divali fireworks you got to see and help light. Somehow, you managed to fall asleep with thunderous booms happening all night. Mama brought this up when you said you couldn’t fall asleep on a plane because of a crying baby. 

You woke up sick the day after Divali, first saying “my tummy is tickling me” then going back to sleep only to wake up vomiting. True to form, you puked for a few hours, slept for a few hours and were fine by that afternoon. A doctor who lives across the street came to check on you three times, which made us all feel better. 

You met Daddy’s cousin and her family in Chennai, and enjoyed playing with the daughter in the family. You had a great time asking questions about the switches, “helping” make dosas, and playing with a neighbor boy your age. 

You came down with a cold when we came back from Chennai, but it didn’t slow you down. 

You spent a lot of time at your great aunt’s house (next door to Avva’s house), doing exciting things like sweeping, washing pots, and going over the details of how her well pump works. You pretty much bounced between the two houses all day, running in and out through perpetually open doors. 

You discovered a cartoon called Chhota Bheem, which you watched devotedly even though you didn’t understand the Tamil dialogue. You also liked Tom and Jerry, which was also in Tamil.

You had a great time at the beach in Chennai, where you ate ice cream, played in the waves, rode a horse (with Mama), collected shells, rode a hand-cranked merry-go-round, and shot balloons (with help from your cousin).

You said you missed your Grammie (American grandma) two weeks into the trip.

You had a lot of questions for the guy who came to service the battery for the back-up power system. You also got to see the system in action during a six-hour scheduled maintenance outage. 

You developed a taste for oatmeal (plain, or with a little salt) and appalams about two and a half weeks into the trip. You were willing to try Indian sweets exactly once; other than that you stuck to your old pals, Milk Bikis and vanilla ice cream. 

You claim that this stove lighter was your favorite thing about India:

But we’re pretty sure pushing switches was your favorite thing, just like at home. 

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  We recently took the Boo to London, which might seem like a crazy thing to do with a three-and-a-half-year-old. But we took him to India over a year ago, so whatever. Herewith, the highlights.

You went to London for two weeks. 

You were an angel on the flights there and back despite not sleeping much/very well/at all. (Thanks, group of guys on the way to Vegas who started the party as soon as the seatbelt sign was turned off… You were truly awesome in your dedication to the loud enjoyment of free booze.)

You loved playing “light engineer” at the hotel where we stayed for the first few days. (Read: So many switches! So many lights! It’s Boo heaven!)

You were happy to ride in the stroller despite not having been it for about a year. Maybe that was because we kept plying you with potato chips and chocolate-covered digestive biscuits.

You loved riding the Tube and the buses, and got really good at listening for the station we needed. You are now the happy owner of a decommissioned Oyster card, which you use to play “riding the Tube.”

You asked to go back to the London Transport Museum almost as soon as we left it. Your favorite parts were the play train, model elevators, and real buses you could pretend to drive. We went twice, and you would have been thrilled to go every day. (That’s it in the photo above.)

You enjoyed the amazing Princess Diana Memorial Playground — most especially the pirate ship and the secluded winding pathways.

You discovered a love of shortbread, English-style pub chips and a fruit snack you named “mango snails.” Your aunt got you to try a bite of sausage, which was truly astonishing to your Mama.

You played with your older cousins quite a bit, and got into playing with Legos for the first time. 

You were captivated by the earthquake simulator at the Natural History Museum, and that night you were very concerned about whether there was an earthquake simulator under your bed. 

You were pretty good about sleeping on the floor at your cousins’ flat. There were several nights it took you ages to fall asleep, but we figured that was because you knew there were good times being had after your bedtime.

You dealt with jet lag in London better than in the U.S., where you woke up at 2 or 3 a.m. for the first few nights. And stayed up for hours and hours until Mama finally gave in and set you up with cartoons at 5 a.m., and let you watch whatever you wanted all day because that’s what cartoons are for.

You said, “I don’t know” when Mama asked “What was your favorite thing about London?” When pressed, you said, “it’s a secret,” which is also what you say when pressed about things that happen at school.

You went to London for two weeks, and you’re already asking when we can go back. 

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We spent Thanksgiving with my family in LA. Herewith, the highlights of the Boo’s first West Coast encounter.

You did very well on the flights, though it must be said the extra attention from the Southwest flight attendants was very helpful. As was the iPad loaded with Caillou videos.

You glommed onto your Unk almost as soon as you saw him. Within a week, you were asking for your Auntie when you woke up from naps and dancing a little greeting jig for her. She danced right along with you.

You wanted to know if we were still in LA every time with left Unk and Auntie’s house.

You saw Frozen, Cars, and The Little Mermaid for the first time, and joined your cousins in the traditional post-screening dance parties. You kept asking for the “build a snowman movie” for the rest of the trip.

You followed your girl cousins around the house, prompting one of them to complain a bit about your puppy-dog ways. A few days later, they were reading books to you.

You got creamed by one high-swinging cousin. After that, you were very careful to give her a wide berth whenever she was on the swing — and she stopped swinging to play with you on the playhouse slide.

You ate meals very nicely both with the family and at restaurants. There may have been chocolate chips involved.

You adjusted to the new time zone within 24 hours, and were willing to sleep on the floor at night as long as you got to sleep on your cousin’s bed for naps. Once back home, you started lobbying for a big bed almost immediately by complaining about the bars on your toddler bed.

You learned how to eat a Popsicle, thanks to your cousins and your Unk, who responded to your confusion with, “Look at them and do what they,re doing.”

You saw Dolphins herding fish to shore.

You took such a shine to your grandpa-in-law (you let him pick you up!) that he volunteered to be your surrogate grandpa since both of yours are gone.

You were fascinated by the ocean, waves, surfers, and sand at Venice Beach. A big wave surprised you and knocked you on your butt in the 64-degree water, but once you got over the shock you wanted to go right back in. You grabbed handfuls of sand over and over and wanted to take some home — this, despite being reluctant to touch it at school.

You began shouting “mine!” and “I want to do it myself!” after a few days with your cousins.

You also began poking your cousins after a few days, and began following pokes with, “Time out?” and a grin. So much for that disciplinary tactic.

You occasionally asked to go home, usually when you were tired or hungry.

You did not miss your toys, probably because it was so warm you went outside as soon as you finished breakfast and had to be coaxed in after dark on more than one occasion.

You learned the word “thankful” because of the family’s suppertime thankfulness tradition. Once, you said you were thankful for school, another time, for Mama. Back at home, you’re responding to mealtimes by saying, “I want to say something” and then saying what you’re thankful for.

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You know to take your kid’s favorite snacks and some cool new toys. Here’s the rest of what I found useful during our 36-hour journey to India with our toddler. And even if you’re kid-free, the tips for adults may come in handy.

For the kid:

Buy That Book Up There Or another Richard Scarry paperback to whip out when the going gets rough. So much to look at and talk about, my kid still wants to look at it a month after seeing it for the first time.

Entertain Me Bring an iPad and kiddie headphones (so the kid can hear Mickey, and to limit decibels) and have the kid practice with them before you go. Even if you’re flying an airline that has personal entertainment screens, there will be times (like layovers) when it will come in handy. Load it with whatever videos and apps the kid likes. Then suspend all judgement about how much screen time is too much.

Pack Smart Pack a backpack, not a diaper bag, using gallon Ziplock bags to separate diaper stuff, extra clothes, books, etc. It’s a lot easier to find things that are already categorized and separated into bags that just slide out. Bring extra bags for, um, soiled items.

Clean Up Bring antibacterial wipes to swab everything your kid can reach from their seat as soon as you sit down: tray table, armrests, buttons, air vent, everything.

Mobility If your kid is under 5, bring the umbrella stroller. They will nap in it, you can hang your backpack on it, you can gate-check it. I never want to travel without one again.

Diaper Hack If your kid is still in diapers, prep for changes by putting each diaper in a plastic grocery bag. That way you just add a couple of wipes and the diaper cream to a bag, and you’re good to go. Might sound like overkill, but that way you don’t have to take the entire diaper bag with you into the microscopic airplane bathroom.

Wipe Hack Put a chunk of diaper wipes in a quart-size Ziplock bag. Much cheaper than a travel pack, and you can use them to wipe faces and hands, too.

Sweet Sleep After they clear the dinner trays, go through your kid’s bedtime routine, but include Benadryl. Don’t judge. Some sleep, even drugged sleep, is much, much better than no sleep. Just do a trial dose at home to make sure your kid isn’t one who reacts to that drug by getting hyper.

Hydrate Bring a leakproof sippy cup or sport bottle to fill with water or juice once you clear security. We ended up using a very small water bottle with a straw stuck down inside it, because I did not figure this one out ahead of time.

Under Pressure Lollipops and gummi bears are handy for equalizing ear pressure during takeoff and landing. So is a thumb, if your kid is so inclined.

Get Cozy A small, light blanket is good as an emergency changing pad as well as a pillow, or, duh, a blanket.

Good Grooming Bring the baby nail clippers if your trip is longer than a week. Those suckers grow fast, and do you really want to hunt down a new pair in Dhaka?

Security! Practice going through security by having your kid walk from one parent to the other, and if you think seeing Teddy going into the X-ray machine will disturb the kid, put it into your backpack as you prep for security. Also, empty any pockets on the umbrella stroller and get very, very good at collapsing it quickly.

Let’s Play! Stick a deflated beach ball and a few hunks of sidewalk chalk in your checked bag for simple fun at your destination. Our shy boy would roll the ball to visitors, and they would delightedly roll it back.

Wakey Wakey! To beat jet lag quickly, suck it up and keep naps to a normal length and get the kid outside as much as possible. This should shorten the adjustment. From a week to three or four days. At least that’s what happened for us.

For you:

Repeat After Me Here is your new motto: Whatever makes the kid happy. Here’s your other new motto: Chill, it’s an adventure. Toddlers are mood mirrors. Give them something fun to reflect.

Stretch Out Get bulkhead seats. Your carry-ons will have to go in the overhead bins for takeoff and landing, but then you’ll have tons of legroom because your kid’s carry-on can go under his stubby legs.

Feet First If your feet swell on long flights, get some compression socks, avoid alcohol, minimize caffeine intake, and chug water. I did all that, and this was the first time my feet did not turn into footballs. Which hurts, by the way.

Get Comfy You are going to sleep in your clothes. You want elastic waist pants. Preferably with pockets. And a long sleeved top or a pashmina, even in summer. Planes get cold.

Block It Out You will need earplugs and a decent sleep mask. Planes are noisy and bright and sometimes the people on them are noisy drunken jerks all night because of something called the World Cup. Pfft.

Double Duty Diaper wipes work nicely as makeup removal wipes (our kid uses the sensitive ones). And they don’t count as a liquid. If this grosses you out, put a few in a small ziplock bag and keep it with your toiletries.

Dr. Feelgood Bring an assortment of basic meds (Ibuprofen, Tylenol, Tums, Imodium, Benadryl for the kiddo, etc.) in an old prescription bottle and keep it in an easily accessible place. When you get the runs at 30,000 feet or your body aches from not sleeping, you’ll thank me.

Entertain Me! Carry an iPad, Kindle, or other reading device for yourself since the kid will probably be using yours. I loaded books from the library onto my phone. Not my favorite reading mode, but the carry-on was plenty heavy without a book in it.

Sleep? Ha! Don’t take a sleep aid, e.g. Benadryl. You’re not going to sleep much anyway because you’ll be waking up every time your kid flips over on the seat next to you. You don’t want to be groggy on top of being jet lagged. Sleep when you get there.

Get Greasy If you get a pat of butter with your meal, save it. You’ll want to slather it on your face to keep it from peeling in the dry cabin air. Kidding! But do wash your face and smear a bunch of good moisturizer on it before you attempt to sleep. If nothing else it’s nice to have one part of your body feel clean. And plane air truly is dry as hell.

Bon voyage!

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“Do you like India?”

The speaker was a fresh-faced young woman I had just met. She had taken a shine to my toddler son, and he to her, perhaps because she was one of the few people we met who understood how to play with little kids.

All of that made answering her even more of a sticky wicket. Even though I know it’s an attempt at connecting with me, that question is so reductive that it’s hard for me to refrain from rolling my eyes. Meanwhile, I feel I can’t answer it honestly without offending the asker — while there’s plenty I like about India, there’s more I don’t like. Put another way, the negatives outweigh the positives for me.

I love how children are cherished there. I hate how many children suffer there. I love that opportunities are opening for women. I hate that so many women are still treated as property, or worse. I love the mish-mash of architectural styles on my mother-in-law’s street. I’m not crazy about the trash and smells on those streets. I love to see the street vendors pass with their enormous handcarts, yelling about their bananas, or onions, or noodles. I hate to hear the street dogs yelping in the middle of the night.

But none of that is anyone’s fault — and certainly not the fault of the person asking my least favorite question. So usually I lie and say yes, I like India. This time I laughed and said that I had only seen the insides of a few houses, and I liked them fine. Not a lie, but also not the whole truth.

It seemed like the kindest way to preserve the connection the woman was trying to establish.

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We recently took the Boo to India to meet and stay with the hubs’ mother (“Avva”). Yes, we might be slightly crazy, though honestly, it all went a lot better than we thought it would where the Boo was concerned. Herewith, a list of the highlights.

You asked, “Where’s Avva?” immediately after arriving at the airport for the first of four flights that would take us to India over the next 36 hours. Your next question was about going home.

You were happy to receive a lollipop for takeoff, then displeased when it became sharp after you bit into it.

You were so enthralled with your personal in-flight entertainment screen that you would watch a cartoon you’d never seen, without sound.

You hugged a total stranger at the playground in the Frankfurt airport. He happened to be a brown-skinned man. We all laughed and called him your new daddy.

You slept on the long-haul flights and never went into the kind of frenzy we had feared you would. You did get a little wiggy during the last layover on the way there, but that was an eight-hour ordeal after more than 24 hours of travel that had all three of us strung out.

You cried when you met Avva, whom you had only experienced over Skype from the time you were six months old. We concluded that you thought she lived in the iPad.

You gave your Avva a hug within 24 hours of meeting her.

You delighted in discovering all the switches and fans in Avva’s house, and particularly loved the switch for the pump that delivers water to the tanks on the roof. Fortunately, all of these switches are about five feet off the ground.

You loved watering the plants in Avva’s front and back yards despite your distress over getting mired in thick mud.

You did not get sick (not counting the rash you developed).

You became enamored of a stick that is often used to drive away street dogs.

You did not care for the noise of steam escaping from the pressure cooker and would clamp your hands to your ears when it was hissing, even with the kitchen door closed.

You experienced several firsts during our stay: your first Slinky (instant love); your first time blowing a whistle (instant joy); and your first encounter with a gaggle of adoring, but loud, Indian Aunties (instant tears and vehemently closed eyes).

You climbed onto the lap of a visitor, a total stranger. Even after you realized he wasn’t your daddy, you stayed in his lap.

You met two of your cousins, and enjoyed playing with their carrom board, tricycle, and scooter.

You woke up the first six nights we were in India, sometimes tossing and turning for four hours before you were able to sleep again and often crying from the frustration of trying and failing to sleep. Sometimes Mama singing to you would help, sometimes it wouldn’t.

You shared a bed with Mama during our stay — a first for you and a big change from your crib. At first you would sit up and call for her if you woke up, but then you realized you could just roll over and cuddle with her. In the mornings, you would lean against her and announce that you were awake.

You asked to sleep with Mama when you woke up in the middle of the night back at home. She explained that the crib was too small but said she could take a nap with you in the big bed.

You thought Daddy’s nightly ritual of killing mosquitoes before you went to bed was hilarious. You also loved the mosquito net that cocooned our bed, though you would be in such a hurry to get in or out that you would often slam into it before Mama had a chance to raise it for you.

You tried a tiny bite of mango. You seemed to like it, but refused additional bites.

You refused to try any of the three delicious varieties of Indian bananas your Avva had gotten for you.

You devoured the sev (fried chickpea flour sticks) Avva made for you, but otherwise stuck to eating the food we brought for you.

You announced, “This is not home. This is India. This is our India home.” This happened about a week into our stay.

You went to India with Mama and Daddy, and we were nothing but impressed with how well you handled the trip.

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