Thursday, July 14, 2016

Packing for India

Yes, I travelled more than 7,000 miles to get this picture.
Totally worth it.
When I traveled to India with A Fresh Chapter in March 2016, I frankly had no idea what I was getting into.

I'd never traveled internationally, let alone to a third world country with a bunch of strangers.  But despite my newbie status, I am happy to report I managed to pack like a champ (with a little help from some fab travel blogs) and there are very few "do-overs" items I would have packed differently. I am also happy to report the former "bunch of strangers" are now counted among my closest friends. (Life's funny that way isn't it?)

So, because I get asked this on a regular basis, I wanted to share with you just what made the international carry-on cut and what I probably should have kept at home - as well as introduce you to a few of the Fresh Chapter lovelies who mean so much to me.

If You are Headed to India, Don't Leave Home Without:

Baby Wipes - Trust me, you'll thank me for this one. There's a whole lotta sticky on the other side of the world - there's no reason you need to be.

Ear plugs - India is a noisy place. Best bring a pair of these if you want to catch some z's.

Hand sanitizer - I actually brought too much with me, which is much better than the other way around. A little goes a long way, but be sure to stow a bottle or two for your trip.

Extra Plastic baggies and space bags - Space saving bags are the world's greatest invention for people who purchase too many souvenirs while abroad. (Not that I would know of course.) Throw in a dozen with a few regular baggies for good measure.

Sunblock/bugspray - You can purchase these abroad but the ingredients aren't always clear or regulated. Best to bring 'em along if you want to avoid a burn or bites.

International power cord converter - India uses two prong power converters which you can buy in the luggage department of most department stores or Amazon. Worst case scenario you could pick a couple up at the airport if you happen to forget.
I can't decide what's better: The
tingly mint afterglow
or the moderately insane label.

Dr. Bronner's Soap - I'm always amazed by how many people don't know about this stuff (If you are one of them, there's a fab documentary on Netflix about the nutty soaper and his cult-like following). My fav is the peppermint castile but they are all good and versatile enough to clean everything from clothes to toes.

Pillow Case - So you'll always have a place to lay your pretty head (that isn't itchy or smell weird).

Powerbars/peanut butter - Having easy, familiar snack options close at hand may save you from an unfortunate hangry episodes on the road.  Bring plenty of both.

Microfiber Towel - Snag a lightweight, absorbent option for when going gets damp.

For the ladies:

Tampons - Tampons do not exist in India. I repeat: TAMPONS DO NOT EXIST.  Bring them with you or consider yourself warned.

Yeah, it's a thing.
And they're awesome.
GoGirl - There are times in life when you just don't want to lower your Brit Bits any closer to the ground than is absolutely necessary.  As it was, this little gadget saved me from questionable exposures more than once in India. In fact, it was so useful I'm including it on my gift giving list for all the ladies in my life who backpack/camp/attend outdoor concerts. Pop this in a ziplock along with baby wipes and some sanitizer spray and you may have 99 problems but bathroom conditions won't be one of them.

What to Wear

Western women have a bit of reputation in India for some reason (*cough*The Kardashians*cough*). In short, they think we're slutty. Not to say that you will be stoned in the street if you choose to wear American style clothing but you very well may be groped. (Just the messenger here, folks.) Frankly you are going to be attracting a LOT of attention anyway and your adventures may run smoother if you blend with the locals as much as you can.

Clothing in India is very conservative. Women should wear at least cap sleeves and pants/dresses should be knee length or longer. This can be challenging when temperatures are in the 90's (as they were when I visited). Stick with lightweight, flow-y materials and loose pants. Avoid plunging necklines and whatever you do keep your shoulders covered.  (Again, I'm just the messenger here - I don't make the rules.)
A few of FC lovelies touristing it up in Delhi.

If you want to try your hand at local garb, the easiest route is purchasing a kurta. These knee length shirt/dresses are unisex and have a slit up both sides that are worn with lightweight pants/leggings underneath. They are super comfortable, you can mix and match basically any color combination plus they camouflage any "flaws" so you can eat as much delicious Indian food as you want without fear of popping a button.  Basically they are the world's most brilliant clothing. **Bonus: When I got home my mom made mine into cute dresses by shortening them a tad and sewing the sides. I absolutely love them. Sari's on the other hand are basically origami dresses and unless you have a connection to a local who can walk you through wearing one, my advice is skip this cultural experience in order to avoid an unfortunate unraveling in public.

Shoes - Bring a pair of broken in closed toe shoes to walk in that you will not be bringing back with you. Seriously. You will step in things you cannot even imagine. I went with Tom's knock offs and burned them at the airport gate.

Flip Flops - For the shower.  It's a little like middle school gym class over there.

Scarves - There are many places in India which require head coverings for women, so consider stowing a couple in your bag or purchase something lightweight and colorful when you get there. Wearing a scarf is also an excellent way to detract attention when you are walking through the streets and they create a little extra shade to protect you from the sun.
Ashley, Katrina and I - All smiles despite toasty temperatures.

Zippered, over-the-shoulder day bag - I threw this in at last minute and I'm so glad I did. Mine was water resistant, big enough to toss in the essentials - extra scarf, camera, water bottle, money, souvenirs I purchased - but not so large it created a hassle. And because of the style, I could pull it in front of me while walking through a crowd or a particularly skeevy neighborhood without looking like a paranoid idiot.

Emergency medical kit

Medical supplies are actually fairly easy to obtain in India. In fact, I found it rather lovely to be able to waltz into the neighborhood Chemist (pharmacy) and have virtually any request honored (including rabies shots but more on that later) without need for those pesky doctor's prescriptions we require in the US.

That being said, medications aren't regulated the way they are in the states and there is a bit of a language barrier to contend with each time you make a transaction. So, save yourself some trouble and be sure to stow these "just in case" medications for minor emergencies. I didn't use the majority of my kit but was certainly glad I had it with me.

Chewable Maalox
Chewable Benadryl (allergies or sleep aid)
Bandaids (blisters or minor scrapes)
Travel antibiotics - Cipro (GI), Zithromax (Respiratory)
Electrolyte tablets

Nice if you have the space

BYO coffee with french press/aero - The coffee situation is a little unpredictable in India. And although there is plenty of amazing chai to be had, if you are an addict enjoy your morning routine, you may consider throwing a few beans in your bag. For an easy-to-pack alternative consider packing some Starbucks Via.  *Bonus: If you bring some to share (I'm looking at you here, Morgan) you'll make fast friends with caffeine starved fellow travelers.

Small individually wrapped candies/gifts - The poverty in India is overwhelming and you are
Sweet street babies will pull your heartstrings.
certain to encounter beggars who will break your heart into a thousand pieces - especially the kiddos. That being said, you cannot give money in these situations without perpetuating the problem or endangering yourself (more on that later) so it's nice to have  candies nearby to fill needy hands. Also, consider bringing a few inexpensive gifts to leave behind if you travel with Air BNB or are a guest in someone's home.

Toilet Paper - TP is sometimes available in India, but it is in limited supply and a little on the "rough" side. Consider stowing some ultra posh 4-ply to have on hand (so to speak) so you don't have to use what I lovingly refer to as the "self-serve bidets" the locals are accustomed to. Unless you enjoy a damp undercarriage that is.

Lavender/eucalyptus/peppermint essential oil - India can be a rather "fragrant" place. And while there is plenty of incense, flowers and spice, there are also less pleasant smells to contend with. Stowing a few essential oils in your bag may come in handy on particularly pungent days. **Bonus: Mint is a great remedy for nausea and there is a rumor it wards off lice. I don't know if that's true but I didn't come home with any unwanted tag-alongs.

 Come prepared for glorious mayhem!  India is a place like no other.
Not as helpful

Reusable water bottle - I am all about "going green" whenever I can, so it pains me to say consider keeping this at home depending on your itinerary. While I stayed with the Fresh Chapter crew there was plenty of "foreigner safe" water stocked at our flat and I used the heck out of my favorite Liberty bottle. But once I got out into the real world it was easier (and safer) to purchase sealed drinking water in order to avoid any inadvertent exposures.  Many upscale hotels do have suitable drinking water available but tap water is out of the question if you want to avoid praying to the porcelain hole-in-the-floor for a few days.

** Note: Be extra careful when purchasing bottled water on the street and listen for the seal when you open it. We didn't have any trouble, but apparently bottles are sometimes refilled with local water and resold.  When in doubt, toss it out - it's just not worth the risk.

Electronics -  If you want to avoid undo stress, consider keeping any unnecessary electronics at home on this trip or at least try to be inconspicuous. I travelled with an iPad mini that I bought a folding keyboard case for and it was perfect. I could take notes for future blogs and face time when the internet was good but it was small and durable enough to throw in my day bag without worry. I also brought a nice camera which made me nervous until I got there and realized theft wasn't quite as big of a deal as I thought. Use common sense to protect your belongings and you should be just fine.

The Backpack of my dreams

There were very few decisions I agonized over as much as which bag to bring along on this epic
Did I mention this gem is sold by a Seattle-based company?
Seriously - if you don't know about
Cascade Designs be sure to check them out!
journey.  There are about a jillion options out there - but in the end I opted for a Seal Line Commuter Tote Chris had on hand for camping/riding trips.  It was the best decision I could have made. This bag was practically custom made for India: waterproof and durable with limited pockets and adjustable straps. Best of all, it was comfortable enough I could hoof it around town without achy shoulders (and that's rare for someone who happens to be pocket-sized).  The good (and bad) part about this bag is you can only enter it one way, so it does require space bags to stay organized. But that feature also makes it practically impossible to pickpocket.  All around - two very enthusiastic thumbs up for this bag.

Unfortunately, due to the obscene number of souvenirs I purchased while venturing around India, I ended up buying a roller bag suitcase there as well - and that puppy was a giant pain in the kurta to lug around.  Mostly because the roads in India are questionable and laden with all sorts of unmentionable disease vectors.  Anyway, my advice would be to either show some self restraint by not purchasing the giant hand-sewn elephant quilt you eye at the market or plan ahead by packing a foldable duffle for souvenir overflow.

I did neither - but regret nothing.

Friday, March 11, 2016

New Delhi

I made it to India!
It's 4:30 in the morning Delhi time. I'm sitting cross legged on the cool marble floor of the guest house bathroom listening to a honking horn and street dog symphony just outside my window while attempting to make good use of the limited wifi signal and get caught up on writing.  It has been four days and I still haven't fully adapted to the 12 hour time difference here. Though frankly, I seem to need less sleep -  as though the energy of this vibrant city has somehow made its way into my veins.

Delhi is like nothing I could have ever imagined.

I touched down at DEL around 8 pm Saturday night, rummy from the long flight and bleary eyed due to my protesting, overworked contact lenses.  Despite the haze and a stiff language barrier, I somehow managed to make my way through a gauntlet of finger printing, photos and signatures finally culminating in my very first passport stamp and a green light to enter the country.  After months of trepidation and nearly 24 hours of travel time, I had finally made it to India.

Just outside the airport I was met by Ashwani from Cross Cultural Solutions who instantly put me at
My first introduction to India traffic was...terrifying.
ease with his gentle demeanor. He was well versed in wide eyed travelers and expertly guided me through the sea of brown eyes greeting passengers just outside the terminal, though he did chuckle softly when I tried to get in the wrong side of the car.  Finally with all the grace of a rabid animal we made our way through the unnerving Delhi traffic, which is every bit as chaotic as its reputation has afforded.  Drivers stare straight ahead and make decisions based purely on the sound of honking horns, which are incessant but necessary as a means of communication in an environment moving so fast it is impossible to see every danger. Like the rest of India, personal space is a luxury not often afforded and drivers travel in a fluid river of movement, with every space filled regardless of speed.  Seeing my white knuckles, Ashwani assured me there were "lanes", though we both knew this was a sweet lie meant to ease my Western mind.

These guys take being a courier to a whole new level.
Trucks are often elaborately decorated and all include
the same closely followed  instruction: Blow Horn! 
Typical street view.
Delhi driving is a total free for all populated by packed cars, ancient bicycles, precarious rickshaws and endless taxis.  Motorcycles loaded up with entire families zip through traffic at death defying speeds  - especially considering passengers sit side saddle and seem to hold on by will alone.  One particularly shocking motorcycle held a family of four, including a baby, which gripped the gas tank like a tiny monkey clinging to its mothers fur.  To add to my health care provider neurosis, helmets are uncommon and only required for the driver - though even this regulation is not often followed or enforced. But as shocking as the transit system appears to outside eyes, I've learned the accident rate here is relatively low.  The noisy chaos works here because everyone moves to the same rhythm - and it was surprising to me just how easy it was to be lulled by this city's stride.

Rickshaw - Coming in Hot.
Holy cow (just to keep things interesting).
As a nurse, it made me cringe every time I saw families loaded onto a motorcycle without helmets - including babies.
There is a law that requires the motorcycle driver wear a helmet but even this is not closely followed.
Ashwani dropped me off safe and sound at the Guest House gate and I bid him good night as I traipsed in to meet the 12 strangers sharing this adventure into the unknown.  Soon I would discover Delhi is a city which toes the line between unfathomable grace and utter devastation.  It is a place mired in 7,000 years of ancient baggage and filled to the brim with tradition, dogma, color and sound.  But all this would wait - first on the agenda was sleep.

Market Mayhem 
Crossing the street - frogger style.
India traffic reminds me of a Richard Scary children's book.  Now to find Goldbug.

Saturday, March 5, 2016


Early morning flights are much more pleasant when
there are citrus infused hot towels waiting for you.
Like many Americans these days, I am constantly on the look out for viable places to refuge should Donald Trump gain entry into the White House.  I am happy to report I have added a new locale to this list - namely Seat 22E on Emirates flight EK228 with service to Dubai.

This being my first international flight (and a daunting 17 hour flight time) I didn't
know what to expect but I wasn't particularly looking forward to the forced downtime in cramped quarters.  I shouldn't have worried.  Frankly, I didn't know airline experiences like this existed outside of an episode of Mad Men - minus the misogyny and cigar smoke of course.

First off, let me assure you I did not splurge on this flight.  I chose a seat firmly in the Economy class, and the round trip ticket only set me back about $1,000 - not too shabby considering I am literally traveling half way around the world.

I think it's important to talk about this, because it's easy to believe travel - especially international travel - is unattainable due to cost, inconvenience or even risk.  I know, because I was squarely in this camp until about a year ago. But I've found if you want to do something big - travel the world, write a book, change careers or whatever your quiet dream happens to be - it will not happen until you decide to make it happen.  It will never be the "right" time, you will never have "enough" money and it will never feel less scary.  But I promise you, it can be done and it will be worth it.  I'll save the Zen talks for India, but in my experience, if you start walking, the way will open up.

Now, back to what's happening in seat 22E.
Text message convo with my sister in law -
because I'm classy like that.

So, what exactly does the "Economy" experience with Emirates look like?  Glad you asked.  Really glad.  Because right now I'm watching the sun rise somewhere far, far above Russia and trying hard not to make loud exclamations about how amazing this freaking airline is.  But, as none of the other passengers seem to even be raising an eyebrow, I'll play it cool on my tiny laptop instead.

Emirates clearly strives for a "wow" factor right away and the boarding process was punctuated with pilots, copilots and staff waiting to greet passengers.  (As a side note, in typical Heather form, when a pilot held out his hand to take my ticket and tell me where to sit, I thought he was trying to shake my hand - and so I awkwardly did.  Thank goodness he didn't "air kiss" my cheek or there could have been an international incident right off the bat).  Finally, I was directed to my seat which was stuffed with a blanket, pillow and headphones.  Each seat has its own television with retractable remote as well as USB and plug in - a must for such a long flight.  Free WiFi is available but it's spotty at best though the television and movie options are phenomenal (I'm watching the new Star Wars movie right now - Teague was right,
The Menu. *sigh*
BB8 is pretty cute). They also have a huge international selection, music and podcasts.

We were still waiting to exit the Tarmac when we were provided with the first of three hot towels that smelled like lemons, a gift bag with fuzzy socks, eye mask and a travel tooth brush as well as the menu which included multi-course options with specialty selections for dietary or religious restrictions.  Once up in the air, the service was continued with frequent food and drink offerings by the stewardesses. Meals are very good, plentiful and actually nutritious but should you want an extra snack all you have to do is ask. There is a small kitchenette at the back of the plane where you can request fresh fruit, sandwiches and candy bars.  Beer and wine are also gratis and champagne is available for a small fee.  Just watching a staff member walk down the isle induces a Pavlovian effect and I've probably gained five pounds over the duration of the flight.
My favorite part of the trip was being able to watch our
progress in real time. I had a glass of wine above the North Pole.
You also have the option of changing the screen to view from
cameras beneath the plane.
Should you have slightly deeper pockets, an upgrade to Business Class (visible through a crack in the drawn curtains separating the front of the plane) would earn twice the space, bigger television screens and a "bed" that completely reclines.  The meal choices are more elaborate, champagne is included and if you ask for a glass of wine they bring out an entire bottle (According to my seat mate who had the great "misfortune" of being upgraded on his first flight with Emirates and is now spoiled for life).

First Class passengers board separately through a mysterious hallway where they are seated in individual rooms and enjoy services I can only imagine must include a personal chef, mani/pedi and a hand job.  For $5,000 a ticket I would certainly hope so.

Dubai from the sky.
To round it out, thus far my adventure is off to a luxurious start which may turn me into an unbearable wench on my next flight with Southwest. But for now I'm enjoying being spoiled before the culture shock waiting at my destination and placing my breakfast order of fresh fruit, potato frittata, croissant and hot tea.

Heck, it's a long flight - might as well be comfortable.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

What Dreams May Come.

What dreams may come.
I have always had a rather overactive subconscious.  My dreams are vivid and complex experiences - set to music or even spoken in foreign languages that slip away the moment consciousness creeps back in.  But they took a decidedly sinister turn in the days when poison and fear laced through my veins.  Soon I came to dread the sleep I so desperately needed.

I began recording my dreams at the suggestion of my therapist - though saying the words out loud would often induce great heaving sobs which would continue the rest of our scheduled session.  Reading these accounts years later, I cannot fathom how I managed to find the strength to continue through treatment.  The only explanation is I knew no other way.

Day 2 post chemo: The wasps plagued me through the night once again.  Heaving bodies crawling across vulnerable flesh.  Never stinging but ever present.  They are an oddly morbid presence with often gruesome attributes - some with wings ripped from their bodies.  And crawling.  Always crawling.

Week 3 post chemo:  I dreamt I found a small duck with a broken neck covered in oily sludge.  I cared for it, gingerly bringing it down to the river to swim.  The weight of its flaccid head dragged it under over and over again, in effect drowning it with the cure.  I refused to give up, could not let it go, yet could not bring myself to kill it.  I kept holding out hope that its neck would heal if only I could let it swim in the water.

I awoke and knew it would die.

At the time I was going through treatment I  would have never dared to talk about the dreams that held me hostage each night and exposed this inner angst.  While still so close to the fire it felt a dangerous invitation to give these fears a name - and it was clear my subconscious was not as sure footed as I liked to believe I appeared.

I share this with you now because I recently began journaling my dreams once again, as I've found  when I record the messages from my subconscious I am somehow able to be free of them.  And thankfully, the terrors which once held me captive have been replaced by much more comforting
Little boy, big dreams.

January 2016:  I dreamt I was pregnant with a baby girl.  She lay still within my body but I knew she was merely resting.  Then I felt her jointed movement stir.  I looked down to check on her and my skin became translucent - lit from within.  There she was - a tiny perfect beauty swimming in a saline sea, eyes closed in restful waiting, dark hair swirling all around.

She is content to wait until her time.  There is no rush to this process.  It is nearly time to be born.


It is no secret our family endured some trying times over the last few years.  But while I wish our steel-y backbones were not forged through such intense flame, I am endlessly proud of how far we have come - and the way we have chosen to mark our path.  This is, in no small part, due to being born to a family deeply rooted in reinvention and the importance of togetherness.

And so, on one of the first snowy evenings in January, our family (complete with my lovely new
Little by little, one travels far.  - J.R.R. Tolkien
sister-in-law) decided to build a new tradition - a tradition of hope.  Armed with our dreams and a cocktail or two, we set off into the frosty orchard which envelopes my childhood home.  Here we lit Japanese lanterns, along with our wishes for the new year until they filled the air and probably confused the neighbors.

And though it was a little dicey until we got the hang of lighting the tissue paper and twine contraptions, I am happy to report not a single hope or dream went up in a flaming ball of fire that night.

All things considered, we took that as a win.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Carpe Diem

If ever there was a time to panic, it would probably be now.

With less than two months to go before embarking on the trip of a lifetime, I have yet to determine accommodations for a third of my stay in India.  I also have not figured out how I will make my way from city to city, in a foreign land where I do not speak the language.  To make matters worse, in India, meeting even basic needs will be at best unfamiliar and at worst, downright hostile.  As a result I've become completely fixated on avoiding "Delhi Belly" (the cutesy nickname for the not so cute gastrointestinal disorders afflicting anyone unlucky enough to drink the water in New Dehli) and use an Indian bathroom (or what I refer to as the original "squatty potty") without managing to get myself into a - literally- crappy situation.

There are vaccines to receive, visas to obtain and a particularly rousing game of "life" whack-a-mole to play as I attempt to stabilize the rest of my world long enough to discover my place in it once again.

To put it lightly, I'm in over my head.

But thankfully, I also happen to know the value of allowing a story to unfold- in both the literal and figurative sense.

In the medical world we don't often discuss how little control we have over the outcomes of the people we devote our careers to helping.  We create endless lists of codes to categorize and make sense of each diagnosis as though naming an ailment will somehow give us power against it.  Yet for all the knowledge we compile, we fall down the rabbit hole of misdiagnosis with patients more often than not.  And anyone who has spent much time behind hospital doors will tell you - this is far from a perfect science.  In fact, though we rarely admit to this, the very best the medical world can possibly provide for a patient is simply the provision of optimal conditions so that the body may heal itself.  

And just when you think you have it all figured out, a patient will prove you wrong and survive insurmountable odds or succumb with the odds in their favor.  The challenge, for those who devote their lives to the medical field, is not in being able to control every outcome - but rather to acknowledge that we cannot.

In medicine - and in life - sometimes the very best way to care for someone is to allow them to heal themselves.  It is there, in the space you hold for them that their story is able to unfold - whether or not it is in the direction you believed it would go.


It's been said every journey has three legs - the trip you plan, the trip you take and the trip you remember.  The trick is making sure these never overlap.  So as I continue to work out the details of the first leg of my journey to India, I will leave you with memories of another.

Two years ago in November, my lovely parents surprised our family with a trip to San Diego where we rented a house on the beach and soaked up the sun with the ones we love best.  It was a blissful reprieve from the demands of the of the world and we loved every minute of it (except the traffic - that we could do without).  The respite would prove to be even more poignant when soon after this my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and we were faced with dark fears once again.

But this - this is what I remember of those precious stolen days between the sand and sea.  And because it's looking pretty January out my window right now, I thought you might enjoy reminiscing  along with me.  Enjoy.

Big Blue.

Good Morning Encinitas!

You will find me where the sand meets the sea.
The Locals.
Catching up on Vitamin D.

Sweet yoga moves with J & B.

The winter sunsets were unlike anything I've ever seen.
These photos are completely untouched.  No filter needed.

The cure for anything is salt water - sweat, tears or the ocean.
~Isak Dinesen