What would you replace?

Three hours before my flight was due to leave for Jakarta, my car was broken into and the carry-on bag I’d packed for the flight was stolen. I lost my laptop, work badge, e-reader, paper notebook and pen, favorite headphones, makeup, phone charger, international plug adapter, hand sanitizer, makeup remover, toothbrush, hairspray, scarf, eye mask for sleeping on the plane, extra socks, and antibiotics in case I got sick while traveling.

For a moment I thought, am I still going? But I still had my wallet and passport and phone, and because my suitcase was too big to fit through the car window the thieves had broken, I still had most of my clothes. I’m a big believer in momentum and at this point, the momentum of things said go. I called the security office at work to deal with the work side of things; my husband called the car insurance company to deal with that. And then we headed for the airport. My husband dropped me off – this was a work trip, not vacation – and I headed inside to check in for my flight.

This was when things got interesting. I’d expected that I could replace anything I really needed once I was inside the airport and past security – but the shops at SFO close at midnight, and by now it was 12:05 a.m. No paperback book or phone charger for me.

This was an odd feeling. I hadn’t realized how accustomed I was to having a large handbag with me most of the time, and I kept double-checking my wallet to make sure I still had it. It was attached to a loop handle around my wrist, so the odds I’d lose it were low, but still. I wondered if I was more shaken up by the theft than I realized. Maybe?

I sent my husband a text message saying everything was fine, then settled in to wait for the flight. Thirteen hours and I’d be changing planes in Taipei. In Taipei, surely there would be a place I could at least buy a phone charger.

I tried to figure out the odd feeling. Was it the lack of a backpack slung over my shoulder? (I’d liked my backpack!) The inability to write anything down, to think through what had happened or what to do next the way I do it best, on paper? The lack of anything to read? I’d turned my phone off to save battery; just in case I couldn’t get a charger in Taipei, I wanted to make sure I still had power when I landed in Jakarta. Supposedly someone would meet me at the airport to take me to the hotel, and I’d be meeting up with work colleagues once I was there, but still. The ability to look something up or call someone if something went off-kilter seemed worth maintaining.

What do you do on a plane flight with no book, no music, and nothing to write with? I don’t usually watch in-flight movies, but this time I did: I Feel Pretty and Deadpool 2.. Meh. Then I slept.

Taipei: the flight landed so early that the shops weren’t open yet. I paced up and down the hallways, stretching out my ankles. The layover was nearly three hours. There was plenty of time.

Taipei airport is interesting and to me, uncomfortable-feeling. The ceilings on most of the concourses are relatively low; most of the places to walk feel very closed-in. There’s a central area with the airline lounges and food court that’s much taller, two stories, but the lighting is dim and as you look up at the ceiling, everything fades to darkness and girders. I saw almost no exterior windows. The whole thing feels post-industrial, or like a setting for a post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie. On the other hand, there’s an orchid display and a Hello Kitty store and a small lounge with hand-carved wooden furniture and potted plants.

By now the stores were open, and I had to decide: what am I actually going to need? I don’t love shopping, and airports are pretty expensive places to buy most things. I wanted to keep my purchases minimal – but I also knew our agenda in Jakarta was packed full, and I didn’t want to count on having time to shop for anything specific while there. If I was going to need it during the trip, this was my chance.

I settled on:

  • A charger, cord, and portable battery for my phone. This was a work trip; I had to have some way to make my phone work.
  • A scarf. Indonesia is a majority-Muslim country, and I might need to cover my hair.
  • A notebook and pen. I just feel too weird if I don’t have something to write with.
  • A small, professional-looking backpack. The trip would involve being out all day, and that meant being able to carry bottled water, the scarf, and so on with me.

It took me an hour and a half to track it all down, partly because while there were a lot of electronics stores, they all had slightly different options and the plugs in Taipei are different from the plugs in Jakarta, so I had to find an adapter, and then I balked at how much it cost. Happily a store clerk helped me figure out a cheaper option that still worked, based mostly on knowing which items had cables included vs needing to buy them separately. I am also pretty picky about backpacks. It needed to be a backpack for comfort, but again, I wasn’t up for spending a ton of money, I wanted it to be lightweight, and it needed to look more work-appropriate than hiking-appropriate. I would have bought a book, but the only English-language books I found were travel guides for places I wasn’t going.

At the end, I settled into one of the lounge chairs next to the potted plants and used my phone’s data roaming plan to purchase and download a couple of e-books. Now that I had a battery and charging cord, I could use my phone as something to read.

And then it was time to board the flight.

Jakarta was great – maybe a topic for another post – but the whole experience of first losing things I’d carefully chosen to taken with me, and then needing to quickly replace just the items that were most critical, based on a limited selection of things available, was also interesting. It’s easy to get pretty meta about minimalism, and do we really need all the things we carry, and at first I wondered if maybe this wasn’t some great life lesson about needing less. Did I really need a backpack, for example, or was the wallet I already had enough?

Then I thought a little harder about my role – professional woman on a business trip, intentionally going to learn about this part of the world – and what I was hoping for from the trip, and what would make that easier. And I realized that most of what I’d packed in the first place really was likely to be useful.

Maybe the lesson is more that sometimes, we’re already doing just fine.

The flight I did not take

The flight I did not take
was the flight that left on time, pulling out of the gate
at eight-
-oh-five a.m.
precisely
no delay or pause, no need to hesitate and reboot navigation.

The flight I did not take
was the flight where I did not spill my coffee
halfway down the jetway
where the entertainment system was filled with music I didn’t know
but loved precisely.
It was the flight with attendants handing out
room temperature water
no ice
no slippery napkin
no pretzels
just chocolates and caramels and a chaser of strong black coffee.

The flight I did not take
was the flight with three cute babies
all giggling, none crying
and one tiny dog that escaped down the aisle
and stopped at my seat so I could pet it.

The flight I did not take arrived twenty minutes early
and my hair was not tangled
and I arrived at the train platform just as the train pulled up
and I stepped on and was whisked away to my much-loved far-away city.

The flight I did not take
led me to zero jetlag
to afternoon tea every day at four
to sunny and non-humid weather
to cheerful and collaborative work meetings
and plenty of free time.

After the flight I did not take, I slept well
and woke, refreshed,
in a new and different city.

Walking through the West Village at night

dsc_0253

I’m always surprised by how calm & peaceful the West Village is at night. I don’t remember it that way – I remember crowds and cheerful shouting and lines at restaurant doors and the smell and lighter-flash of cigarettes everywhere. And yet here it is, Tuesday nine or ten PM east coast time… and this is a photo of a street, with no one on it, and just a distant glare of lights from a taxicab a few blocks away.

Or to put it another way: every time I walk through the West Village at night, I feel more as if the end of the world already happened, and no one noticed, and now it’s the aftermath.

It’s not that things are totally deserted; they’re not. It’s not that the area’s unsafe; as far as I can tell, it’s not. There are small groups of people, twos and threes walking peacefully home, holding each others’ hands or the leash of a small cheerful dog. Fragments of overheard conversations are things like, “but I’m romancing you!” and, “she’s thirty-five, man? What are you doing?!” (which sounds unreasonable until I add that the two guys having this conversation were, in my estimation, themselves only twenty-two or twenty-three years old). A tall college-aged woman in a long t-shirt style dress and a sturdy-looking man about the same age played some version of tag-plus-hide-and-seek down the empty streets, ducking in and out of doorways and laughing at each other. A skinny man in a hat and a worn but still stand-out suit played a viola on a streetcorner, its case open in front of him as a hopeful target for donations. He played well as far as I could tell, and unlike many street musicians, used no backup speaker. I gave him a little money, and he asked if there was a song I’d like to hear.

The bakery was closing as I walked past, the staff inside wiping down counters and slinging on backpacks. A few restaurants had cozy yellow lights in the windows and a few people seated at tables, talking quietly.

There were a lot of empty stores and a lot of construction of new stores (why build new stores if the existing ones stand empty? I don’t know.). Some of the streets were torn up; some of the streets were blocked off.

It was in many ways a lovely place. It was in many ways a lovely walk. But mostly… it was quiet.

The Value of a Day Off

DSC_0213.jpgToday I woke early. I drove north and met my friend J in a pre-agreed parking lot. We left one car behind and drove north over the Golden Gate to the calm bay waters of Sausalito.

We took a standup paddleboard yoga class, ate brunch in the sun next to a pier, walked by the water, went for a hike. The weather was uncharacteristically and wonderfully warm: over seventy degrees, and note that today is still March. I’d been worried it would rain – it was raining last week. But it didn’t rain. It was perfect. Now I’m sitting in a coffee shop in an unusually sunny San Francisco, writing this while I wait to meet another friend for dinner. I feel pleasantly tired and totally content.

It’s so easy to feel like life is a blur; it’s so easy to feel like I’ll take a break as soon as things calm down. But things never do calm down, and anyway I thoroughly enjoy most of the not-calm. I just want days like today also.

And so I’m grateful for J, who has a similar willingness to take days off in the middle of the week, and a similar love of spending time by the water, combined with the good sense to mark those days off on our work calendars two months ahead of time, thereby ensuring we can actually make them happen.

That’s right, my Wednesday off from work was planned two months ago. Not the specifics – we just figured out a day that we thought would work, far enough ahead that there were no critical work things booked on it yet. Then we blocked it on Calendar, and as far as I know both promptly forgot about it until it got much much closer. Then we said, hey, can we still do this? And turned out we could, because we’d already blocked the time.

Magic.

Return visit: India

DSC_0265.JPGFive years ago, I traveled to India regularly. The engineering teams I worked with were based in Bangalore & Hyderabad, and I flew SFO -> FRA -> HYD, or SFO -> DXB -> BLR, or SFO -> YVR -> BLR. I memorized airport codes and where to get juice & coffee behind security. I grew to expect 2am arrivals at a busy airport, slowly weaving through customs, the way the roads outside the city center fly past in the middle of the night with pockets of light gleaming out from food stands on the side of the road, stray dogs lounging in the half-dark, Bollywood songs on the radio and the smell of burning rubber, trash, and incense drifting in through open windows because I just couldn’t take one more moment of closed-in air.

I hated the jetlag but travel meant I could work with my closest colleagues in person, rather than on the other end of a videoconference screen at the worst possible time of day for all of us (depending on daylight savings, India is either twelve and a half or thirteen and a half hours different from California; either way, it is the toughest possible timezone to coordinate with from California). I hated the food poisoning but I loved the street vendor snacks behind the business school, and the mix of sweet / savory that comes from chutney and raita, and breakfast and drinks at the hotel, with the humid air smelling again of flowers and burning trash and incense.

There is nothing like seeing a city with someone who lives there, and my colleagues showed me the things they loved about the places they lived: the light show and Charminar and a mosque and temples and historical forts and the pearl market, where someone’s uncle helped me choose a necklace and earrings I still have; restaurants with lazy fans swinging above; gardens with trees I’ve never seen anywhere else; painted elephants and donkeys blocking traffic. On weekends I went sight-seeing: the Taj Mahal on my first trip, a zoo with giraffes whose heads swung lazily above the fence and telephone lines; Kerala, where I stayed in a hotel with a long lazy-river style swimming pool winding between the hotel rooms and the restaurant. I never made it to the hill stations or Darjeeling, but I expected to.

Then I changed teams, and I no longer worked directly with India.

So it’s been five years.

Two weeks ago, I went to Delhi, part of a larger group. “Is this your first time in India?” the group leaders asked us, and I felt almost guilty saying no: they so wanted it to be exciting, and isn’t the first time anywhere always more exciting? I went to the doctor and checked my immunizations, got a refresher on typhoid, was glad to learn I was up to date on tetanus, because regardless of India, I frequently get scratched by hedges and stray bits of fence as I work in my garden; picked up antibiotics at the pharmacy because I’ve got a 5:7 ratio on getting food poisoning.

I had heard that Delhi was different, and on the one hand, I thought it must be; and on the other, I thought, It’s still India, and although difference might be obvious to someone from there, who saw nuance I couldn’t, I wasn’t convinced it would seem all that different to me.

DSC_0263Delhi: a walking tour through old town, with the smell of the spice market and trash mingling in the heat; chai from a chai-wallah, snacks from a storefront proudly claiming its founding in 1952; the Red Fort, which I saw only from outside; flying a kite off the top of a building made of crumbling concrete, with teenage boys doing laundry in buckets on the roof; another rooftop covered in drying flowers, saffron-yellow and bright fuschia, to take to the temple as offerings to the gods; looking down into a room with no roof, with shadowed figures making rotis by hand and then carrying them up a ladder onto yet another roof to dry. Stepping onto the metro, brand-new and shiny, quieter and faster than any public transit system I’ve seen in the US – not that that’s much of a standard – and air-conditioned. It moved so smoothly that although it was so crowded, I couldn’t reach a bar or ceiling handle to hang onto, I had no trouble staying upright when it stopped and started at stations. Talking with a woman on the team in Delhi, who’d started at the company two months back, about what it’s like to live in Delhi, and what it’s like to live in California. We met with people in their homes, saw the neighborhoods they live in, dodged potholes and dogs and piles of refuse, accepted chips and Coke and hospitality. I did not get food poisoning. I didn’t even really get jetlag (although I am looking for wood to knock on as I write this).

DSC_0242

On a street outside a snack shop

DSC_0243

Walking through a market

DSC_0245

Looking off an interior courtyard balcony in old Delhi

DSC_0246

Inside a Sikh temple

And now I’m back.

So was it different? In some ways, yes – it’s been five years, and from a tech company perspective, many things have changed. You don’t call your driver and leave a missed call to tell him you’re ready for him to pick you up; you just text. You don’t give someone visiting you elaborate directions; they just call when they’re close, and you talk them in. On-app shopping, delivery, calling for a car – all are now common. At a mass level, India essentially skipped the laptop stage and went straight to smartphones. From a broader-than-tech-company-perspective, things have changed too. The metro is incredible; the last time I was in Bangalore, theirs was still until construction. The middle class in India is visibly growing, and becoming more middle. A whole host of changes, really fundamental shifts, go along with that.

But then again, in some ways no. The poverty is staggering. Walk down the street and try to count the number of people who at least to Western eyes appear to be malnourished: there are so many that you won’t be able to. The infrastructure, metro aside, simply isn’t present in the way it should be for a city this size. Basic systems for water and hygiene aren’t present, or can’t keep up, or both. There’s a major marketing & infrastructure campaign going on about restrooms in India right now, and while that’s a step towards having decent restrooms, the need for such a campaign highlights what isn’t present yet. The growing middle class, at least the people I talked to who I think would fall into that group, feels precarious. They’re hanging on more tightly and working harder and more hours than I would imagine for a middle class almost anywhere else. I suspect it’s very very easy to glance over your shoulder and see how easy it would be to fall out of this group, down to the next.

So would I go back?

During my last trip for my previous team, five or so years ago in Bangalore or Hyderabad, I didn’t know that it was my last trip. I didn’t anticipate changing teams, and I thought India was part of my rhythm. Two or three years later, after I changed roles and my work shifted, I realized I might not have a reason to return to India again. I didn’t see this most recent trip coming, until it did.

So.

Hard to say. Who knows?

DSC_0237.JPG

Photo of the in-flight map display; the plane flew over so many places I’ve never been!