I was supposed to be writing this column from an Internet café in Mumbai last week, but instead I was stuck in my hotel room, watching Indian CNN and old episodes of the OC, recovering from an “unspecified” viral infection. Now I’m home, not yet unpacked or nearly recovered from the jet lag of crossing all those time zones but ready to start trying to make sense of my still fresh overseas experience.
Around the time we decided to proceed with our adoption, late last summer, Neil and I made another much less permanent but nevertheless life-changing decision — to spend the winter break traveling in India. Having experienced a transforming college semester abroad in nearby Nepal, and being a serious student of yoga, it was a trip I’d wanted to take for years, but the time never seemed right and the plane tickets always sounded way too expensive. But now I would be learning about my future daughter’s birth country — and there was nothing that would stop me from making the trip.
Last summer, when we were deciding whether to proceed with infertility treatments or move forward with adoption, I couldn’t help but feel like I was choosing between months of medical hellishness versus a lifetime invitation to get to know India, a country I’d never visited but had always been fascinated by. I knew that if I did adopt a child from abroad, I’d do everything I could to keep my child’s cultural connections to her birthplace alive. Neil and I figured that we couldn’t very well adopt from a country we’d never been to — not if we had the means (time, money) to go. Besides, this gave us an important benchmark as we waited for our referral — there wasn’t anything we could do to hasten the adoption, our social worker assured us, but the trip would help us make use of the waiting time and be a gift we could give ourselves — a month away that would signify the end of the sadness of my miscarriage and infertility and the start of our happy journey of adoption.
Little did I know how much this trip would in some ways mirror the pregnancy I had always wanted. Instead of taking hormone pills to go along with the IUI and IVF, Neil and I both spent an afternoon with the university health service’s travel nurse, getting shots and pills to prevent everything from typhoid and hepatitis to malaria and rabies. The shots made us both sick, and as much as I hated to see Neil uncomfortable, it was a relief to no longer feel like a hypochondriac when having a bad reaction to the injection of foreign substances, like I often did with the hormone pills.
While traveling, I had that “special” feeling I’d always imagined having when pregnant — a rarified chance to see life in a whole new way. My body also changed, only I lost weight rather than gained it. I got to wear different clothes than usual, my normal jeans paired with colorful, well-made but inexpensive cotton kurta tops that hit me just above the knee, and scarves wrapped around my shoulders. I had pampering treatments (Ayurvedic massages run about $10), spent plenty of time feeling ill (that unspecified virus, and a feverish cold two weeks before it), had the chance to shop for baby things (we bought Indian children’s books and a few irresistible size two-year cotton shirts and dresses in Bombay), and was continually aware of being in the middle of the experience of a lifetime. This sense remained with me as we navigated the sights and amazing eating and shopping opportunities in the city and then took a 30-hour train ride down into the state of Kerala, where we spent a sometimes relaxing, often adventuresome, and at times luxurious couple of weeks in the beach and hill towns of the southern region.
Acclimating to India, I was glad for every moment of getting to know this country on my own terms before coming back sometime later this year (or early next) to meet our daughter. Little things like knowing how to bargain with a taxi driver, navigate a rural health clinic (not for research purposes but so that Neil and I could pick up some antibiotics), and determine what shoes worked best on the streets of Mumbai (closed toe sandals) would go a long way in allowing us to concentrate on getting acquainted with our baby the next time around. And in the meantime, I’d had the kind of culture-shocking mental and spiritual jolt to the system that only comes from seeing life lived in a completely different way, the kind of experience I hadn’t had since that college semester in Nepal more than ten years before.
I’d worried before leaving the states that when I was actually in India, the place and the trip I’d so carefully plotted out wouldn’t match my high expectations, and that I’d wish I were spending the time and money at the infertility clinic back home instead. And at times, on a taxi or train ride through a congested slum neighborhood, or when being shouted at by a belligerent man who changed the price of his horse ride (in a hill station where the options for getting into town ranged from a horse ride to a man-driven rickshaw), or sick in bed with a high fever taking unfamiliar medicine, or faced with the intensely congested air of Mumbai, I thought to myself that infertility treatments might have been a much easier route to parenthood.
But then there were all the other millions of moments — standing with Neil in the corridor between train cars watching the sun set over the tropical state of Goa; eating the tastiest shrimp and dal and chana masala and drinking the freshest fruit juices of my life; experiencing the relaxing and healing effects of Ayurvedic oil treatments; lolling by the beach enthralled in a 1,500-page Vikram Seth novel; spotting wild boar and monkeys in their natural habitat; exchanging timid smiles and hellos with schoolgirls and their mothers while taking an afternoon stroll through a village dotted with terraced spice farms — when I knew I was just where I was meant to be, and that this wasn’t about comparisons or compensations for pregnancy after all, that this was my life and the beginning of my story of motherhood, and I was unquestionably lucky to be living it.