The Times The Sunday Times
From The Sunday Times February 14, 2010 How to do India with kids (part 1) In the first of two missives from a three-month adventure, everything seems to be going surprisingly well for our writer Michael Booth
Of other holidays, one might perhaps recall the beaches or the shopping, but in the run-up to my family’s three-month circumnavigation of India, all we ever heard about from India veterans was their catastrophic bowel movements. I wondered if we should just pack four spacesuits and be done with it. Should we even be taking children to India? In the end, I compromised with copious supplies of Imodium, Cipro and amoxicillin, as well as two odd socks to slip over hotel bathroom taps, and placed our fate in the hands of Mother India.
The plan had been brewing for years, but it was only when our youngest, Emil, turned six that we felt he would be old enough to cope, not just with 12 weeks on the road, but with everything else India might throw at us. Starting from Delhi, where we arrived on January 11, we would head for Amritsar by plane before returning to Delhi, where we’d pick up a car to Agra. From there, it would be a mix of car and train west through Rajasthan before heading for Mumbai — a stepping stone to the south (which you will hear about in a few weeks’ time).
Of course, our children had little idea of what they were letting themselves in for, but we pretty much had them at “You get your own TV screen on the plane”. Explaining that the police rode elephants sealed the deal.
Mother India caught us gently upon arrival. On Connaught Place, Delhi, we had our first lesson in Indian street smarts. A passer-by pointed out a splat of bird poo on my right shoe. There wasn’t a bird in the sky, but, by an extraordinary coincidence, there was a shoe cleaner to hand. I paid him grudgingly, and turned around to find my son Asger, 8, more outgoing and polite than his younger brother — and therefore an easier mark — sitting a short way off, engulfed by a carnival of ear-cleaners, shoeshiners and a man operating two dancing emu puppets.
Though we had a car and driver to smooth our way, those first five days in the capital were overwhelming. Sightings of monkeys, parakeets, cows and skinny squirrels like the one from Ice Age drew excited yelps from Emil, but we soon learnt not to look too closely at people sitting or standing alone in shrubbery. In India, you are only ever alone for one reason. Everywhere are parabolas of piss.
“Can we give them this?” Emil asked, gesturing to our bag of snacks as small faces tapped our car windows at traffic lights. We tried to explain how that contributes to the problem, but it rang rather hollow. We spent money outside our hotels as much as possible, and tipped like Rockefeller. Things are still cheap. Meals in non-touristy restaurants come in at about £12 for four. You can eat for far less, of course, but you’ll be on red alert until the seven-hour mark passes.
The melee of those first days wasn’t helped by a dense, cold, white wall of fog. Occasionally, we had to wear all our clothes at once. The three hours we spent walking barefoot on the icy, wet marble at
the Golden Temple, in Amritsar, were chal enging, but mist rendered this holiest of Sikh temples even more mystical, and being filmed by a local television crew as we made chapatis in the world’s largest kitchen took the children’s minds off their ice-cube toes.
Outside the temple, we met a former marine, a Sikh, with a royal-blue turban the size of an immersion heater on his head. He told us it was 400 metres long, showed the boys his jewel-encrusted dagger and gave them each a blessing. This must have made an impression on Emil, who decided he had to have a turban, so we stopped off in a local shop, a small, open-fronted box room, as most are in India. By the time we were all turbaned up, we had drawn quite an audience.
The event took on a festival atmosphere, something the boys — who had been enormously tolerant of cheek-pinching and photograph requests — were getting used to. This may sound trite, but I couldn’t help feeling that, although they were missing school (literally rather than emotionally, it has to be said), a day spent wearing a turban was a potent learning experience.
In Agra, our next stop, it was even foggy in the hotel lobby. I feared we’d bump into the Taj Mahal before we saw it, but, miraculously, the fog lifted that day, revealing a perfect lapis-blue backdrop and rendering us speechless. We final y caught up with the sun at the Ranthambore game reserve. Thousands of locals rely on tourists coming to the park to see its 41 tigers, but, frustratingly, we spent nine hours on three game drives and didn’t spot one.
Asger did convince himself he saw “some ears”, but Emil’s claim to have seen “its hat” was treated more sceptically. The former royal hunting ground was gorgeously Kiplingesque, though, with the maharajah of Jaipur’s dilapidated lodges and Hindu-Islamic temples slowly being devoured by the jungle. And we did see antelopes, crocodiles, kingfishers and Baloo — one of the local sloth-bear population.
In Jaipur — the Pink City, painted what is, in truth, more a dusky terracotta to welcome the Prince of Wales in 1876 — we clambered aboard elephants for the ride up to the Amber Fort. The boys had been bristling with excitement for some weeks in anticipation of this, and it lived up to expectations. I was delirious with flu and high on Day Nurse that morning, which only heightened the sense of the surreal as our elephants lumbered nose to tail in a pachyderm traffic jam up the ramparts.
Interestingly, as the trip unfolds, the things we thought would jolt the kids — the poverty, the traffic, the food, a mad cycle-rickshaw drive through Old Delhi — seem not to have bothered them unduly, while the things we thought they’d get excited about — the palaces and forts, the wacky ceremony at Wagah, on the Pakistan border — have been eclipsed by mundane things such as a ride in a glass lift, or just a good bit of green space and some playmates.
We also hadn’t foreseen how stressful sharing a room would be. In some hotels, we’ve been sleeping three in a bed, with one on a camp bed. Bedtime tantrums, dream spasms and a bed-wetting incident have sapped our energy, but I have promised to try harder in the coming weeks.
And we all feel it’s a small price to pay — not just to see India, but to spend time together as a family. My wife and I know that, as our boys get older, we are going to see less of them, so there have been many glances between us to say: “Let’s not forget this moment.”
The pace of our trip had been necessarily frenetic, but the Umaid Bhawan Palace hotel was a calm oasis — so much so that I was unable to persuade my family to leave the grounds, and ended up pottering around Jodhpur’s colossal fort alone. My reward was to chance upon the set of a Bollywood movie.
I have become addicted to Bollywood gossip. I particularly enjoy the slow-mo action replays on television when ex-lovers pass each other on the red carpet. Oddly, it doesn’t matter that I haven’t a clue who the actors are — I find the whole circus compelling. My wife thinks I have lost the plot.
The Taj Mahal aside, I had looked forward to Udaipur most of all of the places we’d be visiting in northern India. It was the one destination visitors seemed unanimously to love, and with good reason. There is an intoxicating romance to its palaces and lakeside setting, and, although we couldn’t stretch to a room at the Lake Palace, the Trident hotel turned out to be the most child-friendly place we’ve stayed in, with sumptuous gardens, a pool and, crucially, breakfast muffins.
Was it the right decision to take our kids to India? So far, my feeling is undoubtedly yes, and not only because the things we’ve already seen have surpassed fable. Indian families are travelling more and more within their own country, and Asger and Emil’s growing desperation for playmates has meant they have pounced on anyone their own age — which, in turn, has helped us get to know several of them. We are meeting up with some of these new-found friends in Mumbai next week, and have been invited to the home of others in Bangalore next month. We can’t wait.
We still have a lot of ground to cover, with the extra challenges of climate and even spicier food to face in southern India. If you must know, there have been a couple of squiffy tummies, but the Imodium remains sheathed. For now.
Travel Brief Getting there: for an extended trip, it makes sense to go independently. Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7777, virgin-atlantic.com), British Airways (0844 493 0787, ba.com), Jet Airways (0808 101 1199, jetairways.com) and Air India (airindia.com) have return fares from about £450. Where to stay: heritage hotels are lovely, but can be pricey: the Umaid Bhawan Palace, in Jodhpur (tajhotels.com), starts at £220 a night, as do Oberoi hotels (oberoihotels.com). Neemrana boutique hotels (neemranahotels.com) and Park design hotels (theparkhotels.com) start at about £90. Trident hotels (tridenthotels.com) are cheaper — rooms in Agra start at £58. Or try Gateway (thegatewayhotels.com). Footprint India Handbook and the Rough Guides books on India have good budget listings. Tour operators: if you don’t have three months to spare, it makes sense to go with an operator. Cox & Kings (020 7873 5000, coxandkings.co.uk), which assisted Michael Booth with some of his itinerary, has a tailor-made 14-night Rajasthan family holiday, taking in Delhi, the Taj Mahal, Jaipur, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur and Udaipur, with two nights in rural Rajasthani tented camps, from £2,985pp (£90 less per child).
For a more budget approach, Tribes Travel (01728 685971, www.tribes.co.uk) has two weeks, with a homestay in Delhi and hotels in Agra, Varanasi, Bharatpur (all B&B) and Ranthambore (full-board), from £1,450pp, including flights from Heathrow and all transfers. Or try Indus Tours (020 8901 7320, industours.co.uk), Abercrombie & Kent (0845 618 2200, www.abercrombiekent.co.uk), On the Go (020 7371 1113, onthegotours.com). Audley (01993 838000, audleytravel.com) or Colours of India (020 8347 4020, www.partnershiptravel.co.uk).
Planning your family adventure
The Booth family are based in Denmark, where schools tend to take a more liberal view of children skipping classes to see the world. All the same, it is entirely possible for British families to take time out.
A three-month adventure is at the headteacher’s discretion. You will have to make a strong case for the educational value of the trip and, depending on how many weeks of term time you would miss, you may have to undertake to keep up with the curriculum. Typically, this would involve two or three hours of lessons each morning during the trip.
The Booths arranged for homework to keep the boys up to speed with their classmates, and made sure all their friends were hooked up to Skype, a great benefit when homesickness comes knocking. The boys have also posted photos and descriptions from their travels online for their friends.
The family decided against renting out their house. If things went awry, they felt they needed the option to return home straightaway.
For India, make sure that you are up to date with jabs for tetanus, diphtheria, typhoid and hepatitis A and B a good two months before you leave. The Booths avoided malarial areas, so as not to have to take antimalaria drugs. They chose not to get rabies jabs, but packed Imodium, for diarrhoea, Cipro, which counters a range of bacterial infections, and amoxicillin, for respiratory infections.
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