In the holy Hindu city of Varanasi, my family and I stood respectfully back from the entrance to an ancient temple one day last spring, craning our necks a bit to get a glimpse of the elaborate gold idols inside, mindful of the worshippers edging past us to pray. Then the merry priest caught sight of my three-year-old son: He swooped over in a swirl of saffron robes, swept the child into his arms and headed for the inner sanctum of the temple. "Come," he said over his shoulder to us, scrunching Darragh's cheeks. Startled but delighted, we hurried along behind.
The priest filled Darragh's hands with sweet raisins for offerings to the gods (and turned a blind eye when Darragh ate a few). He draped his neck with a marigold garland, and turned him loose on the chains of the big brass temple bells. "God's doorbell!" the priest informed him. For the next half hour, we were treated to a fascinating explanation, in mildly fractured English, of the temple's origins and Shiva's sacred role, delivered over the cacophony of the toddler-pummelled bells. More cheek-squeezing, more raisins, more garlands - we all parted fast friends.
In every Indian temple and palace where my family has encountered other Western visitors - from young backpackers to elderly folk on guided tours - the sight of our son elicits a mix of surprise and alarm. "You're very brave," people say, "to bring him here." So I explain that we aren't just visiting, we live in India, and that in fact it's a wonderful place to travel with a child.
Yet the idea is a hard sell: Friends back home sigh wistfully when we talk of camel rides in Rajasthan and houseboats in Kerala. They hitch their babies up on their hips and say, "I guess it's going to be another 15 years before we can come to India …" Their brains flash with images of disease and crowds and rickety trains. They seem to feel sentenced to Disneyland, cruise ships, the all-inclusive resort - things they know to be kid-friendly - at least until the teen years.
But think of India as just a different kind of Disneyland: It involves a bit more preplanning, a bit more flexibility, but it can be just as relaxing for parents as the Magic Kingdom.
First of all, even the most mundane aspects of life or travel here are filled with things to intrigue and entertain children. The four-hour drive we took to Jaipur from home in Delhi flew by because we spent it counting all the different contraptions that a camel could pull - in front of us - in traffic. There is a temple full of shiny idols and brass bells down every alley. A rickshaw ride is fun, an elephant ride is even better - and for 50 rupees, or about a buck, you can almost always persuade a mahout to detour from wherever he is bound and take you for a quick lumber on his beastie.
But the best part is the Indian attitude to children (if I can be permitted a sweeping stereotype of about 1.2 billion people). Kids are the centre of Indian families, widely indulged and viewed as shared property: Every older lady, it seems, has a special packet of sweets in her purse for doling out to strange children. Foreign children are a relatively rare sight, outside of the big cities, and they are doubly fussed over. All of our best travel experiences - the times we were invited to share briefly in the lives of regular Indian people - have come through doors opened by interest in our son. Nothing in India is specifically intended for children, in the style of a kids' program on the cruise ship, but hotels, restaurant staff and guides will almost always go miles out of their way to entertain and accommodate your little one.
In Srinagar, my partner Meril and I were left to admire the dim interior of a centuries-old wooden mosque from the doorway; only the faithful are admitted to the interior. But a Kashmiri man scooped up our son and disappeared inside with him, pointing out all the intricacies of the papier-mâché decoration. Infidel toddlers, apparently, were most welcome. We took shikara rides on Dal Lake, and when our boatman, Lhasa, learned of Darragh's love of birds, he made long detours through the floating gardens to show us Himalayan kingfishers. He also produced a tiny paddle, the image of his own, and let Darragh "help" paddle us down the lake. In Jaipur, our lovely turbaned waiter whisked our child off each evening after he had eaten - to this day, ask Darragh who his best friend is and he replies, "Rajinder Singh with the smashing hat" - and took him for adventures around the old palace-cum-hotel. It's mildly disconcerting, at first, for a parent with North American anxieties about strangers. But it's also lovely, the communal sense of responsibility and interest in children.
Our best trip was through the backwaters of Kerala on a houseboat. People in Delhi thought we were mad. You can't take an active two-year-old on an open boat for three days, they said - it's one big drowning hazard. We went anyway, but I was armed with a small life jacket and prepared to spend my whole trip with one hand clenched on my son's T-shirt. My worries were unfounded: The boat came with a crew of three and whatever their duties were supposed to have been, they immediately made child care the first one. Ajay, the captain, spent hours with Darragh in his lap, letting him "drive" the boat. Mohan, the cook, sat patiently in the tiny galley as Darragh rolled out a series of lumpy, misshapen chapatis, and somehow also whipped up fantastic feasts to serve up on wide banana leaves at the same time. Meril and I were left with naught to do but loll on the boat's roof terrace with a cold beer and watch the villages drift by.
In the evenings, we moored near those villages, and disembarked to take a walk. Here, people were particularly startled by the little blond boy who peeked around their doors, and rushed to bring their own children to meet him. We had lovely, broken-English conversations, sat quietly to watch some nightly pujas (religious ceremonies), and families - many of them clearly very poor - lifted beaded necklaces from their toddlers' necks and placed them around Darragh's.
In fact, the one downside to all this is that sometimes, the enthusiasm can be a bit much. One of the first sentences Darragh learned in Hindi was "Please don't touch my face" - at the end of a day of walking in a crowded area, his wee cheeks would be scarlet from well-intended squeezing. The blond toddler is a favourite for photos, and Darragh appears in the vacation and wedding albums of several hundred Indian families. The enthusiasm is so genuine that it's hard to say no, but it's also difficult to convince an irritated toddler to stand still and smile when yet another enormous Bengali family visiting the temple asks, "Please, just one snap with baby."
Through it all, you get to see India, and you get the added pleasure of seeing things through toddler eyes. It was Darragh who first noticed that a curious Rajasthani elephant had caught wind of the banana in my trouser pocket, and was making discreet attempts with her trunk, worthy of the finest pickpocket, to get it out. Darragh found the secret passageway in the old Moghul palace in Kashmir. And Darragh first spotted the cackling pilgrims doing laughing yoga on the banks of the Ganges near Varanasi.
You will, of course, want to take some precautions. Have your kids vaccinated for a range of things from rabies to meningitis. Come between October and March, because the weather makes doing anything outdoors a misery the rest of the time. Bring diapers, because the ones for sale in India are of unpredictable quality, and a collapsing potty seat for use on trains or in dubious public conveniences. Don't forget sunscreen, which is difficult to buy here, as is repellent, and bring gallons of hand sanitizer, which is largely unknown in India.
There are no cribs, no high chairs and no kiddie menus at any but the highest-end hotels. Pack some favourite food items - you can buy most anything in the upscale markets of Delhi and Mumbai these days, though you won't want to spend the time hunting. But no one is going to frown at you when you tote the kids into a dining room, and if you're lucky, that may be the last you see of them for an hour. They'll come back flushed and weighed down with sweets, able to introduce themselves in Hindi or Tamil - and ready for the next adventure.
Stephanie Nolen is The Globe and Mail's South Asia bureau chief.
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Getting there The easiest option with kids is Air India or Continental Airlines from Toronto through New York - you're on the plane from Newark for 15 uninterrupted hours, but it's overnight and there are tons of kid videos on the in-flight screens. While Air India's service often draws poor reviews, their best aircraft and flight crew work the Delhi to New York route.