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Mirrored walls, secret passages and elephant rides are among the thrills to be had at the Amber Fort in Jaipur. Here, Stephanie Nolen and her son get friendly with the pachyderms.

Mirrored walls, secret passages and elephant rides are among the thrills to be had at the Amber Fort in Jaipur. Here, Stephanie Nolen and her son get friendly with the pachyderms.

India: The real magic kingdom Add to ...

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.

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