Family Travels: India

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Travellers: Ronni (Ranjeev) and Isabelle Krishana and their daughter Maya (4). Ronni works for Pfizer and Isabelle runs Kitchen Cabinet, a family nutrition consultancy.

The Plan: The Krishana family traveled to India for 18 days to visit family, and also to cruise the “Golden Triangle” of northern India – New Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. This was Isabelle and Maya’s first trip to India.

The itinerary: The family flew first into New Delhi then hired a driver to take them to Agra (the city of Taj) then on to Jaipur (the land of Rajput kings) and back to Delhi.

On the road: Driving between towns is a unique experience in India, though Isabelle suggests hiring an experienced driver. Ronni’s family organized the driver, but your hotel concierge should be able to do the same. The drive from New Delhi to Agra takes 3.5 hours; Agra to Jaipur is 5 hours and back to Delhi is 4 hours, depending on traffic. The family really enjoyed this journey through rural India, which was like stepping a century into the past.

The same journey can be done by train if driving doesn’t ring your bells – one-way to Agra from Delhi in an air-conditioned Indian Rail car costs 120RMB, including meals. Children aged 0-4 travel free and ages 5 to 11 are half-price. See www.seat61.com/India.htm for information on all kinds of transport in India.

New Delhi: Little Maya loved the markets in Delhi, which are all outdoors and bustling with treasures. Isabelle recommends Greater Kalaish II M Block market and N Block market. Maya loved having mendhi (henna designs) painted onto her hands but with a 20-minute hold-still drying time, little kids may prefer to have their feet done instead.

The family also enjoyed Kahn market for the eateries, and Delhi’s Lodhi Gardens where Maya played princesses with local kids amongst the castle ruins. Be sure to visit the city’s incredible variety of Hindu temples (mandirs) which are colorful, vibrant, must-see places of worship, where priests chant, bells ring and kids run free. Wear or bring socks because shoes must be left outside and you don’t want to walk barefoot. Isabelle recommends the Lotus Bahai, Birla and Hanuman mandirs where you will be given a bindi, and can ring a bell or buy fruit for offerings.

Agra: Isabelle says there’s not much to see other than the magnificent Taj Mahal, considered the world’s finest example of Mughal architecture, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Splurge on a gorgeous hotel and enjoy the view.

Jaipur: This ancient town features many antiquated forts in various states of disrepair. Take an elephant ride to the top of the Amber Fort but get there early to avoid a lengthy queue. This winding, somewhat precarious ride features ringing bells, local music and warm tour guides.

Accommodation: The Krishana family did things in style on this trip. In Delhi, they stayed at the beautiful Oberoi Hotel (00 91 11 2436 3030, http://www.oberoidelhi.com/, 2,500RMB standard double) and in Agra, they loved the Amarvilas (00 91 562 231 515, http://www.amarvilas.com/, 4,900RMB double) where every room faces the Taj Mahal and traditional Indian music and dancing is performed nightly against a breathtaking backdrop of the Taj Mahal and setting sun.

In Jaipur, the family stayed at the Rajvilas (00 91 141 268 0101, 4,150RMB double), a dazzling seven-star hotel that features luxury tents, complete with hardwood floors. A highlight was the traditional drumming, dancing and men singing kirtain prayer songs in falsetto voice.

Noshing: Food is precarious in India. You cannot eat salad, raw veggies or unpeeled fruit, not even in five-star hotels. Isabelle says to avoid ice and anything water-based, and with kids, you need to be super-vigilant; bring your own snacks. One local treat Maya did love was the Indian tea – a milky, chai-like brew.

The family found the local Indian food divine; a real favorite was the local Delhi dish chole batura, a spicy chickpea stew with fried Indian bread. Be sure to try the various styles of Indian bread like roti, naan and chapatti, and for breakfast, try the traditional aloo paratha – potato-stuffed bread. For a taste of the old British Empire, drop into any number of hotels that still host traditional high teas.

In Dehi, the Krishana family suggest eating at Bukhara, described as the best Indian food on planet earth (Hotel Sheraton, Diplomatic Enclave, Sadar Patel Marg, 00 91 11 2611 2233), The Kitchen (Khan Market, 00 91 11 4175 7960) and Moti Mahal (Connaught Place, 00 11 2923 2467).

Keeping healthy: Food is probably your biggest health concern in India, according to Isabelle. Visit your doctor to make sure your vaccinations are up-to-date, ask about malaria medication and be sure to take along Imodium and gastrolyte. Be wary of buying medication in India – everything is available but the quality is unknown. Take lots of hand sanitizer, insect repellant and do not touch animals. Avoid the water; don’t even brush your teeth with it.

When to go: The best times to go to northern India are between October and December, and the end of February through March. The Krishanas went in November and said it was perfect – 70°F (21°C) and sunny every day, with low humidity.

What to buy: Shopping in India is a real treat, with gorgeous clothing and fabrics at super-bargain prices. Isabelle recommends the Indian-style shirts and pajamas, as well as the local textiles. Her favorite shop was Fabindia (http://www.fabindia.com/) where everything is handmade by local craftspeople enjoying good working conditions. Table linens and kids’ outfits were the family’s favorites.

Let’s celebrate: Be prepared for noise in India – with so many religions, there is always a celebration going on, with prayers to be chanted, bells to be rung and songs to be sung. There is also a lot of construction and traffic noise, and congestion. Take one of the many styles of rickshaw – bicycle, horse, human – but avoid the main roads. Getting around is easy because English is spoken almost everywhere.

The poverty: Unlike China, poverty is very much in-your-face in India, and can be very confronting. The Krishanas suggest keeping your wits about you, and just keep walking if approached. If you do want to give money, be very discreet unless you want to be instantly mobbed.

The best of: Probably the most wonderful thing about the Krishana family’s journey (other than the gorgeous hotels and deliciously authentic food) was the color and the culture – truly unlike anywhere else in the world. Traveling during wedding season, there were no shortages of flowers, camels, elephants and men on white horses galloping through the streets. For kids who have lived elsewhere in Asia, a trip to India will show them a colorful, cultural richness that is truly unparalleled.

First published, in part, in beijingkids magazine and on the beijingkids website.

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