Travelling with children may appear daunting at first, but here Editor of 101 Family Holidays William Gray tells us about his journey to India with his two nine-year old twins, and why sometimes venturing out of your comfort zone can result in a truly unforgettable family experience…
Sometimes, as parents, I think we worry too much. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that the welfare of our children shouldn’t be paramount. Just occasionally, though, there are times when the cotton wool should be teased apart to expose them to truly unique and unforgettable travel experiences.
Our twins, Joe and Ellie, were nine years old when we first took them to India – a fairly robust age, we thought, for coping with health and safety issues.
Nevertheless, we still arrived at Delhi airport full of trepidation. It doesn’t matter how much antibacterial hand-wash you squirt into the palms of your children, there’s no way of telling how culture shock might affect them. And it wasn’t as if we were about to break them in gently. Our first family experience of the sub-continent was a tuk-tuk ride from the airport to the railway station.
It felt like we’d been fired into a giant urban pinball machine, ricocheting through streets choked with taxis and roaring buses; scooters zigzagging through the mayhem and the whole scene throbbing with horn blasts and exhaust fumes. Any signs of culture shock? Not yet. In fact, Joe and Ellie spent most of the journey wide-eyed and giggling. Perhaps it was all too familiar – a real-life version of Super Mario Karts…
There was a brief bubble of bewilderment at New Delhi Railway Station as we raced (hands held in vice-like grips) to keep up with our luggage porters, wading through the crowds, the heat, the noise, the smell… But no sooner had we reached our platform than an Indian family wandered over to say hello and check that we were okay. Joe got his hair ruffled by one of the porters (something he’d get used to in the coming weeks). And when the train arrived, everyone made a big fuss of showing us to our seats. It began to dawn on me that not only were Joe and Ellie taking pretty much everything in their stride, but by travelling with them we were also bringing out the best of local hospitality.
Yes, there was plenty of staring and sometimes our twins felt shy when they became the focus of attention – or were asked to be photographed by strangers. But in terms of bridging a cultural divide and striking up a rapport with local people, travelling with children smoothed the way far more easily than if I’d been visiting India on my own.
That’s not to say, we were immune to culture shock. Far from it. We’d barely left the train station before an Indian boy – about Joe’s age – approached us, hand outstretched, begging for money. Both of his legs were crippled and he used a small, handmade trolley to drag himself along.
All kinds of perplexing cultural issues rear their heads when you’re travelling in India. Some, such as poverty and begging, will be more controversial and upsetting to your children than others. The never-ending noise or being able to eat using your right hand, however, may just be a constant source of fascination for them. If nothing else, culture shock in India stimulates conversation with your kids; it opens their eyes, makes them wonder; forces them to think about issues far removed from their pampered lives back home. And that’s surely a good thing.
The best way we found to help our children understand India and cope with culture shock was to join an escorted tour. Our Indian guide was a father of two himself. At every opportunity he gently integrated us into local life, whether it was introducing us to tea pickers at a hill station and encouraging Joe and Ellie to have a go, having a traditional meal with some of his relatives or stopping by the roadside to meet a family making handmade bricks out of clay.
Great Indian icons – like the Taj Mahal and tigers – might well be the reason you want to take your children to India – and they’ll certainly be highlights of your trip. Chances are, however, it’s the everyday life – the crowds, the traffic, the noise, the curious smiling faces, the vibrant pulse of India – that will leave the most lasting impressions.
By William Gray, Editor of 101 Family Holidays. All photos courtesy of William Gray.