Posted by: Gideon | July 5, 2013

India with Kids 2013. Exploring Maheshwar (day 2)

Nosey cow!

Nosy cow!

Day 2 in Maheshwar was, for India, amazingly relaxing.

We explored the town in the morning. Maheshwar, as opposed to most towns in India, is really clean, and foreigners are not mobbed by people trying to sell you something. In fact, we had to insist on being served in some of the little shops. I was looking for some Indian style clothes, but I quickly learned that men in Maheshwar only want to dress like Westerners. The boys were in their element – we quickly found a cricket set (bat and ball) for sale at a ridiculously low price, and they  were all set to start playing. We wandered into a gold store, and were welcomed with open arms. We sat bare footed next to about ten local ladies all choosing some jewelry, but gold costs the exact same in India as elsewhere in the world – and it wasn’t cheap.

We returned to the hotel for lunch, and in the afternoon we relaxed by the incredible pool at the hotel. That evening, we wandered down to the Ghats, where the locals come to swim, relax, pray and enjoy the cooler weather next to the weather. The locals insisted that Gal pose with them, and she must now appear in photo’s in hundreds of homes across India. Daniel was asked to pose with a baby – he was at a total loss for words!

The prince's dog - wearing his Quivertree cap!

The prince’s dog – wearing his Quivertree cap!

16 year old Canadian girls are very popular in India!

16 year old Canadian girls are very popular in India!

What does a kid do when he's asked to hold a baby?

What does a kid do when he’s asked to hold a baby?

Hanging out at the pool .

Hanging out at the pool .

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The majestic Ahilya Fort towers above the Narmada Ghats.

The majestic Ahilya Fort towers above the Narmada Ghats.

We went shopping on our last morning in Delhi. Delhi offers great shopping possibilities, and our friend Anita – a local and very much in-the know Delhi-ite friend- had given us a list of top local boutiques for the girls to take a look at. The girls had a great time trying on and buying various items, and Gal looked almost like a local, in her very modern but at the same time unmistakably Indian, new clothes. The boys and I understandably were kind of bored by the whole thing, so we went to hang out in a great bookshop. India is apparently the world’s largest English speaking nation today, and a huge amount of titles are published every year. I’m a bit behind on my Indian literature, so I bought the Booker prize-winning The White Tiger, while the kids bought great cartoon books based on Indian legends.

Delhi really is a great city – amazing history and culture, and amazing modern shops and amenities as well. We really enjoyed our stay.

Our next stop was again well off the beaten path. We were heading to the vast Central state of Madhya Pradesh, an area that is fascinating in so many ways but doesn’t make it on to most itineraries. Our objective on this trip was to experience the “real’ India as much as possible, and we didn’t need to go to the spots where all the other tourists flocked to.

We arrived at Delhi airport well in time for our early afternoon flight to Indore. I had booked online with Jet Airways, who promote themselves as a great modern airline, but our experience was the opposite. The flight was delayed for an excruciating six hours, and the only saving grace was that Delhi’s international airport is outstanding – and if you have to wait around at any airport, Delhi is a good one to do so.

We finally arrived in Indore at night, having missed out on our only chance to go sightseeing, and went directly to our hotel, a brand new tower in the center of town. Authentically Indian it wasn’t, but it was great nonetheless.

The following day, we met our driver, named Mahesh, for the drive to Maheshwar. Co-incidence?

Guide books warn of a long and uncomfortable drive along terrible roads, yet the roads were brand new and in perfect shape – proof again of the incredible rate of development going on in India. The expected 4-5 hour drive was 2 hours at most. Maheshwar is a small town located along the banks of the holy Narmada River. It is an ancient town, famous for silk weaving and temples. It sees very few tourists, but those who make it to Maheshwar have the opportunity of staying in one of the most amazing hotels we have ever come across – the Ahilya Fort.

Loving the sunset cruise!

Loving the sunset cruise!

The Fort is home to the local Royal Family, and while the Prince was out of town (as he very often is), we were welcomed by Kunta Bai, the grand old lady who keeps everything running smoothly, and who was once the nanny to the Prince’s own kids.

The warmest welcome possible from Kunta Bai

The warmest welcome possible from Kunta Bai

We were given two rooms – the Maharaja tent – a huge tent for Hilit and I, with a king size bed and bathroom suite, and with a private plunge pool, and a standard air-conditioned room for the kids. There are many more luxurious places to stay in India – this fort is lacking in some mod cons – but the whole experience there was simply amazing. The 300 year old fort stands high above the bathing “ghats” alongside the river where locals come both to pray at the many temples, and to cool down after a long hot day. Next door to the fort is a huge temple, and the fort runs its own school, as well as a weaving co-operative.  For centuries the local Royal Family has taken care of the population, and while the family lacks political power today, that level of care still remains.

We toured the school and met some weavers, and in the early evening we went out for a boat ride along the River – simply magical.

Before dinner, Kunta Bai promised Eitan (our 8 year old) that she would make something special for him  – just to make sure that he would eat well! That’s the old nanny still coming out! Over the next few days he had home made pasta, chicken raised at the fort itself and more, while we feasted on a variety of incredible Indian dishes. The food was memorable – the fort has its own gardens, and its own chickens, sheep and goats, which it keeps in pens in the vast grounds.

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The river is the local swimming pool. It's free and it's cool!

The river is the local swimming pool. It’s free and it’s cool!

Local kids enjoying the river.

Local kids enjoying the river.

Th amazing Maharaja's Tent.

The amazing Maharaja’s Tent.

Danielo and Eitan getting comfortable for their boat ride.

Danielo and Eitan getting comfortable for their boat ride.

A local classroom - no chairs or tables, but it's all incredibly clean and neat.

A local classroom – no chairs or tables, but it’s all incredibly clean and neat.

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The highway – with no users except us!

How many millions of photos must get taken at the Tahj every day?

How many millions of photos must get taken at the Taj every day?

The following day we met our driver for our day trip to Agra.

Agra gets a bad rap in most guide books. But it’s the #1 destination in India, as it’s home to the Taj Mahal.  Back in 2008 Gal had not been happy that we had spent almost three weeks in India, and hadn’t seen the Taj. The fact is, on that trip we had been in South India, which in many ways can seem like a different country. Today we were making it up to her.

There is a new highway from Delhi to Agra, and its like nothing I had ever seen in India before. Multiple lanes that would make it an easy candidate for an interstate in the USA. New huge housing estates and apartments flank the road as you depart Delhi, further signs of the incredible changes that are taking place here. Driving on the highway is a bit surreal – it’s a toll road, so hardly anyone uses it. No doubt as people get wealthier, they’ll go for ease of use rather than austerity.

Agra remains a dirty and massively crowded place. On our way in we stopped in the traffic long enough for Eitan and I to rush out and buy him a hat – his ear had been so badly sunburned up in the mountains. We bought him a fake India cricket hat, for 3 dollars – knowing that we were being ripped off (recommended price $1.50).

Visiting the Taj Mahal is a bit of a mission. Firstly, the entire perimeter has been enlarged so that you enter the tourist precinct at least a kilometer or so from the actual site. After buying tickets, we rode in a free electrified buggy to the security check point. There are about 50 things you are not allowed to take with you into the Taj.  Some are kind of strange – no books, newspapers, flashlights, flags. No pets or toolboxes either. Somehow hands are also not allowed!

Gal with new friends at the Taj.

Gal with new friends at the Taj.

After exiting security, which is very thorough, it’s time for the real deal. The first sight of the Taj Mahal is simply breathtaking. It doesn’t matter that there are thousands of others around – it’s a huge place. The kids were in awe – and Gal was finally appeased. Interestingly, the vast majority of visitors were Indian – you could just pick out a few foreigners here and there.

After spending a good amount of time – clearly locals make it a whole day affair by the way many had camped out in the shade – it was time to leave.

After a poor lunch at a highly recommended restaurant, we went to the Agra Fort. It’s an astounding building, and would be the greatest attraction in almost any city in the world, but in Agra, it’s a clear runner-up. By now Gal wasn’t feeling well for whatever reason, and so I took the boys around the Fort. There isn’t much inside – the most impressive part is definitely the entrance gate and outer walls. Shah Jahan who built the Taj for his wife was later imprisoned here by his own son – and we saw the terrace from which he apparently would gaze at the Taj every day for the many years of his imprisonment.

While we were away, Gal apparently became the #1 attraction for local tourists at the entrance gate – and appeared in hundreds of photos. Something that would repeat itself throughout the trip.

Later, it was back to Delhi on the empty highway.

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Not the "normal" view of the Taj.

Not the “normal” view of the Taj.

In the garden at Agra Fort

In the garden at Agra Fort

Daniel with the next door neighbors (the ones who live on the ground floor).

Daniel with the next door neighbors (the ones who live on the ground floor).

We woke up on our final morning in the mountains to the sound of the neighbors shooing their water buffalo and goats out of the house. The traditional house of the Kumaon has two stories – the family lives upstairs, and the livestock lives downstairs.  While the local kids were getting ready for school (school uniforms, backpacks etc), the animals were taken outside where they would spend the day. It’s times like this when the different lives people lead across the world really comes into focus – for us, the fact that water buffalo sleep downstairs is simply incredible – for the village family, it’s completely normal. They probably would find our North American big city way of life unfathomable in many ways (though not totally, with the spread of satellite TV across most of India).

After playing some morning cricket, it was time to pack up. We hiked about 20 minutes up the hill to the waiting cars while the guys who look after the village house carried our luggage. The ride back was long and very windy. The best way to avoid becoming car sick was to sleep. Finally we arrived back in Kathgodam where we had lunch at the same South Indian restaurant we’d eaten when we had arrived a few days before.

Playing cricket. Hit a 6 into the valley and the game is over!

Playing cricket. Hit a 6 into the valley and the game is over!

Then it was time to board the train. Pujan joined us for the journey back to Delhi, and entertained the kids for the full 6 hours!

It was late at night when we arrived back in Delhi, and we sadly took our leave from Pujan. He’d become a really good friend in just a few short days.

We needed to get up bright and early the next day – we were off to see the Taj Mahal!

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Quivertree at the Himalayas

Quivertree at the Himalayas

Our final full day showed the Himalayas in their full glory. We walked along a high ridge directly opposite a magnificent unbroken chain of mountains stretching from India to Nepal. It’s hard to describe how magnificent the mountains are. Alongside our path were flowering rhododendron trees with their huge bright red flowers almost bursting.  It was spectacular!

Rhododendron season

Rhododendron season

Our day wasn’t all about walking. We had lunch by a group of very ancient temples, dating back almost 1000 years and which, according to local legend, were built in a day. The first thing that came into my mind when I heard that, was that it had to be built by some “Superhero”, as the temples are massive, and made with huge blocks of stone that could easily weigh a ton each.

After lunch, we were invited to take part in a special “puja” or Hindu blessing ceremony at one of the temples, which happened to be one of the 12 holiest Shiva temples in India. Our guide arranged this for us, and so we went with him to buy the offerings that would be taken into the sanctuary.  We bought various gold papers, coconuts and a few other objects and foods that we didn’t recognise. Entering the ancient temple, we had to almost crawl into the innermost sanctuary, where two Hindu priests were waiting for us. One of them seemed very young, and he took charge of the ceremony. He asked for all our names and birthdates, and then began chanting. At various times we were instructed to place some of our offerings in front of the images, or throw water on the lingam, or ring a bell,and towards the end he dabbed a bindi on our foreheads and a holy red thread was tied around our wrist. We were instructed not to remove it until it fell off by itself.

The kids were in awe. I suspect that most kids these days find religious services to be incredibly boring – whether it’s in a synagogue, church, mosque, wherever. But the ceremony in the temple was fascinating and very personal. We are not Hindus and we had no idea what the priest was chanting – but it was obvious that he was praying for us and working very hard at it, and the kids all sensed this. The feeling as we exited was close to elation.

At the temples.

At the temples.

We continued our walking, and eventually arrived at our last village house, perched high above a village with incredible views of the fields. That night our chef gave the girls an impromptu cooking lesson which they really enjoyed, while us boys played cricket with the villagers.

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Saying good bye to chef!

Saying good bye to chef!

An incredible landscape lay below us.

An incredible landscape lay below us.

A quick cooking lesson!

A quick cooking lesson!

Hiking through the wheatfields. Kumaon, India.

Hiking through the wheatfields. Kumaon, India.

Approaching a village, Kumaon, India.

Approaching a village, Kumaon, India.

Our second day in the Himalayas dawned glorious. This being India, it came as no surprise that in the house next to ours, a water buffalo was sneaking its head into the home.

After breakfast, we set off for another day of hiking. We spent the morning walking through wheat fields, past houses and schools,  and everywhere we went we saw women hard at work. It’s always the women who seem to do the heavy loading in India – working in the fields, on road crews, you name it.  We tried to visit a school, but it was final exam time, and so this was impossible. Any other time of year though, and I have no doubt we would have been able to visit.

Local temple, Kumaon, India.

Local temple, Kumaon, India.

Hiking - day 2.  Kumaon, India

Hiking – day 2. Kumaon, India

Lunch was set up for us in a forest, and it was excellent. After lunch it was only Daniel and I who carried on hiking, while the others took a short cut (by car) to the next village house.  We arrived late in the afternoon, and immediately got busy getting incredibly comfortable – comfy chairs, pots of hot chocolate and tea, cookies, cold drinks and beer (for me).

While we relaxed, Eitan and Pujan went off for a small hike themselves. Eitan came back very excited – he’d seen the most incredible mountains! The Himalayas of course!

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Himalayas at dusk. Kumaon, India.

It was cold at night, and we loved the hot water bottles that were waiting for us in our beds. When I was growing up this was a standard item in winter, but these days one never find a hot water bottle anywhere. The kids loved it!

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It's been a long day! Kumaon, India.

It’s been a long day! Kumaon, India.

Hiking through the wheatfields, Kumaon, Northern India.

Hiking through the wheatfields, Kumaon, Northern India.

The next day we embarked on what would turn out to be one of the highlights of our trip.

We were headed for the Kumaon region, in the state of Uttrakand. The Kumaon is famous for many things including the Corbett National Park, and the famous story of the man-eating tigers of the Kumaon. We were heading further north however, towards the town of  Almora and beyond, where we would be doing a three-day village to village walk in the Himalayan foothills. Some village houses in local villages have been refurbished for tourists. One spends the day walking from village to village with qualified guides, experiencing local culture and vistas of the magnificent Himalayas.

Our day started at around 4.30am, and we left the hotel at around 5.15am for the railway station. We were booked on the 6.15 am express to Kathgodam, which is a 5-6 hour trip towards the mountains. Our first class carriage was very comfortable, and we were served a good Indian Railways breakfast on board. Our guide for the next few days,  Pujan, met us on the train. In Kathgodam we had a great lunch (South Indian!) and then we piled into two cars for a 3 hr drive up into the hill country.

While it was a long and winding road, the journey was fascinating. This is a holiday region for Indian tourists mainly, and we made our way past a number of resort towns and villages which see hardly any foreigners.

Finally at around 4pm, the cars stopped at a small temple on the side of the road, and Pujan told us to take with our water bottles and hat for our very first walk. We spent the next couple of hours walking along well trodden paths, past village houses and fields full of wheat, stopping to chat to local people and smiling at the kids. One village lady asked if Eitan would like to stay with her family – her kids were climbing up trees armed with sickles to cut off branches. Eitan would probably have loved it! We walked past women carrying various loads on their heads, and we had to tiptoe past various village guard dogs. Finally, we arrived at our village house just before sunset.

Local Family, Kumaon, Northern India.

Local Family, Kumaon, Northern India.

It's been a very long day! Kumaon Village House, Northern India

It’s been a very long day!
Kumaon Village House, Northern India

“Our” house had three rooms fitted with double and/or single beds in a rustic but very comfortable way, with our own modern and sparkling clean toilet/shower block just outside.  Our luggage was waiting for us, and we chose our rooms and then went for drinks, which had been set up outside. Various alcoholic options including cocktails, wines and beers for the adults, and rhododendron juice for the kids (Amazing!!). Dinner was excellent (various Indian dishes) – cooked by a dedicated chef and his team. We relaxed by the fire, and finally, after what had been a very long day we were happy to go to bed.

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Posted by: Gideon | May 6, 2013

India with kids 2013. Delhi Highlights

Outside Humayun's Tomb, Delhi

Outside Humayun’s Tomb, Delhi

Delhi is a city with something for everyone. It has thousands of year of history and has been home to seven cities. What this means is that you’ll find huge monuments scattered throughout the city – way too many to visit on any short trip.

We started our day with a visit to Humayun’s Tomb. This is a huge UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a beautiful building surrounded by huge gardens. Typical Mughal style. It was an excellent way to start any tour of  Delhi – it wasn’t too crowded, and there was lots of space for kids to run around. We saw parrots, and we were amazed by the decorations, which looked exactly like the Star of David, something we figured to be unusual on a Muslim monument.

Next stop was Old Delhi, where we visited the huge Mosque. Unlike mosques in Turkey, which are massive inside, this mosque had no prayer room inside at all, and the huge plaza in front of it is actually the place for prayer. It just shows how things differ from place to place.

After the monuments, the next experience was pure fun. We hired cycle rickshaws to take us around the tiny, crowded lanes of Old Delhi. We stopped for some fried syrupy snacks called “jalebi”, and we rode along eating these sticky snacks. With hindsight we would have really enjoyed wandering around these streets on foot as well, but we hadn’t worked that in to our day. My suggestion: take a rickshaw ride, and take a walking tour of the area as well. It’s congested and busy, so ideally for kids 10 and up (and hold their hands tight).

Rickshaw ride, Old Delhi.

Rickshaw ride, Old Delhi.

We stopped briefly at Raj Ghat, the place where Gandhi was assassinated. It’s very simple, and because there is no museum here, it’s a bit tough for kids to appreciate unless they already know lots about Gandhi. It is a real pilgrimage place for Indians.

Our final stop for day was the Qutb Minar, a gigantic minaret that is the oldest and largest free-standing minaret in the world. It’s immense, and an amazing sight. And yes, it’s another World Heritage Site.

We didn’t have time of the Akshardhan Temple, which is apparently a mind-blowing modern temple with theme-park style attractions. It’ll have to wait until another time.

Qutb Minar, Delhi

Qutb Minar, Delhi

My suggestions for Delhi – try give yourselves two days – one for seeing some of the main monuments, and definitely hire a guide for a walking tour of Old Delhi if your kids are old enough. For your second day visit the Akshardan temple, and for women and teenage girls, consider a specialist shopping tour – so many of the clothes we find in North America today are made in India, and Delhi  has some fantastic boutiques for shopping.

It was a busy day, and we were happy to get back to our hotel. Our next day would be very tiring.

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Posted by: Gideon | April 30, 2013

India with Kids 2013 – Delhi (day 1)

Eitan playing catch with a coconut while the girls shop - Hauz Khaz village, Delhi.

Eitan playing catch with a coconut while the girls shop – Hauz Khaz village, Delhi.

Delhi came as a huge surprise.

I’d been there close to twenty years ago – at that time it was dirty, polluted, the roads were full of tuk tuks, trucks and buses belching black smoke and it was an ordeal.

But things have changed. It’s an even bigger city now, with a population of  about 20 million,  but the roads are now full of modern Indian built cars, and the tuk tuks and buses all run on natural gas, so  the cloying stink that used to typify massive Indian cities is amazingly no longer there.

We stayed at Mantra Amaltas, a great place in a quiet neighborhood in South Delhi. The rooms were good in every respect and we loved eating breakfast on the rooftop patio. There was also an indoor pool which we didn’t get round to using. Breakfasts were solid – lots of Indian breakfast food (which we love) as well as pastries, toast and fruit, and eggs to order.

Our first day was unplanned.  We chose to visit Haus Kaz, a quiet  area of ancient ruins which has become a center of boutiques and antique stores. Delhi is packed with ancient ruins everywhere. Some are major sightseeing destinations, while others see no foreign tourists and are either gardens or in this case, a shopping area. We enjoyed our explorations and the girls bought some stuff, as to be expected. Lots of restaurants offering everything under the sun, and the kids chose an Italian pizza restaurant. It’s abundantly clear that Delhi is where India meets the West in lots of ways. People have money, prices aren’t cheap and there is a massive amount of new apartments going up everywhere.

That night we relaxed and watched cricket, as well as Chhota Beem, a favorite kids cartoon that we remembered from our last visit in 2008.

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No need for tickets or wheel clamps in India!

No need for tickets or wheel clamps in India!

Posted by: Gideon | April 24, 2013

India with Kids 2013 – Going back after 5 years!

Gal washing elephants 2008

Gal washing elephants 2008

Readers of this blog may well have read about our incredible family trip to South India in 2008.

Well, five years later, we decided to go back.

Gal, who was 11 then and is now 16, had two major complaints about our last trip. The first was the Taj Mahal – how could anyone possibly plan a trip and not go visit it (like us). The second was that we hadn’t seen a tiger back in 2008, and she had been terribly disappointed.

Well, planning this trip I could guarantee her one thing – we would go see the Taj. Tigers…well, we’d try, but they are wild animals and unless we went to a zoo, it would all be a matter of luck.

For first timers, India seems like an impossibly exotic destination to visit with kids. One thinks of terrible slums, disease, dirt, chaos, crazy traffic, and stuff like that. And yes, India is like that in many ways. But India is huge and developing incredibly quickly, and it is becoming easier and easier to visit the country and avoid most of that bad stuff.  You can do it in the South, as we found out in 2008, and you can do it in the North too. It’s an incredible destination for families.

My first visit to North India was back in 1994. India was crazy. Terrible pollution, ridiculous traffic, touts everywhere and terrible transport and communications. It’s become a lot better.

But first things first. When visiting a country like India, you have to be well prepared.

Visas: You need them! This has now been outsourced and so you no longer go to the embassy or consulate. Works fine but it can be very expensive for a family, depending on your nationality.

Vaccinations: You need them! Visit a travel clinic and see what you might need.

Medical Kit – take everything you think you might need. We were very well equipped with antibiotics, creams, ointments, band aids, and everything else.

Malaria Pills – the good news is that Malarone is now available in a generic format. Still not cheap, but so much less than it used to be.

Itinerary – get help! It’s a country that requires expert advice.

Flights: We flew via Korea. When it comes to travel to Asia, I try to fly on Asiana, a wonderful Korean airline. Lots of leg room, great entertainment and they really come across as wanting to do their best for you. One of the very few 5* rated airlines in the world, and often with good rates from the West Coast.

For our family, India is the most exotic country on earth. We couldn’t wait to go back.

With everything lined up and ready, we flew from Seattle via Seoul to New Delhi!

 

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