Vivid red stone and intricately carved columns rose around us. At Fatehpur Sikri, once the home of the 16th-century Indian Emperor Akbar, my husband and I tried to take in the layers of history. Snapping us back to the present, two blond boys in T-shirts dodged among the ancient pillars and coves. Our sons, apparently, were enjoying the maze of arches and rooms as much as we were.
The site in Agra, a three-hour drive from New Dehli, is a trove of stories, one of the best preserved examples of Mogul architecture, a World Heritage site. The kids, ages 6 and 10, cared about none of this. But our gentle tour guide, Rajeev Thakur, far from reprimanding the boys for dashing around, told us all a story: The Emperor Akbar had 100 consorts in addition to his three wives (try explaining that to a 10-year-old), and on cool mornings, before the sun heated the stone into an oven, the ruler himself would play hide-and-seek with the women in the royal compound.
Before we left Minneapolis and spent 24 hours or so flying across the world, some friends expressed horror that we were taking our kids along on a three-week trip to India. “Please be careful!” “Why don’t you leave the kids home?” “Don’t go!” These reactions started to get to us as we planned the voyage. Our visit to the travel nurse didn’t help: “You can skip the rabies shots, but of course rabies is always fatal. And you should then buy airlift insurance.”
But in truth, we never really considered leaving the kids at home; we traveled to this intriguing and beautiful country in large part because we wanted to introduce them to a different world. And India rewarded that impulse.
Our children opened avenues to ordinary people, required us to choose one activity a day, caused us to slow down and take in the small things. Their presence made us think hard about the strange or inexplicable moments we saw. It also drew out the best in storytelling from our guides.
At the massive stone pillar where the Emperor Akbar sat as judge over his subjects’ disputes, the guide told the boys, he consulted with advisers and issued his rulings. The emperor’s elephant was tied nearby, and when someone was found guilty, the elephant would be commanded to step on his head, crushing him to death. When the emperor’s favorite elephant died, he built an elaborate tomb and tower in its honor. Beat that story, Captain Underpants.
Other stories were too sad to explain, or impossible: Why does that boy sleep on a piece of cardboard on those rocks? Shouldn’t we fill the small hands that surge into the car window when we are stopped in traffic? Yes, we should, but how? Our friend and host Yasmeen Arif kept a glove compartment full of cookie packets and handed them out freely. What about these people who are dressed like fancy princesses but you can tell they are men? So Yasmeen tried to explain to us about the eunuchs who populated certain neighborhoods in Delhi, their special position in society, their contributions to life there. All four of us were baffled, though for different reasons.
For most of our three-week trip, we stayed with friends, first in New Delhi and then in Mumbai, with a week on our own on the beach in Goa. These dear friends eased the way for us, steered us to their favorite places, activities, travel agent and restaurants, and ironed out the logistics of getting four people through impenetrable traffic and confusing train schedules.
In the slow lane
The parks of Delhi were blooming in March with hot-pink bougainvillea, creamy frangipani and waxy orange semal, but the reason we adults stopped to smell the roses was thanks to the kids. They had found what we would call unsafe (read: fun) playground equipment and were soon climbing and spinning and sliding around with other kids. We sat back on a park bench and gazed at the blossoms and bathed in the breeze.
This was our one activity for the day — a walk to the park through ancient ruins in Mehrauli, a village that became a neighborhood of the big city. To get there, we passed cows and dogs, dodging impossibly speedy motorbikes on narrow streets, the scents of cooking fires, dung, sewage and jasmine flowers in the cool air.
In steamy Goa, where the daily outing was a walk to the Arabian Sea, we often needed a break in the high heat of midday. At home, we would never sit down and watch TV, but when the kids and the parents need a break from the sun, and you’ve read all the books you brought along, the TV works. Plus staying in a room with 260 channels means you have a lot of options, even if most of them are in Urdu, Tamil, Hindi, Marathi or another of India’s scores of languages.
The kids mostly picked the Discovery Channel or National Geographic, if “America’s Funniest Home Videos” wasn’t on. The advantage to the animal shows: The language didn’t matter too much. We watched hours of National Geographic’s “Science of Stupid,” in Hindi. The host’s chatter was hard to decipher, but the pratfalls we understood perfectly. Here’s the thing: You learn a lot about a culture from watching commercials, and the kids could do pretty good imitations of several jingles that illustrated work life (a white-collar office worker trying to escape the daily grind), what the “ideal” Indian family looks like (beautiful mother, two well-behaved kids, generous father), what kids like to play with and eat (computers and Choco flakes, respectively), what moms worry about (Will my boy succeed in life? Do the neighbors whisper about us?).
Playing with locals
We flew from Delhi to Goa to play in the waves and relax on the sand, and each day we packed a bag of water and sunscreen and kicked the soccer ball down a gravel road to our empty stretch of beach. Only the occasional water buffalo or British tourist interrupted the endless shimmer of water and white sand, and while the boys chased tiny translucent crabs in the surf, I lay on my stomach in the shade of a wooden fishing boat reading Agatha Christie mysteries. Eventually the boys and I would start chasing the ball around the wet sand, and the teenager who worked at the beachfront restaurant would wander over to join in. Pretty soon, a pair of flip-flops and a sun hat formed the goals, and other kids passing by joined in.
After a 12-hour train ride from Goa, we arrived to stay with generous friends at a gated complex in Mumbai. The electric green lawns lured our boys and others very much like them to form teams, sprinting and shouting insults (“You call that a pass? A pass to no one!”) and playing even after the humid darkness fell and mothers called for their boys. I hope that those moments of soccer diplomacy will linger as the kids grow up. I hope they’ll remember those boys, and the signed soccer ball from the children of our hosts’ workers, a gift whose generosity was hard to impress on the kids.
Wherever we went, from trains to hotels to historic sites, our kids drew us into connections with people.
“Please, stand here, yes!” someone would shout, and the boys would dutifully look at the camera of an Indian tourist snapping pictures, this time at the Qutub Minar, a 12th-century tower in Delhi. On that day, the red stone carved in delicate Arabic calligraphy tapered into a blue sky as schoolchildren in white hats crowded around their teachers. They were probably fascinated, like our kids, by the mysterious 24-foot iron pillar near the tower. Built about 16 centuries ago, it has very little rust on it, a scientific curiosity and a wonder to visitors.
The boys also appear in Indian travelers’ pictures at the Raj Ghat, where an eternal flame burns in honor of Gandhiji, as he is affectionately and respectfully known; at the Taj Mahal, in the Dilli Haat market in Delhi, and nearly every tourist site we visited.
The hair-ruffling and the cheek-pinching got old, especially for the 10-year-old, but those gestures marked these commonalities: We love our children; we want them to learn; we want a smile for pictures; we want them to be happy. And also, if we are very lucky, we want to share the world with them.