Feeding the children on the road: No-one actually starves

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I’ve just been observing the girls as they came in for their morning cuddle. How they are growing! Daisy, who was leggy as they come before we left home, is becoming taller and broader, and Clover, who still had some vestiges of her baby roundness when we left the UK, is now mainly legs and pointy elbows.

It’s not surprising then, that they are constantly hungry. Returned home from a night out last night to find our babysitter pointing out that the children had noshed their ways through apples, cheese and bananas since we’d put them to bed mere minutes after giving them a full meal.

But how do you feed children when you’re travelling? It’s one of the big questions we get asked, with many parents pointing out that their children are ‘fussy’- and therefore they couldn’t possibly leave the UK/France/Centerparcs.

So let’s get this straight. My children are fussy. I think, perhaps, all children are fussy – though some more than others. Actually, many adults are fussy too, but we have a lot more control over what we put in our mouths, most of the time.

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Where we are tremendously fortunate is in the fact that neither girl has any food allergies or intolerances, so we can at least give them whatever is offered with impunity, assuming we know that it’s clean and safe. We realise this would be a very different trip if we were grappling with a nut or dairy allergy, or coeliac disease (although ironically the latter would probably be much less of a problem here than it is in the UK, since the diet is maize based). But with that caveat over, I think you can travel with a fussy child and still get them fed. And here’s how.

Get a kitchen when you can

Thank you Airbnb. The house and apartment rental service makes it far easier for us to get a space with a kitchen – which makes it easier to control what we eat. With a kitchen in most parts of the world (even right in the middle of major cities) we’ve been able to save money and take the pressure off by cooking for ourselves.

That’s not to say that cooking is always a great or economic option when you’re somewhere for one or two nights- after all you don’t want to be travelling with half-opened ingredients, and it can be hard to find recognisable items in the local stores – central Bangkok was particularly bewildering, and Belize just not very set up for food stores.

But having a kitchen allows you to do the following:

Pancakes

Yes, the girls practically live on them, but why not? Better for you than sugary cereal and you can nearly always find eggs, flour and milk in relatively small quantities when you need them. Tempura flour works in a pinch (easier to find in Asian convenience stores than the normal stuff). Daisy likes her pancakes with lemon and sugar – easy (and you can swipe sugar sachets when you’re in restaurants if you don’t want to buy a whole bag). Clover likes Nutella – a surprisingly global foodstuff, but we often take a jar with us on short trips.

Funny tasting milk – even buffalo milk in India – goes unnoticed in pancakes. That’s breakfast sorted.

Pasta and sauce

A good stopgap when you’re tired of restaurants – you can nearly always score a bag of fusilli and some cheese or some tomato puree. Many times you can get fresher stuff too. Macaroni cheese goes down well when we have an oven. Feeding tired children is easier in an apartment than out on the street.

Noodles/stirfry/fried rice

Ditto – easy to find, quick to do. Put in fresh veg when you can find it. 

Yoghurt and fruit

You don’t actually need a kitchen for this one but a fridge is handy. Keeps the stomach healthy too – pretty vital when you’re travelling. Having a kitchen means you can wash fruit from the markets properly. Otherwise make sure you peel it. Mexican custom dictates that we currently soak all fruit and veg in a mixture including iodine for fifteen minutes if we’re going to eat the skins. Not sure whether it makes any difference really, but when everyone else does I guess it’s foolish not to. We’ll have no cholera here – we hope….

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Of course, in Mexico, we cook lots and lots of stuff – but for the times when you’re moving on every day or so, that’s a list that can keep you going.

Pack your ‘food heroes’

When we were children, even a trip to France involved packing whole boxes of British food (tinned new potatoes anybody?). You can’t do that when you’re travelling light, so you’ll be glad to know that we didn’t smuggle half of Sainsburys out of the country. What did we bring? Teabags – naturally – though we’ve now run out despite regular refills from visitors so we’re surviving on the Mexican stuff. We also bring what the girls call ‘drop squash’ – the tiny bottles of Robinson’s squash that take just a few drops to make a fruit-flavoured drink. I don’t love the aspartame content but they’re really useful when the only restaurant option is fizzy (currently banned because I am ‘so mean’) and the children want a treat because you’re ‘drinking wine again’.

 

As I mentioned we often take Nutella on short trips, and some sugar sachets. We also pick up longlasting snacks in various places. In South East Asia it was mainly nuts and a particularly chewy sweet that was a bit like a sesame snap. In India we ate a lot of crisps (oops) particularly on long distance train journeys. But we also bought bananas every day to take with us (no mess). Here it is often energy bars (you can even get the Nature Valley ones) as well as nuts again – though there’s also a nice line in pre-prepared fruit and dried fruit.

Let it slip sometimes

The children’s diets are 80 per cent good, I reckon. Their fresh fruit and veg consumption has been immense, simply because we’ve been to so many places where it is so cheap and good. Here they eat buckets of strawberries and mangos (quite literally, they sell them in buckets), as well as apples – surprisingly hard to get hold of and much missed, and the aforementioned bananas. In Mexico (and in fact in most of the world) bananas come in many more varieties than at home. We prefer the little tiny ones or the big red ones – those are probably not their horticultural names.

 

However, before I sound too smug, there have been days when their diets have been execrable. I’ve mentioned the whole ‘Indian train’ thing – at one point they only ate crisps and snacks for 24 hours when no food turned up and I didn’t really trust the vendors on the train (especially the one with the can of tomato soup who had got on 24 hours previously and was breaking up croutons with the same bare hands he was using to scratch his bum).

I was slightly stressed about my slipping standards already when Daisy, who had taken the heavily-promoted Healthy Eating Week very much on board at school, in the UK remarked that this wasn’t very impressive and I should be giving her breakfast cereal. Where she thought I was going to procure Shreddies on the Second Class Sleeper to Ernakulum Junction I don’t know. Some days the food choices have been less than ideal, I admit. And there is still a heavy ‘fishfinger component’ to their diets even here … but then (shhh) I love fishfingers too.

Don’t panic

I do. I panic often. Faced with a menu that I can’t find a thing they’ll eat on, or a lovingly cooked meal from local friends that I know they’ll reject, I flap. But then I repeat this mantra

  1. They won’t starve – they can always make up for it later – and there are always bananas, right?
  2. Most people will cut children a lot of slack with eating. We make them try – to be polite. We make them say thank you. And we explain that lots of eating is cultural – the children just aren’t used to the same tastes. It’s easier now they aren’t babies.

Sometimes even I can’t eat it (pigs stomach stuffed with its own intestines?) – then I need people to cut me some slack too. I try my best, for politeness’ sake.

 

Don’t expect nuggets

Children’s meals? Not really – and in Mexico the favoured meal for kids’ parties is chickens’ feet (suck those toes…) so even if there’s a kid’s menu on offer it may not be what you expect. Fortunately most restaurants allow children to share meals or will bring you an extra plate to share with them. And when it gets terrible there’s always (shh) McDonalds or Burger King – well, not always, but often anyhow.

So yes, it’s not always been organic alfafa sprouts and quinoa (in fact, it’s never been organic alfafa sprouts and quinoa – I think that might just about be the end of our marriage) but the children are eating just about fine. And in San C, they’re currently enjoying an amazing abundance of fruit and vegetables that we’d never be able to afford at home. Eleven mangoes for 50p means they can have them for every meal if they want, and I’m not even going to get started on the homemade guacamole…Maybe it will make up for the days of terrible nutrition on the Indian trains, or maybe not – but we’re grateful for good food and a good kitchen right now. Provecho – as they say here, and which I can only translate as ‘Bon Appetit’.

 

 

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Goa – Love, and a bit with a dog

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Well, I had promised, hadn’t I? Beautiful Goa, alas, provided the proof that you can take all of the preventative steps you like when you take your children away, but it is always the unlikely that will get you in the end.

We arrived in Goa on (yet another) night train, ready for four nights of relaxation at the fabulous Casa Susegad. Susegad, it turns out, means lazy or idle in Goan, and we were planning on being exactly that.

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I can’t think of a better place to do that in. Goa is glorious and, despite the rainy season we didn’t see a drop of the stuff. The Casa, an elegantly restored Indo-Portuguese mansion house owned by a couple from Birmingham had everything we love. Swimming pool, great food, gin and tonic and, of course, cats and dogs for the girls to play with.

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Clover has always been wary around dogs, but decided that the dogs at the Casa were her best friends. Norman, the lovely owner, explained to her how to treat them well. They are pets, quite used to children, and were happy to receive her strokes and cuddles. We all relaxed, until the evening on which Clover wandered off to give one of her new best friends a stroke.

How to describe what happened next? We can only assume that the dog, surprised in the dark, thought he was being attacked. Clover’s screams were horrendous, and by the time Paul got to her (rather more quickly than I did), the dog had fled, and Clover was bleeding from a huge gash in her forehead and a smaller one near her eye.

My poor baby is, perhaps, the bravest girl I’ve ever met. I am so grateful that Norman knew a good local hospital that we could get her to immediately, but I can assure you that you never feel as far from home as when you’re watching your six-year-old daughter being examined in a hospital you don’t know and they are discussing whether she needs a general anaesthetic.

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She didn’t, thank goodness. Instead Clover had six stitches using a local anaesthetic (lots of injections in her poor head) and one (just by her eye) with no anaesthetic at all. She was a star. Together with the ever-present Monkey, and her tablet computer, which she was showing to all of the nurses, she made such an impression that the doctor wanted her to go on a playdate with his nephew. By the time we returned home to a shaken Paul and Daisy she was less traumatised than either me or Norman, and had garnered enough chocolate to last her for weeks.

A few weeks on (and yes, I am late writing this blog) and we are delighted to report that Clover has healed beautifully and is unlikely to even have a visible scar to show for her adventure. We’re so grateful to all involved in getting her prompt medical attention. She’s also not nervous around dogs – the first thing she wanted to do the next day was tell the dog who bit her that she wasn’t cross. Apparently she can “tell he was sorry”.

We didn’t let Clover’s adventure ruin our next few days – though she was annoyed not to be able to put her head under in the swimming pool. We took a trip down to the fabulous beach and played in the sand and surf the next day (making sure not to wet Clover’s bandage), and enjoyed the extraordinary hospitality that we were offered. Clover and Daisy, by then, were ready to adopt Norman as an extra Granddad, and we were incredibly sad to leave on the final night train to Mumbai.

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I didn’t think we’d like Goa – it has such a reputation for parties and we were expecting it to chuck down with rain – but it was instantly charming. We’ll be back (but we might keep Clover away from her four-legged friends next time). It was only the promise of meeting Grandma and Granddad at our next destination – Bangkok – that made it possible to tear the children away.

All’s well that ends well, as they say…

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Kerala II Spice, spice Baby

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It’s a relief to head up into the hills of the Western Ghats, to the home of the improbably-named Baby Matthew – Vanilla County.

Matthew (I somehow cannot call a fully grown man Baby) inherited the family plantation home, as is the custom for the youngest child in a family (hence the nickname I guess). The family fortune was built on the spice trade, with the home we’re staying in built on the proceeds from pepper.

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Later the family, like almost everyone else in the area, diversified into rubber cultivation, and then (when prices for rubber dropped) into tourism too. Since Matthew is an excellent host, and wife Rani an excellent cook, Vanilla County is a fabulous place to spend a few days, and give the girls a bit of a geography/biology lesson to boot.

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It’s not everywhere where you can do a spice tour in the back garden. We find nutmeg, cinnamon bark, pepper, cocoa pods (and the girls enjoy sucking the sweet coating from around the beans) as well as lemon grass, pepper, cardamom and lots of fruit. We drink passion fruit and guava juice fresh from the garden, and eat pineapple and bananas grown on the premises. We also visited a tea plantation (close to my heart, if not the children’s).

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If it seems like all I’m talking about is food, that’s perhaps unsurprising. We ate well – as we have all the way through India. Clover and Daisy ate a lot of pasta (because Rani is kind to small children), and we all enjoyed some superb biryanis and paratha.

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Other highlights. For the children, swimming in the natural rock pools and walking along tracks lined with a type of mimosa known as a ‘touch me not’, which closes up when you stroke it (rather like the Monster Book of Monsters in Harry Potter – perhaps Rowling has been to the Ghats?), helping to tap rubber from the trees and turning it into sheets of rubber using formic acid and a really large mangle.

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Lowlights… an enforced visit to a really dull orchid farm (I’ve always hated garden centres…) and a somewhat windy, twisty journey down the mountainside back to Cochi at the end. Loved the local restaurant we visited on the way down, though, with a full meal served on a banana leaf (so much better than plates – just throw away when you’ve finished) for £3.50 for four of us.

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We left Kerala on (yet another) night train, just in time to avoid the one-day general strike that would have stranded us for 24 hours. Next stop Goa…

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Kerala I (in which we discover that God is, alas, a teetotaller)

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27 hours is a long time on a train – especially when you arrive at Mumbai station to discover that the train is already delayed by three hours. We’re heading to Kerala – God’s own country, as they call it – as immortalised by Arundhati Roy in the God of Small Things.

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Kerala is also, famously, a dry state. “But you can get alcohol” all of the guidebooks state “usually in teapots”. After 27 hours on a train (in which all of the food we ordered for breakfast arrived at lunchtime, etc etc, because we were so delayed), we could have done with a drink. Alas, despite all of the guidebook insistence, in our entire week in Kerala, we managed to get two cans of beer from the state liquor store (which required quite a bit of queuing), and even that was virtually undrinkable – the equivalent of White Lightning at home.

I’d hate you to think, though, that we spent our entire time in Kerala searching fruitlessly for alcohol.

We arrived at Ernakulum Junction station just in time for Onam, Kerala’s eight day harvest festival. Nearly as important as Christmas in the Keralan calendar, Onam is an excuse for new clothes, time off school, and lots and lots of “special promotional sales”. That might explain the queues of traffic in the middle of Ernakulum (well, that and the fact that they are digging it up for a new metro system).

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Never mind. We headed for Fort Kochi, Ernakulum’s gentler sister. Built on the water, and largely abandoned in favour of Ernakulum itself, Fort Kochi has a sleepy charm all of its own. In high season, I should imagine it is buzzing, but while we were there we had the place largely to ourselves. Fort Kochi is an excellent place for posh clothes shopping, Margarita pizzas (which would have been particularly lovely with a beer, but no matter), and watching the sunset over the harbour. We were very happy.

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And at this point I should admit that my enjoyment of the next stage of our trip was probably coloured by my reading material. Naturally I reimmersed myself in The God of Small Things – a tender, elegiac tale that has at its centre the drowning of an eight year old. I wouldn’t advise this sort of reading material when you’re taking your children to practically the spot in which this supposed drowning occurred.

Tharavadu Heritage Hotel, in Kottayam, is right on the Keralan backwaters, and is very beautiful. Unfortunately, it turns out, it is also next to a Hindu temple that does amplified chanting at 4am, and the children’s playpark appears not to have been repainted since the 1960s.

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No matter. We explored, taking a ferry across the lake and spending an afternoon at Alleppey Beach, and the children enjoyed the dilapidated playpark, if not the food and the 4am Hindu chanting. Daisy, clearly with back-to-school on her mind, informed me that she’d dreamed that her headteacher was the high priestess of the Hindu temple next door. At least she’d have kept the noise down, I guess.

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Because I’m working while we travel, my enjoyment of any place is naturally constrained by my deadlines and the functionality of the WiFi. At Tharavadu, this was only available in the office, inevitably also occupied by the bored-looking sons of the Sikh family who were the only other guests, shooting things on their mobile phone games.

The office also had some of the most uncomfortable chairs I have ever had the misfortune to sit at, which naturally didn’t help my temper. However, the night guards at the hotel got very used to the girls watching Ever After High on their tablets – and probably now understand it better than I do.

Our next stop in Kerala was Vypin Island, probably the least developed bit of the area, where our experience couldn’t have been more different. At the Silvermoon Heritage Homestay (no, I’m not just obsessed with the word Heritage, they are all called things like that), we met Daniel and his mum Jessie, trying to run the place after the death of Jessie’s husband Joe.

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They were so sweet and kind at their home on the Keralan backwaters, where the cooking was amazing and the birdwatching equally so. The girls revelled in the fact that they had a bathtub (rare luxury), and Daisy discovered she loves chickpeas for breakfast.

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On the most important day of Onam we headed out to Cherai Beach, along with the entire local community. The girls revelled in the sand and waves, and we all had our pictures taken with most of the locals, as the only non-Indian tourists on the beach. Unfortunately for me, Indian women don’t seem to wear swimming costumes to go into the sea, instead going in in all of their clothes. Which meant I had to do the same. A Punjabi suit does not double up as a great swimming costume, it turns out.

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Sangam – Summoned by bells (and gongs, and flags)

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I was not a good Girl Guide. Even when I managed to earn a badge I had usually lost it before I got the time to sew it on. So it’s unlikely that, under my own steam, I’d ever have been invited to Sangam – one of international guiding’s World Centres, in Pune, India.

But Paul is the Deputy Director of Fundraising at Wagggs (that’s the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts for the unitiated – and those who didn’t listen enough at Guides, like me). He’s taking a sabbatical for the next year, but his last work commitment was the Free Being Me festival held at Sangam.

Pune, it turns out, is not a standard tourist destination. Every time we mentioned we were going there, puzzled Indians would raise an eyebrow. But it turns out to be prosperous (a major IT centre), welcoming, and a whole lot calmer than anywhere we’d experienced in India up to that point.

We arrived on a 23 hour train journey – our longest so far. Thanks to the wonder of Travelkhana – an internet app that allows you to order food and have it delivered to your train carriage, we were all well fed and still friends when we arrived. The girls sleep well on a train, and in the meantime we played cards, and they even did some school work.

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I think we’d all describe the 23 hour journey as well worth it. Sangam is not only beautiful, particularly with its brand new swimming pool, but also full of friendly girl guides and volunteers who are happy to play with the girls.

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The Free Being Me festival focussed on body confidence (it’s a worldwide project that Paul has been helping to run, set up by Wagggs and skincare brand Dove), so the girls, and nearly a hundred guides and scouts from around the world, got to go into a local school to see the project being run there and to help deliver body confidence activities.

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“Is it a tour?” Daisy asked world-wearily. “I’m not going on any more of those”. Perhaps we’ve overdone the sightseeing a little in the last week or so.

Instead, the girls lived at Sangam for the week, revelling in the good food, wonderful hospitality (special thanks to Cate who gave up half of her house and her gin to us weary travellers) and the swimming pool. I even got some work done while the girls were babysat by filmwatching or poolguarding volunteers.

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Sangam is easy India, in a way Varanasi and Agra will never be. We went shopping, and weren’t pestered in the market. We tried out mehendi, or henna tattooing, which made my hand look like those of an eighty year old, and Clover and Daisy’s look like they’d scribbled all up their arms, which is precisely what they had done. Paul worked, I wrote some features, and we all bought some lovely Indian clothes.

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How quickly girl guiding comes back to one! I was surprised to discover that I can salute with the best of them, not to mention sing “Taps”. The girls wore their brownie and rainbow uniforms for a welcome ceremony that involved a ghee lamp, prasad (a blessing of coconut and sugar) and a photo that lined us all up in height order, which took ages. Clover had some massive tantrums about not wanting to go to Flag (the morning ceremony) and I continually forgot that Guides shake with their left hand – even in India where you aren’t even supposed to eat with it (a continual problem for a lefty like me).

What else to say? A week is a long time to cover in one blog post. The girls helped with a synchronised swimming routine to open the pool, and followed Sangam boss Jen and Wagggs chair Nicola around like shadows (fortunately both were wonderful about it).

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They all looked after us so well that we became infantilised surprisingly quickly – I’m surprised I didn’t start salivating every time they hit the dinner gong, while they even provided a laminated card to with the address on to give to the rickshaw drivers (plus a video on how to hail and use a rickshaw!). All in all, it was a marvellous rest for us and the girls, even though Paul, in particular, was working quite hard.

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Finally, on Sunday morning, the volunteers got up to sing us off – “Go well and safely, may Sangam be ever with you”, and we left to catch an epic 27 hour train down to Kerala. Pity, when we arrived at Mumbai station, that we discovered that it was already three hours delayed. But more on that later.

Daisy says she’s going to work at Sangam when she grows up, and they’ve both been singing the Sangam song ‘ “Leave behind the barriers of culture, race and creed” ever since we left.

If that’s the thing they take home from their week in Sangam, we’ve all got to be grateful for that. Thanks so much, Girl Guiding.

Agra: Zoo of the New

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Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing.

I want to fill it with colour and ducks,

The zoo of the new

Whose name you meditate —

April snowdrop, Indian pipe,

Little

Stalk without wrinkle,

Pool in which images

Should be grand and classical

Not this troublous

Wringing of hands, this dark

Ceiling without a star.

(Sylvia Plath)

Poor, poor Sylvia Plath – stuck in her flat just outside Regents Park Zoo with her baby son and without her absent husband – wanting so much to show her child the best, but feeling she could only give her worst. Two weeks after she wrote these words, she killed herself.

Don’t panic: this isn’t a cry for help. But I love this poem because I sympathise (or perhaps empathise really) with her desire to fill the pool of her son’s eyes with “images that should be grand and classical”. That is exactly what I’ve wanted to do with my own girls. It’s one of the reasons we’re taking this trip – we want our girls to see big, and dream big.

Like Plath, how miserably I often feel I fail at parenting. But I found myself recalling these words as we stood outside the Taj Mahal at dawn, gazing on one of the greatest wonders of the world. “All for love” explains our latest guide as we gaze at the Taj, reflected in the (admittedly somewhat dried up) pools around it.

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If you don’t know the story behind the Taj Mahal, here goes. Shah Jehan, an immensely rich Mughal emperor in 1631, was grief stricken when his wife Mumtaz Mahal died. She’d borne him 14 children and asked him to build her a mausoleum on death. The Taj is the result.

Poet Rabindranath Tagore described it as “a teardrop on the face of eternity”, and Princess Diana – at the height of the whole ‘tragic princess’ thing – made front pages around the world when she sat alone in front of this monument to love. The royal divorce was announced months later. The Taj is, as they say, iconic.

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Things the guides tend to gloss over; the fact that Mumtaz was one of three wives, and the number of workers and elephants that must have been killed during the construction.

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Not sure Daisy really saw the point of a monument to love. “Is there a picture of Mumtaz here?” she asked. “Surely that would have been a better thing for him to remember her by?” The guide was a bit surprised. Children ask the best questions.

Undeniably the Taj is beautiful, one of Plath’s “grand and classical” images that I want to stay with the children forever. It’s also the only thing in Agra people really come to see. The result? Agra is touristed beyond belief, and full of guides who would also like you to see their uncle’s marble factory and lots of shops while you’re there.

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We didn’t bother. Nor did we see the ‘Baby Taj’, Agra Fort, or any of the other things the guides were so keen to show us. There’s only so much “grand and classical” the children can take, so in our two days in Agra we scandalised our driver and guide by going a bit off piste.

Day one: sloth bears and elephants with Wildlife SOS – not yet firmly on the tourist trail, but fabulous all the same.

Wildlife SOS, as the name suggests, is an animal charity – focused on rescuing mistreated animals throughout India. Almost singlehandedly, the charity has wiped out the ‘dancing bear’ industry in India that has been illegal but tolerated since 1972.

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The charity showed us a somewhat uncompromising documentary explaining how the sloth bears (funny-looking beasts) are captured as cubs and then have their muzzles pierced with a red hot metal ring. A rope is passed through the wound. When the bear owner tugs it the bear has no option but to dance, and if the owner is lucky the money flows.

Wildlife SOS has wiped out the bear industry by incentivising the gypsy tribe that traditionally owns the bears to hand them over in return for jobs (often at the sanctuary itself) and some cash. The problems of the bears and of the marginalized tribe – which has been left behind by progress – are intertwined, the charity’s education head explains. Solve one, and you solve the other.

The charity has rounded up every dancing bear, but can’t release them into the wild as they have no natural instincts. Instead they live in Agra, whiling away their days with an assortment of rescued dogs and langars (a type of primate). The poor bears, who are so funny to look at, exhibit classic behaviour for traumatised animals, pacing and shaking their heads habitually: the longer they’ve been dancing, the more likely they are to continue to exhibit the behavior.

As there are no more dancing bears in India to capture, the sanctuary looks to be a victim of its own success. The bears will grow old and die here but there should be no more new additions. Like Great Aunt Lucy’s home for Retired Bears, I guess. We didn’t bring any marmalade, but apparently they prefer honey anyway.

Sadly there’s no such happy ending for India’s elephants, for whom the charity runs a sanctuary down the road. Blind elephants, lame elephants, elephants from circuses and temples and elephants who were begging with humans on the roadside are brought here when there is enough evidence that they’ve been tortured.

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Just chaining them up isn’t enough to prove this, the guides explain, showing the scars on the elephants’ backs. One elephant from the circus lived entirely on steak burgers and had become dangerously obese. She’s lost a thousand pounds since joining the sanctuary and living on a more conventional fruit-and-grass-based diet. Others were hit by cars and trucks walking India’s roads in the middle of the night, as owners tried to move them secretly (a difficult task to conceal an elephant) to avoid paying fees for a permit.

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Owning an elephant means wealth and power in India, but there’s not much pressure to treat them well, despite some of the strongest animal protection legislation in the world. “There’s enough to worry about with people here – why would the courts worry about animals?” Wildlife SOS says. The charity has over 60 more elephants it would love to rehome, but doesn’t have the space.

I know it sounds stupid, but the elephants were bigger than I expected. Immense. We fed them bananas. Clover was terrified – but finally plucked up courage to stroke them on their sensitive trunks. The elephants squeezed their eyes together like Custard the cat when you tickle him under the chin. One of them, the education head told us, cried real tears when his chains were undone after years of abuse. Clover is proud that she finally screwed up her courage to touch the beautiful beasts.

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Our second day in Agra was of course the Taj at dawn. And then, because if there is one thing we’re learning about travelling with children is that you have to cut them a bit (sometimes a lot) of slack, we went to the nearest five star hotel and paid to use their pool. A fantastic decision, it turned out. Four hours of swimming, beef (!) burgers and afternoon tea later and the girls were significantly happier little people. And just about ready for a 23-hour train journey.

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I do sometimes wonder what the girls will remember as the best bits about this trip – the big ‘set pieces’ (the Taj, the temples) – or the snatched moments as we played together in a hotel pool, taking time together as a family (which we could have done just as easily in the South of France to be honest). Will they consider the travelling worth it, all things considered?

Still wanting to fill their clear eyes with colour and ducks, we move on. Pune is the next stop – for a Girl Guide festival with a difference. It’s alright – I’ve packed the Brownie uniforms and Paul’s got his woggle. Onwards and upwards.

Varanasi: Narrow and Puzzled Alleys with Mr Groovy Tours

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Varanasi. the Hindu holy city on the banks of the Ganges. OK, I knew it wasn’t Peppa Pig world, but nothing really prepares you for this particular assault upon the senses.

We arrived, 8am, in Lord Shiva’s city, in Lord Shiva’s holy month. This, it turns out, is a big deal, and the city is even more crazy than usual. Cows wander the streets, monkeys leap over the powerlines.

Added to the crowd of rickshaws, tuktuks and optimistic LandRovers (are they really going to get through that gap?) is a stream of people wearing orange and carrying offerings for Shiva. They run through the crowds shouting the equivalent for “you can do it!”

The girls are, predictably, mute, as they are led by the man from our guesthouse (thank heavens we were picked up!) through what the guide we’ve booked for our trip charmingly called the ‘Narrow and Puzzled Alleys” of the city. Think Moroccan souk times ten, accessorised with farmyard animals (watch those cowpats) and the occasional body being carried past on a stretcher.

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Varanasi, you see, is the City of Good Death. Hindus believe that bathing in the Ganges (and in particular this holy stretch of it) is good for the soul. Having your body, or ashes, cast in to it helps to achieve the ultimate Hindu aim of oneness with everything else (instead of reincarnation). As a result people come to Varanasi to burn their dead relatives, to live out their final days, and to be blessed by Lord Shiva – one of the three main Hindu deities.

On the ghats (riverside steps) beside the Ganges, the cremation pyres burn day and night, but that doesn’t mean you’ll see nothing but ash. As well as the five categories of people – including young children and the very holy – who don’t have to be cremated before they are thrown in the river, there are always those whose families can’t afford enough wood to cremate them properly – so charred body parts crop up in the river all the time.

As I said, not exactly Peppa Pig world, and baffling at first. We’re so grateful to Amrit, from Groovy Tours (who we managed not to keep calling ‘Mr Groovy’ most of the time) for his crash course in Hinduism, and Varanasi itself. That’s not to say it wasn’t hard going, and I don’t think the girls are going to add Varanasi to their list of top ten places to visit any time soon.

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Despite Clover’s hatred of flies – as she so frankly put it in her journal ‘ there are hundreds on every step’, they trod stoically through the city, being frequently blessed as they went by passing men and women. We squeezed into rickshaws (and then worried about the rickshaw drivers), and walked what felt like miles as Amrit introduced us to what it means to be a devout Hindu in a Hindu holy city.

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In many ways, I have no words to describe this place. A few snapshots will have to do. Sunset on the Ganges, watching the imam at the local mosque calling the faithful to prayer, minutes after he’d been talking to Clover about the Qu’ran. A Hindu temple lost in the middle of the city where the monkeys and water buffalo reign. The children decked in flower garlands, attracting the attention of passing hungry cows.

And at the heart of it all, the river. Mother Ganges, as the devout call her. Alive at sunrise with women floating candles on her and saffron-clad Sanskrit scholars pouring water from brass bowls. Beautiful at sunset despite a treacherous current, as families send their loved ones on their final journey and parade them through the streets wrapped in tinsel and yellow cloth.

As always, with the children, bathos reigned. We visited an Ashram, filled with those who had become ‘sanyarsi’ (I will have spelt that wrong). Paul and I listened to Amrit’s tale of what it means to reach the ‘fourth stage’ of your life and to reject the world (including children and grandchildren) in favour of possessions amounting to two sticks and a small bowl. “They often ask for the food to be made blander so it is less enjoyable”, Amrit explained. “Sounds like school dinners to me,” muttered Paul. The girls, meanwhile, decided to sing Katy Perry’s ‘Roar’ at the top of their voices – no doubt just what you want to hear when you’ve chosen to withdraw from the world.

Clover dubbed the Ganges Sunrise ceremony ‘So BORING’, but was delighted by the monkey showing his bottom on our balcony, and quite pleased with Hanuman’s Monkey Temple. Frequent power cuts meant that I ended up doing the laundry by hand (again) – never hung out our smalls on a prayer flag before.

We were grateful for a guesthouse beside the Ganges that felt like a haven (though I fear we ruined the backpackers’ sense of intrepid adventure by turning up with the children) and did an excellent mango lassi, and for the kindness of so many people who were patient to the girls. While Varanasi was hard work, and the children were pleased to go on, I find myself strangely compelled by it. Kept thinking of those words in TS Eliot’s Journey of the Magi. “I should be glad of another death”.

Delhi: Sikh and ye shall find/the Ba’hai Life

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Today the children learned an important lesson: sometimes their parents haven’t got a clue what is going on either. Took me years to learn that one myself, so I’m hoping we haven’t permanently damaged them with this startling revelation at such tender ages.

We landed this morning at Delhi airport after a night flight that wasn’t really long enough to get any sleep. We’ve not flown longhaul with the girls since Daisy was two and a half and Clover six months, and I’m pleased to report the experience has got better. Daisy no longer wants to walk up and down the plane shouting, and both of them even ate some of the food.

If I was going to be an ungrateful whinger about travelling with kids, I would point out that I don’t get to watch films very often. My enjoyment of Far From the Madding Crowd (and the eye candy therein) was somewhat dampened by Daisy pointing out the funny bits in the Shaun the Sheep Movie at various crucial moments. But you can’t have everything.

We’ve not planned long in Delhi, as we expected the girls to find it too chaotic, but I’m pleased by how fast they adapt. They like tuktuks – but only if our driver overtakes everyone else’s (“tuktuk race”, Clover shouts excitedly), and are awarding each other points for spotting cows and monkeys in the middle of the city.India 5

Delhi, it turns out, likes them too – it’s hard to feel like a gawping tourist when the locals are as keen to take photos of your daughters as you are of their city streets. One of the perks of travelling with children is instant connection with many of those around you. Quite what these people are going to do with pictures of themselves posing solemnly with Daisy and Clover though, I’m not sure. If you spot them on Facebook, do let me know.

This morning we took a trip to the local Gurdwara, or Sikh house of worship,  a humbling, not to say confusing experience. It is monsoon, so we arrived in sheets of warm rain, completely missed the ‘foreign tourist booth’ and ended up wandering around on our own.

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The girls learned that their own strategy of “watch, and do what everyone else does” works for adults too. We covered our heads, handed our shoes in at the counter, and wandered clockwise around the holy pool at the centre of Gurdwara Bangla Sahib, quite enjoying the feel of the wet marble on our toes.

Everyone at the Gurdwara seemed to be having a grand day out. Whether they were accepting prasad – an edible religious offering- helping in the temple kitchens, or simply reclining around the holy lake at the centre, no-one seemed in an excessive hurry. We loved the guru, resplendent in his air-conditioned box (so glad he has air con – not sure our church leader would be delighted with a similar set up), and the time spent sitting on the floor and people watching.

Most amazing though was our time in the Langar, or communal eating hall. How like us to arrive just in time for lunch. Forget our food banks, the Sikhs have been providing ‘food for free’ as part of a tenet of their faith for centuries, and the Langar in the Bangla Sahib Gurdwara feeds 10,000 people a day. Yes, you read that right.

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It’s movingly democratic and meticulously organised. Men, women, children, rich and poor sitting down together crosslegged on the floor, eating roti, daal and pickles, all served and cooked by volunteers. Surrounded by so many, the children, stunningly and stunned, ate what they were served (and Clover had extra bread).

We couldn’t help noticing the families who took extra plastic bags for a daal takeaway, since this was probably all they had to eat all day. The volunteers asked even us several times whether we needed anything, and whether we wanted to take more.  And they do this Every. Single. Day. Ten thousand people. I don’t think I’ve ever been so moved by breaking bread with anyone.

After our Sikh experience we moved out of the centre to visit the Ba’hai Lotus Temple. If I realised I hadn’t listened much in RE lessons on Sikhism, we didn’t even cover Ba’hai (which appears to be a sort of UN religion, covering almost everything including the need for a universal language – esperanto, anyone?), but the temple, designed with nine entrances (nine is apparently the perfect number), is impressive, in a kind of starship way. Looks like it might take off, doesn’t it?

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Odd fish though, the people running it. The children could go in the temple, but not the information centre (resulting in us feeling very illinformed). They are predictably unimpressed by this, and by the silence in the temple itself. “I liked the Gurdwara, it was more… active”, says Daisy, who won’t be converted to Ba’haism any time soon.

Not surprisingly, after so much newness, the girls craved something familiar this evening. Which is our excuse for an evening of Minecraft and, er, McDonalds after Daisy said with feeling “I just want to eat something that tastes NORMAL”. She was only slightly aghast that they don’t serve beef burgers in Delhi Mcdonalds. “But some Indians are beefatarians,” she fumed. “Not beefatarians, meativores,” Clover corrected her sternly.

I never thought I’d say it, but thank heavens for Chicken Mcnuggets.