YOU CAN DO IT
I Traveled in India With Kids for 8 Months. Here Is My Advice.
For years we assumed we would have to wait until the kids were grown to make the journey. But once they were old enough to carry their own packs, we realized we could do it now.
A couple years ago, my husband and I shuttered our house, pulled our young daughters out of school, and took our family to India and Nepal for eight months.
This trip was the fulfillment of my long-held dream: to trek in the Himalayas, walk along the sacred Ganges river in Varanasi, and learn about Buddhism from H.H. the Dalai Lama in Dharamshala. For years we assumed we would have to wait until the kids were grown to make the journey. But once Bella and Sophia were old enough to carry their own packs, we realized we could do it now. Our girls thrived as we criss-crossed India by bus and train, and our experiences abroad have anchored their continued development as global citizens. For any parents considering international travel off the family-vacation-package track, here are tips for travel success.
1. Have Practice Adventures
If you plan to take your kids to developing countries that may not have air conditioning, hot water on demand, or reliable WiFi, give them experience with simpler conditions before you go. Our kids grew up tent camping at remote hot springs and hiking in the mountains. This meant eating rice and beans cooked over a fire and sleeping on the ground. They knew from experience that you don’t need climate control and overstuffed furniture to have a great time. When we arrived in India where most meals were plates of rice and dal, and most toilets were squat toilets, they did not freak out—they adapted.
2. Pack Light—Less Is More
This is the crux of being ninja family travelers. Even if you are going to travel for several months, you should not bring months’ worth of toiletries, clothes, and books. You can buy things along the way as you need them. Each of us carried our own internal-frame backpack, and the rule with our kids was, if it doesn’t fit in your backpack, it can’t come. Our packs were much too heavy at first, and after staggering through crowded railway stations a few times with them, we started shedding stuff to lighten our loads. It was more important to walk with ease than to have four extra shirts. When in travel mode, you will probably wear the same three outfits over and over anyway. At first I doubted that petite 10-year-old Sophia could manage her pack, but kids are strong and tough—and it gave her a sense of mastery to handle her own gear.
3. Disconnect From the Almighty Screen
Don’t panic if you find you cannot access data or WiFi everywhere. Take a break from screen reliance/addiction instead. We bought flip phones in India to make calls with and used WiFi for emails and Facebook sporadically, at guest houses or internet cafes. Some of us can remember travel before smartphones, when we would read books, play cards, use guidebooks, and best of all, ask for directions and advice from people, rather than getting everything from a screen. There is an art to reading maps and magic in talking with locals on your bus or train to get suggestions and directions. People invited us to stay with them, or told us about secret temples, rare ceremonies, and incredible places to eat, all of which we would have otherwise never found. Plus, our family-togetherness from hours of playing Uno, telling stories, and goofing around with each other on buses and trains was precious. And it’s practically unheard of in the wired state we live in nowadays.
4. Plan Large and Flow Small
The sweet spot between over-planning and under-planning—I encourage you to find it. Of course you don’t want to arrive in a foreign country without a clue of what you want to do. On the other hand, if you schedule everything ahead of time, you will be rushing to keep with the program, falling into the same frantic over-scheduled lifestyle you had at home.
To prepare for our journey, I read everything I could about India—from novels and literature to travel blogs. I got a sense of the areas I wanted to visit and learned about how the weather affected those places. India has three major seasons: dry temperate, very hot, and the wet season. The equatorial south is best in the winter, before the heat and monsoon. The Himalayas are perfect when the plains of India heat up. The monsoon, we avoided. With the weather guiding us in broad strokes, we always arrived in the right place, at the right time.
That was the Plan Large part. The Flow Small part we got better at over time. We learned to stop booking ahead, because things are not always as they appear on TripAdvisor. While en route we would hear from other travelers about something even better than what I had booked, and would want to shift our plans anyway. Of course, you can only be this flexible if you have followed Tip #1 and packed light so you can be mobile and not limited by carrying all your heavy stuff. We found that if we went one town or beach over from the one written up in Lonely Planet, we would find it just as beautiful and amazing as the one Lonely Planet recommended, but less touristy and more relaxed. Which leads me to...
5. There Is Nothing Lonely About the Planet
When friends and family heard we were taking our daughters to India for almost a year, they brought up concerns for our safety. And I started worrying too. Would we feel alone and isolated in such a foreign place? Would the girls be in danger? Au contraire, my friends, au contraire. The world is full of kind, friendly people, despite what the news headlines say. Children magnetize love and build bridges the world over, period. In eight months of travel on local buses and trains, on and off the tourist track, I was personally never harassed, and the girls were adored, not hassled. We were fed, we were doted upon, we were invited into homes and yes, in more remote places we were photographed often by Indians who had never met an American family. But we were photographing them, and their country too, so it seemed like a fair trade. We jokingly called ourselves ambassadors of peace from the United States, and our daughters developed deep respect for cultures different from our own. This is vital in a time when walls are being built to separate us.
6. Ride Trains
Trains are family fun—guaranteed! India Railways is the most used and best connected railway system on earth, and it was easy to book beds on overnight trains. Our family lay stacked two or three high in tiny berths, and the clickety-clack of the rolling train rocked us to sleep. We awoke to chai-wallas walking through the car with kettles of fragrant chai, singing “Garham chai! Garham chai!” and pouring it into tiny Dixie cups for us. Then we got off the train rested and fresh, to find ourselves someplace utterly new. A word of caution—railway bathrooms in India tended to be squat toilets with a hole you have to aim into. We made a game out of it—Squat Over a Hole and Poop on a Rocking Train—you win if you don’t touch anything or lose your balance. Bring a wad of toilet paper.
7. Sacred Sites Are Family Fun
Children all over the world have happy childhoods and grow into well-adjusted adults without ever visiting Legoland. In India, families visit temples and sacred sites instead. I worried at first that the girls would be bored, and complain, and hate visiting sacred sites instead of swimming pools and playgrounds like they were used to at home. But our reverence and fascination were contagious, which leads me to the Dena Moes Theorem of Parenting: When the adults in a family thrive, the children naturally will too. You don’t need to become a soccer mom just because you have kids. When Adam and I sat in awe at the tree in Bodh Gaya India where the Buddha attained enlightenment 2,500 years ago, the kids picked up the energy and loved it too. As a family, we walked Lord Shiva’s sacred ghats on the Ganges river in Varanasi, visited ancient caves in the Himalaya where yogis lived, attended pujas in Tibetan monasteries in Nepal, and stayed at Amma’s ashram in Kerala, where the main event was getting hugged by the Divine Mother. Then, to balance it out, we had mini-vacays on the beach, where the girls could meet other children and play.
8. The World Is the Best School
My mother is travel-averse, and when I told her we were taking the girls out of school to travel in India, she asked, “Aren’t you afraid they will forget how to learn, and you will ruin school forever for them?” I told her that hadn’t crossed my mind. They learned far more in India than they ever would in the same amount of time at school. During the trip our children understood and used foreign currency, learned basic phrases of several new languages, absorbed and adapted to new cultural norms, mastered the subtleties of bargaining with auto-rickshaw drivers, summited a peak in the Annapurna, and listened to a talk on patience and compassion from the Dalai Lama Himself. Our children returned to our California college town with a glimpse into the complexities of our beautiful, struggling planet, and memories of the kindness of people who live in a faraway place, which they will carry with them always.
9. Relax, Nothing Is Under Control
You have packed light, you’ve got your train tickets and Uno deck, and you know where you are headed. And yet... unexplainable changes, long waits, and things turning out differently than you imagined are all a part of international travel. Even time is different in other countries. We named India’s malleable, fluid concept of time IST—India Stretchable Time. Here’s the thing—often the unforeseeable changes will end up leading you to the very best part of your journey. My final piece of advice is to let go and enjoy the ride. As a dear friend advised me before we left for India, “Let the journey itself take you. Use your guidebooks as a last resort. The inner guidebook is triumphant.”
Dena Moes is the author of The Buddha Sat Right Here: A Family Odyssey Through India and Nepal.