My seven-year-old nephew knows I am on holiday in India and sends me an email asking me to buy him the latest Lego set. I reply that there are no suitable shops in the Thar Desert of Rajasthan. He is back online in minutes. "But Aunty Susan," he pleads, "couldn't you just go to K-Mart."
I'll wait until I return to explain to him the quirks of India, which include the singular lack of supermarkets on every other corner. Better still, next trip I could take this favourite nephew with me for a super-sized reality check. India is, if nothing else, thrillingly different.
There are those who would consider taking kids to India a perilous thing - the dirt, the confronting poverty, the possibility of disease - and all such reservations are valid. On the plus side, however, are the opportunities for self-discovery. India tests travellers like no other destination: one is taught humbling lessons and acquires new coping mechanisms. Above all, India teaches us about ourselves, and no traveller is ever too young to be made more aware of their tiny place in the universe.
Engaging an Australian-based tour operator to map an itinerary is a must, but allow several days for acclimatisation and sufficient flexibility for detours and discoveries. This can be accomplished by having several nights at each destination and days where no specific tours are planned: India is not the place for a rushed schedule and travellers of all ages need what I call "mental health days" to absorb their surroundings.
India is large and geographically diverse and it's madness to criss-cross multiple regions. Decide if you want to explore the deserts, forts and fairytale palaces of the northern state of Rajasthan or savour the slow, tropical pace of Kerala and Goa in the south. Either way, consider the great cities of Delhi and Mumbai (Bombay) as bookends: both offer excellent shopping, restaurants, cultural attractions, markets and vibrant streetlife.
When I took my younger son Joe to India in 1997, he shed his customary twentysomething boredom within minutes of leaving Chennai (Madras) Airport. "Mum," he yelled," as our taxi catapulted through the swirling traffic, "there's a camel in the middle of the road." I hadn't seen him so excited since a decade earlier when his team won the NRL grand final.
Next day we got swept up in the Vinayaka festival procession devoted to Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, the son of Shiva and Parvati. Towering effigies were being hauled along on ancient trucks and tractors, some bringing down overhead wires in the process. Great swirls of saffron-coloured marigolds. Bursts of firecrackers. A temple elephant paused at a roundabout, trunk swaying as if to direct the traffic. Absolute chaos.
Joe's verdict? "This place is, like, totally mad." That was a compliment, of course. It made me wish I had taken him and his brother to India when they were much younger. Both adult sons are now too cool to travel with their Mum but with my nephew in tow next visit, I have a swag of ideas.
I would be sure to include the Taj Mahal at Agra, lingering in its emerald gardens where squirrels scamper. Throwing budget to the breeze, I would stay at Amarvilas in Agra, where every guestroom has a view of the Taj Mahal, framed in each window like a Mughal miniature. Being more conservative with rupees, a homestay is a terrific option and allows kids to really connect with Indian families. It must be said, too, that India is the most family-connected of destinations: kids are welcome everywhere.
In Rajasthan's Ranthambore National Park, there are tiger-spotting safaris by jeep and tented hotels within cooee of the park gates. Just outside Jaipur, visitors to the Amber Fort are transported up the fortified hill atop elephants; older children would enjoy a camel safari out of Jodhpur, also in Rajasthan.
Trawl local produce markets and marvel at myriad spices and herbs (in Old Delhi, hire a rickshaw to tackle the labyrinthine laneways). Go to a Bollywood movie (caricatured moustache-twirling villains and doe-eyed virgins; singing and dancing galore). With sporty teens, consider whitewater rafting or skiing the foothills of the Himalaya. Dip in the Arabian Sea from Kerala's long, white beaches. Go to an elephant polo match in Rajasthan.
History students? The Raj lives on in the time-warp hill-stations of the Western Ghats, close to Mumbai. Serial shoppers? Little girls will think they're in maharani heaven popping jewelled bindis on their foreheads, getting hands painted with temporary henna tattoos and scooping up glass bangles, glittery beads and bling-bling bags for next to nothing.
And my nephew's Lego set? Instead I bring him back a handmade string puppet from Rajasthan, a handsome fellow in gold-threaded vest, turban and fetching pantaloons, and a copy of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book. The puppet is a huge hit at school next morning during show-and-tell and Kipling's Rikki-Tikki-Tavi the mongoose soon eclipses all others as the hero of magical bedtime stories.
Qantas flies from Sydney via Darwin to Mumbai; Asian carriers such as Singapore Airlines and Malaysia Airlines fly to a range of Indian cities via their home ports.
Australian passport holders require holiday visas. Download visa application forms at www.indianconsulatesydney.org
The monsoon season (June, July, August) is best avoided; the annual lead-up in May is often unbearably humid. September-October and March-April are generally pleasant throughout.
Never accept open bottled water that you haven't seen being uncapped. Carry rehydration salts and medication for gastro upsets. Avoid hotel buffets where dishes have been reheated; stick to vegetarian food (delicious and always offered). Take a supply of comfort snacks such as Vegemite, muesli bars, pretzels and tummy-settling salted crackers.