Two weeks in India and Nepal is not the kind of adventure every family thinks of as safe, or necessarily wise, for a mother and her 11-year-old son to take. But we knew better: We were embarking on this introductory tour with a Smithsonian Tailor-Made Journey. We really struck gold when we were assigned to the incredibly patient and visionary organizer, Sian Wait, India/Sri Lanka Senior Specialist at Audley Travel. From our first conversation, she seemed to understand what we needed as if she'd known us all our lives.
Within a week, Sian sent a preliminary itinerary that offered exactly the mix we were looking for: a week in northern India—ancient, majestic, and full of macaques—and a week across the border in Nepal, specifically to see the Himalayas and the animals, especially rhinos. We had three stops in each country.
We left for India a week before our son turned 12. We planned the so-called "Golden Triangle" tour: Delhi-Agra-Jaipur. In our too-brief time there, we visited six UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Qutb Minar and Red Fort; Taj Mahal and Agra Fort; Fatehpur Sikri; and the Jantar Manta in Jaipur (http://whc.unesco.org/en/statesparties/in).
To say we loved India doesn’t quite suffice. It might be more telling to say we felt as if India loved us back. We gobbled it up—from the crowded, noisy streets of Old Delhi, living up to their reputation as other-worldly, to the sacred cows in the middle of the road, to the monkeys jumping across building tops and rummaging through bins.
A true highlight of Delhi for us was the Samadhi of Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of India. The approach to the revered place through a lovely park opens out to an eternal flame and people paying their respects quietly. It was a nice surprise, then, when a group of schoolchildren in their bright blue uniforms came bouncing across the green grass toward the site. Their joy would have made Gandhi smile.
From Delhi we traveled by train to Agra. We did our research beforehand, but we weren't prepared for the utter beauty that is the Taj Mahal, its cool, crisp white marble unlike any we’d ever imagined. Its inlay of precious materials creates a subtle splash of color everywhere the eye lands. The majesty of Mughal architecture aside, the essence of the place enfolds you. Visit the magnificent "Baby Taj" a short distance away, and you see why Shah Jahan was inspired by his mother's structure to create his Taj Mahal.
Standing at the Red Fort on the Yamuna River, looking across at the memorial to Shah Jahan's wife, if you close your eyes and let the cool breeze through the marble window screens transport you, you are for a moment, back in time. The Fort is doubly interesting as the place Shah Jahan lived out his life, having been imprisoned there by his son, who seized power from his father after killing all his brothers. So Shah Jahan spent his final years gazing at the Taj Mahal, the final resting place of his beloved wife, until he died and was buried next to her, in an odd twist of fate, throwing off the intentional symmetry in the structure's design.
Our fascinating trip from Agra to Jaipur included a tour of Fatehpur Sikri, a desert city built in the second half of the 16th century by Shah Jahan's grandfather, Emperor Akbar, who also built Agra Fort. Fatehpur Sikri, resplendent with red sandstone and innovative architecture, was the capital of the Mughal Empire for more than 10 years, until Akbar went to war and chose a new capital at Lahore.
From Fatehpur Sikri, we drove to Jaipur, and camels ruled the roads along our way. Before entering Jaipur, we took a quick side trip to the Abhaneri Stepwell, with its 13 levels of narrows steps leading, at one time, to water reserves. Another side trip en route brought us to Galtaji, the Monkey Temple east of Jaipur, where a friendly local guide walked us up to the top. It was, our son said, his favorite place of all, surrounded by hundreds monkeys gleefully snatching candy from our hands and tugging on shirts while climbing on our heads.