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Keeping your children enthralled on long journeys

India’s towns and hinterland are particularly lively and full of things to discover. As a parent, setting the mood for an enthusiastic and exploratory journey is key.

There’s nothing like a touch of competition to get children alert and leaning into an experience.
There’s nothing like a touch of competition to get children alert and leaning into an experience.

We make travel plans with the family to uplift life, to see new places, make new observations and build a bank of memories. Our children could zone-out on a road or train journey or enjoy it avidly with all lights on. It’s far too easy to let them go down the rabbit hole of a phone or tablet, and look up at the end, cross-eyed, nauseous and clueless about their new surroundings. As a parent, setting the mood to an enthusiastic, positive and exploratory note at the outset of the journey is key.

India’s towns and hinterland are particularly lively and full of things to discover and as the British writer A.A Gill put it, no place in the world compares to India when it comes to “rapture for your rupee”. Even as Indians travelling across a familiar country, our children can be captivated by the ever-changing scenery, and discover innumerable, eye-opening, delightful, quirky, amusing, heart-rending and inspiring vignettes along the way.

There are humour-inducing situations around every corner. Waiting on a platform at the Hazrat Nizamuddin railway station one foggy winter evening, we heard a string of announcements that had us in splits. Most of the trains were running late. It wouldn’t have been so funny if the delays weren’t juxtaposed against the overly-ambitious names of the trains: “Shan-e-Punjab, (The pride of Punjab) is running 5 hours behind its scheduled time. Toofan (stormy) Express is delayed by 9 hours.” Our children eyed the boards, looking for more amusing anomalies. Gatiman (speedy) Express seemed to have been right on the scheduled hour. Yet it didn’t disappoint. It was exactly 24 hours late.

We all agree smooth sailing is rare when you are travelling with younger children. They whinge at departing too early, are impatient with traffic, fight over the shade, and there are kerfuffles over who did what to whom. Freshly mangled arms and kicked shins are presented to us urgently. Just don’t let the boredom set in. Light them up from the start. Show them the map, tell them about where you are heading, what’s special about the place and what they can look forward to. Sing songs out loud, capture special moments on phone cameras, go down memory lane, pull out a basket full of little surprise nibbles, make stops to stretch your limbs and soak in the views. Invent games that keep everyone in a single conversation. “What is one thing you have lost and one thing you have gained?” or “What is one thing you are overrated for, and one thing you are under-rated for?” Perhaps a round of “One attribute I would take from you, and one I would give to you.”

There’s nothing like a touch of competition to get children alert and leaning into an experience. Here’s where you introduce the spotting game. Each child gets a point for spotting something interesting, unusual or noteworthy. A parent gets to decide if it was indeed worthy, making allowances for the child’s age. The winner gets a small prize at the end of the day. If a parent or driver spots something, they should not point it out, perhaps just say something like “I’m smiling” as code so the children can start looking for it.

It might be a camel cart on the road, or a mahout riding an elephant. India has all manner of delightful wildlife spilling on to the roadside—nilgai, chinkara, langurs, rhesus macaques, peacocks, mongooses as well as a plethora of beautiful birds. Clocking them, even on the move, can be a great joy.

Look out for vendors selling local treats you haven’t tried before. A fortune-teller parrot, a tantric bull, any unusual sport such as kushti, pitthu or guli-danda, kite-flying. They are all worthy of our attention. You might catch sight of an absurdly overloaded truck, an unusual instrument being played, a groom and his entourage dancing their way to his wedding. A solemn funeral procession. There are all manner of things people use to ward off the evil eye; keep an eye out for trucks with a single black shoe hung from them, a shop with green chillies and lime dangling, homes with devilish faces painted on the front. See if you can spot a vintage car on the road, or a fighter jet overhead.

Trucks and three-wheelers in India often have witty, sassy and amusing lines painted on the rear. One of our favourites (on a truck) was both touching and amusing: “Ameeron ki zindagi biscuit aur cake par, gareebon ki zindagi steering aur brake par (the rich live on biscuit and cake, the poor live on steering and brake)”. Another doleful sign proclaimed: “Take poison, don’t believe on girls.” And a humorous twist: “Use diaper at night.”

Dhaba menus too can be a great source of amusement. One near Khajuraho had us in splits, offering “fried banana filters” (instead of fritters) and “dumb (dum) biryani” for “launch and dinner.”

It’s a matter of stoking your child or children’s latent interest, and once they learn to derive joy from their surroundings, and are appreciated for it, not just the physical journey but the journey of life will become richer and more textured. There is magic everywhere. You just have to find it.

Geetika Jain is the author of the children’s books Delightful Delhi and Wonderful Wildlife, published by Roli.

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