Exploring Northern India
by Eric Pateman for Air Canada’s With Aeroplan Series
India is a land of extremes: untold treasures, mystery, humanity, opulence and modesty. I recently explored the northern environs of this magnificent nation with my wife and three young daughters (ages ten, nine and six). We journeyed from remote jungles to industrious cities, from quaint villages to unbelievable palaces.
After three weeks spent travelling by air, rail, auto, bike and on foot, I learned that in India, you always need to expect the unexpected! There is always something around the corner that will captivate and mystify you.
We landed in Mumbai and then drove five hours to Pench. No words can do those roads justice — you just have to experience them. There were cows in the middle of the streets, and more cars and horns than I thought possible. One motorcycle that passed us was carrying two people and four live goats!
Wilderness Adventures in India
We spent the first week of our trip in the region of Madhya Pradesh, immersed in the jungles of Pench and Kahna. We stayed at Jamtara Wilderness Camp and Kanha Jungle Lodge. Both lodges were super comfortable and well-appointed. The service took them from good to great! Warm towels, hot water bottles, breakfasts on the hoods of the jeeps and every dietary restriction attended to with care.
The current lodge owner’s great-grandfather helped preserve the lands and ensure the survival of the region’s tigers. These lodges are a testament to his vision and passion.
To be honest, India was never on my bucket list as a wilderness safari destination. However, I was blown away by the beauty and access to animals in Pench and Kanha National Park. I guess I should have expected more, given that this is the land that inspired Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book!
We spent many hours exploring vast trails in search of the elusive tigers that the area is known for. We encountered large herds of guar (Indian bison), cheetal, sambar, nilgai, wild dogs and pigs. There were also smaller groups of leopards, sloth bears, deer, hyenas and more. The girls were entranced by the monkeys (some of which even jumped onto our train), wild peacocks and of course, the elephants!
When we were not out on safari, there were many other activities to keep us entertained — and more importantly, from my parental standpoint, learning every step of the way. Cooking classes with exotic ingredients re-acquainted us with what things are actually supposed to taste like, from pomegranates to spices and chai tea. The girls had saree tying lessons and visited local villages and schools. We even went to a jaggery farm, where they produce traditional non-centrifugal cane sugar used in many of the local dishes.
Culinary Adventures in India
As a chef, culinary traveller and overall food fanatic, the most obvious draw to India for me was the culinary scene. During the second week of our stay, we travelled from the jungles to the cities in search of culture and food. Delhi, Jodhpur, Deogarh and Jaipur were on the agenda.
We experienced a huge range of meals. One night we were dining in history-laden palaces with 24-karat gold cutlery. Another, we sat in the warm dirt in the middle of a local farm, eating with our hands while watching chefs cook over an open fire. The cuisine of India is regionally and seasonally diverse, and showcases an extraordinary array of flavours, textures and colours. My daughters are certainly more adventurous eaters than many kids their age — a product of their environment, I am sure. That said, the cuisine is very accommodating to all palates and dietary preferences. It is not just spicy curries!
When travelling, I seek out experience-based eating. I am not one for arriving with my guidebook in hand, quickly directed to the most advertised or expensive restaurants. My preference is to find where the locals eat! I want to learn and experience a variety of ingredients, styles and techniques. That includes shopping the markets and eating the things you are not supposed to. There is a reason my wife packed what amounted to a full pharmacy in her suitcase!
This adventurous spirit led us to enjoying meals in village homes, learning to make traditional dishes including poha as well as a variety of curries. We tasted samosas and sweets, kulfi and pakoras. Everything was accompanied by cups of chai from under the stairs of markets, where vendors sat cross-legged and waited on an endless line of customers. We had farm lunches of simple fire-cooked breads topped with ghee (clarified butter) and that incredible local jaggery sugar. We tried local breads stuffed with goat meat and buried deep in a fire fuelled with dried cow dung, known as gomaya.
I could have spent weeks just exploring the markets and kitchens. So many new flavours and textures to discover!
Meeting the People of India
The people we encountered everywhere in India were generous and kind, and offered an incredible level of anticipatory service. You will rarely be left wanting for anything, and they will open their homes and villages to you.
Food is one of life’s great connectors, and something that bridges all cultures. The people who welcomed us into their homes and businesses always made us feel part of their family. This was true for everyone from India’s top chef, Asish Kumar Roy of the famed Taj Hotels, to farmers growing sugar cane. The same went for home cooks and even the son of a Maharaja in Deogarh, who now owns a stunning Relais and Châteaux lodge.
While there is no doubt that tourism is important to the villages we visited, the people were genuinely proud to show us their homes and share a meal with us. The fact that we brought our girls with us made us even more of a welcomed spectacle. These regions are rarely frequented by foreign children. Locals shared sweets with them and invited them to fly kites on the roofs of local homes. They had conversations via endless hand gestures, even without a single understandable word between them.
Discovering History in India
People today are looking for transformative experiences when travelling. This is even more important when travelling with kids who should be in school! They need to learn about their surroundings and gain some cultural context. The ability to expose our daughters to history and culture was of paramount importance for us.
India is obviously vastly different from Canada, but the education for the girls (and even for me and my wife) was life-changing. Touching walls and forts from 700AD, or standing beside the world’s largest sundial, built hundreds of years ago, really puts things into perspective. It’s not the kind of thing you can learn from a book.
Booking a Trip to India
As you may have gathered, travelling is a big part of my life (and my family’s lives). Usually, I am someone who only likes to book a flight in and out. Sometimes I’ll reserve a hotel room for the first night, if I am pushed. After that, everything else is left up in the air.
That being said, India is a country that is intimidating even for experienced travellers. In this case, I went with a planned itinerary. Our trip was curated by Encounters Asia, who did an incredible job of allowing us to see an amazing variety of experiences in India. They were adept at handling a family with three young girls, and made sure they were well looked after. There were plenty of activities, adjoining rooms, cooking classes, cultural experiences, guides and so much more. They also allowed us flexibility with our guides, times and plans, so I felt (somewhat) more in control. We can’t wait to return and explore of India, heading south to the Goa coast next time. India has captured our hearts, our palates and our adventurous spirit!
Other fantastic hotels we stayed at:
A Taste of India in Canada
In Canada, we are so fortunate to have a large immigrant population of Indians who are willing to share their culture with us. That includes their culinary flavours. If your trip to India is still a ways off, you can enjoy the flavours locally. There are many great Indian restaurants available from coast to coast. Some of my favourites include the much-awarded Vij’s and cheap and cheerful House of Dosas in Vancouver, and Pukka and Aanch Modernistic Indian Cuisine in Toronto.