Shortly before we arrive at our first Indian homestay my teenage son turns to me and says, “You do remember I loathe curries, don’t you?”
Felix has no need to remind me — I’ve been fretting about this very issue — but yet again I tell him an authentic Rajasthani curry will taste completely different, and possibly even good. Out of view, my fingers are crossed.
Felix, 15, and I are in Jaipur. It’s hot and we’re tired after a long flight, a brief kip in Delhi, and then a crowded train journey. So when we fetch up at Mrs Singh’s smart white bungalow on the outskirts of town, I’m all too aware we’re not looking our best.
But no matter. Ambika, Mrs Singh’s beautiful, jeans-clad teenage daughter is there to greet us. One of the advantages of choosing homestays over hotels is this chance to meet family members, and experience a more personal taste of the subcontinent — and here in Jaipur, Ambika will be our guide.
That afternoon, she takes us shopping, scathingly dismissing the tourist stalls, and instead heading for a bland building many visitors might miss. Inside, Sarogi Mansion hides a labyrinth of stalls, where sari-clad ladies scrutinise swathes of wedding materials, and young Indian girls queue for henna and embroidered kurtas (loose shirt).
“Fantastic!” says Felix, relieving me of a wad of rupees, as he stocks up on bangles for his girlfriend.
Our days in Jaipur unravel in a mix of tourist must-dos — Amber Fort, with its weary-looking, paint-embellished elephants, and the fascinating Jantar Mantar observatory — and time spent with the Singhs. Ambika, a champion target shooter, instructs Felix in rifle practice, dressing him in macho bulletproof pants and jacket — an experience akin to some heavenly teenage Bond fantasy.
Less easy for a lad accustomed to liberal ideals is having servants awaiting our every need. When the power packs up one lunch-time, Felix visibly cringes as a punkah wallah fans him to coolness. But any misgivings about our wealthy base, just yards from shanty homes, soon dissipate when Mrs Singh takes us to her orphanage.
I’m fit to burst with pride as I witness my son chatting away to a small crowd of kids with HIV or Aids, because for the first time in his life he’s encountering living tragedy and responding with natural kindness — high fiving the older boys, and showering lollipops on the little ones.
Midweek, we take the overnight train to tiny, rural Jawai, 280 miles south of Jaipur. Our base is Castle Bera, a delightfully rundown haveli (private mansion), where green parrots flit across terraces and our host, Winku — all giggles and smiles — promises a safari adventure.
In just two days we spot crocodiles, hyenas and a leopard couple so close to our four-wheel-drive vehicle, I contemplate adopting the brace position. It’s dusty, thrilling, and Felix is in ecstasy. So much so, he even keeps quiet that night when Winku produces the castle’s speciality: extra-spicy chicken curry
Read more in the Spring 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller Family (UK)