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A Different Perspective – the highs and lows of a family’s life in India

After several postings around the world, Richard McCallum moved to Delhi in 2005 to head the Cathay Pacific Airways North India office. Two years later, he took the brave move to start his own business and now runs Flying Fox, India’s only British-run adventure tourism provider. Now, with his wife Nicola and two children, Ava, aged three, and George, aged one, he talks to us about experiencing life from a different perspective with a young family in India . . .

We can take a train on a Friday at 6pm, be at a tented camp having cocktails and dinner outside one of India’s most beautiful national parks by 9pm, spot tigers on safari all weekend and be back at the office by 9am on Monday

Why Delhi?

I was sent to Delhi in 2005 by my previous employer, John Swire & Sons, to run the Cathay Pacific Airways North India office. I spent my first two years here with them, before deciding to start my own business. My first visit to Delhi was in 2001; it was so exciting, I loved it and consequently lobbied to get the India posting when the opportunity arose.

During my first couple of years here working for Cathay, we observed from the sidelines the massive market and scarcity of safe, quality adventure activities in India. So, my business partner and I decided to do something about it (and, we hoped, grow rich in the process). I’m still waiting for the latter, but we have built a brand that punches well above its weight and is synonymous with international standards of adventure. After three years of work, I (think I) can see the sunny uplands. It has been very stressful to get there . . . but I wouldn’t change that.

Tourism from a different perspective?

We set up Flying Fox, India’s only British-run adventure tourism provider, and the only operator to conform to European (EN) standards. Our core product is the ‘Zip Tour’. We install – in a way that makes them virtually invisible – and operate permanent zip lines at forts and palaces in India and conduct guided tours of the site using the wires. Every tour is accompanied by two of our trained instructors. The experience lasts about one hour. We’ve got two sites open and have had approximately 10,000 visitors since opening in early 2009. A third site opens in February 2011 and we’ve got lots more in the pipeline, both in India and in the region.

Our guided tour is different because a) we take people to places they can’t normally access on foot b) the views from those points are unique and sublime c) participants get a buzz from gliding over lakes, battlements and rock valleys and d) our guides impart informative, anecdotal and slightly irreverent history. We get lots of families – the kids especially love it because it’s the perfect antidote to yet another dusty museum or fort tour!

What about life in Delhi?

Delhi contains a substantial and eclectic bunch of expatriates, some of whom will inevitably know people you know, so you rapidly acquire a social life – it’s never lonely. You do find expat friends come and go quickly, so we’ve made a big effort to make Indian friends – the parties are much better!

Last weekend we took the kids to a children’s party and they rode an elephant in the garden!

Once you start to make Indian friends, the town really opens up and you get to experience its extraordinary variety: suburban Delhi full of gigantic party houses owned by industrial oligarchs, the old town with its chaos and ancient, excellent restaurants, New Delhi above it all, chock-full of towering Imperial Indo- Sarenic architecture and grand avenues planted with a different species of flowering tree. If they’ll let us, we may spend another 10 years here I hope. When I first moved here, I had lots of support from Cathay, and that’s vital. I wouldn’t advise anyone to relocate to India without help. Obtaining a visa, registering on arrival, finding and negotiating a house, connecting that house to important utilities etc can be a very fraught and frustrating process.

My wife, Nicola, is a much better (and more experienced) expatriate than I am. The pros and cons of being a wife here are fairly generic. She finds having full time, £100 per month ayahs (nannies) and maids very helpful indeed! The trade off is that India is such a chaotic place that to get even basic household repairs and maintenance done can require every ounce of patience. And the traffic and pollution grow daily worse.

What’s bringing up a family in India like?

Our lifestyle out here is extremely pleasant. If you get past the traffic and pollution and don’t mind your children growing up with asthma! India offers a very easygoing and unrestricted lifestyle.

Last weekend, we took the kids to a children’s party and they rode an elephant in the garden! And this weekend, at Diwali, Ava got to play with little fireworks. Perhaps not terribly responsible of us but the point is that it’s a laissez faire kind of place, which we appreciate.

Life can also be inexpensively luxurious; we can take a train on a Friday at 6pm, be at a tented camp having cocktails and dinner outside one of India’s most beautiful national parks by 9pm, spot tigers on safari all weekend and be back at the office by 9am on Monday. Having come from Hong Kong, which is fairly hot and humid all year round, I love the seasonality of the place – Delhi is a northern city, only 30 minutes flight from the Himalaya and its temperature varies from 5 degrees on a cold December evening to 50 degrees on a bad day in June. The bits in between are wonderful.

And the children’s care and education?

For the children, I can’t really compare the UK and India having not brought them up in the UK. I know that kids in India start their education earlier, and it’s probably a bit more intense (and competitive). But Ava absolutely adores her school. Then there’s the ability to do exotic and slightly risky things at a young age (probably none of which she’ll remember!)

Ava is almost three and she’s been at a pre-school since she was two. She never seems to be able to tell me what she learns but spends all day singing ABC songs to herself so they must be imparting something. Her teachers are already fretting about which school she should try for when she’s four.There are three big ones and entry is competitive – although I can’t imagine on what criteria they allocate places!

We’re certainly jealous of the range of child and childfriendly activities available in the UK. There’s barely a handful of safe playgrounds that we know of in South Delhi (shared by about 16 million people . . . ), no covered swimming pool of note in the entire town and only a handful of restaurants where you can easily take the kids – and this is the capital city. The wives tend to arrange a regular circuit of playgroups but even so, it’s sometimes difficult to keep them occupied – which perhaps explains why Ava has comprehensively coloured in the walls of our house . . .

The Commonwealth Games – a resident’s perspective?

I don’t know what the coverage was like in the UK, but in the build-up to the CWG, Delhi’s expat community assumed it would be cancelled, such was the chaos, dismal preparation, crumbling inadequate facilities and corruption that bedevilled the entire project. Somehow, those in charge carried it off – I don’t know how, I think the opening ceremony helped – although few venues had many spectators. On the plus side, the city authorities yanked all the tattiest buses off the roads and closed most of the offices so getting around was a breeze for two weeks!

The most difficult versus the best thing about being in India?

Running my own business is far and away the most challenging part of being in India. The opportunities are awesome, but so too is the level of day-to-day commercial and legal compliance required to operate. (I doubt anyone in the UK running a small company has to liaise with their accountant on an hourly basis!) It could – and I am sure one day will be – far more streamlined and simple to do business here. It has to be.

The best thing about India is the travel. Delhi can be rather stifling, but once I get out, I remember that it’s such a mesmerising country. The countryside is beautiful, people are funny and hospitable and I feel very privileged to work where we do. Flying Fox operates from inside two of Rajasthan’s most spectacular Forts – it’s like going to work in Windsor Castle and having the place all to yourself after visiting hours!


 Flying Fox – thrilling aerial tours of Neemrana Fort-Palace near Delhi and Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur