By Elita Almeida
You’re telling me that you didn’t stay in a hotel but lived in someone’s house? Did you know those people?
That is a response I often receive from friends and colleagues who hear about my travels. That was probably me a while ago too. I had been enamoured by the idea of homestays for a while, but hadn’t a clue how they worked. The first opportunity I had was when I travelled with a group to Ladakh, and lived with a couple of families in their homes. It didn’t feel alien one bit.
WHAT IS A HOMESTAY?
|My homestay in Velas.|
A homestay, like the word suggests, is an intimate experience of staying with a local family in their home, while exploring a new destination or revisiting an old haunt. It is an intimate experience because of the warm welcome that is guaranteed throughout the length of your stay, in what is otherwise an unknown place. Think of trips to your native place during the school summer holidays, and that’s exactly what a homestay experience leaves you with: pampered, well-fed (maybe overfed is the word I’m looking for) and well taken care of.
Though Ladakh was my first, I’ve gone on to stay in homestays every time I’ve planned my travels thereafter, whether to Wayanad, Coorg, Kutch or Velas (famed for commemorating the Olive Ridley Turtle hatchling season between the months of February and April every year in Maharashtra).
HOW TO FIND A SUITABLE HOMESTAY?
It always begins with a Google search. The credibility (think: “How would I know they’re trustworthy / clean?”) is assured through the reviews and recommendations that fellow travellers have taken the time to share with the online community. Niche travel organizations like India Untravelled, review websites like Tripadvisor, travel blogs, and social networks are all great avenues to find experiential homestays in the region you're travelling to.
Take the time to assess whether you'll feel comfortable at your homestay during your trip. Ask questions, and attune yourself to the idea of the place you're going to. If you don't feel ready for a certain kind of experience (like a remote village home without any urban comforts to speak of), it is better to find an alternative rather than make your hosts uncomfortable about how you like the experience.
WHAT TO EXPECT FROM YOUR HOSTS
In my experience thus far, homestay hosts have been the friendliest people I’ve interacted with – there’s nothing business-like in their demeanor. Whether it’s in their tone when you first call them or when they reply to your incessant emails or texts from wanting to know everything about ‘How to get there?’ to ‘What’s for food?’ or ‘Would there be hot water to take a bath?’, they are always courteous and easy going.
Think of them as your own extended family, but remember that interaction with your hosts is a two way process; if you are respectful and appreciating of their way of life, they will go all out to make you feel at home. Take the time to have conversations with them, show interest in their part of the world, and you'll return with stories (and friendships) that no guidebook tells you about.
When I’m travelling solo, I’ve had my hosts immediately assure me that my safety and security would be their responsibility – this even without me necessarily broaching the topic.
LIVING LIKE THE LOCALS
Home-staying is an easy way to embrace the local food and culture of the place you're travelling to, and learn about its better kept secrets.
There may be no menu (just like there won't be one in your own home), but most homestays serve authentic, home-cooked food. I’ve understood so much about locally available produce and the regional cuisine through my homestay experiences. This translated into yummy seafood in Velas and local curries in Kutch. Of course, it does take shedding of preconceived notions to be able to soak in the environment and open up your mind to new cuisines. I’d urge anyone wanting to undertake this experience to resist the temptation to want to replicate your urban existence at your homestay; indulge your taste buds in new adventures just like you do your mind.
My homestays have also been super-informative about local history and customs. These in turn, have helped me decide on the places I should really visit. Places that don’t make it to Lonely Planet’s “must see” list. Think local temples, marketplaces and unheard ruins that tell a greater story about the destination.
Did I mention that homestays often work out to be a more cost-effective way of planning your travel experience? Not only are you guaranteed a local yet authentic experience, but you’re also signing yourself up for some savings, depending on the kind of homestay you choose. Whether an indulgent heritage homestay, or a basic local home in a village, homestays offer experiences that no drab hotel rooms can replicate.
Almost all the homes I’ve lived at have been space-wise indulgent, not just from within but also around them, making them locations for long walks, treks, quite time to unwind and perhaps read, write, compose or paint.
Finally, I’d add that over the course of time, experiencing homestays has made me more sensitive and appreciating of the families I’ve stayed with, and better informed about local communities and their way of life. I've learnt to travel with humility and respect, and found myself building close relationships with hosts, who literally overnight, transform from being strangers to extended family for me.