“Do you have food for your journey? What do you mean you’ll buy something on the way? Here, at least take these parathas. Travel safe and let me know once you’ve reached, okay? Come again.”
This is how I almost always part ways with my homestay hosts.
Travel is as much about visiting new places as it is about experiencing cultures. The former is the easier part of the equation: you contact a travel agent, they fix your itinerary and you whiz in and out of the place [or places] you had in mind. You get what you pay for. Well, almost. Because in many ways, it does not lend itself to skimming beyond the surface.
For those among us who have had the privilege of spending our vacations at our native hometown, we can reminisce the experiences they brought; be it climbing a mango tree or setting up a makeshift hammock beneath it to laze and read, or swimming in the river and spotting life-forms we may only have read about in our school textbooks, or even just eating the yummiest meals off the chulha! Everything was organic by default—at no extra cost! Summer holidays were about rekindling relationships with family who lived in another part of the country [or may be globe, even] and parting ways was not always easy.
One cannot travel to one’s native hometown all the time, just as one cannot have a family in every part of the country or globe. There may be exceptions, but not each one of us is so fortunate. That is when you are grateful for homestays. You can choose to have family anywhere you want and experience a new place as though you were dropping in at your relatives’.
Where does one begin to find a homestay? Is it safe? How do you know?
It is a lot easier today to scout for properties on the internet. One can begin based on the destination one is interested in exploring or, like me, look up properties that seem interesting and accordingly select the place.
Many homestay hosts maintain an online presence via a website, a Facebook page, a Twitter handle or a listing on TripAdvisor. Additionally, there are websites like AirBnB, Homestay.com, SaffronStays.com among others that you may use. This ensures that you not only know what the property looks like and how near or far it is from the airport/railway station/market place, but also read reviews by previous guests.
Note: There is a merit in knowing why someone might have rated a property as poor. Was the quality of service delivered not as promised? Or was it that a certain service could not be delivered because of some external constraints?
Take, for instance, places that face regular water cuts and electricity outages. These are external constraints and a homestay host can only do so much for you to ensure you live in what is otherwise considered a luxury—that you can avail a hot water bath [if, at all]!
This is why it is prudent to engage your host ahead of time over emails or a telephone call while planning your stay. It ensures there are no surprises once you get there.
What should you look out for?
Deciding on a homestay could seem a little daunting, especially for first-timers. These are a few things could check for after you have identified a property of your choice.
Not all properties have the host and his/her family living on its premises. Sometimes, hosts sublet their property under the watchful eyes of a caretaker and support staff that cook, clean and maintain the premises. This is great for those travellers who would like to experiment with homestays but are not sure if they would be comfortable with having the owners around!
What you pay for is what you get. The mistake you might make is to think that just because it is not a hotel, everything would be flexible. On the contrary, because it is not a hotel, things are not always as flexible. For instance, you might be required to give your host a heads-up if you have decided to sit-in and have a meal [as opposed to going to a local restaurant] so arrangements can be made. Hosts have to separately make arrangements for their guests. Most hosts will not serve the same food they would eat or hand over the linen they personally use to their guests. I’ve observed that even hosts in remote villages of Spiti and Ladakh maintain a separate ration to prepare food for guests. They do not serve us the same food they consume–unless you let them know you are keen on trying the local cuisine.
Some hosts may have more rules than others and rightfully so—it is their home after all. So whether it is the availability and consumption of non-vegetarian food and alcohol, openness towards smoking, consent to bring pets or a preferred time by which you may be required to arrive back on the property at night for safety reasons, it’s good to have these clarified at the outset
In my experience, hosts have been open to the idea of not just encouraging feedback but also making amends in order to create a more welcoming environment.
How to engage with your host?
With all the emphasis on communicating and engaging with the host, here are a few pointers:
- Speak to your hosts about the property and the available facilities be it meals or things you could do close to the property [like learning pottery or going trekking]. It may influence you to prolong your stay. Tell them a bit about yourself and learn a few things about them—a little familiarity always help.
- Enquire about sites you could see and places you could go to. Not everything gets covered in the guidebook. For someone who barely refers to guidebooks, having my host in Kutch outline my itinerary was the next best thing.
- Your host is your best go-to person to understand the right way to travel locally. Many have connected me with reliable rickshaw drivers or local travel operators ensuring that I do not get ripped off.
- Enhance your knowledge about the locally grown food, the culture and festivals of the places you are visiting by speaking
to your host. This is how travel has made me wiser.
Who can opt-in for homestays?
There are no rules for who can opt for a homestay. You could be a solo traveller or be travelling with friends or family—it really does not change your reason for choosing a homestay. I have ticked every one of those check-boxes while choosing a homestay as my favoured style of accommodation.
Having said that, while anyone can and should experience homestays, the exception would be of someone who is extremely picky. Surely a homestay host will leave no stone unturned in extending not just their hospitality but even their home to you during your stay. But choosing homestays does not have to come at a barter price of you relinquishing your comforts. Just being candid and having an open dialogue with your host, ahead of your travel as well as during it, can ensure you both have an enjoyable experience.
The thumb rule of responsible travel is that you don’t do elsewhere what you won’t do in your hometown and it applies to homestays too. It is your home as well, albeit for a few days.
- Pics: Elita Almeida