- Friday, 25 April 2014

Homestays Decoded

Today, a 'homestay' is a much commonly understood term than what it was 7-8 years back, when, I first opted for one on my travel to Kerala. Travelers are increasingly experimenting and looking for authentic and local 'experiences'.

Back in 2007, a home-stay was not much heard of. In fact it was possible to be questioned about authenticity of one and that if they are safe, or if I will get food to my liking.  The whole concept of sharing space with strangers in a new place was met with suspicion. To top it all, it was very difficult to find one ahead of the travel. Till date it remains an unorganised sector - which is very good in a way and most of them do not find themselves reviewed on Tripadvisor. However, slowly the travel blogger space has managed to change the way we travel and stay. More and more seasoned travellers are opting to stay with local families than full service hotels or resorts. And more and more people are writing about it on their blogs, social media etc. 

I have had opportunity to share spaces with local families at locations as varied as Pangong Tso in Ladakh where I literally slept in a small tent by the lake in freezing weather to Aldona in Goa where I got one really beautiful outhouse in an 500 year old heritage Portuguese property. My experiences have been so varied and rich that I thought of writing this article on home-stays- explaining in detail the Dos, the Don'ts and the How's.


1. Interact with your host- Interaction is always a good idea. You need to remember its not a hotel, its a family and every family will have there own ways. There are no so-called industry standards.  In all likelihood the homestay might not even have a fancy website to give you details of all amenities, room rents, bed type, bathroom type etc. In fact from my experience , pretty much all my hosts have ensured picking me up personally from station, taxi stand or airport. If not that, then they have certainly arranged for a pick up. So the key- talk to them before you travel. It will also help break the ice much faster when you actually meet your host in person.

2. Clarify on the costs- Always clarify on the costs of your stay beforehand. Pricing structures vary from family to family. While some may charge you room wise, others may charge you pax wise. At some places the room rent might not include any meal, where as some might include breakfast. In fact I have come across a homestay in Kerala where my hosts were too shy to ask for money for lavish meals we ate  at their home, so we had to politely offer what we felt was right.  Therefore, please clarify to avoid last minute surprises.

While its a good idea to interact and clarify costs in advance, its not advisable to over-do it. You have to remember, they are families too and in all likelihood the homestay that they offer to travellers is not a full-fledged business for them. So, by all means, enquire but with a certain amount of courtesy.

Upon Arrival

1. Respect local customs and culture- Many a times you would be expected to (though not compelled) to leave the footwear outdoors, refrain from drinking/smoking on the premise, be cautious of electricity usage etc. Take these experiences in stride and you would have learned so much more about the people and their lives.

2. Spend time with family & participate in daily activities- While you certainly would have local sightseeing and travel agendas for the day, its highly recommended to take time out to chat up with your hosts. Talk about politics, weather, their customs, faiths, life or whatever you can think of under the sun. No matter if they live in a bamboo hut in a Himalayan valley or in a lavish bungalow next to a tea garden. Life discussions are same everywhere. In fact, helping the hosts in kitchen, farms or even on a random activity like plucking cashew flowers from cashew tree can be so much fun and insightful.

3. Request your hosts to accompany you for a walk- They are the best guides. They are always happy to show you around. They will take you to those little surprising alleyways and corners which will not feature in any guidebook in the world. Going on walks have always worked for me, its one of the best ways to see and understand the place from a local's point of view. In fact don't be surprised if you find yourself getting invited to another family's place for tea . Unlike cities, people on smaller towns & villages are far more connected on a personal level.  This you will realise on your walks with your hosts, just about so many people just stop by to say hello with a smile or just enquire where you coming from.

Post Departure

1. Thank your hosts- This is certainly a personal choice and not mandatory at all. But after you've shared spaces with a family who has genuinely looked after you and shared their lives with you, it somewhat nice to let your hosts know how happy and comfortable your stay was. Honestly, I myself never bothered with it in my initial travels. But now over the years, after my excellent experiences with some families and sharing stories with them I have realised how much it matters to them if you give them a little surprise.

Leaving your hosts a small gift/souvenir which speaks of your land or region is one good idea. You can also offer to take them out for a meal on a random day during your stay. Another option is to parcel them a thank you gift upon your return after assessing what they will need or suit them best. If all this is out of budget for you, or just about too much, a thank you note/email/message/phone call is the bare minimum we all can do. And very importantly if you've promised them a review online, please do so upon your return.

2. Spread the word- If an experience of your homestay has been really nice, then please spread the word. There is no better way to thank your hosts and help fellow independent travellers than making them meet.

Caution !

Those who travel independently regularly would have certainly come across places which are 'tourist-hardened'. The locals are no longer friendly, have become very money centric, migrants have taken over the business on the streets, or worst of all prefer foreign tourists over Indian. These things happen and are part of one's travel experiences. However, one must steer clear of such places. Its extremely rare, but if you do come across a homestay promising 'authentic' experience but you do not get the right vibe upon your first interaction with them or you feel they are quoting you obnoxious rates for your taxi pick up, by all means skip them. There is no sure way to tell in advance if a homestay is truly a homestay or a money spinning business- but one can always search over Internet for reviews from fellow travelers.

In the end..

.. a homestay is not for those looking for complete privacy, all day room service, daily change of linen etc. At several of them you will be sharing a common house with common bathrooms and toilets. While at some you might have to sleep on hard beds at others you might have to lit wood fire to heat water for bath. One has to go with an open mind and an attitude to try things out of one's comfort zone.

Treat hosts respectfully, keep cool and be comfortable. And I promise that you will come back with memories completely unique to you.

P.S.- Did I mention I learnt how to make easiest no-bake cheese cake & fresh jams at home from my last hosts  !? :)

Here pictures from some of my homestays.

Aldona, Goa

Pangong Tso, Ladakh

Sutarwadi, Maharashtra

Haa Valley, Bhutan

Ziro, Arunachal Pradesh

Alleppey, Kerala