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Marie Rochford didn't quite know what to expect of her first trip to India. But the Irish doctor was absolutely certain that she wanted more than what a humdrum holiday package could offer. So, when Siddharth Narvekar, a scrabble friend on Facebook, posted that he was going trekking in Sikkim, she decided to tag along. For a large part of the trip, they camped in a traditional homestay in Lachen, in the upper reaches of Sikkim, which ended up being one of the most memorable parts of the trip. "The first night, we came in from the freezing cold and pitch dark into this cosy kitchen with a beautiful, open-fire cooking stove. A gorgeous little girl looked at us shyly, while her older sister busied herself preparing our evening meal, " she recalled. "An old lady, who was the little girl's grandmother, showed us up to our rooms, (built above the owner's house), which were very clean, albeit also freezing cold. She then brought us sweet black tea in delicate china cups!"
With homestay holidays catching on, a growing number of Indians are throwing open their homes to strangers. Some are chucking well-paying jobs to turn hotelier. Pallavi Srivastava and Anurag Tomar, a young couple with media jobs in the capital, decided to give it all up in 2008 to set up a farmstay in the hills. "We'd had enough of the city and the same routine. We wanted to experience a quiet, unhurried life and living in a Himalayan village seemed just so right, " says Srivastava.
Even the government has been enthusiastically supporting this enterprise. Just last year, the ministry of tourism tried to increase the number of rooms in and around the city before the Commonwealth Games by promoting the Incredible India Bed & Breakfast/Homestay Scheme. In states like Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan, homestays have been successful for several years, partly because of government support in the form of marketing, assistance in getting loans and being allowed to pay non-commercial rates for electricity and water. For instance, in the coffee-growing regions of Coorg, plantation owners began converting a part of their bungalows into homestays in the late 1990s when the price of coffee fell dramatically. The homestay provided the much-needed extra income. The trend is gathering momentum in other states as well. In 2008, Himachal Pradesh announced exemption of sales and luxury taxes to encourage those living in rural areas to turn their houses into homestays.
New websites have also made it much easier for travellers to locate homestays. Rekha Goyal is a co-founder of Namastay. in, a site that lists 250 'non-hotels'. These include homestays, plantation stays, villas for rent and so on. Goyal said that about four years ago finding and booking homestays online was tough. "That's when the idea (for Namastay. in) struck, " she says. Goyal and her team have vetted over 500 properties. Usually that meant "packing our bags, driving to a destination. Then we would just hunt out homestays by meeting locals and asking questions". Goyal points out that what attracted her about homestays, besides the experience, was their contribution to sustainable tourism. "You're fulfilling the demand of accommodation without building new structures, " she said.
That's one of the reasons behind Mahindra Homestays. "It's a new product which invites inbound tourists and its eco footprint is low, " says Vimla Dorairaju, business head of Mahindra Homestays. The company has signed MoUs with a number of state governments to promote homestays over the next five years. Dorairaju said that when the site was launched in 2008, 90 per cent of their clients were foreigners. Now, 70 per cent are Indians.
Even for local tourists, living in homestays is a chance to experience the culture of a place first-hand at a reasonable cost. As the average price of a room in a homestay is between Rs 1, 000 and Rs 3, 000, it makes up in part for the lack of affordable hotels in the country. Of course, there are smart digs as well that cost in the region of Rs 15, 000 a night. And, as Dorairaju points out, homestays are popular among folk who travel with their cats and dogs as pets are usually allowed.
A homestay is much more than a B&B, with the host acting as guide, interpreter, travel agent and even drinking buddy. Last year Priti Ubhayakar, a writer who lives in Houston, and her aunt from Mumbai, visited Jodhpur where they stayed in Chandrashekar and Bhavna Singh's home. "It was like staying with old family friends, " she said. "Every evening they lit a small bonfire and had drinks with the guests. "
Tourists also get to eat home-cooked food. Rochford, Narvekar and their friends got an unexpected windfall when a local they gave a lift to forgot his parcel in the car. It contained yak meat which they gave to their homestay owners to cook. "It was like having an orgasm in the mouth, " is how Narvekar describes it.
For owners, homestays mean some extra income. Charlotte Chopra set aside two rooms in her house in Delhi's Rajinder Nagar for tourists in 2005, when the state government began registering homestays. After quitting her job at the Indo-German Chamber of Commerce, Chopra wanted to do something that didn't involve travel. "At first I was wary of the risks involved, " she said. "But I did want to try it. " Today her B&B is rated number three in a poll of Delhi homestays on the website, Trip Advisor.
For Chandrashekhar Singh, on the other hand, tourism has become a fulltime job. He started his homestay in 1992. He had moved back to Jodhpur from Mumbai after his father died. The year he began, Singh had just three guests. Today, he said, the homestay is fully booked through the peak season (October to March). The business has paid off in more ways than one. Now when Singh and his wife travel to Europe, they don't have to stay in hotels. They simply stay with former guests. "We don't have to spend a rupee, " Singh says happily.
FAMILY AND OTHER ANIMALS
Jamshed and Ayesha Madon moved to Goa in 1995 to "escape the madness of Bombay". But they began renting out two rooms of their luxurious villa, Capella, only in 2010. It's about 10 minutes away from Baga beach. The couple, who live there with their son, Luca the Rottweiler and two cats, Lily and Smoky, also run an Italian restaurant called J&A's Ristorante Italiano. While Capella is a bed and breakfast, the Madons' cook, Felci, can rustle up a Goan meal. www. capellagoa. com
SMELL THE COFFEE
Coffee plantation owner AS Mallesh rents out two cottages on his estate in Coorg. Guests have the plantation's own coffee, breakfast on items like ragi balls with horse gram chutney, play golf at a course nearby and gaze at paddy fields. Coorgis are famously non-vegetarian and love their pork. But vegetarians needn't worry as the Malleshs serve excellent veg food.
http:// www. homestaykodagu. com/
Located on a lush 25 acres in Coorg, Rainforest Retreat is run by Sujata and Anurag Goel. She is a botanist and he is a microbiologist. Together they try to develop sustainable methods of agriculture and promote ecological awareness in the region. The property, known as Mojo Plantation, is full of wildlife and banana, bamboo, orange and coffee plants. And the couple are only too happy to talk about the area's flora and fauna. The homestay itself consists of two two-roomed cottages.
www. rainforestours. com
Perched on the hills of Wayanad, Tropical ForRest has both rooms and villas for rent. The website boasts authentic Malabari food, made according to recipes the owners wouldn't part with even if "Pam Anderson threatened to drop a size or two".
http:// www. tropicalforrest. in/contact. html
A gleaming 150-year-old wooden house on the banks of a canal and surrounded by paddy fields, Nelpura Homestay in Alleppey is an ideal backwater retreat. Chackochan and Salimma, both teachers, are gracious hosts who take out time to cater to individual preferences, whether it be for duck instead of chicken or a visit to the local school. If the food and the serenity don't make you stay on, then Chacko's tales definitely will. http:// www. nelpura. com
Ghanshyam Aggarwal looked at Nainital and thought, "Karol Bagh". In an effort to provide an experience similar to that holiday homes of yore, the 48-year-old set up Fishermen's Lodge, overlooking the lake in Bhimtal. Though the food menu is fixed - the palak meat and tandoori fish come highly recommended - guests can carry their own alcohol and enjoy a singing session around a fire in the evening. Mornings can be spent fishing or cycling to get some mountain air.
http:// thefishermenslodge. com/
Chandrashekhar and Bhavna Singh let out five rooms in their Jodhpur bungalow Indrashan, which was built by Chandrashekhar's father in 1962. Those who have stayed with the Singhs highly recommend Bhavna Singh's traditional Rajasthani cooking. It's not all gatte ki sabzi and dal baati. She also makes non-vegetarian food like the state's famous laal maas.
www. rajputanadiscovery. com
HOME WITH A VIEW
A farm-stay in the Himalayas, Ek Chidiya Cottage, Nathuakhan, is set amid peach, plum and apple orchards. Located about an hour ahead of Nainital in Uttarakhand, it is owned and managed by former journalist couple, Anurag Tomar and Pallavi Srivastava, who moved here two years ago with their two young sons. Now, they spend their time growing vegetables and herbs, and developing the orchard in their one-acre farm. Besides, of course, serving their guests farm-fresh edibles such as home-made butter and locally made fruit preserves. Special efforts are made to bring Kumaoni cuisine to the table, like madwa millet, gahaut and bhat dals, and charred mutton delicacies. Treks and sightseeing visits to Mukteshwar, Almora and Naintal are also available.
http:// www. ekchidiya. com
(With additional reporting by Ruhi Batra and Neelam Raaj)
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