Home Sweet Homestay: The Most Authentic Travel Experience
For an unforgettable foreign vacation, consider staying with a local family
My initiation into the world of homestays took place in 2004 on Amantaní Island, a double-peaked bastion of Quechua-speaking farmers and herders on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca. I had a lamb for a roommate (literally), a serving bowl for a toilet (the only “en suite” option) and an accidental teenage suitor. (Poor kid: He’d snuck over in the middle of the night, unaware that his girlfriend had ceded her room to a guest.)
And with the possible exceptions of the thwarted booty call and the initial altitude-induced migraine (not tonight, honey; I have a headache — and you have the wrong girl), I loved every minute. Before then, I’d never even heard of earth-dried potatoes, let alone cooked a batch with a spectacularly patient mother-daughter team. Nor had I followed a family’s sheep … well, anywhere — least of all down a stepped Andean hillside, with a shearing and weaving tutorial thrown in for good measure. And I’d certainly never been involved in a Quechua sing-along dance party.
(Mind you, I don't speak Quechua, and though I do speak Spanish, my host family didn't. Or at least not a lot. So we resorted to a kind of Span-tomime.)
Not that my enjoyment was in any way surprising. As industry insiders will tell you, travelers are looking for authenticity and value more than ever. And on the x-y plane of “authentic” and “good value,” a local house is the ultimate sweet spot. You’re overnighting, cooking, eating and schmoozing — or at least pantomiming — with the residents, and you’re paying something in the neighborhood of $85 per night.
Of course, not all homestays are for everyone. My Amantaní adventure, for example, was one of the more rustic. There was scant electricity to begin with, and less after dark; no indoor plumbing; and, at an already lung-defying 12,500 feet, a series of steep agricultural terraces — God bless that Incan urban planning — between a guest's bladder and the nearest outhouse.
At the other end of the spectrum, you can find satellite TV and Ayurvedic spa treatments on sprawling Indian estates, and gourmet cooking lessons and wine tastings in renovated Italian farmhouses. So if you’re even a bit adventurous, there’s a homestay for you. You simply need to know what to look for and how to plan.
(MORE: Volunteer Vacations: How to Be Sure You're Helping)
Ask the Right Questions
Although the websites of reputable homestay organizers (see list at the end) will give you a good idea of what to expect, the best way to get the specific info you need is by calling a company specialist, says Lean Griffin, Innovation Manager at G Adventures, one of the leaders in the field. “People often think they want a really immersive experience — until they're sleeping on a dirt floor,” she says.
So a good first question is: What exactly are the sleeping conditions? Then ask about the bathroom facilities, power sources and supply, Internet and cell phone coverage (if these things are important to you), climate and weather, animals and bugs, medical and emergency procedures, food and preparation facilities, drinking water, language(s) spoken. While many homestay programs provide their own interpreters — either guides or specially hired locals — few if any are around 24/7.
On the other hand, don’t deny yourself a potentially life-altering experience for fear of, say, some awkward silences, advises Sandy Kell, a 65-year-old retired flight attendant in Laguna Niguel, Calif., who’s done — and loved — a number of Intrepid Travels' homestays in places ranging from Guatemala to Indonesia. She’s found that language barriers can usually be overcome with a few family photos. “You should take some with you anyway because your hosts will invariably want to see them,” she says. Gushing over images of kids and grandkids turns out to be a universal language.
And recognize that “stepping outside your comfort zone can really open your eyes,” says Mary Metzler, a 49-year-old substitute teacher in Sarasota, Fla., who recently did a homestay in rural Malaysia. “There were no tables, chairs or utensils. Meals meant sitting on the floor and using our hands, with roosters running all over the place.” But she found the family’s generosity and openness so beautiful that creature comforts became irrelevant. “When you see how little people get by on — and their eagerness to share the very best of what they have with you — that’s a pretty intense lesson in basic humanity,” Metzler says.
The lessons you come away with will extend far beyond the kitchen. “During a Lombok homestay last year, we did a lot of trekking through nearby villages and found that everything the residents needed was within a square mile,” says Kell. “Whatever’s required for their weaving, pottery, clothing —it’s all right there, and they make everything they’ve got. Even if you’d never be able — or want — to live so basically at home, you do start to think about ways you could scale back when your own life feels endlessly overcomplicated.”
Food in the Family Home
Precisely because of this generosity, the last thing you want to do is turn down a host’s elaborate, lovingly prepared meal. On the other hand, food can be a tricky arena. Depending on what part of the world you’re talking about, one man’s feast is another man’s cue to call the exterminator.
So unless you eat anything and everything, issues will arise. Most are surmountable, whether you’re a vegetarian, gluten-insensitive or just a picky eater. The key is to spell out every last allergy and aversion with the organizing company well in advance of your trip, says Griffin. “Arrangements can and should be made to avoid the twin problems of offending your hosts and going hungry.”
Just because you don’t recognize a dish doesn’t necessarily mean you should skip it. Cooking with utterly foreign ingredients, as Kell and a group of fellow travelers did in Borneo one night, can introduce you to tastes you’ve never experienced. “The next morning, our hosts took us through the jungle and pointed out some of the things we’d eaten for dinner — foods I’d never even known existed but was happy to discover.”
(MORE: Polaroid Moments Help Bridge Divides Between People)
Embrace the Unexpected in Foreign Homestays
Don’t be surprised if your host (or anyone) asks you the kinds of questions that might bring a stateside cocktail conversation to a screeching halt. As Kell has found, “Topics ranging from how much money you earn to why you never remarried to why your kids don’t insist you live with them are not off limits.”
And be prepared to share quarters. “Life can be much more communal in other parts of the world,” says Metzler. "With so many friends and family members coming and going, you may never work out which ones actually live in the house." Even so, one trait will likely hold true of everyone you meet: the ability to make you feel like a long-lost member of the clan.
Which brings us to the last thing that shouldn’t surprise you about a homestay: finding yourself a bit misty-eyed when you’re saying goodbye. Even to an ovine suite mate.
- Intrepid Travel: 800-970-7299, [email protected]
- G Adventures: 888-800-4100
- Wildland: 800-345-4453
- Myths and Mountains: 800-670-MYTH, [email protected]
- Geringer Global Travel (for homestays in India): 877-255-7438
Dos and Don’ts of Homestays
- DO: Bring an appropriate “hostess gift.” Clearly, you’re not going to haul a lovely bottle of Zin to the middle of Lake Titicaca, but salt and pasta are good choices. Really. Ask your tour operator for suggestions.
- DON’T: Confuse Airbnb (or any site that lets you rent people’s homes) for the kind of homestay we’re talking about here. While subletting someone’s Manhattan pied-à-terre can be fabulous, unless the residents are there to show you their favorite spots in Central Park and shop for Nova at Zabar’s with you, the experience is a homestay in only the most technical sense.
- DO: Pack a regionally appropriate phrasebook.
- DON’T: Worry about getting every word that’s spoken. Or every other word. Or even any words. There’s no faster way to suck the joy and spontaneity out of your homestay than to fixate on the language barrier. Failing everything else, mime is hugely helpful — and funny.
- DO: Test the waters if you're afraid to take the full-on homestay plunge. Several companies offer one- or two-night options within the context of a longer trip. Or ease into the experience with one of the aforementioned upscale options — each a good middle ground between staying at a “normal” hotel and, oh, bunking down with livestock.
Abbie Kozolchyk is a New York–based writer and editor who contributes to Conde Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, the San Francisco Chronicle, World Hum, Martha Stewart Living and other publications.