Staying in a homestay

Increasingly popular, homestays are a great way to give directly back to local communities while traveling, and are always a memorable experience. Many of my recent trips have been with Intrepid Travel, who are strong on responsible travel and include homestays in some of their itineraries. They do vary but hopefully this post will give you an idea of what to expect.

The concept involves tourists from the developed world staying with families in developing countries. Many of the homestays I’ve been to have been running for years, and are more like a half board guesthouse, with purpose built facilities for the tourists. They’re semi-authentic, giving you some idea of the conditions in which a depressingly large proportion of the planet live in, but are very much a sanitised version.

My first homestay was probably the most authentic, in a small Cambodian village five years ago. The group slept on thin mats in a single room, there was no shower, minimum electricity, basic toilet facilities, and the family didn’t speak any English. It made for a memorable if somewhat awkward experience…

One of my favourite homestays was in Iran (also one of my favourites trips), in a small village near Kahran, home to nomads (who move their animals twice a year). A relatively young Iranian guy had recently set up the homestay at his family home, a character filled house compete with a swallows nest in the hallway. His mother cooked amazing food (including fresh bread for breakfast) and his good English allowed the group to quiz him on life in Iran. We also had a hugely entertaining fashion show wearing traditional local clothes. It was a very special experience, though odd to watch another group have a very similar one in an Intrepid promotional video.

A homestay on the remote Duke of York Islands in north east Papua New Guinea lived up to how it sounded on paper. The food was authentic, PNG isn’t renowned for its cuisine, there was a bucket for a shower, a very basic long drop toilet, and though we had our own rooms, the walls were paper thin. These were more than made up for though by a lengthy talk with the owner about life and business in PNG, a memorable walk with the around the stunning island, and a campfire singalong with the local kids.

A homestay on the Peruvian shores of Lake Titicaca was far slicker. Run by the women of the local community, they split guests between houses to share the income and hosting duties. We got to experience some of their life taking their sheep down to the lake to drink and helping to wind balls of wool, but both were clearly to keep us occupied for a few hours before the group got back together for an entertaining game of volleyball. The competitive group (mainly Aussies and Brits) were easily beaten by a group of 5ft tall mothers wearing traditional dress. Another enjoyable spot of fancy dress followed…

A homestay near Totonicapan in northern Guatemala was far more low key affair. Again the group was split up between families, having very different experiences. While others were pretty much at a house party, mine was a walk around the village with the father, and a quiet dinner with him, his wife and children, talking about village life.

My most recent homestay was in Sabah, in Malaysian Borneo, in a Dusun village in the near shadow of Mt Kinabalu, one of the highest mountains in Southeast Asia. Pretty standard experience of plentiful home cooked food, a village walk, free time, and in the evening a cultural show with some music and dance.

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