To really understand a country, you should spend your holiday with the locals, says Mike Gerrard
THE FIRST time I stayed with a family, the family moved out. I'd wanted to stay with a family on the island of Saaremaa in Estonia. Nice people, I was told in Tallinn. The husband speaks good English and they have a car so will want to show you around.

Perfect. I paid my $8 (pounds 6.20) a night and caught the bus. By the time I got there, they'd gone. An old woman came out of the family flat. She spoke no English and my Estonian is somewhat limited, but she indicated that the key and the apartment were all mine, and disappeared. Two fading photos on the wall showed a young couple, taken 50 years earlier. I was in the old lady's apartment, while she'd moved upstairs to the empty family flat. Even so, staying in a home gave me a picture of life in rural Estonia I would have got no other way.

As a holiday option, homestays are often overlooked. They're usually cheaper, and appeal to those who want insights into a country but don't want to be bumming it with backpackers or be trapped with other tourists in hotels.

"It must be cheaper," says Evelyn Inglin, a linguist who has just returned with her husband from their second homestay in Costa Rica. "We went everywhere by bus. It was great fun, bouncing around on their bone-shakers."

Evelyn found Vernon Bell's Homestay Service in the Lonely Planet guide. Bell is American but has lived in Costa Rica for 24 years, married to a Costa Rican woman. He has a network of families who welcome visitors in the capital, San Jose, at a cost of $45 for a double room. "Many of our hostesses," says Bell, "are divorced women, 40-55 years old, supplementing - or making up for the lack of - alimony. Our programme spreads tourist income into the economy, among people who can appreciate it more."

The families may appreciate the income, but will the people appreciate each other? Suppose you don't get on?

"We did only book for two nights on our first visit," says Evelyn Inglin, "in case it didn't work out. But it was fine. Vernon and his wife were so helpful and kind. We would eat dinner with them regularly, for $7. Excellent meals and definitely good value for money. They would do superb Costa Rican specialities for us."

Stephen Entwistle teaches French at a comprehensive school near Liverpool and went for a homestay in Brazil. "I found a book called Home from Home which lists companies who organise homestay holidays. I did languages at university and had visited Spain and Portugal, so wanted to go a bit further afield. The Brazilian family was great. The mother was a lecturer and took me into the university with her. If you stay with a family you really do get to know the people, their problems, their attitudes, the food and culture, which you wouldn't from a conventional holiday. And the Brazilians are so incredibly friendly."

Joan Allibone, an agricultural editor from Oxford, opted for a week closer to home, improving her German by staying with a family in Kleve, near the Dutch border.

"I was only there one week," she says, "and part of the reason was that I was concerned we might not get on. One week didn't seem too much if things didn't work out, but the greatest culture shock for me was having to live with a four-month-old baby in the house, rather than being in Germany. However, I went along with whatever was suggested, you have to be prepared to `go with the flow'. It's also an advantage if you're a woman travelling on your own, to go into a family environment."

Being prepared to "go with the flow" is also recommended by Andrew Hayes, a lecturer in chemistry from Bath. "You need to be flexible," he says. "Don't expect anything. Be open to new experiences. If you have an active interest in other cultures, you'll enjoy it."

Andrew chose to go to Nepal. "I know Europe quite well, and the Middle East, and wanted to go somewhere that was completely different and I thought Nepal would be about as different as you can get. I could have done it on my own, perhaps staying at backpackers' hostels, but I didn't want to spend my time mixing with other western visitors.

"The company matched me up with someone my own age, a lecturer in law at Kathmandu University. He's married with two young children, and they had a servant too. They lived in a small house in what was a well-to- do area, by Nepalese standards. Ganesh seemed to know everybody. I was interested in the question of deforestation and wanted to get a Third World viewpoint on it, and through Ganesh I made good contacts. I only had to say I was interested in a subject and he seemed able to introduce me to an expert in it.

"I knew hardly anything about the family before I went and I admit to a feeling of panic when I first touched down. But that only lasted a day. I had my own room, with a verandah, where I would have my breakfast gazing out over the rice fields. It was a little Spartan by our standards. It had a bed and a desk, but not so many chattels as we would have. My most vivid memory was of waking up in the night to hear trumpets and chanting. I thought I was having a nightmare, and in the morning thought I must have dreamt it, but it was a ceremony for exorcising the demons. I'll never forget that. I stayed a month and I did live for a short while the kind of life a Nepalese of my age and background would be living. That was a very interesting experience."

And would he do it again? "Yes. In fact I'm planning to go to Rajasthan. I'm looking for a host family at the moment."



Home from Home is published at pounds 8.99 by the Central Bureau for Educational Visits and Exchanges, from bookshops or from 10 Spring Gardens, London SW1A 2BN (post free).

Bell's Home Hospitality is at PO Box 185, 1000 San Jose, Costa Rica. Tel: (506) 225-4752, fax: 224-5884, e-mail:

The homestays in Brazil, Germany and Nepal were all arranged through the Experiment in International Living, `Otesaga', West Malvern Road, Malvern, Worcs WR14 4EN. Tel: 01684-562577.

Other Homestay Options

The majority with English-speaking hosts, include:

South Africa: through Safari Consultants Ltd, Orchard House, Upper Road, Little Cornard, Sudbury, Suffolk CO1O ONZ. Tel: 01787-228494, fax: 228096.

Russia: stay in Moscow, St Petersburg, by Lake Baikal in Siberia or in the Volga Valley. Contact the Russia Experience, Research House, Fraser Road, Perivale, Middlesex UB6 7AQ. Tel: 0 1 81-566-8846, fax: 8843.

Russia, Estonia, Uzbekistan: Eurasia Adventures have accommodation from pounds 20. Contact 196 High Road, London N22 4HH. Tel/fax: 0181-881-9688.

South Korea: Stay with a family in Seoul for $30 a night, booked through the Internet:

Jamaica: the Jamaican Tourist Board has a scheme which will match you with Jamaicans sharing your interests. Information from them at 1-2 Prince Consort Road, London SW7 2BZ. Tel: 0171-224-0505.

India: a scheme operates in Rajasthan. Details from the India Tourist Office, 7 Cork Street, London WIX IPB. Tel: 0171-437-3677, fax: 0171- 494-1048.

Cuba: Homestays can only be organised on arrival. Contact operators such as Gane and Marshall (O81-441 9592) or Regent Holidays (O117-921-171 1).

Belize: Stay in Mayan village through an eco-tourism initiative. Details from Trips Worldwide, 9 Byron Place, Bristol BS8 1JT. Tel: 0117-987-2626.

Homestays around the world can be arranged by joining Servas International, 41 Pendre, Brecon LD3 9EA. Tel: 01 874-622672, fax: 625694.