Home sweet home

Had enough of temple tours? A home stay with a local family will show you another side of India.
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The Independent Travel
After two months in India I was templed out. I didn't want to see another monument of national importance and I'd had my fill of museums. Yet I knew hardly a thing about how people actually lived, despite chatting on buses and trains and in tea shops.

In some towns in Rajasthan, you can arrange home stays through the Paying Guest Scheme. My own visit was more haphazardly arranged. I was on a tourist boat for the nine-hour backwater trip from Quilon to Alleppy in Kerala, and asked the guide if there was a village where I could stay for a few days. "Yes," he said slowly. "I think that can be arranged." At the teatime stop he bustled off to talk to someone. A few minutes later, I was ushered forward to meet "my" family - Punama and her husband Vasu, and their daughters Prasana and Tulasi - and to see the place I was to stay.

The "house" was, in fact, a wooden hut with two rooms (of which I was given one) with a palm roof and a small verandah. There was little furniture and not much decoration beyond a few family photographs and lurid pictures of Hindu gods pinned to the back wall of the verandah. There was a separate hut that served as a kitchen, and a sheltered sitting area with a sandy floor. There was no electricity and no piped water. Keeping clean involved either fetching water from the standpipe in the middle of the village and washing in a little cubicle beside the house, or going to the pond and trying to scrub down without your lungi falling off.

The loo was a tiny shack perched over the water, resting on two thick poles driven into the bank. Everything ended up in the water, polluting it and causing so many problems with typhoid and dysentery (there were several cases of both when I was there) that the government had provided each village in the area with the materials to build septic tanks. In the meantime the drinking water was boiled and purified with ayurvedic medicine, which turned it pink.

The family made its living serving meals to the people on the tourist boat, so the morning was spent preparing food. While Vasu cycled to the nearby town of Haripad to buy fish, and banana leaves for plates, Punama, Prasana and Tulasi would start preparing the vegetables and rice. A female cousin (one of an endless stream of relatives) came to help, grinding spices, chillis and coconuts together between two large, smooth stones. Everything was then cooked over three wood fires. It tasted better than restaurant food.

As a guest I was treated in many respects like a man, having most of my meals with the father. The women waited until we had finished before they ate, which made me acutely aware of how slowly I ate. But I spent most of my time with the women, as a male guest could not have. The elder daughter was getting married the following weekend and would move to her husband's house in a nearby village; presents had already started to arrive, and the father was expected to give a huge amount of money and gifts to the groom's family as a dowry.

Throughout the day there was a constant stream of callers: friends, relatives and the frankly curious. Some spoke a little English, otherwise we communicated by sign language with lots of smiling. The friends started to teach me Malayalam (the local language derived from Tamil). The daughters tried their best to make me look Indian, putting black kohl from a small pot round my eyes and a red dot on my forehead, then scraping my hair back into a neat ponytail. They could do nothing to disguise its fairness, but they cheerfully blacked in my eyebrows. On them it was dramatically beautiful; I looked like a clown.

I was fed endless cups of sweet black tea as I wandered around the village and was constantly quizzed about life in Britain. The literacy rate in Kerala is around 90 per cent, the highest in India, and it showed in the open-mindedness of my inquisitors who seemed puzzled rather than shocked by a solo female traveller. One of Vasu's sisters was divorced and had come back to live at another brother's house; she was not ostracised and was happy to be away from her husband.

I enjoyed the novelty of being part of a large family, with never of moment of solitude. But my room was needed for wedding guests, and all too soon it was time to leave. I hugged the family goodbye, and discreetly slipped some rupees into Vasu's hand. Then I was back on the boat again, returning to the tourist trail, waving madly as the people on the bank grew smaller and smaller.

Official home stays are organised in Rajasthan - contact the tourist offices in Jaipur, Jodhpur or Udaipur. In Kerala and elsewhere, home stays like Claire Gervat's need to be negotiated locally.