Quirky sandwiches, a chance to play Cupid: What it’s like to play host to travellers
Some have a lot of questions: Why is the Bollywood dad so angry; why put coriander on everything? Others want help with star-crossed love. It’s an interesting life once you open your doors.travel Updated: Oct 10, 2017 15:32 IST
They can be messy, nosy, fussy or big eaters. But if you’re hosting travellers from around the world, surprises can also include thank-you notes hidden all over the house, Slovakian sandwiches and a tale a day from a different country.
Dolly Singh, 34, a home chef from Mumbai, recalls how touched she was when a Spanish couch-surfer left her a note saying goodbye, and wishing her luck finding all the other thank-you notes she had slipped into nooks and corners in the house.
“It was the sweetest gesture. For a whole month, I found notes behind the couch, inside a cupboard or under a book. One said, ‘I was glad to find a friend in you’, another went ‘You were so extremely hospitable’. She made me realise that even a stranger from across the globe can make you happy.”
In a shrinking world, people opening up their homes to strangers through homestays, Airbnb and couch-surfing websites are finding that, through the mutual kindness of strangers that drives such platforms, they are able to celebrate differences, learn and explore new cultures in their own homes.
Singh, for instance, formed a daily ritual with a Slovakian traveller of chatting over sandwiches he made for her when she came home from work every day. And everything from the ingredients (a different recipe every day) to the movies they picked to watch while they chatted and snacked turned out to be a revelation.
A rather strange radish sandwich got them talking about their respective cuisines — the sparseness of his against the relative over-the-topness of ours. “He said he could never understand why Indians were so obsessed with adding coriander to every dish!”
In his 11 days in her home, they also managed to watch a few Bollywood films together. He especially wanted to see 3 Idiots, which he had heard about even before coming to India.
“I would explain how India’s traditions and customs made up the theme of many of the movies we were watching, and give him a little background about their origins,” Singh says.
“He had heard about the song and dance routines in Indian movies and said he was glad he had someone to guide him through the rest of it all.”
Come on over
Never has it been easier, or safer, to have a stranger in your home.
Many couch-surfing platforms, for instance, let you open up your home only to members of your existing social networks — so, Facebook friends, friends of friends, etc. This means that when the person arrives at the door, you already have a connection.
“This is encouraging urban middle-class and upper-middle-class people to join the pool of hosts,” says sociologist
“So, homestays are no longer limited to small cities and hill stations. And in the cities, often more than the money, the hosts are looking to experience an exchange of culture and information, looking to learn more about countries they may have been to or place on their bucket list, or just countries they grew up reading about.”
The money, let it be said, is not bad. “Hosts even in remote areas can earn anything between Rs 75,000 and Rs 3 lakh a month in association with us,” says Tejas Parulekar, co-founder of the micro-hospitality company, SaffronStays.
“Ease of transaction has played a huge role in making homeowners comfortable with opening up their homes to strangers,” Parulekar adds.
There’s cultural exchange happening domestically, too — Gujaratis moving in with an Uttarakhand family for a week; a Rajasthani living with a Delhiite, and then, when the latter was lost, inviting him to use the family’s haveli in Pali.
“We as a country are getting more mobile and the Indian traveller is ready to be more adventurous. Solo low-budget trips are extremely popular and people are open to experimenting with food as well and staying with locals gives you a mix of all that,” says travel writer Mangal Dalal.
“Also, social interaction has become an interesting and necessary part of the travel experience as a whole. The idea of inhabiting someone else’s shoes is seen as exciting. In a time when part of the purpose of travel is to be able to post lots of interesting stories when you return, couch-surfing is becoming a sought-after element.”
Maharaja for a day
When Swayam Tiwari, 45, a marketing professional-turned travel blogger, found himself lost in the outskirts of Pali in Rajasthan, he promptly called up a Rajasthani guest he had once hosted in Delhi through Airbnb.
“He gave me directions to his ancestral house nearby. I went there expecting a small standalone house. It turned out to be a traditional Rajput haveli!” Tiwari says. “Just like in the Bollywood movies, there were paintings of the ancestors on hunting expeditions, interspersed with antiques that included a taxidermy tiger called Henry!”
Like any royal guest, Tiwari’s arrival was met with a sumptuous Rajasthani spread; as he ate he was told tales of Rajput bravado.
“My stay ended with a drink of fresh camel milk straight from the shed. The experience was so overwhelming,
because almost every member of the family rallied around me to ensure I was comfortable, something you don’t really see in the cities.”
Dhoklas Vs Kebabs
Aditi Sahadev, who runs The Ramgarh Retreat, a homestay in Uttarakhand, says that hosting people from all over the country has always been an enriching experience and most often than not, has taught her something new. Recalling one of her first experiences with a big group of Gujarati guests she says, “My parents were extremely excited about being gracious hosts and so we decided to welcome them with typical Gujarati fare, complete with dhokla, khandvi and theplas!”
Although they were sweet enough to have what we offered, they eventually told us that they would have loved some chicken tikka and scotch to go with it instead, much to our shock!” giggles Sahadev. “We later on had a good laugh about our over-enthusiasm and learnt never to typecast people based on the community they hailed from.”
While cultural exchanges are a part and parcel of such travel stories, they also help dispel myths and teach you about little practices specific to certain communities. Tiwari recalls how he once hosted a Gujarati businessman at home in Delhi and was very taken up by a gesture of his.
“We had spent a lot of time talking and sharing details of our lives and had become quite fond of each other, when one day he asked me to share an entire meal from the same plate with him,” he says. “He later explained that was a common thing to do in his hometown as a sign of deep friendship, which was extremely touching.”
‘Meet my Indian family’
Delhi-based entrepreneur Rahul Ahuja, 31, started couch-surfing almost ten years ago. “I remember staying at a women’s engineering hostel for a night, in Beijing, where the girls snuck me in,” he recalls. “Sometimes, all I got was a yoga mat.”
During a one-night stopover in Bangkok, Ahuja couch-surfed with his dad, who loved the concept so much that he came home and convinced Ahuja’s mother to open up their study to strangers.
One of their first guests was a Spanish-origin English teacher from Switzerland named Martina Weber.
“On day one, my mother walked into her room at 8 am with tea and piping hot aloo parathas, and Martina was shocked. That’s not really how couch-surfing works in most places; it’s meant to be basic,” Ahuja says, laughing.
Weber ended up extending her stay by a week because she loved being part of the big, happy Punjabi family.
She put on 3 kg; wrote down recipes so she could recreate her favourite Indian dishes back home.
The best surprise, however, was when she did a Facebook Live two years ago
from her classroom in Switzerland, because she was giving a lecture that day on Indian culture.
“She told her students that my parents were her Indian parents and talk about how she had felt so much at home here, a gesture that really overwhelmed my mother,” Ahuja says.