The mist rolled over the hills around Panauti village as we sat in the first-floor balcony of our hostess, Sabita’s home. We watched it cover the terraced fields around the house and felt the chill of the wind on our bare arms.
My fellow-traveller Katrin, a travel agent from Germany, our tour guide, Sushila, and I were enjoying a cup of tea with Sabita, chatting with her about her life and her family. Her 18-year old daughter, Monika, joined us, speaking with us in fluent English.
We were staying with Sabita for the night, courtesy of CommunityHomestay.com, a community-based Homestay network that “connects global-travellers with the real people of Nepal for a genuine local travel experience.”
I was in Nepal as a hosted delegate attending the Himalayan Travel Mart 2018. Before the conference, we were taken on a trip to Panauti village, about 1.5 hours from Kathmandu, for the Homestay experience.
An initiative from Royal Mountain Travel, Community Homestay allows tourists to get an authentic feel of village life in Nepal. Here, the host family welcomes you as a guest and a friend, sharing their home and way of life with you.
My interest in Community Homestay’s initiatives in Nepal stemmed from their efforts to encourage women’s empowerment and help preserve and value their traditional skills.
Most of the owners of the Homestays are women and housewives, so this platform helps the women and local communities of Nepal generate sustainable economic opportunities as part of a responsible tourism initiative.
As a guest in a Homestay in Panauti, you can learn to cook like a local from the host family, explore the community life with them, learn native skills, such as rice planting, and see their perspective on life. You can also volunteer to teach in one of the schools or assist with the rebuilding of classrooms damaged in the devastating earthquake of 2015.
When my fellow-travellers and I first arrived in Panauti by mini-bus, we were welcomed by a group of women in bright red saris who garlanded us and applied the traditional tikka to greet us.
One of the young girls gave a speech in perfect English, introducing us to the community Homestay initiative and explained how it helps village women create financial independence for themselves and their families. She told us there were currently 17 families in Panauti involved in the Homestays, with more joining soon.
20 percent of the earnings from the Homestays in Panauti village is channelled back into the community, for instance, by supporting a child’s education. So the Homestays not only uplift the women but the community as a whole, too.
The women are taught English through classes in the village, hold cooking classes for their guests and get to earn money doing exactly what they have been doing all their lives – taking care of others. Most of them are uneducated and many were married off at an early age, so they have few skills to support themselves.
Our hostess, Sabita, is a 37-year old mother of two. She was married off at the age of 14 years and had her first child at 16. She has not studied beyond the 3rd standard.
Her husband is a retired army officer who works as a security guard in Saudi Arabia, sends money home, and comes home a few times a year. Their elder daughter has migrated to Australia and the younger daughter, Monika, with whom she lives, is learning English in the hope of moving there, too.
With almost no education and no marketable skills, Sabita would be hard-pressed to find a job. However, for the last 5 years, she has been hosting guests in her beautiful Homestay at the top of a small hill.
In the last year, she has earned an income of 1.5 lakh rupees from Homestays alone. She also has a regular renter, a tourist who has been staying with her for a year.
A stay at her house usually costs $25 a night, including all meals. Sabita is an exceptional cook. We enjoyed our meals with her and chipped in to help her make aloo parathas for dinner.
One of my favourite dishes was a sort of chutney she made out of dried vegetables and spices. It was so delicious, I told her she should bottle it and sell it. She replied that Nepalis don’t like to eat processed or bottled foods, preferring to make them fresh for every meal.
All Homestays are expected to maintain certain standards as far as hygiene and comfort are concerned. Sabita’s house was very comfortable indeed. We had piping hot water for bathing from a solar water heater, cosy quilts to tuck ourselves in during the night and a beautiful view of the fields and hills.
For Indian tourists who want to experience authentic Nepali village life, living in a Homestay in Nepal would be just like coming home. The food is very much like Indian food (almost the same, actually), the language is not difficult to understand, and the hosts are warm, friendly and hospitable.
For a responsible and authentic travel experience in Nepal, you can’t beat a Community Homestay. You will learn how people in Nepal actually live and help them generate economic opportunities from their very own houses and their unique culture.
You will also get to give back to people still rebuilding their nation from the devastation of the 2015 earthquake. You can choose from Homestays all over Nepal by browsing the website here.
© Priya Florence Shah is Publisher and Editor of Naaree.com. She also publishes a travel blog.