“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”
The pressure cooker is whistling, announcing that the rice is almost ready. The tractor drivers in the sugar cane fields out front are taking a tea break, so the rumble of their engines is no longer overriding the silence of the countryside.
I hear a child’s cry from one of the neighboring homes and the chomping of the cows a few meters to my right, but besides that, all I can hear is laughter.
I am squatting beside three radiant women around a small wood fire. A mother and her two daughters are teaching me to make roti, a typical Indian flatbread that we’ll end up eating at every meal.
Though the women – even the youngest girl who is barely nine – can all make their roti into a perfect circle, mine always come out completely lopsided and ugly; a fact that consistently results in a ruckus of laughter and gentle teasing.
I guess I need more practice. I only met these women a few hours ago when I stopped to buy bananas from their roadside fruit stand. Within minutes they had asked me, or rather, they had signaled me (since none of us spoke the same language), to stay at their home for the night.
Though it was barely ten a.m. and I had planned to cycle all day, I readily agreed. Being integrated more deeply into Indian culture and the life of a family is far more important than racking up kilometers.
After lunch the women decide to dress me in a beautiful yellow and red sari that is traditional to the area I am currently cycling through.
It is no longer just the four of us anymore. The youngest two girls, who have been kicked out for lack of space, have been replaced by five women from the neighboring houses.
I am probably the only Westerner they have ever spoken to and word travels fast – all of the curious women in the area have come to see this young white female who has stumbled upon their small farming village.
They strip me down in their small two bedroom mud hut, laughing when they see that the sari top is too small for my breasts. There are three women working on me simultaneously, I feel as if I am in a beauty salon.
A women in her mid-twenties is keeping the long piece of colorful cloth from touching the ground as her older sister begins to wrap it around me, creating a traditional sari. The third women is working on my hair, pulling it tightly back and into a braid.
Finally I’m ready. They quickly apply some makeup and give me their plastic slippers to wear before hustling me out of the door to present me to the rest of the village.
The women crowd around, laughing, talking, and pointing. They all want their picture taken with me, so I hand my camera to one of the younger girls to start clicking. Though she has never used a camera before and has no idea how to focus it, a few of the picture turn out all right.
It’s overwhelming – I’m not used to being the center of so much attention, but I know I will remember this moment forever.
I need a break. It is hard not being able to participate in the conversations going on around me, so I eventually change back into my “normal clothes” – an Indian suit I was given by another family I stayed with – before heading out to find the children.
They aren’t hard to find as they too are curious as to who this newcomer is. There are five of them who have been watching this whole episode from the corner of the field. As I approach, they giggle and a few of them turn to run away, but the smallest one sticks around.
I kneel down, put my hands in the prayer position, and say namaste. She smiles and does the same to me, an instant friend. Curiosity wins over the other children and they join her, quickly greeting me before grabbing my hands.
And we are off, I have my new tour guides. They show me their homes, small mud huts like the one I am staying in, and present me to their older siblings who have just come home from school. They too are shocked-yet-elated to meet me.
I am invited into multiple homes and each family gives me a steaming cup of chia before signaling that I should stay and spend the night with them. I explain, or try to, that I am already staying with their neighbor, but I will be sure to stop by tomorrow.
I know by now that I will be spending at least a few days in this village. The children tug me out of the third house into a game of chase. I catch them and throw them on my back as they scream with glee. Playing with village children has easily become one of my favorites parts of this trip. It is starting to get dark though, so I soon part with my young friends and head back home.
After a delicious dinner of rice and dal with curried vegetables, we wash our hands and feet in the freezing cold stream water and head to bed. It is only 8pm but the electricity has cut out and night has already fallen which makes it hard to do anything but sleep.
Plus I know we will be getting up before the sun tomorrow and I am exhausted. I crawl into bed with the two girls who are excited to have me sleep with them. The mother is in our room too, sleeping with the youngest boy, while the father has his own room next door. It is crowded with three in our small rickety bed but none of us seem to mind. It feels like home.
Throughout India and Nepal I experienced countless homestays such as this, where families, and even entire villages, adopted me for days or weeks at a time.
My homestay in India, and all of my homestays, have left me with an overwhelming sense of gratitude towards the outpouring of kindness I have been shown since beginning my journey around the world. They have also enabled me to see a glimpse of what life is like in these parts of the world, and given me an insider’s view into the traditions, work, and home life of an Indian family.
Shirine Taylor is a regular contributor to The Happy Passport and is currently cycling around the world. Follow her journey at awanderingphoto.wordpress.com.
Have a question for Shirine? Post it below!
But what if I’m not as adventurous as Shirine? Can I still have an authentic Indian experience if doing a homestay in India sort of freaks me out?
You don’t have to be as adventurous as Shirine to enjoy everything India has to offer. Homestays are amazing and everything, but there are lots of great ways to see the country if you can’t imagine yourself descending upon a village and spending the night with whomever happens to invite you in.
If you’re more of a “Type A traveler,” you may want to begin your Indian adventure by staying in hotels or guesthouses and exploring villages by day, or doing an organized tour. Our friends at HolidayME have awesome India tour packages that really feel authentic and less touristy than your typical group tour (and we all know how I feel about group tours, so this one must be the real deal!). You can check out their packages here: https://www.holidayme.com/
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There's much more to India than what you see on the news.
Solo female traveler Shirine was taken in by multiple Indian families during her travels throughout the country, and given food, shelter, and friendship.
Her homestay in India gave her a completely unique perspective into Indian life and culture.
The quick+dirty takeaway of today = people are kind, especially to travelers, and especially to women traveling solo.
Want to dig deeper? Go for it!