“Ēka atithi ēka mitra vāpasa bhēja svāgata”
…for those of you that don’t speak Hindi: “Welcome a guest, send back a friend”.
These are the words of Independent India’s first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Viewed as one of India’s ‘Founding Fathers’ alongside Mahatma Ghandi and Sadar Patel, Nehru was by no means a saint but his legacy has a profound effect on India to this day.
The much vaunted Indian hospitality has been a subject at the forefront of my mind for a few weeks now; more specifically the question of where to stay while I am there? I have a budget of £25 a day for the entirety of my trip. Excluding flights those twenty five pounds need to do everything. While in India this shouldn’t be a problem, in places like Myanmar it will not be enough.
So frugality and a constant eye on the bank balance will be key to avoiding that ignominious call home for emergency funds to buy some questionable street food and a bed in a roach infested hovel. Right now, those that know me have probably just broken into a cold sweat!
As I see it the options are 3 – (very) budget hotels, backpacker hostels and homestays. While each has its own merits they also have their downsides and the most suitable will be dependent on the specifics or your trip and motivations. As mentioned in an earlier post the subjective nature of travel means that what is right for you may not be right for me and vice versa.
While travelling there will be times when it feels like an Age has passed since the last time you had a moment to yourself. For the times when a long walk just won’t cut it budget hotels offer you the privacy you crave at an affordable price. On popular tourist trails there are usually enough of them to allow you flexibility of choice at short notice. While you can find some gems like this one I will be staying at in Udaipur ( only Rs. 500/£4.80 a night), you can also find yourself stuck in one of these!
In many places at this end of the spectrum you will also have to have thick skin. The rooms are cheap and the owners often subsidise their income through excursions, service provision and kick-backs from local business. As such you may be constantly harangued to buy this, see that or go there and moods may change should you not be interested. But this is India and everyone is just trying to get by, some more legitimately than others, but if you let these inevitable encounters cloud your day you’ll certainly miss the highlights the country has to offer. It would be a real shame to let mistrust and resentment affect the way you interact with others along the way.
The second option is backpacker hostels and these have a lot of positives going for them. The volume of guests that these places handle means that there is a certain standard of provision that most will meet – if a hostel like this is dirty, dilapidated and run by surly and unhelpful staff then it will not last long. However, juxtaposed to this is the wear and tear such volumes cause and the cost of regular repair.
A good way to gauge the standard of a place if you don’t have access to sites like Tripadvisor or Hostelworld, is to pop your head into the bar/restaurant/lounge area. If the people seem like your type, you’re probably not going to go too far wrong and a quick look at the room before paying will alleviate any fears. As a general rule clean sheets, somewhere to lock your bag and a bar/restaurant to meet people should be all you need for a night, you can always move on in the morning.
That brings me on to the main plus of the hostel option – the people. All of whom will be experiencing the same things you are, homesickness, wanderlust, FOMO and logistical issues. The great thing is they will all bring new perspectives and alternative ways to deal with any and all of the issues you are experiencing. Bonds will form and plans made in the blink of an eye because, well, “why not?” Then they will dissolve just a quickly in the dusty trail of a rickety bus or surrendered to the noise and throng of a busy platform – the happy goodbyes of opportunities born.
The last option is a homestay and this is in fact how I am starting my journey in Mumbai. I have said previously I want to get to know the places I visit; the people and how they live day-to-day. The world beyond the tourism. Don’t get me wrong I want to see the Taj Mahal, the Ellora Caves and the Red Fort among others but I also want to visit a tea village, spend some time with the river communities in Kerala and see the more remote areas of Himachal Pradesh.
There’s another saying in India, “Athithi Devo Bhava”, it means “the guest is God”. Within the Indian culture it is considered a huge honor to welcome guests to your home, and many hosts go out of their way to make them as comfortable as possible. Through my research I have seen a number that amongst other things, offer language lessons and cooking courses for minimal, if any additional cost. As the saying goes – there’s nothing like Indian hospitality.
However, the other side of that rather romanticised coin is the fact I will be travelling alone and for the first time. I have craved the attention of others all my life and cutting myself off from the hostel community would not be a healthy choice. For that reason I don’t think homestays for the entirety of my trip would be the most constructive direction.
This is not to say that I am not looking forward to my fist stop in Mumbai where I will be staying with Sachin Chaudhari. I found Sachin on AirBnB and chose him because of the numerous positive reviews he had received especially from first time, solo travellers. His family’s property is also in the Northern suburbs of Mumbai allowing me to escape the madness in the evening and get to know a bit more about community life while only being about 30 minutes metro ride from the central districts.
If you haven’t come across the site before I recommend you stop by soon. The concept is simple – people with a spare room rent them out on a flexible, short-term basis for some extra income. For the price of a budget hotel you get the comfort of a home away from home and the benefit of your hosts local knowledge. Hosts are usually as interested in other cultures and people as you are which makes for great chats in the evening and the potential to make lasting friendships.
This has already been proved by Sachin’s approach to hosting. We have exchanged a number of emails spanning my itinerary to my career and interests outside it; we even had a Skype call earlier this week – almost six weeks before I arrive! He has offered to help with my onward plans and even guide me in some of the more remote parts of the country. This is obviously a service I will pay for but it is always understood that I can accept or decline his help with no detrimental effect.
His genuine interest in my thoughts on India and my life at home is a novel approach for me, far removed from the increasingly begrudging levels of service we are seeing in the UK. It certainly gives the impression I will see and experience a more authentic India than through a pre-arranged package tour and for a fraction of the price too! All in all I can say that I feel much better about stepping on the plane knowing I will have a familiar face to meet me at the other end.
The great thing about travel these days is that with the internet it is so easy to get ideas, change your plans and find alternatives on the hoof. The two places I have mentioned in this article are the only two I have booked so far – they amount to a week of my 6½ week stay. I’m excited about the possibilities the other five weeks hold and comforted by the fact that whatever mood takes me I have the resources to sate my needs.