By Emily Wax
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 29, 2010; 3:59 PM
I knew we were way off the five-star circuit when our four-wheeler, loaded with luggage and laptops, got stuck in the mud along a steep cliffside shard of mountain road near Sikkim, in a far-flung patch of northeastern India.
Under an inky, star-filled sky, we gazed at snow-capped Mount Kanchenjunga in the distance and waited while the driver piled stones behind the tires in an attempt to back his way out. It didn't work. The mud was too thick.
Luckily, workers at the country home where my translator, Rosyla Kalden, my husband and I were planning to stay the night heard the tires screech, breaking the usual hush of these hills near the border with Tibet. The young men guided us up the mountain with flashlights as we trudged through the goopy monsoon muck.
Welcoming us at the top of the mountain at Teen Taley home-stay was Chandra Maya Sharma, a teacher dressed in a traditional long skirt and a colorful layering of beads. She offered us each fresh yogurt in salmon-colored clay bowls.
"Good for your stomach after your journey," she said warmly, holding my hand as she led us to her family's living room, centered around a clay-and-mud fireplace.
We were still wobbly after the bumpy road, so Sharma sat with us and told us how she used to cook for foreigners who came to meditate at a famous Buddhist nunnery lower down the mountain. There was a lack of hotel space nearby, so she and her husband, a government engineer, would invite the visitors to stay with them at their organic farm at no charge. Then a visitor suggested that she turn her log cabin into a home-stay.
A home-stay is an Indian version of a bed-and-breakfast. But because this is India, where the home-cooked food, or any sampling of India's many cultural calories, is legendary, home-stays are really a bed-and-breakfast-lunch-and-dinner. Plus tea. Plus snacks. Plus sweets.
"After you rest, you can pick your dinner from our vegetable patch," Sharma said. She listed some of the choices: fresh ginger and gourd, lemon grass and lettuce. Organic eggs and cheese were also available.
I felt my energy rising. I couldn't wait to go the organic garden. But first, I wanted to warm up. We asked Sharma if she could light a fire while we waited for dinner, and she quickly hauled in some wood.
As a foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, I've covered stories across India and stayed in places from Gujarati havelis - ancient royal homes converted into guesthouses - to ornate Kashmiri houseboats to austere vegetarian ashrams and dodgy Delhi backpacker crash pads.
I've set up my laptop and my life - at least for a week or two - in Mumbai's corporate five-star hotels, in Bangalore's boutiques and WiFi-enabled service apartments, and in Tibetan cultural lodges in the northern Indian hub of Dharamsala.
All of those offer insight into various aspects of India's larger-than-life personality, from the days of royalty to the meditating hippie trail of the 1960s to the modern country as a rising technological and economic force.
But I always wondered what it would be like to live with an Indian family, to have the opportunity to see India's true culture, without all the staged and globalized five-star trimmings of a chain hotel or all the bedbugs and bathroom issues of a backpacker hostel.
So I was excited when Rosyla insisted that we try out some of the country's newest answers to India's massive hotel shortage: a home-stay in her unspoiled region of India, which includes the tea-growing gardens of Darjeeling and the Buddhist land of Sikkim.
Over the past few years, the number of foreign tourists visiting India has grown by 12 to 14 percent annually, largely because of the country's economic boom and the successful Incredible India campaign. But the rise in visitors has highlighted a shortage of comfortable midrange accommodations, which have been slow to set up.
Home-stays come in a variety of prices but rarely cost more than $100 a night, including homemade food and a chance to take a cooking lesson. Many five-star hotels can run as much as $500 or more a night and are luxurious air-conditioned sanctuaries with spas, shopping arcades, sushi and cocktails. "But those places could be anywhere in the world," said Helen Kampf, a Swiss woman who owns the Bamboo Retreat, a delightful monastic mountaintop stone-and-bamboo guesthouse in Sikkim that is often so overbooked that she has encouraged her workers to open their own homes to guests.
Kampf has also partnered with a group called the Ecotourism and Conservation Society of Sikkim and provided training in hygiene, cooking and cultural differences.
"Sometimes, families here stare at a guest when they eat because that is considered polite, and they want to be on hand if anything is needed," Kampf said. We both laughed, and I told her that when that had happened to me at Teen Taley, it had made me nervous.
Still, those moments have a cultural charm, and that's part of what home-stays are about. Home-stays often have a theme, and some offer cultural or religious experiences. Others are in India's tea-tasting region.
Here is a sampling of my recent experiences.Tea tastings
One of the most serene and physically beautiful areas I have visited in my four years in South Asia are the mist-filled tea gardens of Darjeeling, where women sing folk songs while plucking some of the world's finest tea, and a steam, or "toy," train chugs up the nearby hillsides. In the terraced green fields, the tea pluckers toss the leaves into large bamboo baskets strapped to their backs.
Darjeeling, a Himalayan hill town in the state of West Bengal that was beloved by the British in colonial days, is a quick flight from New Delhi and then a harrowing 90-minute drive along narrow mountain roads, past fruit orchards and pine forests.
There are many posh colonial-era resorts here, but the best experience you'll have, for my money, is at a network of 21 family home-stays run by the drivers, tea pluckers and farmers at the organic Makaibari Tea Estates.
In 2005, Rajah Banerjee, owner of the estate and a reform-minded business leader, offered his workers training in how to run a home-stay to supplement their salaries. Many of the home-stays consist of only one room and are very cozy experiences. Thankfully, all of the families have upgraded from outhouse-style squat bathrooms to Western toilets. Many of the home-stays also offer programs for volunteering in schools or health centers on the estate, the oldest garden in Darjeeling.
Sewan Bhujel Bhumika is a driver at Makaibari and has converted the extra room in his brightly painted cottage, perched over the lush tea gardens, into a guest bedroom. On a recent afternoon, his wife was making dough for momos, steamed dumplings filled with chicken or vegetables. A vocal rooster pecked at some grass outside the door. Buddhist prayer flags were strung up over several large fruit trees.
Inside the bright purple guest room, the family's two young daughters visited with Gina Mowbray, a 41-year-old Australian teacher who's volunteering in a local school and living at the home-stay for three months. (She has enjoyed it so much that she recently extended her stay by three weeks.)
The girls giggled as they practiced their English. Then Mowbray asked the girls to teach her Nepali words.
"Living with a family helps you embrace and care for India rather than whine about things that go wrong," Mowbray said, sipping a freshly brewed cup of Makaibari green tea as a thick fog drifted over the garden. "In the end, I've gotten so much more out of it than what I've given."
The only problem for me was that, this being a tea estate, coffee was banned. One sleepy morning, I attempted to sneak a cup, my husband joking that it was "Kenyan tea." But Banerjee shouted at him in the kitchen, "Don't be ridiculous! I can smell it from a mile away."
Past several world-renowned Buddhist monasteries and around a series of streams and waterfalls that cascade through the thick forests of the Himalayan state of Sikkim is Rey Mindu, a Lepcha tribal village, where this quickly vanishing tribe has restored a historic 200-year-old house.
Built on stilts, the wooden house emerges from the forest like a gingerbread house out of a fairy tale, its walls blackened from generations of cooking fires and incense sticks burned during Buddhist festivals.
The house is a living museum that displays the history of the Lepchas and is a highlight of a visit to the village. With many families intermarrying or moving abroad, the Lepchas are trying to save both their land and their architecture. Heritage home-stays often include cultural and history lessons encouraged by the local government as a way of retaining the region's special Buddhist culture. (The Kingdom of Sikkim merged with predominantly Hindu India after a referendum in 1975.)
Down a short walking trail from the restored house is a home-stay run by retired monk Tshering Lepcha, whose house includes a fish farm, a pen filled with playful goats and a Buddhist meditation room, found in every home here.
The rooms are clean but rustic. As is common here, the kitchen and bathroom facilities are outdoors and separate from the main house, which makes a home-stay feel a little like camping. The family is friendly and will cook the Lepchas' famous buckwheat bread upon request. I loved the fact that I could brush my teeth outside while Tshering's wife brewed cups of milky chai in her outdoor kitchen. When I wanted fresh milk, her dairy cow was my own personal organic source.
One tip: Tell your hosts specifically that you want to experience the culture and the food. Tshering and others sometimes assume that foreigners prefer store-bought white bread to homemade bread, or fructose jelly bought in the market to their traditional fresh fruit jams.
"We hope to inspire people here in Sikkim to hold on to their own traditions," said Kampf. "Sometimes, they don't realize that the old ways are what we are trying to preserve."Organic farm home-stay
Like India itself, home-stays brim with South Asia's warm hospitality. But they sometimes feel pretty disorganized, although often endearingly so.
At Teen Taley, Chandra Maya Sharma's organic farm in Sikkim, I had to be aggressive in requesting an early dinner, since many families here eat after 10 p.m. The views are stunning, and the farm is filled with fun. (Rosyla loved plucking the gourds and munching on herbs.) But the rooms are very basic. The pillows are made of foam, and I found them pretty uncomfortable.
But you are rewarded in the smaller moments.
Like on our first night, when our host invited a village teenager to sing traditional folk songs around the fire. He sang a song about a bride missing her parents' house and another song about growing older.
"The wind is blowing hard. As time passed by, the rosy cheeks now have wrinkles," Rosyla translated. "We spent our lives dancing and singing. And it has been fun."
My neck may have been sore from the hard pillows, and I desperately needed to check the Internet. But with that song, at that moment, I felt a sense of blessing that you'll never get from the elevator music in a five-star hotel.