© 2012; 2005 Connecting: Solo Travel Network & Jane Merryman. Information.
Note: This article is reproduced here for inspirational value alone and will not normally be updated.
Therefore, all facts, figures, and author's opinions are subject to change as time goes on.

Homestay an Open Window – A Solo Travel Report

By Jane Merryman

If you are a traveler who wants to see fewer tourist attractions and more of the lives of ordinary people, then homestay accommodations can offer you a window into the culture. If you are on the road alone, homestay is a safe, congenial way to travel.

My experience with homestay has been in Asia: the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan and the Indonesian islands of Bali and Flores. I like to participate in the pulse of daily life in the culture I'm visiting. If I stay in a hotel I can wander the streets, go into shops, museums, and historic squares, but I rarely get into the residential streets where the people who serve me live. I don't know what their kids wear to school, how they prepare and share their meals, what events they celebrate with neighbors.

With the advent of mass communications, cities, even villages, all over the world have taken on a similar appearance. Franchise stores and eateries turn up in the most improbable places. People in remote areas wear jeans and T-shirts, often printed with English slogans. Local restaurants have pizza on the menu.

I wondered why I took the trouble to get myself to a place halfway around the world only to find "home" at my destination. And I began to look for new ways to be a tourist.

Homestay proved to be the entry into another culture I was looking for.

Sharing a Lifestyle

In Uzbekistan I shared the outdoor sink for morning ablutions with mom, dad, and the two teenage daughters. Yes, there was little privacy, but the sight of their toothbrushes lined up in the crooked metal holder above the single cold-water faucet told me more about Uzbek family life than any book or tour guide could.

On Flores, a largely Catholic island in the eastern reaches of Indonesia, I stayed at Homestay Maria Inn in the mountain village of Moni at Christmastime. Mama Maria let me wear one of her handwoven sarongs to Mass on Christmas Eve. I was the only westerner, but, dressed like everyone else, I felt part of the community. I received nods of approval from the congre- gation. Mama Maria is an accomplished weaver. She showed me how to fold over this long, narrow skirt, scrunch it up at the waist, and tuck in a secure knot. In cool weather, the women of Flores pull the folded fabric over their head and shoulders – what a simple, versatile garment. She even gave me an oversize v-necked blouse – the current fashion – to wear with the sarong.

Cherished Moments

I spent a lazy afternoon with her shy, handsome son, Isaac, who was home for the holidays from his seminary in Maumere. He told me he was studying to be a priest and was a published poet. He translated some of his writings and then composed a poem for me in Indonesian, with an English version.

Lasting Relationships

In Ubud, Bali, I have made Rumah Roda Homestay my base on six visits to Indonesia. There is now "my room" next to the stone shrine by the back wall. When I arrive there after the long plane trip, I feel as if I'm coming home when I see familiar smiling faces and exchange hugs.

My room has a big bed draped with mosquito netting. A doorless cupboard and a table are the only other furniture. The attached bathroom has a small sink, western style toilet, and a shower open to the sky; one wall is made of rocks with tiny ferns growing on them. Sometimes there is no hot water if the propane tank has inadvertently been allowed to go empty; sometimes there is not even any water if too many people have made demands on the concrete cistern. No matter, it will fill up again in about fifteen minutes.

For this I pay US$6 or US$7 a night, including breakfast of banana fritters and fruit. In Ubud I could, for US$30 to US$50 a night, live in a suite that resembles the sultan's palace, but I am not tempted. At Rumah Roda I have a window into an amazing culture.

To get to my room at the back of the garden, I have to pass through the center of family life. I see them preparing meals, chatting with neighbors, spreading out the laundry to dry, playing cards. I am greeted: Where are you going? What is your program for today? Where have you been? What did you buy?

Their day begins around 6am. Except when sleeping, the family lives outdoors. The head of the household, Darta, sits on the pavilion that serves as his office, drinking coffee and reading the Bali Post. If I need a news fix, I can get a synopsis of the latest from him.

Nearby, the women bustle about in the enclosed kitchen, but they do most of the food preparation on the tile steps outside. One might be using a wicked-looking knife to peel the tiny onions I would call shallots while another pounds a pungent yellow mixture of spices in a black stone mortar. Next to her, in a shallow dish of water, wriggle three or four thin gray eels.

As a guest at Rumah Roda, I feel free to ask Kadek – one of the hired girls – if I can hop on the back of her motorbike and go with her to market. I may be invited to family weddings and other neighborhood celebrations, such as tooth-filings or cremation ceremonies. I don't feel uncomfortable among the gentle and gracious Balinese.

Homestay opens a window to another way of living, which can be unfamiliar, exotic, even mysterious, but as you recognize shared routines, needs, and expectations you feel connected. For me, that's a very good reason to travel.

JM

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