If you are a member of a travelling community that has some ardent backpackers on board, you might have heard this many times: “If you are a traveller, try to get the genuine insight a place has to offer. If you opt for cozy hotels and selfie stick moments than experience nature with your own eyes, then you must be a pseudo traveller.”
Most of the travellers would agree to this, so does Geethu Mohandas. On her way home from the villages of Leh last year, one thing Geethu decided was to talk to her friends about the advantages of staying with the villagers instead of hotels. That’s how Geethu and her 11 friends from the women travellers’ collective called ‘Srishti’ , a part of ‘Let’s Go for a Camp’ group toured to the remote villages of Ladakh.
“One of the best ways to experience the true flavour your destination is to opt for a homestay. That gives you a real experience of local life, connects you with like-minded people and provides a vital source of revenue in struggling economies,” says Geetu. During her last visit with her husband, Geethu promised her friend Tsetan Dolma, who is from Ladakh, that she would come back soon. It took only a few months for her though. And she says the second time, the experience was beyond everything. “The word ‘surreal’ probably doesn’t do it justice. Neither does the words ‘beyond magical’. I’m not sure I know the apt word to describe what I felt during those eight unforgettable days.”
Geethu says the group had people who had already been to Ladakh, yet it was an amazing experience to see the beauty of the valley that way. “Since seeing the itinerary that I had uploaded on our WhatsApp group, they were all thrilled. I made it clear why we are going that way. The houses that we were going to stay may be less polished, but were much more welcoming than a hotel. You’re often encouraged to feel at home — even part of the family. You’ll find that you have someone to share your experiences with, who want to hear all about your day. They too have so many stories to tell. Most of the tourists don’t even ask about their culture. But I wanted to change it. And the food – the hosts will rustle up a traditional meal and if you want to put your own culinary skills to the test, offer to help out and you’ll likely head home with a new recipe or two up your sleeve. You could even cook a traditional dish from your place to share with your host, making it a genuine cultural exchange.” And the group members thought it would also help the villagers financially and paid almost `1400 to each home per day, barring the expense of food. “That is still cheaper than some star hotels in Ladakh,” she adds.
The group had 12 members — women coming from different cultures. They were all welcomed by the bright smile of Geethu’s friend, who was born and raised in Ladakh. “We could actually feel the change in the air. People of the small village, Choglamsar, were prepared to welcome the group. We knew we had reached one of the tallest areas in the world, infamous for heavy snowfall and unexpected turnaround in the weather. The families of each home where each of us was supposed to stay welcomed us by giving the famous Ladakhi Gur-Gur chaai,” adds Geethu.
Takmachik and Mann were the villages they visited next. “Our driver also took us to his house and his family welcomed us with a host of dishes of Ladakhi cuisine. On the second day, the journey was to monasteries, including Thiksey Monastery and Hemis Monastery. On the following days, we travelled through Tamachick to Leh via Lamayuru, Nubra valley, Shayok via Pangong Lake and Pangong.”
As they departed, some of them were in tears. They had a feeling of parting with some great souls whom they spent some good days with. “The very nature of homestays means that you’ve already got some common ground with your host; they also love meeting new people. Stay with local people and you’ll have the chance to come home with a new friendship — and a good excuse to return,” wraps up Geethu.