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Wednesday
May142014

Homestays - Staying with the Locals

Homestays are becoming increasingly popular amongst travellers and overseas students alike. This is probably a lot to do with the fact that they a cheaper option, but also largely to do with how rewarding they can be.

Some volunteers with their hosting family, embracing the culture, courtesy of the Thailand Hill Tribe project

What is a homestay?

A homestay is a holiday or period abroad spent in the home of a local family, usually for a small fee. You generally eat meals and often spend whole days or evenings with your host family, rather than coming and going independently as you might in a hostel. The whole point is to try to get a true picture of how the people of the place you are visiting really live.

Why not just stay in a hostel?

You might think that you would prefer to come and go as you please, opting instead for a hostel, or student dorms. Whilst this is a more sociable option than sitting on your own in a hotel room, the community found in such places is a very international one, meaning that it is quite easy to continue to converse in your native tongue the whole time. This is a shame as attempting the language of a new environment is a fantastic and rewarding way to really learn about it.

Food is another wonderful way to explore a new destination. However most hostels, even those tucked deep in the jungle, or on the remotest of Islands, can be found serving things like fry-ups, or cereal, or pancakes… Whatever is required to accommodate the needs of guests from all over the world. You can ask for your curries less spicy and opt for your favourite beer over the local brew if you want to. There is always the option to stick with what you know.

Image courtesy of the Central America Ethical Adventure Trail

There is also the temptation to spend evenings on the internet interacting virtually with people at home, or to stay in the hostel bar with endless Friends and Family Guy on the telly and an epic game of Ring of Fire kicking off in the corner. Yes, great fun, but you could be anywhere in the world doing that.

Why homestays are better

If you are serious about gaining a real experience of a country rather than following the much-trodden tourist trail posted on the hostel notice board, then you need to step out of your comfort zone.

In return you will be rewarded richly. Some of the benefits will be obvious, like improving your language skills, or getting tips from your hosts about what to see and do beyond the usual tourist hotspots. But you will also observe unexpected things like the small rituals of everyday life that you just wouldn’t see around other travellers. Like how to survive the public transport, or get the lady at the fruit stall to give you freebies, for example!

The really cool part is that it’s a two way thing. As much as you might be improving your Hindi or Mandarin, or learning about traditional Costa Rican cooking, your hosts will be learning from you too. Cue lots of amusement about knives and forks versus eating with hands or chopsticks.

Preparing food with the locals on the Thailand Hill Tribe project

A really great advantage to bear in mind also, is that your money is skipping a third party. It will be going directly into the communities that you are visiting which is especially important in developing countries.

In addition to this, it is also a more natural kind of tourism. Rather than observing staged displays of traditional culture that can sometimes feel patronising, and exploitative, you are interacting with families in a mutually beneficial way. People like to talk about themselves and they also like to learn about new people, making homestays an experience of sharing. You are not just consuming a culture without giving anything in return.

Ok, I’m interested. Tell me more…

There are many types of homestays, and your experience will differ massively depending on the type of community in which you want to be immersed. For example, if you want to stay with hill tribes in Vietnam, the experience would be very different from a city one.

Image courtesy of Frontier's Vietnam Hill Tribe Experience

This kind of experience involves joining in daily activities such as working the rice fields and creating handicrafts with village children. Evenings are filled with helping to prepare meals and chopping wood for the fire, which you would then sit around, talking and eating, until it is time to retire to small, mist-engulfed huts to sleep.

If you are interested in working abroad, a homestay is the perfect way to get to grips with a language very quickly. The pace with which a family speaks and laughs around a dinner table will have you up to speed in no time, and perhaps most importantly, aware of social behaviours so that you can dive comfortably into your job.

In short, homestays are about living a destination, not just visiting it. You will be privy to the real country, not just the parts that are selected for display by tourist boards. You get to make your own mind up, and chances are you’ll love it a whole lot more if you do!

Find out more about Frontier’s Homestay projects here.

By Sophie Aggett

Frontier runs over 300 dedicated conservation, community and adventure projects worldwide. Find out more about great ideas for your gap year, and opportunities to volunteer across the globe.

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