Home from home in India

DEEP in the heart of Keralan rubber country in southern India, an elephant heaves a load of logs up a hill.

The man by my side, George Abraham, is one of hundreds of Indians who are opening their houses to tourists as part of the growing homestay movement that has sprung up in this lush southern state and is now spreading through the country.

The big appeal of “paying guest accommodation” is that travellers can see a face of India they rarely experience — or even imagine — while staying in grand five-star hotels overlooking the pink palaces of Jaipur.

In these private homes, guests experience normal life with an Indian family, eating home-cooked meals and enjoying a friendly, intimate atmosphere.

Proud of their homes and their country, hosts are delighted to share their local knowledge.

I start in Goa, a favourite hang-out among the backpacker brigade and famed for its chilled-out beaches and relaxed vibe.

After being picked up at the airport, I pitch up at the Only Olive in the village of Aldona, a Portuguese-style house. My host is Adrian Pinto. He rips up my itinerary and vows to show me the hottest spots in the area.

I throw caution to the wind and perch on the back of his Royal Enfield motorbike — the quickest way to get around this state — as he whizzes us through the narrow streets flanked by dense vegetation.

By day we explore local churches, admire the views from the bridge over the nearby river, and peoplewatch at a restaurant on Baga beach, where the small stretch of sea is impossibly packed with Indian visitors, many fully clothed.

As dusk approaches, we head to local restaurant Andron and dine on a sumptuous feast of golden fried squid, masala-filled mackerel, pork roast and Goan sausages.

Adrian has a laid-back approach to hosting guests, affording them as much privacy and time to themselves as they desire, but making himself available for recommendations.

My stay with him was all too brief and I returned to the airport, where a car was waiting to take me to my first proper homestay.

George Abraham’s home, a sprawling, art deco-style property in the district of Kottayam called the Evergreen Estate Bungalow, was perhaps the most memorable of the lot.

The low-level building has an amazing hillside location with views across miles of rubber plantation.

In the evening, as we sat on the open terrace and George’s tales of his life and times were as fascinating as Kipling’s Tales Of the Raj.

In nearby Pepper County, where a riot of cardamom, coffee, yams and jackfruit grow side by side, George treated me to a plate of beef chilli fry and a gin and tonic in the sedate Mundakayam Club, which harks back to old Blighty with its wood panelling and billiards room.

We also took a short drive to Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, where visitors flock to catch a rare glimpse of one of the tigers supposedly living there.

But what we lacked in tiger sightings, however, we more than made up for in monkey spotting.

As well as the insider information that visitors get from George, a stay at Evergreen also means home cooking by his wife Anju. Each night, she wheeled out dish upon glorious dish of local specialities — the ginger chicken was a favourite.

No trip to Kerala is complete, however, without a stay in Alleppey, the town famed for its magnificent backwaters. So I said my goodbyes to the Abraham clan and headed south — with a driver provided by Mahindra Homestays — for a very different experience at Vembanad House.

Run by Sandhya Balakrishnan, this traditional Keralan property is a hidden gem, tucked away behind paddy fields and dense greenery.

Guests are given their own private section of the house, a stone’s throw from the banks of still waters framed by palm trees and hammocks.

The proximity to the water means all sorts of delights at the dinner table, and one fond memory of a giant shrimp — filled with masala and drenched in onion gravy — will stay with me forever.

If the weather allows it, visitors can enjoy peaceful trips on a houseboat, or try their hand at night fishing for lobster.

My stay, although narrowly missing monsoon season, coincided with a heavy downpour, so I settled for land-based activities instead, such as a blissful Ayurvedic massage.

After a quick once-over from a doctor, a therapist put his recommendations into practice, dousing me in coconut and essential oils and kneading out my problem areas.

It was so sleep-inducing that the thought of trawling for crustaceans was soon too exhausting to contemplate.

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