Just like any South Asian city, Kathmandu is crowded, noisy, dusty and polluted. The capital city of Nepal is choking under a blanket of pollution particularly now when it is going through a lot of construction, building repairs and roadworks as part of post-earthquake recovery efforts. As such, many travellers typically spend only a day or two in Kathmandu, majority quickly move on especially the adventure travellers for their main objective is to trek the Himalayan mountain trails in the country.
Fortunately, there are a number of places in Kathmandu and its surrounding valley where travellers can go to escape from the chaotic traffic and pollution of the capital city. These places offer not only historical sites such as temples and monasteries but opportunities to participate in one of the many cultural aspects of Nepal, that is, living with a Nepali family in a village. And what better way to do that is to do a homestay.
*Also Read: 4 Must-See Places in Kathmandu for First-Timers
Community Homestay Program
In Nepal, homestays are generally away from the established tourist regions, primarily in villages, and they are community-based or private homestays. The homestay that I had the pleasure of connecting with is a community-based network called Community Homestay.
Community Homestay connects travellers with Nepali families in villages for an authentic local travel experience where life is simple. Travellers get a chance to stay with the host family, to get involved in their daily work, learn Nepali language, culture and traditions, socialize with the community or to volunteer to teach in one of the schools. The uniqueness about this homestay program is that not only the families open their homes to travellers but it involves and empowers women to be the forefront of this initiative.
Since subsistence farming is still a way of life in Nepali villages, incomes earned by families are low. The women in the households are housewives or unemployed. Seeing that women are the ones who cook and uphold customs and traditions at home, Community Homestay program encourages women to take the lead in generating income from their own very houses by hosting guests. By doing so, the women increase their economic status by earning additional – and sustainable – income, some are earning as much as their husbands through this program. And Community Homestay network believes that when women of households are financially stable especially the mother, the entire family unit becomes stronger.
Apart from earning income from the homestay program, the women are taught basic English language classes and introduction courses on responsible tourism, for instance, to be environmentally aware about sanitation, hygiene, and the proper disposal of rubbish especially plastics and non-decaying products.
The program does not endorse only one or two families but a group of families in the village to operate as a team. Combining these individual families together, the community becomes bigger, economically stronger and independent.
My brief experience with Community Homestay
The Community Homestay program that I experienced was in Panauti, a small town of 10,000 people, located about 32km south-east of Kathmandu. Panauti is still steeped in culture and tradition, it is regarded as one of Kathmandu Valley’s important medieval sites.
Christine of GrrrlTraveler and I stayed with our host Nirmala and her daughter, Anita for a night in their house. They own a small shop selling biscuits and snacks while their three-storey house is situated right above the shop. Nirmala is not fluent in speaking English (though she understands our conversations), as such she relies on Anita to converse with us.
Accommodation was simple but comfortable. Two bedrooms were made available for us while another room was taken up by an American guest who volunteers with the Peace Corps and has been living with my host for two months. There was one bathroom in the house with hot shower and Western toilet.
The kitchen is situated on the highest floor and in here, meals are eaten with the family. For lunch, we were served simple but delicious Nepali food of rice, daal, green beans and papad (thin crispy crackers). From the kitchen across the landing is the rooftop terrace where a vista of green fields of rice, wheat and potato plantations laid before us as far as the eye could see. This panoramic view from the rooftop was even more magical during sunset.
Post-lunch, Anita gave us a tour of the village – we spent almost three hours walking and exploring every nook and corner of the village. The village is quaint and historical with Hindu and Buddhist monuments, and it feels as if it has been left exactly the way the founders had built the town since the 13th century.
*Also Read: Temples and Streets of Kathmandu – Photo Essay
The Old Quarter of the village has terracotta temples of gilded roofs and wide courtyards with beautifully carved wooden doors and windows. One of the interesting highlights of the Old Quarter is the 15th century Indreshwar Mahadev Temple of impressive Newari architecture with a three-storey pagoda roof. Inside the temple compound is the Panauti Museum which exhibits a collection of artefacts from the region and the temple.
For dinner, we learnt from our hosts how to make puri (unleavened deep-fried bread) by kneading dough balls into round flat shapes. I failed miserably in kneading the dough into round shapes for they looked somewhat like a map of Africa! Christine, on the other hand, did a relatively better job but Nirmala had to stretch the pieces every now and then to make them rounder. We concurred that we were not cut out for puri-making!
The American Peace Corps guest joined us for dinner and it was interesting to see him speaking with Nirmala and Anita in Nepali with Nirmala occasionally correcting his grammar!
There wasn’t much to do after dinner, after all, it is a village where the locals go to bed by 9pm and get up as early as 4am. The village was dead silent save for barking dogs that were still prowling around in the village at night.
Responsible and Sustainable Tourism
Although my homestay in Panauti was only for one night, it gave me a glimpse into the lives of my host family. I found the brief experience fascinating – interacting with them, learning a new culture, and exploring the village – a priceless experience. However, to make one’s stay as culturally immersive as possible, it is recommended to stay with the host family for at least two nights.
As for the local families especially the womenfolk, the homestay program helps them to gain more confidence by meeting new people, to provide supplementary incomes for the household and to inspire them to work as a team. In this way, the community becomes bigger and stronger, and they can positively influence the entire village to learn to generate sustainable economic opportunities while preserving and introducing Nepali culture and traditions to visitors abroad.
All in all, Community Homestay program is an avenue for Nepali women and communities in the rural areas to be advocates for responsible tourism while travellers learn native skills and get a different perspective on life, making their time in Nepal more inspiring.
*Also Read: Top Places in Nepal for Non-Adventure Travellers
*The edited version of this article was published in Zafigo in Dec 2017.
**My trip to Nepal in 2017 was part of the Himalayan Travel Mart FAM trip sponsored by Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) Nepal Chapter. Opinions expressed in this post are, as always, my own.