One of the best ways to understand the cultural variety of Nepal is by staying with locals. The women-run Community Homestay network throughout Nepal allows travellers an unparalleled experience to stay in local homes and get to understand ordinary Nepali life. Households within a village or town work collectively to offer a unique experience for the traveler, bringing travelers and locals together. The money the homestays bring into participating communities help it develop, and the hosting women become more empowered.
I traveled to the Community Homestays in Western Nepal: from the remote Tharu community in Bhada to sleeping in a treehouse in the Bardia jungle to cooking with a local family and exploring Tansen, I experienced it all!
Bhada Community Homestay
I started the journey in Far West Nepal, in Bhada. On the Terai, close to the border with India the Bhada Community Homestay is located in an authentic, remote Tharu community. The culture here has had little influence from outside. The people here tell us they rarely get visitors. It’s no wonder, as it is a long journey to get here from Kathmandu, either by road or air. The people here see only a handful of foreign tourists every season, who are either crossing from India or volunteering in the neighbourhood.
The villages are the most simple and genuine I have seen in Nepal: all the houses are made of mud with thatched roofs, and they’re extremely clean, despite their simplicity. Each house has an ox and a cart, used for agricultural work. Life here revolves around daily events, and the community is tied closely together.
A storm had just hit the community the night before our arrival, and everyone was busy assessing the damage and starting to rebuild. Fallen trees were blocking the roads and roofs had been blown away, but everyone pitched in and helped each other. One man took a couple of hours to show us around although he was expected to help. As the homestay project is important for the community, he took the time to show us his home, built in the traditional way. He also explained his plans to make better facilities for tourists.
Many young people from the village seek opportunities either in Kathmandu or abroad. More tourists to this village would bring more revenue streams, which could help the locals build stronger homes and be motivated to preserve their beautiful cultural heritage.
Bardia Community Homestay
From Bhada, I journeyed east to the Bardia National Park. I hoped to see some tigers here, while staying at the Dalla Community Homestay. In this part of Nepal, the wildlife is very undisturbed. As opposed to the busy and popular Chitwan National Park, at Bardia visitors will have big stretches of forest to themselves.
In the company of my wilderness guide, Sudip, I visited the community forest, a part of the jungle that belongs to the locals and separate from the national park. Wild elephants have been reported in the area and I was curious to see them roaming free. I closely followed two villagers, trying to understand how I should act. The ‘watcher’ moves slowly through the bushes, listening and looking. He stops and makes signs I don’t understand, but my guide does and gestures in response. Then he whispers to me: “There are three elephants moving from left to right. See, there! The grey mass between the leaves!” I look to where he is pointing; it takes me a while to make out, but I see big grey bodies moving.
“Are you not afraid of wild animals? The tiger? The elephant?” I asked Sudip. I’m amazed how close these people live to the wildlife. The jungle is their backyard. “No, why would I be?” he answered. I grew up with them. Animals don’t want to hurt people. Unless they become man-eaters, they hide from us.”
We sit in silence as the light dims and the jungle sounds grow louder around us. I hear the high-pitched cry of a peacock, the deep rough roar of a mating stag, and a sound like a cat’s meow that is actually a frog. Sudip can identify everything around us by sound. Suddenly, to our left, the loud cries of deer burst out. Sudip whispers to me: “They are scared…” By this time, the dark has enclosed us and I cannot see, but they are close. “The tiger must be hunting them”.
We sit in silence and listen. After a few long moments, there is a quick roar. The deer have moved now and are somewhere in the bushes in front of us. Their cries slowly die down. Sudip’s hunch about tigers is confirmed the next day when we notice paw marks in the sand, close to the trail. The tiger had indeed passed through here.
Sudip tells me that after tourists started coming here to stay at the Community Homestay, about seven years ago, the local people have been taking more care of the forest and their houses too. He says his own household was a mess, with animals and people living together. Now, it is clean and neat, with new toilets and flowers in the garden. However, most people’s main source of income is still agriculture. They have so much work to do that maintaining a homestay is secondary. If more tourists came they could invest more time and money into developing the homestay. More people would be motivated to learn, and to improve their English. I admire how smart and involved Sudip is, and how much he has contributed to his community. I hope more villagers get the opportunity to be like him.
Tansen Community Homestay
I leave Bardia with a heavy heart. I loved the simple, natural life here and the warmth of the people. But I am excited to check out another Community Homestay, higher up in the hills, in the Palpa region. We take the highway to Butwal for an overnight stop. Then, the journey from Butwal to Tansen is a short, winding ride through lush hills.
Tansen is a vibrant local town. Not too big, but spread all over a hill, overlooking a beautiful valley on one side and the Himalaya on the other. The local community here is very proud of their heritage. Much of the town’s architecture is Newari, and most of the people are Newari, Bahun, and Magar. My host is Bahun. She escorted me around town, proudly showing me the factories, shops and temples. Her English is impressive. After her children left home to study she felt useless, but after becoming involved in the Community Homestay network she has become busy and occupied, and her English has improved tremendously. She loves to talk to tourists and feels like she has new children every day. She runs her homestay while her husband is busy with other businesses.
She takes me to the Dhaka cloth factory. Amid the humming and click-clacking of the looms, skillful women mingle white treads with colorful ones, creating beautiful patterns in the cloth. Dhaka is a distinctive Nepali fabric, and all visitors to Nepal are sure to have seen it on the caps that Nepali men wear. There are different qualities of Dhaka cloth, and a simple cap can cost anywhere between 100 rupees (US$1) and 10,000 rupees (US$100).
On our way back home we do some grocery shopping, as we will prepare dinner together. Food binds the family. When dinnertime approaches, we all gather in the kitchen to cut the fresh veggies we bought that day. The father is very precise about his cutting technique and plate arrangement. He shows me how it should be done, while I clumsily cut my share. Truth be told, I was never a great cook, because while I enjoy the process I’m not very skilled. However, under the careful guidance of my host mother and father, I manage to make a perfect chapati.
“The secret to delicious food,” the daughter of the family tells me, “is the quantity of condiments you use.” Her mother is not even measuring them, just adding them with ease, like she’s been doing this forever.
We all laugh and share family stories from our countries, tasting some of the local raksi (liquor) while waiting for the curry to develop the right flavor. The food ends up being delicious, although I don’t know if this is thanks to the impeccably mixed condiments or the raksi.
Mother and father tell an amusing story about the day they married: they walked for eleven hours from her place to his, and then back again. How had they managed?! “You liked me so much and I liked you, walking was nothing!” explained the father, while we all burst into laughter.
This opportunity to get so intimate with the local people is the best part of the Community Homestay experience. Visitors will truly feel like a member of the family. At the end of my stay, we hugged warmly and I felt like I was leaving behind my parents and my brother and sister.