Humor by Rehana Munir: Hacking the Foster Family

Just got back from a quick trip to Goa of the best sort: I was involved in absolutely no planning, even though everything was exactly as I would have liked. Some travelers have superpowers. They see three small pictures, read two lines of text, and fill in the gaps admirably, proceeding to book their homestays without worrying or checking. When they arrive, they find the space is even better than they had imagined. Befriend these travelers. Marry them or adopt them, if you must. They will protect from your own returning instincts, guided by the principle of self-sabotage.

There’s a langur in my vacation

It all depends on that first look. I generally gravitate toward bed, stating what I value most about vacations (and normal life). According to this parameter, my Airbnb in Paris, booked by my companion during a pre-pandemic trip, is a difficult act to follow. A virgin island in a room lined with books was straight out of a reader’s or author’s dream. It didn’t matter that most of the books were in French, which I barely understand. I got my cheap chills stroking the backs of Proust and Sartre in their faded jackets, carrying that musty old book smell like eau de cologne. The absent hosts, both professors, must have great faith in the ethics of traveling readers. And long may that faith be rewarded.

In stark contrast to the joys of my apartment in District 9 was my cottage in Kausani, Uttarakhand. After a long and eventful journey from Nainital, headlined by a poor car sick Rottweiler, my companions and I finally arrived, hungry for a shower and instant transcendence. It didn’t help that the area was dominated by langurs, for whom our Rottie harbored a primitive hatred. The house itself was without electricity, comfort or taste – a deadly triple combo for weary travellers. To add insult to injury, the scenic views of Panchachuli, Nanda Devi and Trishul that we had traveled for remained hidden for the duration of the trip.

Bhopal via Goa

Uran, the dreary port city located a short distance from Navi Mumbai, does not really stimulate the imagination. Until you visit Fernandeswadi, a beautiful homestay run by a couple firmly rooted in their local community and ecology. Charles Correa’s house with a red tiled roof, its vast outdoor veranda overlooked a grove of coconut palms beyond which stretched the Arabian Sea. And the meals were feasts drawn from local culinary traditions. All in all, it was the dream home, not to mention its proximity to an industrial area. This is how post-modern fairy tales unfold.

Sometimes it’s the element of surprise that makes a visit memorable. Chapter two, the homestay in Goa that I just returned from, is a good example of this. The hosts have taken a 110 year old Portuguese villa in Calangute and filled it with the most charming art and design details. But what really takes your breath away is the food. One of the two hosts is a gifted chef, specializing in Bhopali and Awadhi cuisines. And so, I came back from the coastal state with memories of yakhni pulao and nihari; chanaa chaat and galauti kebabs; aloo ke gutke and bhopali poha, served with crispy brown jalebis. Now Bhopal has to match my experience in Goa in terms of culinary authenticity.

(ghost stories

It’s the little things that ultimately define a host family. There are hosts who leave a jar of cookies or comic books lying around for guests, which are life-saving on rainy afternoons. Beyond the features listed on a website is the soul of a home, which a traveler temporarily accesses. This soul can be a kindred soul, or something like a poltergeist. You must be no less than a psychic when you book your stay.

When the hosts are absent, one is tempted to weave stories around them. Each antique vase or sticky cup is a clue into the mystery of who the owner is. A soap dish is a slippery informant, and flowers drying on a side table tickle the house detective’s nose. It’s natural to label people based on their reading and music choices, from Soppy Sentimentalist to Radical Rebel. Imagine the embarrassment of eventually meeting these strangers and finding out that they are nothing like you imagined. Better to meet in the juicy stories told by unguarded houses.

Follow @rehana_munir on Twitter and Instagram

From HT Brunch, August 13, 2022

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