Homestay as a concept is fairly alien to India. At any rate, it was to me. When Sonal, Uma and myself were doing our research on a holiday plan, it was Sonal who first mentioned homestays. Not having heard the word before, I assumed that she had decided to call it off and wanted to stay at home. That’s when she explained that it meant staying with a family in their house and paying for it. A thorough net search had yielded a place next to Coorg. We all agreed that this seemed an interesting, non-touristy and inexpensive alternative.
That’s how we found ourselves outside the Mysore railway station waiting for our taxi to pick us up. Sunticoppa, our destination, was about a 100 kms from here. The road, however, looked like a cross-country trainer’s dream and the journey would take 3 hours. Darkness falls rather soon in these parts and the road creeps through the forest – a beautiful sight in the daytime but spooky by night. Especially if you have been stupid enough to discuss your cash positions in front of the driver just before starting off and then worrying if he will actually relieve you of the dough. Luckily we reached Sunticoppa at eight in the night with no incidents. The estate we were staying in was about half an hour away to be reached through an even more poorly lit, deserted, winding road surrounded on both sides by trees and bushes. In short, the exact setting where one can expect the spirits of the dead to come rushing. We turned into the dark, silent estate and true to expectation, there stood a cottage with no one around but a small boy staring calmly into the headlights.
As it turned out, fairly sane (and alive) people stayed there. That was our destination and our host, Giri, was waiting for us. Giri’s little son (the small boy) and Giri’s dad were introduced to us. Giri’s psychologist wife, Suja, was expected back from Mysore after conducting a soft skills seminar. Infact, the whole place felt like we had come to a well-to-do cousin’s house with none of the obligation to make polite small talk about the family.
The house was visibly old fashioned with railings running on the ceiling, wooden doors and windows. The family had added some welcome amenities like big modern bathrooms. It was also a fairly self-sufficient place. The family grew it’s own supply of fruits, vegetables and rice. They used bio-gas instead of LPG and solar lamps in addition to the State Electricity Board’s supply. Their cows gave them milk, and of course all around them was their coffee estate. Possibly this is when I realised a home stay is the closest you can get to experience a community firsthand if you have only three days to spare. Giri and Suja made an effort to feed us the local cuisine and chatted about their wedding rituals, family history and the local circles.
We had reached without any game plan on hand. I wanted to do a trek, Uma wanted to shop and Sonal was torn between the two of us. Finally we made the arrangements for a trek when Uma was busy lazing around and could not protest. Uma took it rather well when we told her about the trek, especially when we omitted the fact it would be 12 kms totally.
It was a perfect place and day to trek. Nishanidotta, the mountain we were gunning for was not too tall or challenging. It was 4600 ft. There was a two-km trek to a village house from the road. And a further eight kms up and down from the village house/‘base camp’. And then back to the road. The countryside was perfect. The first two kilometers were a mixture of loud buzzing trees and green paddy fields. The rest of the trek went through a muddy track with a bit of forest and a lot of breathtaking views tossed in.
Our hired guide, Puneet, had taken the son of our village house along for company and as a substitute for a GPRS. We were a bit skeptical about the rather young age of this supplementary guide – around seven. In the event, he proved to know his way better than Puneet and kept running ahead. We were panting to catch up with him and were rather sour about it till Puneet mentioned that we stood a better of chance of escaping leeches if we moved too fast for them to climb on. After that even Uma bucked up considerably.
After two hours of climbing, we finally started approaching the top. This was the only steep part, but there is something to be said about running to the summit of a hill with gentle raindrops hitting your face and the wind rushing past your ears. We took triumphant snaps complete with a flagpole left behind by previous enthusiasts. After that it was a quick descent back to the village house for lunch.
The pre-lunch ritual consisted of checking for leech bites – something all of us were nervous about since leeches have a tendency to cling on, suck your blood and look gross. Uma gently undid her shoes and discovered one well-fed specimen entangled in her socks. Sonal checked and got a zero. I began to slowly roll up the leg of my track pants and saw a black mark above my ankle. Losing no time, I went into hysterics. This prompted everyone in the house to come and watch bemused. I was hoping they would have sympathised if not called the paramedics. But apparently it is a daily phenomenon in their lives and I was left to my own devices to cope. Luckily a leech bite is not lethal or even harmful. Local remedies like squeezing lemon on the leech till it falls off followed by Soframycin on the wound helps.
After the trek, we were too tired to take in any of Coorg’s tourist delights. Which it seemed to have quite a few of going by the brochure Puneet waved in front of our faces for the tenth time that day. We humoured him and decided to stop at Rajah’s Seat - one of those panoramic views of the hillside you get at all hill stations in front of which families with huffing grandparents and fidgeting children cluster to pose for a snap. We skipped Dubare, an elephant camp around 40 kms away, a 200-year-old Shiva temple, a dam and other such treats. Puneet, being a loyal local, was quite upset that we could resist traveling 40 kms up and down Coorg to visit all these places. Possibly being a local was why he did not understand that Coorg’s beauty lay in the sparsely populated countryside, mountains, backwaters and such other places we could visit only from the estate we were staying in.
Giri and Suja proved to be brilliant hosts and had hot food, hot tea and hot water ready for us to use upon our return. We also happily borrowed from their wonderful collection of trashy and intelligent novels. The only blot on the spot was Giri’s tendency to chat incessantly. Mostly interesting, at times it could have a dramatic climax, leaving the listeners a bit nonplussed. During dinner one day, he ended a happy trekking story with someone falling off the hillside. I quickly left before he could tell the story of someone who died of a leech bite.
On our final day, we found ourselves back on the road to Mysore – this time in the daylight where we could admire Coorg’s lush forests. On the way we stopped at the Tibetan settlement in Kushal Nagar. The place is colourful, to say the least. The main temple has lovely golden statues of Buddha, Buddha Amistava and Guru Padmanabha. There are murals all over the place with gory pictures of people suffering in hell. We assumed it was the senior monks’ way of enforcing discipline among the juniors. One quick peek by a believer into the picture of a monk being roasted in a frying pan would keep all minor transgressions under control.
From there we proceeded to Mysore and to see the famed Mysore Palace. The ruling dynasty seemed to have had considerable wealth. Perhaps too much wealth, because every previous owner of the throne had added the style of his era to the décor, giving it a look of complete overkill. Delicate marble arches would be superimposed on wooden frames and surrounded by garish green paint. There are some lovely pieces though if you watch out for them – a lovely threshold, an intricately carved door, random glimpses into good taste.
With that, we boarded the train back home and bade good-bye to the lush forests, fresh air and endless greenery. The leech mark on my leg still glowed red, but what is a trip if you don’t have a souvenir to show the people back home?