We travel often to out of the way forests, where we have a choice between staying an hour’s drive away in a hotel, or living close to the forest in a homestay. Often take the latter option often enough. But more frequently than not, we find that the homestay was rather less than something to write home about. By contrast, in Tal Chhapar we found a wonderful place: basic rooms, but very clean and with great thought put into the guests’ convenience. We later found that the lady of the house took care of the rooms and the kitchen. A starring role was played by the courtyard with its large dining table across from the kitchen. The first breakfast seemed good, but entirely as expected- a stack of delicious hot aloo parathas, pickles and yoghurt, fruits and poha: very traditional, but significantly more calorie dense than our typical breakfast. We loved it, and had to make a very determined effort not to overeat. But more interesting things were in store.
When we returned after a morning’s visit to the sanctuary, our host invited me into the kitchen to meet his mother. The lady had come to visit her son (she lives in a different house in the same village) and had insisted on cooking something for the guests. I got a full explanation of the subtleties of the methi she was busy making, how she adds gur to balance the bitterness of the methi, and how the acidity of tomatoes is her own addition to the traditional dish. It wasn’t something I’d tasted before, but I could recognize the tradition, the sweet and spicy curries that are typical of the kitchens of the western desert region: right from Saurashtra up to the Punjab. A nice family business, we thought, with the special touch that the family was clearly eating the same meals as the guests.
The mother was the first in the family to run a homestay. Her son had left for Delhi to study hotel management, and spent a few years working in regular hotels around the country before tiring of city life and coming back home. She’d then decided to retire (but not entirely, since she came to cook local specialties for guests every now and then), and the son had taken over the business. We’d already discovered the important role played by his wife. His job was the business management, and added services. He ran two jeeps for the safaris and had taught himself about the local wildlife. He spend time with us teaching and learning more. He was also hosting a lady who was spending a semester in Tal Chhapar doing research on the local ecology of raptors, He seemed to be picking up little tidbits of knowledge from her. In addition he was trying to monetize the pickles and bakes of the village, by selling them from his hotel. Since we ate them every day and liked them, we didn’t have to debate much about whether to pick up a couple of packets for home.