Tuesday, October 27, 2015

A Home Away From Home

Neema Veliyath's homestay, 'The Bungalow', on the Vypeen islands, near Kochi, is a hit among travellers

Photos by Ratheesh Sundaram

By Shevlin Sebastian

At 8 a.m., on a cool December day, Dianne Robertshaw, 63, got up from her bed at 'The Bungalow', a homestay on the Vypeen islands, near Kochi, feeling groggy. She had yet to shake off the jetlag, after the long flight from London. Suddenly, there was a knock on the door. When Dianne opened the door, she saw that it was the owner, Neema Veliyath. “What would you like for breakfast: Continental or Indian?” said an earnest Neema.

With a wry smile, Dianne said, “Neema, if we wanted a continental breakfast, we would have stayed at home. We have come all the way to taste your food."

It was a lesson that Neema never forget. “Thereafter, I have always served Kerala or Indian food to my foreign guests,” she says.

Neema's guests come from countries like Britain, France, Spain, Germany, USA and Canada. The foreigners come to enjoy the experience of living with an Indian family. At Neema's house, there is her husband, Francis, her 15-year-old daughter, Olivia, and her parents, PJ Johnson, a retired company executive, and mother Mariyamma.

The big attraction for the guests is the house. It is 85 years old and was built by Neema's great-grandfather PV Joseph Puthenpurackal. “He built it just before the wedding of his daughter, Mary,” says Neema. While the ground floor is in the colonial Portuguese type, with half-glass wooden windows, the first floor is in Dutch style, with large windows and a wooden landing. As for the attic, it is in Kerala style, with a slanting roof and Mangalore tiles. The beds, windows and floors are made of teak and rosewood. And on the stairs, you can see cast-iron grilles.

The idea to start a homestay came to Neema in 2007, when visitors, on the way to Fort Kochi, would stop and ask for permission to take photographs of the house. “Many of them asked me to start a homestay,” says Neema.

She had just returned, after a decade of sailing all over the world with Francis, a captain. They decided to settle down at their ancestral home, when Francis got a job as a pilot in the Cochin Port.

So it is no surprise that the homestay has a touch of the sea. The two bedrooms, on the first floor, which are let out to guests, are called the 'Sao Gabriel' and the 'Santa Maria'. While the 'Sao Gabriel' is the name of the ship used by Vasco De Gama on his first visit to India, 'Santa Maria' was the name of Christopher Columbus' ship when he set out for America.

The bedrooms are airy and cool, while the wooden beds are strong and comfortable.

What usually happens is after breakfast, the guests venture out and return in the evenings. A few of the women are interested in learning how to cook Kerala food. So Neema conducts classes in the evenings. “I make vegetarian, as well as non-vegetarian dishes, but my speciality is seafood like prawns, mussels and crabs,” says Neema. “The guests help me cook the food and we eat it together.”

For many guests, staying at a homestay is a welcome change. “They want to know our culture and lifestyle,” says Neema. “They are hugely surprised that my parents are living with us.”

Another charm of staying in a homestay is the sense of novelty. “Guests have told me that wherever they go in the world the hotel rooms look the same,” says Neema. “Only the skin colour of the people is different. So, they yearn for the personal touch.”

Indeed, thanks to Neema's personal touch, she has been getting rave reviews on Trip Advisor. Says teacher Martin William Campbell from London: “From the moment we arrived at 'The Bungalow', we were overwhelmed by Neema's generous and incredibly warm hospitality. She insisted that our children treat her home like their own and even stocked the fridge with treats for them.”

As for Boon-Mee Son Chai, a Bangkok-based lawyer, he had intended to take his family out to eat on most nights. “But the food at the Bungalow was so good that we never went out,” he says. “It was the best we had anywhere in India.”

Incidentally, “The Bungalow' has won the Trip Advisor Travellers Choice Award for the past three years, as well as the Certificate of Excellence for the past five years. “I enjoy making my guests feel happy,” says Neema. 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi) 

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