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June 11, 2019

How Two Women Gave Up Their Hectic City Lives To Set Up A Homestay In Lonere

Text by Sadaf Shaikh

Anuja Phadke and Sneha Mahashabde have transformed their grandmother’s home in Raigad into a rural haven that allows tired city dwellers to rediscover the joys of simple living

In 2012, Anuja Phadke and Sneha Mahashabde, who had been friends since school, travelled extensively across Cambodia and Vietnam where they stayed in hostels and took a shining to this communal culture. It was at one such place that the seed of running a hostel back in India was planted in their minds. As kids, Anuja and Sneha loved to travel, but over time, their hectic lifestyles and careers (Anuja was a management consultant and Sneha an architect) meant that most trips out of the city were for work. What the two of them truly longed for was tranquility and a greater purpose in life.

And then Sneha had an epiphany one morning when she rushed to Anuja’s house after returning from a short excursion out of town. “Why aren’t we planning anything at Lonere?” she practically screamed as she listed the pros of turning their grandmother’s pastoral house in Raigad into a homestay. When they pitched the idea to their grandmother — the two are cousins through marriage — she was as excited about teaching city dwellers to embrace a simpler way of life. Aptly christened The Kokum Tree after the tangy fruit that is indigenous to Maharashtra, Anuja and Sneha’s homestay is a lesson in easy living with guests picking fruits and vegetables for their own meals in the mornings, exploring the lush trails around the property in the afternoons and taking a pottery or wine-making class in the evening. The friends, both 31 years old now, have taken up residence at The Kokum Tree and are present in the background throughout to chat with guests, even accompanying them around the property, if needed.

The onset of monsoon rouses local wanderlust in Indians and with the Konkan area transforming into a verdant expanse of land during the rains, Anuja and Sneha tell us why you should plan your next weekend at their homestay.

How did you run the idea of setting up the homestay by your grandmother?
Aaji loves to meet and greet new people. Traditionally, the people of Konkan are known to be gracious hosts. When we ran the proposal of The Kokum Tree by her, she was quite excited to know that her years of toil would be appreciated by a wider audience. She has been extremely supportive all throughout, sharing new recipes for our menu and guiding us through the process of farming and tending to the property.

How did you come up with the moniker ‘The Kokum Tree’?
We went through the rigmarole of taking polls, group discussions and consulting experts before zeroing on this name. In the end, we just loved the sound of ‘The Kokum Tree’. Kokum is a red fruit borne by a lush green tree that is endemic to the Western Ghats. Both of us love this quintessential Konkani fruit and unlike its more famous cousins, the mango and the jackfruit, the kokum fruit is not a common sight in the city. It is essential to visit a humble village in Konkan in order to enjoy the kokum fruit in its true flavour.

What is a typical day at The Kokum Tree like?
When we host our guests, a lot of our time and effort goes in interacting with them and showing around the property. The idea behind starting this venture was getting to know more people who could share different thoughts and ideologies. That is our USP and probably what separates us from the other homestays. Apart from that, cooking, quality checks and managing resources are a few of the activities that we supervise during the course of the day. When we do not have guests, we focus mainly on farming and tending to the orchard. Our evenings are reserved for brainstorming sessions where we discuss new activities that we could hold for our guests. Recently, we collaborated with a yoga studio that arranged classes for the people staying with us at the time and they loved it.

Describe the lodging arrangements of The Kokum Tree.
The Kokum Tree is an experiential homestay nestled amidst a flourishing orchard in the village of Lonere. We have built a modern villa consisting of four air-conditioned rooms with attached baths, a common living room, a kitchenette and a veranda. Our aim was to combine a rustic farm-stay with modern comforts. We can accommodate 8-12 people at a time in the villa and are also developing a bamboo cottage overlooking a small pond which will accommodate 2-3 people.

Our home-cooked meals are made with ingredients that are directly sourced from the property. This unique Farm-to-Plate experience where we encourage guests to pluck fruits and vegetables that will go into their meal leaves a distinctive impression on them. Our signature Kokum pancakes are served for breakfast along with other Maharashtrian delicacies. Lunch is a typically Maharashtrian fare whereas we experiment with international cuisines at supper.

What are some of the outdoor activities you offer to those staying with you?
The orchard stroll is one of the highlights of our homestay. We accompany our guests for a walk through our land while sharing our experiences and introducing them to the orchard. We also introduce our guests to a trail along the river adjoining our plot where the keen-eyed can spot a host of indigenous and migratory birds. If luck favours, they could also catch a crocodile basking on the banks.

We have built a wooden deck atop the pond on the plot where we spend most of our evenings watching the sunset while humming songs or playing a musical instrument. We also have a small barn for sessions of carom or lessons in pottery. Guests who wish to dabble in pottery can take a short course before they actually take to the wheel. During evenings, we screen movies in our open-air pavilion along with serving freshly baked appetizers.

Our tiny pool is the ideal place to cool off on hot summer afternoons. Guests interested in activities like wine-prep and papad-making usually join us when we process excess fruits during summers. We also offer relaxing oil massages in a private room under a canopy of cashew trees for relaxing.

What were the challenges of acclimating to rural life from a relatively fast-paced life?
Everyday tasks become frustratingly longer in the village simply because of the laidback attitude of the locals. Our patience has increased tenfold over the past few months and we have learnt to plan activities much in advance if we know they are time-sensitive. Also, relying on help for every small thing is no longer an option and that has helped us become more responsible and efficient ourselves.

What sort of change has this sort of life brought about in you, since you left the city?
The peace that a village offers has rewards that cannot be quantified. We have noticed a substantial change in the quality of our life, both physically and mentally. We feel like what we do on a daily basis has had a meaningful impact on the lives of people we work with. Living in tune with nature is enriching and in spite of a busy day, we still find some time to learn something new and pursue our hobbies. Sustainable living and concern for environment are of utmost importance. Fortunately, the newer generation is well-versed and understands that a more fulfilling life could be awaiting in a village nearby.

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