No place like an Indian homestay
Deep in the heart of Keralan rubber country in southern India, a hard-working elephant heaves a load of logs up a hill.
Just metres away, my host and I look on in hushed awe, as a nimble rider guides the creature up the steep climb through dense rows of trees.
The man by my side, George Abraham, is one of hundreds of Indians who are opening their houses to tourists as part of the growing homestay movement that has sprung up in this lush southern state and is now spreading through the country.
The big appeal of 'paying guest accommodation' provided by companies such as Mahindra Homestays is that travellers can see a face of India they rarely experience - or even imagine - while staying in grand five-star hotels overlooking the pink palaces of Jaipur.
In these private homes, guests experience normal life with an Indian family, eating authentic, home-cooked meals and enjoying a friendly, intimate atmosphere.
Proud of their homes and their country, hosts are delighted to share their local knowledge and seem to enjoy the experience as much as their guests.
I start in Goa, a favourite hang-out among the backpacker brigade and famed for its chilled-out beaches and relaxed vibe.
After being picked up at the airport, I pitch up at the Only Olive in the village of Aldona, a Portuguese-style house with a well-stocked orchard in the garden and a charming well shared with the neighbouring property.
My host is Adrian Pinto, an affable hospitality manager with a bulging contacts book.
Despite having become a father to twins only a week earlier, he rips up my itinerary and vows to show me the hottest spots in the area.
I throw caution to the wind and perch on the back of his Royal Enfield motorbike - the quickest way to get around this state - as he whizzes us through the narrow streets flanked by dense vegetation.
By day we explore local churches, admire the views from the bridge over the nearby river, and people-watch at a restaurant on Baga beach, where the small stretch of sea is impossibly packed with Indian visitors, many fully clothed.
As dusk approaches, we head to local restaurant Andron and dine on a sumptuous feast of golden fried squid, masala-filled mackerel, pork roast and Goan sausages, all the while supping on Feni, the local liqueur.
Later on, we nip in and out of lively bars where Adrian and his well-connected friends stop to shake dozens of hands as we wend our way to the dance floor.
Adrian has a laid-back approach to hosting guests, affording them as much privacy and time to themselves as they desire, but making himself available for recommendations.
His relaxed attitude is reflected in his 'honesty bar', whereby visitors keep tabs on the amount of alcohol they get through at his home.
My stay with him was all too brief. Returning to the airport, where a car was waiting to take me to my first proper homestay, I felt that as well as getting a cracking introduction to this beautiful Indian state, I had also found a new friend.
Initially, I was daunted by the thought that, as a single traveller, my holiday would rely entirely on the welcoming attitude of locals.
But I need not have worried, as every greeting was friendly and every transfer seamless.
George Abraham's home, a sprawling, art deco-style property in the district of Kottayam called the Evergreen Estate Bungalow, was perhaps the most memorable of the lot. The low-level building has an amazing hillside location affording stunning views across miles of rubber plantation.
In the evening, as we sat on the open terrace, the soundtrack of chattering crickets became a resident symphony orchestra. And George's tales of his life and times were as fascinating as Kipling's Tales Of the Raj.
With generations of farming in his family, George is a warm and brilliant host. He and his family convey their passion for history and colonial heritage with such fervour that it's hard not to get swept along by their enthusiasm.
One highlight was a tour of the vast plantation and its working factory (cue much fun posing for photos amid rows of springy rubber sheets hanging from the ceiling).
In nearby Pepper County, where a riot of cardamom, coffee, yams and jackfruit grow side by side, George treated me to a plate of beef chilli fry and a gin and tonic in the sedate Mundakayam Club, which harks back to old Blighty with its wood panelling and billiards room.
We also took a short drive to Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, where visitors flock to catch a rare glimpse of one of the tigers supposedly living there. But what we lacked in tiger sightings, however, we more than made up for in monkey spotting.
As well as the insider information that visitors get from George, a stay at Evergreen also means a wonderful array of home cooking by his wife Anju. Each night, she wheeled out dish upon glorious dish of local specialities - the ginger chicken was a favourite.
My room was large and airy, and despite being warned about the cat which prowls the roof at night, my sleep was blissfully undisturbed.
No trip to Kerala is complete, however, without a stay in Alleppey, the town famed for its magnificent backwaters. So I said my goodbyes to the Abraham clan and headed south - with a driver provided by Mahindra Homestays - for a very different experience at Vembanad House.
Run by Sandhya Balakrishnan, this traditional Keralan property is a hidden gem, tucked away behind paddy fields and dense greenery.
Guests are given their own private section of the house, a stone's throw from the banks of breathtakingly still waters framed by picturesque palm trees and hammocks.
The proximity to the water means all sorts of delights at the dinner table, and one fond memory of a giant shrimp - filled with masala and drenched in onion gravy - will stay with me forever.
If the weather allows it, visitors can enjoy peaceful trips on a houseboat, or try their hand at night fishing for lobster.
My stay, although narrowly missing monsoon season, coincided with a heavy downpour, so I settled for land-based activities instead, such as a blissful Ayurvedic massage.
After a quick once-over from a doctor, a therapist put his recommendations into practice, dousing me in coconut and essential oils and kneading out my problem areas. It was so sleep-inducing that the thought of trawling for crustaceans was soon too exhausting to contemplate.
Key facts - Goa & Kerala
:: Best for: Beaches, wildlife, cuisine, birdlife, colonial history.
:: Time to go: November to May (June to October is rainy season).
:: Don't miss: Deepavali festival on the beaches.
:: Need to know: Beware the leeches in the wildlife reserves.
:: Don't forget: To try the great seafood curries.
Diana Pilkington was a guest of Mahindra Homestays, which offers a six-night visit to Goa and Kerala from approx £889, including B&B accom, activities and transfers. Flights start around £620 per person.
Mahindra Homestays reservations: 020 3140 8422 and www.mahindrahomestays.com
Mahindra works with various operators in planning visits to India, including Premier Holidays, Steppes Travel, TransIndus, Travelpack and Abercrombie & Kent.