Homestays are THE way to see inside a culture and to get all the unexpected glimpses of real lives that flesh out stereotypes into a deeper insight. As a traveler there is no better way to visit a country. But for a guide-book researcher, the hospitable interaction implicit in the deal can be a double-edged sword. As a rare English speaking visitor in a fairly remote Siberian town one is inevitably the object of intense, friendly interest. As an unwitting, unmerited celebrity one has unwritten social 'duties' which don't always mesh well with the punishing drudgery of checking out long processions of musty hotel rooms, un-marked cafés and un-exciting museums.
In Severobaikalsk as in Ust Kut, all hotel rooms were full where-ever I went and I found myself forced to put upon the hospitality of a local friend who I would preferred not to have troubled. The stay proved delightful - if only I hadn't been working I couldn't have imagined a more interesting experience. But it was highly distracting, stretching unnecessarily into several days with much too much alcohol consumed. I ended up teaching lessons at the local school, dancing at a family party and attending the Novruz (Persian New Year) gathering of a local Baha'I group. Most distracting of all, I was roped into co-translating an US-exchange trip application for the local hospital administrator. Russian texts tend to be amazingly convoluted and we argued at length about the need to condense and summarize, working till nearly 3am on a final draft. The administrator was delighted. I hadn't expected anything in return. However, two days later when it was time for me to hitchhike a ride across the Baikal ice to Ust Barguzin, I waited all morning without success. Mondays, it seemed were a bad day to try, and those vehicles making the crossing were loaded to the gunnels. I had to wait a day. But lo and behold, the hospital administrator had heard of my plight. Calling around she put out the word that a ride was required and next morning I was off.