Advice for Holiday House Guests
Posted December 12, 2008
To Serve, Not to Be Served: from the Abhyagata-dharma section of the Susilata-sabhyacara-samhita
Many devotees are going to friends' and relatives' homes for holiday visits. As a houseguest, bring honour to Krsna and exercise courtesy and thoughtfulness.
Don't feel that householders "owe" you lodging or that your mere presence is payment enough. It may be true that you are a blessing, but not if that is your attitude. If you are a sannyasi or vanaprastha, that was your choice. It should not mean that you want the same lifestyle you had before but now want someone else to support it. Someone who invites you to stay does so for Krsna's sake. Accept what they give; do not ask for or take more. Vaisnavas always reciprocate; never take advantage of your host.
Following these suggestions can make one welcome anywhere.
- A brahmin leaves things cleaner than he/she found them. Be clean. Keep your room neat and your bed made while visiting. Don't spread your stuff all over the house or expect your host (or mother) to pick up after you. Don't leave hair, fingernail parings or discarded items for them to clean up. Rinse sinks and tubs after use. Before leaving, give them a good cleaning, and ask your host if you should strip the bed (if so, remove sheets and blankets and fold them neatly, but leave the bedspread neatly over the bed so your hosts won't feel they have to do the laundry immediately.)
- Don't be "high maintenance." Try to accept whatever your hosts offer, without asking for more. Don't expect them to provide arrangements for your traveling deities or to follow a temple schedule. Wash your own laundry, unless they graciously offer to do it, and do only the minimum necessary. Otherwise, wash your things by hand, and don't hang them to drip over their floor.
- Be considerate of your host's resources — time, money, food, water, electricity and other utilities, etc. Don't take long, hot showers; your hosts have to pay the hot water bill. Don't leave faucets dripping or lights on in empty rooms. If you are having to rely on the kindness and generosity of others, be respectful of the time, expense and trouble you may be putting them to, and minimize this as much as possible.
- Spend time with your hosts. Talk to them about their interests. Don't spend a lot of time on the computer or telephone (especially theirs, if they are nice enough to lend it). Don't make long distance calls on their dime. Don't regularly walk about the house talking or texting on a cell phone; your hosts might wonder why you visited them instead of the person you're telephoning.
- Don't disrupt household routines. Arrive when you say you will arrive; call if there will be a delay. Don't come early. Don't complain if they only eat twice a day. If they sleep late, don't expect them to get up early for you. It is possible that your hosts are exhausted from preparing for your visit. Be thoughtful about sharing a bathroom. Ask when it is okay to use it, and don't monopolize it.
- Don't treat the place as your own. Don't look upon your host's assets as items you can use either for yourself or your devotional service. If you want to pick a flower, ask, but don't denude the garden. Park your vehicle where requested. Don't nap on sofas (a sleeping person can leave odors or oils on furniture fabrics) or put your feet on furniture. Don't lean back on dining chairs; it can weaken them. Don't put used utensils on tablecloths, where they can leave stains. Never substitute your own judgment for your hosts' regarding their home or possessions.
- Don't expect royal treatment. Don't simultaneously look down on householders and expect hospitality from them. Don't use people. Be patient and understanding if there are children in the household. They are your host's first priority. You should not think that the world owes you food, lodging and handmaidens. If you are travelling with a retinue, be all the more considerate — one to three days — and instruct your party in guest etiquette. Happily, you have a place to sleep, something to eat and dry shelter. Don't expect your hosts to be your valet, travel agent or event booking agent. If they volunteer, be grateful and reasonable, not greedy, in accepting them.
- Minimize transportation requests. Expect to arrange your own transportation, use the bus, etc. If your hosts are kind enough to pick you up or take you to the airport, offer to pay for their gasoline; airport shuttling is a round trip for your host. With high fuel prices, don't expect them to drive you about town, run multiple errands or cause them to miss work. If arriving late at night or during rush hour, consider taking an airport shuttle bus or taxi so as not to burden your hosts. If they do a lot of driving on your behalf, offer to fill or top up their tank.
- Be helpful and appreciative. Offer to peel potatoes, clear or set the table, wash the dishes, weed the garden, watch over the children or sweep the porch. Offer to take your hosts out to dinner or to cook for them or buy groceries. Write a thank-you note. Compliment your host/hostess on his/her cooking, hospitality, lovely home, etc. Tell your mom that being home with her is special; tell your dad that his wanting to spend time with you means a lot and that you appreciate him — you get the idea.
- Don't be nosy. Leave cupboards, drawers and refrigerators unopened. You are not the bhoga police. If you overhear private conversations, keep quiet. Don't be a gossip. Don't tell others anything negative, judgmental or confidential about your hosts. Don't make assumptions. A canister of coffee could be for an uncle who makes everyone miserable unless he has his cup when he visits. A good general rule is to be strict with yourself and lenient with others.
- Don't be troublesome. Don't expect your hosts to provide you with toiletries; don't use theirs without permission. Ask which towels and blankets they wish you to use. Remove decorative bedspreads before sleeping or lounging on them. Don't put water glasses on furniture without a coaster or dish under them. Don't hang damp towels over furniture, risking mildew and damage. Don't put things into the toilet that could cause it to back up or overflow. Don't stain towels or bedding with hair pomades, cosmetics, kumkum, turmeric, coconut, mustard or tea tree oil, or use incense or aromatherapy fragrances without permission. (Some people are highly sensitive, and the aroma could linger long after you are gone). Having something shipped to you at your host's address can leave them responsible for shipping, taxes, import duties, etc. If it arrives after you leave, they'll need to forward it -- a real imposition. Ask permission in advance, and be sure you cover all costs. Likewise, if they lend you a key, be sure to return it before you leave.
- Eat what you are given. Obviously, you will be following the regulative principles; but let hosts know that you will be satisfied with whatever simple vegetable dishes they prepare, and can help in the cooking yourself. Be on time for meals; it is rude to make your hosts wait for you. If you aren't sure the food has been offered, silently offer it to Krsna in your heart. Don't make a fuss or appear the martyr, especially at the dinner table. Better to bring your hosts a copy of The Higher Taste or one of Kurma's cookbooks than to lecture about how they are murderers.
- Minimize your demands. If you are used to having a cup of hot water and lemon on arising, etc., don't expect your hosts to supply it. Ask if it will be okay to make it yourself, or do without. If you have an allergy or special diet, minimize difficulties by providing advance notice of any individual dietary restrictions. If it presents problems, arrange to have your meals elsewhere or bring the special items you need (but don't have food in your room to attract pests). If you don't like something on offer, say: "No, thank you; I'm full," or: "It looks good, but I'd better not," or some such. Don't hurt your hosts' feelings; they may have gone to a lot of trouble to prepare food for you.
- Don't come if you are sick (except to your mom's house). The household may include young children, elderly or immune-compromised members; don't bring disease to the house of your hosts. If you have recently been exposed to a communicable disease, make sure you are past the incubation stage before visiting. Don't share dishes with the family if you think you might be contagious — recovering from a tropical disease, etc. — but ask for separate dishes that can be sterilized.
- Don't exude crisis. If you are having crises (lost luggage, marital problems, etc.), deal with them as discreetly as you can. Don't make your visit about dealing with your crisis, drawing all around you into the maelstrom.
- Don't complain. Don't judge. You may be annoyed that there is no convenient transportation, that the town is miles from nowhere, that your hosts don't live up to your devotional standards, etc., but cultivate a mood of gratefulness and tolerance. That person's heart may be purer than yours, even if their house is messy, they have a weakness for ketchup or eat "karmi bread" or prepackaged cereals. Don't expect busy working people to provide you three home-cooked meals a day including piles of fresh chapatis and slow-simmered dhal. If the family is having peanut butter sandwiches and milk, then say, "Thank you, Krsna," and act like it is your favorite preparation, or fast.
- Don't overstay your welcome. Limit your visit to three days if possible, a week at most (even if they are relatives), and only if your host assures you it is not a hardship. (Even then, watch for clues that your visit is wearing thin, and if so, find a convenient excuse to leave early).
- Recompense your hosts. If you stay more than a few days, are expecting more than a place to sleep and one meal a day, or know you have occasioned extra expense, you should absolutely offer to pay, leave a nice tip or otherwise reimburse your hosts. It is far cheaper than commercial lodgings, and you got fed, too! Unless you can reciprocate by having your hosts visit you in turn, you should give a nice gift or freewill offering for their hospitality. Those under a vow of poverty should still offer what they can. Your hosts could easily be out $100 or more. If they, like many devotees, have a tight budget, this could be a real hardship.
If you think that following these rules is just too much trouble, then maybe as a guest you're just too much trouble; humility is a virtue to be cultivated. Keep in mind the examples of Lord Krishna, Lord Madana-Gopala and Lord Ramachandra, who were happy even with chipped rice, dry chapatis and banana peels.