The resort you could not afford even in your dreams
Picture the most beautiful, luxurious tropical resort you can imagine. Use Hollywood imagery if that helps. Now picture some extra palm trees and complimentary masseuses. Add a sea view on a white beach and a bathroom as big as your average NYC apartment and don’t forget the soothing sound of the waves as they crash just inches from your bathtub, on the other side of the wall. Now imagine that I got paid to sleep there.
Okay, I’m giving you the partial, rosy side of the story here. I was interning at an international chamber of commerce in South East Asia for a semester and one of my assignments was to organize a 2 day seminar for the top European businessmen of the country. I got to arrive at the hotel before dawn, fill a conference room with hundreds of chairs, run around looking for video projectors, panic when leaflets weren’t printed correctly, panic some more when I found out the buffet wouldn’t accommodate the variety of dietary restrictions represented (hello, snobby chef, South East Asia? This means lots of Muslims, lots of Hindus and lots of vegetarians, duh!), deal politely yet firmly with CEOs who claimed to have paid their fee when that wasn’t true and answer in a professional manner to sexist jokes instead of clawing people’s eyes out (“demean the intern”does seem to be an international sport, sadly). Somehow I forgot most of the job stress and only remember what I gave you in the first paragraph: the wonderful, wonderful setting. I think that’s why those kinds of events are held at places like these.
If you’re thinking of exploring a city for several weeks, if your travel spot of choice has insane hotel prices, if you travel with kids or aging parents, like a bit of comfort and don’t see a problem with strangers sleeping in your sheets, house swapping is a fantastic solution. The idea is to go live at someone’s place while they come live in yours. No hotels to pay, no launderette to look for, you can even leave each other notes on the best place to buy bread in the city or how to deal with the quirky shower tap. I got to try it when going to Canada with my grandparents almost 10 years ago. We swapped with the friend of a friend, but today, plenty of websites like homelink.org, homeexchange.com… will help you find the holiday house of your dreams! The more desirable your home town is, the easier it will be, but with patience, anyone can find a match.
A few tips for a successful home swap: Leave your house in the state you’d want to find it: clean, tidy, functional, with a supply of spare sponges, cleaning products and garbage bags. Also, leaving fresh food supplies for the first day is a nice gesture! Write a “house book” where you put on paper the little quirks of your boiler, appliances manuals, good spots to know in town, useful addresses and emergency contacts. Discuss with your swap partner what happens in case something breaks. Put away your valuables and personal items you don’t want anyone to see! Tell the neighbors that, yes, someone will be staying in your home and, no, they needn’t call the police. If you can, have a friend meet your guests, hand them the keys and check with them on the third day that everything is going fine.
The big downside to this method is that you get to imagine so much about your guests, you exchange e-mails and friendly notes but you don’t really have a chance to hang out with them. If the social aspect of traveling is important to you, this can be a disappointment or an excellent excuse to travel again some other time to meet your virtual friend.
Thanks to the eponymous website, this method has become immensely popular with backpackers lately. I have never actually couchsurfed at stranger’s myself*, but I’ve hosted a few couchsurfers in my French apartment. As someone who has received more than her share of free rides, free meals, free beer and other friendly gestures on the road, I love this way of giving back to the travel community. If you’re in a travel rut yourself, it allows you to travel through their stories, too!
*Come to think of it, that’s not true. I’ve crashed a fair share of couches. Not least of which being my now-boyfriend’s, less than 48 hours after meeting him for the first time. We were in Brussels, we had just attended an official reception for engineering students interning in Japan on a EU grant. I missed the last train going back home. I randomly ran into him at the station as I was counting my change, cringing at how expensive the hotel was going to be. There were no trains going back to France, but there were some going to the Netherlands, so why not come and sleep on his couch, he suggested? Why not, indeed? We spent the train ride discussing how excited we were about going to Japan. We ate fries with mayonnaise from a Dutch snack bar. He played me the guitar and I rolled my eyes at the cheesiness although I was secretly enjoying it. We each went to sleep on our side of the room. He had a girlfriend at the time; we only started dating a few months after that, on the other side of the world. But that tells you a lot about the grounds of our relationship. Anyway, yes Iíve crashed couches, but never in a planned, organized manner, with strangers, the way the website puts it.
The guest house
As I was interning in South East Asia with a joke of a salary, I went from Kuala Lumpur to Melaka, the harbor famous for its pirate stories, on an extremely limited budget and took the bus, packed a sandwich. A friend of mine had recommended an inexpensive guest house, owned by a Swiss woman and her Malaysian husband. Her main argument was: it’s not in the Lonely Planet! Although I don’t think this is true anymore (word of mouth sometimes makes its way to big publishers) it meant at the time that the place would be quiet, not crowded, with an actual chance of befriending the owners. A guest house in the etymological sense of the word.
Now the landlady was nuts, I can’t think of another way to put it. Not in a bad way, though. Or maybe she was just constantly high as she kept offering some of her homegrown stuff (I refused and you should, too: drug possession is punishable by death penalty in most of South East Asia, and your embassy can’t always rescue you.)
The comfort was reduced to the bare minimum. A mattress, sheets and a door that sort of closes. Humidity makes wood swell in this region of the world, and many houses end up with lopsided parts if they’re not air conditioned. Hope you thought of bringing your soap and shampoo for the communal shower. And that you don’t mind hearing your next-door neighbor snore.
Does this sound awful? It really really wasn’t. Some people would think: seedy! I thought: picturesque. Some people would think: unsafe. I thought: hey, I have street smarts and as long as I donít leave my passport and cash lying around, nothing too bad can happen, really. Some people would think: what an awful lack of privacy! I thought: what a great chance to meet people! And indeed I chatted a good part of the evening away (and, given the noise that went on as I went to bed, other guests chatted the rest of the night away, too). I got to hear goofy travel stories and first hand recommendations. I got to lie in the hammock hung in the patio with a bottle of Bintang beer, among the mismatched furniture and handmade wind chimes that gave a very personal feel to the place. I got to read a few books stranded there by previous guests. I got to hug a teary eyed landlady in the morning, who said I’d always be welcome in her home and that she’d never forget me or maybe she was still inebriated from the night before.
The bikers’ hangout
That was probably one of the most surprising experiences I had in Japan. My boyfriend and I travelled to Yakushima (breathtaking island, by the way, go there! Go!) with, as usual for me, very short notice and very little preparation (I may need to add that my boyfriend/travel partner had been on bed rest with a concussion until the minute before departure, was therefore completely useless in getting things done and all extra worries. Don’t be tall in Japan, it’s not good for your cranial integrity). I had called all the accommodation options in the book, one by one, and only the “Rider House” could offer could offer beddings for two. Rider house it is, then.
Had I pondered a bit more the name of the place and done a bit more research, I may not have been so surprised to get to the place and end up face to face with a bunch of leather-covered Japanese dudes on big Harleys. Fixing engines, riding loudly around the house, looking tough. Well, as tough as a guy 2 inches shorter than me can look, anyway. The landlady put down her wrench when she saw us: blond, white, tall, no motorbike; we sort of stand out, and welcomed us, assigned us a bed in the dormitories, and asked about our plans for the day. When hearing that we didn’t have any yet, she gathered her guests and within minutes we each had a helmet on our head and an assigned biker. Two fantastic kids who drove us around the island, from cool hiking spot to white beaches where sea turtles come lay eggs, and back to the rider house through the supermarket where I bought Asahi beer for everyone. I sent my concussed partner to bed early and went back to spend the evening around a barbecue, listening to everyoneís life story. My rider was taking a break from the corporate grind and was enjoying a year-long adventure on two wheels around Japan. She was sweet, polite yet adventurous and loud while at the same time definitely atypical and still very Japanese. The most unusual places are where you meet the most unusual people and get a chance to find out they are not all that different from you, after all.
Aelle has been travelling the world for over a decade and loving every minute of it. She has lived in the US, Malaysia, Japan, and currently stays in her native France in between two expatriations. She blogs bilingually at des mots pour se taire.