Arts and Culture

Click your way round the world

Cat Pritchard

Trying to find her way through Spain on a budget, Cat Pritchard tried Airbnb -- a website catering to, um, alternative accommodation.

Been to Europe lately? Probably not. The rand doesn’t travel as far as news of mining massacres, strikes and Jacob Zuma’s or Julius Malema’s lifestyles. So what to do with two weeks in Spain and not a distant family member to call on?

Figuring myself too old for a youth hostel and too ugly for a brothel, I started looking for “alternative” forms of accommodation. So when a friend mentioned this website called “airbnb”, I thought: “Oh boy, here we go, even rooms are being hosted on a ‘cloud’.”

Images of a small white virtual capsule where I could log in and recharge came to mind, but I didn’t want to appear old-fashioned, so I promised to give the site a quick navigation. And that’s when Alice entered the rabbit hole.

Have you ever wanted to snoop through people’s private spaces outside of the usual Sunday show day? Thanks to websites like airbnb.com you can now pay to stay in a Redwood tree house in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains (R1 081) or wake up in a converted boat wreck on a cliff overlooking the Aegean Sea (R1 118).

It’s likely that you will probably start off looking for cheap central accommodation in New York and end up putting an original Mongolian yurt in Dresden (R447) on your personal “wish list”.

By the way, if you still need accommodation in New York’s East Village, Josh, an actor and musician who works in a Manhattan hotel, has a “loft space” for a mere R640 a night. Just know that by “loft” he means a mattress on a scaffolding and by “space” he means a bed screened off from the kitchen by a curtain.

What did you expect? New York is one of the most expensive of the 31 240 cities and 192 countries featured on this site that enables people to list and book a range of accommodation options, from a private room in a home to a penthouse in Bantry Bay. South Africa has about 1 650 ­listings.

I must have viewed more than 100 options before booking Mathieu’s “happy room” for my first nights in Barcelona. I was initially wary of the Barri Gòtic district, having read reviews of sleepless nights and noisy streets. I reckoned if I wasn’t going to actually sleep, there were probably cheaper ways to store my luggage. I will admit to being drawn in by the pictures of Mathieu’s old-world apartment with its beautiful mosaic tiles, tasteful Art Deco furniture and large salon-styled rooms.

But he got me with the private courtyard. Once you’ve pictured yourself surrounded by old-world glamour, sipping espressos in the privacy of your shady courtyard, it’s a quick leap from personal reservations to online reservation. Of course, in my Fellini film there were no washing lines hanging overhead and I didn’t have to listen to the upstairs neighbour going about his morning constitution. At least it sounded like a man.

Times are tough
One smart feature of the website is that both guests and hosts get the opportunity to review their experience. In this way everyone gets “screened”, making it safer for traveller and host alike.

There are many reasons why people advertise their spare rooms, barns and boats on websites like these. Like me, most of the people had some sort of financial benefit in mind. Times are tough; we all need to be more resourceful. But at the heart of every good host was always the yearning to share their culture, city and stories with like-minded strangers. The ones that don’t will probably get weeded out by bad reviews.

This thought came to mind when Mathieu kept me waiting at his door for 30 minutes. The apartment did live up to its hospitable promises. It was cool, styled and sophisticated. The host, not so much. When the chain came off the communal latrine, he got all flustered and told us we had probably broken it. Personally, I think a 100-year-old toilet being used by thousands of guests has a way of breaking itself in time. He quickly fixed the toilet, but the trust was already broken.

Then there was the strange man in the room next to us. We only caught a glimpse of him on the first day, but we could smell his cigarette smoke and hear his iPhone alarm going off every day. Was he a guest? A lodger? It was never clear.

Neither was it clear which rooms we could use and which were “off limits”. So, in the absence of Mathieu’s guidance or hospitality, we slunk around the apartment not sure whether we were using someone else’s mug or about to sit on some prized antique. Needless to say, the streets became our home.

With my next booking I tried to look more for a “happy host” and not a “happy room”. Irene was perfect. She was warm, went out of her way to meet us when we arrived early in Madrid and made us feel instantly at home by showing us around and providing some suggestions for good local eateries and sites. The room seemed so perfect. It was clean and modern and had a small balcony overlooking the main street. We actually felt bad for having the best room in the house because all the others were dark holes with views of drainpipes. Amateur mistake.

By midnight we were sweating as though we had contracted the Spanish flu. A few hours later, our night sweats had reached fever pitch and we faced a torturous dilemma — open the shutters and let the street lights and noise flood in or wallow in our dark, damp hole. We chose air, with our complimentary airline earplugs and eye covers picking up the slack.

In San Sebastián I tried to get all the benefits in one when I booked a room with a willing chef and able surfer who lived outside the city. I should have known, though, that what with his late-night shifts and surfer habits, his cleaning routine might not extend as far as clean sheets or an aired room. And his home may indeed have been far enough from the city to be classified “countryside”, but a view of the highway is not what I had in mind.

I did eventually get a true taste of the countryside with the Gomez family, who live outside Mundaka — a famous surf spot in the Basque region. The parents hardly spoke any English, but their kindness and hospitality needed no translation. They invited me to share in lunchtime meals and volunteered their teenage daughter, Atma, to act as my official translator and guide. Here was the personal touch that so many hosts had been promising but very few actually delivered.

But it was probably my final days in Barcelona that really stood out for me. I decided to try out a new area, Gràcia, to experience accommodation more in keeping with the spirit of Spain’s crazy artists such as Picasso, Dali and Gaudi. So, with some reservation, I booked with Carien — a French artist who had covered her entire flat (from ceilings and hallways to bathroom and bedrooms) in colourful tissue paper, creating characters and scenes borrowed from children’s storybooks and said artists’ easels.

The designs themselves weren’t to my liking, but Carien and her passion were — so much so that I grew to appreciate her vision and be inspired by her commitment to her art form. She shared her wine with me and I, in turn, shared stories of a like-minded South African artist who also followed her vision and created unusual sculptures in her back garden, Helen Martin. Now wouldn’t Helen and the Owl House have made for a really great Airbnb experience? Sí.

Tips on hosting

Hosting guests through sites like airbnb.com means taking on the role of guide, ambassador or bed-and-breakfast owner. If you don’t have a proper spare room but have a mattress or couch to offer, you can always sign up with couchsurfing.com and invite travellers to stay, free of charge, in your home.

Communication is key: make sure you respond to a guest’s requests as quickly as possible. Things change very quickly when you are travelling, so the sooner you respond the better your chances of securing that guest. Also, make sure you communicate what guests can use (fridge or washing machine) and what is off limits. Never assume anything.

Make yourself available: hosting is more than just meeting to drop off keys. If you want good reviews (and more guests), offer an experience, not just a room. Personal touches such as travel tips and shared meals go a long way towards repeat business.

Safety works both ways. To ensure guests feel safe, provide a safety and security manual about your home and city. If you are worried about your own safety as a host, have your guests tell you a bit about themselves and their reasons for coming to your city. You can also check that they have a photo and a verified phone number through their Airbnb profile.

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