Saturday, November 19, 2016

Up in the Air

This post actually started over a year ago.  Today, I wanted to write about all the cool art stuff I've been working on...but then I chose to use my powers for evil.  This shouldn't come as a surprise to you if you've been reading the blog for any length of time; I hang out with the powers of darkness a lot.  Nevertheless, most of the finished fruits of my labors aren't things I want to share with the interwebs...if any of my six readers want to stop into Mongolia one of these days, I might be willing to negotiate a cringey show and tell.  But for now, I'll keep my secrets, and you'll have to wait a while longer for the next-level, mad-skillz art post.

Instead, let me tell you about airBnB.  I assume everyone who travels at all and most people who don't know about airBnB, but after our TEDx event (which I wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole in this space, but you can check it out on Facebook, if you care), I mentioned staying in one to Blondie during our four-hour ASA with Engrish, and she didn't really know what I was talking about.  I first encountered it before starting to plan my Russia/Venice trip, and decided to try it on that excursion, since hotels there were so expensive.  AirBnBs are generally extra rooms in people's homes that they rent out to travelers.  At first, this seems a little sketchy.  My friend Siobhan once told me about Couchsurfing, and I thought, "Hell no."  I didn't like the idea of just crashing on some rando's couch, or the idea of hosting randos myself.  But I'd seen some of the airBnBs from articles posted on facebook, and the reality of spending three weeks in three expensive cities forced my hand.
I felt a little weird taking pictures of peoples homes at first - instead, here's a picture of my shoes at that trip's end
That first experience was pretty legit.  Irina was my first hostess..  Her apartment was spacious and clean, although a bit of a walk to get into tourist central.  She was very sweet and served yogurt, croissants, and fresh homemade strawberry jam on my last morning in St. Petersburg. My next hostess was Natasha.  Her flat was in the perfect location - it was about 5 minutes from the metro and maybe 10 from the Kremlin AND there was a Mexican restaurant down the street whose food was kind of mediocre but served a kick-ass virgin strawberry daiquiri.  The door was a bit hard to work, and it got a little hot, but overall I was happy with my stay in Moscow (at least until I had to walk 45 minutes to get to the Aeroexpress station, but that was my fault for having such an early flight to Venice).  My final host was Lorenzo (there's no link because he doesn't do airBnB anymore).  I intentionally chose to stay with women for the first two, because that felt safer, but his listing mentioned that he had a female flat mate, so that made me feel a little easier about it, and Lorenzo turned out to be an excellent host.  Not only was the flat right next to the Rialto (which means easy access to the vaporetto and Alilaguna boats), my room was spacious, and I had a wardrobe to hang up my clothes in (which I actually took advantage of, since I was there for 11 days).  Venice was bloody hot, and he went above and beyond by going out and buying an electric fan for me to use while I was there.  I'm not sure how I lived without it the first half of the time I was there, but it made a HUGE difference to my comfort level.  Although his flat was on the 4th piano (which translates to the 5th floor for us Americans), I considered it a good thing, with the amount of gelato I ate during the week.  I also didn't mind when his water heater had a couple of issues (which he was prompt in attending to) while I was there - I spent all day sweating, and I ended up taking cool showers even when the hot water was cooperating.
My stay in Kyoto has been my favorite, though.  Taka-san owns a traditional Kyoto house with tatami rooms and paper-thin walls.  When I went to Tokyo two-some years ago, I stayed in a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), where I had the experience with tatami, and a futon, and a Japanese style bath.  I decided I was never staying in a hotel in Japan again, especially since the cramped little room I had my first trip to Kyoto cost me a whopping $130/night, and had zero character.  The problem, though, when I started looking for a place this trip, was that the ryokan were either too expensive, in places where I didn't want to stay, or both.  So when I found Taka-san's Kyo-machiya, I booked it, even though it was non-refundable and our fall vacation hadn't been confirmed yet.
Best decision ever.  It was exactly what I wanted - besides the whole traditional culture thing, it was relatively close to everything.  He also has a gallery set up in his "living room," in which was displayed some of the coolest art I saw my whole visit - a series of anime-style watercolors that told the story of a boy and a girl meeting at a festival.  He owns two bikes that he rents to his guests for a whopping 300 yen a day, so even the things you can't easily see by foot, bus, or metro are really accessible...although learn from my fail.  I fought the law, and the law won.  The day I rented it, I was on my way back to the house when I passed one of the shopping arcades, and decided to stop and take a look around.  There were no legal spaces, and other people had illegally parked their bikes, so I decided to yolo it.  After relying on the kindness of strangers (and Japanese strangers truly are kind!  This ojisan who was dealing with the same problem let me follow him to bike prison) and paying 2300 yen (which is apparently super reasonable for having your bike impounded) I had my bike back and was wishing even more fervently to be able to move to Japan.  It's weird, but I kind of miss living with people who hold you accountable for following the rules.

It was across the street from the zoo, and when I woke in the early mornings I could hear snuffles and grunts from our neighbors.  I could also hear snores from the other guests.  See, many airBnBs have multiple rooms they rent out, which feels a little like a drawback of the system.  None of the other guests in Kyoto were a problem - everyone was very polite (which is kind of a pain in and of itself...when you're staying in someone's home, you feel like you have to be on your best behavior, while at a hotel, you can stink up the room with your poops and not have to worry about offending anyone) - but some of the guests at Lorenzo's came home one night at about two, noisy and (presumably) super drunk.  Another quasi-problem is getting in.  People's homes are harder to find than hotels, and you kind of have to arrange when you'll get there, rather than just showing up.  Contact numbers are listed, in case you get lost, but I rarely bother with getting a sim card when I travel, so when I couldn't find Irina's, I had to find an open wifi network and use my skype credit to call her.
Parting gifts from Taka-san

Overall,  AirBnB is a different experience.  It gives you the opportunity to get to know people from other parts of the world more deeply than you would if you were in a hotel - if you're into that sort of thing - but it's also not their job to help you out.  All of my hosts were extremely gracious, but I didn't ask for a lot from them.  All in all, it's an interesting and often cheaper way to see the world, and I feel like it is probably a pretty good deal for the hosts.  I haven't used it every time I've traveled since I started, but if it makes sense to do so, and you can find one that you're comfortable with, I say go for it.

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