The last few nights at home in my own bed I awakened repeatedly to the pitter patter of the rain. Cozy and grateful as always for a dry roof over my head I wondered: Will I miss this on the road? Am I crazy to leave my home for a year? What idiot would voluntarily do so?
While I don’t have answers for the later two, I can say truthfully that I don’t miss my own bed, my own home. Perhaps it is because we have been lucky, with one or two exceptions so far that the places we hung our hat at were unique, warm, and most downright friendly.
Cute hot water bottles in New Zealand
After spending over 100 nights a year in business hotels Mirek was more than happy to accept alternative accommodations. Somehow it has fallen to me to pick the places we stay (on division of labor on the road in a later post) unless they are redeemable points hotel bookings. But those are few and far between. In the first month of travel we only stayed in Hilton hotels twice: one night in Queenstown and one in Christchurch, where we had to leave at 4 am for the airport anyway.
Whereas a night in Hilton or Marriott has always been a huge treat and a saving grace for us when traveling in Africa especially, in the The civilized New Zealand the ineptness and the uncaring attitude of the staff made it annoying to say the least.
The simplest place we stayed at was a youth hostel at Milford Sound (the only available place to stay) and we had one of the best dinners of venison there with great international team of young students-happy foreign quest workers.
As with general travel, in accommodation it is the people that make all the difference. And our stays have had some exceptionally warm people welcoming us into their homes. The sweetest memory comes from driving a long way from the airport in Christchurch down south to stay with Servas hosts Stan and Marion. They have been sending us welcoming and informative emails from the first contact and now we were communicating through texts (thanks again, T Mobile, for free international texting and data). It was soon clear that the drive will take longer than Google maps initially predicted, so we were going to be late for dinner. “Don’t worry, we will wait for you,” came the reply. Just before Dunedin, the last big town before our final destination, a new text came in: “There is a fire in Dunedin and the freeway is closed, you will need to take the alternative road by the sea.” We kept the conversation going while we were stuck in the detouring traffic, watching the thick black smoke on the horizon. When we finally made it to the house in the last light of the evening, Stan and Marion were waiting on the porch for us. It was like coming home to your parents after a long time away.
We mixed staying with Servas members in New Zealand with Airbnbs and homes of friends and even friends of friends. In Australia we did not have a chance to stay with Servas members because of the rule that one can be a guest exactly two days. You know the saying: Guests, like fish begin to smell after three days. With strangers two might be the limit. With Airbnbs the opposite is true, many have a minimum stay requirement of two or three days, because it is not worth it financially to send a cleaning lady in to change sheets and clean the whole place after people have only stayed a night.
Ourcool Airbnb in Melbourne
We had a few one night stands on side trips or drive throughs, and a few one week base stays. It is good to mix and match. We did find that after a month of changing places every two days and being on the road continuously with early mornings and late nights on the go, even we crazy travelers, always packing in too much into a day, appreciated some heavy rain that forced us to stay put. I never thought I would pray for bad weather on vacation.
Visiting family was one of the major incentives to revisit Australia. For a few days we stayed with Mirek’s second cousin Nadine and her teenage daughter Olivia. We had only met Nadine once before, when she herself was a teenager 32 years ago. That truly was coming home to family. Both her and Mirek have very little extended family so it was quite exciting to share family histories and recollections. We even brought scanned black and white photos from great grandparents. Sweet Olivia was so excited she made us promise that we will have a reunion every two years somewhere around the world. She was going to get a summer job to save the money for travel. Indeed, on our last night out for a celebratory goodbye dinner she boldly asked the owner of the Italian restaurant if she could work for him. “As soon as you turn 15, darling, come back,” he said with a big grin.
Olivia’s ballerina picture in our guest room
Up North in Cairns we spent a week with Mirek’s first cousin Claudine and her partner Leo. We have never met Claudine in person, though we have a long history with her with our kids and her kids keeping the connection by visiting us and them in Australia and US at different times. Many emails and photos have been exchanged planing the kids escapades so when we finally met in person it was like we have always known and loved each other. We spend the first and last night with them but we decided another week on top was too long for two busy people each running their own demanding business, and we took a time share exchange with a resort apartment for a week.
Our time share apartment
Because of the heat and humidity we knew we needed a well functioning air condition. We were also excited to be able to reciprocate inviting our relatives to our place for dinner. Welcome drinks with Claudine and Leo
Eating out is fun for the first couple of weeks on the road, but it quickly becomes burdensome and in some instances a source of strife. When hungry some travelers easily become cranky. (Yeah, you!)
While booking a hotel, especially a familiar brand is easy, choosing the right Airbnb home can be a long process, especially if you easily get bogged down looking at pretty pictures and reading reviews. I used to do that, making long lists of favorites. On the road I do not have that luxury and sometimes I have to make a last minute reservation, so I have become better at choosing the right place. To narrow down the choices I use filters. Firstly I only ask to see homes with Superhost status, those will all have only 5 star reviews. If the area is inexpensive I choose Entire place, if expensive Private room. Then I choose 1 bed (so we don’t end up with two twin beds) 1 bedroom, 1 bathroom (making sure that there is no chance of a shared facility with either host or other guests. Airbnb is becoming very savvy in giving people an easy way to perfectly meet their needs with lots of boxes to check. While I don’t care if the place has a TV or hair dryer, I certainly appreciate having wifi, free parking, washer and drier and especially air conditioning. Breakfast is a bonus, even if it is just toast and jam or cereal. It gets you on the road fast in the morning and prices in restaurants are really high. Cousin Claudine who owns a restaurant says it is because they pay their staff high salaries (20-25 AUD $ for waiters) and even the farm workers are paid well, so raw cooking materials are expensive as well.
After you have read Airbnb listings for a while you also quickly understand the kind of host you will have. The way they write the description of their place, the way they lay out their house rules and communication guidelines, you get a feel for the people. Are they just doing it to make some extra income on the side, or are they genuinely excited to meet new people and will go out of their way to make them feel welcome and help them out. Those are the people that put a lot of thought in their hosting, from beautiful decorations to extra snacks, maps and guidance. It is worth taking a little bit of time and reading guest reviews. With a 5 star rating they are of course going to be very positive but you will still get a sense of what they stay was really like as people write of their experiences. Some of our hosts were indeed as fantastic as other guests have written and this is a lovely bonus for an inexpensive home away from home.
As a young woman I used to travel on a non existing budget, hitchhiking and sleeping outside in a sleeping bag or in cheap camps in a small tent. As a young couple we used to travel on a very tight budget, sometimes ending up in shitty rooms, hot and mosquito infected. What we have now on our trip is a veritable luxury.
Home is where you hang your hat and unpack your luggage.
And listen to the pitter patter of the rain, grateful for a dry roof over your head.