I’ve been writing the Real Travel column in every issue of National Geographic Traveler for almost ten years–long before the magazine (and my column) made the move online. I thought it would be fun to re-visit some of those older, print-only columns from time to time, here on the blog.
This one–I call it Sleeping With Strangers–cuts to the chase of a travel dilemma I know we’ve all experienced from both sides. What’s the most graceful way to be a good guest (and host)? With CouchSurfing now a well-established tool in our travel kit, it’s not a bad moment to think about what we gain (and what, sometimes, we lose) by experiencing a place under someone else’s wing….
Sleeping With Strangers
It was Carnival time on a small Caribbean island, and all the hotels and guesthouses had been booked up solid months in advance. But I was lucky: a dear friend’s mother had an old acquaintance who lived on the island. She called her, explained my situation, and the woman–I’ll call her Adela–immediately said, “Why of course she can be my guest!”
I flew down soon afterwards, thrilled to have such an invitation on one of my first-ever trips abroad. As a houseguest of a local person, I figured I was in for a really special travel experience: with the help of my hosts I’d get a total immersion in the Carnival culture.
Adela’s house was a few miles from the city, in a gated hilltop development of large estates shrouded in bougainvilla and jasmine vines. She greeted me at the door wearing a pink caftan and gold sandals. “Isn’t it nice up here? Far away from the dreadful noise of the bloody Carnival.”
Adela, to my chagrin and amazement, hated the island’s famous Carnival. What’s more, her house was a fortress: curlicued wrought-iron gates barred every outside door and window. To get from the front door to my room required four different keys, and my host didn’t have copies for me. “This is such a dangerous country,” my hostess warned, opening a padlock to one of the gates. “But don’t worry, because you’re safe here, and you won’t want to leave.”
In fact, even if I wanted to I couldn’t. At least not without offending my host. (And locking myself out, too.) Every time I tried to go downtown to check out the Carnival preparations Adela would appear, and offer to drive me to “someplace nice”–usually a shopping mall. In the torpid evenings, after dinner, I’d hear enticing music drifting up the hill. But there was no question of my going downtown.
“We can watch the Carnival on tv,” Adela proclaimed, settling her bulk into a lounge chair. “Could you be a dear and massage my feet?”
The Bargain of “The Guest Deal”
Being a houseguest when you travel, as I discovered on that long-ago trip, can be either dream or nightmare–especially if you are a traveler like me, who cherishes her independence. To be a guest is to strike a bargain, trading your freedom for access to someone else’s way of life, someone else’s idea of what is interesting and remarkable about the place they live in.
The payoff is that, when you and your hosts are on the same wavelength, you can have a trip more special than money can buy. Some years ago when I went to Auckland for the first time, my hosts–a couple around my own age I’d met while traveling– had a full program lined up for me. They drove me around the north island to their favorite hot springs, to the beach where “Xena, Warrior Princess” was filmed. At mealtimes they introduced me to their favorite restaurants, where I sampled the special cheeses from south New Zealand that don’t get exported, the fruits that only grow locally.
Normally such a tight schedule would make me antsy, but I found myself happily relinquishing the reins to my hosts, who knew the pleasures of their native country and enjoyed sharing them. I couldn’t have encountered this New Zealand through any guidebook, on my own.
Some of my guest experiences have been unexpected sojourns into a lifestyle I’d only read about in novels. In the Spanish colonial city of Cartagena, Colombia, I once was the guest of the local organizers of a music festival and seminar. Together with the other attendees, I stayed in their grand 18th century house that had more than 20 rooms, a tropical courtyard filled with chattering parrots, and a swimming pool. A household staff was ready and waiting to whip up a plate of Colombian arepas (corn cakes), or organize a car to the beach or to shopping.
It was like being in a five star hotel, but better: my laid-back hosts were friends with just about every interesting artist and writer in town, who, in the Latin way, would pop in for meals and coffee at all times. Learning about Colombia and its history and culture was as easy as jumping off my four poster bed and stumbling down to breakfast.
My Guest Success Strategies
It’s taken me a while, but I think I have mastered the art of successful guesting. As a general rule, I accept invitations only from people whom I’ve met in person, or at least talked to by phone, and with whom I feel some connection (this is what I should have done before my long-ago Caribbean island debacle). I strongly believe in the “guests as stinking fish” adage–I’ll usually set a two or three day limit to my stay anywhere, and I’ll have an onward ticket and a reservation booked. Then if I find that my hosts and I are having a great time together, I can extend my ticket; otherwise, I have a polite escape hatch.
Always Have a Plan B
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Speaking of escape hatch, I think it is always good to have a Plan B in mind, another hotel or friend you can stay with in case your hosts turn out to be in the early throes of a divorce, or you find that 18 of their distant cousins have unexpectedly shown up on the same weekend you’ve arrived.
And I believe in returning hospitality as generously as possible. I always bring a small present for my hosts, and I take them out to at least one fancy dinner while I’m around.
A Good Guest Spreads the Karma
Finally, I know that the most important obligation of a houseguest is to be ready and willing to reciprocate. Now that I’m living part of the year in Hong Kong, it’s my turn to play tour guide with visiting friends. In fact, I have one sleeping on my spare mattress right now. Of course I want nothing more than to drag her around from morning til midnight to all the little places that I adore in my adopted city–while forcing her to try all my favorite local dishes like stewed chicken feet and sauteed pig’s intestines.
But, speaking as someone who’s slept on her share of mattresses too, I know better. So I have given her a good map, and a cellphone with a local number so she can call me when she’s ready for some help or company. I want her to find her own Hong Kong, not push her to fall in love with mine. She’s got her own set of keys.