Feb 22nd, 2017, 02:04 PM

A Home Away From Home with Airbnb

By Henry Hardwick
The Twelve Apostles (and the future subject of my wine painting class). Image Credit: Henry Hardwick
You might get a "sketch" apartment with Airbnb — but maybe, just maybe, you can get the experience of a lifetime.

When it comes to traveling, my favorite word is Airbnb.  Almost as valuable as Marriott and nearly twice that of Hilton, it looks like the Airbnb phenomenon is here to stay.

What differentiates Airbnb from other housing options is the owner — or host. From horror stories to life-changing experiences, the host (or lack thereof) can help define the trip itself. Back in Boston, I used to use Airbnb for extended trips to New York City. Heck, a group of us even made a (unpublished) listing for our dorm rooms back in Seminary, which you can see right below.

I remember my first time with two women in their Bushwick apartment. No, not like that at all. I was sleeping on the couch bed under a landscape portrait of George Costanza from Seinfeld, I'm sure you know the one. Anyway, the L and M trains weren't operating that weekend, so I had to take the scenic route. As obsessed with Notorious (2009) as I was back in middle school, traversing Bed-Stuy was a trip in and of itself. Once I dropped off my backpack and grabbed the keys from my host, it was a quick siesta before I was back to Manhattan. A Bright Star birthday experience and dinner at Times Square later, I found myself struggling to open the door with said spare key at one o'clock in the morning (in hindsight, not even the witching hour for New York).

On one hand, that street of Bushwick smelled of longaniza and gentrification, but on the other, I wasn't looking forward to sleeping in the hallway before my bus ride back to Boston (one of many to come). In the end, it was while fumbling with the keys during a frantic phone call to the hosts (who wouldn't be back for another hour or so) that the door suddenly opened. Since I had full access to their tea, cereal, and couch, I wound up putting it down as a plus in my book.

Another time was in East Harlem, back when I was in the process of transferring to the City College of New York. The reason it's worth mentioning is because, to use a colloquial term, everything was "sketch." Now, I'm not saying that there was necessarily anything wrong, but I never met the host. All I did was pick up the key from a padlock-numbered box and find myself in an empty apartment with four or so bedrooms, each locked. At the far end of the hallway was a small table overlooking the fire escape, with room #1 to the right.

Now, I've been to the Stanley Hotel, but this Airbnb was the closest I've ever felt to The Shining (1980). I mean, it was great though: I had my own queen-size bed and a futon (more than I knew what to do with). Feeling like the King of New York, it wasn't walking a couple blocks through Harlem to get soul food at Mama's in the dark that felt odd, it was that as I was leaving the next morning, I ran into two girls who had already moved into the front room. It felt like some kind of delicate ecosystem I had tread upon.

Finally, that brings us to Cape Town, South Africa. When I rented a room from a Native Capetonian, I had no idea what I'd signed up for. While I thought that it's more than impressive for a host to answer your questions over Airbnb's message system, this woman went above and beyond. When I arrived on Beach Road, she didn't just welcome me into her apartment, she welcomed me into her home. After sitting down at her kitchen table with a sea-side view, we had a wonderful discussion over rooibos milk tea and buttermilk rusks (my newest vice).

During a tour of the Victoria and Andrew waterfront, I felt like I had my own personal tour guide. Purchasing biltong (the local "jerky") for me to try from the Food Market and taking me out for a drink overlooking the water at Der Anker (which she happily covered, by the way), it was more like I had a family member than a host. Y'know, the "Cool Aunt" from South Africa (a pleonasm in and of itself). Leaving me to my own devices, I spent the rest of the day exploring until I finally returned home at sunset to an evening slumped over articles needing to be written. Typing away in the dark like Ewan McGregor in the intro to Moulin Rouge!  (2001), it must've been a sorry sight to see, because my host urged me into the kitchen for a home-cooked meal that she had been preparing along with a cream cake.

The V&A Waterfront (and the mood of the entire trip). Image Credit: Henry Hardwick

Throughout a hectic trip of school work and fighting Western Union for the right to the money transfers that kept me from rationing my money over 40 Rand hot dogs (which I had my fair share of), my host served as the pillar of a home to come back to. When I tried to work, she pushed me out of the house to explore. When I was sitting down planning a day trip, she told me to get up and do it while exploring. This was a woman who believed in living life to the fullest, and knowing that there was far more for me to see than I had time for, she made sure I made the best of it.

Sure I didn't wind up at the Cape of Good Hope, and as for a safari, nope. Still, I traveled along the Atlantic Seaboard at sunset, had a helicopter ride with a pilot that thought it was cool to see how close she could get to the mountains, and hiked around Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens and Table Mountain when they tried to close down the cable cars due to inclement weather. Nothing was how I planned it to be, and maybe that's why it was so amazing.

Still from Jurassic Park (1993)... Or Kirstenbosch (It got a little hard to tell at times). Image Credit: Henry Hardwick

It wasn't the new way of life that surprised me. Nor was it the amount of meals included that hadn't even been mentioned on the listing. The truly amazing thing was how I hadn't just stayed at an Airbnb for almost a week, I had lived in South Africa for almost a week. It wasn't the sightseeing that stood out, it was the way of life. On the day that I was leaving, my host and I got up for nine o'clock mass. That's something that I never do, and neither does she. Still, we both wanted to go to Sunday Mass, and she refused to allow me to delay my trip even an hour and a half to go to the service at her usual church.

That's when I realized what's so amazing about Airbnb. Sure you may get a "sketch" apartment in Harlem; maybe that's how you like it. But maybe, just maybe, you can get the experience of a lifetime. One that changes how you defined the experience of a lifetime too. Because it's not the service that matters, it's the connection.