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While hotels have their advantages, when you travel without staying at a hotel, you end up meeting many different people, and coming back with some amazing experiences.
By Laura Valencia
I’ll admit that hotels have perks. Few travelers will turn down a complimentary breakfast, especially after a morning of cannon-balling into a meter-deep swimming pool. Hotels are great for meeting other wanderers, and are often surrounded by restaurants, shops, and plenty of places for tourists to consummate their relationship with their destination.
They add a certain amount of privacy and stability into an otherwise unpredictable itinerary. Yet, after examining the list of hotel alternatives below, you might find yourself “finding yourself” without the help of professional hospitality.
One caveat: These ideas generally require an “in” and also require you to be on your best cross-cultural behavior. But travelers, if you’re not open to building relationships and getting outside of your comfort zone, you may as well have a conversation in your broken second language with a hand-drawn face around your bellybutton. Also, these ideas are ideal for short-term travelers; for long-term travelers I invariably recommend staying with a host family.
Your friend’s place, your friend’s friend’s place, your friend’s grandma’s place, the nice lady on the bus’s place, and the nice person on Couchsurfing’s place.
Strangers are often warm, hospitable, interesting and interested. They feed you, they make you laugh, and sometimes they don’t let you go. Compliments go way beyond breakfast, and compensation always supersedes the monetary. Staying in people’s homes is an opportunity to redefine the way you see a place and allow someone else to take the lead. It transforms your role from tourist to guest, away from self-focused consumption and towards contribution. Reset your honing device, because you are home (maybe not your home, but definitely someone else’s).
A friend who had a house to himself suggested my friend Jenny and I spend a few days at his sister’s place, where two paying guest MBA students were staying. We gratefully accepted the suggestion, excited to get to spend time with some young people and talk shop while still conscientious of being guests in someone else’s home. After a few awkward moments and stilted translation, they looked at each other and giggled. We asked again, and again – “What? What is it?” while joining in on the giggle party. After a minute or two of cajoling, they relayed the brief Marathi communication back to us: “Before you came, we were scared. Two American girls! But now….we think we are okay.”
See? Everyone grows.
I spent a week at the TISS campus in Mumbai. Universities are filled with folks who love to learn BUT are too busy to dominate your schedule, so you get a good amount of personal space combined with righteous hangouts on demand. You’ll quickly become integrated into campus goings-on, and very few nooks and crannies of the campus will remain unexplored. The infrastructure available on a college campus (such as libraries, internet, and a cafeteria) make the complex aspects of travel simple.
Interestingly, if you are a post-college traveler such as I am, staying at a college campus provides a useful parallel experience to your own experience in the academic bubble. Staying on a campus for non-academic purposes gives a fresh, hilarious perspective on the constantly buzzing yet undoubtedly humdrum lives of college students. After staying at TISS, I consequently turned down admission to grad school, and opted to travel and work instead.
During a strike in Kerala, my friend and I were put up in the most non-threatening accommodation possible: an old folks’ home. It was perfect. Life literally happens slower around great-grandpeople, so slow that the strike outside seemed more active than our early retirement. We had a private room, healthy meals, loads of companion for conversation, and even access to a doctor. Staying in old folks’ homes is a great way to learn from the point of view of people who are usually silent despite their depth of knowledge. Our next door neighbor was a renowned marine biologist formerly with the UN, just saying.
Camping is wisest and nicest in the countryside and villages. You’ll wake up to epic sunrises and perhaps goat herds, too. Make sure you can meet your most basic needs, and improvise from there. Pack enough water and food to not get desperate (dried fruits and nuts are the classic choice). If in a cold/rainy climate, carry with you a sheltering device such as a tarp or tent. After a night munching on dried fruits under a tarp and an epic sunrise in the morning, you can venture outwards to the village.
Requests for water are never denied, but beware: more often than not, you will have to hide your tent behind bushes and haystacks to NOT be invited in aggressively by friendly farmer families. The key to safety is self-reliance. To be able to turn down a meal with a busy family if you want to chill with your book. To be able to not get a lift with someone if you don’t like their chat. Bottom line is, you got food, shelter, and a decent book (and a sunrise in due course).
Depending on where you are, the landscape of this varies greatly (though the hospitality is constant). In the US, when I travel for conferences or protests, I invariably sleep on church floors. In India, gurudwaras often serve this same purpose and even provide free meals. At other institutions, longer-term arrangements are possible. I spent four months living in a convent built in 1970 in a breezy, shady neighborhood of Bangalore. It was a very welcome environment, with a beautiful garden, healthy food, and pleasant companionship (nuns and a few young professionals). Not only did I have wooden furniture for the first time in a year, it was a welcome all-female oasis.
Paying guest can mean different things, but the general idea is that accommodations are provided by family for multiple young people of a single gender for bare-bones rates. I’ve visited PGs where fifty young women are holed up in an apartment run by an enterprising businesswoman, and other PGs where guests eat with their hosting family every night. Clearly, the situation can range from near familial to near human-trafficking, so be aware when entering into a PG contract.
Last year, I found a great PG in Bangalore where I shared three rooms with nine women who came from every part of India (Kerala, Kashmir, Rajasthan, and Sikkim were all represented). Over time, our routines coalesced and pleasantries became friendly back-and-forth. Not only did I save money staying in a PG, I learned more about young Indian women my age, a group that would have been inaccessible to me otherwise.
So there’s the list – but how does one secure accommodation like this? Usually the first step is to ask. The second step is your own. As the co-founder of Mule Design, Mike Monteiro, said, networking is just research with good manners! So get out there and get chummy!
Note: I’d like to conclude with one concession to the hotel-dwellers. One good reason to stay in a hotel – perhaps the only good reason if you ask me – is to get a fresh, from-the-ceiling shower in times of desperate need. But even that can be debated!
Pic of Laura Valencia with her hostel mates from Kerala and Uttar Pradesh courtesy Laura
This article was originally published at The Alternative – an online publication on social change and sustainable living.
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