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This article was first published on Times of Malta on 31st March 2013.

sharing economy

Spread out across the table before me is an enviable feast in a display of colour any artist would be proud of. The aromas of freshly baked bread, heavily spiced couscous and a steaming hot tagine as its lid is taken off fight for my attention.

But this is no restaurant. I am seated in Nuri’s dining room, which, judging by the computer desk squeezed into the corner, was her study up until moments ago. On my host’s coaxing, I unceremoniously break off a hunk of bread and pass the rest of it over to another guest.

Exclamations of delight and appreciation are shouted across to Nuri as we all tuck in to the meal she has prepared for us. The scene is no different to any other dinner party at a friend’s house. Except for one key thing: up until twenty minutes ago, I had never met my host or any of the other guests.

Nuri advertised her Moroccan-themed evening on EatWith.com, a website that brings together hungry guests looking for a local dining experience, and the hosts who want to open up their homes and entertain them.

Based in San Francisco for a few weeks, I had been looking for an opportunity to make new friends and gain some insight into the city. EatWith provided me with a platform to do just that, and is how one evening I found myself on Nuri’s doorstep.

By the end of the night I have learned more about San Francisco, its local eateries and attractions, than any guide book could have taught me. Good wine and conversation has flowed steadily, and as I head out the door I feel I am saying goodbye to close friends despite our 4-hour old relationship.

EatWith is just one example of how the budding sharing economy is revolutionising the way we travel. Coined in the mid-2000s, this collaborative form of business allows peer to peer interaction and is creating easy access to local experiences which used to be hard for travellers to come by.

The sharing economy has an answer to all the main needs of a traveller. For accommodation, look no further than Airbnb. This site sets up guests in need of somewhere to stay with hosts who have free space they are willing to share.

The Airbnb listing I call home while in San Francisco is in the heart of the Mission district. A beautiful blue and gold Victorian style building, any tourist would be wont to stop and snap a photo of it while wandering around the neighbourhood. Luckily for me, I have the keys to its door in my pocket and can discover the inside too.

The house belongs to an artist, who has lovingly decorated the interior with murals, light fixtures made out of kayaks and petticoats, folk painting, and memorabilia from a life well-spent on his own travels.

Unlike a hotel, the personality of my listing is inviting, and makes it feel like a home away from home. Also, staying in a district which is not typically a tourist zone means that I get to experience a side to the city I might otherwise miss: a lunchtime protest on a street corner, an after-school basketball game, and the best burritos you’ll ever taste from a shop that has no TripAdvisor sticker on the window.

Then there is Lyft, the transport equivalent to Airbnb and EatWith. Forget hailing a cab, all you need to do is log on to the mobile app, let it track your location, and choose from any of the nearby drivers, all of whom are rated by previous passengers.

The first time I use Lyft, I am a little worried as to how I will identify which car is picking me up. Those worries are soon abated when a car with a giant pink fluffy moustache tied on to the front bumper rolls up to the curb.

My driver is Kevin, part-time Lyft driver, and full time organiser of the Air Guitar World Championships. During the fifteen minute drive, I learn what it takes to be a world-class air guitarist, and am given some recommendations on how to get the best out of the music scene in San Francisco. I hastily take down the names of a few nearby venues as I clamber out of the car.

The sharing economy is opening up doors in every city across the world, and in doing so it is building a trust-based global community. Each experience offers travellers a more local perspective  than the traditional alternative and, most importantly, a memorable human connection that fosters deeper insight into our destinations.

travel inspiration

The great difference between voyages rests not with the ships, but with the people you meet on them.

- Amelia E. Barr

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travel inspiration

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A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.

- John Steinbeck

 

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Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.

- Cesare Pavese

2013, I Bid You Adieu

December 31st, 2013 | Posted by Hannah in Uncategorized - (0 Comments)

Next year is going to be harder, I imagine. Facing real life again is undoubtedly going to come as a bit of a shock but here’s hoping I have learnt to live with myself well enough to be able to handle anything that comes my way.

- Hannah’s wise words, 31st December 2012

(Yeah, I totally just quoted myself)

Well I wasn’t wrong. 2013 has had its adventures, and it has certainly had its struggles. My six months of travel came to a wrap in March, and I almost immediately fell into a full-time job in Malta. Malta was an inevitability for me; I had no money, and no home of my own, so it was back to the parents’ until I could get the grapple hook to stick long enough to pull myself back up onto my feet.

Malta was tough. After being completely financially independent for years, and having lived the freest lifestyle you can imagine for six months, I was back to square one. The smallest of things made me upset: the food in the kitchen cupboards wasn’t mine; I couldn’t leave my bed unmade; the crying baby downstairs that I couldn’t seem to escape. A few months into my return, I was almost set on getting on the next plane to Ireland with what little money I had, and my parents’ attempts to convince me that I should settle in for a few more months, if only to ensure I had enough money to make it work, sent me into fits of tears. I realised then that I was scrambling. I was desperate for something. I needed to get away … I needed to move. Having travelled through 15 countries in three continents over six months, two months in Malta was the longest I had spent in one place in a while, and it wasn’t a good feeling.

I discovered there is such a thing as post-travel depression and struggled with it for most of the summer, then made my escape back to Ireland. And here I am now, happy and back to being me :) I wasn’t sure Dublin would work out; I assumed I might be homeless and destitute by November but somehow it did. It always does in the end. I even got to visit a few new countries in the process.

I have to say a huge thank you to my lovely friends and family who supported me this year. From money, food or a bed to sleep in, to a pat on the back or a hug, you are all incredible. Thank you!

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Everything fell into place when I managed to score a job with the awesome hospitality company Airbnb. Practically everyone who works there is a traveller at heart, and travel is a part of everything we do. I finally feel like I have found somewhere I belong. Yay!

This year taught me a good many things. I learnt where home is, where home isn’t, and that I don’t always need to have a place called home. I learnt that travelling is an essential part of who I am. In essence, that gave me a clearer idea of what my answer to the evil question, “What do I want out of life?” is. I also learnt that I am a lazy traveller, who likes her exploring to happen mostly after midday.

And so I bid adieu to 2013 – you’ve been fun, but let’s not pretend I want to see you again anytime soon.

2014, I think you are going to be a good year. A build-up to something big, maybe. I think the “work hard, play hard” mentally is going to be a major theme this year.

I already have plans to visit Amsterdam, San Francisco, London, Malta and Canada next year, so stay tuned… :)

Until next year!

Hannah

Packing Tips for Long-Term Travel

November 30th, 2013 | Posted by Hannah in Advice - (3 Comments)

This article was first published on Times of Malta on 24th November 2013.

 

Packing Tips for Long-Term Travel

The advent of budget airlines and their astronomical checked-luggage fees has developed in the majority of us a talent for packing up to a week’s worth of necessities into a 55cm x 40cm x 22cm bag.

The crestfallen faces on those passengers who are called up to the front of the check-in queue to prove that their cabin bag doesn’t exceed the airline’s limits serve as a lesson to us all: less is more. Nothing can be truer when it comes to packing for long-term travel.

Carrying all your worldly possessions in one bag can be a daunting prospect. The good news is whether travelling for a month or a year, you will essentially need the same things. ‘Need’ being the operative word; when travelling long-term, there is no room for just-in-case items. Aim to fit all your belongings in a backpack which you can carry comfortably for more than thirty minutes.

hannah's backpack

My 40L backpack and 15L daypack ready for 6 months of travel.

The first thing on your packing list will be clothes. Whatever you choose to take will be worn and washed frequently so two important qualities are comfort and durability. Stay away from denim and other materials which are bulky and take a long time to dry. Researching climates of the countries you intend to visit will help in your choice of clothing.

Ultimately, there should be no need for more than three pairs of bottoms: long, mid-length and short. As for tops, the same applies: short and long sleeves, and a light jumper that can be worn over anything. A good idea to placate your inner style guru is to take tops and bottoms in colours which can easily be mixed and matched.

Two pairs of shoes, closed and open, ought to suit all occasions. Flip flops are easy to stash and great for use in less-than-spotless showers.

When travelling for more than a few months, buying new items along the way can be more practical than carrying them with you the entire time. Depending on where in the world you are, you may even get that new waterproof jacket or hiking boots for cheaper than you would at home.

In our digital age, the next thing on the list is electronics. It is up to you how connected you want to be, whether you are happy to seek out internet cafes or will only stay in wi-fi friendly accommodation. Perhaps you can make do with a point-and-click camera, or maybe only the best DSLR will suit your needs.

Whatever you decide to pack, don’t forget each item’s charger, as well as spare batteries for those electronics which require them. The thing to remember is that anything in your backpack can be lost, damaged or stolen; take extra security measures when carrying expensive items.

A friend of mine travelled to Rwanda and found herself being asked if she was a doctor, purely based on the size of the medical kit she had packed. While having your own on-board pharmacy is slightly excessive, it is important to carry basic first aid supplies.

In addition to the basics, you may need to pack prescribed medication, which can take up space. Before setting out on your journey, research the availability of the medication in the countries you intend to visit. Unless your travels take you to remote locations, it is quite probable that you will be able to stock up along the way. Always take your prescription with you; it can be useful if airport security wants to know what you are carrying.

Prescriptions are not the only documents you will need to carry. The most important thing you need to pack is your passport; guard it with your life! If you are entering countries where specific vaccinations are required, keep your immunisation certificate together with your passport.

Both are best kept in a hidden money-belt rather than with your other items, and can also be locked away in a safe whenever you have checked into your accommodation. It is a good idea to keep a few copies of them in different locations, including online, in case the worse should happen.

Another document worth carrying is a list of important numbers such as your bank’s Lost/Stolen Card hotline and numbers for your country’s embassy in each destination. Also pack your driving license; even if you don’t plan on getting behind the wheel, it can be used as a secondary form of ID. Some airlines may require a copy of your itinerary before allowing you to board, particularly in the case of one-way flights. Keep a copy of it to hand, as well as receipts of any pre-booked travel arrangements.

As long as you have clothes on your back, shoes on your feet and a passport, you are good to go. While liquids such as shampoo, conditioner and shower gel may seem to be essential, you are much better off buying them at your destination. However, there are a few other items which will make your travelling days so much easier that I consider them to be near essential.

Carry at least two padlocks to keep your items safe. A headlamp and sleep sheet will be blessings on more occasions than you can imagine. Also, never underestimate how helpful a ball of string, a small pair of scissors, and some ziplock bags can be. Last but not least: a quick-dry towel is useful to travellers and interstellar hitchhikers alike.

Moments of Muse: Bite-Sized Travel Inspiration

November 29th, 2013 | Posted by Hannah in Muse - (0 Comments)
travel inspirationImage: whyareyoulaughing.tumblr.com

Travel is like knowledge. The more you see the more you know you haven’t seen.

- Mark Hertsgaard

Moments of Muse: Bite-Sized Travel Inspiration

November 22nd, 2013 | Posted by Hannah in Muse - (0 Comments)

travel inspiration

Because in the end, you won’t remember the time you spent working in the office or mowing your lawn. Climb that goddamn mountain.

- Jack Kerouac

This article was first published on Times of Malta on 10th November 2013.

Staying with Strangers

Does the thought of spending the night on a stranger’s couch, or opening up your own house to someone you have never met fill you with trepidation? Whilst this may be a common reaction to the idea, millions of people worldwide are welcoming into their homes travellers who are seeking a different way of seeing the world.

Traditionally, visitors to a new country in which they have no friends or relatives, opt to find accommodation in a hotel. However, with the increased ability to create connections with other people online, staying with strangers is no longer the anomaly it used to be.

In 2004 Couchsurfing.org was set up and has revolutionised the way travellers experience a town or city. The website allows users to fill out a profile of themselves, which can in turn be verified. Those looking for a place to stay can then contact potential hosts and, if both parties are happy with what they learn of each other, they can come to an accommodation arrangement.

couchsurfing

Image: Vator.tv

Couchsurfing is about more than just finding somewhere free to crash for the night. As its website states, “Couchsurfing connects travelers with a global network of people willing to share in profound and meaningful ways, making travel a truly social experience.”

Christa Sciberras is an experienced Couchsurfing host. In her opinion, there are two fundamental reasons participants choose to be involved in the community. Firstly, they believe and wish to be part of a group that comes together solely on the basis of trust. This tallies with what Christina Afonso, also a host, told me: “It’s a great example of human generosity of spirit.”

Secondly, they have a deep interest in learning about people from all over the world, their culture, language, and daily comings and goings. As Christa put it, “Details that no books or Discovery Channel programmes can teach you.”

From a hosting point of view, putting up a newcomer allows one to see one’s country in a different light and brings with it a renewed appreciation for what might be considered commonplace. Christa’s experience of this has turned her into a patriot and opened her eyes to how lucky she is to live in Malta.

A relatively new face on the alternative accommodation scene is Airbnb. Although not the first company to provide a platform for people to monetise their extra space and showcase it to potential guests, it has quickly become one of the biggest.

Through Airbnb.com it is possible to book a room in someone’s house, an entire apartment or even a stay in a unique location such as a castle, treehouse or converted train carriage. The difference to Couchsurfing lies in the fact that you will have to pay for your accommodation.

Since there is still payment involved, some may wonder why using this method is better than booking a room in a hotel. From a financial point of view, listings on Airbnb tend to be cheaper than hotel rooms in similar areas. Also, bookings can easily be made in less touristy areas, which will again keep costs down.

airbnbAside from being cost-effective, Airbnb also encourages the social connections that many travellers crave. While hosts may not be as readily available as one would expect when Couchsurfing, they can still provide suggestions on the best local places to visit, and can offer an overall more fulfilling experience. On my own recent Airbnb stay, my host welcomed me into his living room to meet his friends over a cup of tea after a long day out to discuss the merits of The Great Irish Bake Off. These small touches make all the difference.

The question of safety can be an issue for those who have yet to try non-traditional accommodation but it does not need to be. Both Couchsurfing and Airbnb have a verification system, and reviews by previous guests are readily available. Both sites encourage dialogue between hosts and guests before any travel arrangements are made, to make sure their expectations are clear from the start.

A third, more common example of staying with strangers is in hostels. Hostels offer dormitory-style rooms, as well as private rooms at a higher cost. Most hostels have a strong social atmosphere and are well-suited to solo travellers who are looking for like-minded companions.

Hostels are a much more affordable option for those travelling alone than hotels, which rarely offer single rooms. However, they offer less privacy due to shared bathrooms and bunk beds. Noise can also be an issue so it’s best to pack some earplugs. They may take some getting used to but as Maiju Korhonen, a regular hostel-goer, advises, “Take some open-mindedness with you and you’ll be fine.”

Staying with strangers may seem like an outrageous proposal to those who have not yet tried it but the benefits far outweigh any possible negatives. My own experience of using alternative accommodation has opened me up to opportunities which I would never have encountered otherwise.

Strangers are, after all, friends you haven’t met yet and as the quote by Tim Cahill goes, “A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles.” Travelling is all about making connections, whether they turn into long-lasting friendships or are simply stored away as tales to be told on one’s return.