The other night I was invited to talk about my experiences when it comes to accommodations while travelling during a workshop about alternative tourism. It was all organized by the Enjoy’In hostel, which is a project to build a social and eco-friendly hostel in Mulhouse, the city I’m now living in.
I didn’t feel very legitimate to speak right after the Mulhouse’s tourist office and other touristic related companies. What could I bring? In the end, I decided to do as I always do when it comes to talking about travel: I simply told stories.
Here’s the written version (lightly edited) of my talk, it’ll be as if you were there! Get yourself a bowl of hummus with fresh pita and ice tea and let’s go.
WHICH ALTERNATIVES TO CONVENTIONAL TOURISM?
ACCOMMODATION: AN INTEGRAL PART OF TRAVELLING
NOWADAYS THERE ARE AS MANY TYPES OF ACCOMMODATIONS THAN TYPES OF TRAVELLERS
The cheap travellers will choose to sleep in hostel’s dorms, go camping or try Couchsurfing, while the travellers with more resources will be keener to sleep in nice all inclusive hotels. The long-time traveller will favour volunteering which offers the possibility of sharing the life of a family or a farm. The activist traveller will care about finding accommodation which isn’t too bad for her/his carbon print. The adventurous traveller will try to discover how it feels to live like a local and will look for unusual accommodation, while some other traveller will feel more comfortable in a traditional hotel room with at least a shower with hot water and clean sheets.
Accommodation actually speaks volume about how we travel, our resources and privileges, but also our values and the definition we give to travel itself.
When going on holidays, world tour, working holiday visa, expatriation, or else, accommodation is the travel’s chore. After all, it will be “home away from home” as my Taiwanese host loved to say.
It can only take a bad experience with accommodation to tarnish a journey, even a whole country. What can be said of the two snorers in my nine-people’s dorm in Honk Kong? About my failed Couchsurfing experience in Singapore? The flying cockroaches in my Balinese room? Those nights shivering in a van? For some people, those experiences could ruin a trip.
As for me, even scary, even tiring, they are (almost) always good substances for stories.
HEY, I’M CÉLINE, I’M 32. NICE TO MEET YOU.
(I know I rock when it comes to introducing myself)
Born and raised in Mulhouse (France), even though I haven’t been living there for the past ten years. It turns out that I was a bookseller in Strasbourg for 5 years and that I decided to sell everything and travel New Zealand for a year with a Working Holiday Visa in 2015. Then, I lived in Taiwan for another year with another Working Holiday Visa. Last year, I flew from Taiwan to Ecuador because I fell in love and also because I wanted to learn Spanish.
I created this blog in 2015 because I wanted to tell my stories to my relatives. It turns out they’re not reading much, so I started to write in both French and English to share my stories with other travellers. I’m now writing posts with useful tips as well as stories a bit more literary. Recently I wrote a whole series about “Why you should start talking to strangers” which is a tribute to the people I met on the road, and my experiences with Couchsurfing (sleeping on someone’s couch for free) and volunteering (working a few hours a day in exchange of accommodation and sometimes food).
WHY DID I CHOOSE TO TRAVEL THIS WAY?
At first, I didn’t consciously choose to travel in an alternative way. Even though I was sometimes sleeping in hostels and AirBnb’s with friends and lovers while travelling, I’ve never really considered volunteering for example. If I started to travel this way, at first, it was for economic reasons. Since I’m very much into Slow Travel and I like to take a few months or even a year to discover a country, and as accommodation is always the more expensive thing while travelling, I had to figure out another way. That’s how I stumbled upon the Couchsurfing community, the different volunteering opportunities and that I’m only staying in locally owned hostels.
Those experiences changed completely my way of travelling: I’m not only travelling to be amazed by landscapes, touristic sights and local food, I also travel to meet people, to understand a country, its inhabitants, its culture and even to learn a new language.
Even as an introvert who needs its own space and quiet, even though I need my little bubble from time to time, I’m loving way too much the community vibes and the possibilities of living with other people.
Now I know that I won’t be able to travel differently anymore, those experiences shaped my travels in ways I would have never expected!
TALKING ABOUT STORIES…
Couchsurfing is a little bit like hitchhiking, you always feel anxious before doing it, it feels like a dangerous Russian Roulette. Who’s gonna be my host? How things will go? What if I don’t have anything to say? What if he’s a total dick who’ll try to hit on me (which happens quite often, unfortunately)?
It’s true that I already had some bad experiences using Couchsurfing, however, I also had the chance to live some interesting and life-changing moments, as a host in Strasbourg when I welcomed travellers in my room, and as a guest while travelling.
Recently, in Mexico, my host took me to see the pre-Columbian pyramids of Teotihuacán and introduced me to some tasty local food (even though I couldn’t bring myself to try ants in my fajitas). He took me to his favourite places in the city, especially some green park in Coyoacán, where he felt comfortable enough to share his own story with me. Truth is, he lost his father just before meeting me. I was his distraction, his lightness. I found myself drawing on his apartment walls and baking crêpes just to make him smile, the most important thing was him not to stay alone. He’s the one who took me to the airport the day I came back to France, and even though we only knew each other for a couple of days, I’m pretty sure I made myself a new friend for life.
I like the idea of trying another job, another activity, something I probably never thought I will ever do when I’m volunteering. Whether it’s Workaway, HelpX, Woofing, it’s about working a few hours a day for a family, a farm or a small business, in exchange for accommodation and sometimes food. I also like the idea of giving something back to the country who’s welcoming me. Even simple and small things like gardening, drawing, painting or sharing a meal can have a huge impact on someone’s life.
While in New Zealand, I ended up volunteering for a month on the third island of New Zealand, Stewart Island, which is a small island in the south of South Island where there’s only one town of about 300 inhabitants and the rest is covered of rainforest and endemic birds like the kiwi, the kaka or the tui.
I was working in a smoked salmon factory -it was before I became vegetarian- and my job was to prepare the salmon to be smoked: we had to pin bone the salmon pieces, then massage them with brown sugar and lemon pepper. After the boss had smoked them, we had to cut it, pack it and send it across the strait in the New Zealand’s markets. The job was tiring, obviously, but I was living in such a unique place. The beaches were just like in dreams, the forests were lush and green, and I even had the chance to witness some Aurora borealis on New Year’s Eve.
ON LIVING IN HOSTELS
Hostels are the living places of travellers. They often feel like a happy bazar where many different languages are spoken, where you find food from all around the world can be eaten. Hostels are living, inspiring, thrilling places where there’s always someone keen to share a meal, a card game, a hiking journey, a city escapade, etc.
During my trips, I stayed in a few hostels with interesting concepts, like the Books and Bed hostel in Tokyo, which is a hostel chain where it’s possible to sleep in a library (YES!). Like the famous capsule hotels, here the beds are integrated into huge bookshelves and everything’s made for bookworms to feel at home: big couches, blankets, all you can drink tea and soft lighting. As I’m a bookseller, I had no choice but to fall in love with this place!
While in Christchurch, New Zealand, I stayed in a hostel which was actually a former prison: the rooms were former cells. With bars and lockers. As I spent almost a month living in the former Napier prison helping with tourists and funny events, I had to visit Christchurch’s Jailhouse hostel. And it turned out to be very affordable and comfortable!
I also stayed in a few eco-lodges as well, like in Vietnam where the dorms were built in a bamboo house and I had to cross a suspension bridge over the Mekong river to get to my room… A marvellous place, full of fireflies and quiet vibes.
When I was living in Taiwan, I volunteered in a hostel that I liked so much I ended up staying there for almost a year… while I planned to stay for about two weeks in the first place. The World Inn Hostel was located close to the Taroko National Park, in Hualien, on the East Coast. I got along so well with my hosts and my coworkers that this place became my home. Besides my 3 hours per day cleaning and tidying up the place in order to get free accommodation, my hosts wanted us to have the best experience possible and they took us on road trips to discover the region and we even went visiting local farms to get a taste of Taiwanese and aboriginal veggies. My hosts were always trying their best for us to get a true insight into Taiwanese culture.
They were definitely my Taiwanese family: we shared every meal, they taught me a bit of Mandarin (at least enough for me to buy cigarettes and eat vegetarian) and I got the chance to spend the Chinese New Year with them. They pushed me forward, they believed in my artistic skills and paid me for drawing menus when they held dinner parties where they wanted people to discover local food. Thanks to them, I even went selling homemade postcards and chocolate mousse and bredele (Christmas cookies from my home region Alsace) so I could earn a bit of money. Before them, I never thought my work would be worth anything. Sometime later, I was even painting walls in Ecuador…
That kind of hostel where you feel like being part of a family, where the community living and cooperation are encouraged, are definitely the kind of places I like staying at.
In Mulhouse, where I’m living at the moment, there’s this hostel project: Enjoy’in Hostel, a place privileging encounters between travellers and locals with an eco-friendly and ethical approach.