Travel’s Three Gifts: Notes from an Indonesian Island

Nusa Penida Rai
Candace Rose Rarton

The first time I meet Rai is at the morning market in Sampalan, the largest town on the Indonesian island of Nusa Penida.

She says hello to me from behind mounds of mangos and bright green chilies at the stall she runs with her mother. Despite the heat, she wears a purple hoodie zipped to the neck. We chat for a while, her brown eyes glowing, her dark hair pulled back from her face.

I see her again the next night, at a dance lesson in her village. After the lesson finishes, she asks, “You come to my home?”
And because I have no other plans on this Saturday night, I say, “Why not?”

Rai sits behind me on my motorbike and directs me down an unlit gravel lane. The farther we go, the more the road disintegrates beneath my wheels. I apologize each time we hit a bump.

“Candace,” she chides, “every day I am taking these roads.”

When we reach her house, her family is seated on their concrete front porch. I’m told to call her fisherman father Bapa, and her mother Meme. Her brother Putu and sister-in-law Kadek are also there. Putu is 21, his wife 20; already, Rai tells me, they have lost two children. One died “in belly,” another at 13 days old.

When I try to find the words to say I’m sorry, Kadek smiles an impossible smile and says, “No problem. It’s okay.”

“Tomorrow you can help me selling in the market?” Rai asks.

Again I say, “Why not?”

“And tonight, you sleep at my home?”

Nusa Penida market offerings
Candace Rose Rarton

For a moment, I mumble something about my homestay at a modified hostel in Sampalan. And then it hits me – I’ve just been offered an actual homestay.

Rai goes to take a shower, and afterwards asks if I’d like to take one, too. Bapa warns me — it’s only a “manual shower,” and the bathroom is outdoors, open for all to see, its walls barely reaching up to my chest.

Still, it’s far enough from the house – and lit only by the glow of Rai’s flashlight – that I soon let go of modesty and strip down, dipping a plastic tumbler into a bucket and feeling the water cool my sticky skin. I tilt my head back, take in the incandescent sky above me, and thank the universe for this moment.

Because that’s the first gift travel gives me – the gift of discovery, and the thrill of encountering a world so completely different from my own.

We set our alarms for 4 a.m., and I lie beside Rai on a foam mat on the floor. Her parents will sleep in the living room. After they turn off the TV, the only sounds are the occasional calls of a gecko and the ticking of a heart-shaped clock on the cinderblock wall – and Rai’s quiet breathing next to me.

I glance to my side and see that the frangipani blossom she’d picked earlier is still tucked behind her ear. I am slow to fall asleep, kept awake by gratitude and wonder at finding myself so at home here.

Because that’s the second gift that travel gives me – the gift of belonging, and the thrill of journeying so far from home only to find a home in such a new place.

The following morning, we arrive at the market when the chickens are still asleep in the trees. Yet we’re far from the first ones here. Women are setting up their stalls with flashlights held between their ears and shoulders like telephones. They roll back the sheets of blue plastic that covered their tables overnight. Rai complains of moths eating her tomatoes.

Like a pot coming to boil, the market slowly heats up. Sandals begin to slap against the dusty paths, plastic bags rustling as they’re filled with corn and cassava and grapes the size of golf balls. While Rai sells produce – carrots and chilies, garlic and red pearl onions – I stand next to her, helping where and when I can.

For the next three days, I return each morning, until the day comes for me to say goodbye and depart from Nusa Penida.

Nusa Penida street
Candace Rose Rarton

I’m still in touch with Rai – through Facebook, of course – and every now and then I’ll get a message from her, asking how I am. I smile each time, remembering the market and the manual shower and how it felt to fall asleep in the damp darkness of her home.

Because that’s the third gift that travel gives me, and it’s the reason I’ll never stop traveling – the gift of connection, and the thrill of weaving an invisible web around us as we move through the world, and the world moves through us.

The connections that keep each journey alive forever.

Travel Smarter 2012: New hotel alternatives

While booking a hotel was once the standard when traveling, there are now a range of unique alternatives for every budget and preference. In 2012, it’s now possible to stay in anything from an eco-friendly tree house to a tent with more amenities than a 5-star hotel. Here are some modern takes on the classic accommodation based on traveler personality:

Luxury travelers who want to get in touch with nature

Camping no longer means you need to sleep in a vinyl bag and use the nearest tree as your personal toilet. Glamping, which takes the camping philosophy of being immersed in nature but makes it more luxurious, allows even the most high-maintenance travelers to “rough it” for a bit. For example, you can stay in an extravagant yet eco-friendly safari tent in Algarve, Portugal, that is surrounded by countryside and mountains and includes amenities like hot water, electricity, a pool, an onsite spa, a wellness center, and a garden where guests can pick and enjoy their own fresh vegetables. To view other glamping properties, you can click here for a roundup from Australia, Argentina, and India, or visit GoGlamping.net.Outdoorsy traveler who doesn’t want to get too wild

On the other hand, there may be some travelers who want to experience nature, but in a setting not too far out in the wild. For them there is garden camping, which offers the experience of camping in someone’s backyard. For example, for about $9, travelers can stay in Driftshane‘s backyard in Cornwall, England. Amenities include sea views and a neatly terraced ambiance, farm-to-table meals, and the use of the shower for an additional charge. There are also many points of interest nearby, including sailing, rowing, and beaches at Helford River, Seal Sanctuary, Glendurgan Gardens, Trebah Gardens, and Bosvathick Riding Stables. There are also ample opportunities to visit great restaurants and bars. By staying in someone’s garden, you’re still immersing yourself in the beauty of nature while also keeping yourself close to civilization. You can view more garden camping properties by clicking here.

Travelers who want a modern take on vacation rentals and apartment sublets

While checking apartment and home rental listings used to mean browsing plain text to look for a basic room or house, Airbnb brings a modern twist to the idea. First of all, owners can list their properties for free, including vibrant photos, a wealth of information, and contact data. Moreover, travelers can browse through listings while being able to search by location, price, amenities, neighborhoods, or accommodation style. They may also read reviews, look at maps, and take virtual tours. The site also has a social connections feature, which allows travelers to see which of their Facebook friends uses the site. What I personally love about Airbnb is the range of unique accommodation options, from a private room in a London lighthouse to a houseboat under the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

For Earth-concerned eco-travelers

Ecotourism is a hot topic in the travel world, and accommodations are catching on to the trend. First, there is World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), which allows travelers to exchange working on an organic farm for room and board. Some possible experiences include harvesting grapes on a vineyard in Mendoza to beekeeping in Italy or ranch work in Poland. Moreover, hotels and hostels are also jumping on board, implementing green practices to try to help the environment while also keeping guests comfortable. For example, backpackers can enjoy the Gyreum Ecolodge in Sligo, Ireland, a partially underground hostel and Installation Incubator where travelers can come together to brainstorm new ideas. Green amenities like water heated by solar panels, a toilet linked to outside compost, and the use of a wind turbine to power geothermal heating are included, as well as comfortable beds, thick comforters, and hearty breakfasts.

For travelers who want a local experience

With travel becoming more and more social, doing a homestay is now easier than ever. One way to participate in one is to sign up to volunteer abroad with an organization like International Volunteer Headquarters or by using a forum like SE7EN. Moreover, social websites like Couchsurfing and Tripping allow users to offer their couches to travelers. What’s great about these options is that participants can read reviews on hosts and guests, and even interact before their trips begin to see if they feel comfortable staying with the person.

[flickr image via left-hand]

Travel Smarter 2012: Use CouchSurfing to ditch your hotel addiction

Hotels are so passé.

How many times have you visited an exciting destination only to find you’re staying in a generic hotel room completely lacking in local flavor? When I visited Greece last month, I stayed in affordable, centrally located hotels in Athens and Sparta. While they offered good service at a fair price, they could have just as easily been in Los Angeles, London, or Cairo.

CouchSurfing offers a better way. With a bit of online networking you can stay in a local home, and it’s free! CouchSurfing is a social networking site linking up friendly people around the world. Once you’ve created a profile, you can search through profiles in your destination and request to sleep in their spare room or couch. No money changes hands, although guests often bring an inexpensive gift from their home countries or take their host out to dinner. It’s a fun way to make friends and makes traveling a richer and less lonely experience.

As I’ve mentioned before, even though I’ve never actually surfed a couch, CouchSurfing has been hugely helpful to me. When I moved to Santander in northern Spain, the local CouchSurfers threw my wife and I a welcome party and 25 people showed up. Soon we knew the best barrios to get an apartment, where to shop, and they hooked me up with a hiking group. The group for Cantabria is pretty active and in the four months I’ve been here I’ve been to several meetings and met lots of people.More recently, local CouchSurfers gave me a ton of information that helped inform my travel series on Greece. One memorable night, two Athenians showed me around the Exarchia neighborhood. We visited some great bars I probably would have never found on my own and I got insights into the life of an area noted for its activism. The two CouchSurfers showed me a park that had been slated to become an ugly parking garage until the locals took it over and turned it into a garden.

On a more somber note, they also showed me the spot where a fifteen-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos was shot and killed by a policeman during a demonstration in 2008. The cop is serving time for murder and the spot where his victim died is now a shrine and political rallying point. Try getting that sort of information from your hotel’s concierge.

Couches can be found in some surprising places. One Gadling blogger has tried CouchSurfing in Haiti, and while I was in Ethiopia, I met someone who was going to stay with some expats in Somaliland.

CouchSurfing had a big year in 2011 that’s making 2012 the start of a new era for the organization. After having its 501(c)(3) charity status rejected, its owners decided to become a for-profit corporation. Currently, all revenues come from the verification service, in which members donate money in order to have their address verified, thus making them more trustworthy in the eyes of other members. There’s no word yet on how else the new corporation plans to make money. This change has not gone without protest, with many members pointing out that the website and network were built communally for free, and therefore should not be used for profit.

A more popular move last year was the creation of the CouchSurfing Cultural Exchange Fund, which offers grants for cultural exchanges between refugee groups and their new communities, classroom-based international information exchange and relationship building programs, and cultural understanding between ethnically or racially disparate communities.

CouchSurfing now has more than three million profiles in about 250 countries and territories–not bad for a group that only started in 2003. While you should always keep safety in mind when dealing with strangers, I highly recommend you try it. I’ve had nothing but good experiences.

[flickr image via CaseyDavid]

10 tips for doing a homestay

soupDoing a homestay in another country is a great way to get to know the culture from a first-hand perspective. By living with a family, you get to see how a local’s daily life is, from what they eat, to how to they dress, to what their before-bed ritual is. With such a unique opportunity being given to you, it’s important to get the most out of the experience while also being respectful. To help, here are some tips on how to enjoy a successful homestay.

Try new foods

When I did a homestay in Ghana, Africa, there were many meals that I was less than thrilled about. As a health-nut, I never would have made fried chicken a normal part of my diet, and eating (or drinking) rice water for breakfast left me less than satisfied. However, instead of getting upset about the food situation think about how much effort your host is putting into making your stay with them pleasant by spending time cooking for you and letting you stay in their home. Thank your host for every meal, even if you don’t like it. And if there’s something you really can’t stomach, find a way to make it edible. With rice water, I learned to add chocolate powder and stir it into the mix. Moreover, to help myself feel better about eating fried foods I began going for morning runs, which also gave me the opportunity to see the village market stalls being set up in the morning, something I usually would have slept through.Dress appropriately

While it may be okay to walk around your own home in your underwear or short shorts, think about how it might make others feel. Nobody wants to feel uncomfortable in their own home, and even if they don’t say it makes them uncomfortable, it probably does, so just make sure to cover up. Also, in certain cultures showing your shoulders and knees is inappropriate, so just be aware of a culture’s etiquette.

thailand Help out

Because this person/family is allowing you to live in their house, it is respectful to help out. That doesn’t just mean doing your dishes and making your bed; offer to do everyone’s dishes, help cook a meal, sweep the floor, or go to town and get groceries. It’s a nice gesture to the host as well as a unique way to learn about the culture and what it’s like to perform an everyday task.

Keep an open mind

While you probably realize the culture is different in terms of what you will be eating, bathroom habits, and house design, there are sometimes more drastic contrasts that you should be prepared for. When I did a homestay in Thailand, I remember at first having a little bit of a hard time getting used to the squat toilets, bucket showers, and always having frogs and lizards in the bathroom with me as I changed my clothes. What really took me off guard was one night when we were having chicken for dinner seeing my host mother literally chop a live chicken’s head off. Of course, you know it happens, but it’s definitely a little off-putting to see it first hand. There were a lot of adjustments for me in Ghana, as well. Once or twice a week, my host would have a prayer group over at 3AM to sing hymns until 6AM, which meant once or twice a week I didn’t get to sleep. While it bothered me at first I began to go watch the group sing and tried to make it into a learning experience. Remember, you won’t be here forever, so try to open yourself up to as many unique learning opportunities as possible.

thailand Be conservative

While this could mean how you dress, it also means in general. While you may be used to taking hour-long hot showers while leaving all of the lights on and scarfing a bag of Doritos at home, you’ve got to remember you’re now living on someone else’s dime. Moreover, it is also possible that the area your homestay is in doesn’t have the natural resources that your home town does, so try to conserve as best as you can. In Achiase, Ghana, the town would turn on the taps for about 3 hours per week, and everyone would rush to fill up as many buckets with water as possible so that we could wash dishes, do laundry, and take bucket showers during the week. While it may not be the easiest thing to get used to, you’ll come to learn that showering and doing laundry every single day isn’t a necessity.

Spend time with the host

Don’t think of your homestay as a budget-friendly alternative to a hotel. Instead, get to know your host and form a relationship. Not only is it more respectful, it’s also very rewarding. It’ll give you the chance to gain a better understanding of life in the city as well as the opportunity to do activities that you may not have otherwise gotten the chance to do. In Ghana, I got the opportunity to attend church with my host mom. While I could have done this on my own, it was a whole different experience going with a local congregation member, and the pastor even had an interpreter sit next to me. I also got the chance to play soccer with the local team in Achiase because I would go running with my host brother in the morning. This was something I never would have been able to do if I had kept to myself, and it gave me a first-hand account of team interactions and sports in the country.

ghana Learn something

The best part about traveling to another country is immersing yourself in the culture and learning everything you can. Partaking in a homestay is a great first step to doing this and the perfect opportunity to learn something. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and interact. If you see your host cooking, ask them what they are making and if you can have the recipe. If you like your host sibling’s clothing, ask them what it’s made of and what the local fashion is like. Help them with their school work and see what they are being taught. Depending on how close you get with the host and what the cultural norms are, you can even learn about more personal topics like community issues, relationships, and gender roles, which leads me to my next point.

Learn cultural norms before you go

If you know that talking about religion or the government is taboo in a culture, don’t ask about it. That being said, I’ve done homestays in places where I was told a topic was off-limits yet became close with a family member and was able to have these touchy conversations; however, I allowed them to bring up the issue. In Ghana, the locals were very open to talking about everything, and would actually take me off guard with the questions they would ask. That being said, I got to learn a lot about dating norms, marriage proposals, government corruption, religious beliefs, diet regimes, and the religious structuring in the schools.

Learning the cultural norms goes farther than what you say; it also includes gestures, clothing styles, and rituals. For example, I researched Thailand before doing my homestay there and learned that it is rude to sit with your feet sticking straight out. This is something I do all of the time at home, especially if I’m eating while sitting on the floor, and was so grateful to have been given this information beforehand as all of our meals were taken on the living room carpet.

thailand Teach something

While you want to learn about the culture from your host family, they are most likely excited to learn more about your culture, as well. Bring photos from home of your friends, family, places you go, foods you like, your neighborhood; anything that you think someone who has never been to your city might want to know about. You can also teach them recipes, games, songs, dances, art skills, and other fun activities that you think might be interesting.

Exchange contact information

After your homestay is complete, you shouldn’t just leave and drop off the face of the Earth. Most likely, you’ve established some kind of connection with these people, and even if you haven’t, they were still nice enough to host you. Once you return home, a follow-up thanking them for their kindness is appropriate. Moreover, if you took photos your host family will probably be interested in seeing them. During both my Thailand and Ghana homestays I was living with families who didn’t own cameras. I took photos of them and their families and the community and mailed them over for them to have for themselves. For both families, it was the first photos they’d ever owned, and both told me that the gift meant a lot.

[flickr photos via jasonlam, jessieonajourney, Wm Jas, jessieonajourney, jessieonajourney]

A traditional home stay in Seoul – by accident

Jin is waiting for me when I return from Yongsang, placidly sitting at the picnic table in the atrium and staring off into the distance. When I knock on the astroturf covered door he looks up and grins, then lopes over to the door to greet me.

It’s only been one night at the MaMa guesthouse (46, Waryong-dong, Jongno-gu) in Seoul, but I already feel like I belong. Between the Angok (Line 3) and Jeosan (Line 1) stops in the district parallel to Insadong, my discovery of the homestay was purely by accident. Walking toward my original hotel earlier the previous night, I saw the flashy sign of MaMa splashed across the traditionally-styled home and made a mental note: if things didn’t work out with my current accommodations I’d return.

As usual, Jin Sung Jai was resting in his room when I first showed up, and through the front door window I could see his feet hanging out from the sliding doors of his room. He greeted me with enthusiasm – yes, there was a room available tonight, the “mother” room for only 60,000 Won – discounted 25% off of the normal rate.

It would be a traditional room, one not unlike those in a traditional Japanese household with a heated floor, a thin mattress in the center of the room and two linens on top. A sliding, rice paper door was the divider between the main atrium and my room, the same divider that went into Jin’s and four other rooms around the perimeter of the atrium. For this and most other rooms here, the bathroom and living spaces would be shared.

In a way though, that’s the sort of package that a solo traveler needs a foreign land – a small splash of traditional culture, a community space in which to reflect your thoughts and a shepherd to guide you through the process. In the morning I help Jin update his website as a meal of hard boiled eggs, toast and apples is delivered. He shows me through the stacks of paintings with a style that he’s perfected with years of study across parts of Europe, North America and Korea. And with a handshake and a smile he sends me on my way to Incheon Airport. I would give a hundred stays in a big box western hotel in exchange for another night in a place like this.

%Gallery-143241%