Some of the Senses

“RS’s RSS” at a glance…

QUOTED:

“Each fresh Trump astonishment overrides an old one, as if it were a new file on a hard drive that has reached storage capacity. And the accumulation of astonishments lowers the bar for what’s expected of him and turns all the astonishments into a blur.”Frank Bruni

SEEN:

David Duchovny, heartthrob Hank Moody in Californication and real-life admitted (and perhaps recovering?) sex addict, most known for his role as Fox Mudler in the hit series, The X-Files — can sing too! I had the fortune to attend his sold-out show at Seattle’s Crocodile Cafe last night, and though I suspect Duchovny’s voice will never win a Grammy, the Princeton undergrad and Yale English lit grad writes lyrics worth looking up. Pardon the grainy photo, I’m petite and have to stand at the back of the room to see shows. =)

 

HEARD: 

Ever wondered how renowned brands like Crate & Barrel, Zappos, Kate Spade, and Spanx got their start? CEOs and founders from notable companies share how their ideas for a product or company were formed and what it took to get their idea from their mind to the consumer. Encouraging stories of how a little capital, a bit of sweat, a lot of perseverance, and often timing and luck played into their success. The podcast, How I Built This — hosted by NPR’s whip-smart host with an even better name Guy Raz — began in the fall, so it’s easy to catch up. For anyone who’s a creative, an entrepreneur, a creative entrepreneur, or simply curious — you may want to give it a listen.

DANCEDCold, Maroon 5 featuring Future — because despite (and in light of) all the seriousness shared here, sometimes you just have to shake your ass around the house in your underwear.

READ: Some of my fondest memories from childhood took place in libraries. Mostly in middle school and high school. I wasn’t there for the books per se, I sought refuge in the library for the quiet and the camaraderie with other nerds. Rather than play with the rambunctious kids on the playground, the quiet kids in glasses sitting at long wooden tables with their heads buried in books were more my speed. Then there was the time in third grade when a Rastafarian taught me and my all white, air-force brat classmates a skill mastered by savvy business people everywhere. Gathered around in a circle, the man said nothing as he took turns holding out his hand to each child. After he made his way around the circle, he walked to the center and explained to us what a handshake was and why it was important. It was way to make a good first impression and convey confidence through touch. I learned two lessons that day, how to shake hands and to not be afraid of strange-looking men.

This piece An Elegy for the Library  in the New York Times brought back all the memories. Maybe it will for you, too.

Why We Do

I’ve been writing more in recent months than ever before. Writing is what I get paid to do and it’s what I love to do. It’s my flow, my happy place.

I’m beginning to come around to the idea of the aphorism shared by authors, English teachers, and writing coaches everywhere: if you want to be a better writer, you simply have to write. A lot. The more you do the whole “butt in chair” thing, the stronger the muscle gets. Best of all, you begin to see opportunities to self-edit and express yourself with greater precision.

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Keeping a Journal

I was listening to a podcast this afternoon and took note when the interviewee, writer Patricia Bosworth, spoke about the importance of keeping a journal. I hear this often, from writers and non-writers alike. Like much of the practical and proven good advice we receive in life, things like cutting down on carbs and alcohol, and exercising regularly, I know that I should do those things, but implementation and habit often curtail my best intentions.

Walking and listening to the podcast, I laughed because I had just left Goodwill where I bought not one but four (!!!) journals. I couldn’t help myself, they were brand-new and only $0.99/ea! Admiring their newness as I assessed them in the stationery aisle, I suspected they, too, were good intentions or long-ago resolutions of their original purchasers — the donors who gifted them to Goodwill. That, or the donors were the unfortunate recipients of gifts that had missed their mark.

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Post-Facebook :: Welcome to My Playground

On Christmas night, I gave myself the gift of quitting Facebook. I didn’t wrap it, but it was a surprise. I didn’t know if I would have the balls to do it. Is there a lady equivalent to balls? Ovaries don’t seem to pack the same punch.

As someone who has long utilized social media for business  — my own and others’ — and enjoyed it for pleasure, it felt like an addiction. A bad one, not the good kind like exercise or the first flushes of romantic love. Social media was starting to feel like a playground with peeling paint and sharp edges, a place no longer fun.

In the wake of the election and reading friends’ posts who supported Trump, I felt visceral disgust every time I scrolled through my news feed. I looked at people I otherwise respected and I questioned how they could be my friends if our values and thoughts on decency were so divergent. Then came the “news” stories about the election and the comments associated with the posts. Reading the vitriol lobbed among strangers in comment sections made me question humanity. Not just question my nation, but also the world — what are we coming to?

So I quit.

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Cuban Ghandi

As I continue to parse out my thoughts on my trip to Cuba and endeavor to (admittedly) be less cranky about the experience, I hope the benefit of time starts to dull the sharp edges of memory.

When I reflect back, I can’t help blanching a little inside at the native-to-a-Third-World-country experience of folks frequently coming up to foreigner on the street hoping to sell them something or scam them. Sure, there are people who just see someone clearly out of the ordinary and they’re curious to strike up conversation and share, but those experiences are often few.

I want to continue to make clear I don’t begrudge people for trying to make a living. I get it, and as a privileged white American woman, I can only scratch the surface of my imagination on the struggles of people in poverty and in politically suppressed countries. BUT as an American with no access to debit or credit cards, the lack of funds simply through a wrench in my normal travel experience which entails a generous giving of gratuities and purchasing of wares and experiences. Walking through markets rich with handmade goods and intersections clotted with taxis and pedicabs, it was hard to be hit up for business every few minutes when my companion and I simply did not have funds beyond those set aside for two meals a day, beverages, and taxis.

Friends who have heard my Cuba stories since my return ponder aloud the “unique to Americans” choice between traveling in a foreign country and having to carry all your cash on your person or simply not traveling there at all because you don’t have traditional access to funds (or would have to take an organized tour). It’s a tough choice, to be sure. However, I’d also like to make clear I never felt unsafe or threatened when my female friend and I walked alone day or night through sometimes questionable-looking streets.

There are two interactions that stand out in my mind when I think of the memorable exchanges we had with Cuban people. I’ll share the first one today and the other in a later post.

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An American in Cuba, Part 2

I continue to recover from the month of December. That’s what I am telling people when they ask, “Have you healed from your mosquito bite virus yet?” After suffering through 72 hours of fever, fatigue, and hives, I was then hit with a run of the mill cold. Honestly, after all that I went through in Cuba, I barely noticed. I’ve simply decided to throw in the towel on December of 2016 altogether and I greatly look forward to January.

Sitting at a dinner party this week, I remarked to friends that it was the first time in my life I couldn’t “spin” the story of my trip. Always one to give people and experiences the benefit of the doubt, I can usually spot the silver lining in any story. But for Cuba? I simply cannot lie and tell people it was wonderful when it was not. Sure, I met MANY lovely Cuban people like our Airbnb hosts and occasional folks on the street who weren’t trying to sell us something, but the whole lack of access to credit cards and debit cards really threw a wrench in what was supposed to be a “vacation” — for journalistic purposes, ahem.

And then there was the tourist harassment that felt like it was coming at me at all times, “Lady, you want a taxi? Lady, you want to tour in an old car?” I get it, everyone has to make a living, but unlike travel I’ve experienced in other Third World countries, it was incessant and tiring to be hit up every few feet while walking down the sidewalk. Especially since I had no access to the money the locals presupposed I had. Juliann, my friend, was much nicer. I would blaze ahead down the road on my way to a museum or sight — pretending I knew where I was headed — while she walked a couple feet behind me on the narrow sidewalks, saying a polite “No, gracias” to the many people I just started ignoring after the first few days of attempting a polite dismissal. I’m not proud of this in hindsight, but it was so tiresome.

But enough about me. I want this post to be helpful, so let’s talk about money.

You can only get Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) in Cuba. If you bring in American dollars, expect to pay a 10% fee, so your dollar is actually worth 90 cents, less the fee or percentage taken by the currency exchange office (typically 3-4%). On average, we got $0.86 CUC to our $1 US. One bank actually negotiated with me for a higher rate ($.90). Yes, in Cuba you can negotiate everywhere, even in banks. Smart Americans exchange their US dollars to Canadian currency and bring that into the country instead since you’re not penalized for Canadian dollars like you are for US.

About the cost of things, which was a head-scratcher at times when it came to goods/service/hours spent vs. amount charged. A true Wild West of pricing, and never consistent…

  • Average “casa particular” lodging for two people: $30 CUC/night via Airbnb or walking up in person.
  • Book things in advance as much as you can (remember, Airbnb WILL NOT WORK for Americans while you’re in Cuba — see my last post: Part 1.) Casa particular owners ARE VERY HELPFUL and usually have relationships with friends/hosts/casa owners in other towns, so use their connections if you find yourself in need of lodging while on the road.
  • Beers $1.50 – $2 CUC. Cocktails (mojitos, daquiris, rum straight) $3. White Chilean wine: $4/glass.
  • Breakfasts consisting of coffee, juice, fruits, eggs made to order, and toasts consistently cost $5CUC — except for one Airbnb which charged us $5 CUC extra for the pleasure of dining on the roof. Which we soon learned was free everywhere else.
  • The cheapest, best dinners we found were around $4-5 CUC. A hint: look for the places where the prices are listed in Cuban pesos (CUPs) — which translate to $25 CUP:$1 CUC. Don’t run out the door if you see $100 on the menu, it’s pesos, which they’ll translate to CUC when they bring you the bill. It’s usually a sign of “authentic” food — which I will dedicate a whole post to shortly. This meal pictured (the only food photo I took while in Cuba) was $12 CUC at our Airbnb in Santa Clara. Food pics, like selfies, are not in my wheelhouse. And yes, those are papaya balls in cucumber. Cool, huh?
  • We hired a taxi to take us 1.5 hours to a boat that would take us to the waterfall pictured above. The driver waited for us to return six hours later and then he drove us 1.5 hours home. It cost the shockingly low price of $40 CUC for the entire day. (This is also indicative of the small town region–Cienfuegos–we were in vs. Havana.)
  • The guided 1.5 hour boat ride; 1-hour hike in; and 2-hour dip and tour of the waterfall plus the return 1-hour hike out and 1.5-hour boat ride back? $20 CUC total for 2 of us for the day (entering at Hanabanilla, hiking to El Nicho waterfall). We tipped him $10 CUC because we were horrified it was so cheap.
  • Entrance to the El Nicho waterfall $10 CUC for foreigners. (Must show your passport.)

  • No taxis have meters, though the shitty Lonely Planet Cuba book (its official title from here onward) mentions them like they’re as natural as the Cuban sun. The only taxis that *may* remotely have meters are the “state-sanctioned” yellow ones, but even when we rode in one, I suspected the meter didn’t work or hadn’t been turned on in years.
  • “Collectivos” are a great way of taxi sharing with other travelers to popular sights and towns. We traveled from Trinidad to Havana (a 4-hour ride) for $30 CUC a person. The minivan we were traveling in had seven other passengers crammed in, but it was air conditioned and tolerable.

*A tip we learned from our lovely Airbnb hosts in Cienfuegos: Book the Viazul buses in advance (ahem, as an American the site did not work for me when I tried to do this before my trip), but if you book advance while in Cuba and the bus office or site claims the bus is “full,” show up anyway. Ten minutes or so before the bus leaves, drivers pocket cash fees slightly above the posted rate and miraculously find room for passengers. Other travelers told us stories of sitting on buses where people were standing in the aisles for three hours. So if you’re desperate to get from one place to another and aren’t scheduling a a Collectivo ride through your casa host or an Infotur office, try this.

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An American in Cuba, 2016

I recently returned from a trip to Cuba. As an American, I’m not allowed to travel solely for tourism purposes, but as a writer I am allowed to go for “journalistic” purposes, one of the sanctioned twelve reasons Americans are allowed to travel to Cuba. As an author of an Airbnb book, I was curious to see what the burgeoning Airbnb trade looks like in Cuba. A place of “casa particulars” — homes with rooms for rent — the concept of letting rooms for a reasonable fee has been a staple of Cuban tourism, long before Airbnb. However, Airbnb now facilitates the casas exposure to an impressive worldwide audience and streamlines the process of attracting tourists. A change that has grown the Cuban “casa” business in spades. According to our host Silvano in Cienfuegos, Cuba, 90 percent of his business now comes from Airbnb — particularly if the “Instant Book” feature is turned on.

Prior to my trip and since my return, so many Americans have asked me for tips and stories about my Cuban experience. The timing of my trip coincided with Fidel Castro’s death. My first days in the country were the final three days of a forced nine-day mourning period for the former dictator whose coffin was being escorted from Havana through the streets of Cuban towns on its way to his final resting place in Santiago. Flags were at half-mast. Many normally open businesses were shuttered. At night, we could not drink hard alcohol or wine, dance, or listen to live music. Locals warned us not to exhibit signs of merriment and cautioned that the police were to be avoided at all costs. It was surreal, to say the least.

In a series of posts, I’ll detail what I learned and what we saw, as well as share tips for Americans and other travelers curious to visit Cuba.

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Closed for Business, Open for Connection

 

Hello Readers~

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted, so I thought it was time to update the folks who still find me on this site via my book and a handy Google search for Airbnb hosting tips. I’m not currently hosting and in February moved into a 1-bedroom place across town.

After years of hosting and meeting hundreds of people from six continents, it was time for a little break. The 199 5-star reviews attest to a packed three years.

Friends and strangers continue to ask me if I miss being a host. Though I miss meeting new people, I don’t miss the everyday demands of keeping the house impeccably clean, the bagels stocked, and the TP rolls filled. I liken my three years hosting on Airbnb to an epoch familiar to any artist or creative person. There’s a season for everything. Picasso had his blue period. Airbnb was my time to open my door, heart, and mind to strangers while gaining my footing in a new career.

If you’re reading this because you’re considering hosting, I urge you to try it. For a month, a year, or until you tire of it. I promise the experience will change you.

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Coming Up for Air

Ryanair Safety Card

Hello, Dear Reader~

It seems like forever since I have written in this space. In reality, I think it’s been six months or so. Apart from the too-easy answer of “I’ve been busy,” is the more honest answer: “I haven’t felt like it.”

I wrote my book to share glimpses of the people who had graced my doorstep while I navigated the scary but life-changing experience of opening my home to strangers via Airbnb. In the wake of my book coming out in July of 2014, several people contacted me inquiring about me helping them set up their own Airbnb businesses. I discovered the desperation that was sometimes motivating them to open their homes also meant their pocketbooks were lacking as well.

Don’t get me wrong, I love to help people and that’s why I price my book affordably and share free tips on here, but I am a busy writer who runs an immensely demanding home business. When someone asks for personalized help to start their own potentially lucrative business, my services are not offered for the sake of charity. My expertise is shared to put food on my table and eventually a successful host’s table if they do it right. But not everyone sees it that way, and I grew wary of the demands generated from this site.

My summer was filled with hundreds of guests in and out of my home. For the first time in two years, I didn’t have interns, so the turnover rate was astounding–and twice as lucrative. I didn’t interact with many of them since I’d entered into a new romantic relationship which took me out of my house and away from the daily demands of conversation and playing tour guide with my guests.

So many of you have wondered and asked me about my romantic relationships and why I didn’t talk about them in the book. Why? Because I didn’t want it to distract from the story. I also didn’t date anyone the first year I was living in my new house and setting up my Airbnb business. This was a conscious decision I made so I could focus on work. I also didn’t want to foist an unsuspecting gentleman into a chaotic home situation that even I had not come to grips with myself. My hope was that whomever I eventually met would be tolerant and appreciative of my living situation and would look forward to meeting people in my home and sharing the experience with me. Sadly, that was not the case…

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Pillow: Startups Seek to Support Hosts

Sweet Dreams

Yesterday I attended a talk sponsored by Pillow, one of the new San Francisco-based startups seeking to support hosts and guests in the vacation rental economy. In January the company raised $2.65M in seed funding.

Seattle is a new market for Pillow; they currently operate only in select California cities. I attended the event with little knowledge about the company, beyond what I’d gleaned from a few Facebook posts. Charlie Ryan, Head of Sales for Pillow, was the lead speaker for the event. Unfortunately, he did not give us much background about the company, and it wasn’t until I queried him afterward that I learned Pillow has only been around for 18 months.

It appears part of their hiring campaign in new markets involves working with area real estate agents to tap into owners of second homes or help buyers looking to purchase properties expressly to put them into the vacation rental fray.

Pillow: The Pros

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