The stop-over tipping point – Against the clock in Buenos Aires

 

Long haul flying can often involve multiple stops, or worst still, an unwanted airport layover. Depending on your destination or the continents you’re trying to connect, these are sometimes unavoidable – but is there a way to still win?

We all know the drill. You pour all your hard earned into the airline coffers months in advance, yet to get from point A to point B, there’s an inexplicable and annoying stop-over in point C. Usually it means getting off the plane, hanging around in a boring airport lounge with not enough chairs and crappy wi-fi for a couple of hours, before re-embarking, and fighting once again for space in the overhead compartments with those inconsiderate jerks in row 25. In some cases you will need to change flights for your onward sector, or if you’re doing a codeshare, even embark on a stress-inducing change in airlines or terminals.

Recently I had to deal with a total of eight (that’s e-i-g-h-t) flights on a return trip to South America, with all but one of the stop-overs ranging from 90 minutes, to a tantalising four hours. The names rolled off the page like stones on the classic Gringo Trail; Lima, Buenos Aires, Santiago, Cusco. The final stop-over? Seven hours and 50 minutes. As I studied my itinerary and re-read the fineprint from the various airlines involved, I started to think about the stop-over tipping point. Seven hours and fifty minutes? There obviously wouldn’t be time for any kind of social immersion, but dammit, surely this would leave enough of a gap for at least a flying visit or kitschy city tour? Armed with this new determination, I resolved that I would, at whatever the expense, find a way to squeeze some joy and maybe even an ounce of culture out of my unplanned Buenos Aires break.

The first considerations for the traveller who’s found their stop-over tipping point and decided to take the local plunge are the logistics – flight delays, customs queues, baggage issues, transport hold-ups – at any point something could go wrong and screw up the whole plan. You also need to make sure your flight rules allow you to leave the airport. This is not an automatic and requires a real fleshing out with local airline representatives and airport customs, as there’s a fair chance that neither will really know the answer. As you might need to make some arrangements in advance, it’s critical this situation is understood before you arrive, so that you can head straight for your pre-booked transport of choice. In my case, it was a personal taxi driver named Pablo. I’d already passed through Buenos Aires International a couple of weeks earlier and completed a thorough “reccy”, so I was familiar with its layout (smaller than expected), busy-ness factor (not very)  and proximity to the city (45 minutes), and was able to hire him with confidence, starting from mid-afternoon through until late evening.

Exiting the terminal at speed, Pablo and I quickly connect as I leave my luggage with the airline, and with more trust than I would usually employ in these situations, allow him to lead me straight to an ATM where I withdraw the required amount of Argentinian Pesos for us to enjoy a big afternoon and wild night. Well sort of.

“Woohoo! Vamos Pablo!” I proclaim as he zips through the airport carpark and heads for the freeway, clearly in no way unaware of our time restraints and looking forward to the challenge of showing me the best of his town post-haste.

We settle quickly into the ‘getting to know you’ phase as the suburbs whiz by, and Pablo explains a bit about his life, his family, and of course his soccer team, San Lorenzo de Almagro. By the time we approach downtown, we have exchanged enough stories about the three most important topics in Argentina – sport, love and politics – to feel comfortable about being buddies for what remains of the day and night, albeit with a firm financial arrangement in place.

Downtown/Centro

With wide boulevards and a sea of buildings, you could be forgiven for mistaking the centre of Buenos Aires for Manhattan. The spirit of Eva Peron is everywhere in this city, but most visible in the form of a massive sculpture on the side of the Building of the Ministry of Health. We stop off for photos at the 71 metre tall Obelisk of Buenos Aires, followed by the Plaza De Mayo, with the Catedral Metropolitana, and impressive Atardecer en el Congreso de la Nación Argentina (National Congress) nearby. I’m already regretting that I wasn’t able to wangle a few days or even a week here, but my decision to at least challenge life’s terms and conditions and leave the airport has been confirmed as a good one.

Monserrat/San Nicholas

A few twists and turns from Avenida 9 De Julio, the main thoroughfare that splits Buenos Aires, and we’re in a neighbourhood with a distinctive Parisian feel. The backstreets reveal cafes and bistros straight out of the third arrondissement, and the avenues boast Haussmann-inspired architecture and buildings such as the 17th century Cabildo – Buenos Aires’ oldest according to Pablo – and Palacio Barolo, the home of some 300,000 light bulbs. Pablo informs me that 100 years ago this was the tallest building in South America, and its powers of illumination allowed it to serve as a lighthouse to ships entering the Rio de la Plata Estuary. Architect Mario Pilanti apparently designed the tower so that it’s light could be seen from the top of another of  his creations, the Palacio Salvo in Montevideo, Uruguay, over 200kms away.

Palermo

It’s too late for coffee and too early for dinner, but Pablo declares it’s always a good time to plunge into the Greenwich Village-esque streets of Palermo, a vibrant, trendy ‘burb full of restaurants, bars and boutique shopping. We squeeze into a parking space barely the size of Pablo’s beaten up Peugeot and spend an hour wandering the streets trying to look as cool and chic as the rest of the crowd. A man runs past screaming “Ladrón!” which Pablo translates for me: “thief!” “Never leave anything on your table when you are at one of the outdoor cafes” he warns me with a shake of the head which suggests that in his view, each party is equally to blame for the poor fellow’s loss.

Parks and Gardens

There’s some stunning greenery in Buenos Aires, and Pablo expertly designs a route that enables us to take in the Parque 3 de Febrero, the Jardín Botánico Carlos Thays (Botanical Gardens), Plaza Francia, the Japanese Garden and finally a stroll along the old docks – Juana Manuela Gorriti –  from which we get a great view of ‘New’ Buenos Aires across the Rio Darsena Sur. What strikes me as amazing isn’t so much the range and quality of the statues, monuments and modern art installations that adorn each space, its the runners! Apparently it’s the new thing in this town, and everyone’s doing it. Development of running paths can barely keep up with the opening of sneaker shops and sales of cross-trainers.

La Boca

As dusk settles, Pablo turns off the main road into a series of tree-lined streets with colourful houses and few people, and perhaps sensing that our tour to date has been as safe as it has been informative, he locks the doors and starts to tell me a little about the old Italian barrio of La Boca. Popular with tourists during the day but off-limits at night, Pablo’s caution is apparent in the way he slowly approaches each traffic light without ever coming to a complete stop (because of car-jackings) and orders me to hide my camera from view. No visit to La Boca is complete without a drive-by of the famous La Bombonera stadium, home of Boca Juniors football team, the launching point for the career of Argentina’s favourite son, Maradona – a Shane Warne-like idol who can apparently do no wrong in the eyes of millions of adoring fans.

An Argentine feast

Time is ticking away, and conscious that I still need to eat a famous Argentinian steak washed down with a bottle of classic red before we head back to the airport, Pablo directs his treasured taxi into the Recoleta area, home of some of his favourite, most authentic restaurants. The smoke of roasting meat mingles with cigar fumes to creates a sweet-smelling atmosphere that is as stimulating as it is slightly concerning, and our noses lead us to Pablo’s first suggestion, El Sanjuanino; apparently home to some superb steaks and Buenos Aires best empanadas.

The place is packed. Pablo shakes hands with the Maestro de, which apart from being encouraging, makes me feel slightly important, but alas doesn’t result in us finding a table – it’s a one hour wait. Next up is Restaurante Fervour, where the story is the same, and so it goes with Pablo’s next two choices. With just over two and a half hours left until my flight departs, we’re going to have to at least head point our search towards the airport.

“Wait – I know a place! I cannot believe I didn’t think of it before” Pablo exclaims with excitement. Back to his battered French chariot we head, and onto the freeway, airport bound.

“Its expensive, but now I think you have not enough time” says Pablo as his foot presses the accelerator. “It’s a place for the best meat in Buenos Aires!”

Expecting some lean-to backyard joint with meat hanging from hooks and gauchos playing horseshoes on a dusty pitch, I’m surprised when we eventually pull into a parking lot set against a row of trees and green lawns, with a large building beyond, modern in a retro-ranch kind of way. With an exterior resembling the set of the Masterchef Kitchen, El Mangrullo is cavernous, featuring white table cloths, dim lighting, and highly polished timber set across split-levels. Waiting staff dressed better than I am come and go as we stand at the entrance trying to get someone’s attention. Yep, this place is fancy.

Once again Pablo impresses with his ability to find and have a quick, knowing conversation with the person in charge. A firm handshake later, and we’re set up in a warm booth, flicking through a menu for each of wine, meat, and sides. Pablo declines to dine with me – he will eat with his family late tonight. I object, but apparently this is normal, and expected of him, so I don’t push.

The choices are infinite, and not wanting to waste any more time, I order a local specialty from ‘The Grill’, Ojo de bife – rib-eye medium rare. Add in some hand-cut fries and steamed string beans and I suddenly realise I’m starving – my last meal was some kind of cheese roll on the flight from Lima about nine hours ago. Warm, soft pumpkin muffins appear while we wait, which go better than you would think with a big glass of Malbec – a dark Argentine Red. The steaming hot steak arrives and is presented like I’m meeting Argentine royalty, with the lesser lights – the sides – trailing behind. The South American reputation for quality red meat is legendary and with both my curiosity and stomach now thoroughly satisfied, it’s time to stumble back to Pablo’s waiting vehicle, and quickly trek back to the airport.

To be honest I’m slightly more than tipsy, and almost forget to pay my new chum in the rush, but with the business part of the night out of the way, with a hug, a pat on the back and a promise to return, we part like old friends.

It’s late and the airport is quiet. With such a big city you’d expect a 24 hour crush, but according to Pablo it’s not as busy as one might think; “What comes after Buenos Aires? Look at the map, there’s nothing, nowhere else to go”. Maybe that explains it. Security is quick and before I know it, I’m sitting outside my departure gate waiting for the call. Easing back into my chair and allowing myself a self-congratulatory moment after such a successful hit and run mission, I suddenly hear my name over the PA; “Would passenger Derek Green please present to Gate 31 – your flight is waiting to depart”. Oh crap, it must be the booze and the fact that I’m digesting half a cow, but I’ve somehow lost track of time – it’s all become a bit tighter than I thought!

As the flight departs and my seat reclines, through a wine-induced numbness I reflect on an afternoon and evening which had everything – culture, cuisine and crime – and drift off, well pleased that I have squeezed every ounce out of this stop-over’s hours and minutes.

So what’s your stop-over tipping point?

A tale of the tortoise and the hare on the Inca Trail


By Derek Green

If you were expecting this to be the re-telling of an ancient Incan legend with some kind of wise, yet strangely impossible to adopt moral message, then I’m sorry to disappoint you. Now that’s out of the way nice and early, I can forge ahead and tell you a modern tale of the tortoise and hare, set to the backdrop of the breath-taking Andes, featuring one of the world’s most popular ‘bucket list’ items – the Inca Trail.

Thousands of people undertake this trek each year, with the ‘classic’ trail involving a 45 km hike over four days, arriving at the impressive ancient citadel of Machu Picchu on the final morning. Recently I was one of them as part of group featuring eleven trekkers, two local guides, two chefs, and a team of fifteen porters.

Day one: What’s so hard about this?

The team meets at 5am in the Plaza Regocijo in Cusco, the historical capital of the Incan Empire and most common launching point for an Inca Trail mission. We sluggishly board the ‘Oxygen Bus’, which is exactly what it sounds like, a bus with drop-down oxygen masks for anyone who might be struggling with their own ‘airbags’. Cusco is above 11,000 feet, and I wonder how anyone who feels the need to suck in some O2 already is going to cope when we’re exerting ourselves at 14,000 feet. Needless to say we all view the masks with a mixture of amusement and barely contained contempt, and focus on the 3 hour bus trip to our starting point – Kilometre 82. It’s also a chance for me to assess and label the rest of the team My Kitchen Rules style; there’s the Adelaide newly-weds, the might-be-wed-one-day-if-he-ever-pulls-his-finger-out couple from Manchester, the American sisters, the ‘besties’ from London, and the American uncle and niece, travelling with the sisters who are also family. I’m clearly the odd one out, but hey, doing the math I’d say the chances of me getting my own tent are looking ‘sweet as’.

Finally we arrive at the gateway to the trail, assess our gear, have our papers checked and we’re away, the hares setting the pace. With the exception of ‘Uncle Mark’, I’m giving everyone a 20 year minimum head start, so I resolve to swallow my pride and pace myself; after all it’s not a race. The majority of the morning’s path is what the locals call ‘Inca Flat’ which translates as ‘bloody hard for anyone who hasn’t spent their whole life in the Andes’. The  Cusichaca Valley parts as we gradually rise, and we’re rewarded with views of snow-capped peaks from the Incan site of Llactapata. I hadn’t realised we would come across other ruins on our way to the “City in the Sky’, and it starts to dawn on us how sophisticated and organised this ancient society was. A myriad of trails traverse the Andes to the tune of 40,000 kms across an area of 2 million kilometres ruled by the Incan Empire for much of the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries as the largest empire in pre-Columbian America.

As the slopes steepen, I can see above me that the hares are in their element, and the tortoise (me) is lagging behind. I have to say I’ve never been obsessive, or even particularly keen about physical activity; I know I’m fit enough and quite capable of doing this, but the ‘doing’ part is the problem. No matter how fit you are you still need to drag yourself step by step, switch-back by switch-back up each mountain pass. There’s no landing on a magic paver and ‘advancing to go’ whilst collecting two million Peruvian Sol, you just have to slowly grind it out. Did I mention it’s not a race?

Our red-shirted porters, affectionately known as ‘The Red Army’ by our trekking company, the superb Llama Path, pass us at speed, a mighty feat considering they are carrying all of the supplies and equipment, including gas bottles, water, tents, complete kitchen facilities and food. There are no towns or shops up here, so they must carry everything we might need over the four days. According to Silvio our head guide, once they even carried a young boy! The reality is there are (mostly) well regulated weight limits for porters, and Llama Path’s reputation for treatment of its staff is legendary.

You never know what to expect on a trip like this when it comes to food and facilities, it has little bearing on the decision to commit to the trek – it’s the trauma you’ll be putting your body through that’s foremost in your mind – and our first thoughts start to turn in this direction as we head towards an impressive lunch tent expertly set up by the porters. Outside there’s a flurry of activity, as a distinguished porter in a tall chef’s hat directs traffic around a couple of large steaming pots.

We’re seated on long benches, and then it comes in waves – soup, chicken and rice, steamed vegetables, pasta, roast potatoes (huh?), rolls of cheese and baked trout, avocado and spicy salsa. It’s like we’re being served via an invisible conveyor belt connected to the back of some 5 star restaurant hidden among the bushes. Every meal either starts or ends with coca tea, an Incan favourite and apparent stimulant which helps alleviate the symptoms some of us are already experiencing at this altitude. For camp food, it’s unbelievable, and it just gets better over the next few days.

Somehow the porters have managed to pack up lunch, over-take us, and set up camp in the two and a quarter hour climb after lunch. The Red Army are more like team Ferrari. We arrive to a picture perfect scene at the quiet Ayapata campground, our tents in a neat row facing a magical mountain vista opposite.

Day two: Yes, I actually paid to do this

The rumours about “Day Two” have circulated backpackers and internet forums for years. With overly optimistic eyes fixed on the greater goal beyond, I simply assumed these rumours were true and then promptly chose to ignore them.

Ignoring truths makes no difference to the day two morning call – it still sounds at 5am. We start the day with four hours straight up. It’s a slog, even for the hares ahead (probably), and we trudge up the large stone steps until finally the mountains open up and ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’ comes into view. I’m too exhausted to ask what happened to her, and keep pumping the legs, assuming whatever it was, it wasn’t something good. We’re at the highest point of the trek and my enthusiasm for the scenery evaporates like oxygen trying to reach my lungs. Seriously I’m sucking in so hard, trying to access their every spare corner, I can literally feel every single lung sponge in there doing its best for me. What wouldn’t I pay for that stupid bus to be here right now! I’m at the stage where I’m stopping to rest every 50 metres or so. Each rise above looks like it could be the final one, but the trail cruelly turns to the left or right, presenting another rise a similar distance away. And so it goes until finally, there are no more rises and I can see the hares waiting ahead in the bowl of the mountain pass. I’m close enough to hear their encouragement as it drifts with the wind; “Not far to go”, “You’re almost there” and “Come on, lunch is getting cold!” My new Mancunian friend Dave is the quickest hare of the bunch, and has a wit to match. In my current weakened state I’ve got no comeback, but it’s OK, he’s British, and over the long game he’ll be toast for a sharp tongued Australian with an exceptional knowledge of sporting history. Besides, it’s not a race.

I finally crawl the last ten metres to the sound of Gen-Y applause, and only lunch and a two hour section of downhill slopes stand between me and a wonderfully long lie down in my private tent. Except of course for my first serious visit to ‘La Baños’ – the bathroom. Cue music from Psycho…

I knew before I embarked on this trip that my mental approach would be as much a part of its success as the physical. What I didn’t realise was how much of that mental energy would be taken up negotiating the toilets of the Andes National Park service. To say that I had to ‘psych myself’ is an understatement.

To an Australian, bush toilets seem like a pretty simple concept. You build a little hut just far enough away from your camp area, dig a big hole and drop in a small throne with a wooden seat, right? Wrong. In Peru, the squat is the favoured approach, and it’s an experience you won’t forget. My first time will live with me forever, it reminded me of one of those corporate flowcharts. Once you get past the whole “why did they do it like this?” question, it’s already too late as you realise that’s not mud you’re standing in. Too bad if you decided to wear thongs. Next, establish your true requirements and commitment level. One or two? If it’s a two, can you hang on another 3 days? Yes? Then get the hell out. No? Then you’ve got to find something sturdy to grab – a piece of wet rope, a rusty pipe – whatever’s available – hope you’re not wearing your best pants. Now make sure your balance is spot on, then finally, hold your breath and hope for the best. If you make it out unscathed, you’ll eat that 2,000 foot climb waiting in the morning for breakfast.

Day three: The case of the missing underpants

With the exception of quality footwear, I don’t need all the fancy gear when I head out into the great outdoors, but at the advice of some experienced mountaineers, I did buy three pairs of polyester/elastane underpants. OK I admit it; I splurged on some very expensive fast-drying, fancy-arsed jocks. Now on the Inca Trail, unless you’re either super-human or foolhardy, the porters carry all of your personal gear, with the exception of whatever you’ll need during the day. It’s all collected each morning, divided between the crew, and delivered with a smile to your tent door at the end of the day – an amazing service.

Except for the moment when I realise I’m two pairs of undies short. Yes, my BNWT (brand-new-with-tags) fluoro underwear is missing. Not wanting to cause a scene, I enquire around the tents to see if anyone has accidentally been allocated some undies which aren’t theirs. There’s plenty of mirth, but no luck. Reluctantly I escalate the situation to our guides. What was I thinking? Suddenly the quiet morning routine is shaken by a flurry of activity, and everyone now knows we have a potential undie thief in our midst. Except for the porters it seems. Their English is about as good as my Spanish – ‘inexistente’ – and I’m not sure they really understand what they’re looking for, but their effort and concern suggests they think it’s either a diamond ring or a small child, as no stone is left unturned.

With the camp ransacked and then hastily packed away, the path to Winay Wayna can’t wait any longer. The loss of my precious undies is not quite as painful as the series of barbs delivered by Dave, but soon the hares are too far ahead for me to hear anyway. Whatever mate, it’s not a race. I am however now left alone to lament the fact that I’m way short in the smalls department. Will my one remaining pair of awesome undies dry in time?

We descend into the cloud forest, and the terrain changes dramatically. Open mountain trails are replaced by lush tunnels of greenery, and sweet, earthy air is welcomed by parched lungs.

The ruins of Phuyupatamarca are the most impressive yet, and before we know it we’ve reached the campsite for our final night, just in time for lunch. It’s a long one as the group gleefully treads over the same dining-tent topics – Trump, Brexit, One Nation and the current state of right and left wing policy throughout the world. As a team we’re like-minded, but the conversations are still both stimulating and enlightening.

The final afternoon whizzes by as we alternate between exploring the nearby site of Winay Wayna and preparing for our early morning departure. This campsite is full as it’s the closest overnight area from which to approach Machu Picchu, packed to the brim with dozens of trekking companies and teams from all over the world, all of whom are highly motivated to be the first to arrive at the famous Sun Gate in the morning.

Day four: Glory road

We’re up at 3am. The adrenalin in the air is thicker than the forest mist. Torches out, we rush down to the national park gate like teams in the Amazing Race, knowing that we must wait until 5.30am before the checkpoint opens, the rangers stamp our tickets and let us pour through. The gate finally swings, and the hares have a real challenge on their hands as hundreds of pushy trekkers stretch their legs, swing their arms (and walking poles) and aggressively protect their space. It’s like the start of some kind of multi-national marathon as colours, flags and testosterone compete with common sense and manners. I let the mayhem subside before I up the tempo and find my stride. Knowing that this is mostly a gentle undulating grade, I’m able to breathe in this final stretch of the Inca Trail, feel the beating heart of the forest and absorb the sight of an endless sea of mountains beyond. There are hares ahead and behind, but I’m in my own zone, ambling along too fast for the slower hares, whilst in no danger of catching the faster ones. I have the trail to myself for the first time and it’s a glorious hour or so until finally I reach the Sun Gate and prepare myself for the first glimpse of the lost city itself. The magnificence of Machu Picchu unfolds across the valley below as intermittent fog obscures our view and ensures we don’t pause too long.

The team descends the final couple of kilometres and the rest of the morning is a wonderful blur, the emerald green surrounds are offset by limestone buildings, thatched roofs and human traffic jams wherever we turn. We congratulate each other, take in as much as we can and before we know it, it’s time to find the bus to the service town of Aguas Calientes for our rendezvous with the rest of the team and guides, to say our goodbyes, and sit in what turns out to be silent reflection for most of us on the train trip back to Ollantaytambo and ultimately Cusco, from where we’ll all depart; heading on, heading home, or starting fresh adventures. Drifting off as I stare out into the gloom as the train whirls by another small, barely lit town, I swear I see a man with what looks like bright blue underwear on his head, waving excitedly as we pass. Wait, was that Dave? I blink twice and look again, but he’s gone, if he ever was there. And they say you’re only meant to leave footprints behind.

So many of us had set out on this journey imagining that the glorious sight of Machu Picchu would be the crowning moment of the four days, the pinnacle of our Peruvian escapade, yet with every painful step, torturous breath, and unhappy visit to La Baños, it became clear that the journey itself was the highlight, and not the destination as we’d all assumed.

And what did become of the tortoise among all those hares? Well, it doesn’t really matter now, after all, it was never a race…

Can Airbnb learn from the mistakes of ebay?

In 2001 I saw a roadside billboard for eBay, an apparent ‘online auction’ website that claimed it was connecting sellers of junk with buyers of junk across the world.

Even with a firmly established career in ‘tech’, the sound of my loud scoff at the idea of this kind of concept succeeding echoed in our car for what seemed like an eternity. We sold that car eventually but the new owners probably still get it when they hit a pot hole.

But as a hoarder and collector of everything from coins to sea shells, I was still intrigued, and within a couple of years found myself trading with the best of them – sending stamps to Sweden, magazines to Mexico, and records to Romania. It wasn’t only a bit of extra cash on the side – it was fun – and over the years I slowly reduced my pile of personal rubble while saving enough to actually visit some of the exotic places I was exporting my trash to.

Over time however, eBay gradually eroded the essence of their online garage sale concept, the very elements that had made transacting enjoyable and even personable – I’m still connected to hundreds of like-minded collectors and fossickers across the world. Within a short period of time we saw; the loss of feedback for sellers, the hiding of auction winner identities, a never-ending toying with listing formats, an overhaul of item categories, promoted items in search results, the introduction of the compulsory use of PayPal, and the significant upping of listing and sale fees.

All these changes favoured the modern breed of eBay seller; ‘stores’ peddling new goods, mostly cheap rubbish, and operating e-retail businesses, resulting in a reduction of the grassroots swell of the now disillusioned low quantity and casual sellers. The old-timers either threw their hands in the air and gave up, or slowly backed away, their activity levels dropping to an all-time low.

So what’s all this got to do with Airbnb?

Well you might recall I mentioned I travel a bit? And I work in tech? Yes, I love Airbnb almost as much as I used to love eBay. The site has opened up accommodation opportunities to countries, regions and neighbourhoods that were previously unavailable, either because there were no official lodgings in the area, or the ones that did exist were exorbitantly priced and lacking quality, flexibility, and general homeliness.. When you add in the fact the Airbnb hosts are like your own personal in-country concierge, the benefits of being able to hand-pick the style, location and price of your accommodation are a winning combination.

In terms of the technology and operational structure of the two, the similarities are striking. Each was developed in a garage by a sole brainiac with a vision. They provide an online, secure forum for the owner of a product to offer it to a buyer of the product. Each party to the transaction has the chance to communicate/negotiate with, and get to know the other. Both services became wildly popular in a short period of time with the general population, but less so with the industry establishments, crashing old-school business traditions and catching complacent, under-resourced and bewildered governments napping. As a result each has run into its fair share of legal hassle and controversy.

I’ve used Airbnb since 2010, but in the last 2 years have noticed an increase in the number of hosts who are merely rental property managers, time-poor ‘just show me the money’ types, the equivalent of eBay ‘stores’, with little vested interest in the property, the neighbours and surrounds, or their client. Using Airbnb, once you’ve clicked the ‘book’ button, your payment for the  total accommodation cost is taken from your credit card and immediately goes into ‘escrow’ – held and controlled by Airbnb – even if your trip is months away. If you have a problem and need to change your travel plans, retrieving your money is difficult, and will depend on the booking conditions and attitude of the host. With rental property managers, the chances of being able to cancel or alter your booking are slim, and your money is as good as gone if you don’t arrive at your accommodation on check-in day.

All of my great experiences over the years have been with owner-hosts – I just love the meet and greet opportunity, personal stories, recommendations and occasionally even a coffee or glass of wine.

So what next for Airbnb – how can they avoid eBay’s pitfalls?

I would list my predicted “top 10 initiatives Airbnb might try and implement in order to sell out” if I weren’t afraid the company might read them and decide some of them were great ideas. Suffice to say they all involve some degree of either focussing on business owners over individuals, further depersonalisation, fee increases, market over saturation, and just general greed. All of these will inevitably contribute to the recent crackdown on Airbnb lettings by tenant associations, body corporates and governments.

Airbnb’s contribution to the decline of housing affordability and the ethics of its operations deserve expanded discussion in a separate article, in the meantime it seems to me that the service can stay on the right side of the moral argument by sticking to the fundamentals; putting people before profit, partnering with small-time hosts around the world, and just maintaining the element of fun.

Life among the hyphen-set in LA LA land


Many of you will have been to the dusty, fast-paced, vehicle-choked megalopolis that is LA. Some of you will have hated it.

I have to say, since my first visit almost 30 years ago, I’ve avoided Los Angeles like the plague. And the swine flu, or to be honest, even the common cold. Nothing could make me stay there for more than an overnight connection, and even then I’d protest, drag my heels reluctantly from LAX arrival hall to a taxi, then just drown my sorrows by the pool or in the hotel bar before setting my alarm for the 6am trek back to the airport the next morning – even if my outbound flight was in the afternoon.

There’s the constant smog, or haze, or whatever that is. The traffic is just nuts – it takes an hour to drive to, well to pretty much anywhere. There’s the constant fear of getting lost and being car-jacked, or worse still being written into the narrative as an ‘innocent bystander’ of a real-life Tarantino flick (“That’s Zed!”). What’s more, there aren’t any obvious ‘must see’ sights, and that’s including Hollywood and Disneyland. Finally there’s the people, who are everything they appear to be on TV – fast talking, plastic, sickly sweet and improbably insincere. Nowhere does the old adage “Fake it ’til you make it!” do more milage than here.

So what if after all that you were wrong? No not about the stuff I just mentioned, that’s as permanent as the imprints of Mel Gibson’s tiny hands in the concrete blocks in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. No I mean, what if there was more to LA? Recently, I resolved myself to wipe the thin film of grime from my sunglasses and take another look.

Since those early days of wanderlust I’ve learned that one of the best ways to enjoy most cities is to befriend a local. It doesn’t matter if you don’t meet them in their hometown, you just have to share a conversation, a laugh, some vaguely palatable social and political views, and most importantly, contact details. Even if they’re jerks, at the very least you’ve got someone to pick you up from the airport, take you to a local bar and point you in the direction of the couch at 3am when your lips are numb and you’ve forgotten your name. Better still, you rarely have to reciprocate, even the most intrepid foreigners will soon work out that Australia’s friggin’ miles away, and they will never make it ‘Down Under’ to your place and frighten your mum.

It’s at this point it makes sense for me to introduce my friend Lee. That’s his actual name by the way – he said I could use it. Lee’s white, conservative, typical American middle class military upbringing, anti-immigration, anti-Obama and pro-Trump. Lee hates taxes, ‘big government’ – or any sized government for that matter – and social handouts. Getting the picture? Most of you will be horrified by that description, but don’t be so concerned – to Lee it’s a compliment, a badge of honour. I know being friends with Lee leaves one of the main boxes above unchecked, but hey, he’s still a likeable guy.

Once you’ve made your friend, step two is to get them to introduce you to their friends. Suddenly the conversations are (slightly) broader, the settings varied, and the back-stories fascinating, even more so in LA, where an estimated 22% of people in the greater area’s 18 million inhabitants are employed in some capacity in an artistic/creative role or entertainment support industry.

And that’s how we end up at a Super Bowl party on US sport’s biggest day of the year. The watery beer is flowing, the pork ribs are sizzling and collagen lips are smacking.

“Hey come and meet Phil” says Lee. “He’s an agent-limo driver”.

“Hi” I say. “Nice shirt.”

“Hey have you met Nikki? She’s an actress-masseuse”

“How’s it goin?'”

“…And this is James” Lee continues, “he’s an actor and… hey what is it you’re doin’ now?”

“I drive an ice-cream truck” replies James, his million dollar smile fading to about a hundred bucks worth.

And the introductions continue. Actor-cook. Screenwriter-golf caddie. Make up artist-astrologist.

20 minutes in and I can’t take it any more. “Hey Lee,” I say taking him aside, “what’s with all these people? Why don’t they just pick a career that they like or they’re good at?”

Lee laughs. “Man, it’s LA, we’re all living only half the dream. Entertainment is the industry we’re in here. Take that away and all of a sudden we’re just a sad bunch of cooks, cleaners and taxi-drivers.” His gaze surveys the room “I may as well go back to Phoenix, Phil can go home to Pittsburgh, and James will just drift back to… Hey James! Where you from anyway?” he yells.

“The Valley!” comes the reply.

“Oh.” says Lee. “Well just forget James, but you know what I mean.”

I do know what he means, and then it hit’s me like the riff in that Courtney Love song Celebrity Skin: “Hooker-waitress, model-actress…” I’m living temporarily in the world of the hyphen people, where one’s very existence is hyphenated, and the road to success is long, hard, and more often than not, just a mirage. But who am I to judge? I’m a writer-web developer for goodness sake, and my time (and income) is heavily skewed to the latter, less impressive of those two titles.

I drift back to the conversation. One of Lee’s friends Rick is telling me about a movie he was in. “It’s only available on YouTube at the moment” he says earnestly, “We’re pushing hard for it to come out on DVD. A problem with the music rights”

Lee’s back. “Hey, you havin’ fun? They’re a great bunch of people huh ‘mate’?”

“Yeah” I say ignoring his hopeless attempt at an Aussie accent, “This is more than fun – it’s educational!.”

All of a sudden a light bulb goes off inside Lee’s skull and he’s serious. “Hey, you know what? You could make it here! You’re a writer, you’ve got other skills, you’re a good talker. LA might fit you – you could really ‘do’ LA!”

Maybe he’s right…

Before I start to see stars, the rest of Celebrity Skin wafts into my mind “You better watch out, Oh, what you wish for, It better be worth it”

Yeah I think I’ll leave that dream for the next director-stuntman that comes along, but in the meantime, perhaps I’ve found the real LA, an LA I could even grow to like.

Not so random act of kindness


Recently while on holiday I found myself in a situation where I needed cash quickly. In a foreign land with an empty wallet and ticking clock, the situation was peaking on the stress-level Richter scale.

kindness

So who doesn’t carry cash? Well, like most people checking out of their hotel on the final day of a short overseas trip, I used the last of my local currency to pay the bill – after all, Australian stores don’t tend to accept US dollars. So with the bags packed and flights checked in online, I could just drop the bags at the airport and put my feet up while waiting for the flight to board – right?

Wrong.

The hotel had provided me with a taxi that didn’t accept credit cards and upon arrival at the airport, my driver started pointing impatiently at a large sign on the back window that indicated this in bold type.

Much as I felt like launching into a lecture about what year it was, the amazing remote payment technologies that are now available, and how this situation could have been avoided if the “cash only” sign had been pointed out to me at the beginning of the journey, it wasn’t the time or audience. It was the time to embark on a wild dash for cash.

Running off into the vast departures area of the airport and half expecting to see 4 or 5 ATMs straight up, I quickly established that there were none. In fact there wasn’t really anything. The first person I came across was a woman absentmindly dusting a “Please Queue Here” sign.

She wasn’t wearing a badge that said “Airport Information” but she would have to do.

Naturally she had no idea where there was an ATM. “What do you need money for?” she said. “A taxi? How much do you need?” This was taking too long.

“$40?” She continued on, “OK, come with me, I have it.” Not sure where this was going, I followed nonetheless. The woman wandered over to the Korean Airlines desk, reached behind for her purse, and handed me a crisp $100 bill.

$100. To a complete stranger.

“Are you sure?” I said. “You know I will give this back to you, don’t you. That’s why you’re lending it to me, because I have an honest face, and I will return your money”

“No,” she said, “I don’t know if you’ll return the money. But there you go, I will be here.” She turned and started busying herself with other matters.

It was true, she had no idea, only I knew that I would be back. So I paid off the driver, took the woman the $60 change, eventually found an ATM, and returned with the remaining $40. I rushed off to the departure lounge, made the plane, and then completed an otherwise uneventful journey.

But I did reflect on my meeting with Gloria. Was this a random act of kindness? I decided that no, I think for some people, acts of kindness are not random at all, they are lived everyday, and perhaps require very little effort or thought.

The moral of this story could easily be “Don’t step into a cab that doesn’t take credit card if you don’t have any cash”, but really, the message was that their are still plenty of good, trusting people in the world who are prepared to act.