Sometimes you hit gold on Airbnb. The posting I saw had few photos, few reviews and was out of the way, but I took the chance. And then, there it was. A little house set back in a coconut grove facing a cape of crystalline coves and white boulders where wild peacocks sunned. The house was owned by a fisherman and his family. After an injury, he had no income so he would wave down backpackers on the highway. One kind guest signed him up on Airbnb and he now had a way to finance his children’s future.
We didn’t have much of a shared language so I thought I’d heard wrong when he asked me for cash. He said that the money wasn’t appearing in his account. At that point, I considered leaving, but then a cool breeze off the ocean told me to stay. Put simply, the kind guest had registered an account for him but not with a bank. I asked for the wifi so we could figure it out and he took me to a wall. “No, I need wifi, not a wall.” He was offering me the signal coming from the back of the neighboring villa.
“Honestly. Let’s try something else,” which we did, only to end up squatting on the hot concrete outside the front wall. Apparently, the villa owner was not going to invite us in for iced tea. His sympathetic wife brought a glass of water, though what I really wanted was an umbrella for shade. It was hot and we were there for a full two hours. There were passwords and verifications and security questions and bank codes.
This dutiful ex-fisherman had kept records on everything, but without a laptop and only a not-so-smart phone, he would have been stuck. It was a test of patience, not because of our communication but because of the infuriating Airbnb interface. I scanned the security questions hoping to find something that didn’t reek of digital snobbery: “What was your favorite class in college? What was the first foreign country you visited?”
These questions were fine for the landlord of eight condos. Not fine for the average farmer or fisherman. We settled for, “How old was your father when you were born?” He noted the invented number and I prayed that he’d never need it. We held our breath on the last clicks and wrapped it up. “So, I’ll get my money in the bank?” I really do hope so. It was late afternoon, but there was still time to sit on the rocks, breathe in the breeze and later feast on a sumptuous dinner.
The next morning, wild eels came to the shallows to be fed and I was told porcupines had marched across the property at night. It was a perfect stay, even though the toilet and shower were outside in a concrete shell left standing after a tsunami. It will be the perfect memory, far better than any rent-raising, gentrifying, tourist hating space of good value and location. If Airbnb wants us to “live like locals” then they should honor the hosts that we move in on. Much of the world’s most gracious hosts do not vacation overseas and do not have favorite courses in college.