“Would you like some milk?”
“What?” I replied following a pause. After the long, torturous drive from Wanaka to Dunedin, it took a while to process anything. The roads in New Zealand range from curvy to torturous to slightly suicidal, the Kiwi engineers going with the mentality of “over and around” rather than “through.”
Sure, sure—over and around is a fine mentality in places like Kansas, where there’s one hill and one medium-sized lake, but with as many mountains as New Zealand’s south island has, you feel like you’re following some two-year-old’s attempt at finding a way through a restaurant menu maze.
“Oh like milk from a cow? Naw, I think we’re fine.”
“Are you sure?”
She gave me a questioning look.
“Well, I guess we’ll take some.”
She sure was insistent. After disappearing into her house for a moment, she returned with a bottle.
“Straight from the cow,” she said upon handing it over. “And we have some coffee too, if you’d like that.”
These Kiwis were our Airbnb hosts, who I had turned to after I tried (and failed in a spectacular manner) to find a vacancy in a Dunedin hotel. Airbnb was my father’s suggestion, who mentioned it after I stated that I would hurl my computer at the nearest small child if some hotel didn’t get its stuff together and give us a room.
Immediately, I was impressed with Airbnb’s website because it looked—if such human qualities can be applied to websites—sexy. It seems rare, even these days, to find a beautifully designed website. Oh the situation is certainly better than twenty years ago, but Lord Almighty, look at Yahoo! or Orbitz; they’re built by Microsoft engineers stuck in the ‘90s, an era of so much bricky crap I feel like I’m at a flea market.
Airbnb.com: wonderful. And more importantly, there were over twenty different possible places to stay, all at remarkably reasonable prices and all vacant. When faced with such a large list of things, all potentially good, I usually do that thing where you close your eyes, point with your finger, and say “that one… with a side of steamed vegetables.”
My finger pointing led me to a studio that promised stunning treetop views of the Otago Peninsula, which was economical and a significant way out on the peninsula. But I’ve been fooled with nonsense like “stunning views” before, where a “treetop outlook” is a picture of a chopped-down pine tree on your bedroom wall. However, there were pictures of the view that looked in between suspiciously clear, like a perfect Google image of a Hawaiian beach, and so blurry I’m not sure if I’m looking at a hooker or a peninsula. So I decided that yes, this would be a good place.
Following that, I found choosing our host was only the first step in a lengthy rigmarole designed to prove first time users were real and not psychotic. The process would have been fine with first-world Internet, but this is New Zealand, where you’re almost better making paper airplanes of your letters to home and throwing them off a nearby cliff. Plus, I’ve found that computers don’t take kindly to jokes. Try to say you’re Benito, resident of Santiago, and post a picture of you in a sombrero (or whatever they wear in Chile) and get prepared for intransigence worse than an industrial copier low on toner.
Eventually I finished and awaited the owner’s reply. The way it works is you send a query to the owner; they check you out (you either have to link your profile to Linkedin, Facebook, or Google, or make a video explaining how you’re not going to steal their crockery), and then hopefully they agree. After that, you text/email/phone back and forth with the owner and set up check-in details.
Essentially, Airbnb is the dude/chick who sets you up on blind dates, and then becomes your wingman (wingwoman) who abandons you upon arrival for “friends they haven’t seen for a really long time” or the all-you-can-eat buffet.
And now I was with my father and mother, introducing myself to the people whose place we would be staying, and Airbnb was off digging into the shrimp and caviar. The woman who had offered us milk, a to-the-point but very kind Kiwi, showed us to the large studio apartment, which indeed had gorgeous lookout of the peninsula’s rolling hills and bay.
I really can’t think of anything more authentically “New Zealand” as the whole time we there. Sure, Guy and his wife were still working out the kinks—we didn’t have any hot water, and they had a little work to do on the driveway—but we were their second guests, so those things are understandable.
And really, I wouldn’t have it any other way. There’s something about hotels that seems stilted and fake. It isn’t a local home; it’s a little transported version of what is comfortable to the western mind, transported into foreign countries under the banner of Comfort Inn or Hilton. In those cells of comfort, you lose something, something of the country you are visiting, and Airbnb is a way to get around that.
Under the guide of our hosts, we were pointed in the direction of the local pub for dinner. Upon entry to the warm pub, we were greeted with a large semicircle of townspeople all watching the local university’s rugby match on the television. Everyone had his or her pint out in front of them, nursing it with a silent intensity. Once in a while, a play would be made that was apparently a good one and a rousing cheer would go up.
As far as the rugby goes, I had a very little idea what was going on; just when I thought one team was making some sort of progress down the field, someone kicked the ball to the other team. From what I understand though, rugby is a version of American football for polite ex-convicts who have unbelievable stamina and tolerance for pain.
My gaze drifted from the rugby match to the surround. The pub itself bordered the road, which was now quiet after a day of tourists rumbling past, and I watched the light fall calmly down over the bay. I ordered the fish and chips, which were close the best I’ve ever had, and a pint of Monteith’s Golden Ale because a pint of beer is exactly what this situation called for. My parents sat across from me, and we chatted as only family members can—drifting from profound to the banal to silence.
These are the moments and places you desperately search for in travel; a time where you can just glimpse a hint of what lies beneath the surface of a town, where you can tap a certain Platonic beauty that underlies our collective humanity. Some may call it a glimpse of heaven; others deem it the transcendent mind (or something like that; it’s all a bit over my head); for most, it’s just a good brew with your mates.
Photos courtesy of shutterstock.
Copyright © 2015 Benjamin Rietema