As I sip a cup of kvaede tea on the deck of ‘my’ Danish summer house and gaze out across a vast carpet of wild dandelions turning reddish-gold in the light of the rising sun, I have good reason to be pleased with myself. The summer house, located bang on an aquamarine sound, has four bedrooms that can accommodate my entire family under one roof. My toddler daughters are already amongst the dandelions, tugging and blowing at them in glee; my teenage son is fast asleep in his own room after having surfed the Net all night; my 23-year-old is out of his own private bedroom—oh my, what this would have cost in a hotel—and jogging and checking out the girls on the beach; my partner is busy putting the finishing touches to the design plans for our next project, which I can then take full creative credit for; and I’m about to pick up my rod and sneak down to the bottom of the garden to catch lunch. A few horn fish. Perhaps, even a sea trout.
Later in the day, after a brunch of mouth-watering pates, sausages and hams, smoked and pickled fish and wild berries, we will all take in a sauna, in-house, and then drive down to Copenhagen in ‘our’ brand-new bmw station wagon and spend the day at the fairy-tale Tivoli gardens. We have a whole month of this wonderfully salubrious lifestyle under the almost 24-hour Scandinavian sun before returning to India and the demands of work. All this when I have almost nothing in my personal savings account at home! This entire holiday—apart from the airfares, grocery shopping and gasoline for the car—is completely free. We are living the lifestyle of our multi-millionaire entrepreneur hosts, who are simultaneously ‘discovering the emerging Indian economy, summer and crowds’ via a home exchange with us! What we lack—in bmws, waterfronts and private boats—is being made up by housekeeping staff, resident chefs and chauffeurs.
This isn’t a one-off exchange either; it is our fifth in as many years. Already under our belt are stays in sensational properties in Istanbul, Berlin, Marbella, Granada and Galle. Stopovers in New York, Sydney, Florence, Barcelona, Rome and Hua Hin are already planned for.
I take another sip of my fresh and fruity kvaede or Chinese apple tea and reflect on all the people I know, with many multi-millions in the bank and properties worth tens of crores in Alibagh and Goa and Delhi and Mumbai, who are now trailing a tourist guide waving a weird object high above his/her head, like sheep through some well-worn global tourist path, before retiring in the evening to a crummy room in some two/three-star dump. All they are going to have for memories are iPhone pictures of themselves posing amidst crowds of other tourists before iconic monuments. Why do they pay good money to do this?
It is not an issue I want to allocate too much of my limited mental resources to. I shift instead to the more pressing problem of how much of that lakh left in my savings account I’m going to spend on baby-sitters and on dance performance and concert tickets. Bob Dylan, in the flesh, is going to be playing on the island across the water and there’s a really interesting modern dance performance in Copenhagen next week. Too bad there is no good English language theatre within driving distance, but then life’s not perfect. I will just have to wait till the New York exchange in the fall.
This isn’t a Facebook post to go one up on my peers. Just a pointer to a very accessible world of fantastic travel experiences within the reach and budget of the many Indians who travel abroad these days, spending vast amounts on package tours and starred hotels, which are of relatively mediocre quality—from an experiential perspective. And these options are not only for those with designer second homes. They are also open to those who don’t have an interesting home to swap and must pay their way. Judicious searching on the internet will reveal many economy home stays, luxury villas and service apartment rentals that work out much cheaper than even mediocre hotels. Most of these properties have detailed descriptions, pictures and videos to help you make up your mind.
The searching needs nuance due to the large number of travel sites and ads on the web. Google searches and adwords have no obvious selection criterion. A fantastic property can lie unseen on page 31, while some rubbish turns up number one on page one. Try looking for enlightened gurus on Google. Will you place your trust in the ‘satguru’ coming up number one/adverting wider on adwords? It’s the same with the ‘satproperties’! You need to ferret them out. This requires a little time and effort.
Mass sites with limited or no monitoring of reviews like tripadvisor.com also have to be viewed with caution since they can overrate lousy places and completely ignore original small properties—for a wide variety of reasons I won’t get into here. A good formula to use when searching is: homeexchange.com, plus airbnb.com, plus i-escape.com. This combination has more often than not performed for us over the years.
HomeExchange.com: this is the site for home exchanges, including super-luxury ones, worldwide. An excellent site and you don’t need to go beyond this for home-swapping. Airbnb.com works for home stays and rentals worldwide. It has a great international selection of homestays and service rentals (a caveat: they have just entered the Indian market where cleanliness and housekeeping ethics are often not up to international standards. Ensure you browse a fair number of user reviews for any property you pick in India. Don’t go to a sparsely reviewed property. Use someone else as a guinea pig. Airbnb staffers themselves have a very loose idea of the property’s actual condition.) I-escape.com seeks out luxury villa rentals and small hip boutique hotels through the travel grapevine, sends its own reviewers and photographers for first-person investigative reviews and impressions, and then collects reviews on the property from guests who have booked through the site. The reviewing standards are above average for the web and the guest reviews are largely authentic. Efficient and reliable with an excellent collection of properties.
And finally, for those of you who have neither the time nor the inclination for web-based research, you can write in to the ‘contact us’ page on Shunyachi.com—a site we founded as part of a socio-entrepreneurial experiment in sustainable rural employment—and place your brief before our research cell for a completely free consultancy. Our people will work on your brief and then get back to you with their thoughts and suggestions. This free service is part of a data-gathering experiment and is available only until August 2013.