Thursday, December 18, 2014

What Mexicans Can Teach Americans

Sinaloa Girls
Mexico – despite political/criminal turmoil – remains a fantastic vacation destination. Great food, dramatic history, inexpensive hotels, all good reasons to go. The best motive head south? Mexico's caring, joyful people.

I traveled through Chihuahua and Sinaloa this past spring, looking to witness Semana Santa (Holy Week) ceremonies leading up to Easter. Read God's Middle Finger by Richard Grant to understand the glorious mayhem; I booked seconds after finishing it.

The proceedings lived up to their wild telling by Mr. Grant. What I most remember about the trip, however, was how incredibly kind Mexicans were to me, a solo female traveler. Not because they had to be. Just because. 
Good Friday Revelers

Three stories of Mexico's superior customer service and the lessons Americans need to learn:

Choose to trust the customer's story.  Chihuahua's ultra modern Vivebus service uses swipe cards and subway-style loading platforms to board dozens of riders at once. After my first trial ride, I was hooked and loaded up my card with 50 pesos (about 9 rides worth) at the digital kiosk.

On my next swipe, the card malfunctioned. My 50 pesos hadn't been loaded. Three Mexicans would come to my aid. The platform attendant saw my frustration and sent me back into the kiosk lobby for assistance. The kiosk attendant tried to find a paper receipt in the nearby garbage that would match my 50-peso purchase. Failing that, he marched me into the nearby office where a secretary heard my story. Nodded. Took my bad card and swapped it for another 50-peso card. Done.

Did they have to believe me? Did I have a receipt in my hands? They chose to give me the benefit of the doubt. And I have been raving about Chihuahua public transit ever since. It is a great service staffed by lots of attentive people. Listen up, MTA.

Cevicheria, El Fuerte
Do what needs doing. Taking El Chepe, the Copper Canyon Railroad, through arid NW Mexico proved relaxing. Getting tickets for El Chepe? Not so much. I managed to buy my first journey the day-of, despite it being a peak Mexican travel week. I spent a couple  days in lovely El Fuerte puzzling over how to get my return fare. There are only ticket offices in Chihuahua and Mochis the start/end points, online proved unwieldy, and well, did I mention it was Semana Santa?

I asked the clerk at Hotel El Fuerte about any travel agents who might be able to help. She dialed a few numbers. She then said she'd have her manager pick me up a ticket in Mochis that afternoon. Wait. What? That's equivalent to a hotel manager driving from Flushing, Queens to Newark, New Jersey or further to do this task for a customer. I thanked her and spent the rest of my day thinking about an appropriate gratuity.

When I returned to pick up the ticket, the manager handed it over and I paid her the ticket price plus 30% extra as a tip. She handed back the tip. And refused to take it despite my insistence. She was just doing what her guest needed doing. Stunning.

Remember your humanity. Waving goodbye. I didn't expect the universal farewell from the ground crew at Chihuahua airport. But as my 6am flight turned toward the runway, three men waved and smiled at the passengers. Waving back I got a little choked up.

Miss you already, Mexico.  

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

How to Use Craigslist Housing Swap: 5 Steps to Your FREE* Vacation

While the New York attorney general and Airbnb fight it out, let's discuss a cheaper and I'm-not-a-lawyer-so-this-is-not-legal-advice seemingly legal way to enjoy exotic vacations on the cheap. Craigslist Housing Swap listings.

Ohmygod strangers in my house and they'll rob me blind and hold orgies in my breakfast nook and eew my mattress and my Xbox and that is just crazy.

Interesting. Weirder than sleeping in a hotel previously inhabited by whom doing what exactly? And what about that stranger you had in your bed four months ago, did you call the FBI first? Have you forgotten the term is "swap" not "pillage"?
Hawaii swapper

Let's return to the facts:
  • You have what thousands of travelers want:  a bed in New York City. You may also have an operating shower and toilet. Bonus.
  • You may have the thing travelers desperately want:  an apartment in Manhattan, Brooklyn or Queens.
  • You may need to grow a pair to take advantage of this situation.
  • You aren't putting anything at risk that your fellow swapper isn't.
  •  You won't regret it.

My boyfriend and I are three-time swappers having traded our Hell's Kitchen apartment for Christmas holidays in the Ebisu area of Tokyo, an art-filled week in Berlin's Kreuzberg and a two-week winter getaway just steps from Waikiki Beach in Oahu. Not a penny changed hands; we were letting "friends" stay in our place and we in theirs. Upon return, the only thing different in our place was finding, say, a carton of leftover milk in the fridge or a thank-you note on the table. Terrifying.

Multiple vacation swap sites exist, but Craigslist is free, global and has worked for me. 

Here's the basic, risk-reducing tutorial:
Tokyo swapper

1.  Answer someone else's ad rather than post your own. 

The poster is taking the first step, ergo, is taking the first risk, not you. Look both on the New York Craigslist and on the local Craigslist of the place you seek. Your friendly reply should be brief, stating your interest in trading places, your timeframe and basics on what your housing offers. If the poster is serious, s/he will get back to you within 24 hours.

2.  Exchange a couple of emails about the details of what each of you want and offer. 

It's like online dating:  you need enough information to take it to the next step, but not everyone's life story. During these emails you learn and reveal:  everyone's full name, the address of each property, the mutually agreed dates of travel, pictures of the apartment interior and a time to have a phone/Skype conversation. This voice contact is crucial - even if everyone does not speak perfect English - you need to hear this person in order to trust, and vice versa. You will also be Googling your swapper and Google mapping the property to see if all stories line up.

3. Speak to your swapper, then buy the airline tickets. 

This is the moment of truth. The moment you trust that this swap is going to happen and that you can drop a bunch of non-refundable ticket money. Ideally, your fellow swapper is also making this purchase at the same time (though some posters know they are coming to NYC and seek swaps for specific dates). With our Hawaii guy, we hung up from our conversation, all bought tickets and then exchanged email confirmations within the same 15 minutes.

4. Be helpful to each other prior to swapping:
    Berlin Wall swapper
  • Email about how to exchange/pick up keys (we've mailed keys, met people as we left, picked up keys under a doormat, whatever works)
  • Create and send a guide to your building and neighborhood listing MTA stop, laundry options, WiFi password, grocery stores, super's name or a local contact and whatever you want to know about where you're staying. Leave a copy in your kitchen, too.
  • Notify your doorman and/or immediate neighbors that your friend "Ron" will be staying in your apartment for a bit so they don't call the cops.
  • Clean your apartment - duh. Put fresh bedding and towels out. Check the toilet paper supply. Stash away all valuables in a secure location or with a friend. Nothing is going to happen, but you'll feel better.
5. Savor your free vacation home. 

Let your swapper know when you've successfully entered their place, and have them email you the same. No need for daily phone or email contact, but keep lines of communication open. We had a freak rainstorm in Hawaii that caused a flood in the living room. Our swapper said, "No worries. It happens once a year or so." We mopped and went back to snorkling.

OK. Get a move on already. Today's Craigslist postings have Copenhagen, Milan, Taos, Kona, Sydney and the Catskills on offer. You better click before I do.

*Not quite. You will have to purchase transportation, food and Hudson News magazines.