(Getting up close and friendly with the inmates at an Ostrich farm on the Garden Route in Western Cape)
Since I retired a few years ago I have really enjoyed holiday, in particular house exchange. I am not talking about the sort of holidays that I used to take when I was working. A snatched two weeks where you spend the first five days trying to wind down and the last five days worrying about how much work has accumulated in your absence and who has been trying to blacken your name at the water cooler for fun or in hopes of promotion, leaving you a mere four days to enjoy your surroundings.
Nowadays my wife and I tend to go for longer periods and have nothing more pressing to worry about than how high the grass has grown back home and is it upsetting our neighbours who are both ultra-keen gardeners. We have also quite by chance stumbled on a way of getting so much more from our breaks away.
We were introduced by some good friends to a house exchange group. It is not the usual commercial operation. It grew out of one remarkable man and his wide range of hospitable friends. It is unusual in that it does not simply restrict itself to straight swaps where couples or families in say, France swap houses with another couple or family in say, Scotland although there is plenty of that.
In this house exchange group most unusually people offer their main home or holiday house when they are not occupying it on a nonreciprocal basis. This of course widens the opportunities significantly and allows members to rack up “brownie points” for future swaps with other nonreciprocal offers. I don’t know how our organiser keeps track but it is all done on a very good natured basis and I guess members hope that when the music stops we will all have had a good ride and if it hasn’t balanced out completely then what the hell!
Our own experiences with this house exhange group have all been very positive. We have met many interesting people and our holidays in other people’s houses have been enriching. We own a holiday home in Spain which has proved quite popular with members, particularly one family who will be making their third visit this year. It has been interesting to see the three daughters of the family growing up and somewhat chastening to learn that the thirteen year old of the first visit is now at university. It has also been enjoyable to share our knowledge and love of this part Spain with our guests.
(Feeding the residents at a sanctuary for abandoned elephants is South Africa)
The same process has worked for us on our visits, helping us to learn so much more about the country we were visiting than if we had stayed in a hotel.
For example, on one house exchange a couple who provided us with accommodation in South Africa taught us so much about their country in terms of its history, development and politics that we were able in a small way to see it through their eyes. They were a truly remarkable pair who had, by dint of circumstances and a generous spirit, brought up seven children in addition to their own three.
They were completely trusting in a country where there is much to be cautious about. Three days after our arrival they explained that they had to visit Cape Town to attend a family wedding and would we mind looking after the house and feeding the wild birds including a robin who flew into the house every morning and had to be rewarded with three or four maggots from the bucket in the lounge where they were breeding.
And, oh yes it was fine to use the beach buggy if wanted it and not to worry too much about locking the house when we left it as they normally didn’t bother - this in spite of the fact that a neighbour across the way had a ten foot perimeter wall and was installing an electrified fence on top of it. It was really a privilege to be in their company and it made us think about the way we lived our lives.
On a visit to America we stayed with a remarkable women called Beth in Savannah. She was such a great host, taking us to a neighbour’s Super Bowl party where we chose sides, learned about American football and ate an enormous American buffet. She also took us to her church where after a beautiful service with an almost professional standard choir we enjoyed a sumptuous parish supper in the minister’s house which was a pre-Civil War mansion of outstanding merit which we would not normally have been able to see.
Beth had recently retired from being the head of the Historical Preservation Authority in Savannah and was able to give us fascinating details about the history of the city and her many battles with developers that gradually succumbed to her pressure to preserve the best of Savannah not just for the tourists but because it was the right thing to do, even to the extent of demolishing some sixties horror and persuading some public spirited millionaire to fund moving a suitable timber framed house of the right era from another location to replace it.
You can get so much more out of a holiday when you become in some way a “local” which is why we will continue to be enthusiastic swappers until the health insurance cover becomes prohibitively expensive!
Alan Drew, London
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