With the rapid growth of the travel industry, there is an app or guidebook for everything. Information is literally at our fingertips. There’s compelling and competing advice telling us the top five hikes to go on, tours to take, meals to eat, things to see, do, be, etc. It can be overwhelming, to say the least.
The sharing economy might be just one of the latest trends in travel, but beyond the popular catchphrases and hashtags, I believe there is a deep desire to connect, to be seen, and to be heard.
There is a longing to create authentic experiences. We want to create memories and build relationships that continue to give back long after our vacation is over. In fact, it’s this mutual exchange or sharing of an experience that fuels our curiosity and eagerness to explore in the first place.
I remember a conversation I shared with my Aunt over a meal at a restaurant in Paris. A Francophile from the U.S., she had been making yearly pilgrimages to France. She happened to be visiting while I was there for the summer, backpacking and volunteering with Workaway. When we sat down and I spoke to the waiter, ordering my food in French she was surprised and impressed.
I explained I’d been slowly picking up French by spending time with youngsters–playing Hangman and sharing cookies in the backseat during a covoiturage ride, or reading books to a six year old named Samuel while volunteering as an au pair.
She looked at me wide eyed. “I’m so jealous! I haven’t talked to any locals!” she bemoaned. “In fact, I keep going into bakeries and markets to buy things because it’s the only chance I have to interact with the locals,” she confessed. I couldn’t help but laugh. Her French was nearly perfect, while mine was survival quality at best, yet what I wasn’t lacking was connection.
I learned the word “sucre” for sugar in French because when I spent a week with a family in Biarritz, the mother would reach to the top shelf every morning and ask if I wanted “sucre” with my café. The word stuck with me because there was an experience to go with it.
In Toulouse, I had the privilege of helping a family prepare for a wedding and sharing the first moment the bride tried on her wedding dress in front of her sisters. That week, my vocabulary related to all things “mariage” greatly improved.
I’m not saying the way my Aunt was travelling was wrong, or that there’s a “best” way to travel. What I love about the sharing economy is that there are different ways you can engage at your own level of comfort. (Though I definitely advocate for getting outside of that comfort zone as often as possible too)!
At the time we spoke, my aunt was renting an Airbnb in the 10th arrondissement from a local Parisian who gave her advice on his favorite restaurants and museums. That’s part of the sharing economy. Whereas I chose to exclusively use Workaway and Couchsurfing as options for accommodation, there are other options. House sitting or home exchange (like the movie The Holiday) might suit someone wanting a little bit more independence.
For someone who’s dipping their toe into the sharing economy, taking an Uber to get around town might be enough of a first time experience. For more seasoned or adventurous folks, carpooling through a site like Bla Bla Car, or using Hitchwiki to help you navigate your travels might be more fun.
There are a variety of platforms and resources available, yet you don’t need a website to give you permission to share. All you need is an attitude of openness and willingness to let go of your expectations. In my experience, it’s often as simple as saying yes to an opportunity when it comes along.
Without saying “Yes,” I never would have met my friend Matthias and received a handwritten card from Togo this week. I wouldn’t have spent Christmas in Germany listening to a children’s choir perform in a cathedral or tasted homemade glühwein. I wouldn’t have gone rappelling down a waterfall in Ecuador, or celebrated the completion of a clean water project in the highlands of Riobamba.
Travel gives us that rare opportunity to step inside an entirely different place in an utterly foreign culture and believe for a moment that we belong. The sharing economy is a doorway, an invitation if you want to ‘come and see.’ If we accept, we agree to put aside our role as spectator and become part of the scene, participating fully in the beautiful masterpiece of daily life.