Let's start with this, Dear Airbnb, thank you.
Airbnb is a brilliant business concept. You have an extra room, apt, or house that’s unoccupied, you want to generate some extra income, so you take some pictures, fill out some info, prove you’re not a psychopath, and Airbnb will do the rest. They attract your clients, they serve as the medium for communication, they collect the money, they process refunds (and do damage control if needed) and allow space for a review from both parties of your rental and hosting experience. What a wonderful tool for travelers and hosts; but there’s an aspect of Airbnb that I don’t see many talking about. It’s the idea that Airbnb is an experiment in human interaction and a play ground for self reflection; if of course, the experiences are not taken personally and can be perceived as opportunities for growth (not always easy). I’ve been on both sides of the tracks when it comes to Airbnb, both the traveler and the host, and for me, it’s the hosting that has really delivered the unexpected lessons in how to be a more kind, compassionate & a gentle human being in the world. Skills that everyone could use a tune up in at some point in their lives, especially these days.
We stumbled into our Airbnb experience in the Fall of 2016. I have lived where we live in Costa Rica with my husband for almost 6 years. It’s a 6 apartment complex with a shared rancho, laundry room and pool, run by a local property management company. Over the years there hasn't been much rhyme or reason as to who the management company rented the 5 other units to, and as year round residents with several dogs, we found it quite stressful when they’d select a renter without any consideration of their existing full time residents and we've had several challenging experiences. There was the couple who came for 3 months from Canada who hated dogs, the couple on vacation for a week, who enjoyed loud pool parties between 11pm-3am, the 3 locals they rented to for 6 months who would have random people coming in and out, often leaving the gate open and letting the dogs out and the married gentleman from Canada who would invite all ladies over for sleepovers. Then there’d be the group of guys coming over for Sunday football watching in the rancho, which is great, but when they’d regularly leave the common space a mess, not great, because I’d be the one cleaning it up so that I could roll out my yoga mat. It often felt like our home could be featured on a reality show of what happens when you put a bunch of humans together in a small space and see what happens. We saw we appreciated peace & quiet, so we began to slowly take over all 5 of the leases to have some control over who came and went, and so began our relationship with Airbnb in December 2016. Since then we’ve had well over 100 guest encounters, and we’ve learned something from ALL of them, even the really shitty ones. But in this conversation I’m going to share a few of many experiences that stuck out, both positive and growth oriented, with the intention of showing how Airbnb can be both a mirror and medicine for improving both your property and yourself. And yes, the names of guests have of course been changed to respect privacy.
The Boob shot
It was late spring of 2017 and we were slowing down from a very busy few months of renting 3 spaces on Airbnb. I’d had Explant surgery beginning of February 2017, in which I chose to remove 13 year old breast implants that had been making me very sick, so my husband and I were headed to San Jose for a post surgical check up. I had intended to block out our Airbnb units while we were gone, because I like to be here for guests arrival and departure, but a 3 night reservation for 3 people in our 2 bedroom upstairs unit slipped through, so we went with it. We had a volunteer staying on the property to help us around the space, so we decided to leave the apt prep and check-in up to him, which was a first for us. I’d had several positive exchanges with the guest before her group’s arrival, and we discovered that we had a mutual friend living in Costa Rica, so that helped me feel more relaxed about her being here without our presence. We left for our 2 nights in San Jose, and we got word from our volunteer that the check-in was peaceful and they seemed nice, thank God. When I saw their group for the first time after we returned, I introduced myself to Carrie, who I had been in contact with, and when she asked me how our San Jose trip was, I could have easily responded with a 1 or 2 word answer like “fine, thanks”, but instead I was feeling open and chatty, so I surprised both of us by telling her all about my experience with my boobs, and how I’d been suffering for years from symptoms of Breast Implant illness and how I’d chosen to Explant a few months prior. I’m pretty famous for my overshares, but even I was surprised that I’d given this almost complete stranger so much personal info. After I shared the status of my boobs with her, Carrie looked surprised, and I began to get a little nervous about my overshare. But instead she went on to tell me that for the last year, she’d been interviewing women all over the world about their boobs and asking them to answer 1 question: “if your breasts could speak, what would they say to you?” She also said she accompanied the response with a black and white photo of each woman topless, just showing their breasts.
I was stunned.
This was probably the most powerful Airbnb conversation I’d ever had, and maybe the most beautiful conversation about breasts I'd ever had. I answered her question before she asked it and said, “do you want to include my boobs in your story?” And yes, she did.
So the following day, before they checked out, I went upstairs with Carrie into the master bedroom of where they were staying and I took off my shirt and stood in front of our Airbnb guest totally topless and feeling incredibly vulnerable. She took the picture and asked me what my breasts would say.
I thought about it as I was putting my shirt back on and I got a little teary-eyed as I said, “my breasts would say, thank you for loving me exactly as I am.” I watched as Carrie entered my words into her iPhone notes, and I saw that she was crying too.
I gave everyone in her group a hug when they left, and went about my life.
A few days later I got a review from Carrie, and she gave us 5 stars across the board and wrote some really nice words, and thankfully didn’t mention the boob thing in her public review.
In her private comment, she said she really enjoyed her time, but wanted to also let me know that one of the beds didn’t have a bottom sheet, another bed didn't have pillow cases and they only had 1 roll of toilet paper, so they got some at the store. I thanked her for the feedback, and remembered two things; 1. Our housekeeper who cleaned the apartment was about to have knee surgery, so she was probably quite distracted in her last cleaning, and 2. We didn’t have a checklist of things for our volunteer to check for when he prepared the space for guests; we just thought he’d know to check if there were sheets on the bed and plenty of toilet paper.
What I learned from this experience is never to make assumptions, that every encounter you have can teach you something, that it's kinda fun to know a picture of my boobs is out there helping women heal, and even when you have not so awesome feedback, there's always a way you can be heard, but still be nice about it.
We’ll call this couple from the east coast of the U.S. the Johnson’s, and I’d had only a few interactions with them before they arrived, and they were traveling in Costa Rica for 2 weeks and we were their second stop. Their first stop was a 5 star all inclusive hotel a few hours away and they'd been there for a week. We are not a 5 star resort and we are not all inclusive, and I gently reminded them of that before they arrived.
The Johnsons were over 3 hours late for their check-in, with no acknowledgement of their tardiness, so Adam and I left because we had plans, leaving the check-in to our 2 volunteers there at the time. When we returned to the house about an hour after they’d arrived, I went over to their place to say hello and introduce myself and we were met with a clearly angry Mr. and Mrs. Johnson. When I knocked on the door he thrust it open and immediately let me know they’d made other arrangements for the rest of their stay in Costa Rica and they were leaving. He preceded to toss a towel at me, saying that he was offended that we’d expect him to use that as a kitchen towel. Now Mr. Johnson did have a point; the towel he threw at me was one of our older clean cleaning towels, and it had been mistakenly hung up in the kitchen, but all we needed to correct that little mix up was 1 minute to grab another. But no, this was just part of the case they’d built against us. They didn’t like it that the dogs barked, they didn’t like it that there were calcium deposits on the shower, they didn’t like it that the cooking pans were a little aged, that the ceiling was too low, the walls looked worn and the coffee pot was so small. Basically, there was no pleasing the Johnsons, so we thanked them for coming and told them we’d be refunding their money in full and they could go. We thought that was it. But a few days later, in came a review from the Johnson’s that wasn’t very kind, starting with “pictures can be deceiving”, citing all of what I mentioned above and more not kind remarks. Now here’s the thing; the Johnson’s said what they needed to say to us face to face and they left with a full refund, so was this extra jab entirely necessary? I don't think so. They didn't even give us a chance to help them leave happier. We agreed with them that they deserved a clean kitchen towel, but we also let them know that everything from the calcium deposits to the barking dogs, to the ceiling, to the walls, were out of our control, but we would be looking into exchanging some of the cooking supplies, and we once again thanked them for their meticulous feedback. We'd had zero feedback about the kitchen supplies thus far so we had no idea it was a problem.
What we learned here is that you can’t please everyone, and if someone just wants to be unhappy, there’s really nothing you can do to change that, and it’s up to you to let them and their opinion go, without taking it personally. Which is a challenge sometimes, but an excellent part of the healing journey. So thank you Johnsons for the valuable life lesson and we wish you peace in your journey and hope you find more 5 star resorts so that all of your needs can be met.
Our family is your family
Shortly after our daughter was born this Spring, my in-laws came to visit. It was also still a busy tourist time in Costa Rica, so our two Airbnb units were full and my in-laws were staying downstairs. I was slowly easing my way back into teaching yoga after my c-section, and I just wanted peace and tranquility with our visitors. Jeffrey was visiting from Canada with his daughter and son, both under 12 and both very intelligent, chatty and articulate. From the moment they arrived I liked them. My mother in law invited them to join our family dinner almost every night we had one, and Jeffrey would attend almost every class we had and would linger long enough after class to have great conversations about life, love, and raising children in this unpredictable world, as well as wonder with us how the hell we ended up with Donald Trump as our president. We really enjoyed them and their stay lasted a week. As they were leaving, I gave Jeffrey a hug and thanked him for the experience, and he said the same. A few days later, when I read Jeffrey’s review, I got tears in my eyes. He said his favorite part of his family's Costa Rica experience was us and where they stayed. Airbnb had once again shown that we get exactly what we need when we don’t even realize we needed it.
The quiet fun sponges
This particular experience baffled me a little at the time, but I've since had a ton of compassion for this couple and wished them well. Their names were Dan and Lisa, they were from the states, they practiced yoga at home and we were part of a multi stop tour of Costa Rica. They arrived several hours after when they said they would, with no acknowledgement of that, which I always find peculiar, and when I went to greet them at the gate, I watched Lisa talking to their driver with a very stern look on her face. She was clearly upset about something and was trying to negotiate. Her husband came over to me, shook my hand, and said Lisa was hungry, and the trip was more than they thought it should have been, so she was mad. This didn't have anything to do with me, so I took him alone up to see the apartment, showed him around, gave him the yoga schedule, gave him the check in manual with guidelines and a directory of local restaurants and beaches and I could tell he appreciated my hospitality and he thanked me.
I watched from our second floor apartment as visibly bothered Lisa entered their apartment, then closed the sliding door and blinds. An hour later I got several messages from her asking about rental cars, and I didn't bite when she remarked, "this location is farther away from everything than we thought." I reviewed our previous Airbnb conversation when I suggested they rent a car, because the main strip of restaurants was a long walk but a short drive away. I gave her the name and number of the rental car company, which was also in her welcome manual, and booked her a massage for the following day. She also asked if both she and Dan could book a healing session with my husband (which showed me she HAD read the manual), and I told her I'd get back to her after checking with Adam. The next day when I replied with his availability, she said their plans had changed and they didn't want one anymore, ok, no worries I said.
After that we only saw Lisa in yoga classes and she didn't say much, and just kept to herself as she came and went from class. She'd respond nicely to my attempts at conversation, but she seemed noticeably bothered I was trying to connect.
Lisa and Dan left our place at the end of their stay without a goodbye, which was surprising, because most people say thank you, especially if they've been in yoga classes. But I shrugged it off, and when I was asked to give a review of them, I was short and sweet. "They were respectful, communicated well and were clean. Great Airbnb guests." But when I was informed that Lisa had left us a review, I clicked on it, curious if she'd apologize for not saying goodbye in a private note. But that couldn't have been further from the reality of what happened. The review started with, "The place was filthy and we wish we'd stayed elsewhere...". I could barely read past the first words because I was so shocked by what I was reading because they hadn't said a thing when they were here and were nice to our face. Lisa went on to publicly criticize several things, like the toilet leaking, the outdoor chair being "off putting", there being dog poop in the yard, there being some ants (which is normal for Costa Rica), dust on the 11 foot high ceiling rafters, the pots not being new enough, the duct tape on the screen door and how she was disgusted by the dirty diaper she saw torn up by one of our dogs in the yoga rancho. Now here's the thing, in our Airbnb profile we let people know that we're inviting them into our home life, and when our 5 month old baby attends yoga classes, and gets a dirty diaper in class and my husband changes it and throws it away, sure, our dogs will be thrilled at that find. But when we find a mess it gets cleaned up quickly and it's by no means a demonstration of how we live our life or the condition of the space. And as for the cleanliness of the apartment before they arrived, I'd done a walk through and it looked fine to me, but I didn't have my looking for problems lens on. I acknowledged to them that everyone has different standards, and this time, our cleaner wasn't the one who cleaned it. Myself, along with our volunteers did, because our cleaner wasn't available. We're not experts, so perhaps we missed a spot, but that would have been easy to fix with a little light-hearted communication and a sense of humor.
But did Lisa & Dan communicate ANY of their feelings to us during the 5 days they were with us? No. Not even when I asked her before yoga class how they slept, saw them coming and going and said hello, gave them help on where to go and what to see as we chatted over both our balconies, booked their massages or saw her in the laundry room and asked how they were enjoying their trip to Costa Rica. The face they showed us was entirely different than the people who appeared online in the review. She did however end her scathing 2 star review with, "Harriet and Adam were very nice and helped us book a massage." Great, thanks for ending this with a compliment.
I took a day before I replied to her because I had to shake off the shock at the change in personality I'd just met. My husband replied to her review publicly and thanked her for her feedback, and stated that he wished they'd communicated with us at the several opportunities they'd had, and we were sorry we didn't meet their expectations, and to have a peaceful rest of their trip. The response I got personally to that was even more mean than the review, and she went on to list several MORE things about the apartment that were wrong. I felt sorry for Lisa at this point because it seemed nothing could be right in her world. There was something very clearly happening in her personal life that made her look with such disdain on anything in front of her, so I responded to her that she'll keep attracting what she judges until she's done judging what she attracts. And then I blocked her. I just didn't have the energy to fight when we'd done our best and that wasn't enough.
The funny thing about this experience is that it helped us so much. We put on her meticulous lens and went through the space; we switched out some outdoor chairs which helped the space look more charming, we reminded the management company about the ripped screen door, we updated the check-in manual to reflect the new name of a restaurant that had been sold, we rearranged the room to shift the energy and we reported the leak in the bathroom. We also realized that cleaning is harder than we thought, so we vowed to only have our professional housekeeper clean before an Airbnb guest, and not leave it to volunteers. A win all around.
So did Lisa & Dan help us? Of course. The space improved because of them. But could that exchange have gone down differently and perhaps been more friendly & peaceful? Of course, but then I'd miss the lesson that we're all fighting an inner conversation or struggle, or something, and to have compassion where we can, as we're all just doing our best. Thank you Lia and Dan.
The last minute arrivals
Let's end on a positive note. We’ve had two experiences of last minute arrivals, both of which were very different but equally awesome. The first was from a group of 4 travelers from California who had missed their flight home and couldn’t get a new flight for 2 days because it was busy season, so they needed a place. It was 4 friends, two of which were siblings and they sent us a message on not only Airbnb, but on WhatsApp and our website as well, so I could tell they really needed our help with lodging. We actually had a 2 day open window in our 2 br unit before our next guests arrived, so I let them know that 2 of them would probably have to share a bed, but they enthusiastically agreed and they arrived within 20 minutes. It seems they were booking while en route, hoping for the best, smart. The whole group couldn’t have been nicer, and we enjoyed the 48 hours we had with them. But the best moment I remember was getting a message from the main girl Brooke, asking me to come upstairs so she could show me something. I got a little nervous that something bad had happened up there, but when she opened the door I saw 4 chairs surrounding the tv, and 3 adults looking ecstatic because they’d found and set up my husband’s old school Nintendo, and had been playing together for hours. She hoped it was okay that they set it up and thanked me for the fun. We still keep in touch with them, and I still smile when I think of walking in on a room of adults in their 30’s all playing Nintendo and living their best life.
The second last minute couple came after we had a last minute cancellation and I’d lowered the price a little in hopes of filling the 7 days during busy season. I did something right because this couple, Mike & Laura couldn’t have been more sweet and adorable. They were on a baby moon, because she was a few months pregnant, which brought me so much joy because I was about to give birth, and they attended several yoga classes and were just generally a joy to have around. We became friends on Facebook afterwards, observing each other’s lives and baby news from a distance, and I recently got a msg on Facebook from them, showing us the picture of their gorgeous baby who recently entered the world. I couldn’t have been happier for them because I recognized that look on her husband's face as he held their child. And I have a last minute Airbnb booking to thank for this new connection to an adorable couple that like us, were new parents and will hopefully be lifetime connections.
I had so many more stories to share about this magical place we call "The Sanctuary"; like the time a guest stole our blender, the time a guest complained about the coffee sock being too Costa Rica, the time a San Jose guest threatened us and said he "knew people", or the time our Airbnb guests changed their life and moved to town and still come to my classes. So much valuable life experiences from you Airbnb.
I’m well past my hour for today, and I even started writing this yesterday, so it's kind of a 2 day post. So maybe someday I'll do an Ode to Airbnb Part 2.
But to Airbnb, thanks for being you and continuing to bring us what we didn’t know we needed at the time to keep improving ourselves as hosts and humans being in the world. And if you'd like to come have a memorable Airbnb experience with us, we'd love to connect with you at the Sanctuary in Costa Rica.