A Cheapskate's Passport to Paradise

If you’re willing to swap homes with a (somewhat vetted) stranger, you can globe-trot for a song—and live the fantasy that you’re a native, not a tourist

By Naomi Wolf
home swap Thailand photo
Stay virtually free in places like this luscious abode in Phuket, Thailand
Photograph: homeexchange.com

It was a solid, five-bedroom, middle-class piece of heaven. The swimming pool, draped with bougainvillea, overlooked a garden in which hammocks hung from olive trees and grape arbors. Teenagers Rosa and Olivia were able to explore Montpellier by foot on their own. Avram and I took Joe on a tour of the city’s majestic hilltop park, the two of them climbing trees to survey the sweeping vista below.

Yes, we were in France again, but this visit gave us a taste of a very different kind of life. Our hosts—a businessman and a homemaker—were more bourgeois than the rather bohemian intellectuals Fabienne and her mother. Whereas the Parisian flat was furnished with antiques, our home here offered comfy chairs in bright, cheery Ikea-style cottons. My new hostess was extraordinarily neat and well organized. Looking at the big boxes of biscuits in her pantry and the crisply folded towels in her linen closet, I admired her from afar for having all the qualities I lack. As in Paris, our hosts had left us a list of their favorite destinations, and here they included a dammed-up river where you can duck under walls of white cascades. After a day of exploring, we’d sit under the plane trees behind old-fashioned inns and eat traditional regional cooking, surrounded by local families dining in their Sunday best. Later, when the kids were in bed and Av and I lay by “our” pool, sharing a bottle of wine and admiring the jasmine and thyme in the beautifully laid-out garden, I could imagine for a few moments that I was a French Martha Stewart—an efficient, Gallic homemaker with a flair for domestic order.

AN OUTDOORSY IDYLL IN BEND, OREGON: Three Christmases ago, we sampled yet another life, this time in a gated community of sprawling homes in the Pacific Northwest. The affluent population we were joining was composed of healthy-looking blonde men and women wearing REI fleeces and ski pants. Julie, our swap partner, was a homemaker who had helped her husband, an attorney, to campaign for state senator, and she, too, left us a binder of recommendations: best pizzeria; best shopping; best hikes in the nearby national forest.

I imagined myself as one of Julie’s neighbors: tall, physically fit, Labrador-loving and fiscally conservative. Though cooking is not my game, the big granite-countered kitchen made me keen to produce giant pots of pasta. We were 15 minutes from Mount Bachelor, the center of Bend’s ski action. But our hosts also told us what tourists didn’t know: that the state had opened a nearby area for sledding. We spent an afternoon zooming down the hills, getting rosy cheeked and drinking hot cocoa in a shed heated by a woodstove. As we trudged home to “our” massive fireplace, “our” comfortable couches and “our” double soaking tubs with Jacuzzi jets in the four bathrooms, I felt how lucky I was to be sneaking into yet another dreamy lifestyle so different from my own—one that I could enjoy to the fullest exactly because I had no responsibility to fund or maintain it and could dip into and out of it at will.

LIVING RICH IN SAN CARLOS, MEXICO: A spring-break excursion last year took us into a world of over-the-top, who-wants-to-be-a-millionaire luxury. Our host was Britt, an American tech entrepreneur and home exchanger who had used our New York flat for business and became our buddy. My only born-again-Christian capitalist friend, he is yet another example of how the home-exchange experience widens my horizons far beyond my demographic niche. He and his family welcomed us on our first night in their vacation home in San Carlos, Mexico, with a delightful dinner before turning over the keys and orienting us to . . . paradise.

A spa and vanishing-edge pool lay just outside the front wall of floor-to-ceiling windows. Below were our own private beach and cabana. To our left was an ascent to the famous El Mirador lookout, where majestic views drop away on all sides to the deep-blue Sea of Cortez.

Originally published in the April 2012 issue

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