#2053 | Princess gets old


Mood board: Grand Budapest Hotel

When planning XQ’s birthday picnic surprise we wanted to get a baker to custom create the Mendl’s Courtesan au Chocolat pastry (from the Grand Budapest Hotel movie which both she and I adore), but no baker could do it in time, and so we bought random pastries and arranged them on a picnic mat with printed Mendl cake boxes off the internet and said: hey we tried.

The idea was not entirely our own, it was because for the last two years our dear girl has been going on and on about how she wants to organise a dessert style tea party, but never actually did. And so we, as one might say, took a hint, and did it ourselves for her birthday. I think we did quite well, honestly, except when she walked in on us we realised that we ruined the surprise by not hiding our shoes outside her door.

Rookie mistake.


Happy birthday princess x



#2052 | LA diaries: Funny stories from Griffith Observatory


imagesLos Angeles, America

Hey guys,

So, I spent a lot of time alone in Los Angeles, purely by virtue of the fact that I was there on a work trip and knew no one else going prior to the trip. Of course in my time there I made friends, both from Singaporean press and otherwise, but still a lot of my time was spent roaming the city by myself. This is not a complaint, of course, it seems over the years a lot of my travel has been solo, and I’ve always enjoyed time by myself. But the funny thing about traveling alone is that strange things are bound to happen, and often you open yourself up to the possibility of new interactions that might be deterred by the presence of company.

At the opening keynote of the Airbnb Open 2016 conference by Brian Chesky, he mentioned the Airbnb ethos being that the magic is not in the places you go – the magic is in the people, and always has been. This is true. I can attest to this. The things that struck me most in my travels, the moments I’ve looked back on and labelled significant in retrospect, have always been about interactions, whether good or bad. The first time a stranger defended me from a drunk man in public. The first time someone gave me a free coffee in New York cos I looked cold. The first time someone shouted at me in the UK for being chinese and because she thought “your food stinks”. The first time I was picked up (literally) and found myself on the other side of the road in Korea because someone was frustrated at how slowly I was walking and decided to just pick me up and deposit me to a side. The first time (in London) my Airbnb host tried to explain to me the mechanics of a tampon while tipsy. Getting cat called. Learning how to say no. Learning how to stand up for yourself in a strange land in a way that doesn’t get you killed. Learning how not to always be suspicious of every new person, and learning to accept kindness from strangers. These emotions I subconsciously link to different cities all over the world but I have come to realise that a place, for me, is and always has been the sum of it’s people and relationships.

That’s a big part of why I love staying in Airbnbs, I love couchsurfing, and I love talking to strangers on subways. It doesn’t always go according to plan of course. But sometimes that window of opportunity you open up for conversation turns into something beautiful you keep for years to come. Does this always have to happen in an Airbnb? Obviously not. But it is a platform, and on platforms the frequencies of certain things happening are increased.

Today’s story isnt about an Airbnb, although it happened while on an Airbnb press con trip. A couple of days after that beautifully succinct line from Chesky, i found myself at loose ends for a couple of hours. That happens, often, when you’re on agenda – theres very little scheduled free time, but sometimes you think you’ve got a full day of meetings then bam! Two hours with no specific itinerary.

So I thought to myself – what does one do when alone in LA? Do whatever your uber driver suggests, of course. Always ask a local for advice!

I hopped in an Uber and asked him to send me wherever he thought was best for a solo female traveller with two hours to kill.

“It’s 3pm. You gotta catch the sunset.”

And so the sunset it was.


Solo travel then selfie lor. Taken with a go pro!

He deposited me halfway up the hill and so I hiked the rest of the way. Hiking as a word used here in its loosest form. It was more of walking at an incline. As I walked, slightly grumpy that he refused to send me the full way, I caught sight of the Hollywood sign and all was right with the world because POP CULTURE!!!


Shot on a Nikon D750 85f1.8 lens, which is SUCH an amazing lens it can capture such great detail and at such a distance too!

So obviously I was walking by myself happily basking in the golden glow of sunset being rather smug by that point about the weather, and about how if I were in Singapore, I would be sweating buckets with my top sticking to my shoulder blades and my hair being disgusting because of the humidity. And despite my exhaustion (it had been work work work nonstop for the past few months) I found myself grinning because how can work look like this? Catching the sunset from one of the most iconic spots in LA during my break time? This is privilege, and I am blessed. And despite how tough the going gets, it is still privilege. It is a good existence. There is space and cause to be grateful, and grateful I must be.

I reached the top and believe me i gasped. The Griffith Observatory is one of the most iconic buildings in los angeles and say what you will about icons not living up to pictures in HD, but I’ve always been the kind of girl to be blown away by the likes of the eiffel tower and the empire state and now the griffith. I settled myself in a nice spot on the observatory deck and waited for the sun to dip into dusk. And that’s when the funny stories that had been waiting to happen, happened.


Beside me, I heard a mother and daughter talking. It became apparent to me that she was raising this kid on her own (or at least it seemed like it). Whether or not she was, motherhood is tough. But she was a total trouper, answering her kid’s million and one questions about why the sun moved this way, which neighbourhood fell under the sunset rays, where they lived (too far for this, baby) and whether they could see this everyday (no, baby, it’s too far). I must be honest, I don’t like children. But there was something about this mother-daughter pair that I couldnt help being drawn to. After awhile they started trying to take pictures of the sunset and selfies together, and I remember something my mother said to me once, long ago: i wish we took more pictures together growing up. And so I turned around and asked: can i help take a picture of you two?

My goodness i have never seen such an excited child.


I downloaded it off my camera and sent it to her (again, another advantage of a wifi-enabled camera haha) and the look on her face was all I needed to validate my being a creep about taking someone else’s picture.

I’m going to print this,
she told me, so she has something to remember this moment by when she gets older. Even if she doesn’t actually remember it. And i thought to myself, these are the moments of little delights that make travel special. I have gotten so much from travel. But instead of waiting for someone to talk to me and give me a memory to hold on to, why not do something for a stranger? Take turns. Be that person that someone else will remember years from now, thinking there was that once a stranger in xxx country did this thing for me.. people are nice. Why the hell not?


I dont think I’m being annoying about this, by the way. I think it’s not too much of a stretch to say that she genuinely liked and appreciated the pictures. And I felt (no other way to put this) happy too, to have done that for her.

And there I was, being cheesy and happy and having a moment by myself, when someone tapped me on the shoulder.

“Excuse me,” this girl said, “I saw what you just did. Could you take a picture of us too?”

It was a tall, pretty girl with her tall, pretty boyfriend.

“We’re trying to get something instagrammable,” she explained, and he chipped in: “can you suggest a few poses for us?”

I mean, that was kind of hilarious. I shrugged. Why the hell not?


(Later, she joked: we should pay you! But she did not.)

And then somehow that turned into me standing there taking pictures of a bunch of other people.. for an hour. Someone asked me if I was the designated photographer for the observatory and if I needed to be tipped (no, and no). Nobody actually offered to tip me. A bunch of people felt the need to explain to me how they got there, and what they were doing. There were a surprising number of people who came to Griffith on a regular basis, locals. Equally surprising were the number of people who confessed that they were on (tinder) dates, because the need to photograph-document the first blind date is interesting to me. What if the date doesn’t go well? What if it never pans out? What if one party ghosts the other after this sunset? Such a poignant moment to choose to document, a moment of potential and hope and possibly loss. First dates, ha.

My favourite photos from the day:


I wonder what their stories are.

After the sun started visibly moving across the sky (there’s always this beautiful period of generic sunset, and then suddenly a very small amount of time where the sun seems to hurry up and set incredibly quickly), everyone kept quiet and turned towards the horizon. And down it went. Camera shutters clicked. Time lapses were taken. Someone tapped me on the shoulder again – just a random dude, holding a sketch pad.

“See that?” he said, pointing to a little lookout below us. “That’s where Joseph Gordon Levitt sits in 500 days of Summer to sketch the city.”

That’s the only thing he said to me. After that he turned away and stared at the sun again, as if he hadn’t said a word to me. He wasn’t looking for conversation. I don’t know. He had something to say and he had said it, and the moment passed. Something about solo travel invites this, I’ve learnt. People dont tap you on the shoulder and drop sentences on you when you travel in groups, that’s for sure. I laughed inwardly.


Said place where JGL sits to ponder his architectural dreams

And then the sun set, just like that. The deck erupted in cheers and applause. Strangers grinned at one another. I thought about how people find kinship and solidarity in moments of shared appreciation. And how the feeling is so easily let go after the moment has passed.

Afterwards, I spotted one of the journalists from Singapore who’d been in the observatory for the star show (and missed the sunset!) skyping her daughter the city view. I took a picture of it from afar and sent it to her later, and i think possibly that is when we became proper friends.


After that, it was time to leave.

Another funny thing about Griffith is, beautiful as it is, there is no cellular signal up there and traffic up and down the mountain is awful. And so after uber proved impossible, we hitchhiked down by ambushing a Chinese couple who looked ultra worried about being spoken to by strangers until we started speaking in Mandarin. And then it was all, hey bruh! help a sister out!

They dropped us halfway down the mountain (again!!!) where there was an internet signal finally, and where we could call an uber. We were near this place called The Greek Theatre and it was bustlin.

“Come in,” said the woman by the door. “Here’s a raffle ticket.”
“We dont have event tickets,” we said.
“It’s free. And if you go in and turn to the right, you can get free hot chocolate and cookies.”

What in the world.

What sort of surreal alternate life did I land myself in?
I found myself thinking. I am not the sort to hitchhike because people who hitchhike get chopped up into pieces and sold off as chunks of meat. I know this because I watch movies. But desperate times call for desperate measures and instead of being killed I found myself being ushered into some sort of community party with a Santa Claus in a corner granting kids their wishes, a little string orchestra, and free cookies and hot drinks?!



As we waited for our uber sipping on free hot coffee, i found myself thinking of Brian Chesky’s words again. The magic is in the people. It’s not a revolutionary truth, it’s something we’ve known innately all along, but had never defined so succinctly. There’s something to building an entire empire (lets face it, that’s what airbnb is) on this line of thought. He’s on to something. There are worse things to be founded on.

And that is, I suppose, my not so short segue into my LA Diaries series. An amazing four days in the city of angels. More to come, of course, and though this is not strictly an airbnb story, it sure shares the same sentiment.

Till then x


#2051 | The Pre-Grad Prep List

You know what they say, guys, hindsight is 10/10. A year on and a little bit, and finally putting together this list of things I wish someone had told me/my friends before we approached the death of institutionalised academia (ie. graduation). I thought I was relatively well prepared, but when graduation actually hit, everything went nuts.. and i would say I have to deal with less than most people since I’d already decided that I’d be continuing with my Masters!

This I will say: things you need to do to prepare for post-graduation life that might seem overwhelming at point of grad cos its things you dont even think of in the day to day.. so it’s better to start preparing early. Here I’ve put together a list of pragmatic concerns that I hope proves helpful to you – but always open to suggestions, so email me if you’ve got anything you think I’ve missed out and I’ll add it in!

The Pre-Grad Prep List

1. Update your resume or LinkedIn profile

People always underestimate LinkedIn or assume it’s something only bankers use, but i cannot count the number of times I’ve been pleasantly surprised by a job offer (although I’ve never taken those up given my academic commitments) or been approached to host gigs through the platform (reasonably more successful takeup rate than the job bit). So just spend a bit of time doing it up, and you’ll never know where it brings you!

Important point regarding both LinkedIn and your resumes: Get someone to proofread it for you, and make sure you have different resumes for different jobs. For example, you wouldnt send the same generic resume to your application for, say, a banking job, to a creative agency. Some examples of good, specific resumes:


Graphic Design Resume by Lenka Kubisova


Professional but Eye catching Resume from Guru.

And of course, if you’re applying for a job in the banking field, your resume will look vastly different from this. But it’s always good to start cleaning up your resume early and figuring out what to include, instead of scrambling to get one together when the hiring cycle starts.

So yes: Tailor your resume to the field you are applying for, and make sure you proofread it. You don’t want to be stumbled by a grammatical error if you’re applying for a publishing house!

If you’re a freelancer, same rules goes for name cards
, which can frequently be your gateway to a resume or job request during networking sessions. Here’s an example of a really good namecard design done by my super talented friend Warren for our other friend Martin:


See how the tip of the card is meant to resemble a tear off ticket stub? That’s form reinforcing content right there.

And on that note, clean up your social media profiles! Employers google potential employees, so make sure you dont have anything unsavoury floating around on the web.

2. Get your headshot photo properly taken

This doesn’t have to be a studio shot, but generally have extra samples of your photo ready that you can use for your IC, for your resume/linkedin profile, for your visa if you decide to apply for an international job, etc etc. It’s always better to be prepared, than to fumble and take a bad one at one of those machines that youre not happy with because youre pressed for time. After graduation I needed my head shot for many unexpected things – driving license application, passport renewal, diver’s license.. so it’s generally good to be prepared.

3. Have a good think about your finances.

A great shock to me post-grad is that you have so many BILLS to deal with! If you had a private insurance previously, you probably have to take over payments now, and it’s a total headache to figure out. Phone bills. Electricity bills – if you contribute the household expenses. Money for your parents. Paying off your student loans. Take check of how much debt you’re in (probably lump sum cos of uni fees), how much recurring debt you have (monthly payments like phone bills, household contributions), and how much savings you have.

This will help you figure out your lag time to look around and find a job you like. Most of you wont want to be taking the first job offer you get, but how long should you be looking around before settling down? This personal deadline is what you need to figure out when understanding your expenses and debt.

If you need help managing your finances on a day to day level, think about using an app to log your daily expenses so you know exactly where your money is going to, and what categories you can/should cut down on. I personally use this app called Moneyboard (I’ve tried a few, but I like this interface the best), which tracks my inflow and outflow of cash.


The screen grabs from the app store

4. Speaking of which.. Understand your liabilities

So you are a human being with feelings and all that, which is, yknw, great. But to companies and corporations, you’re also a bunch of liabilities and this is what you need to have a good understanding of in order to make your next step decisions w.r.t. postgrad life.

EG. If you want to pursue postgrad education (like me), you need to understand what people look for in giving out scholarships. If youre applying overseas, we’re considered ‘non-native english speakers’ which is both annoying and troublesome because we have to take extra tests to prove english proficiency. So be aware of that.


Although I must say, if you intend to pursue funded (scholarship) postgraduate study, a lot of your time will be spent trying to multitask like me, marking student scripts while getting my skincare on

And for health related issues, boy, you are a BUNCH of walking liabilities. So when making decisions on a) whether you can at the moment afford premium health policies (see pt 3 re: finances) b) whether you want to get health policies and if so c) what kind, you need to understand what kind of liabilities you represent to other people ie. insurers. An example of the factors that come into play are whether you smoke, whether you drink heavily, whether you have pre-existing medical conditions (this is NOT covered by any private insurer if your injuries/illnesses are sustained before point of purchase, but it IS covered by your own MediShield Life policy), so on and so forth.

It also helps to have a good understanding of what you are ALREADY covered for before moving forward. I don’t know how many if you know this, but you’re automatically covered by the government’s MediShield Life policy for life, which is essentially a government insurance policy paid for by either your own CPF or your parents CPF. You DONT HAVE TO APPLY for this, so please figure out what MSHL covers you for, especially when you’re a student or a fresh grad because that’s when you are gonna start thinking about your next steps in terms of healthcare, most of which will cost you upfront money.

Your MediShield Life (MSHL) policy covers your hospitalisation charges for amounts up to class B2/C wards in a public hospital. It also covers you for selected costly outpatient treatments (like kidney dialysis or chemotherapy). So even if you choose a higher class ward or a private hospital, you’re still covered, just that the amounts are pegged to class B2/C wards. MSHL covers you REGARDLESS of your pre-existing medical conditions. So if you have a ligament injury from your school sports days, it’s also covered under MSHL. Also, if you have an Integrated Shield Plan (IP), MSHL forms a part of it and you’d get to enjoy additional coverage depending on what your IP covers.

FOR EXAMPLE. I have a lot of friends who’ve gone through surgery (myself included, for my eye last year). A friend who is under an integrated shield plan recently had a gastrointestinal surgery (again, surprisingly common) shared her bill with me, and here are some things to take note of:

Screenshot 2016-11-13 15.18.09

No matter what, the government always subsidises your bill if you opt for a Class B2/C ward in a public hospital. Look at that 5.9k deduction – that’s the government subsidy my friend got for staying in a Class B2 ward in a public hospital. MSHL still covers you if you’re going to a private hospital, don’t get me wrong. But because private hospitals don’t have government subsidy, you end up paying a lot more.

When it comes to hospital bills, the amount is deducted this way: the government subsidy first, followed by your MSHL coverage or your IP (depending on what you have), then from Medisave and lastly cash payment. So in the bill above you see that they’ve automatically deducted a big part of the original bill (about 5.9k, which is the government subsidy), and from that, they deducted a portion from MSHL and the remaining was taken from Medisave.

Screenshot 2016-11-13 15.22.29Screenshot 2016-11-13 15.18.36

What is the real life impact of this?

– The most obvious point of the 1.3k you see above is that even though my friend had additional coverage from her IP, she didn’t need to use it in this case. Under the breakdown of payout, it was covered by MSHL. So if you’re okay with a class B2/C ward and not choosing your doctor, then MSHL will be sufficient. If you think you may need additional coverage, click on this link to find out more before making a decision.

And… this is the most important thing right now, I think, that the bills prove that while not a one-stop solution, MediShield Life does give you quite extensive coverage and so if you’re balancing a lot of post-grad debt, you don’t have to necessarily feel pressured into purchasing a health policy that you can’t afford at the moment. (:

PS. For those of you who want to know more, I’d suggest speaking to someone from Ministry of Health. They’re having a roadshow on Sunday, 27 November at Ang Mo Kio Central Stage 11AM-6PM. This is probably going to be very useful for those of you who in addition to the above, 1. Want to understand what kind of coverage you already have before moving forward and 2. Those of you who want to help your parents figure out their coverage, ESPECIALLY when it comes to pre-existing injuries or bigger medical bills. And so this might really be useful for those of you who are concerned about figuring out your parents’ medical situation and costs, especially since the older one gets the more susceptible to illnesses!

5. Start working out a personal savings plan.

I know, i know. Enough money talk! But sorry, real life calls. It might seem a bit premature to think about this before graduation, especially since youre looking at all the bills youre gonna have to level after grad (see pt. 3). But it’s never too early to start planning, and a proper head on your shoulders when it comes to managing your personal finances is really important, as I’ve said multiple times before (see: broke student’s guide to managing your finances). You shouldnt just be working towards paying off your bills, you need to start thinking about having some kind of savings pool on your own in case you (optimistically) want to have a spontaneous getaway or (pessimistically) suddenly need it for a rainy day emergency. And you never, never want to be living from paycheque to paycheque just because you didn’t do proper budgeting ahead of time. So get that sorted.


Alright, so that’s about it! Did I miss out anything? This post went on for long enough, but you know the drill – email me if you have any essential points you think I missed out, and we will get to it in another post if there are enough things to note. But till then, enjoy the ride, and happy impending graduation you guys!


#2050 | LA Diaries: Airbnb Murder Mysteries / Trips, Experiences


Taken at The Last Bookstore, Downtown Los Angeles

imagesLos Angeles, America

What are the stories you want to tell?

This is a question that followed me around like a little rain cloud throughout my press trip to Airbnb Open LA 2016. I’ve been working with Airbnb for over a year now, and sometimes it feels like I’ve told most of the stories that can be told. I mean this in the best way possible – I love that people can open up their homes to others, create a micro-economy of their own. That tourists and travellers alike have a way of injecting currency into an economy on a very local level in a way that directly impacts the people who actually offer their homes to you, as opposed to having your virtual money disappear off into the endless loop of commercialised corporations. And host stories are new every trip, of course – each new place I stay in I hope to make friends that give me some sort of insight into their world. But something that I always wonder is – how do our voices evolve – how do we start telling newer, better stories?

And that was one of my small, secret aims of this trip, to try and come away with one good story, one thing that I feel resonates with me and hopefully you guys.

One of the biggest announcements Brian Chesky (CEO of Airbnb) made this Airbnb Open conference was the launch of Airbnb Trips. No longer offering only the opportunity to rent homes, Airbnb is now evolving to become a one-stop travel service. This means booking flights, ordering groceries, making restaurant reservations, all within the app. It means the launch of audio tours, free city e-guidebooks, car rental services. It means the launch of Experiences.

Experiences is without doubt the single biggest thing about Airbnb 2.0, simply because it is so novel, and makes so much sense. Is it a completely new idea to pay a local to bring you around? No. These things exist, and they’re called tours. But is it a new idea to have a local invite you to partake in the intimacies of their lives? Possibly. And now it’s being made so convenient too – to do it all on one app: booking accommodation, food, flights, and having your days planned out for you. This, Chesky announces, to gasps and insane applause, is the future of travel.

As the press con dissolved, I found myself wandering around looking for hosts to talk to, to try and understand what sort of experiences they would actually be offering. I met a dude from Miami who brings guests paddle boarding, diving, and for a boat party, over the span of four days. I met a couple from London who want to teach people to pluck and grow their own organic food. These were all interesting and sounded all kinds of awesome, dont get me wrong. But I kept looking. I was searching for something else.

And then I got a text from Elaine, one of the Airbnb girls.

“Jemma, you here?” she asked, “There’s someone I’d love for you to meet.”


This is Nicole Biondi from Cape Town, South Africa. She’s an author – she’s penned crime thriller novels for the last five years, with more to come, and has worked in tourism for 17 years as the head of the Cape Town tourism board. Elaine introduced me to her because I also write fiction (albeit less successfully with exactly zero novels to my name lol) so she thought it would be interesting. Well, it was – but not for the reason she might have suspected.

What I wanted to know from Nicole was:

1. Did hosting on Airbnb subsidise her artistic endeavours?
I mean, let’s be real. Unless you’re JK Rowling, writing hardly pays the bills. You run on passion, mostly. And your day job – be it working in a cafe, teaching english, or being a train attendant. Or being an instagrammer, lol. What I wanted to know was if Airbnb hosting could be your day job, a supplementary income that got you by while giving you flexibility of time to work on your creative projects.

PS. the answer for her was not really, because she only decides to host on Airbnb twice a year max. (Hosts as in, in her home, not host a Trips experience)


2. What was a crime thriller writer doing hosting an Airbnb Experience, anyway? As an aspiring writer myself I can tell you that any time spent not at your desk writing is frustrating. Why have dinner or watch a movie when you could be working on your writing? As you can tell, my social life has gone out of the window. But I had a strange suspicion about her agenda, which turned out to be more or less true..

Nicole’s experience is called Madame Mystery.

“Tell me about it,” I said. And so she did.

She’s penned a whole story that she’s inviting you into, a mix of fact and fiction, called the Botanist Brigade Murder Mystery legend. You begin with a hike up Table Mountain, one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature, and a total bucket list item on every traveller’s list. Halfway up, she brings you into Woodstock Cave for a picnic breakfast, and then introduces you to the name carved into the cave wall – J. W, Lawrence, a man who died on the 15th of May, 1965. Your mission throughout the day is to follow the timeline between 1865 and present day, to figure out why and how he died. It’s a real life Cluedo mystery! And, boy – if you like Escape Room games, you’ll love this.

The Experience consists meals and snacks (starting with breakfast in the cave), a gorgeous hike, an artisanal gin-tasting session that also includes a tour of how gin is made, and ends off with a three course south african meal where you become the characters in the story to try and solve the mystery. All this for 2,000 South African Rand, which translates to about $143. Not bad for an all-inclusive, unique experience.

But that still didn’t answer my question – why is she doing this? So I asked her, again, and she looked at me. Aha, she said, and I knew she knew what I was referring to.

“Because they think they’re having fun, these guests. But I’ve tricked them into coming on a little history lesson with me, on South African history, the black community, and how life has changed for those of us living in Cape Town.”

There it was. She was using Airbnb Experiences as a vehicle for social commentary. I wanted to punch my fist into the air. Yessss! I had solved my own little mystery correctly. She went on.

“Writing is exorcism. There are things you need to get out. This is common to every storyteller..”

And storyteller she is – she told me on the side that she not only wrote stories, she also worked as an emcee, a performance poet, and a voice artist.

I nodded. Go on.

“And when I tell these stories, be they on paper or to unsuspecting Airbnb guests, I want to change the way they see the world. Just a little bit.”


Something you need to understand about Nicole – after seventeen long (and I should think, successful) years as the head of tourism, she quit to work in an NGO called Innovation Edge that focuses on developing early learning in children aged 1-6 by funding ideas and initiatives in marginalised communities. It made sense for her, I think, as someone so passionate about social issues, to move from tourism to a non-profit.

“Did it annoy you?” I asked, already knowing the answer. “To have tourists caper up to Cape Town just to look at it as a gorgeous tourist holiday destination without bothering with understanding the social structure or history of the place?”

“Oh my god,” she rolled her eyes. “You have no idea.”

We then spent a good part of the next hour talking about South Africa – mostly her, talking intensely, and me, listening, trying to absorb, and asking the occasional question. Much of this conversation had nothing to do with Airbnb as a platform, therefore potentially majorly irritating the Parisian journalist who was waiting to interview Nicole on Airbnb Experiences. But Airbnb is not a product in and of itself. It is a platform. And this platform you can use to book accommodation, browse listings, read city guides. So why not use the platform to push a social agenda? I totally got Nicole’s rationale behind what she was doing, and loved it. And despite not being technically a part of the official Airbnb Experiences Ethos, it still aligned nicely with Airbnb’s aesthetic of trying to get people to understand each other and cultures, trying to create a more inclusive, loving world (Look at their latest announcement – a mandatory non-discriminatory rule). Just that what Nicole is doing is on a far, far more local level.

A couple of months ago, I wrote a post called The Broke Student’s Guide to Being Human. Those of you who remember that will understand why meeting Nicole was so important to me. As someone who comes from a position of privilege (i mean, come on. A chinese woman in Singapore is like being a white person in America), it is easy to forget and important to remember that your privilege often works at another person’s expense. Let’s not play the privilege game – the comparison of who is more, who is less, who is equally privileged. There will always be someone more fortunate. Someone vastly poorer. You are born into a body and social station which is not of your choice, and all you can do is try to be fair, and kind while learning to navigate it.

But in traveling, this is easy to forget. It is so easy to ooh and aah over the gorgeous mountains of cape town while ignoring the incredibly insane income disparity that exists there. So easy to shudder at the gunshots in the middle of the night, that you hear from your rented room in a small town of Medellin, Columbia, thrilled at your authentic local experience. But your holiday experience is another person’s everyday reality. And while it may not be your responsibility to familiarise yourself with the entire social historical context of whatever city you go to, it sure doesn’t hurt.

I wont attempt to explain the social fabric of south africa. Learning about it from Nicole was endlessly interesting to me, but I have no faith in my ability to do it justice, or replicate her words with the same level of conviction that can only come from a lifetime of personal experience. But go. Ask her. Ask any host you stay with, any local you meet on your Airbnb Experience. Ask them for their story. Ask them why they’re doing what they do. If it pans out well, you’ll find yourself enriched, your perspective widened, your capacity for empathy hopefully deeper by the end of it. And if it doesn’t, well. You’ll have a story of your own to tell.

Airbnb Experiences is now available on the updated Airbnb app.


#2049 | jemma for airbnb: totoro in shin-okubo


imagesTokyo, Japan

Another day, another beautiful Airbnb. We stayed in this gorgeous traditional meets modern apartment in Shin-Okubo, Tokyo, on our recent Japan trip. Shin-Okubo is better known as Koreatown in Tokyo, which is strange because anything korean related only spans one small street. That said, it is a wonderful area in Tokyo, not subject to the ridiculous crowds of Shinjuku or Shibuya, but accessible to everything all the same via either one stop on the jr line or a ten minute stroll.

Japanese apartments are known to be small, but efficient. Very rarely will you get a huge sprawling apartment with a lot of empty space like the type you might find in resorts or less land-locked cities. Tokyo is crowded, and so apartments stack, and they don’t waste any space. But japan is also home to some of the best and innovative designers (after all, it is the home of muji), and so apartments, though small, never feel cramped.


The boys on their futons

Part of this involves the fact that their beddings can be rolled away and kept at the start of the day, though of course lazybums like us leave them out and survive on them throughout the day. When I mentioned this to my sister, she said it sounded awful that we all had to sleep on the floor.

“Aha,” I said, “But it is a japanese floor. The most comfortable floor in the world.”
“Aah,” she replied, nodding wisely, not understanding anything I said.

It might not make sense to anyone who’s not had personal experience with the japanese tatami futons. But sleeping on the floor, in japan, is just as comfortable as sleeping on a bed, if not more. And in the winter, these futons can be plugged into a socket that makes it a heated blanket instead! How bout that. I dont know how they get out of bed to go to work at all, I imagine a heated blanket would be impossible to resist in the mornings. But then again, #japan..


and me, teetering on the side of my mattress so i dont get my outside-clothes on the sheets

The rooms in the apartment were segregated by these sliding paper doors that are characteristic of japan. If you’ve ever watched a Ghibli film, you’ll know what I mean – those little sliding doors that make up both their cupboard and room doors. This means that they can be opened half way to open up the rooms to each other so everyone can chat across the apartment, or to let light in so sunlight floods the place without having to turn the lamps on in the darker parts of the place.


And reading on the sofa, which folded out to become yet another bed in case your travel party is larger than normal… who knew you could stuff so many people, hypothetically, into the same place? PS. Here I’m reading The Vegetarian by Han Kang, which is like Murakami on drugs – strange, weird, but interestingly, easier to come to terms with. Would recommend.


and a little work corner, if you need to get some writing done

As I’ve said many times before, it’s all about finding a balance between a great apartment and a fantastic location. Location is almost always the key, and that doesn’t mean getting a place thats necessarily in the middle of the city centre, but also places that have things to do and see around them, and so not just places that are smack right in the middle of a quiet residential neighbourhood. Luckily for us, this place had both. I consider Shin-Okubo pretty central, and there were a TON of things to do nearby. There was even a cafe right below our airbnb that I dropped by a couple of times to sit and work – it opens till 2am. 🙂

It seems my criteria for Airbnb listings has also informally extended to include proximity to convenience stores, adding on to the previous checklist of a easy walk from the train, the train station being an easy segue into the city centre, etcetera etcetera. Two minutes from our apartment we had one of Japan’s wonderful 7-11s (and so, breakfast for the trip settled everyday), and two minutes from that we had the Shin-Okubo train station. As I mentioned previously in last year’s Broke Student’s Guide to Tokyo, getting an airbnb on the JR Yamanote line is essential to any first timer in Tokyo because the day pass for the JRY gives you access to nearly all the hotspots you’d want to see. And while I’d been to Tokyo before, it was all the boys’ first times, and so the JR line rule still applied!

PS. Buying the JR Yamanote day pass is easy – just buy it off a machine. If youre not sure on how, then go approach the station master and tell him you want a JR Yamanote day pass. He’ll show you how to do it – the Japanese are really helpful! It’ll set you back about 750 yen for the day. Which sounds like a lot, until you realise that it costs about two bucks per train ride anyway.. so count how many places youre intending to see, before deciding if it makes sense to get a pass!

But one of the absolute best secret tips we got from our Airbnb host? Hitting this late night eatery hiding out on the second floor of an obscure building a street down from where we stayed. TORIKIZOKU, a traditional yakitori place that’s mad cheap and delicious – 280yen per item on the menu, including drinks!!!


2-23-1-2F Hyakunincho, Shinjuku, Tokyo Prefecture

The stuff you only hear of if you get to know a local, hey? Even if you never get to meet your host (as in our case, a self-check in airbnb that was mediated primarily through messages on the Airbnb app), your airbnb listing will often come with an e-Guidebook which most people miss out on – it’s in your trip itinerary after your booking is confirmed 🙂 It usually consists checkin information, house rules, and places of interest around the area, and is created by your host, so you know what that means – LOCAL TIPS GALORE.

But honestly. Ho-nest-ly. Tokyo is so amazing that there will never be a time when I feel like I’m done talking about it. This is the fifth japanese airbnb I’ve stayed in (tokyo last year, then osaka and kyoto and osaka again), and you’d think that it gets repetitive after awhile. But you would be wrong. Each place I’ve stayed in brings its own flavour to my trip, and I’d like to think that they set the background to your experience in each new city, be it a traditional, uber-cosmopolitan, or uniquely modern apartment. And that’s part of the reason why I’ve always returned to airbnb time and time again, I suppose – even before I started working with them long term. Just a bit of side-talk: I get a lot of emails from you guys everytime I publish a new Airbnb post, and I’m always both surprised and grateful that people havent heard of it (probably because it’s such a big part of my travel plans) and also that people are willing to try. It really signals to me a sort of adventurousness that is new – we used to all be so safe in terms of our choices when we travelled, but if not now, when are we going to try and explore the world / new destinations on our own terms? It’s on that note that I’m thrilled to announce: I’m flying to LA tomorrow for a weekend, on agenda for Airbnb Open and to chat with them about what makes Airbnb, well, Airbnb. The future of travel. So stay tuned, because more on that real soon! x

Ten days in Tokyo: perfection. Miss you already, tokz. Till next time.

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