#2083 | #LADiaries Airbnb Walks – The Last Bookstore


Los Angeles, America

Dusky evenings in downtown LA. I try to make it a point to visit a bookstore in every city I go to – part because of my love for reading, part because I truly believe that bookstores form such core part of our culture’s heart. My favourite bookstores, thus, are scattered around the globe: Three Lives and Company in New York, Liberia in London, Topping & Company Booksellers in Bath… and now added to the list, The Last Bookstore in Downtown LA, stop number three on the Old Bank District: The Historic Core Airbnb Audio Guide.

How do you not immediately want to run into this bookstore the minute you see it? What a name – compelling, challenging. And yet, not easy to stumble upon – perhaps because it being my first time in LA, I didn’t know my way around and thus wouldnt have walked past this street without being specifically guided there. Last week, a reader wrote to me and detailed the number of places she had been, following my travel guides on this blog. When I plan for my travels, there are also some travel forums, blogs and video channels I go to as an automatic resource. The point is – travel guides and online repositories of content still play a big part in the process of discovery and trip planning, and the newest entry into the fray is Airbnb with their launch of local guides and audio walks. When it was announced at Airbnb Open, I wondered how something that made so much sense was launching only now. But that’s part of the beauty of Airbnb, I think, and all industry innovators and disruptors – always changing things up and coming up with new ways of experiencing that you never knew you needed till now.

Made by 🌟Collage🌟

The Airbnb Audio Walks are part of a collaboration with Detour, and you can find them under the Places tab in your Airbnb app. It’s still being rolled out in different countries, but for now its mainly in the USA. Essentially, it’s a free bonus you get with the Airbnb app which is GPS tagged so it brings you through “walks” in different neighbourhoods and cities. Sounds perfect for solo travellers – but it’s actually geared towards groups too, because you can sync your tours with your friends and all do the walk together. This is so great because it’s like a free walking tour but pegged to your own convenience – and made better only by the fact that the tours themselves are freaking ace. This particular one that features The Last Bookstore actually has different locals bring you through the walk in the audio guide – and one of the is the owner of the freakin bookstore, Josh Spencer. So yes – not a bad way to spend an afternoon, especially if there’s an Airbnb audio guide available in the city you’re visiting.

And so, into the bookstore we go..


I have to say, being on a press trip, I didn;t have huge blocks of free time to wind around the city. My free time was mostly spontaneous, and in short bursts, and it was in that way that Los Angeles and I got acquainted. It wasn’t half bad – in fact, I’d like to think that I made quite good use of my time there, thoroughly filling my days with things and experiences and also leaving just enough to know that I’d be back. I thought to myself that I’d just pop in and spend an hour in the bookstore (after all, I wasn’t about to sit and read a book – just take a look, perhaps buy a book, and ask for recommendations) and then head out and check out other things within the city. But of course this was wishful thinking. Once I stepped in, the next time I saw the sky again it was dark, and dinnertime, and I was forced out by the alert on my phone that my next scheduled itinerary event was happening. And so that is a roundabout way of saying that yes, I loved it, and yes, you should definitely check it out if you’re in LA!


The bookstore is a secondhand and new bookstore, and consists two floors and a ton of themed rooms. It’s won a lot of praise for its stunning design, and a true bibliophile could honestly spend hours and hours in here!

Some of the themed rooms they have include rooms gravitating around art, rare book rooms, $1 book areas, children books, so on and so forth. I’m pretty proud to say that I saw our homegrown Singaporean graphic novel, The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye, on the shelves in the Graphic novels and Photobooks room. It’s a little overwhelming when you first go in because it’s impossible to know where to start, but what I did was go straight to the second floor where the book labyrinth was, and then work my way down from there

The walk up:


The flying books are my favourite, they remind me of Harry Potter!

These book themed installations are done in collaboration with various artists in LA, and David Lovejoy is featured very prominently. I deadass got the scare of my life when I turned the corner in the stairwell and bumped into that android human book thing. Jeez. America.

There are corridors which imitate art galleries along the second floor, and I spent a happy twenty minutes or so perusing them. I believe the art gallery Spring Arts is located there, where occasionally artists will come and take residence and interact with customers there – but I didn’t get to see them when I was there. And there’s also this jail cell looking room with the sign EMPLOYEES ONLY which I presume is where the booksellers can go take their break, but I didn’t get a photo of that unfortunately.

The Labyrinth:

I ran to the Labyrinth when I saw it, not even kidding. This is what my dreams are made of!


Everything on the second floor goes at a dollar each, but the real draw for most people is the way the second floor looks like a portal into a whole different dimension. Again, it’s segregated by genre – the science fiction room is a legitimate VAULT – but the devil is in the details. Everything – from the way the light falls dramatically on certain titles – to the magnifying glass hanging over some books – is planned with the very deliberate care of someone who loves the place. And check out that book loop!

All of them, again, were done either by volunteers within the LA book community, or by local artists. The collaborative effort of this place was touching, but also sobering – in the window, a sign: What are you waiting for? We wont be here forever.

Back down to the first floor:


The art on the wall is made fully of paperback books!


There’s a one hour time limit for couches – presumably so you dont fall asleep there. No computer terminals to help you find books either, you just approach the “section care experts”, and they mentally log where you can find what you’re looking for. I ended up buying my first ever copy of Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay which at that time was impossible to find in Singapore (now I have three copies cos I keep giving them away) and A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness which was in the same year made into a movie. Would have gotten more (dollar books!!) but.. luggage space. Anyway. They pack your purchases into a brown paper bag, very old school, and then off you go.

When I stepped out of the store, it was dark. I had overstayed my initial plan – as expected – but I left happier, with two books, and no regrets.


What a recommendation. I cannot imagine any book lover coming to LA and not visiting the last bookstore. And if you do live in LA – what are you waiting for? They wont be there forever.

The Last Bookstore
453 S Spring St, Los Angeles, CA 90013, USA

You can access Airbnb Audio Walks now via the Airbnb app.
Airbnb.com/jemma for $50 off your first stay x


#2077 | #LADiaries | The Undercover Host


Airbnb Open, Los Angeles

I don’t need to mention that one of my childhood dreams was to be a journalist for you guys to have figured that out on your own. I had my eye on Columbia for the longest time because of their journalism degree, but such dreams are not made to be self-funded, and so, sans-scholarship, I stayed in Singapore for under/postgraduate. Though this by no means is a complaint – having met some of the best people in my university here, having stumbled into media and presenting, having been offered so many opportunities by the grace of God and the kindness of people around me… my life would have been so incredibly different if I’d spent the last six years of my life elsewhere. And all that was my roundabout way of saying, kind of, that I got to live out one of my journo dreams last year end at Airbnb Open 2016.

I’ve been labelled press many times, but this was the first actual full blown press conference I’d attended, and it was an insanely eye opening experience. From the early morning breakfasts at the press center where journalists from all over the world were aggressively typing out stories and bouncing ideas off across the room, to rockstar press talks where the crowd went wild as the founders of Airbnb walked onstage (seriously, those dudes are like the Zuckerburgs of the news world or something), to hanging out in the interview room where a million interview were happening simultaneously.. it was surreal. It was like living in a television set while also watching it unfold. I looked around, I thought, this is what an alternate universe for me would look like. I thought, I’d better do some interviews. And I did.


Live Streaming the press conference – the broadcast arena


Breakfast at the press center! + my weak attempt to be healthy.. which didn’t last long. HAHA


A grainy picture of me at the press centre, in between keynotes and panels by the Airbnb team

Despite sitting on the traveller, not host side of things, I found myself attending a bunch of talks specifically catered for hosts around the world. That was another thing I liked about Airbnb Open – that it wasn’t just a press-centric conference – it was an entire festival where Airbnb Superhosts from around the world flew in to meet each other and exchange tips on hospitality and hosting, as well as get the chance to meet and talk to the Airbnb folk themselves, to see what was upcoming and to get their questions answered. Because I am a busybody, I sat in for several of the discussion panels for hosts (quietly of course, trying to be invisible at the back end of the room) to listen in, and boy am I glad that I did.

Different talks cater to different audiences, and when you listen in for something that is not catered to you, you learn so much about the other side of things that can also be unexpectedly very useful to your own experiences moving forward. This is something that holds true for everything, and I am and have always been a big supporter of stepping out of your comfort zone and expanding your interests beyond what you’re good at/familiar with. This is why I encourage my students in school to read books about things in genres they’re not used to, to participate in debates they don’t agree with, and to generally try and stay open to learning about the other side of things. This as a practice imparts empathy, perspective, and is generally interesting. And of course, this is just me being long winded (again) – what I meant to say was, sitting in for the host talks paradoxically gave me as a traveller a lot more assurance about my experience using Airbnb, and taught me what additional things to look out for when starting to embark on trip-planning!

You guys already know about how to select an Airbnb listing from my previous posts on the subject. If you haven’t read my Guide to Picking the Perfect Airbnb Listing, I strongly suggest jumping on it because it isn’t just a guide I wrote for the blog, it’s one that I put into practice every single time I travel – and it’s one that is formed from experience!

However, here are a couple of the more interesting things that I didn’t have to learn through experience, but learnt through the panels and talks:

1. All hosts are legally required to disclose surveillance devices in their listings, and strongly discouraged from having them, including but not limited to CCTVs, baby cameras, and recording devices. If they disclose this after a traveller has booked, then the traveller can cancel with a full refund without penalty. This is something that I’ve always wondered about, vaguely, so I’m glad i have a firm answer on this.

2. The search result placements of Airbnb listings are sorted based on relevance, ratings, and rate of acceptance. Which means that if a host is likely to cancel on you, or has cancelled on many guests before, their listing will be negatively affected on the search result placements! This was super interesting to me, because I’d always wondered how you could get so lucky as to be placed on page one of the search results HAHA.

3. The number of options under Amenities are always being updated, so it becomes easier for a host to define and distinguish their listing, and conversely, for a traveller to filter down listings according to what they want out from a place! For example: I think most recently Airbnb has added a whole bunch of options under the Family amenity section, and so you can possibly filter for a listing based on whether they have a changing table, a babysitter recommendation, so on and so forth.

4. There is now co-hosting on the Airbnb platform.


Sitting in on the Airbnb Co-hosting talk

The co-hosting part was the most interesting thing to me. In fact, the co-hosting announcement was part of one of the keynote for Hosts that I sat in on, regarding their new and improved Airbnb app for Hosts. Another announcement they made during that talk was the impending launch of photo sending capabilities in the Airbnb messaging app, which is honestly going to be the best development we see in both user and host experiences with the app, I think. It’s not so bad for city listings, but when you head over to the countryside, like I did last July in the Isle of Skye, it can be pretty tough to find your listing if you’re driving for miles and miles on an unending highway – so the ability for a host to send you a photo of a landmark or some kind of visual indicator of where to turn in, etcetera etcetera, can be incredibly useful.

But I digress, again.

Co-hosting, which they announced as slowly being rolled out worldwide, is the ability to add a trusted family member or friend as a cohost from their own account so that they can help you manage the listing when you’re away, without giving that someone access to your personal account, personal details, or payment information.

This may be a point of convenience to hosts, but it is so much more a point of safety to travellers. Just the fact that you have to add another account’s profile as a co-host already ensures the second host is more or less legit and verifiable. But beyond that, the new feature means that you’ll never risk being met by someone who isn’t your host and isn’t officially verified by your host, and also offers hosts an option beyond just leaving their keys under the shoe rack somewhere if they’re not available. It means that I don’t have to worry about what happens if I arrive at a strange timing – cos my host can just add a neighbour as a co-host who can let me into the house, and it being endorsed by the Airbnb platform also acts as a safeguard for me so that I know beforehand who’s coming to meet me, I can see their profile picture and face, and I can communicate with them beforehand. It also allows the host to pay the co-host a percentage of the rental fee – which was a small point that I really liked, because it meant that bored old aunties have a way of making extra income by helping their neighbours check in guests, and it not only promotes a sense of community within the actual local neighbourhood, it also injects more money back into the local economy directly.

One of the hosts I spoke to – not about this, just in general – mentioned to me how putting up a room in her place on Airbnb gave her the extra income and final decision-making push to scale back her full time job into a part time one, just so she could also work on her art. And I thought to myself: there is an academic paper in there somewhere, a social study, that needs to detail the way Airbnb has played into the gig economy, and enabled individuals to pursue the less financially feasible passions in their life. And here you go – cohosting might just be one of them.


Listening to Brian Chesky, the face of Airbnb and one of three founders, give a keynote

Lastly.. sitting in with the hosting community gave me a lot of insight into what the host goes through.

Perhaps this isn’t the most useful or pragmatic thing to takeaway from a conference, but it certainly was the most emotionally resonant. I already wrote a piece last year on the way certain hosts use their listings as vehicles for social commentary, and given my own experience with multiple hosts world wide, I also love how they take it upon themselves to share their culture and life through friendship and food with guests in their own home. But on a more local, person-to-person level, I loved getting to see the human side of the hosting community as a whole. I listened in on a group of hosts enthusiastically discussing the best way to make their guests feel like the first guest in the place – exchanging little touches to make them feel welcome. I listened to them talk about cleaning techniques, how to make your home smell nice and welcoming, how to get rid of lime buildup in crevasses and corners of your listing, what the best cleaning equipments are.. Basically, I listened to them try, passionately, to turn their homes into a home for me. It was incredible. It felt so .. is cute the word? But the word feels too trivial. Human, perhaps. It was endearingly, amazingly human and sincere. And that reminded me that this was what Airbnb was and has always been founded on – people, wanting to meet other people, and wanting to make homes all over the world. I think sometimes I forget, especially when booking whole listings and not just private rooms within Airbnb listings, that I’m not leasing a place from a faceless professional entity, but from people who have found it in themselves to open up their homes and invite me into their lives. It could have been you. It could have been me. Welcome home, the Airbnb website says.

The corporation is the corporation, and it does a wonderful job. But the people make the warm and lovely building blocks of the community, and they are the stuff that fuels and fires up Airbnb as an entity.

Thanks for having me at the Airbnb Open, guys. More #LADiary entries to come. x


#2072 | #LADiaries – Waking up in Airbnb Ktown, obviously.


Waking up in LA
sign up at airbnb.com/jemma for $35 off your stay

Oh, my Airbnb #LADiaries are far from over, friends. But it’s a short one today, because I was flipping through my trip photos and was just reminded of how gorgeous our listing was, a crime not to document, really. Sometimes, I look through Airbnb listings even when I’m not actually going anywhere simply because the entire site serves as a reminder that apartment goals are totally, hundred percent achievable. They’re not just a studio photoshoot set, people live in these beauties! And then other times, being very, very lucky, I get to live in some of them, and live the dream, if only for a little while.

This one was picked out for me by the Airbnb team when I was in LA last November for Airbnb Open 2016. They sure know me, I thought, as I walked in, the place was all sun-filled with natural light and wood. Beautiful. I actually had a friend stay at the exact same apartment during her trip to LA a couple years back, and I saw her little profile picture next to her testimony under the Airbnb reviews when I was checking the listing out online, pre-trip. It was something along the lines of Love love love love love this place, and I screenshotted it and texted her, normally a totally deadpan person, you love love love loved this place?

Shuddap, she said, but yes, ok, it was great.

Anyway, I was suitably hyped up before actually landing in LA, and the place did not disappoint. Huge, by any standards, and gorgeous. So comfortable, too. You went to America and stayed in Korean Town? my boyfriend asked, but then I sent him a picture, and he said, oh, ok, fine, I get it. So yes, another case of when pictures speak for themselves.


The iconic LA view from our balcony. At certain angles, when the sun hits just right, you can see the hollywood sign!

It never ceases to amaze me, how people open up these absolutely gorgeous homes to strangers to come live in. If I owned a place like this, I would want it all to myself, all the time. I’d never leave! But again, another part of me is grateful that people do, because it’s been such a source of gorgeous memories for me over the past couple of years, and also an avenue to friendship. Just last month, my London Airbnb host Hayley came to visit me in Singapore – we went for fish head steamboat and she swore it was very, very good. And then we went bar hopping. So I guess some things dont change, country to country.

While she was here in Singapore, I asked how her London listing was doing. It seems a bunch of you had gone to stay with her after my post on her listing, which was both really nice for me and a mighty surprise for her – she was initially under the impression that Singapore was one big family, and everyone who went were friends or friends of friends of mine. Which I guess is true, in a way. But while she was traipsing around Asia, she put her Airbnb listing on hold – another thing I never realised you could do, take it offline for awhile if you need a break and want to go travel. Which gave me a bit of a nice insight into hosting habits and lives. If ever, one day, I should find it in me to lease out my home and life as well 🙂


the absolutely gorgeous black and white kitchen in our LA listing

Which was kind of my segue into saying that this LA listing, gorgeous as is, seems to be doing a bit of the same. I’d like to imagine that the host is off relaxing and taking a well earned break up in Palm Springs, or something, while her listing is offline. And so if you want to stay with her in the summer when she returns, you can either bookmark this blogpost, or check her out when she’s back, at this link.

Safe travels, and happy dreams, you guys. x


#2061 | #LAdiaries – Airbnb Trips: The Adventureman


Malibu, Los Angeles

Following the announcement that caused a tizzy the world over, I signed up for my own Airbnb Trip Experience. More accurately, I got signed up – two weeks before I boarded for Los Angeles, I got a text from Elaine (from Airbnb) asking: So.. what are your thoughts on surfing?

If you’ve been a reader for awhile now you’ll remember that I learnt to surf on the Gold Coast, which I promptly realised that I both a. Loved and b. Sucked at. But you know me – just because I cant do it well dont mean i wont like trying. So obviously I replied LOVE IT without realising (in retrospect, a bit stupid – should have suspected it) that it meant that I would be going surfing. I was booked for The Adventureman by Quinn Carson in Malibu Los Angeles, a half-day version of the 3 day lifestyle immersion that he actually offers on the Airbnb app. I knew none of this till much later: all I knew was a time, date, and meeting point + notes on appropriate attire and a general idea regarding the nature of my activity. So an eighty dollar uber ride from Downtown LA later, and hola Malibu!


Malibu is gorgeous and also where the rich and famous live. “That’s Jessica Simpson’s house,” my uber driver pointed out, gesturing vaguely at a huge white structure as we sped past. Not remembering what Jessica Simpson actually did, I nodded and rearranged my face to look impressed. Finally he deposited me along a private looking beach, which i was genuinely impressed at, and drove off.

And here came my first fun fact, courtesy of my Airbnb Experience Host – all beaches in Cal State are public. This of course annoys to no end the rich people who want to think that their beachfront houses come with, well, private beaches. And it is hilarious because all I could imagine while trying to surf was the picture of a rich old man sipping his tea and trying to enjoy his 6 billion dollar view while determinedly trying to block out the fact that some noob looking asian tourist is crashing into waves right before him. Ha!

(Yet another example of the weird things you find out when you hang out with locals that differentiate your experience from the typical tourbook one. The knowledge that you’re the bane of some rich dude’s existence thanks to Cal State law. We must all rebel in the small ways that we can.)

Previously mentioned Airbnb Experience Host was called Quinn, and he and his friend took us for the day. We were a strange, assorted group from all over – there was a tv presenter from Auckland, a fashion editor from Germany, two journalists from Italy, a tv-writer from New York. And then me, the postgrad student blogger? instagrammer? online presenter? bookworm??? Even I dont know what I am. English majors, you will quickly find, have big philosophical struggles with issues of identity. But we were all level at that point, facing the waves, and going oh shit.


Even to a total newbie, surfing is a bucketload of fun. Most of the people in the group hadnt surfed before, so Quinn brought us through an on-ground (on-sand?) lesson on the theory of the thing, and told us that we’d probably forget it all once in the water anyway. Spoiler: we did.

The actual surfing lasted over an hour, by the end of which we were all wiped out. Update: half a year later, I still suck at surfing. Half a year later, I still enjoy it immensely. And what better ice breaker than watching each other wipe out in the face of a monster wave? I must tell you that literally nobody looks good wiping out. Everyone makes an incredibly hilarious and stupid face. The hope is that as you go on you wipe out less and less, and so the frequency of people seeing you look ridiculous is diminished manyfold.

Seven tan lines and a head of copiously salt-drenched hair later, I dried off with the rest of them and we drove to a spot in the mountains to have a picnic bench lunch. Happily chomping on my sandwich, I looked around and realised that I would literally never get to sit around and lunch with so many varied people from different cultures and backgrounds otherwise. Those of you who’ve been long term readers know that a big part of why I love Airbnb (and travel, in general) is the opportunity to meet and understand new people, mostly in the form of my live-in hosts. And with this new Airbnb Experience feature, it seems that group has expanded to other travellers who have similar interests – or at least, similar attitudes when facing new experiences that could potentially be very embarrassing. Ha! See above: re wiping out.


The second half of the Adventureman experience was hiking – something which I definitely did not realise beforehand. I actually hate hiking because I am terrified of falling down and breaking my face. In case you haven’t realised, I am extremely clumsy. But 2016 was all about pushing boundaries, and so despite fleetingly considering making a run for it, I chumped up and attempted the Malibu Creek State Park hike to the soundtrack of Quinn rattling off his favourite spots and memories from place to place.

Malibu Creek State Park is actually absurdly beautiful, and I found myself grateful that I’d been brought here because I don’t think I’d choose to go of my own volition. Lots of movies were filmed there – like Tarzan Escapes, Love me Tender, and Planet of the Apes. You can actually see the rock wall thats so heavily featured in Planet of the Apes, and the number of people taking selfies with it was actually pretty hilarious! Strangely enough, I never saw LA as much of a nature place – I knew they had a huge beach culture, of course, but my impression of LA had always been pop-culture based: griffith, DTLA, urban lights.. very curated, very specific. Never would I imagine going to LA, putting on some boots, and just going for a hike, though come to think of it, my American friends are very outdoorsy. Is this what being a local is like, then? In that hour long hike I saw everything I never had the option of doing. Back home, in the city grid and grind that I love and live off, the option to just get in a car and go frolic in some nature an hour out from the city was never really possible. Not that I’m complaining – different cities lead different lives. But experiencing the adventure man life for a day was pretty great, for a change.


And that’s what Airbnb’s Experiences represented to me, I think. Going one step further and not just living in another person’s home, but experiencing life in their boots. I wrote a piece on a different Airbnb Experience last month, one with a south african author who uses the Experience feature as a vehicle on social commentary. That, to me, was something you’d never be able to do on your own, and something innately valuable to understanding the cultural and deep seated political issues embedded in a country’s history. This one is more straightforward, and doesn’t try to impart any moral lessons. But both do similar things in allowing you to live out the life of another person in a slightly being-john-malkovitch way. And both promise to be extremely unique and immensely enjoyable.

I speak from personal experience when I say that I hundred percent recommend The Adventureman to anyone headed the LA way. From what I understand, Experiences will be rolling out to cities all over the world soon too, so perhaps one day I’ll see you guys in a Hainanese Chicken Rice cooking class in Singapore? Who knows. But till then, surfs up. x

Airbnb Experiences is now available on the updated Airbnb app.


#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.