HBF Outlook Magazine - Travel section
By Karen Heinrich
"Forget about hotels and rushed itineraries, swapping houses with someone on the other side of the globe is an affordable and relaxing way to see the world."
When Bill Devitt retired from accountancy at the ripe young age of 55, a brave new world of travel suddenly opened up to him and his wife, Sue.
No longer were the HBF members forced to adhere to the standard four weeks annual leave a year. Finally, freed from full-time employment and with their two adult children, Bryan and Shannon off their hands, they could travel the way they'd always wanted to - langurously.
"I'd found out about home exchanges years before, but at the time we had a large house in Kallaroo and I was still working, so it seemed like a good thing to do when I retired," says Bill. "So that's what we've done."
Not being ones for package holiday travel, the Devitt's wanted a cost effective way to be able to immerse themselves in - rather than pass through - the destination of their choice. They found the answer in home exchanges, and they've done a whopping 18 of them (15 overseas) in the past four years, living a semi-nomadic existence in almost back to back swaps.
Started in the early 1950's by British and Canadian schoolteachers who temporarily swapped their teaching jobs, homes and cars, home exchanges are now an incredibly popular way to travel. The biggest lure is free holiday accommodation - in exchange, of course, for the use of your own home and, usually, your car as well.
"The bottom line is that it allows you to stay months in a country for pretty much the cost of an airfare," says Bill.
On their first exchange, to New Zealand for three months, Bil and Sue, a former library officer, had no qualms leaving their keys to their home and car to their two exchange partners. If anything, they felt more comfortable knowing that someone was looking after their three bedroom townhouse in South Perth.
The fact that their guests were the same people in whose home Bill and Sue would be staying only upped the comfort factor, as there was a genuine feeling of reciprocity, says Bill.
On top of the cultural and financial advantages, home exchanges are also emerging as a new frontier in ethical tourism. Home exchange website HomeLink says home exchanges provide a sustainable alternative to traditional travel, in that you put no extra pressure on local resources.
But as Jackie Hair, the Perth based author of Who's Been Sleeping In My Bed?: How To Swap Your Home And Enjoy Free Holiday Accommodation Worldwide says, the scheme is popular because it works on a mutual gain, mutual respect basis.
"The biggest lure to home exchanges is certainly free accommodation and transport," says Hair, who with her family has done several home exchanges. "But the second most cited reason is the ability to experience authentic local culture. And being in the comfort of a real home is definitely a huge benefit."
For the Devitt's, being able to live like a local is what appeals to them most. Instead of having to stay in a hotel, restricted by the number of nights they can afford, and eat out for three meals a day, they can relax and take the time to immerse themselves in the daily rhythms of a city or region.
"Living in a local's house for two to four weeks is so much more rewarding than spending two nights in a hotel," Bill says. "You get to know their neighbourhood, use their car to go to different places outside their city, meet the locals, shop at the markets and make new friends - none of which you get to do if you're just a normal tourist."
One of the Devitts' favourite home exchange memories is staying in a remote area of Canada's Vancouver Island. Their exchange partner, who owned a woodchip mill, organised a meeting with one of the island's indigenous leaders, who took Bill and Sue on a tour, showing them his community and their lifestyle.
"That kind of thing would never have happened if we'd been staying in a hotel," says Bill.
It's something to which Walter and Christine Blunden can relate. The HBF members have done two exchanges to the UK, a stint in Sydney and a house exchange to Raiatea, a French Polynesian island about 320 kilometres north of Tahiti, earlier this year.
During the two and a half weeks they spent on the island, the retired couple bought fish from the local fishermen and sampled the fruit and vegetables gathered by the local women.
"Before we went we hadn't even heard of Raiatea but we'd heard of Tahiti, so it sounded suitably exotic," says Walter. "When we got there, we saw that it was - coconuts grow wild, and there are flowers, banana trees and lime trees everywhere."
Having exchanged homes with a couple of teachers from France who were living in Raiatea, Walter and Christine, of Ascot, soon settled into their new digs, which offered great views over a lagoon.
Their most precious memory is of eating breakfast and drinking coffee on the beach after their morning swim as some local Polynesians were holding a tribal meeting under a tree nearby.
"Two of the elders wandered over towards us, gave us a big smile, removed their leis and placed them around our necks," says Walter. "Then they said 'give us your camera' so they could take a photograph of us. Even though they couldn't speak much English, the locals were incredibly friendly to us."
Once they got home from New Zealand, the Devitt's stayed put for six weeks then took off for a five month sojourn in Canada, where they did five home exchanges.
"In that first year we spent about eight months away," says Bill. "We were really happy with the way our exchange partners looked after our place."
In 2004 the Devitt's did home exchanges in Germany, Ireland, England and Turkey, and they recently returned from the US, where they did exchanges in Hawaii, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
As for the Blundens, they are off to Cambridge, England, in October, Stratford-upon-Avon next March, Manchester next April and Edinburgh, Scotland, this September. They also have an offer to spend the 2008 northern summer in Amsterdam.
"We love this style of travel," says Bill, whose next exchanges are two weeks in Sydney in October and three weeks in France next May. "And the houses we've stayed in have been pretty spectacular."
The Devitt's are now seasoned exchangers. Before they set out for the airport they stock their fridge with milk, bread, eggs and bacon as a welcoming gesture for their incoming exchange partners. Their 18 (and counting) sets of lucky guests no doubt tucked into their first Perth brekkie feeling just the way they ought to - right at home.
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