Tales from an Airbnb traveler.
This story was originally published on jessicamichellecastillo.com on May 16, 2018.
Before this current road trip, the last time I had stayed in an Airbnb was in April 2017. I was with my two friends Itzamme and Andres in Palm Desert, California, for the Coachella Music Festival. It’s a big three-day music festival in the desert near Joshua Tree with tens of thousands of people, if not more. The hotels and Airbnbs book up months in advance. The lodging options were dwindling so by January we had already booked our Airbnb, a one-room apartment on the second floor of a small two-story mid-century building facing a traffic circle. It was not all that close to the festival, not all that cheap and non-refundable. Carina — a middle-aged woman with a friendly face — and her Airbnb listing didn’t have many reviews but, again, our options were limited and the three reviews she did have seemed decent.
Itzamme and Andres were driving over to the Airbnb from Los Angeles and I was driving alone over from Flagstaff. During my drive over, I was communicating with Reggie, Carina’s boyfriend, through the Airbnb app. It was the first time I was communicating with him — I hadn’t communicated with Carina at all — and he was gauging what time I would be arriving to the apartment to ensure someone would be there to hand over the keys. Reggie said that one of his and Carina’s colleagues, a woman whose name I forget, would be there to greet me and show me around the Airbnb. It’s now starting to get even more removed from the original host I booked with, but ok, still I’m rolling with it.
I’m expecting a woman to answer when I rush up the stairs to knock on the door, but it wasn’t Reggie’s colleague, Reggie or even the elusive Carina. It’s a middle-aged man named Ben who says he is Reggie’s brother. I should have thought this suspicious, and I should have waited for Itzamme and Andres to arrive so that we could check in together. But I didn’t, and it’s neither here nor there at this point.
Ben gives me a simple tour of the apartment and engages in small talk that includes asking whether we would be out of the apartment for most of each day, which I found strange. He asks where my belongings are and I tell him they’re just downstairs in my car parked on the street. So he guides me downstairs and out to the car port where I leave the rental car tucked away in the back of the building. I know Itzamme and Andres are arriving soon so I wait to take out my bags from the trunk of the car. We walk back up to the top of the street together and part ways. I didn’t see what direction he went in — from the corner of my eye I saw that he sort of lingered — as I turned left to walk back up to the second-story apartment.
I settle into the apartment, waiting for my friends to arrive, look for the wi-fi code and call my mom. Less than 10 minutes pass before I go downstairs and around back to the carport to get my luggage and camera bag out of the trunk of the car.
I open the trunk and it’s empty. Everything is gone. My clothes, souvenirs and gifts I had just gotten at the Grand Canyon, hiking gear, toiletries, jewelry, eye glasses, camera lenses. Most importantly, my first film camera that I bought when I was 17 and what I used to learn photography. All stolen. All swiftly swiped out of the car’s trunk, no broken glass, no signs of forceful entry. Gone, as if there was never anything there.
My friends had just arrived when I discovered this. I was in such total shock. I (unintentionally very dramatically) fell to my knees, looking up and everywhere, crying just barely perceptible tears, a sort of hyperventilating cry. I had done everything ‘right,’ I thought, so how could this happen? My mind was racing.
Before meeting Itzamme and Andres in Palm Desert for the concert, I had driven out to the Grand Canyon to see the park for the first time and to hike the Bright Angel Trail. I had been so excited and proud of myself for doing this short trip all alone and, traveling alone in the desert, I was hyperaware of my surroundings and thought nothing would get past me. So to have everything stolen from right under my nose like that, I couldn’t believe it. It was heavy facing the dark reminder that there is bad in the world. It felt like such an invasion of privacy, and so heartless to steal some old, worn clothes and things that had sentimental value only to me but were nearly worthless to the thief.
But, there’s always a silver lining. I still had my digital camera and cell phone, with photos of my first time to the Grand Canyon, my laptop, driver’s license, debit card and one credit card, and the nearly $400 ticket for the festival that I had just traveled all the way from Miami for. Itzamme and Andres and my family back home were fully there for emotional support, and helped me suck it up and move on. I lost it all but there’s nowhere to go from there except onward. So we rushed to return the rental car in time before buying some clothes and toiletries — crying — to get me through that weekend. On the plane ride back home I carried the few belongings I hastily bought in a plastic Forever 21 bag.
The main silver lining, of course, is that I wasn’t physically assaulted or harmed. It could have been much worse. At the end of the day, what I lost is purely material. The sentimentality I had for some of these items is not lost, and I keep their memories with me.
I never knew for sure who it was that stole everything, but my intuition says it was Ben — the brother of the boyfriend of the woman I thought I was renting the Airbnb from. Huh. I should’ve called the police right away — they could have fingerprinted the car, they said — but I didn’t call them until the next day, the rental car already returned, to file a police report. I didn’t see the point. They said this report was one in a small spike of robberies in the area around the two weekends of the music festival. To be fair to Airbnb, they offered to do what they could when we spent hours talking to customer service reps. But the best they could do was give us a partial refund and no guarantee for finding another place to stay. With the festival starting the next day, the three of us just ended up sleeping in the one room with the main door blockaded with the sofa and our laptops and cameras hidden throughout the apartment.
Despite all this, I gave Airbnb another chance. I took this as simply one case of someone taking advantage of a system based on trust and honesty. The whole experience did provide valuable lessons and that’s what I chose to take from it, listening to my intuition and being generally more cautious and wary when traveling alone.
I’m so glad I did give it another chance because I’ve already met some really incredible people on my current road trip. I love meeting people leading different lives and lifestyles, getting a glimpse into their quirks and daily habits. It’s yet another beautiful reminder that our differences are what makes us the same. We each have our own distinctive ‘things’ and flow through life in slightly different ways, but we’re all on the same current moving forward. We all want and need the same things. I love our similar differences. ◊