Moving. It’s an inevitable part of travel. Hell, it’s the whole point of travel: keep moving, keep exploring, keep going. But with the new sights and experiences that come with new places, also comes the inexorable administration of finding a place to stay. For the holiday-maker or backpacker, this is often a simple process of picking a hotel or hostel and finding somewhere safe to leave their belongings and rest their travel-weary head for a few days. But if you travel slow, the only affordable way to live is to rent yourself a home-base.
During the three months spent on Roatan, I clocked up three addresses. The first was merely a stop-gap, a small box-room with little more than a bed, a shower and a toilet which served as somewhere to dump my stuff, catch up on sleep and not much else. About a week later, I moved into a temporary apartment. It was to be a brief second stop, with not enough air circulation and a few too many cockroaches to ever really feel like more than a roof over my head. But the third and final stop was to become my home for the next two months.
It was bitter-sweet to say goodbye to my little pad. I was only ever going to spend three months in Roatan, so it came as no shock to shut the door behind me on the last morning. In fact, there’s a fair bit about it that I don’t miss: the house next-door that watched insanely loud and horrifically violent movies at strange hours of the night and day; the neighbour who came round to tell us to keep the (contrastingly negligible) noise down at approximately 6pm every time we had friends over; and, not least, the GODDAMNED roosters who maintained an interminable cacophony of reedy caterwauling from dusk til dawn.
But despite these minor irritations, I’ll miss its cheerful colours, the lush tropical views from the hammock and the way the sun pooled through its many many windows. I worked hard to make a home out of this quaint little house on stilts and in doing so learnt that there’s a few basic steps I can take with me to wherever the world may find me next.
Arriving in Costa Rica a month ago, I used my newly learned lessons in making-house to settle into my new apartment – or ‘condo’ as these American folk like to call it. In just a few short days, the following items had once again transformed a cold, lifeless house into a snug, homely haven:
There’s something about stone-cold silence that can be a little disconcerting. It reminds me of having to go into school during the holidays; your footsteps echoing down the usually jam-packed corridors, the ghosts of laughter in the playground and the unnerving feeling that you shouldn’t really be there. It’s the same when you move into an unknown place. Usually, there’s a hiatus of activity as you arrive from the airport, flustered, jet-lagged and laden down with bags. You meet the owner, listen to a long spiel about house rules and how you need to flush the toilet ‘just so’, fully aware that none of this information is sinking in. You traipse round the bare rooms, trying to tally it with the snapshots you’ve seen online before arrival and dutifully inspect the bed (“hmmm, yes, very nice”), the bathroom (“ah, a shower, wonderful”) and the fridge (“yep, very cold, excellent”). Finally, after a flurry of handshakes and small-talk, you’re left alone. In silence. It feels eerie, abrupt, impersonal.
Fortunately, there’s an easy solution to silence. Noise. My laptop is always the first thing I unpack, and within minutes I’ll have my favourite music playing. Not only does this break the “new house” tension, I find that it stimulates a nostalgic corner of my brain, reminding me of happy memories. The effect is instantly calming, and I can feel myself begin to adapt to my strange new environment in time to the familiar beat.
2. Freshly laundered linen
Sometimes, a bed is just a bed. It’s somewhere to crash into at the end of a long, tiring day. It’s nothing more than a matress and some pillows which can support your weary body through the few hours of dreamless sleep that it desperately craves. Hours after arriving in a new place, a bed is usually just that. In times like these, a tired brain spares little thought for the subtle variations of texture and smell that rest against the skin.
But sometimes, a bed is so much more than just a bed. Sometimes it’s a home all in itself. It’s a safe-place, a haven, a space to relax, contemplate, doze and dream. Without fresh, clean sheets, I can never fully enjoy my precious hours of bed time – the alien smell that lingers on foreign sheets leaves me feeling uneasy, and I can’t shake the image of hundreds of bodies lying there before me. So my first port of call whenever I get the opportunity in a new apartment is to wash the sheets. I buy my own detergent, one that reminds me of home, and I lovingly make up the bed just as I always have done. It’s then and only then that the bedroom feels like home.
3. A bottle of wine
Does this really need an explanation? Well, in case the magic four-letter W-word doesn’t already have you sold, allow me to convince you. This isn’t about getting drunk; it’s about taking ownership of a place. If you’re constantly on the road, living out of your backpack and eating at restaurants, you don’t tend to invest in the long-term commitment that is a full bottle of wine. You’ll be drinking beers with new friends or passing round a bottle of local spirits in a hostel. Wine-lovers will still be indulging in a bottle or two, but it’ll be in restaurants, polished off in one sitting.
But for those intending to carve out a home from the husk of a new apartment, a bottle of wine on the side stakes a claim. It says “I’m going to be here for a while”, it asserts a certain ownership. It allows you to take one glass now, and one next week.*
Something about enjoying a drink in the safety and comfort of my own home, the kind of drink you rarely order in a beach bar or at a street-food stall, gives me a sense of domestic security. It tells me that I can relax and unwind here, that I’m free to enjoy the little luxuries that having your own place can bring. Plus, let’s be honest, it’s bloody delicious.
(*or the whole thing over the course of an evening, you know, whatever…)
4. A good book on the side of the bed
It doesn’t matter where in the world I am geographically, once my head is buried in a good book, I’m home. For me, reading is a sure fire way to get comfortable in my surroundings, and having my trusty Kindle on the bedside-table acts in the same way that a nightlight does for a child; it shows me that I’m at home, safe and sound, and that if anything bad happens I can reach out and jump into the comforting arms of a good story whenever real life gets a bit too overwhelming.
5. A phone call home
There are times when you can find yourself perfectly at home simply by curling up in a freshly laundered bed, a glass of red in one hand and a good book in the other while a familiar song plays faintly in the background. But sometimes there’s just no substitute for the company of your loved ones. When you arrive at a new place, it’s unlikely that you’ll have even met anyone yet, let alone forged new friendships. Moving to a brand new town can feel overwhelmingly isolating.
But, thanks to the magic that is modern technology you can have your friends and family there with you in the room in mere seconds. Whilst a FaceTime call or Whatsapp group can never really make up for the absence of the people themselves, nothing cures a bout of the new-place no-friends blues as quickly as a call home. For me, it’s as simple as giving a walking virtual tour of my new place, allowing those back at home to picture where I’m living and what life looks like for me all those hundreds of miles away. Sitting on a sofa and laughing til your sides are ready to split with friends is guaranteed to have your new house feeling like a home in no time.