• By Nicole Molyneux, Australia

11 Lessons from my 'Community Exchange Road Trip'

Complementary currency enthusiast, Nicole Molyneux, embarked on a road trip last summer with the intention of using mostly sharing economies to travel. However, the journey didn’t quite turn out how she imagined …

Disclaimer: I am a proud LETSaholic and tell my story with the intention of sharing my experiences, both the good and the ugly, of travelling in Australia using sharing economies. The views I present in this article are mine alone, and do not represent LETS or its members.

I recently attended the LETS National Conference in Far North Queensland and several people asked me about my road trip. I had conveniently packed this experience into the back of my mind. However, I have decided it is time to wipe off the dust and share my story.

For those unaware, I embarked on a ‘Community Exchange Road Trip’ in the Australian summer of 2014-2015. The idea was to travel around Australia using sharing economies such as LETS, Couchsurfing and car share. I was inspired to do this at the 2014 LETS Conference when I heard about a LETS member who lived off the LETSystem. This reminded me of a documentary I once saw called ‘Craigslist Jo’. Both stories carry a similar theme: using sharing economies for travel and economic survival. So, I thought, if they can do it, why can’t I?

Before I embarked on my road trip, I was super excited. I made a Facebook page and a blog, and received offers of accommodation from all over Australia. I had a ‘go with the flow’ attitude and felt unbreakable.

I’d like to share 11 personal lessons I learnt from my trip.

Lesson no. 1: Be organised

I hadn’t even packed the morning I left Newcastle in mid-November. I stuffed some clothes and personal items into a backpack and off I went. The first stop was Sydney, however I stopped in at the Central Coast on the way to visit some LETS members in Tuggerah. We visited a pop-up gallery and had coffee.

That evening, I arrived at the Lower North Shore of Sydney where I stayed with a LETS member. I cleaned windows in exchange for accommodation and meals. I enjoyed eating with my host and her international boarders. However, at this early point in my road trip, I was already feeling a bit lost because I didn't have a plan.

Lesson no. 2: Travel with a purpose

In order to find some adventure, I decided to go to Sydney city for the weekend and luckily I found a Couchsurfing host.

After that, I headed to Belmore in South West Sydney and stayed with a LETS member for a good week and a half. I also met up with a friend from Newcastle and we attended an Atheist Convention event. I really liked the people; they were funny and had an excitement for life. However, they called themselves skeptics. I started to wonder if I was a skeptic? Or was I spiritual? Could I be both?

Despite my interesting experiences in Sydney, my lack of direction stuck with me. I was searching for something, but I didn’t know what.

I decided it was time to leave Sydney, but I didn’t know where I was going or how I was getting there. Originally I planned to head south, but I changed my mind and decided to head north instead. I flew to Byron Bay.

Lesson no. 3: Plan your transport

I realised why all the backpackers hire vans to get around, because catching the train is expensive. Flying turned out to be the cheapest option, and because I wasn't organised, I didn't get the opportunity to try car share or car relocation.

Anyhow, in Byron Bay, I stayed with a LETS member. I paid for accommodation and got a massage all using LETS currency.

One interesting thing that happened in Byron Bay was that I was invited to a meeting which turned out to be a recruitment drive for a multi-level marketing scheme. Basically, you buy in and make money by getting other people to buy in. From the beginning of the meeting, I was suspicious, however everyone else in the room was memorised by these young, charming men from Sydney who were promising them the world.

Next I stayed with another LETS member, but this time on a serene property in the hills near Mullumbimby. My stay was peaceful and my hosts lovely. We ate together and I helped with some odd jobs around the house. I also got the opportunity to hang out with some locals my own age and absorb a creative environment.

However, the pattern of oddity continued. I came across one man at a corner store who told me I was ‘stupid’ for not eating organic and for drinking fluoridated water. Wait, what? Now, I am all for eating organic, but fluoride? If it wasn't for fluoride, I would probably have a ton of cavities! But the conspiracy theories got more elaborate as I was told about chemtrails, among other things. I decided to leave that one alone, however my belief system continued to be challenged on this trip.

After I left the tropical hills of Mullum, I headed to Queensland. I was unable to find accommodation on the Gold Coast, so booked a room on Airbnb.

Lesson no. 4: Plan your accommodation

I was literally still looking for somewhere to stay the night before I left Byron Bay and was a little disappointed to book accommodation. Sure, Airbnb still fits in along the lines of ‘sharing economies’, but I was already spending money on transport and had been determined not to spend money on accommodation.

I found my Airbnb host very amusing. From the moment I walked in the door he was asking me in depth questions about my life and ideology. He also helped me to plan my time and made an amusing phone call to a tour company on my behalf, asking why it was so expensive to travel to Tamborine Mountain when you don't have a car.

I found the Gold Coast to be a concrete jungle. However, I did find a pleasant surprise there: I ran into my Great Aunt at the shopping centre! I ended up spending some time with her. One night we went to a Japanese Friendship Club dinner at a Chinese restaurant (go figure).

Lesson no. 5: Know where your relatives are located around Australia

I quickly left the concrete jungle and headed for Brisbane, which I would say was the peak of my adventure. I house sat in Fairfield for two weeks over the Christmas period.

Lesson no. 6: House sitting is awesome

I looked after two cute dogs, spent Christmas with relatives, and made some friends through Couchsurfing. These are some of the happiest times of my road trip. I spent New Years’ Eve with my new friends and we did a free-hugs campaign at South Bank. It was the perfect day.

What happen next pretty much derailed my road trip.

Lesson no. 7: Follow your gut instinct

All I am going to say is that I did not have a good experience with the two people I stayed with after I left Brisbane. I was not in any serious physical or emotional danger, however the experience did leave me feeling bitterly disappointed. In this time, I felt very isolated and was incredibly stubborn ('just one more day', I kept thinking, or 'just wait until you find somewhere else to stay').

Lesson no. 8: Screen your hosts

I can only blame myself for getting in to these uncomfortable situations due to lack of planning. These hosts weren't active members, they had no recommendations on the CES, and I knew nothing about them before I stayed with them. When you're seeking a host on Couchsurfing, you can see photos, a description of the host and their hobbies, and testimonials from former guests, and it’s much more efficient. However, this is not an excuse; I should have called my hosts in advance.

After this experience, I had totally lost direction. I also had no idea where I was going next. I looked for a car share situation, but nothing came up. So I hopped on a train to Bundaberg. When I got there, I decided I wasn't going to waste more money on the train, so I flew to Cairns. The logic was I would make it to Tablelands, where the most active LETSystem was.

Unfortunately, I never made it there. When I got to Cairns, I wasn’t just bitterly disappointed, I was downright homesick. I liked Cairns, but wasn’t in the right frame of mind to fully enjoy it. However, I did do an Aboriginal tour of Mosman Gorge which I enjoyed immensely. I also went to the Cairns markets and ate dragon fruit for the first time.

When I flew back to Newcastle, I was relieved. However, the story does not end there. I had one more ray of hope left for my road trip. When I was in Byron Bay, I had signed up to do a Vipassana meditation retreat in the Blue Mountains at the suggestion of my Couchsurfing host.

Lesson no. 9: Think things through

I'm not sure what I was expecting. For one, I was convinced I could do it. For another, I knew that it was a ten-day silent retreat and that I would have to meditate for hours on end. Despite this, nothing could have prepared me for this experience. It was challenging, but not in the way I imagined.

No one tells you this, but sitting for 12 hours a day is painful, especially if you have bad posture. In fact, no one tells you that meditating hurts. The days were long, and I rested every chance I got.

However, by about the fourth day, I began to freak out. In the first couple of days, they let you move around if you felt uncomfortable. But by the fourth day, the aim was to remain completely still which pushed me over the edge. That night, as we watched a discourse video of a Buddhist teacher S.N. Goenka, I came to the realisation that I needed to leave. I spoke with the female Buddhist teacher, and she said I could leave in the morning.

I didn't sleep that night, and I left at 5 am after the others went to morning mediation. I was deeply relieved as I walked alone in the dark, peaceful morning towards the train station. Later that day, I arrived back in Newcastle.

After I left the retreat, I evaluated why I had gone in the first place. Had I done it because I wanted to, or because someone else thought I should?

Lesson no. 10: Do things for yourself, not for others

Despite my motivation to do Vipassana, it was a learning curve, as was the entire road trip. It was defining for my belief system. Let’s put it this way: if I had any ounce of spirituality in me before the Vipassana retreat, it was squeezed out of me by the end.

Lesson no. 11: Live your truth

So, the truth is, I'm not the ‘go with the flow’ type. I need to think things through and have a purpose, otherwise I feel empty. I need to plan and be organised, however I realise there is also a need to be flexible.

Also, the truth is, I'm not spiritual and I accept that.

And lastly, I’ve learnt that life is too short to stay in a situation in which you don't want to stay. I haven't learnt this lesson strong enough yet, but hopefully this time it will stick.

And, guess what?

I'm already planning my next road trip, and I'm going to organise every single part of it to the tee.

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