Extract From My Book: Have Website, Will Travel

‘Travelling by invitation?’ asked one of my lady friends. ‘Who, in his right mind, would ever want to invite you in their home?!’

Below is an English translated excerpt by Gerry van der Laan, originally from the Dutch paperback Letmestayforaday, published in 2004 by Nijgh & Van Ditmar in Amsterdam, and as Singel Pocket in 2005 by Singel Uitgeverijen, Amsterdam. All book rights are mine.

My parents often wondered why I frittered away the major part of my time in sitting behind my pc when I was a teenager. I was living with them at the time, you see; and they thought that, instead of surfing many hours on the world wide web, life might become way more profitable for me if I just pursued my career in school, by actually doing my homework, for example.

I, on the other hand, felt confident that my incessant surfing would in the end prove to be very fruitful indeed. Surfing on the waves of optimism, so to speak: like most youngsters I was a fervent believer in the boundless potential of the Internet to bring people together, allowing them to know each other regardless of distance and location.

In the autumn of 1999 some college friends and I took a road trip to Madrid and Barcelona, starting from Zwolle, a medium-sized town in the Netherlands. Our way of transportation was a ramshackle old car that I had bought second-hand from a teacher at my college. Within a week of our return home I desperately wanted to set out again. About a year later I suggested to my friends that we should repeat the experience of that happy-go-lucky road trip, but none of us really had the money, nor the time for it; let alone a car, since my vehicle had given up the ghost immediately upon our return from Spain the year before. Such trips abroad, therefore, were things to dream about wistfully for the time being.

One fateful night in December 2000 I was lounging idly in front of my TV, zapping away my ennui. The hour was late, the reruns were disappointing, those silly give-us-a-ring-if-you-know-the-answer games definitely seemed to be catering for morons, and the American talk show was… well, it was Jenny Jones‘s, in fact, on the subject Young Internet Entrepreneurs, with various guests discussing the facts that they owed their present commercial success to a flash of wit, a playfully conceived idea: something they did for a prank, more or less.

I was suddenly all ears as I sat up, curious and, somehow, intrigued. Rich Schmidt, an American, told his story of having launched his website Sendmeadollar.com (now defunct): sending a $1 bill to Schmidt’s post mail box entitled a visitor to post a message on his site. The website was flourishing: a considerable number of messages had been posted and the dollar counter featured on the site had hit US$3,000 up to that moment. Fascinated by these novel methods of making easy money, I slipped into the world of daydreaming about travels once again.

How long could I make $3,000 last, travelling, meeting people, ditto scenery, history, culture; altogether enjoying life hugely? And, as my scheme emerged more and more firmly outlined from the drowsy haziness of daydreaming, I decided not to stay in hotels that would cost money: my purpose would be served better by staying in people’s private homes. And why shouldn’t I ask people to invite me the same way Rich Schmidt had invited people to donate their dollar? Wasn’t there much difference between the good old brother-can-you-spare-me-a-dollar and my request through the same medium for a place to doss in for a night?

The idea quickly grew on me. My head must have been glowing. I scoured the web for people asking for a place to sleep on their travels round the world, but found nothing. Any website as I wanted to build, would be the first of its kind — or so it seemed. At intervals I jotted down possible domain names: a catchy domain name was, of course, essential. I soon hit on Letmestayforaday.com: it was a succinct statement of my intentions, and with a well-sounding rhyme in the bargain.

I spent the next few months putting my idea into practice, and my project began to take shape. This entailed registering my domain name for 35 Dutch guilders (on the very threshold of the Euro era). I designed the Letmestayforaday logo, made photographs of myself into JPEG’s and put them on my website, wrote its introductory page and headed it with the question, ‘Would you invite me?’.

Of course I was going to do something in return for hospitality received: on my website I would give a day-by-day account of my travels: my experiences, the things I saw, difficulties to cope with, people I would meet on my way, and how they lived their lives. I had a nerdy friend program an entire publishing system to post daily reports and upload photos that would stay with these reports.

Next, I went to my parents to tell them of my project, feeling justifiable proud of myself and full of confidence.

‘I’m going to travel. Getting myself invited by people through the Internet; it’s never been done before, you know.’

My mother said nothing, but placed her cup of coffee back on its saucer most emphatically, before she looked at my father.

‘What about your graduation schedule?’ my father asked.

‘I’m afraid I’ll have to pause my studies for a while because I have no idea how long my trip will take. I might well be back home within a week or be away for months.’

‘Are you still set on finishing your study?’ my father enquired.

Back in 1995 I had embarked on a course of study which would put me into the world as a professional journalist; but six years later I still hadn’t quite got around to graduating. Of course I should have stuck to my attending class and do assignments, but there always seemed to be much else to do: activities by which I was also gaining considerable journalistic experience — or so I thought.

‘I can graduate any time in the near future,’ I said, and hoped it sounded credible.

‘But how are you going to do it?’ my mother persisted. ‘This travelling, I mean. You’ve got no money at all!’

‘If I get enough invitations to go hitch-hiking from one destination to the next, I won’t need any money at all.’

She entrenched herself on her last line of defence.

‘And what if you’re murdered? Someone might kill you on the road. Or you might become seriously ill.’

I had not thought of that up to now, not for a single moment. Why should anybody want to kill me? For monetary gain? Me? With my pockets full of emptiness? I was not afraid of that.

I figured if you’re afraid to go, you’d better stay home.

Many times I bombarded my friends with my new idea of roving all over the world, simply by getting myself invited through the Internet: and on most occasions they responded to my passion with some well-aimed common sense.

‘Travelling by invitation?’ asked one of my lady friends. ‘Who, in his right mind, would ever want to invite you in their home?!’

Undaunted by doubts of my friends and family, I launched my website on Monday, March 12, 2001. On the preceding evening I had gone to a nearby pub. In the course of a little game of billiards with the barkeeper I told him about my travel plans.

‘I take it you’re well-prepared?’ he enquired.

‘Oh, yes, certainly; that is, as well prepared as one reasonably can be.’

‘I mean, have you got sponsors yet? And ads for your site? You’ll have to raise a lot of publicity over this, you know; make some noise about it. A bit of push, that’s what a website like yours stands or falls by. As an upcoming journalist, you ought to know the ropes. Stands to reason you’ll have to notify the press and the media; have you thought of that?’

‘Yes, I have. And I’m not going to.’

‘What do you mean, you’re not going to? If you don’t, not a single soul will visit that precious site of yours, because nobody will jolly well know where to look for it. And how would you have the general public adding it to their favourites if they can’t find it to start with?’

‘Well, I want to find out if I can turn my idea into a success without making a song and dance about it, you know. Just trust to the chemistry between kindred souls. I want the visitors to my website to be prompted by curiosity, nothing more. And if they like what they see, they will return for a second visit, I’m sure. It will set only a tiny ball rolling, but it will roll a long way. And eventually it will bring the sponsors and advertisers in, coming running after it.’

And the tiny ball was set rolling: two hours after my website had been launched, several Dutch bloggers had already spotted it (by looking at newly created statistic counters of the company that offered them for free). And journalists, I knew, find blogs, with their daily updated site reviews, a fruitful source of information. At 6pm of my very launching day, the Dutch news site www.nu.nl made mention of my project. Next day the editor of a Dutch radio show on Radio 1 on travelling invited me to talk about my plans on that day’s show: a train journey of an hour and a half enabled me to show up at the radio presenter’s desk at 8.30 p.m. for a five-minutes interview.

A journalist of the Zwolse Courant — the news sheet of my adopted home town — happened to pick up my bright bit of radio talk, and after visiting my website decided to write an article about it. Since most regional Dutch newspapers pool their resources, this news item was duly published on the Dutch associated press services network. This led to a phone call from a journalist in The Hague; a press photographer came to my place the next day, and on the day following his visit I was featured in a number of regional newspapers, with an article about my brainchild.

My website, meanwhile, worked according to plan and yielded its first batch of invites: from The Netherlands and Belgium, but also from Paignton in England, Shoal Bay in Australia, Hsin Tian in Taiwan and Islamabad in Pakistan.

An American mailed from Chicago: ‘Boy, you’ve got a nerve! Consider yourself invited; and if my wife doesn’t like it, I’ll get you a hotel room and pay your bill!’

Among those early responses was a mail with a number of questions from a Brazilian Internet magazine I didn’t know of: Revista2K. I replied, answering the questions, with enthusiasm. Next came a mail from the American journalist Leander Kahney, who wanted to interview me by telephone on behalf of Wired.com, the largest and most influential Internet magazine in the US.

Once Kahney had launched his article on Wired.com it appeared — sometimes phrased differently in part — on many other news sites. Worldwide! The French newspaper La Libération and Le Monde, the Spanish El País, the Italian La Repubblica, the Turkish Hurriyet, the Moscow Times, The Australian and the South African Dispatch all mentioned my project within days; I found descriptions of myself and my travelling scheme in languages wholly unfamiliar to me, on websites in Russian, Polish, Serbian and Turkish, as well as in Arabic and Hebrew.

In my own country — The Netherlands — it was mainly the popular and widely-read daily De Telegraaf that took up the topic, but soon the dust settled down, my ingenious enterprise got shelved, and nothing much more was written about it.

In my own country, that is. I was still being approached by English newspapers for exclusive interviews and radio stations all over the world kept ringing me up. My friends’ reaction, when my name was mentioned on the umpteenth foreign website, was consistently incredulous. I remember one day, some friends happened to drop in at my student apartment: while I was making coffee in the kitchen, the phone rang and one of my guests obligingly answered it.

‘…Ramon? O yes, wait a second,’ I heard him say in English. Then, rather despairingly, to me, switching to his native Dutch again: ‘Ramon, some Spanish bloke wanting to speak to you. I can’t make heads or tails of it!’

And during the next ten minutes I was interviewed by a reporter from the Brazilian town of Natal. Half an hour later the phone rang again: this time a very friendly female voice, calling me on behalf of ZipFM in Nagoja, Japan. Would I be so kind as to agree to be interviewed by the presenter of their breakfast programme right now? ‘O yes, I’d be glad to,’ I replied.

While I held the line I whispered to my friends: ‘Japanese radio station.’ They gaped at me.

And so it went on, day after day. The mails in my inbox asking for interviews outnumbered those which offered me a place to sleep somewhere in the great world out there.

Todays became yesterdays and tomorrows todays, as they always do: but the media kept at their work of getting the word out, while I sorted out the invitations that came in on my website.

In April a major Dutch tour operator got in touch with me: the company’s manager had read an article about me in the morning paper De Telegraaf. He wished to make an appointment with me, having an interesting offer to make.

Together with a friend of mine I went to the company’s head office on the appointed day, and soon found myself shaking hands with a businessman who’d be very glad to sponsor me. He had it all mapped out: I was to be his travel organization’s new figure head, prominently displayed in TV commercials, advertising campaigns, and booklets. In return for my cooperation he offered me a six months’ trip round the world, with six stop-overs, which I might choose according to my preference and travel itinerary. His company would do the rest, arrange details and so on.

This was about the last thing I’d expected, and the very last thing I wanted, for that matter. I had been hoping to find a sponsor who’d pay the ferries, if the necessity arose: if my travel schedule entailed crossing the Channel, for instance, or the Atlantic.

But how, for heaven’s sake, was I to cram the stacks of invitations that had come in from the four corners of the earth into a tight six months’ schedule? What really made me reject his offer (amazed as it might have been at first consideration) was that I certainly did not want to become his company’s smug, smiling, fat Michelin puppet. My goals and aspirations were more targeted at experiencing the world through real people who would be my hosts and allow me to see their surroundings through their eyes.

Not to worry. Other offers of sponsorship soon materialized which promised to be more helpful than burdensome. A telecom company offered to sponsor me with two mobile phones, outfitted with the then brand new Bluetooth technology, which would enable state-of-the-art telephoning wherever I happened to be; radio station Q The Beat — now known as Qmusic — offered to cover my phone bill in return for weekly radio talks with one of their disc jockeys. Through the grapevine I got in touch with the Dutch agent of fashion brands like Oxbow and Odlo, and I came home from a visit to their warehouse with bags full of brand new clothing. For free.

My list of travel necessities had shrunk considerably; but I still was in urgent need of a backpack and hiking boots. To that end I went to my local travel and sports store, waited my turn and asked the shopkeeper’s wife about the possibility of some sponsorship on his part.

‘We’d expected you earlier than this,’ she said comfortably, and pointed to a newspaper clipping which lay in full view on the cash desk.

‘From the Telegraaf, as you see,’ she said, and, congratulating me on my ‘fantastic idea’ went to fetch her husband. He didn’t waste any time pondering my request. He went straight away to where the backpacks were, made a tour among the hiking boots, and returned with everything I needed. He had the very best backpack for me, along with the best boots his store had to offer, and he threw in a bag full of knick-knacks and little things which might come in useful.

This bounty he handed to me, free and for nothing, before I’d had time even to bring up the idea of sponsorship and what I might do in return for his open-handedness. We settled for a link to their own website to be placed on mine, and of course I would mention them in future interviews.

By about mid-April 2001, I was all set to go. But where to? You see, even in my sunniest expectations about my intended travels I had always taken for granted it’d take me weeks to clear the sleepier provinces, perhaps even months to be out of The Netherlands. But my website had become such a hit that my anticipated itinerary was in need of some upgrading.

There was no sense in going to Dutch destinations like Almelo, Den Helder, Molenhoek or Eindhoven now that I could pick and choose from such places as Australia, Brazil, India, Canada, Chili, China, Costa Rica, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Egypt.

I started off on May 1st as the proud holder of already 675 invitations to more than 65 countries!

This is an English translated excerpt by Gerry van der Laan, originally from the Dutch paperback Letmestayforaday, published in 2004 by Nijgh & Van Ditmar in Amsterdam, and as Singel Pocket in 2005 by Singel Uitgeverijen, Amsterdam. All book rights are mine.