Vedrana Damjanovic

Photography by Vedrana Damjanovic

 Sun. Sand. Ice-cold piña coladas. This is probably how some of you picture yourselves spending a spring or summer break. I used to be in that camp. However, my past spring break was far from enviable.

If the stereotypical vacation results in a nice tan, you could say that my past experience was a metaphorical sunburn.

This past March, my roommate and I were having a hard time with busy schedules, stressful weeks, lack of sleep, and social life. We decided to travel to Puerto Rico over spring break to recharge our batteries. Neither of us had time to bother planning in advance, even though we’re both planning and organizational maniacs. So we booked our flight and housing a few days prior to the trip.

At first, we were happy and satisfied that our round-trip flight ticket to San Juan was only $200. I made a profile at Airbnb to get us an accommodation and found an extremely attractive price of $20 per night for a “shared room,” located precisely next to the beach.

“What heaven,” we both thought, overly enthusiastic about our exotic destination and incredible accommodation. The room appeared decent, with a breath-taking view through the window. It looked perfect – but hindsight is 20/20.

The first blow came right at the airport in Fort Lauderdale. While rushing our trip and finding the cheapest possible flight tickets, we missed reading (if it was written anywhere) that Spirit airlines charges for a carry-on. Spirit company made us pay $50 per carry-on, from there to Puerto Rico. We even thought not to pay it, and just go through the security.

“But what if they don’t let us go or make us pay even more?” my roommate panicked.

As two Bosnian girls with proper manners taught at home, we didn’t allow ourselves anything illegal or shameful. So we paid the fee.

When we arrived to our gate, we realized that if someone tried to trick the company as we wanted, the price at the gate would be a $100 for a carry-on. Unbelievable. We decided not to stress about the additional unplanned spending on our tiny suitcases and to instead enjoy the flight. We arrived safely to San Juan. My roommate’s friend from architecture class picked us up and dropped us off in front of the supermarket, where we met with our host.

An Indian, middle-aged professor was our seemingly kind and gracious host. However, his fatherly, rumpled appearance masked his difficult personality. His smile, which at first appeared welcoming, soon bordered on obnoxious. On the way to the apartment, he explained to us how things worked.

“So giRls, I want you to know that I pRefer Japanese style in my apaRtment, so no shoes inside please,” he said, unnaturally annunciating every “r.”  “We can shaRe everything, and I can show you aRound.”

The more he praised his apartment, the more suspicious we became.

“This is going to be great,” I told my roommate with a fake enthusiasm, hiding my fear and a strong feeling that something was terribly wrong.

Despite the beautiful, rich area with luxury buildings, giant hotels with fountains in front and expensive shiny cars, as well as our apartment being in a huge skyscraper by the sea, our suspense rose as we entered the building. The apartment was on the 12th floor. As soon as he opened the door, there was much to see. I almost got a heart attack. And I’m not even exaggerating.

The very strong stink of the shoes dispersed all over the floor and humidity from the walls reminded me of those messy basements in old buildings. As I looked straight ahead, I realized it was a one-bedroom apartment. A one-bedroom apartment, for a grown man and two college girls. Our discomfort was palpable.

“What did I sign us up for, for god’s sake,” I panicked to myself. “What kind of a hole is this?”

My roommate and I looked desperately at each other, disappointed, stressed out, and scared. As the host was explaining where things are in the apartment, neither of us could listen, but stare at the place, shocked.

The apartment was artificially divided into two rooms, not by a wall or plasterboard, but by a closet and a piece of sheet creating a division in the middle, where the TV would normally go. The host was going to sleep on the couch on one side, while we were to sleep in the bed on the other side of the closet.

On the left side of the hallway, a little kitchen overflowed with dirty dishes, disposable plastic cutlery, overfilled trash bags, and expired food cans in the fridge. All kinds of weird bugs, bigger and smaller, green, and black strolled in the sink.

“Oh, boy, how am I going to tell this to my parents, my brother, and my boyfriend?” I asked myself hysterically, walking in front of the window.

“Well, dad, we slept in the same room with a strange older man, whose apartment we booked online. But don’t worry. He’s nice,” I became sarcastic, on the edge of tears because of the whole mess.

I just hoped we both get out of that alive and safe. No privacy, no separate room, no nothing. At that point, I realized that a “shared room” on Airbnb doesn’t mean sharing a room with your friend, but with your host. What a great way to find that out.

The bathroom, with its poor lighting was even smaller than the kitchen. The kind of stink you would smell in the restroom of a gas station in the middle of nowhere, we could smell in his bathroom. It only implied the presence of bacteria, parasites and all kinds of potential infections, attacking two sensitive females like ourselves. The chrome sink had barely any soap on the side. The tub’s drain, clogged with hair left from the two previous guests, lurked behind a moldy and waterlogged curtain.

Our host seemed to have a different definition of “clean, new sheets” than we did. They were literally new and unwashed. As I tried to remove the old, dusty sheet to put on the new one, I realized that there were three layers of sheets underneath. It means he never bothered to wash anything. He would just buy new ones and put them on the top. Well, that explained the absence of a washing machine in the apartment.

Luckily, I have that good habit of bringing my pillowcase wherever I travel, so my roommate and I both slept on one pillow, huddled like two sad kittens in a thunderstorm. We used the towels we brought as blankets, and we laughed so much at what we were experiencing. It was a thin line between the edge of despair and anger on one side, and humor on the other.

The only bright spot in the apartment was the exotic, tropical view through the window, similar to one you would normally see in Hollywood films, complemented by the pools in the back area of the building, beach right next to it and beautiful palms swinging in the wind. That evening was the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen.

The trick, however, was just not to turn around. Otherwise, I would have to face the reality of that apartment and the fact that we were all sharing the same room.

I took the picture of that stunning window-view and sent it to my brother. Then I called him and explained everything. As always, he was supportive and told me not to worry. I felt relieved and told my parents and my boyfriend what happened.

After a sleepless, hot night, my roommate and I started our Puerto Rico adventures. The best part of the trip and the most valuable memories are of course those spent out of the room. Our strategy was to leave the room early every morning and come back late in the evening. We would stop by quickly during the day to take a shower and rest, while the host was at work.

The adventures in the four days of our stay were quite diverse. One day, we explored the old town of San Juan and wandered around little streets, among colorful houses left from the Spanish influence. We ate traditional sweets that very much reminded us of our Bosnian ones. The desserts were our break from buying nice souvenirs in the tiny, overcrowded shops. We walked for eight hours straight that day, sitting only when we had to grab something to eat.

The next day we went with our friend to the ranch at her vacation house. The climaxlimax of the day was riding a horse for the first time. It was a beautiful, white, muscular horse trained for competitions in sophisticated walking. He had a specific way of walking, making only little steps like a pretentious lady, while heavily shaking both his body and ours. None of us had the guts to ride the horse without the trainer holding and directing him. That was already scary enough.

The author on her perilous ride

On the way back, our friend took us to the restaurant, and we tried some authentic dishes from Puerto Rico, such as plantain arañitas and tostones relleños. We actually ended up drinking that piña colada at the untouched beach, sheltered from the tourists.

Our tropical rain forest experience mirrored almost all of our excursions outside of our accommodation. In other words, it was heavenly. During our long walk, I stopped and “smelt the roses,” as the saying goes. The beautiful leaves, flowers, and trees, most of which I had never seen before, amazed me. I felt almost like we were walking on sacred ground, as we stepped lightly, with small steps, taking care not to disturb the forest. Slippery and steep, our journey was as challenging as it was beautiful. However, any difficulty was a small price to pay in order to see the waterfalls.

The worst part was gathering the strength to come back to the apartment after an amazing and joyful day. We barely had any sleep. The sheets still bothered us, and the overall impression was so negative that we thought of leaving the apartment. It was hard to find anything affordable in that area, plus all the apartments were booked far in advance. Asking our friend was also not an option. We didn’t want to disturb the time with her family. Well, we got what we paid for.

The climax of our poor travel planning and housing issues we experienced was when the bathroom flooded. My roommate flushed the toilet, and it started coming from underneath the seat. The whole bathroom was under water, as well as some parts of the room. Our host was very upset, and he had to call the plumber.

Almost as traumatizing as toilet water permeating into our sleeping space was our host’s behavior. His anger, at us rather than the systemic problems with his apartment, was undeserved, unnecessary and wholly uncomfortable. Fleeing his bluster and rage, the two of us left the room rapidly and came back in the evening, hoping the water was gone. The host waved a $100 receipt in our faces, almost saying we should pay one half.

“There is no way we’re giving him additional dollar for this place, which is already falling apart,” I told my roommate.

We were at a loss – how were the apartment’s copious structural flaws our fault? Nothing worked in that apartment, and as the host told us before, the same thing happened to the two of his previous guests.

Despite the circumstances, we couldn’t help but laugh. Our host’s anger and the fact he had to pay $100 felt like a little revenge for what we had to go through.

In a way, we were grateful that we ended on a low note. The trip would have been a true disaster if the plumber came on day one. Final goodbyes were awkward on the last morning. Avoiding eye contact, my roommate quickly left the room, like the road runner from the cartoon with Wile E. Coyote. If anything, I was sure we would never come back.

The flight home felt respite from our most recent trauma. Our return to school felt like a vacation from our vacation. We came back to our daily obligations and busy student life at the University of Florida in Gainesville with gratitude. Tired from the trip and upset about additional $50 for a carry-on on the way back, we shared our impressions and heartily laughed about everything we had experienced.

While it certainly wasn’t relaxing, our vacation was exhilarating. It showed our mettle in the face of adversity. Forced into this lodging situation, we responded in the only way we knew how: avoiding the apartment as much as possible, living it up on the outside, and focusing on our friendship. In anything, misery loves company, and on this vacation I was grateful to have my best friend.

The author and her roommate

DOs and DON’Ts for vacations

  • Do plan in advance your trip — To avoid my experience of rushing everything in the last moment and not having enough time to properly research and make the best options, take your time and plan in advance. It could save you from some unpleasant experiences.
  • Do ask around how certain accommodation companies, such as Airbnb, work — Understanding the terminology the company uses might be crucial for you in order not to make the same mistake of booking the shared room, if you don’t feel comfortable with it.
  • Do read the policies of flying companies — Even when some policies might be common and obvious for every company, there are always exceptions. In order to avoid paying additional $100 for a carry-on or any other unpleasant surprise, make sure to read about the policies prior to booking your flight.
  • Do read the reviews on the accommodation websites — It is not enough to see the picture of the room and a nice description the owner has left. Make sure to see what experiences the people really had before making your final accommodation decision.
  • Don’t hesitate to write a complaint about any service provider or particular conditions — Neither my roommate nor I had the courage to write how our accommodation really was. Our impressions would probably save the other people from going through the same experience and living under unbearable conditions.
  • Don’t bring only the exact amount of money your estimation costs –— If you can, always have some extra money for any kind of emergency situation. In my case, if we had enough money, we wouldn’t doubt of changing the apartment and paying for the new one.