Of all the things that I’d expected to be doing in 2020, video calling a cow was not one of them. As strange a year as it has become, I still wasn’t ready for creature conference calls. As our guide turned the corner into the entrance of a sun-drenched barn, the cow’s extended frothing pink tongue flailed toward the camera in exuberant greeting. I could almost smell the dry hay and sweating dung surrounding it—even though I was more than 5,000 miles away. I was getting a virtual tour of a cow sanctuary in Sonoma, California, live to my living room in London on a Tuesday afternoon. The sanctuary’s owner, Kaileigh, moved her phone camera nearer. The only way I could see a cow more close-up is if I were a vet performing an endoscopy. “We rescued this one from a dairy farm when he was 3 years old, and a local schoolgirl named him Simon Cow-ell,” Kaileigh said.
My visit with Simon Cowell was part of a journey I undertook to complete 80 Airbnb online experiences in a week. Increasingly, I felt a bit like Simon Cowell—the human version—myself. As each experience began, its host launching into it with heartfelt fervor, I felt like an underqualified talent show judge.
My friend Dave and I had been desperately looking for something to fill the travel-shaped void in our lives when we stumbled upon Airbnb’s new offering, in which hosts guide you through online activities from their homes all over the world. Unsure what to expect, we’d tentatively joined a laughter yoga class from Lisbon, Portugal, the week before. A man who had gotten into comedy accidentally because of his name, Thomas Cock, guided us through an hour of laughing exercises: the laughter alphabet, invisible giggling cocktail shakers, laughing our last laugh through a terminal plane crash. The other eight people in our group included several regulars, one of whom was on her seventh session. Afterward, we were both surprised to find there had really been something to it. What that was and whether it was a one-off or not, we were uncertain. And so on Monday morning, we found ourselves embarking on a mad mission to complete 80 online experiences that week to see if any great journey begins with a single click.
We had contacted every experience on the nascent platform and suddenly found our days dizzyingly chockablock. Organizing and attending up to 14 experiences a day left little time for procuring the required ingredients and creative supplies, leading to some seriously improvised arts and crafts and a cremated crêpe attempt. (Milk turns out to be quite a key ingredient.) When I did manage to sneak out to supermarkets still officially for essential shopping only, my hunting for the likes of ladyfingers so as not to let down our Tiramisù World Cup instructor caused befuddlement among my fellow shoppers. If we’d paid the full price, the week could have cost the same as a transcontinental cruise, but when they heard about the project, most hosts—hospitality heroes that they were—happily dropped their prices to facilitate us sampling their webcam wares. Normally, the cost of the experiences ranges from $1 to meet Vincent Van Gogh (as we will later) to $75 for a full explanation of your own hand-painted astrological natal chart, with most coming in around the $10–$20 mark.
Our online expedition began with Dan, a writing coach in Sydney, who couldn’t have been more sold on this new format. “Thanks for helping promote this amazing new way of life,” he said with passion when the session ended. Dan clearly had a real knack for bringing people’s books out of them, but for all his top tips, Dave and I were considerably less sure about the digital delivery. Could anything conveyed through a webcam’s piddling pixels really claim to be a true “experience”? That evening, seven calls later, we clicked the Zoom link expecting a chocolate meditation. Instead, we found ourselves on a suburban Mexican street, camera pointed aimlessly at the azure sky above the picture-book cul-de-sac houses. We assumed there had been a tech glitch and this was some kind of alfresco pocket call. Then, without warning, the camera started a wobbly walk toward one of the identical homes. Its tan-brown door came blearily into focus. As it got closer still, something on the door became clear: a Post-it note. On it in thick black marker capitals was written: “WELCOME JAMES & DAVID.” We were flabbergasted as our hostess Ana led us in. With the fanciest bar of chocolate our supermarkets’ selections offered at the ready, Ana then led us tenderly through extensive chocolate foreplay, which went against everything we’d been taught as children about playing with our food. We touched it, looked at it, smelled it, even listened to it, before finally allowing it to dissolve gradually in our mouths.
Having found my cocoa Zen, I felt like the last thing I needed was a late-night workout, but that was what was next on our itinerary. This upcoming experience was only marginally redeemed in my mind by its brilliantly self-explanatory name: ZUMBA IN PARADISE WITH OLYMPIAN, HAWAII. Joining the link drowsily, such a flood of energy came through from the other side that I’m surprised it didn’t break my laptop. Former Olympic pole vaulter Tomas and his Zumba instructor wife exploded into the routine on their waterside deck, thrusting their arms as if they were on the verge of reaching the source of the copious sunshine flooding the screen, all to a soundtrack so uplifting that it would have had people dancing down in the dumps. Finding myself not just exercising but ecstatic, I ended the workout buzzing more than if I’d just ridden a wave all the way to Hawaii itself and was unable to sleep when it came to bedtime, jet-lagged without having left my living room.
The next day, I indulged in lunchtime red wine and the chocolate cake I’d baked with a Roman mother and daughter who had turned their kitchen into a studio fit for a new Netflix cookery show, complete with Dad on camera duty. I found myself rushing to swap my fresh fondant cake for a yoga mat (and most likely indigestion) for a workout with another Olympian, this time in Belgium. In that moment, I realized that this online trip had entered my travel hall of fame: Even if I’d taken the most rogue routes down the most obscure back alleys of dream destinations, I would have been hard-pressed to have such a heady physical adventure.
Like all the best escapades, not everything went as planned, and getting from one place to another wasn’t always straightforward. One afternoon, having muddled our relentless schedule, I was expecting a gin expert and had readied my tipple and tonic, only to be greeted by a magician who then broke his own Guinness World Record for the most cards identified in one minute. Once, Dave blew off a two-time Judo world champion’s private lesson so that we weren’t late for our appointment with a man in his 40s dressed in a penguin onesie. Another attempted exit saw us held digital hostages, as a Mexican cookery teacher refused to let us leave for our next appointment, an author’s master class, until she’d finished a longwinded anecdote about mezcal and an ambiguous national holiday.
By Wednesday, it felt totally natural that we rose at 5 a.m. for a K-pop dance class live from a shiny roadside studio in downtown Seoul. As I attempted to keep up with our instructor’s seamlessly silky choreography, there was a real risk of me K-popping my shoulder joint. That afternoon, Uluc in New York, who was telling our Turkish coffee fortune, remarked on the clear silhouette of a penguin in the coffee cup and told us that this always, always represents new opportunities. I nodded along studiously. Thinking of my new friend in the onesie, it seemed I’d found myself inadvertently completing a penguin Ph.D.
Not every experience suited its new digital format: A London Chinatown tour and a lecture on Western architecture were particularly dry and one-dimensional. But some unexpected ones worked: forest bathing, a guided outdoor reflection, from rural Portugal with a lady who had unmatched smile stamina left me feeling calm and at one with nature at the start of the day—even though my urban forest consisted of a lone potted plant. Most of the converted tours didn’t work, as they were just a low-fi slideshow recreation of the original. But a Caravaggio one in which we flew between churches over the roofs of Rome with Francesca—thanks to something even Aladdin didn’t have up his sleeve, the magic of Google Maps—allowed us to see more and with greater perspective than we ever could have in a whole day pounding the tourist trail. Dave and I were hooked on the thrill of joining each new call, never knowing quite what lay in store. This feeling was surprisingly adept at filling the missing buzz of the unknown of setting out to discover a new place.
If you judge a great trip on its provision of unforgettable moments, then this week surely qualified. I’ve never felt more privileged by any encounter than the half-hour I got to spend speaking to China’s first sailing Olympic gold medalist Xu Lijia, a human so stirringly inspirational that I began to worry whether you can give a laptop water damage through tears. My inbox filling up with emails from Vincent Van Gogh only hinted at the supreme surreality to come in Van Gogh Find Yourself, a one-on-one encounter with the late artist straight out of a fantasy dinner party answer. Hearing his take on creativity and mental health proved arrestingly emotive. Yoel, a Cuban cigar expert in Miami, not only taught me that tobacco is, in fact, a misnomer that actually refers to a type of shamanistic pipe, but also shared that he’d been surviving the crisis off dwindling freezer food until this newly available income source had allowed him to pay his rent. And I ticked something off my real-world bucket list too: Maeve in Champagne taught me to saber a bottle. The next time an in-person party trick is called for, people had better watch out for flying corks.
As we neared the conclusion of our webcam wanderlust, fatigued from countless laptop laps, it seemed inevitable that the ending would be something of an anticlimax, as is often the case with traditional trips. But for our last call, we found ourselves speaking to Anne Buckle, a country musician descended from Johnny Cash. She’d squeezed us in between virtual songwriting sessions she was running back to back from dawn till dusk from her home studio in Nashville, Tennessee. Hearing about our week, she cracked out a flawless chorus on the spot, including the lines:
It’s been a wild ride ’round the internet
Meeting folks we won’t forget
Once more, we were both gobsmacked. I couldn’t have put it better myself. Sometimes we forget that it’s called the world wide web for a reason and quite how connecting it can be when it’s used as such. Sure, we hadn’t actually been anywhere, but so much of why we travel is about people and experiences more than the actual places themselves. And never before in a week had I met so many people who were so passionate about what they do or sampled such an eclectic array of activities. If we can use tech to ensure that we can work even when we can’t travel for business, it seems only right that we also find ways to use it to explore when we can’t travel for pleasure. As I’m sure Simon Cowell would add if he could say anything more than moo, “It’s a yes from me.”
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.