The Semi-Adventures of a Nomadic Mathematician Rotating Header Image

Not Renting an Apartment

Having developed a supernatural dislike for property agents, I figured that not renting an apartment could also be an option for solving my need for a shelter. Most of such solutions are not of the permanent type, I usually shamelessly abused the short- or medium-term kindness of my friends, but bunking at somebody else’s place is almost always an exciting experience.

My best non-rental option in Singapore was a balcony. I camped on a balcony belonging to the apartment of a bunch of my friends on countless occasions, sometimes for weeks. It was the loveliest balcony in the history of balconies. It was so big we could have reared peacocks or small cows there, although I never ventured to propose this great idea. Perhaps I said something about bunnies, but nobody listened. The apartment was fairly close to the sea, so there was always a nice breeze to ventilate my brain. There was never a balcony I loved so much. The only problem was that I had to share it with my friends to whom it rightfully belonged. Since they were all notorious night owls who loved to hang out on their wonderful balcony, I rarely managed to go to sleep at the hour I desired, and frankly I consider 9pm very late. The fame of the balcony reached far, and sometimes I had to compete for bunking there with a management consultant, who, when in town, also preferred staying there, but unlike me, he was not exactly compact. He marked his territory very much like a dog, except he spread his things all over the balcony instead of leaving traces of urine at inappropriate places. Maybe he did that too, but I never caught him doing so. Management consultants are capable of all sorts of evil doings.

Sometimes I found myself expelled from my balcony paradise, either voluntarily or involuntarily. Once I ended up in a gigantic flat  in a condominium, which stood vacant with the rent paid. I never entirely understood the situation, but I had the whole place to myself, and I enjoyed not making use of it. I did not use the swimming pools, I did not use the gym, and I did not hit on the expat girls who apparently never had anything to do but bask in the sun and make me drool.

An HDB being craned together

Semi-ready apartments make perfect dwellings for PhD students.

On another occasion, my friends’ built-to-order apartment was just finished in a high-rise government development. They did not want to move in until they painted the place, inserted the lightbulbs, and fitted the unit with all sorts of necessities they did not actually need. They were aware of my permanent accommodation crisis, and they offered me to stay in the empty apartment until they got it fixed up. I gratefully accepted and moved right in. Who cares about lightbulbs when I have the best caving-grade headlight?, so I thought. My stay started fine, there was electricity in the plugs, I hooked up with some kind of a wireless network after some hacking, and I was moved in as far as I was concerned. There was one thing I failed to take into account. It was not just this apartment that was recently finished, but the entire building. I was the only resident in a sixteen-storey tower with a total of sixty units. What happens to empty buildings in Singapore? They immediately become haunted. Singapore has the highest number of ghosts per capita. They even have their own festival, the hungry ghost festival, when people burn hell money to transfer hard cash to their deceased relatives. When these well-off, middle-class ghosts get tired of playing mahjong in the afterlife, they haunt impoverished PhD students in empty apartment buildings. I did not sleep a bit on the first two nights. I was scared out of my wits by the incessant slapping of doors, sometimes in my very own apartment; there was not even a slight breeze, mind you. I wondered what the ghosts were up to during the day, because they only commenced their haunting business after ten in the evening. Maybe they were meeting the fresh dead who were looking for a unit of hell to rent, charging arbitrarily large amounts for their services. By the third night I figured what to do: I had noise-isolating earphones, and if I listened to salsa at a relaxing volume, I only felt the floor shaking as the doors were slapped, but I did not hear a thing. I slept like a log from then on.

Not willing to rent an apartment can land you at rather strange locations. I arrived in Rio de Janeiro during the carnival, which meant that every single nook in the city was filled with people from all over the globe. They were at various stages of being inebriated and they were also at various stages of being entangled with one another. My task was to find a place to stay for the next five weeks, and it was not quite easy to do in that pulsating, intertwined swarm of human flesh. Eventually I spotted a somewhat quirky classified on craigslist that lured potential tenants to a favela not far behind Copacabana. I lived long enough, so I thought, and I dialled the number. We fixed the meet up outside a café.

View from Chapéu-Mangueira favela towards Corcovado

Jesus sometimes popped out from behind the mountain to check on the favelas

The owner came on time. He was a post-middle age fellow, whom I judged to be either a retired drug dealer or a self-appointed missionary who converted savages to the true faith by yelling nasty things about Satan&Co. I was not very far from the truth. The entrance to the favela was impossible to spot. It was a thirty-centimetre wide dark alley between two seven-storey residential buildings. Not the kind of dark alley I would enter on my own whim. The alley widened a bit, then a steep flight of steps followed for about a hundred meters up, right up to the favela of Chapéu-Mangeuira. He guided our way through tangled streets which were hardly wide enough for the two of us. On the upside, the width of the streets, the frequent switchbacks, and the occasional stairs made the whole maze accessible only on foot, so it was a very quiet neighbourhood. We arrived to his house, an illegal construction of approximately π floors, right across a pub that was probably not operating on a license. I was not certain whether the reinforced concrete pillars hold the bricks together or the other way around. My spot was accessible from the π-th floor, which was even more unfinished than the others, but a home-made ladder led up to the “roof top”, a more or less even concrete surface with a tent on it. I immediately fell in love with the structure. We talked for a bit, and he allowed me to dwell in the tent for a while if I fixed his wifi. I moved right in.

The guy himself stayed on the π-th floor. His room was brilliant. He had a huge metal door for entrance, with bolts and locks, but the wall that was facing the sea was completely missing. He said he liked the view. The only person who had a better view in the entire of Rio de Janeiro was me. My tent was technically the highest point in the neighbourhood. I could see well above the houses of Leme and see the entire length of the beach of Copacabana. On a clear day, I could see Jesus popping out from behind the mountain, standing tall on Corcovado. On a non-clear day, I was allowed to forget about all the redemption business and think about the lovely girls who frequented the beach below. I fixed up the wifi, so I had network access right in my comfy tent. The owner was some kind of a spiritual leader of the community, preaching every now and then.  When he was not preaching, he smoked up and played his guitar. We got along quite well. My only grievance was that each time I had to take a leak, I had to go down the damned ladder.

Later when I finally bothered to get involved with Couchsurfing, it became much easier to score a vacant couch, but, given the nature of Couchsurfing, always just for a couple of days. Once, however, I got an entire room to surf in for one whole month. Moreover, it happened in a country where Couchsurfing was banned by law. Uzbekistan is not quite known for its liberal attitudes. Visitors to the country must stay in hotels with appropriate licenses and they have to collect little stamped certificates to prove past stays. You must carry your bundle of certificates with you at all times, should you stumble upon a zealous policeman. Considering that over fifty per cent of the population is employed by the police, encountering an officer is not at all uncommon. Naturally, private persons cannot issue such certificates, so technically Couchsurfing is not legal. Citizens of the country, however, are extremely eager to host foreigners, as this means a very rare opportunity to practice English and have an insight on the world from this otherwise wonderfully isolated country. The solution to the problem is ingenious: you bribe a cheap hotel to give you certificates for a couple of dollars a day, but you actually stay at a private person’s apartment.

Council estate in Tashkent

Swell Soviet-style housing estate with an Uzbek flavour

The neighbours can still report you to the police. When I arrived to the place, they quickly smuggled me in, so that the neighbours would not notice. My hosts for a month were a single mother with a teenager girl. It was a tiny ground floor apartment with two rooms. I got the girl’s room, while the two of them moved to the living room/bedroom #2/dining room. Two cats inhabited the kitchen, but only when they needed either love or food, usually the latter. To avoid drawing attention to myself, we always had to keep quiet when we came and went. I was not even allowed to say добрый день in the vicinity, my phenomenal accent would have given me away.

Apart from the permanent fear from police checks, we got along spectacularly. The mother spoke about ten words in English, which was about five times larger than my Russian vocabulary. Cable services were absent in that part of the world. I got two gigabytes of internet traffic for about twenty dollars on my local SIM card. The sum was outrageous by local standards, but it was a ridiculously good deal for me, and the 3G service was almost half-decent in Tashkent. When the girl was not around to interpret, we used Google Translate to communicate.

I adored the family, but the greatest advantage of the cosy home showed when I fell sick. I got one of the nastier sorts of the common cold and was bed bound for two weeks. The mother planted chopped garlic all over the flat. I told her that I was tortured by a virus, not a vampire, but she insisted on garlic. On my reluctance to take medicine, she came up with this idea that I should drink vodka mixed with honey, and she delved into some secret location of the flat to retrieve the family vodka. I had much Google Translating to do to get the idea across that I did not drink alcohol. She had a hard time accepting that a man did not drink, it was unimaginable in Uzbekistan.

Abandoned condominium development in Reykjavik

The half-finished condo where I did not squat.

As much as I always wanted to, I never tried squatting, occupying an abandoned building. The closest I got was in Iceland. The booming economy spawned a large number of completely unnecessary property development project on the island, one of them was a skyscraper-style condominium big enough to accommodate the entire population. The construction came to an abrupt halt when the economy crashed. Now this skyscraper looms over Reykjavík like an ever-visible evil presence. One fine night my mate, who just started a car-rental business there, and myself attempted to enter the building and succeeded. The success did not depend on me, of course. My friend had excellent ninja skills. He managed to climb in through an open door on a first-floor balcony, and open the door on the ground floor for me. The staircase was unfinished, there was no railing, but we could ascend to the top floor, where the penthouse would have been. The electric plugs were already there, but the sanitation department was scant. The terrace had fantastic views of the city. We were making plans how to permanently occupy this piece of prime real estate. I left Iceland for good on the following day, and when he went back to make himself more comfortable, security measures were already in effect. Open-minded as the Icelandic society is, even they would not let a fledgling nihilist squat alone in an entire skyscraper.

Comments are closed.