How I Stayed with Strangers and Lived to Tell About It

I am among the more than 4 million users who are a member of the hospitality exchange website couchsurfing.org.

I will admit that I was initially tempted by the allure of free accommodation but when I started to actually fill out my profile I realized that CouchSurfing was really about interactive cultural exchanges. CouchSurfing is not just something you do on a whim when you have run out of money, for many people it is a way of life and travel. If individuals are going to open their homes to strangers, it is only courtesy for those surfing to embrace the opportunity to learn first hand about another culture through the eyes of a local. Therefore, I wrote my profile carefully so that I would present a genuine view of myself as a traveler and guest.

My CouchSurfing Profile

How did this all come about, you say? I am a 20-year-old university student who somehow was fortunate enough to study abroad. I surfed in Europe while I was studying in Prague. I have surfed with chefs and social workers, free spirits and conservative types, university students and retirees, young and old, and men and women of all nationalities and ethnicities. I have slept on couches, mattresses, floors (some more comfortable than others), and even the host’s own bed (they gave it up when space was crowded).

I began my couchsurfing venture in Paris. I somehow convinced several of my other travel companions to CouchSurf with me as well. There were 5 girls in total and we stayed at a flat with 5 French chefs.   They were gracious and willing enough to host all of us even though none of us had ever surfed before. Later I learned that our hosts have hosted more than one thousand individuals since they started hosting a year and a half ago.  At our host’s home I met a Brazilian flight attendant and a German Uni student; we formed fast friendships.  We swapped travel stories, life anecdotes, and even at times got lost in translation. Our hosts made us feel completely at home. They even showed us their culinary skills by cooking us a lovely meal on our last night in their home. Needless to say after the overwhelming positive first experience, I was hooked.

CS in Paris

New CouchSurfing Friends in Paris.

I started spreading the notion of CouchSurfing to my friends and suddenly I had created a trend amongst my study abroad group.  All of a sudden students in my classes would ask me for advice in filling out their profiles, finding good hosts, and other miscellaneous information as if I was a CouchSurfing expert. While I humbly told them my reasoning for CouchSurfing, I politely encouraged others to do so as well as long as their intentions were pure and about getting to know individuals from other cultures.

When I tell people that I CouchSurf, I hear the usual, “You are brave to be staying with strangers,” or “Aren’t you worried about safety?”  Yes, CouchSurfing involves everything your parents told you to avoid during childhood. Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t meet people you talk to online. And certainly, do not stay with those strangers.  However, I have found that the nature of successful travel in general requires one to step outside their comfort zone. Instead of simply stepping outside the box, why not simply banish it?  This is what CouchSurfing does. It expands traditional travel to create more unique and genuine cultural experiences. It redefines travel.

In response to safety concerns, I simply respond it is as much of a risk to those who open their homes to strangers as it is for those staying. Thus, in the manner of friendly international relations it is both parties best interest to be cordial and polite.  (On a personal note, I am not reckless and am aware that a traveler needs to be smart, but I do think that Americans can be more paranoid than the average person. I simply chose to be a practical traveler who believes that there are good people in the world who are not automatically out to get you).

To those not fully convinced yet, the website itself enables a few methods that allow more concrete standards for safety. First, there is the vouch feature, which allows someone who has been vouched for three times to vouch for other members who they know or met through couchsurfing and trust. Secondly, an individual can pay 25 USD to have their address identified by receiving a letter in the mail with a code that can be entered online to secure their identity and location. Lastly and more importantly, references are the best way to gage a possible host or surfer. It is customary after a CouchSurfing encounter to leave a reference either negative or positive to let others know about the individual as a guest or host. It is exactly like reviewing a hostel on hostelbooker.com or leaving any feedback on trip advisor. When scouting for a possible host I would examine the reviews and make a judgment call based on the reviews.  Every time I surfed, my hosts have completely lived up to their positive reviews and I have found this feature to be the most reliable and best tool in choosing a prospective host.

If you think of it, CouchSurfing is simply a modified version of the old practice of crashing with a friend of a friend.  Social networking has clearly enhanced this tested and true method of accommodation by allowing it to be all on online and with a greater network of friends.

When I finally get back to the States I plan on opening my apartment to CouchSurfers. Since I am not traveling it will be a great way to get a taste of the world in my own home while my wings are temporarily clipped.  People and culture is what travel is all about. These are the pillars of CouchSurfing and I cannot stress enough the positive effects of this unique way to travel.

I close this piece with a brief list of some of the lessons that I have learned while CouchSurfing and a few handy tips. They may seem simple and obvious to some, but you would be surprised that this unassuming advice is not always heeded.

1.)Politeness still matters.

In many situations, it seems that manners have become a lost art and informality has taken their place. I am not suggesting acting like you are dining with the Queen at teatime; however, it is better to be overly polite. Customs around the world differ and while it is impossible to know the ways in every host country, acting in a polite manner will often benefit you until you learn the local customs.  Also, I always like to give my host a small thank you gift as a token of my gratitude for letting me stay.

2.) Be OPEN Minded

You will meet all walks of life when you CouchSurf. You will hit it off with some of the people you meet and some will rub you the wrong way. However, it is necessary to remain open minded in order to get the full experience.  If you are open minded, you will never be disappointed.

3.) You don’t have to agree on everything but respect others and all opinions.

This goes hand in hand with the 2nd one, but again it is important enough to be stressed. In Porto, Portugal, my host took me to dinner with one of his buddies who also had CouchSurfers. These surfers happened to be an older French couple and two twenty something French drifters. My host was an older former businessman who had worked and lived all over the world. While he was very polite and respectful of others’ opinions, his friend’s surfers decided to embroil him in a heated political debate about the Middle East.  While I am the first to revel in a good political debate, this went out of hand and the debate began a battle of religious ideology. Needless to say, it damaged relationships and really was unnecessary. Remember, you don’t have to see eye on everything, but you should respect the differences.

4.) Food is an important way to break the ice.

Yes, the cliché that food brings people together remains true especially when you CouchSurf. A nice way to get to know your host on your first day is to make a dinner for them. While it is not a rule of Couchsurfing, it often clues your host that you really are grateful for them hosting and allows good discussion over something that all people do: eat.  If your host cooks for you, offer to help. (This may seem like simple manners but believe me I have seen people awkwardly stand there while the host does all the cooking when all he really wanted was a hand chopping up some vegetables).  If your host takes you out to a local restaurant, try the cuisine. It may not be your cup of team but by making the effort to try the local dish you are making a statement that you appreciate their culture. No one says you have to enjoy everything you try, but trying new things is important.

5.) Keep in touch.

You never know who you will meet when you Couchsurf.  Some individuals you meet may be your friends for life and some may be merely acquaintances.  By putting the extra effort to keep in touch, it can lead to an amazing global network that may surprise you in the future. For instance, one of my hosts has multiple residences and has offered me to stay with him in Brazil and Morocco simply because I maintained in contact with him.  I have been invited to my first French hosts’ birthday parties time and time again and hopefully one day I will be able tot take him up on their offer.

6.) Leave the place better than you found it.

It is someone’s home after all.  Unlike a hotel or even a hostel, there is not cleaning service or maid to clean up after you. Treat the space with care and even better perhaps clean up a bit for the next guests. In Paris, one of the other surfers had a bit too much to drink and was sick all over the bathroom one night. Our host was then forced to clean up the entire mess. It was not only awkward for the surfer, but also for the host. Please clean up after yourself, and take care of the space.

7.) Let your host show you around.

I know that often you have your own plans when you stop in a new city. I know that I always had a short must see list written down. However, if your host takes the time to show you around, take advantage of it.  In Brussels, on my first night after a long bus ride my host took me to a bar to meet other local surfers and hosts. I was reluctant to go at first because I simply wasn’t in the mood. However, out of politeness I went, thankfully I did. Not only did the bar have a groovy attitude and splendid cider, but I also met so many wonderful people from all over Europe, two who were were official translators for the European Union headquarters.  In Portugal, my host gave me a tour of the entire city, and he even took me to free Port wine tastings. Talk about a night out!! Trust your hosts and their advice of their hometowns. At the same time if there is something you are dying to see or do, simply tell your host and I am sure they will be more than happy to take you there.

8.) At the same time, your hosts are not travel guides.

As great as it is to have a host that can show you around, not all hosts have flexible schedules that allow them to do so. Hosts are after all everyday individuals who have to work just like the rest of us. They cannot simply drop their responsibilities to show you around. Don’t get bent out of shape if you were expecting the grand tour of the city. Ask your host for a few places to see and head out on your own.  I had a few friends who tried CouchSurfing and when I asked them how it went they shared their disappointment with how their host was unable to show them around like they initially thought.  Each CouchSurfing experience is unique.  Some hosts may be able to show you around and some may not, but both are sill valuable experiences–just in different ways.

9.) Communication is key.

The most important thing you can do to avoid any unpleasant encounters is really just to communicate. The worst thing that a surfer can do is to just tiptoe around an issue.  If there is something really bothering you, bring it up tactfully. More often than not, your host will be glad that you communicated the issue and move past it.  There is nothing worse than the elephant in the room. Communicate with your host as best you can language barrier and all.

10.) Make the best of your situation.

I can go on and on about the benefits of CouchSurfing until the cows come home, but whether you like it or not is completely up to you. I encourage all to try it, but I cannot guarantee that it is necessarily the way to travel for you.  Thus, if it is fantastic, if not that’s fine too. Either way make the best of any situations, because for everything that is going wrong on your trip there will be a millions things that will go right and completely erase any small mishap you may have encountered. And in the off chance that your CouchSurfing experience isn’t everything you thought it would be, you at least have an entertaining story to tell your friends. After all even when things go to hell, they end up being the best stories. 

To this day, some of my best memories are from the places where I CouchSurfed during my months living in Europe.  So if you have a wandering soul like me and love travel because it opens your world to new people and culture, I whole-heartedly suggest giving CouchSurfing a chance.  I cannot promise you that every experience will be perfect and that all your hosts will be courteous and welcoming. You may have that one awkward or uncomfortable encounter.  However, I also cannot promise you that every hostel will be clean and bed bug free or that every hotel will be worth the pretty penny that you pay for it Couchsurfing may not necessarily be your thing, but you won’t know until you give it a chance. Travel is all about taking risks, and with a little bit of luck and an open mind you can enhance your travel by being bolder than the rest.

Cairns: A Journey to the Great Barrier Reef

Another item on my Australian bucket list was to see the Great Barrier Reef. Initially, I was going to go earlier in my stay in Australia because I wanted to go during the best weather season. However ticket prices were quite high and a bit more than I had budgeted for. My friend Karissa also desperately wanted to go so we decided to wait for a later date when tickets were less expensive.  We had heard that that the weather is usually nice most of the year so we would not have to worry about that when we decided to book our tickets.

One of the easiest and most popular places to see the reef is Cairns. It is located way up north in Queensland and the town itself is nothing spectacular but it has many deals to get out the reef that are fairly affordable (at least for Australia). They also have Green Island, which is a small little island right on the edge of the inner reef where they have daytrips. This is what we had planned to do because we wanted to stay an entire day on basically a private island (only the tour groups and staff inhabit the island).   Eventually I want to be a licensed scuba diver and I intend to go back and dive in the outer reef where it is the most beautiful.

To say that the weather was not the most pleasant would be a serious understatement.  The receptionist at our hostel said that usually the weather is like paradise. Naturally we were there the 4 days that it was a monsoon. We did not let the foul weather stop us. We looked up the forecast and booked a tour to the Great Barrier Reef on the day that it wouldn’t rain but was supposed to be overcast. We decided that we would not let it bother us, and honestly even though the weather could have been more ideal the experience was still very worthwhile.

First day in the downpour.

Needless to say the other days that we did not have solid plans were not the most exciting. We spent a lot of time chilling at the hostel, chatting and reading which actually was quite enjoyable. It was a nice time to get away from the stress of schoolwork even if it was just for a weekend.  One of the special things that I did get to do was hold a koala, twice actually.  Another item on my Aussie bucket list was to hold a koala.  Ignorantly I assumed that you could do this anywhere in Australia, but you are only allows contact with koalas in certain states. It is illegal to hold koalas in Victoria and New South Wales both states I had already been too, the former being my home.  Therefore after we booked our ticket to Cairns in Queensland, we knew that we had to find somewhere to hold koalas.  There was a separate animal park that allowed you contact with koalas but due to the foul weather we wanted to find someplace closer and more convenient. The casino complex in Cairns, which also housed a swanky hotel on the top, had a dome zoo. They allowed animal lovers such as us to hold and take a photograph with a koala.  Thus, the first day we headed there and held Tim Tam, a young female koala. There was also Harvey a much older male koala that you could hold, but they rotated on and off duty every other day.  We decided that we also wanted to hold Harvey, so we went back the next day as well.

Here’s Harvey!!!

Other than hanging out in the hostel in true backpacker fashion, holding koalas, we also walked around the town a bit, went to one of the local restaurants called the Wool Shed  (popular with tourists as they offer several deals), an then sat down by the pier. You would think that being on the ocean, Cairns would be a hotspot for beach vacationers. However, Cairns itself does not have its own proper swimming beach, but there are many resorts such as Palm Cove nearby that have beautiful tropical beaches.  They do have an esplanade and public lagoon, which is quite pretty and nice weather permitting.

Town Center.

On Saturday, the day I had been excitedly awaiting for months arrived. We got up early with our bags full of extra clothes, snacks and a beach towel. We boarded the boat and were in for a rather rough 45 minutes to Green Island.  While it was not raining, the water was quite choppy and it was rather windy. Once we got to the pier Karissa and I hung around because we had also booked a glass bottom boat tour of the reef. Even with the rough water, which made the water a green color instead of the usual crystal blue because it pulled up grass and sand from the bottom, we were able to see hundreds of massive fish and many different kinds of coral. I was beside myself that I was actually viewing such a fascinating living organism. After the glass bottom boat, we went to a shop to pick up our snorkeling gear and we rented wetsuits due to the cold weather.  It was a little difficult to see things because of the rough waters, but we did see some of the reef.  After we spent some time frolicking in the Coral Sea, and spotting some fish and coral, we headed in and explored the island. For the afternoon we spent it lounging on the beach, taking in the sights, and walking through the small rainforest in the center of the island.  Even though we had already changed out of our swimsuits, I realized that this would be my last beach in Australia so I just had to have one more swim. It was a bit chilly, but I jumped in the sea with some of my clothes on and Karissa joined me. People walking by on the beach kept asking us if the water was cold as I am sure they thought it was a bit strange that we had jumped in without wetsuits and in our clothes. Ah well- the life of the free spirit!!! We didn’t want to leave, but we needed to catch the boat back to Cairns so that we could pack for our fight the next day.

Karissa and I snorkeling!

A Turtle!!

Overall, despite the rainy weather I had a lovely time in Cairns. It was a great getaway and I cannot wait to back in the peak of summer hopefully with a diver’s certificate so I can travel up and down the coast exploring the Reef.

Cheers!!

P. Sherman 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney

I finally made it to Sydney. This was the one place besides the Great Barrier Reef that I had to go before leaving Australia. Ever since I watched the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics in 2000, I knew that I had to visit.  This was also cemented with the release of the film, Finding Nemo, which gave every child the idea of visiting Sydney and the imaginary P. Sherman 42 Wallaby Way hence the title of this post.

We arrived at night and trekked with our bags across Hyde Park and saw St Mary’s Cathedral. It really is more gorgeous at night, but then again I am just partial to cities at night. Even in the first few minutes of being in Sydney, I immediately felt a difference between Sydney and Melbourne.   There is a continued rivalry stemming back from when Melbourne was the Australia capital from 1901 to 1927 before Canberra was basically built for the sole purpose of solving the problem of where to house the capital between the two cities.  But, alas, I will write another post on that predicament.   This was the first time leaving Victoria and it really made me appreciate the “Garden State.”

We had a bit of a love hate relationship with our hostel. Now, I have stayed in a lot of hostels from some of the nicest in New Zealand to some that were atrocious in Madrid, but this one holds a particularly special place in my heart (note the sarcasm). It was neither the loudest or dirtiest hostel I have stayed in, but nonetheless our stay less than pleasant. The worst part was not the fault of the hostel itself but of the particular guests in our room. It was apparent that they had been staying in Sydney awhile because their stuff was all over the entire room. There was no room for our things because their clothes, shoes, books, and toiletries were strewn haphazardly everywhere.  I am always so careful to contain my backpacking mess to my general vicinity because I do not want to crowd anyone. It really can be obnoxious  when you do not have any space (Note to future backpackers, try to keep your things to yourself in hostels as much as possible). However, it was decently priced and in a decent location so I cannot complain too much; I had a bed.  But enough of this, on to the trip…

My friend who was traveling with me is afraid of heights, but she had decided that she would attempt to overcome this by parasailing. I booked parasailing for two over the Sydney Harbor at Manly beach.  Our appointment was not until 2 in the afternoon so we went on a free walking tour of the city to learn about some history of the city. It was a great way to figure out where everything was and get comfortable with the layout, plus our guide was quite animated and funny so it was entertaining.  We ducked out a bit early from the tour because we needed to catch a ferry to Manly. Before I went to Sydney I had no idea about their extensive ferry network despite the fact that I knew that Sydney was built around one of the most famous natural harbors in the world.  It was how I pictured Seattle to be with its ferries (No, I have never been there, it eludes me in my travels thus far, but I have watched enough Grey’s Anatomy to have a picture in my head of Seattle).  We took a ferry to Manly and found our boat that would take us into the harbor for parasailing. I personally love heights, but I was a bit nervous about my friend. We decided to go first so that way she would not have to sit and worry about it. They hitched us up and off we went into the sky. It was so relaxing to just float in the air and take in all the sights of the Harbor. It was truly a beautiful ride. They even dunked us a bit and we got a tad wet. My friend actually loved it and a made a little headway in conquering her fear. Afterwards, we hung around Manly which is an adorable town/suburb, went to the grocery store and bought our dinner of champions rice cakes (bread for Ann the gluten tolerant one), peanut butter, Nutella, apples, and yogurt and ate on the beach. We took the ferry back at sunset, which gave us striking views of the Opera House and Harbor Bridge. Later we hung around the pier, had some ice cream and bought impulse tickets for a performance in the Opera House for the following night.

St. Mary’s & Hyde Park during the day

Sydney Harbor Bridge

Sydney Opera House

Before parasailing

Sunset over Sydney Harbor

The next day we went to the Botanical Gardens, which to be honest were very pretty but not spectacular a label that I use to describe the Melbourne Botanical Gardens. We walked around the harbor a bit to get better views and then went to the Museum of Contemporary Art. I really enjoyed the museum and they were featuring this fascinating piece called The Clock by Christian Marclay which was a 24-hour video project featuring thousands of short film clips that showed a time of day usually in reference to a clock face or watch. I was riveted as I watched his unique sequencing of every minute through video. Even for those who are not great fans of modern art, I think you would find it very interesting and would advise you to check it out if it tours in one of your museums.   The museum is located in an area called The Rocks which actually used to to be one of the rougher areas in Sydney way back when but was gentrified and is a very hip, artsy and wealthy area now filled with shops, pubs and bars. They had an outdoor market while we were there and we enjoyed meandering along the streets and seeing all the local vendors. I fell in love with the area and the shops. I could not help myself and bought my one souvenir from Sydney which were handmade earrings from one of the artists at the market. We also walked across the Harbor Bridge to check out some more views of the city. We ate dinner in Chinatown and headed back to the harbor to go to Macbeth at the Opera House. Now, I love Shakespeare, it is partly due to my love of theater and also my love of British literature (though my real love is Russian Literature). I always refer to Macbeth as the Scottish play or the play that cannot be named (it is bad luck to say Macbeth in a theater during a show run, yes my background in theater comes out now) and I was ecstatic to see it. For my friend Ann, she is Danish and English is not her first language. While, she speaks nearly perfect English I knew that the fast and older style of speaking might be challenging for her so I gave her a brief summary of events so that it would be easier for her to follow.  This production of Macbeth was produced by Bell Shakespeare Theater Company, which is actually Australia’s only touring company, and it was a very modern interpretation of it. Instead of wearing Renaissance style clothing, the aesthetics were very simple and they wore dark jeans and boots.  Aussie actress Kate Mulvany  (she also has a small role in the upcoming film Great Gatsby; I’m so excited for this film) who played Lady Macbeth was the star of the show for me because she  gave a incredible performance.  The Opera House is so massive that it has many different theaters in one. We were in the Drama Theater which was one of the smaller spaces; nonetheless it was an amazing experience and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Exhibit in MCA Sydney

Market at The Rocks

View from the Harbor Bridge

Opera House…another one of the many shots from the Harbor Bridge

Theater where Macbeth was performed in

Sydney Harbor at Night

On our final day together, we wanted to see a bit of nature so we headed to the UNESCO World Heritage listed Blue Mountains. Blue Mountains composed of mostly sandstone plateaus start 60 kilometers west of Sydney and are quite expansive.  It was named Blue because it is densely covered with Eucalyptus trees which when the air temperature rises emit an oil that causes the land to have a blue hue to the human eye. Usually, tourists take a day tour from Sydney that includes round trip bus transport. However, in the spirit of saving money and getting a more local experience I decided to take a local train there. It turned out to be a great choice as we got to see outer Sydney suburbs and the ride to the mountains was quite pretty.  We disembarked our train at the largest town in the mountains, Katoomba. We then walked/hiked to the famous Three Sisters, which are three sandstone towers and admired the majestic views at Echo Point lookout.  There is actually a legend about the sisters. According to the tale three young women from the Katoomba tribe fell in love with with three men from the Nepean tribe from the foothills. Tribal lore prohibited the union, and a battle ensued. A Katoomba witchdoctor turned the women to stone to prevent them coming to harm, but he was killed in the battle and no one else could undo his spell. Hence the three sisters remain in stone overlooking the region. Lastly we headed to the Scenic World, which consists of a cable car, train ride, and skyway all with fantastic views of the mountains. The train ride is actually one of the steepest tracks in the world (if not the steepest) and takes you down a side of the mountain through a rainforest.  The skyway is similar to the cable car but instead of going up the mountain, travels parallel to a deep ravine and boasts a see through floor. All three rides provide great views of the rainforest and mountains and are a perfect way to end or begin a trip in the Blue Mountains.

Three Sisters

Bottom of the Railway

Blue Mountain rainforest

We headed back to Sydney and Ann headed to the airport for a flight that night; she needed to get back to Melbourne for her nursing clinical to start. I said goodbye to her and headed to my new hostel for the night because the one that I was staying in before was booked full.  After I cleaned up, I headed to the harbor for my last night in Sydney. I just simply walked around the Opera House taking in my last views of the beautiful city and harbor.   As much as I loved visiting Sydney, I was happy that I was living in Melbourne because it fits me better. However, Sydney really is a beautiful city and I highly recommend visiting.

Cheers!!