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.

Panning for Gold

I am currently huddled under covers in my brisk jail cell. Yes, I said it jail cell. NO, I did not commit any unlawful offenses I am simply staying at former prison operating from 1830 to 1999, which was turned into a hostel in Christchurch, New Zealand.  It is by far the wackiest place I have ever stayed at. Coincidentally enough, it is also the nicest hostel I have stayed thus far. The rooms are pristinely clean, the common areas are warm and inviting they have a lot of amenities perfect for backpackers’ needs that other hostels do not have. Plus, the staff has a lot of fun with the whole jail theme as they wear orange shirts with prison numbers. With the exception of the lack of free Wi-Fi (a problem that has plagued me everywhere in Australia and NZ) Jailhouse is the perfect introduction to New Zealand.  I paid for Internet but apparently I have already used the memory already- go figure (I paid for a whole day and it lasted me 3 hours. One of the things I am most looking forward to going back to the States is cheap unlimited internet, none of this 8-10 dollars a day crap). Tales from NZ will come soon.

I finished my last week of classes at Deakin this week and have exams coming up next week. With all this last minute schoolwork, I have yet again neglected catching up from some of my recent exploits.  I am embarrassed to say, but I still have not shared a road trip that I took over a month ago. Fear not, since my Internet has expired, fate is literally forcing me to write some updates.

Where to start? Ah, yes….

After my autumn break, two of my roommates and I went on yet again another road trip. This time it was in the opposite direction towards western Victoria.  Our destination was Ballarat and the Grampians National Park. We wanted to camp again because I just cannot get enough of this fresh Australian air and views of the night sky.

I was chief navigator and luckily for me I inherited my mother’s inner compass and knack for directions.  I did my job quit well, but I cannot say the same for the rest of the group’s skills of remembering essential items. We finally managed to maneuver the diagonal, zigzag, and just plain complicated streets from Burwood to Melbourne’s CBD when I asked if anyone had grabbed the tent. My question was met with blank stares and “I thought you brought it.”  Needless to say, the trip was off to a comical start as usual, but no worries, it’s Australia; nothing bothers the Australians or those of us who currently call Australia home.

We first headed towards Ballarat because we wanted to go to Sovereign Hill, which is a mix of interactive museum and live demonstration village. For any Wisconsin readers, it is like Old World Wisconsin- where every child by the age of 12 has gone to at least twice for field trips to learn all about the history of the state. Ballarat is a city that was founded after gold was discovered in the area. Sovereign Hill is a model of how Ballarat looked like during the Australian Gold Rush. It has models of buildings, streams to pan for gold, tour guides donned in traditional early 19th century garb, farm animals, mine simulation, and much more.  As I always say, I am a bit nerdy, and the history nut really came out, as I was more excited than the dozens of school children there and they get a day off of school.  We learned how to pan for gold, and my friend, Lana actually managed to find a few flecks, which she kept.  If you are doubting the plausibility of there still being gold in the stream, the staff dump gold flecks into the stream everyday for tourists to find when they practice panning.  I was unsuccessful, but then again I always figured that I would do a better job at wearing gold than panning for it.  We spent a few hours in Sovereign Hill, got a history lesson, and also went to a gold museum.

Next, we continued west towards the Grampians.  We knew we were getting close when we saw a gorgeous expanse of forested mountains and hills in the distance.  The sun was setting and we stopped to take in the beauty of the setting sun over the mountains. As always, I am not much of a planner so of course I did not have any real plans once we got there and with the tent mishap we now had to find a place to stay. As I am incredibly money conscious because Australia had drained me of all of my funds, we decided to sleep in the car, which was comical in its own right after hours of shuffling around blankets, bodies, and seats. We did end up getting a pretty relaxing sleep if you can believe it or not.  At one time, there were kangaroos surrounding our car and we just watched them as they lounged and eventually hopped away.

Field of Kangaroos

Almost to the Grampians.

Pit stop. Gotta love Redhead Firelighters

In the morning we hit the Grampians visitor center and picked out a few spots that we wanted to hike to and see. We started with Mackenzie Falls.  We adventurously decided to hike to the bottom of the falls and climb over the safety barriers.  Nothing will happen right? I should have known that I would jinx myself because as I was jumping from one rock to the next, I tripped and fell flat on my face. I instinctually put my hand down to break my fall so that I would not smash my face on the rocks. My sunglasses slid into the water and I lay flat for about a minute. I was shocked more than anything because I am not a klutz (that role belongs to my sister).  I quickly got up, not thinking anything was wrong but then I felt shooting pain right around my thumb to my wrist in the hand that I braced myself with. I could feel a bruise already forming on my knees and my left right shoulder was also sore.  Luckily, my friend Ann is studying nursing and her dad is a doctor so she quickly assessed the damage.  My hand and wrist swelled up quickly and was all purple.  I could not move my wrist or my thumb.  Ann came to the conclusion that it wasn’t broken but I had a deep bruise and strained the muscle that connected the hand to the wrist. Uh OH!!

I didn’t let the mishap stop me, that’s for sure, as I continued jumping on rocks, climbing back up the falls, and then hiking some more in the mountains overlooking various canyons.  I needed a bit of assistance because it was my right hand and I was a bit clumsy with it. However, we spent the rest of the day hiking and seeing all the beautiful views of the Grampians.

The Fall

Mackenzie Falls

This trip was short because we all had work we needed to do before Monday. It was yet again another successful road trip, which provided more fantastic views of Victoria.

Again, I cannot stress enough how beautiful the country is and the best way to see it is by taking a road trip. Regardless of what state or terror you are visiting in Australia, once you get outside the cities, the nature is truly phenomenal.

Cheers!

Bring out the earplugs; it’s race weekend.

This past weekend, the Formula 1 racing season commenced in Melbourne’s Albert Park.  Seen as the pinnacle of racing sports in Australia, the Grad Prix is the oldest surviving motor race in the country and the start of the F1 championship. Guess which redheaded race loving, sports enthusiast was there? Yes. ME.

If you know me, this isn’t really that much of a surprise considering that I follow stock car racing back home. For those of you that don’t, yes, I am a speed junkie. Admitting you watch Nascar automatically gives people incentive to tease you incessantly. I have heard many times, “but you do not seem like the stereotypical fan” ( which really means, that I do not adhere to the stereotypes of a beer chuggin’ redneck that many associate with the sport). Not only do I follow the sport, but I have also attended  multiple races in Indianapolis and loved them every time. Kasey Kahne baby! Granted, Nascar and Formula One are alike as apples and oranges. However, the adrenaline rush, enthusiasm and camaraderie among race fans are nearly identical despite the differences in car models, mileage, speed, and track.

Luckily for me, my two closest friends here are also race fans and wanted to go to just as desperately as I did.  We purchased concession general admission tickets which were fairly reasonable (can I please be a student forever?) and were prepared to make a day of it at the race circuit.

I scoured the city for earplugs which apparently are a rare item because I went to every supermarket  and convenience store in my neighborhood, Kmart, Target, and multiple pharmacies before I found a pair.  I consulted a few people back home who actively follow F1 racing and learned about some of the drivers and made my decision of which team and driver to cheer for.  I decided on team Red Bull and drivers Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber (an Aussie).   They made me quite proud in the end, way to go boys!!

On race day we headed into the city, luckily, due to high race traffic the city set aside trams just to bring passengers to and from the circuit.  We were prepared with folding chairs, snacks, water,  ear plugs and of course cameras. I am a bit of a photography freak so I brought two of my three cameras with me, you never know when you might need more than one.  We toured the grounds, scouting for the perfect spot where we could see the cars zoom by and shopped around for some gear. I settled for a F1 Grand Prix baseball hat because my team’s gear was a bit pricey. When I say a bit, I mean I could buy  10 shirts for the price of the one they were selling. As much as I wanted one, prudence outweighed desire and I decided to make the fiscally responsible choice. Not to mention, I do have a sort of fascination with baseball hats; my collection has since doubled while being here and I wear them all the time.

The grounds were swarmed with people and held a plethora of events and activities celebrating racing and cars in general.  Old race cars as well as other beautiful models lined the paths and it was neat to see cars from all around the world including some classic American muscle cars. I felt like I had stepped foot in a new Fast & Furious movie. We finally found our spot on a slight hill in between turns 10 and 11 which had a perfect view of a straightway.  As the clock ticked down, we admired the fighter jets performing their aerial show and took bets( being poor exchange students, they were more hypothetical bets than anything) on who was going to win. My friend, Ann is F1 obsessed and she was proudly adorned in her Jenson Button t-shirt while she taunted me that Vettel and Webber were going down.

Good thing there was no money on the race, otherwise I would have had to swallow my pride and pay up. Button won, Vettel finished 2nd and Webber just missed the podium by finishing 4th.  The hum of the engines were so loud as the cars zoomed by us. It took me most of the race to take decent pictures because half of them I either clicked too early or late and got an empty track.  I cheered, snapped photos, listened to the announcers, witnessed a partial crash, and finally settled on taking a video of the cars racing by as I was having trouble taking pictures ( I guess my reflexes could use a little work). The energy of the fans were contagious as they rooted on their favorite team and drivers.

When the race was over, unlike in Nascar where they usher you out, they let the patrons walk all the way around the circuit. After celebrating on the track where we were photo-bombed by various crazy Australian guys, we took one last look at the circuit and headed home after a day full of sun, laughs, and excitement.

It was a once in a lifetime experience and I am so glad that I went to my first but certainly not last F1 race. I already checked, they have the US Grand Prix in Texas in November this year. Hmmm…. roadtrip?

Happy Reading!

Circus Here I Come

This past weekend weekend was Labor Day weekend. Its very strange because at home Labor day usually falls around my birthday in September. Of course here though with the reversed seasons, March begins autumn.  Melbourne hosts the annual Moomba festival downtown around this time. It is not only free (words I jump at) but it is also the largest city festival in all of Australia. Baby, I’m there.

We spent the entirety of Saturday down at the festival, enjoyin the food, games, watching water skiing competitions, basking in the gorgeous weather (we had a break from the rain) and watching a beautiful firework display over the Yarra River with the city skyline in the background. I also won a pint sized stuffed dolphin from one of the arcade games who I fondly named Australia Flipper.

By the way, must I say that on the days that the sun does come out, my freckles almost explode off my face. 🙂 Good thing I grew up thinking that a face without freckles is like the nights sky without stars. Thanks Mom for that little self esteem boost as a child!!

We also stumbled upon a trapeze show. Not only that, but they advertised that they still had a few open spots in their trapeze lessons for Sunday and Monday. Being both spontaneous and not afraid of heights I jumped at the chance to fly through the air on a trapeze so my friend and I both booked spots for Sunday.

Our appointment for Sunday was at 5pm so I had a lazy  morning and afternoon where I attempted to do some homework (yes, I still do go to university). We got to the festival a bit early to have a little pre-trapeze fun. I psyched myself out by watching the lesson before and although I was not nervous before, I began to let fear set in. Now, I am not afraid of heights. In fact, I love them and have always taken advantage of them. I even lived in a high rise in the middle of Chicago last year in which my apartment was pretty much all windows.  It wasn’t the height that was freaking me out, it was remembering to do all the steps that they said. Jump on this signal, bend your knees when I say this, let your hands go when you hear this; all of these tasks seemed overwhelmingly daunting to me. Nonetheless, I knew I wanted to do it and no matter if I felt like I was going to hurl, I was going to do my best on that trapeze.

They gave us safety belts, taught us the steps, let us practice on a bar low to the ground and then it was showtime. Note to parents with small children, if your child is obnoxious do not think it is a good idea to put them in a trapeze lesson by themselves where they can run around, disrespect the instructor and frankly wreak havoc on the other adults who are attempting this.  When it was my turn I climbed up the ladder, an instructor hooked my harness to the safety wires, and I prepared to perform a death defying trick. Yes, I know that there was no way for me to fall, nor was I going to be doing anything that challenging, but at the time, it felt pretty special. I was supposed to grab the trapeze, swing on it, then tuck my legs over the bar, do a free hand knee hand and then do a summersault off. Piece of cake, right?  Surprisingly the toughest part about all that was grabbing the bar with your second hand because you are leaning so far over the edge, you feel as you might fall even though there is an instructor holding onto your harness from the back.  I managed to complete the tasks and land safely back down on the net without that many hiccups. It was exhilarating.

My second go at it was not as successful as the first. We were supposed to attempt a catch. While I didn’t complete the catch I still managed to summersault off the trapeze. Overall, considering that an hour before I did not even want to try it, I felt content and was so happy that I did it. Check that off the bucket-list ( which would mean my non-existent always meant to write one).

While I am not exactly circus material, I did have a fantastic time. I am so glad that even though I was scared out of my mind, I did not back out.

Try out new things!!  I never imagined that I would be doing trapeze lessons, but I did. Keep an open mind and be ready for anything and everything. You will surprise yourself every time.

Happy Reading!