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.

Urban Canvas

I  desperately need to update, but I have many legitimate reasons as to this long hiatus which includes both getting sick and being kicked out of my house/homeless/moving into new house. See, I promised they were legit.  Stories will come later. Thus, a short post about some graffiti/street art snooping  filled with artsy photos will have to suffice.

The one thing I did do last week amongst all the chaos was a little scavenger hunt throughout the city looking for graffitti. Melbourne is quite renown for its street art attracting famous artists such as Sixten, Vexta, Miso, Prism, plus hundreds more and even the British Banksy went across the pond to liven up Melbourne’s streets.  While their names leave much to be desired which is part of the art’s exhibition, they are a talented and eclectic bunch of people. Look them up, their creativity is inspiring.  I personally love street art and although there are those city council members that will attempt to distinguish tagging and graffiti from street art, I simply enjoy others creativity and abstain from the political jargon woes that plague it.

There a a few alleyways in the CBD that are entirely covered in art, but there are also some area further out that have large clusters. I primarily wandered in Fitzroy and Brunswick.  There are some more neighborhoods that I need to check out as well and I am sure to do so in the near future. The images will speak louder than words so instead of a long winded post I will simply post them.

Happy Reading (or should I say viewing?)

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!

Last Weekend’s Strange Exploits:Everyone Needs a Snugglebuggle

Maybe it is due to the relaxed atmosphere around here or perhaps the sun is finally getting to me ( although to be honest the weather is truly bipolar here), but I am frequently losing track of days here. I meant to update  about my activities last weekend but somehow it completely slipped my mind. I have an excuse though, it was the first week of classes last week. Now that I am no longer a newbie at uni and I can confidently maneuver my way around campus, I feel that it is only fair to update on my shenanigans last week.

The weather unfortunately was poor and dismal last weekend, but two of my new found good friends and I decided to not let it stop us. We eagerly attempted to make a few loose plans for the weekend. Now I know that I said I wasn’t really a planner and I am not, but occasionally I will think a day or two ahead if I have an inkling of something that I want to do.

As usual, one day last week when the weather was surprisingly perfect, we explored the city centre again and sat in Federation Square enjoying the views and the  people. We decided to meander along the Yarra River and found a beautiful park nestled on the bank of the river. I wished at that moment that I had perhaps dabbled in horticulture because in my opinion it was one of the most beautiful parks that I have ever seen. The vibrant hues of the red and purple flowers complemented the immaculate spring green hedges and there were hidden ponds tucked away behind the towering trees.

The next day, was perhaps the strangest day that I have experienced while being in Melbourne. I admit, that I am a bit quirky and that seems to follow me when I travel, but this was something that really threw me for a loop. Despite the despondent skies, we decided to venture to the Werribee Open Range Zoo, which unlike a conventional zoo where the animals are locked up and the viewers are able to roam around the paths, it is the opposite and the viewers are in a van while the animals roam the land. I particularly like this concept because as much as I love zoos I sometimes have a difficult time with the idea that these magnificent creatures are contained in such tight quarters. We set off on the long ride on public transportation which consisted of a tram, train, and bus to get there (one of the things that is difficult about living in Melbourne is that everything is more spaced out than you originally think). When we arrived in the train station we saw groups of middle aged couple dressed to the nines with feathery hair pieces reminiscent  of   what you would expect to wear at a queen’s garden party. I immediately guessed that they were attending a race somewhere as I have watched enough televised races back home because of my dad’s fondness for horse racing. My two friends were skeptical so we ended up asking one of the women and she confirmed my initial thoughts. We had a lovely conversation with her and ended up finding out that she was a former professor at the uni we currently attend. Need I say small world?

On the train is where a few things got a bit dodgy.  First of all, we definitely saw a different part of Melbourne than we were accustomed too. I am not a newbie to slums since I have both volunteered and worked in them in Milwaukee and Chicago; however the less affluent outskirts of the city was strikingly different to every other part of the city.  It does not on the outside look blatantly impoverished but little things like run down buildings and dirtier streets are a tell tale sign. On one of the stops a man entered our car with spray paint cans and a plastic bag filled with paint. He then preceded to sit next to us while sniffing paint and spray painting his hair. It was apparent that he was unfortunately an addict and high. He paced throughout the car and we eventually moved cars to avoid the paint fumes. Again, although strange, it brings me back to reality about both how fortunate I am in my endeavors and also that even though Melbourne is a very affluent and safe city there are always exceptions. Reminders like this are also a great way for me to stay grounded and to remember that even in the allure of all that Australia has to offer, poverty is a global issue and affects every community.

Once we finally got to the zoo, it started to rain but we did not let the weather spoil our excitement. We boarded the open safari bus and kepts our eyes pealed for giraffes, zebras, emus, rhinos, antelope and more. The best part was when the rhinos got so close to the bus that we could almost touch him our our windows. It was exciting to be that close to wild animals. Our guide’s commentary was very family oriented and thus she often said phrases like: “make sure to give your kids bear huggies” and “everyone needs a snugglebuggle.” Needless to say, her adorable demeanor completely won me over and I enjoyed every second. After the bus tour we followed paths to open paddocks where we saw more emus, snakes, wild birds, and here it comes kangaroos. I have been anxiously awaiting the time when I would see a kangaroo. Not only did we see kangaroos, I ventured off the path a bit despite signs warning me otherwise (I couldn’t help it) and was so close to the roo that I could touch it.  I made my friends a bit nervous so I backed off and the picture I have with them are not as close as I would have liked.  What can I say? I am animal obsessed. However, I crossed “see a kangaroo” off my Australian bucket list and it was amazing.

The rest of the day continued with a strange bus ride that we rode the route twice and more odd encounters on public transportation. The strangeness of the encounters on public transportation made me a bit nostalgic for Chicago and my late night adventures on the “L.” Let me tell you, I have pretty much seen everything on those trains.  I missed home for a few minutes and then realized, I am in AUSTRALIA! My nostalgia quickly dissipated.

Again, it was another interesting and more importantly entertaining weekend. Here’s to many more!!

Happy Reading!

Hitting the Streets

Whenever I travel somewhere new, one of my favorite things to do is to take public transportation into the city, hit the streets and explore. I try to do this before I come up with any major conclusions about the place itself. I listen, smell, taste, see and breathe in everything the place has to offer.

Although school has started, I have gone into the CBD (the central business district or downtown as I would call it back home in Chicago) frequently.  Due to my rocky start, I was not able to explore as much in the beginning because I was concerned with my living arrangements so now that I am settled I have been able to do what I truly love and that is exploring.

Let me first say that I am not the guidebook type of traveler. In fact, I surprised myself by doing something I never do. I actually did buy a guidebook for Australia but left it at home because it was inconvenient to pack. Yes, strange I know, but when it comes down to that last dress or a guidebook, I will always choose a dress.  While I respect those that are very prepared travelers, I prefer to learn on the fly. It is my style to learn about a place through word of mouth, asking strangers on the street (which in my experience has always led to amazing places), flyers around town and the occasional quick google search. I find that I am more flexible if I go in with no exact plans and just find things on my own. This works particularly well for me because I usually have extended periods of time that I am in places, so for most people who have a day limit on a vacation I see the appeal of having their time planned.  Thus, in typical fashion whenever I have gone into the city, I usually get off at a popular stop and simply explore that way.

Now to describe Melbourne’s streets is a bit tricky. The city is pretty well laid out located on Port Phillip Bay with its city centre hugging the Yarra River.  While the city centre has typical wide streets with bustling traffic in amongst skyscrapers, there are pockets of the city that look as unique as the stores that line the streets and the people that inhabit them. My favorite streets as of now in my early explorations are Chapel Street which is located a few kilometers north of the city centre, and Bourke Street which Melburnians  ( yes, I just used that word, I like the way it sounds despite the spelling that throws me off ) like to call the “second street” after the main Collins Street. Chapel street is  unconventional in the way that it is not strikingly pretty for a city street. The stores, pubs, and restaurants are just a bit too crowded and varied to give any semblance of smooth aesthetics. However, it is the quirkiness  and controlled chaos that hold the appeal for me. If any Chicago folk are reading this, it very much reminds me of Belmont and the surrounding streets. If you know me at all, Belmont is perhaps my favorite street in the city so Chapel scored high marks for me.  Bourke St is similiar in that it is definitely varied; however, because it is downtown there is a cohesive identity to the buildings in a way that differs from Church St.  I have come to love Melbourne’s CBD and as is my usual reaction to most cities because I am the epitome of a city person, I am truly pleased and satisfied every time I visit the CBD. One of the things I truly appreciate about Melbourne is that like its people, the city is so varied as well. There is Chinatown, Little Italy, Docklands, City Centre and so on and so forth. It is a gentle blend of a very contemporary city with the feeling of an artistic culture mixed with individuals from all over the world. In a nutshell, this is my kind of city.

My school and house is located in the eastern suburb of Burwood so in order to get to the CBD I take the tram in. First let me just say that I have ridden a lot of trams; I took them everyday when I lived in Prague and everywhere all over Europe. I usually consider myself a train person alas due to my love/hate relationship with the infamous Chicago ‘L.’ However, Melbourne’s tram system is phenomenal and quite extensive. Melbourne is the proud owner of the largest tram network in the world and it runs smoothly every time. It almost puts the ‘L’ to shame, but I loyally love the rattling noises and persistent technical errors of Chicago’s elevated trains.  I simply take one tram, the number 75, in case anyone is planning to visit and voilà I am smack dab right outside Flinders Train Station and within walking distance of Federation Square (the main square in the city). Flinders Station, I might add, is a gorgeous cultural icon for Melbourne. Despite not being a local quite yet, I have found myself saying the popular phrase “I’ll meet you under the clocks” which refers to the multiple clocks that line the inside of the station by the main entranceway.  I am partial to the nighttime view of Flinders where the oddly colored yellow building glistens gold against the nighttime sky highlighted by the streetlights.

Nonetheless, I have found some fantastic spots in the city and have had some great fun venturing into the CBD. I have kowtowed to my weakness for clothing and found a few shops that catered to my budget and style.  A few friends and I are planning on visiting Parliament, Victoria Market, and anything else we can find later this week. I cannot wait.

Happy Reading!