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!!

Beauty in the Mundane

I apologize in advance. I do not have any beautiful photographs of escapades in the city or any batty anecdotes to tell you right now. I do have some amazing road trip and camping stories coming up shortly along. Rather, this long-winded post is more of my way to unwind and release some of the tension that I have built up over the last few weeks. The weekdays have not been the most invigorating to say the least. In fact, they were practically lifeless if we compare them to preceding weekends. Honestly, the days merged together as they were a mash of assignments, clashing personalities, presentations, frustration and a nuisance of a head cold.

I have experienced problems with housing and my landlord (s) that were hopefully settled today after a month of back and forth negotiations (*crosses fingers). I was kicked out of my house due to faulty building permits. It was only due to my friends that I had a place to live.  So in dear Melbourne, I have been homeless twice. Balancing my finances has also been particularly challenging this time around; Australia is very expensive in comparison to Central Europe. I have done side jobs in both places just for extra cash, which has supplemented me quite well. However, I will be going back to the States with practically nothing to my name and I am entering my final year of undergraduate studies, which means that I need to think about the future (a terrifying thought). Tell me why I cannot be a professional student, please?

Most of the time I can barely contain my joy for the opportunities I have been given and sought out for myself.  Of course, I am incredibly grateful and wouldn’t change a single thing but it’s not all fun and games that everyone seems to think. Life still goes on back home despite your distance and just because you are on a different continent, it does not mean that you are not affected by occurrences back home. Similarly, just because you live somewhere else does not mean that everyday problems won’t affect you. In, fact, sometimes the smaller things seem worse because you don’t have the comfort of the familiar and the support system that you have back home.  Nor do I have the means to fix things from afar.

Living in Australia has challenged me in different ways than Europe did, and I will be coming back with yet again a changed worldview (There’s no language barrier, but don’t let that fool you).  I feel stronger than ever and I feel confident imparting a little wisdom to other young, eager, and hopeful travelers.

You need to be resilient, robust, and a little bit more optimistic than most.  More importantly, you also need to stick up for yourself. Be a force of nature.  Demand the most out of your experiences.  Appreciate the people who you meet but don’t get bent out of shape if some bother you (its not a popularity contest). This is also applicable to long-term life lessons, but is particularly true when traveling. It is those who greet challenges head on, who move on when things don’t go the way they were planned, and who pick themselves up to greet each new day with abundant energy, spunkiness, and passion that truly know how to travel right.

If you focus on the little problems, they will eat away at you. Every time I swipe my credit card, I wince. I think about how much interest I will incur at the end of the month and how long it will take me to pay that off. However, when your eyes see the sunset over the ocean, or hike to the bottom of the waterfall, all is forgotten and you cannot help but be in awe of the earth’s beauty.

I am a born traveler. I am convinced that even if I did not start now, I would have found my calling later on. I love travel for many different reasons and clearly the endless possibility for adventure has stolen my heart. It is in the still moments, the mundane, the tram rides, the nighttime walks home, the laughs shared with my housemates, and even times when I am so frustrated that all I can do is turn on music and dance that I really appreciate travel and change.

I often underestimate that ability. There are in fact some people who do not exhilarated by getting on an airplane and being alone in a new place. I thrive in it, while others detest it. For others, there are limits as to what they will take. I have seen my housemates hit their breaking points and they are slowly making their way back.

One of my good friends withdrew from the university and left due to plethora of personal reasons.  I understand her reasons and she is much happier now that she is at home and I am glad that it all worked out for the best.  She hit her limit. I, on the other hand, continue to be tested and say keep them coming. It will take a lot more than being homeless twice, being broke, and being injured to dampen my wanderlust.

One more thing, I suppose I lied; I do have one photograph for you. It’s from my little porch during an exquisite sunset. Even the sky can brighten my spirits when I am down.

So cheers to the mundane. It makes us appreciate how special movement and travel truly is. I do not take anything for granted, even the low points because they make the rest just that much better.

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!

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!

Driving Along the Great Ocean Road

One of the things that is a must do when visiting Australia is  to take a trip on the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, Australia. It is a road that stretched 150 miles of breathtaking Australia coastline. Luckily for me, this bucket list item was already a prearranged trip by my university for all of the international students.

After having a rough arrival to Melbourne, with housing drama, I was very excited to take a few days from the apartment search and relax in true Aussie fashion on the beach.  I made my trek to the university a whopping 9 kilometer walk to campus (just another incentive to find a new place to live).  I made some fast friends waiting for the trip leaders to organize the buses and we set off for an adventure on the Great Ocean Road.

Our hub for the trip was the little beach town of Lorne. It was a quaint town with  shops, cute cafes and of course a beautiful beach. As the daughter of someone who grew up in Boston, I am a frequent visitor of Cape Cod and that is exactly what Lorne reminded me of- a more tropical version of Woods Hole ( Shout out to anyone who actually knows the Cape).  The first day was very Aussie which is the key word for low key and relaxed. A few of us basically just camped out at the beach and enjoyed the scenery and warm weather.

After dinner (which was included, thankfully, my bank account is certainly not used to these Australian prices)  we settled into our hostel which was so nice and just sat and chatted while we drank some local Australian wine. Another great thing about Lorne is the birds. There are wild parrots everywhere and they are so used to people that they will literally sit next you. I loved it. I mean one of my favorite movies growing up was Paulie.

The next day we woke up early to a day at the beach. The first item on the itinerary was surfing. Unfortunately for me, I was unable to participate because I injured my foot earlier that week. It was in the process of healing, but as much as I wanted to try my hand in the waves I knew that it could result in a set back. Instead, I acted as the paparazzi and happily snapped away with my camera while the morning lighting glistened off the ocean. Next, was ocean kayaking which I did participate in. My friend, Karissa and I were determined to catch some waves. We did and also managed to tip over a few times, and my all time favorite somehow I ended up underwater with the kayak stuck on top of me. Next, we walked through the town, had lunch, bought some postcards, and just enjoyed the moment. Relaxing and slowing down is definitely something I am trying to learn to do and enjoy. After four months of studying, backpacking and literally being in a different place every weekend, this is extremely different for me.  I am looking forward for the Aussie way of relaxing to rub off on me.

The next day we continued on the Great Ocean Road and headed west. We stopped to see some koalas, snapped pictures in Apollo Bay, hiked in Mait’s Rest rain forrest, and finally made it to the 12 Apostles. The 12 Apostles are limestone stacks off the shore; the entire expanse of the shore is actually part of Port Campbell National Park. The apostles were formed by thousands of years of erosion and while there are not actually 12 (there never were and now there are 8 since once collapsed in 2005) it was one of the most magnificent views I have ever seen.  After taking in the beauty we also headed a littler farther west and saw another coastal formation called Loch Ard Gorge. The impressive ombré colored stone formations set against the topaz blue water was striking.

After, we headed back home, where I preceded to walk another 9 km home, I felt much better  about my journey to Australia. Despite some small bumps along the road, I am overjoyed to be here. The trip was a great way to meet new people and to see some amazing sights in Australia. I cannot wait to explore more of this amazing country. Things are looking up.

Happy Reading!

Aussies for the Win!!

I have officially been in Australia for almost two weeks. I have painfully neglected my blog in the meantime but I can say this I have been insanely busy and productive.

As I said in my last post that I was practically homeless upon arriving in Melbourne as I chose to find my own housing, I have since found a house and have lived here for a few days now. It feels fantastic to actually put my clothes in my wardrobe and my food in a cupboard. I am located  five minute walk from campus and ten minutes from my friends house which I am such a frequent visitor that they joke I’m their 5th roommate.

School officially starts next week so I am very excited  to start classes.  I have been informed that the academic environment is much more laid back in comparison to the US  (for example, we are expected to call professors by their first names) so I am anxious to see the differences for myself. We had orientation activities all week so I got to explore the campus a bit and meet other international students.  I only have classes three days a week Monday through Wednesday so I will have four day weekends. This is insane to me.

I also have been frantically job searching. I have an interview on Tuesday for a student mentoring position. It is similiar to what I do back in Chicago so I hope I get it. Cross your fingers!!

Last night a few of my new friends and I went to our first soccer game last night; it was Australia vs. Saudi Arabia and it was one of the world qualifying matches for the world cup. We bought student tickets for a measly  10 dollars (boy do I love being a student) and our seats were in the second row. Of course, we visited the sports shop and were decked out in Australia hats and scarves. By the way, Australia’s team is the Socceroos. How adorable! Although, we were down after the first half, the Aussies pulled out a win. It was so exciting and a great way to be initiated into  the Australia sports world. I am going to a Cricket game tomorrow which will definitely be an experience. I also hope to go to many footy games (Australia football) and the Grand Prix in Formula-1 racing. Needless to say I am a big sports fan!

I will write a post about my trip on the Great Ocean Road soon, I promise.

Land of Sangria, Tapas, and Port Wine

Truth is, that as much as I love writing in my blog, I am horrible at actually uploading it.  I have done so much since the last time I posted. I hope these posts will fill you in.

I had the most fantastic fall break. The amazing thing about fall break while studying abroad, is that it is a full week which allows you to go on a long trip and see multiple countries. I spent time in Spain in high school with a host family and loved it. I knew I wanted to go back as well as see other places I didn’t get the chance to.

My friend Lindsay and I flew into Barcelona. The first night was a bit of an adventure. We got to the hostel that we were supposed to stay in and they said they were full. Bummer. So we tried to find another one, but that was full as well. The metros closed at midnight and my watch read 11:55 pm. We quickly took the metro to the train station beacause we were hoping that we could stay there. Unfortunately, they kicked us out and we set out to try to find a hotel. We found a large group of hotels and prepared ourselves to drop a lot of euros. Our luck was really running out because they were full too, as well as the surrounding hotels. Luckily, the receptionist offered to keep our bags for us behind the front desk and gave us a map and told us where we could find areas that were open 24 hours. We set off towards the ocean. After making friends with  two professional water polo players, hanging out with the owner of a local bar, walking until our feet fell off and finally crashing in a McDonald’s where we slept, the night was over.  The next couple of days were much more relaxing and filled with the beach, tapas, sangria, Gaudi architecture and shopping.  Barcelona was everything I hoped for and more. The Catalan capital is filled with vibrant people and culture.  My favorite place in the city was Park Guell which was designed entirely by the Catalan architect Gaudi.  * Side note, for those of you America’s Next Top Model viewers, the Season 7 finale fashion show was in this park. It was built overlooking the city.* There are mosaic sculptures scattered around the trees and it is a very eclectic little spot.  This combined with the squawking parrots really transports you to a tropical paradise. We went back twice we loved it so much. The second time we saw a catalogue photo shoot.  It apparently is a fashion hotspot.  Everyone is friendly and there is so much to do and see. Barcelona has such an energy to it, is is almost impossible to put into words. The shopping is amazing, the food quite tasty, and the sun and the sand are heavenly.
Our next stop was Porto, Portugal. The most well known city in Portugal is its capital Lisbon, but we decided upon the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Porto. We took Ryan Air,which had tickets as inexpensive as 20 US Dollars (definitely look into using this airline).   The city was the most picturesque one I have seen besides Prague.  It hugs the Duoro River and is minutes away from the ocean. The old city is teaming with small crooked cobblestone streets that weave along the river. There are hundreds of cafes, restaurants, bars, pubs, and houses all from different centuries spanning as old as the 13th century to the mid 19th century. Along with the amazing history, Porto is also known for Port Wine. We went on several wine tasting tours and saw how the wines were made and stored. It was delicious!  We couchsurfed here. For those of you who do not know about the wonder of couch surfing I will take this time to give a brief intro into the backpacking community.  Couchsurfing is a backpacking community that allows individuals to stay at someone’s house on either their couch, bed, floor, or any space that is available for the sake of building new friendships and learning about new locations from a native’s perspective. I had heard about the CS community before in the States and knew that when I had the opportunity in Europe I would try it. I first couchsurfed in Paris with 4 of my other friends, then again in Brussels and this was my third time. I highly recommend couchsurfing and dipping your feet into this unique and exciting travel experience. In Porto, we had the priviledge of staying with this gentleman who hosts people constantly and  literally becomes your tour guide. He took us all over the city, told us the history of every important landmark, and showed us spots even other Porto residents do not know. We could not ask for a better place to stay.The 2 days we were in Porto were blissful and not enough. This is honestly one of my favorite cities that I have traveled to in Europe. I would jump at the opportunity to visit again.

Lastly, we headed to Madrid. I love Madrid. I loved it when I first visited as a mere sixteen-year-old and if I had forgotten why I loved the city, I quickly remembered the minute I stepped into the Plaza Mayor. The city has such a colorful energy to it. It is fast-paced and relaxing at the same time. Spaniards truly know how to have a good time, and it is so clear in this city that never sleeps. We toured the Palacio Real or Royal Palace, watched flamenco in the Plaza Mayor, shopped in all the little local tiendas that sell handcrafted pieces made in Spain, visited El Parque Retiro, ate amazing tapas,and met my Spanish friend from the university.  Spanish hot chocolate is something that everyone must have before they die, I swear. It is fantastic, with a consistency like pudding, it is so thick and creamy. There so many bistros and cafes filled with locals and tourists alike with their hot chocolate. I was able to practice my Spanish and I was even able to help some other tourists who were a little lost in translation. One of the funnier moments, was that when I was helping an Asian woman understand the Spanish at a little cafe, she told me that I spoke really good English. I guess my Spanish appeared to be so good, that she thought English was my second language. It made my day for sure, and although I know that my Spanish is far from being fluent, it motivates me to practice more at home. Overall, It was a jam packed 3 days and so worth it. I was so sad to leave because honestly I could live there.

Few Notes and Handy Advice

1.) Note to the wise, be careful when arriving into new cities at night. Even if you book a hostel online, sometimes things happen. Have a backup plan. Also, if you are forced to stay up all night, try to find a place for your luggage. You are a much lesser target for any sort of pickpockets without your luggage that screams tourist. Try the lockers in the train station, or ask at a hotel. Chances are if you ask, they will let you.

2.) Try cities off the beaten path. I would have never had gone to Porto if I had not found incredibly inexpensive tickets on Ryan Air and if I had not researched best places that tourists have not found yet in Portugal. Porto is now one of my favorite European cities and I cannot wait to go back. Often, the lesser known places are the best. They are often clear of teams of tourists, and the local people are overwhelming happy to escort you around.

3.) Go to Spain and Portugal. This is all I can say. I have gone to Spain twice and I can not get enough of that country. So pull out that middle school Spanish dictionary and visit. I promise, you won’t regret it.

My departure date is nearing.  It’s not enough time here. I better get going. I have places to go and people to meet.

Happy Reading!