Tag Archives: couchsurfing

The Night Of Couchsurfing That Turned Into Two Weeks

14 Nov

“Just to let you know, I collect body parts,” said Kimmii, shortly after greeting us.

My boyfriend and I just finished a long weekend of camping up at the Dorrigo National Park and hadn’t had a real shower in days. We swam in rivers, took sponge baths and wore hats but something had to give. When we drove down the windy mountain road back to Coffs Harbour we had two choices: check into an out-of-budget caravan park and have a shower or send out a last-minute couchsurfing request and hope that someone would invite us in.

I sent out two couchsurfing requests explaining that all we really needed was a shower and that we had a van to sleep in. After waiting for half an hour, our impatience got the best of us and we decided to have an ice-cold shower in the public bathrooms of the local surf club. As we got back into the van, our teeth chattering and our hair soaked, I had a message. Two empty nesters with a couple of spare rooms offered to let us stay and insisted that we sleep inside.

When we pulled up to the house Kimmii came to greet us at the front door while Paulie prepared the pizza dough for our dinner inside. Kimmi was in her mid-40s, a half-Aboriginal bipolar woman whose manic episodes led her to $3,000 shopping sprees on ModCloth for her 20-something daughter. She was short and overweight, outspoken, jovial and completely comfortable in her own skin. Paulie was a balding ex-surfer whose music and book collection filled me with envy. He was a talented cook but rarely ate his own creations, preferring a simple meat and potatoes meal instead.

Within minutes the wine was flowing and we were already telling deeply personal stories and laughing our asses off. Kimmii had this incredible story-telling ability and a wit about her that left Matt and I in stitches (even when she was only explaining what she did for a living!). We told her she should do stand-up and Paulie shouted from the kitchen, “Oh no, don’t encourage her!”

As we dug into the homemade pizzas Kimmii told us we were her first couchsurfers and that she signed up because her daughter would be backpacking across South America in a few months and she wanted to give back in the hopes that someone would do the same for her. She told us that after their four children had moved out they’d had several guests come and go. Some stayed for a few weeks and others for up to 9 months. When Kimmii invited us to stay as long as we wanted I thought it was such a tempting and generous offer but never expected that we’d actually take her up on it.

In a warm, wine-induced haze we said goodnight and crawled into our respective beds. Matt and I wanted to pinch ourselves when we felt the thread-count of the sheets and prefect firmness of the mattress.

A woman after my own heart!

“I really like them,” said a half-asleep Matt.

“Me too. I love it here,” I said in a daze.

“Someone stayed here for nine months!” said Matt.

“I know, but we’re not going to take advantage of their generosity. We’ll keep looking for jobs in the morning.”

And we did, but the day turned into two and then three. Then Kimmii left for a business trip and encouraged us to stay with Paulie while she was gone. He had a serious lung condition that often left him gasping for air and she felt more comfortable knowing someone was there with him. We happily stayed, mowing the lawn, doing the dishes and scrubbing the tubs to contribute.

Paulie made us amazing food every night: Moroccan, Mexican, Greek, and Lebanese. Well-fed and well-rested, we continued the job search with new enthusiasm. I attended an RSA (responsible service of alcohol) certification course and Matt contacted all his old rigging buddies for information on current projects.

At night, Kimmii and Matt talked politics while Paulie and I talked music and watched concert DVDs. I copied all his CDs to my hard drive and he’d pull out biographies of my favorite bands and tell me obscure facts about the members. We became a family and we got used to our routine.

When Matt received a high-paying rigging job offer, the news was bittersweet. We packed up our van the last night and Paulie made pizza for us to take on the road. Kimmii and I watched a documentary about Obama and Mitt Romney before she went to bed and Paulie and I talked about Jimmy Page and Jim Morrison one last time. We hugged goodbye, promised to stay in touch and when we locked up the door behind us in the middle of the night, Matt and I turned to each other and said, “I’m really going to miss them,” almost in unison.

Not every couchsurfing experience is like this but now my Australian family feels larger. We still keep in touch and if we ever make it back to NSW, we know where we’ll stay.

Kimmii also loved collecting sea shells.                                                                                                    I left this one in the guest room so they’d have something to remember us by.

Trouble In Paradise: A Guide for Traveling With Others

20 Sep

We all like to imagine that traveling with a friend or lover will be blissfully conflict-free, but let’s face it – sometimes you never really know a person until you travel with them… and sometimes you don’t like what you see.

You’re spending 24 hours a day with them, planning your trip, your meals, your stays and dealing with the stresses of unexpected travel inconveniences. He wants to go there but you want to go here and it’s your first time in a foreign country so you aren’t comfortable splitting up. Or maybe it’s just been two months straight of sharing the same room with that person and if you hear them brush their teeth that loudly one more time you’re going to scream!

Traveling with others is a beautiful thing because it gives you someone to share the memories with and someone to turn to if you’re in need of support. However, living in close proximity with someone and developing a dependency on one another can bring out the worst in both of you and can ruin your relationship.

I’ve traveled alone, with a best friend, in groups of friends, with people I just met, and with a boyfriend. These are my tips for traveling with others and keeping your sanity:

1. Discuss how you will address conflict before you leave. 

This is important to discuss before you ever board that plane because you can come up with a system of keeping the peace before emotions get involved. Agree on a statement beforehand that opens the floor for communication (like: “hey, remember when we said no matter what happened we’d talk about things because our friendship/relationship is important?…)

Sometimes when we’re traveling with people we love we try to avoid conflict at all costs and we don’t say how we really feel which only leads to resentment, passive aggressiveness and a compromised trip. A friend of mine is a skiing, snowboarding and kitesurfing instructor who served in the Swiss army and he finds that the best way to teach someone or to handle conflict constructively is to use the “sandwich approach.” With this method you sandwich the concern or complaint in between two positive statements that show what is working so the person you’re addressing doesn’t feel attacked.

For example, if you’re traveling with a best friend for the first time and you feel like he/she isn’t listening to what you want to do, say something like:

“I’ve enjoyed going to all these museums you found but I’d really like to change it up and start doing something off the beaten path. I think we’d both benefit from seeing the city in a different light.”

That will be much more effective than if you passive aggressively roll your eyes and say, “Another museum, seriously?”

Don’t foolishly assume that your relationship is so indestructible that you can handle anything that comes between you. Discuss the possibility for conflict before you leave and you’ll handle it better when it does happen.

2. Come up with a rough itinerary before you leave.

This is your chance to find out what each person is hoping to get out of the trip. Maybe one of your friends is a party animal and can’t wait to see the night scene in Barcelona and maybe you’re more interested in the history of the city. Use this pre-departure opportunity to come to a compromise and establish a few things that each of you definitely want to do, that way you’ll have a balance once you reach your destination.

3. If you need your space, take it. 

Don’t let bottled emotions explode and say things you can’t take back. Unaddressed tension can destroy a trip so if you feel yourself on the edge or you’re just the type of person who really enjoys her alone time, tell your travel partner(s) that you need to take some time for yourself. Then find an obscure cafe and people watch, take your book and head to the beach, or go for a walk to clear your head. A little of space can mean the difference between a lasting relationship and one that crumbles. And remember that little idiom about absence making the heart grow fonder? There is absolutely some truth to that. Test it out if you feel like you’re starting to take each other for granted.

4. Don’t be afraid to meet and travel with other people along the way.

Sometimes the best tension dissolver is the company of a new friend. A new group dynamic brings an air of lightness and before you know it the little things you were bickering about will seem insignificant and your perspective will shift. If it’s just the two of you, try couchsurfing for a night or stay in a hostel and go out for drinks with some of your dorm-mates. It’s human nature for you to tire of your travel partner, especially if this is the first time you’re learning all their quirks or spending this much contiguous time together. Don’t be dismayed, be proactive.

5. Go with the flow. 

Travel issues are bound to happen but it’s how you handle them that determines the quality of your trip. Your purse gets stolen, there’s no record of your reservation,  you get stranded in a tiny town or you get hopelessly lost… all of these situations are common and if you can handle them gracefully and make the most out of a bad situation, months later you’ll laugh back on that night when Charlie didn’t realize he was pick-pocketed and had to do the dishes at that restaurant with that big, hairy Russian woman who kept making moves on him. Some of my most interesting travel stories happen when everything goes wrong but I’m determined to stay positive. Keep your cool and learn from the experience.

6. If all else fails, be the bigger person.

No one said it would be easy but if whatever is bothering you is not that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things, maybe it’s time to suck it up and be the bigger person – for the trip’s sake!

You’re annoyed that your friend has a case of ‘travel love’ and now wants their exotic new lover around all the time? Tell the lover to invite some friends.

All your friend wants to do is get drunk every night? If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, or go do your own thing while they recover all day.

There’s no real problem you’re just snappy with each other because you’ve spent too much time together? Have a ‘you’ day and then share all your experiences over dinner.

The annoyances, bickering, and resentment that can come with group travel might not happen to every group but it’s important to realize that it’s one of the most common travel complaints and why a lot of people decide to go it alone. The level of disturbance is directly proportional to the length of travel, the ease of travel, the dynamic of the group and the personalities involved. If you communicate beforehand, address situations as they’re happening and take the time to reassess and get back to what is really important, you’ll be just fine.

I’ll leave you with my favorite lines from Ella Wheeler Wilcox’s poem, Worth While.

It is easy enough to be pleasant
When life flows by like a song,
But the man worth while is the one who will smile
When everything goes dead wrong.
 
Do you have any group travel horror stories? What are your tips for seamless group travel?

Tourist in My Backyard: Venice Beach Freak Show

21 Aug

The Venice Beach Freak Show is the kind of attraction you never pay to see when you’re a Southern Californian because all of Venice is a freak show, really. But last week I hosted two lovely Kiwi couchsurfers and when we walked the famous boardwalk and saw the two-headed turtles outside the freak show, the MC lured us in with promises of even freakier animals and objects inside. What was five bucks when it came to having this quirky Venice experience?

When we walked inside two sideshow performers were just finishing up their act and we looked over right as the man was pulling a sword out of his throat.  A young boy was escorted out because he almost fainted and since the next show began in twelve minutes we decided to work our way up to it.

We turned left for the museum of freaky artifacts and animals and saw a live two-tailed iguana in a cage at the entrance. The woman behind the counter introduced us to her five-legged dog and told us he was just featured on an episode of the Dog Whisperer. She pulled out jar after jar of of two-headed pigs with other anomalies: five ears, five legs, two separate bodies conjoined at the head, etc.

The back of the room had skeletons of conjoined human twins and of the mythical Chuppacabra. There were glass cases with an eerie cycloptic dog, the skeletons of bizarre humanistic-alien-looking sea animals, a two-headed goat, a two-headed calf and other taxidermied animals.

We braced ourselves and grabbed our cameras when the freak-show began. The male-female duo took turns performing their unique acts. The woman sat in an electric chair,  showed off her double jointed arms and elbows and breathed fire. The man swallowed a sword and put a hook through his nose and out his mouth. I cringed, I gagged but it was all good fun. Rosa, the Kiwi, sat right in the middle of the action and commented later that the male performer’s skin looked waxy. He reminded me of gothic David Bowie. Do you see it?

Weighing Your Options: Hostels, Hotels and Couchsurfing

6 Mar

The sign in the bathroom at the Little Bird Hostel in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

When traveling, where you rest your weary head each night ultimately depends on your budget, how much time you plan to spend in your room and if you’re traveling alone or in a group. I’ll breakdown the pros and cons of staying in hostels and hotels versus couchsurfing to give you a better idea of which option best suits you.

Hostels

Pros: 

Community – Hostels are the perfect option for the solo traveler because the common areas and dorm rooms offer plenty of opportunities to meet fellow travelers and find someone to explore the town with or to share a meal. In hostels, you’re hardly alone and since I’ve been traveling the constant influx of travelers from all over the world has been a godsend. Everyday new people come and go and it’s a great way to hear the insider track on destinations you want to go to or didn’t realize you’d want to go to. I’ve found wonderful travel buddies and new lifelong friends through hostels and I’ve also changed my trips around because of the recommendations of others. Hostels are the perfect place to meet your fellow travelers.

Price – Dorm room prices can range anywhere from $1-10 a night. Again, if you’re traveling alone dorm rooms are a great way to go because you pay for your bed, not the room.

Staff – The staff at hostels usually have insider knowledge of the town you’re staying in and can answer your questions with better, more current information than any guidebook can give you. Also, depending on the hostel, the staff will help you book buses, arrange visas and can recommend good restaurants and things to do. Sometimes they’ll even tell you how much a taxi should cost so you don’t get ripped off or they’ll arrange group outings so you can see the town with the people who know it well.

Cons:

Privacy – There is none, unless you opt for a private room which is typically double or triple the price of a dorm. Get used to changing in the bathroom and hearing when your bunkmates go to use it. Also, though I haven’t had this experience myself yet, many of my friends have woken up to the sounds of people having sex in their dorm. Sometimes to save money couples will stay in dorms but then after a few drinks they can’t contain themselves and hope everyone is asleep. Or, as I mentioned before, since you’re constantly meeting people sparks do fly and people get caught up in the moment. Don’t be that person. Take it outside, or in the bathroom.

Community – It was Jean-Paul Sarte who said, “hell is other people” and after sharing a dorm with enough oblivious or just plain inconsiderate people, I’d have to agree with him. In dorms you get the snorers, the drunks that stumble in at four in the morning, bumping into things the whole way, and sometimes you’ll come across a bad seed who will go through your things if you aren’t careful. (If there’s a locker, use it!)

Another issue is that everyone is on a different schedule. Some people want to start their days early, some want to stay out late. You’re all in the same room and when the earlybird is annoyed by the people who wake him/her up in the middle of the night because they’re just getting home, those same people will be annoyed when the earlybird is getting ready for the day and they’ve only had 3 hours of sleep.

Hotels

Pros: 

Privacy – In hotels you can shut the door and enter your own private world. You can sleep naked, go the bathroom with the door open, and waltz around at any hour of the night without worrying about waking up strangers. It’s complete freedom, but it comes at a price.

Cons:

Price – You pay for what you get. If you want a nice bed with a nice view it’s going to cost you, but if you all you want is a place lay your head then find something that fits those standards. If you’re only traveling for a few days or weeks and you’ve got the money, hotels are a great way to treat yourself and feel like you’re really on vacation.

If you’re traveling as a couple or with friends and can split the cost of the room, hotels might end up being more cost-effective and pleasant. When I backpacked with a friend through Europe there were several times when we found that the price of a hotel room for one night was cheaper than paying for two separate beds in a dorm. Look around.

It’s also nice to break up a few weeks of staying in hostels by splurging on a hotel for a night or two. You’ll be revived and ready to go back to shared dorms. You might even start to miss the chaos.

Couchsurfing: 

Pros:

Cultural exchange – With couchsurfing you save the money you would have spent on accommodation and often get a more genuine cultural experience because you’ll be staying with someone who actually lives in the place you’re visiting. Sometimes hosts will let you use their washer machines, cook you meals and even drive you where you need to go. That all adds up to major savings not to mention the fact that you could be making a new friend in the process. Hosts also know where the best restaurants, shops and hidden gems are. They’re a wealth of information and are usually eager to share it with you.

Cons:

Bad hosts – Sometimes you just don’t click with your host and other times you can’t seem to find anyone to host you at all. In places like Europe it’s relatively easy to find a couch but in Asia and America it can be difficult. Couchsurfing takes preparation but you can get lucky if you post in the ’emergency couch’ thread.

Intrusion – The other tricky aspect of couchsurfing is that your host has a life and you can feel like you’re intruding on their routine. They may have work from 9-5 but you want to stay out until 4, or after a few days you could start to feel some tension like they wished they hadn’t accepted your couchsurfing request.

In hostels and hotels you’ll never get that feeling. You paid for your bed/room and you have every right to be there and come and go as you please. Sometimes that’s worth shelling out the extra cash.

Community – While with couchsurfing you have a more honest experience with the country and the people you visit since you get to see the area through the eyes of someone who lives there, you miss out on connecting with the traveling community that is also seeing it for the first time. If your host doesn’t have much time to show you around you could end up going alone but in a hostel you have a lot better chances of finding someone who is excited to see them with you.

Everyone has different reasons for traveling and different ideals for what makes a good trip. Decide if your budget, cultural experience or need to unwind is most important to you. Or, you can do what I do and mix up your trip by choosing to experience all three!

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