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My Couchsurfing Nirvana

malaios

Fellas! I wanted to share something with the World. As I say sometimes, for me the Nirvana of Couchsurfing is the reciprocation of a visit. Yes, we all know Couchsurfing doesn’t imply a “payback” visit and it’s not often that it happens. But I can’t avoid having the feeling that only in such occasions an imaginary circle is completed. It’s like a non-said recognition that the connection between two (or multiple) beings was so perfect and strong that they moved the world to see each other again, to spend more time together.

In my Couchsurfing life this happened a few times. I’m not gonna count, but I would say, around seven or eight occurrences. But now, something special is about to happen, something which – with all due respect – will obfuscate those seven or eight: I am about  to visit my first couchsurfers ever. What an occasion, back in 2005!! Actually, by sheer coincidence, today is the anniversary: 19th December. We went all the way to the airport to welcome these guests. The next couple days we drove them around, showing our favorite spots, offering them insight knowledge of the country and of everything they were seeing. Those days were a true blast! Perhaps Natasha & Shafril established a mark in me, defined what I should expect from Couchsurfing. Perhaps if they were different persons, I would had just drop the whole thing and carried on with my boring life. But no, they were who they are and they created an addiction. From that moment I knew I couldn’t live without Couchsurfing and it became a way of life. And now, more than eight years later, I am gonna see them again. This time in Kuala Lumpur.

The idea came when disappointment arouse in my planning mind. Checking how to get from Vientienne to Hanoi, I noticed it was either a nightmarish bus trip or an expensive flight. Then I thought about Air Asia, I checked and… YES! It was possible.  Instead of negotiating those 450 km in the harder way, I would move 3500km, flying to Kuala Lumpur and then to Hanoi. Easy, cheap. And…. visiting Natasha & Shafril would be part of the bundle. Just perfect!

I can’t wait to see them again, although I am expecting things to be different. Meanwhile, we all got older – I became balder, my facial hair is now totally silver, wrinkles showed up in my face – and they got married (inviting us to the wedding, but it was a bit out of the way). Let’s see. Whatever comes, I am looking forward to it with immense excitement.

This is a short entry to mention an article I found on Lonely Planet website, entitled “7 tips for a successful shared homestay experience“. The name says it all, I guess. Mostly it’s common sense. But then, if you are in Couchsurfing, you won’t be surprised by how common is the total lack of common sense in people. The first tip shows how tuned up with CS problems the author is: Fill out your profile first. Oh isn’t it the number one issue when you get requests? I would say it is, at least in my case. Tip number two: Read details and comments before contacting. Again, right on! An applause to Mr. Robert Reid. And he goes on: But ask questions before reserving, Be friendly, but respect a host’s privacy too, Don’t monopolize common areas, Be open to personal differences, Leave honest feedback. How about this? Sounds like a handbook for beginners huh?

The article is directed to people who actually pay to stay, like in AirBnB, but it fits Couchsurfing as a glove. So if you care to pass the link to every guest candidate who sends in an awful request…
http://www.lonelyplanet.com/usa/travel-tips-and-articles/77623

No, the Mayans weren’t right! The end of the world, of our world, was not to be on the 21st December. No sir, it was far earlier, August 2011, it was the month. There were no fire showers, no monstrous waves coming from all the oceans. Nopes. But Couchsurfing became a corporation. Now, cut the crap. I couldn’t care less, and I still don’t. But since then it was like hell was unleashed. All over the groups (RIP) and my Facebook, the howling started.

For a long time now I took it as fact that most of the people in Couchsurfing belong to a sub-culture to which I don’t fully belong. I can understand racism, and once in a while I feel a bit racist too. I am not all “peace & love bro”. The word “tolerance”, although I like it and respect it, is not in my Bible. And, getting back to the line of this speech, I have nothing against corporations. What I do NOT like is hysteria and hypocrisy. Since CS turned to the corporative path all those fellows out there went mad. It really doesn’t matter that they went mad between two trips to the closest Starbucks, or while having dinner at McDonalds. They just went mad. And they expressed that anger by typing endless posts, who knows, probably using some Dell computer with a version of Microsoft OS in it. And they protested against everything. Privacy! Oh that holly grail of modern times!

How dare CS – that project which allowed these privacy mongers to save trillions of USD/EUR in the last 6 years (yes, I know CS is older, but half a dozen souls don’t really count in this context) – to try and so some money by allowing Google to freely crawl and index posts in CS groups!? What a damage that will be for all poor of us! And all other Machiavellic ideas which are definitely germinating there, in CS womb, now that the devil brutally deposited His seed there.

In the past I got a bit upset with CS, mostly for doing nothing, for the pre-historic concepts applied to the website. Not much changed. The same dated design, the groups vulnerable to spam, the practical impossibility to get answers from someone with responsibilities in the project. But, hey! All of this and the many jewels I collected along my CS time were for free! I never felt much entitled to raise my voice. I was privileged to be allowed to be part of it all. So, when the big news came out, back in 2011, I hold my breath and sat down, awaiting for what was to come. And to be honest, I don’t like most of what came, but then, it’s not such a big deal. The new layout sucks as much as before. The search engine is horrible. And now, the groups are over, replaced by a maniac chat-like system. So what? Does this stops me from traveling and meet terrific people along the way? No? So fuck off. Stop whining about changes (me, the most conservative soul on Earth… I never thought I would be saying this to anyone), go travel, host, meet people, make friends. In short, focus in what matters and leave your old prejudices (talking about corporations) out of this. Because, personally, I can’t stand the choir of whiners much longer.

Today I had a brief “Facebook status” kind of chat with a friend, which inspired me to write this entry. He was saying that he won’t be in Liverpool before the 25th (that’s in 18 days from today) and so he didn’t want to start sending requests yet. What a heck!? Why not! It’s just the perfect timing. Well, at least the way I see things. And that’s how the idea for this article came up: what do I do when I want to ask someone for a couch?

Timing. Let me start precisely with timing. I am aware that most of the couchsurfers have an atrocious allergy to commitment. Which sometimes I think it’s perturbing. Well, but that’s a different story. I take as a fact that, generally speaking, people can’t plan ahead. But then, when I tried to adapt myself to this apparently standard timing behavior I started getting replies like “Oh I really would love to have you around but I already have couchsurfers staying on the same days”. That’s when I decided reversing my tactics, and found what I consider now the perfect balance: three weeks prior to my expected arrival. That’s when I start writing my requests. Coincidentally, this is in fact when I like to get requests from my potential guests. I mean, it’s not exactly like we are talking about what we are gonna do next century, and still there is time to think about it. Of course, I understand some people in some places are flooded by dozen of requests and willing to accept most of them, and “thinking” it’s not exactly what they do about the whole hosting thing.  But well, let me stick to the average potential host🙂

Selection. OK, this is where I’m gonna write some not so politically correct things. I am a selfish old fox. It’s very nice, to say “oh I am writing YOU because I think you are an interesting person“. Right. It can happen. Coincidentally. But as I said, I am selfish. Perhaps most of us are. I will be traveling and my loyalty goes to my aims: having a rewarding trip, with time to see and experience the most I can. And if I am going, let’s say, to Paris, I don’t think my number one pick will be the interesting dude who lives 2 hours from the center, 1 bus and 2 metro rides separating my temporary home from what I really wanna see around there. So, yeah, for me location is top criteria. Of course, all this is a complex balance. If I spot a profile of a fellow who lives right in the center but who’s apparently a jerk, I might as well forget my top criteria and carry on to the next candidate. Summarizing: good location; overall good vibe transpiring from the profile; age – trying to avoid extremely young/old people with exceptions accepted, but accordingly to my experience communication doesn’t work that well with extreme age amplitude; comfort – why should I sleep on the floor if I also like that one over there where, coincidentally, I will have my own bedroom;  gender – I tend to feel more comfortable with people of my own gender. Then, there are those things for which I am a total sucker: I love to stay with families, specially in cultural environments extremely different from my own… I also can’t close my eyes to a “out of the city” place… Ok… I am being a bit contradictory now… I remember what I wrote about location, but come on, going to the countryside? Having that opportunity? Damn the city, let’s go for it!
Who do I try to avoid? Besides what I wrote before, I never ask for the couch of “Couchsurfing Stars”, members who are very active and chose what I call “the Dark path”: 1001 rules and demands, profiles looking like the Wikipedia entry for United States of America, people who give me the idea that if we bump into each other in a year or so they won’t recognize me as they host 2002 travelers per year.

Rhythm. How many requests shall I send? All at the same time? This is how I do it:  assuming we are talking about a place with  considerable options, I pick my  favorite potential host and write him a proper, solid, extensive request. Then I wait. One, two days. If I don’t hear from this person or if I got a “negative”, I write to the next  two favorite potential hosts. This time I concede 24 hours. No luck? Next batch will be send to four members, and I will wait 12 hours or so. And so on, until I lose my temper and I shoot at the same time at basically everybody (which rarely happened, I must say). Why do I follow this method instead of sending a bunch from the beginning? Because I feel extremely embarrassed whenever I got two positive answers and I just need one. I try to minimize this situation following the described procedure and even so it happened to me that I risked to start with two requests to see them both replied with a “Accepted”. Embarrassing! Actually I changed my traveling plans to be able to spend time with both persons, and in other occasions, in the same city, I moved my ass from one couch to another because I got more than two positive answers. But some times I had to decline the acceptance of requests, which made me feel pretty bad.

Text. I try to read the most I can from potential hosts profiles, so I can personalize the most. But sometimes it’s not possible, specially if I’m forced to reach the last stage as described in “Rhythm”. Or just because the profile doesn’t say much and I desperately need a couch (I wouldn’t pick a poorly filled profile if I had other options). So, I start my request by explaining my current trip…. things like why am I going, what’s my route, why did I selected the host city to spend (at least) a night. Then I mention what caught my eye while reading the profile… it might be the fact the person is planning to visit my country, or we have the same kind of job, or common friends, or similar perspectives about Couchsurfing.

Well, this is pretty much it. Considering I’m a 46 years old Portuguese male, and not a 20 yo hot blonde with nice boobies, I would say I consider myself quite successful getting the couches I need while traveling. There were times when it was basically impossible, but mostly because I was crossing regions where Couchsurfing was almost non-existent (I am thinking about Western Balkans and Greece).  Only twice I decided to abort a travel on account of bad results (basically all negatives or non-answering): Cornwall, UK (2006) and Syria (2009; ironically, a couple years later, a trip to Syria provided me with two top CS experiences). People in some places were just incredible, with ratios of almost 100% to my requests: Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Denmark, to mention a few examples.

October 2010 was a wonderful traveling month. I crossed Bulgaria and a good part of Romania in thirty days, saw wonderful places and met charming people. It offered me some of the best CS experiences so far, the kind of stories which always come up when having a couple of drinks with fellow couchsurfers. And this is just one of them…

I arrived in Veliko Turnovo with my previous host, who was heading to his birthplace farther up in the country and who kindly offered me a ride. We were having a drink when I messaged my next host, Hristo. He sent me back a SMS… he couldn’t come downtown, I would have to find my way alone, which was not very encouraging, in unknown terrain and after sunset. Well, but I made it. Atanas drove me uphill, and I met Hristo.

The gang

The following days and evenings were awesome. Not only due to the good nature of Hristo but also because of his terrific group of friends. During most of the days I would explore the wonderful Veliko Turnovo on my own, and then, in the evenings, there was always this lovely group of smiling Bulgarians, sharing a meal, a drink and plenty of stories. On a certain evening I decided to cook something for them. Well, the idea was to cook to four of six persons, but in the end it was a full house with perhaps fourteen attendants. By the end of the evenings we were all completely drunk but my appetite for food, companionship and fun was fully satisfied.

The wedding

This is people I will never forget, specially Hristo’s closer friends. Like that one who invited us for a wine trial at his apartment. It was only me and Hristo, entering the old building, Communist style structure, in a way, falling apart, but still charming, at least for a foreigner eager of new experiences. This great mate put a bunch of stuff on the table. Three bottles of different kinds of wine, rakia, cookies, chocolates, cheese…. I had such a good laugh, hearing some stories of his life!

One of the mornings I woke up with the noise. There was music on the street and a little crowd. It was a Bulgarian wedding. The gang of the groom would pretend they were assaulting the bride house. In the end they were all dancing and playing on the street.

Wasted and happy

One of the most touching episodes was the palm print ceremony. Hristo and his flatmates reserved the wall of their balcony for the hand palm prints of their guests and for that they had a selection of inks in different colors. I picked mine and carefully left my mark. I wonder if it’s still there and how things are with this fine people in Veliko Turnovo. My passage through this town and through Hristo’s life is something to be remembered, as one of the best of my CS moments.

Right. There is no special meaning in this story. No subliminal message, no moral to be learnt, no wisdom. It’s just an assorted moment of my couchsurfer life which happened to be great. It took place during my Balkans 2011 trip, and it happened in a town in Albania. Lushnje. A lost place where most probably my host was the only foreigner resident and which had a peak of non Albanians during my stay.

Lushnje has about 55.000 inhabitants and it’s a poor town, as most towns in the country are. There is little to see there but I decided to spend a few nights there for four different reasons: one, because it’s hard as hell to find hosts in Albania; two, because Kip seemed to me  a pretty decent guy; three, it is central and works well as a base for day trips to many major sites in Albania; four, I always love to check out common places with nothing extraordinary to see.

One of the famous Albanian bunkers, in Kip’s neighbourhood

I arrived in a rainy day. Actually, it was pouring water, a rainfall storm. Like someone up there was throwing giant buckets of water to this lost land. I was ready to get all soaked when the driver of the mini van dropped everyboy ele in the main square… then he looked at me and asked in perfect English: where exactly do you want to go. And he drove me right to Kip’s building. For a price, which was a ripoff accordingly to Albanian standards, but very acceptable for a Westerner – about 4 Eur, all together.

Well, I’m not going to describe everything I saw and did in Lushnje, as this article is about a specific episode. Kip had a friend coming over for the weekend, another American, also a volunteer, working for the same organization. We went out for dinner, then we had a drink in a strange but pleasant bar and finally, as we were politely kicked out (the lady really wanted to close the place) we were apparently out of options.

It was then that Kip came out with this idea: “Why don’t we go to the pub around the corner from my building?”. So we did. Well, Kip’s neighborhood was really a desolated place, Good people, but extremely poor. The kind of place where you don’t want to have a flat tire while driving through. I don’t think anyone would mess up with me. Never happened during those days. But definitely it didn’t look good. Perhaps there was something there, as Kip told me his local friends kept advising him to move out as the area was kind of dangerous. But the truth is he has been living there for half a year and all he ad to tell were good experiences.

View from Kip’s window. The pub was about 80 meters in that direction.

Never mind. So we approached the pub and as we were still 20 meters from the door I could already see one guy inside welcoming us with with gestures.  Another of Kip’s acquaintances. We entered and sat with this guy and a couple of other local men. We ordered a glass of rakia and with this an awesome evening started. Every 10 minutes a new fellow joined us, just to leave after a while, and to be replaced by a new dude. I guess they were all coming for a drink after dinner, and couldn’t help to chat with us, attracted by that strange thing which was foreigners in their local pub.

Now, note this: only one of these guys could speak English. Kip and his friend could speak a bit of Albanian, and most of the locals could speak some Italian (which I would understand a bit). As the evening evolved and  Rakia kept coming, everybody got a communicational boost. I learnt that the guy could speak English because he worked in a factory in UK, where he had some Portuguese co-workers, which explained how he could come out with assorted sentences in my language, truly out of nowhere.  One of his friends spent sometime in jail, in Italy and in Albania, basically due to drug dealing. Another one, an older fellow of about 55, spent a good part of his life behind bars, mostly for political reasons, but later for drug dealing too. The man, who obviously had no formal education, was like a walking encyclopedia. I was told that he spent all those years (he was arrested for the first time when he was 12 years) reading and absorbing random knowledge. So from time to time he was looking at me with a serious but friendly face and dropping assorted data about Portugal and our History.

Later the conversation turned to football, and I found out that some of these guys would know more about the Portuguese league than myself. Eventually the time to leave came. We wanted to pay our bills but although we had about eight glasses of rakia they insisted we only had two, and that was all the money they would accept.

That evening will stay in my memory forever. Even in my forthcoming Alzheimer life I might forget my way home but I will still think about this odd set of people, somehow communicating in a mix of four different languages, everybody helping everybody to find the right words to say something. This, mates, is Couchsurfing at its higher level. No fancy sightseeing, just learning about common people in common places. This is learning about our World.

Language Barrier

I’ve been in CS since like ever. All right, to be precise since 2005. In these last six years lots of changes occurred in the website. Many new features, some layout touches. But one of the tools which has been around since the beginning is the language barrier warning. Just try and pick someone who doesn’t speak a common language with you, and “voila”, a red warning “A Language Barrier May Exist“.

Now, this is rare, as most people will speak at least a bit of English. But it happened to me during my last trip to the Balkans, October 2011. I was already in the area, desperately trying to find out how to move from Banja Luka to Belgrade in a way that I could visit some locations in the Bosnian region closer to the border. I wanted to stay in Tuzla, but couldn’t find a host there. Then, only the gods know why, I decided to run a search in Brcko… and there it was, this couple, couch available and… the feared sign… “A Language Barrier May Exist“.

In a common situation I would discard them as a suitable host. I mean, how could we perform the minimum social pleasantries besides smiling and shaking hands? How could we share the same space in a painful mute atmosphere, staring at each other without a word to be said? Well, but this was an exceptional case. I was tired of looking for couches and hostels. I just wanted to get things done and proceed to Belgrade from wherever I would stop for the night. It was the last of five weeks on the road and my spirits were going down. So I wrote them a request, encouraged by the single reference they had in their profile:

“Perfect family to be host from. They are smiling and nice people. Me and my boyfriend have been their first host and we got great food, nice acomodation, a very interestig tour in the city. They do not speak English but some how we understood each-other and we really passed great time togheter. I advice everybody to visit Brcko with this family.”

Well, the day came. I left Banja Luka at mid afternoon and approaching Brcko I couldn’t avoid the anxiety. It has been a terrible experience to arrive Banja Luka bus station in the evening, all dark, no idea where I was, trying to find my way to the center… what if Zdenko wasn’t waiting for me as agreed? What if I ran out of credit in my SIM card? There was no accommodation in Brcko. At least none to be found over the Internet. When the bus slowed down and entered the station I was starting to imagine myself sleeping in a corner, mimicking the homeless way of life… dreadful enough, even if for a night only.

And he wasn’t there. No shit! Looking around I saw a fellow, laying on a bench, in deep sleep despite the cold. Wow! My companion for the night, how exciting. Well… seriously… as I always do in difficult moments, I stopped to think. I opened my backpack, took extra clothes (geez, it was COLD) and a pack of biscuits and started to eat. And then, to my enormous relief, a car stopped and Zdenko walked in my direction.

All right, it’s not like he couldn’t speak a word of English. He could. Some assorted words, some full sentences. So we managed to keep some conversation until we got home, where Jandranka was waiting for us. It felt good, to be in a home. There was a lovely lounge, a good bathroom and above all, these two great persons. Jandranka immediately started feeding me, and for that I will be eternally grateful to her. How delicious was her home made food! But let me regain focus… this text is about language barrier, not food.

The three of us

Jandranka could speak English approximately at the same level as her hubbie.  So they could help each other, exchanging vocabulary as needed. That improved a bit the English part of the conversation. Then, due to my three years of life in Prague, I acquired some vocabulary which in a way could be useful while trying to communicate with a Serbian speaker. That helped too. So we made it through the evening, in this bizarre mixture of simplified English and some words of Czech which could be understood by my Serbian speakers friends.

Right… this was good for basic conversation. How about advices on what to see in Brcko and that sort of talk? Well, they came out with an unexpected tool…. why not using Google Translate (http://translate.google.com) to deal with more complex communication needs? So that was what we did, for hours, not only in that evening but also next day at lunch time, when I was lucky enough to have a second dose of Jandranka delicious food. Can you imagine this? “Ok, pass me the Keyboard”…. typing… hitting the translate button…. checking the integrity of the translation… then… “right… read this… this is what I mean”. The other, focused eyes on the screen… a smile… yes… “Ok let me write”… and the answer, swiftly coming, courtesy of Google. Now… to spice this situation add an erratic Internet connection which worked 30 min out of each hour and a single computer for three persons.

Let me summarize: it was GREAT! Damn the “language barrier“. People always find a way to communicate, and even if we couldn’t discuss Engels of Shakespeare, damn it again… who cares about that… we managed to learn a bit about each other, I got precious information about Brcko and the region, I was provided with everything I could need to reach maximum levels of comfort.  So, please take my advise, my humble personal advise: don’t let yourself be tricked by a so called “language barrier“. Such think does not exist.

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