Adventures Of A Couchsurfer: London Edition

One of the hairless cats cozied up to me. The other looked on, like a bald alien. My friend and I were sitting on a leather couch, listening to a guy we’d just met share intimate – and disturbing – details of his sex life.

I was traveling with a guy friend through this leg of my Europe trip. I’d stayed with a few couchsurfers before. When I was traveling alone, I’d always been careful to choose hosts who seemed safe. Read: nice, sweet-sounding women in their 20s or 30s.

Traveling as a pair presented new challenges and opportunities. First, a lot of those reliable-sounding hosts only opened their places to a singular guest, so it ruled out a whole demographic of non-axe murderers. But, on the upside, traveling as a pair – especially when one of us was a guy – meant I also felt more comfortable staying in a place of a shadier persuasion.

London, obviously, can be very expensive for travelers. So the first order of business was finding a reliable couch to crash on.

A guy I’ll call Wes offered to host us. He was from Italy, but spoke with a perfect British accent (to my American ears, at least). His job was in fashion, and he sported a mohawk with buzzed-out designs all over his head, black leather pants and jacket, and extremely tall platform shoes. That description sounds Marilyn Manson-esque, but there was no makeup. Wes noted that most fashion stylists were gay, but wanted to make it very clear that he wasn’t. He just liked his own style.

Wes lived near Kings Cross, and met us at the station before taking us to his favorite Chinese dive. The food was good and cheap, and that was the point.

Next, he took the two of us back to his apartment. We put our stuff down, set up camp in the living room, and, without any bidding I remember, he began to tell us about his sexual escapades. I’m nearly positive he wasn’t planning on inviting us or anything, but perhaps he wanted to impress us.
Apparently, Wes went clubbing every night of the week. Not every weekend night, or even every weekday night, but literally every night. I asked when he’d last taken a night off. His answer? About three weeks prior. He didn’t strike me as the let’s-giggle-and-drink-and-dance-til-the-sun-comes-up type, and that’s where his escapades came in. He treated clubbing like a job. He often went alone and scouted out women who seemed interested. Usually, he succeeded in finding someone as excited about him as he was them – in sometimes graphic ways.

While Wes regaled us, his hairless alien-cats came to join. After story time, he gave us the tour of his apartment. It was spacious considering the neighborhood, but also dirty.

The craziest part was he had a tarantula exoskeleton in his kitchen – on the counter … near where he prepped food. According to Wes, there was a tarantula in his house, it molted and he kept the exoskeleton around because it was cool. How a tarantula found its way to a kitchen in a highly urban corner of London, I’ll never know.

Most of the things that came out of Wes’s mouth were hardly credible, and yet I couldn’t find any evidence to the contrary.

That night, he took me and my friend to “his guy” for falafel before we went with him to a club. The owner of the restaurant came out to greet Wes and give us our food.

After, at the club, it was clear Wes didn’t want to hang out with us anymore. My friend and I walked aimlessly around the multi-story space, but watching Wes prowl was far more fascinating than the music. Tall in his platforms, he scanned the crowd, a man on a highly questionable mission. After an hour or two, we told him we were going to head back to rest up. Wes said he’d be out a few more hours and gave us his keys.

We left the next morning around noon, when our host was still asleep. We wrote him a note thanking him for the free accommodations, and saying that, truly, meeting him was a unique experience.

Wes, sleeping off the night before, didn’t hear us slip out.

[Image credit: Flickr user Tomi Tapio]

Next clubbing hotspot–the West Bank?

One thing that travel teaches you is that wherever you go, people want to have fun. You just don’t expect that people are able to have fun in some places.

The West Bank is commonly perceived to be one of those places. The Israeli blockade, factional power struggles, terrorism, and poverty should be enough to kill all the fun in the region. Yet some Palestinians are determined to buck the vibe by opening nightclubs to give locals the chance to relax in what has to be one of the most stressful places in the world.

One popular club is al-SnowBar in Ramallah, 10 km (6 miles) north of Jerusalem. Their Facebook page, which has more than 550 fans, explains that the club offers day and night activities. By day, “families can relax and enjoy both good food and swimming. Al-SnowBar offers a full restaurant with its own personal chef, full bar service, and argyleh (hooka) service. Al-SnowBar is soon to be offering a basketball court.”

How many Ibiza clubs offer a basketball court?

At night it becomes more like what you’d expect from a club with “Jazz nights, weddings, exclusive parties, and DJ nights.” There’s also a bonfire that clubbers like to dance around.

Sounds pretty cool, and it’s only one club among many, but as a BBC report points out, only a small percentage of Palestinians can afford to go to such places. The clubs are doing well, however, and draw in people from other towns. A Palestinian woman from Jerusalem explained that she comes to Ramallah to party because she doesn’t feel welcome in Jewish-owned clubs. So while Palestine isn’t about to join places like Goa in the international clubbing circuit, it’s nice to know that even in the toughest conditions, people can still have a good time. If you want to join them, check out this handy guide to traveling safely in the West Bank.

Photo of Ramallah courtesy Soman via Wikimedia Commons.

Advice you can actually use about clubbing alone on a trip

Going out to the clubs at night is an important part of experiencing a new city. For many of us, mingling with the locals over drinks is one of our favorite travel activities. There’s a lot of finger-shaking, old-fashioned advice for staying safe out there, but here are some real tips you can actually use, even if you’re alone, which can actually increase your fun-times.

Make and take a buddy – if you can.

A buddy is not always possible. I travel alone a lot, but it doesn’t preclude me from going out at night. Always ask your hotel reception (and your taxi driver, and anyone who will listen to you) if there are areas you should avoid at night alone, and how late is really too late to be out. Make a friend during the day if you can, as you can meet up with them at night, but if it doesn’t happen? It’s okay. Stick close to your hotel and/or call taxis (don’t just wander around outside trying to flag a cab).

Careful who you befriend.

If you’re the kind of person who wants to get laid in every city you travel to … I don’t know how to help you. That is some dangerous business, even if you’re in your own state and trolling the suburbs. I would advise travelers to consider “hooking up” a big risk, and not a wise one to take on a night out in a strange city. If you’re going to make new friends, it’s safest to meet them during the day, then meet up with them at night. Added bonus: they’ll be able to recommend a cool place to go and keep you from wasting your evening somewhere that sucks.

Now, if you befriend Dr. Jekyll during the day, and at night they turn into Mr. Hyde, remember that you don’t owe them anything, and get the heck out of the situation.

If you’re out on your own and trying to meet new friends at the bar, don’t be looking to hook up with the hottest thing you see. You’re just setting yourself up for disappointment or even danger. Look for people in your age group, who dress like you and are laughing and having a good time. It may be tempting (or less intimidating) to approach someone who’s all alone, but it’s much safer to go talk to a group of people; serial killers don’t usually travel in groups of friends who are laughing their heads off and having fun.If they don’t speak any English and you don’t speak any [language], be careful.

If you’re in a country where you don’t speak the language and they don’t speak any English, you probably shouldn’t go out without a bilingual buddy. Fortunately, most countries where one would go clubbing have a fairly developed English-speaking population. Just be careful, and listen to your gut. If you think the people with whom you’re speaking English are muttering bad things about you to each other in their own language, they may well be — and if they’re not, it’s rude of them to behave that way. Move on.

Plan the end of your night in advance.

Enjoying the thrill of the evening and letting the night take you wherever it may is a romantic idea, but it can be dangerous. Decide in advance which part of town you’re going to end up in and how you can get a cab from there. Furthermore, decide what time you’re going to turn in — lest you should stay out too late, spend all your money and ruin your sightseeing the next day. Going out with no plan is like wandering down a dark alley with no idea whether it has an outlet at the other end. Don’t do it — it’s not just dangerous, it’s also likely to be way less fun.

Put these numbers in your phone.

Even if you don’t want the roaming charges, etc., put these numbers in your phone in case of emergency:
1. Your hotel — and put the address in there, too.
2. Local taxi service.
3. Police.
4. 202-501-4444 (country code 01), the US Department of State Emergency Assistance to Americans in Foreign Countries line.

Now have fun, and click here for Five sexy ways to carry your valuables safely.

Top 10 nightspots in the world

We each travel for different reasons, but for some travellers, a spectacular nightlife is a major draw to certain destinations. Which is why sent a team of reporters out to find the 10 best nightspots in the world (man! I want that job … ) Here’s the list they came up with:

  1. Rooftop Cinema, Melbourne, Australia
  2. Cafe Cairo – Hamilton, Bermuda
  3. Melody Bar – Toronto, Canada
  4. Bar Yellow, Santiago, Chile
  5. Q Bar, Beijing, China
  6. Glamour Bar, Shanghai, China
  7. Monsoon, Shanghai, China
  8. 15cent15, Paris, France
  9. Cibeles, Mexico City, Mexico
  10. Terrasse, Renault, Mexico City, Mexico

Been to any of these places? Yeah, me neither, and I’ll probably never make it since I’m more of a fan of small, out-of-the-way, holes in the wall. But some of them sound kind of cool. To read about the picks more in-depth, click here.

Party Flights Themed After Nightclubs

Monarch, the European budget airline, is offering Ibiza-bound passengers a more exciting way to travel. Revelers en route to the world’s foremost destination for clubbing and all-around debauchery can now get started early on the company’s new “party plane.”

Or can they?

Because, by the sounds of it, the party is a little lame. While the inside is said to be decked out in bright colors and a nightclub theme, cabin crews won’t be tolerating any drunken behavior, and anyone who’s already intoxicated won’t be allowed on board in the first place. It’s been awhile since I’ve been clubbing, but — if memory serves — isn’t getting drunk more or less the point?

But, says Monarch, the fun part is that you’ll be able to buy “funky” music CDs during your “party plane” experience. Unfortunately, a) this doesn’t sound like fun at all, and b) it seems to run contrary to their claims of “chic hedonism.”

On the other hand, “it’s the first time a plane has ever adopted a music brand,” says a company spokeswoman. This may not make the new planes much of a party, but is certainly something that set them apart from the competition.

So, a little in-flight fun — even if it’s subdued — might be a good way to get the party started, even if you’ll have to hold back on the real rowdy behavior until after arrival.