Travel Smarter 2012: Use CouchSurfing to ditch your hotel addiction

Hotels are so passé.

How many times have you visited an exciting destination only to find you’re staying in a generic hotel room completely lacking in local flavor? When I visited Greece last month, I stayed in affordable, centrally located hotels in Athens and Sparta. While they offered good service at a fair price, they could have just as easily been in Los Angeles, London, or Cairo.

CouchSurfing offers a better way. With a bit of online networking you can stay in a local home, and it’s free! CouchSurfing is a social networking site linking up friendly people around the world. Once you’ve created a profile, you can search through profiles in your destination and request to sleep in their spare room or couch. No money changes hands, although guests often bring an inexpensive gift from their home countries or take their host out to dinner. It’s a fun way to make friends and makes traveling a richer and less lonely experience.

As I’ve mentioned before, even though I’ve never actually surfed a couch, CouchSurfing has been hugely helpful to me. When I moved to Santander in northern Spain, the local CouchSurfers threw my wife and I a welcome party and 25 people showed up. Soon we knew the best barrios to get an apartment, where to shop, and they hooked me up with a hiking group. The group for Cantabria is pretty active and in the four months I’ve been here I’ve been to several meetings and met lots of people.More recently, local CouchSurfers gave me a ton of information that helped inform my travel series on Greece. One memorable night, two Athenians showed me around the Exarchia neighborhood. We visited some great bars I probably would have never found on my own and I got insights into the life of an area noted for its activism. The two CouchSurfers showed me a park that had been slated to become an ugly parking garage until the locals took it over and turned it into a garden.

On a more somber note, they also showed me the spot where a fifteen-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos was shot and killed by a policeman during a demonstration in 2008. The cop is serving time for murder and the spot where his victim died is now a shrine and political rallying point. Try getting that sort of information from your hotel’s concierge.

Couches can be found in some surprising places. One Gadling blogger has tried CouchSurfing in Haiti, and while I was in Ethiopia, I met someone who was going to stay with some expats in Somaliland.

CouchSurfing had a big year in 2011 that’s making 2012 the start of a new era for the organization. After having its 501(c)(3) charity status rejected, its owners decided to become a for-profit corporation. Currently, all revenues come from the verification service, in which members donate money in order to have their address verified, thus making them more trustworthy in the eyes of other members. There’s no word yet on how else the new corporation plans to make money. This change has not gone without protest, with many members pointing out that the website and network were built communally for free, and therefore should not be used for profit.

A more popular move last year was the creation of the CouchSurfing Cultural Exchange Fund, which offers grants for cultural exchanges between refugee groups and their new communities, classroom-based international information exchange and relationship building programs, and cultural understanding between ethnically or racially disparate communities.

CouchSurfing now has more than three million profiles in about 250 countries and territories–not bad for a group that only started in 2003. While you should always keep safety in mind when dealing with strangers, I highly recommend you try it. I’ve had nothing but good experiences.

[flickr image via CaseyDavid]

A traditional home stay in Seoul – by accident

Jin is waiting for me when I return from Yongsang, placidly sitting at the picnic table in the atrium and staring off into the distance. When I knock on the astroturf covered door he looks up and grins, then lopes over to the door to greet me.

It’s only been one night at the MaMa guesthouse (46, Waryong-dong, Jongno-gu) in Seoul, but I already feel like I belong. Between the Angok (Line 3) and Jeosan (Line 1) stops in the district parallel to Insadong, my discovery of the homestay was purely by accident. Walking toward my original hotel earlier the previous night, I saw the flashy sign of MaMa splashed across the traditionally-styled home and made a mental note: if things didn’t work out with my current accommodations I’d return.

As usual, Jin Sung Jai was resting in his room when I first showed up, and through the front door window I could see his feet hanging out from the sliding doors of his room. He greeted me with enthusiasm – yes, there was a room available tonight, the “mother” room for only 60,000 Won – discounted 25% off of the normal rate.

It would be a traditional room, one not unlike those in a traditional Japanese household with a heated floor, a thin mattress in the center of the room and two linens on top. A sliding, rice paper door was the divider between the main atrium and my room, the same divider that went into Jin’s and four other rooms around the perimeter of the atrium. For this and most other rooms here, the bathroom and living spaces would be shared.

In a way though, that’s the sort of package that a solo traveler needs a foreign land – a small splash of traditional culture, a community space in which to reflect your thoughts and a shepherd to guide you through the process. In the morning I help Jin update his website as a meal of hard boiled eggs, toast and apples is delivered. He shows me through the stacks of paintings with a style that he’s perfected with years of study across parts of Europe, North America and Korea. And with a handshake and a smile he sends me on my way to Incheon Airport. I would give a hundred stays in a big box western hotel in exchange for another night in a place like this.

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6 tips for dealing with culture shock

remote villageWhen traveling, especially internationally or to more remote destinations, culture shock is bound to happen. Sometimes it is just the smallest feeling of discomfort, and at other times can lead to complete panic and an intense longing to get on the next plane home. While it is completely normal to experience these feelings of culture shock, it is also important to not let it ruin your trip. Keep these tips in mind next time you are traveling to help turn your anxiety into excitement.

Research the destination before you leave home

If you dive into the trip completely unprepared and not knowing what to expect, you are literally setting yourself up to be shocked by the culture. Search the internet, read a guidebook, or talk to travelers who have visited the destination before. Find out about customs and etiquette, ask about what kinds of clothing locals wear, learn about greetings, read about transportation and how people get around, and, most importantly, safety. Basically, just gather enough information so that you can be prepared for your experience abroad and have a better chance of blending in.Take baby steps

If possible, I have always found it helpful to begin international trips in the more touristy areas and then work my way to the more rural regions. You could also try staying in a comfortable hotel, at least in the beginning, just so that you have an escape while you are getting adjusted to your new surroundings. As you get more comfortable, you can gradually begin to get away from these comforts and immerse yourself in the culture more fully.

Learn some key phrases

Many times, becoming fluent in another language just to go on a trip that lasts a few months or less just doesn’t make sense (although, if you have the time this never hurts). It can be helpful to learn a few key phrases, however, to at least feel comfortable making small talk and knowing what people are saying to you. When in Ghana, Africa, for example, the locals would constantly shout “oburoni! at me. If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought they were angry at me or making fun of me. However, I learned early on that this word, which literally means “foreigner”, is their way of trying to make conversation with you.

Keep a journal

While it may sound a little corny, it can be helpful to write about your experience for a few reasons. One, its generally therapeutic to share your thoughts and feelings, and writing it down in your own personal book can allow you to be completely open. Moreover, I’ve personally always found keeping a journal helpful in shifting my mindset from being nervous about my new surroundings to being excited. Getting everything down on paper and seeing just how many unique experiences you have in one day alone can help make it clear the opportunity you have to immerse yourself and learn about a new culture and place.

Try new things, even if you’re afraid

While it may seem scary, actually participating in cultural experiences abroad can show you firsthand just how not-scary it is. Try a new food, even if it is something you would never eat at home, learn how to play a local instrument, or attend a cultural festival. Even simple tasks such as hailing a taxi or asking for directions can seem daunting, but you should try anyway. For example, while in Ghana I did most of the talking to locals in terms of asking where to eat or where to go, mostly because my travel companion was terrified to interact with the locals. She really wanted to have a dress handmade in the village, and when she asked me to help buy the fabric for her, I refused, hoping to get her to talk to the seamstress herself. After a bit of begging and pleading on her part, she finally forced herself to choose a fabric and ask the woman for the price. Afterwards, she felt a lot more confident about interacting with locals and experiencing the culture.

If possible, make contacts before you go

With all of the company information, social media platforms, and networking websites out there, it makes it easy to connect with people and companies from all over the world. This could be as simple as signing on to volunteer with an NGO in your destination, or contacting hospitality companies in the area. Ask around travel forums or post on CouchSurfing to see if anyone will be in the same area as you at the same time or has ever been to that destination and can provide information and other contacts. Even if you can’t find someone to meet up with in the country, it is nice to speak with people who have been there and learn about their experiences.

Blogger Jessica Festa

Introducing another new blogger at Gadling, Jessica Festa…

Where was your photo taken:

On Manganari Beach in Ios, Greece

Where do you live now:

Long Island, New York, but planning to move into the city by the end of the year

Scariest airline flown:

To be honest, I have never been scared to fly, even on really turbulent flights. If you asked me what my scariest plane ride was, however, I would definitely say the one right before I skydived in New Zealand!

Favorite city/country/place:

That is really tough, as I love every place I have ever traveled too for a different reason. However, if I had to choose I would probably say Sydney, Australia, because I studied abroad there and really felt like I got to know the city having an apartment there, a job, a gym membership, my favorite cafe, etc… The street I lived on was filled with bars, galleries, restaurants, shopping…It was just such a lively area. I also never got sick of walking to Darling Harbour in the mornings, sitting by the water, strolling through the Botanical Gardens, and passing by the many street markets in Sydney.

Most remote corner of the globe visited:

Hmmmm, I’d have to say in Chiang Rai, Thailand, when I stayed in the Akha Village. Just to get to our teaching placements, which were also in very rural areas, we had to walk 2-3 miles each morning. I absolutely love getting away from the big cities, though!

Favorite guidebook series:

I have actually only used guidebooks to plan one trip, as I usually wait to get to a place and ask locals as well as other backpackers what they recommend, or sometimes I’ll read some travel blogs. However, I will say that I love Rick Steve’s guidebooks. I used his as well as two others when I backpacked Europe and I felt that his recommendations and advice were a lot more useful and thoughtful than the other books.

Hotel, Hostel, or Other:

I’m a huge fan of hostels! Not only because they are cheaper (even if they were more expensive than a hotel I would stay at them) but because they are so social and fun. I have met many other backpackers in hostels that I have ended up traveling with in other places. I will also say that I am a big fan of home stays. I have done two of them and loved the experience of really getting to see the region I am in through the perspective of a local.

How did you get started traveling:

Growing up my family always liked to do road trips to different states. Then when I was around 15 my best friend Jenn and I got our families to plan a joint cruise to Bermuda, and from there we ended up going on cruises every summer together until we graduated. I got started on international travel after I studied abroad in Sydney, Australia, backpacking on the weekends and stopping in New Zealand and Fiji on the way home. I literally became addicted and started planning my next trip (which ended up being teaching English in Thailand backpacking South East Asia, China, and Hong Kong) immediately.

Most Recent Trip:

I actually just got back a couple weeks ago from Ghana in Africa. I did some orphanage work there, which I absolutely loved, and also got to travel to some of the historical as well as natural areas of the country. What was really appealing to me here was the rich culture of music, dancing, and drumming. I seriously wish people in New York danced in the streets more, and that there was always music playing in the background.

Worst Hotel Experience:

It was actually in a hostel. My FIRST hostel, of course (and honestly, I have not had a bad experience in the 100 other hostels I have stayed in, go figure!). My friends and I were in Brisbane, Australia, staying at this hostel that immediately seemed really sketchy when we walked in. There were clumps of hair all over the bathroom floor and everything seemed damp and had bugs. It was so bad that I refused to pee all night. The people in our room seemed a little shady as well, and at 2 AM I was woken up to a drug deal going down on the bed below me. Let’s just say I slept hugging all my stuff the entire night.

Harar home stay: living in a traditional African home

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If you’re staying for any length of time in a place, the best way to experience the local culture is through a home stay. Luckily Harar has a number of traditional homes offering spare rooms.

A local guide showed me a few and I chose one hidden away in a small alley not far from the Catholic mission. This is the neighborhood that got Harar a UNESCO religious tolerance award because there’s an Ethiopian Orthodox Church, a Catholic mission, and several mosques all within sight of each other. Walking home I use three minarets and a giant cross as landmarks.

Harari homes look inward. All you see is a gate that leads to a compound of two or more houses, hidden behind their own gates. Enter the second gate and you’re still not inside, you’re in a courtyard with the bathroom to one side and to the other a large, ornately carved wooden door leading to the main building. Harari homes have a unique architecture. With thick stone walls and small windows, they stay cool even in the scorching heat of the day. Leaving your shoes at the front door, you enter the nedeba, or living room. The walls are covered in colorful plates and baskets and often cabinets with multicolored glassware. Hararis love to decorate their rooms with the products of their centuries-old crafts. People sit on a series of platforms, reclining against pillows. The platforms are painted red in memory of those who died at the battle of Tchellenqo in 1887, when the Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II defeated Harar’s Emir Abdullahi and the city lost its independence.

Where you sit depends on who you are. The amir nedeba is where the head of the family sits. It’s on the highest platform, usually in one corner where he can see the entrance to the compound. In olden days there was a spot for keeping some spears right next to the amir nedeba, just in case the person entering the compound wasn’t welcome. After a month in Harar I’ve only seen one guy who regularly carries a spear, though.

%Gallery-119012%I’m a regular at a few Harari homes and nobody throws spears at me. Since I’m an honored guest from far away, I sit at the gidir nedeba, the place of honor. I’ve seen members of the family sitting in that spot immediately move when I come in. No amount of protest will get them to sit back down. The next level down is the tit nedeba (“small place”) for lower-ranking people. This isn’t strictly followed, however. One birtcha (qat-chewing session) I attend has so many people that even some of the most prominent individuals sit on the lower level because there isn’t enough room on the upper. Another, separate platform is called the gebti eher nedeba (“the place behind the door”) and is for the young or people of a lower social class.

Harari homes are full of symbolism. My friend Amir says, “Every color, every shape means something. Most Hararis cannot know it all.”

Even little details are worked out in advance, he says. There’s a special room with a narrow entrance for women to stay during childbirth. It’s wider at the top so that big platters of food can be passed through.

The width of the bedroom door corresponds to the width of a coffin. “That’s to remind you of your fate and to live a good life,” he says.

My house, owned by Faisel and Anisa Abdullah, has a separate upstairs all for me. I get a bedroom, a living room, and a lounge with no furniture but a bunch of pillows ranged around the walls. This is for entertaining. Friends will sit here drinking coffee or chewing qat and talking the hours away. My rooms cost me 3500 birr ($212) a month. Water is included and this is important to confirm when renting a place because water is expensive in Harar, especially in the dry season we’re in now. I wasn’t expecting to have only a squat toilet and bucket showers but it turns out the bathroom has a European-style toilet and a proper shower, luxuries I don’t need but certainly appreciate.

Imme, a German painter staying in a different neighborhood, has three rooms even larger than mine for 3000 birr ($182) a month, but got the more traditional African bathroom. Both of us have far more space than we need, and for a price lower than the city’s hotels!

A home stay allows you to settle in a neighborhood for a while. The closed-off nature of Harari architecture means I haven’t met most of my neighbors, but I’m getting to know the people I pass in the nearby alleys every day. I’m also getting into the rhythm of the place. Just before dawn the muezzin of the Jamia mosque wakes me up with the morning call to prayer. The first couple of mornings I had a hard time falling back asleep, but now the flowery sounds of Arabic barely register in my dreams. I’d make a bad Muslim. The muezzin’s call to prayer is followed by low chanting coming from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, announcing their morning service.

I’m usually up shortly after dawn in any case. Outside my window I can hear the kids from the local school horsing around before the bell rings. If I peek out my window I can just see the front door of the school over the rooftops. The kids in their yellow shirts and sky-blue pants or skirts wait in the shade or run around after each other laughing.

Soon I’m out wandering around Harar. I usually don’t come back until night, when I sit for an hour or two writing in my living room before turning in. The open window lets in all the sounds of the Harari night. Hyenas laugh and howl at the edge of town like the mad lost souls of Purgatory, sometimes getting closer, sometimes drawing away or shifting position. The town dogs bark defiantly but do no good. I often see hyenas pacing through the alleys in the center of town looking for scraps to eat. They keep quiet then, preferring to make noise outside the city walls. The battle ebbs and flows all night, at times lapsing into an eerie silence. Then the hyenas will call to each other again and the dogs will bark self-importantly, completely ignored by the hyenas.

It’s like falling asleep to music.

Don’t miss the rest of my Ethiopia travel series: Harar, Ethiopia: Two months in Africa’s City of Saints.

Coming up next: A visit to a traditional healer!