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]

Harar home stay: living in a traditional African home

homsetay, home stay, Harar, Harar homestay, Harar home stay
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!

Travelocity video contest awards winners $5,000 voluntourism vacation grants

Travelocity knows you work hard. That’s why the online travel company would like to give you a $5,000 grant to go on vacation.

Calm down now. You have to work to win your just reward. And by work, I mean you or a team need to submit a winning video. Then you have to use your five thousand smackers to take a Signature Trip volunteer vacation offered by Travelocity’s voluntourism partners. Examples include doing trail work in Alaska with the American Hiking Society, developing community projects in Tanzania with Cross-Cultural Solutions, working side-by-side with scientists on an Amazonian riverboat with Earthwatch Institute, or living in a children’s home in Peru with Globe Aware. Oh, and there’s one more catch. The top 25 finalists will be determined based on the number of online votes they receive from social networking sites.

Since 2006, Travelocity’s Travel for Good® program has been annually awarding eight, $5,000 volunteer vacation grants to American applicants. Travel for Good’s main objectives are green hotels and voluntourism. As Gadling has previously reported, voluntourism is one of the fastest growing sectors of the travel industry.

If hands-on, experiential travel is up your alley, go to VolunteerJournals.com. The site will walk you through the easy process to upload your video. You can then promote your video on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, and send it to friends and family for voting.
Each video should explain why you deserve to win, and which Signature Trip from Travelocity’s voluntourism partners inspires you. Volunteers and grant winners also have use of the site’s free blogging platform to share their experiences.

The top 25 finalists will be determined by 50 percent audience support and 50 percent quality of their videos. There are two contest cycles per year, and Travelocity employees will select four winners from the top 25 finalists from each cycle. There are two deadlines for entries: March 31 (voting is April 1-May 31), and July 1-September 31 (voting October 1-November 30). Get filming!

Ten real budget travel tips

budget travel tipsDo you continually feel wanderlust’s pull but fear that you don’t have enough money to see the world?

Your fears, thankfully, are misplaced. Despite the mainstream travel media’s concerted, ongoing effort to make you think that travel is solely the domain of the rich, it is actually possible to travel well for surprisingly little money–and not just in those places where good deals are plentiful.

If saving money is your first goal, always do advance research by perusing published articles and guidebooks covering your intended destinations. Also be sure to take a look around the budget-oriented travel media. The Guardian’s budget travel guide is very likely the best English-language newspaper for budget travel advice. The Guardian does an especially great job of focusing on budget travel itineraries and showing readers, step-by-step, how to travel well while remaining on a tight budget.

Following are ten general tips to help you travel for far less than you think you’ll need to spend. Later this week I’ll look at some local budget travel techniques that are little-known outside of their home territories, which will provide a useful supplement to this post.

1. Hostels and low-price hotel chains. Increasingly these days, hostels boast individual rooms, some with their own toilets and showers. So even if you’re no longer interested in early morning dance parties, don’t write off hostels. Many of these new hostels are also quite stylish, which means that in many locales ratty, filthy hostels are finally facing price point competition. Also of note are the newish budget hotel chains, like Tune Hotels (Indonesia, Malaysia, UK) and easyHotel (UK, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Hungary, Germany, Cyprus, United Arab Emirates). With advance booking, these no-frills hotels can be huge money-savers.

2. Empty university dorm rooms. Many universities offer their rooms for very affordable rates during those stretches of time when there are no students around. Some of these rooms show up on booking sites and others can only be reserved through the universities themselves. During the summer of 2007, I stayed in a university dorm in Vienna for €19. My private room was clean and spacious, with appealing modernist touches.

3. Private home stays. Airbnb is the newest and slickest arrival on the scene, a well organized and very attractive listings site that allows proprietors and guests alike to comment on each other’s performance as hosts and guests. This social media function makes Airbnb especially useful for quality control. In many destinations, tourist boards organize private home stays; in some others, guest rooms are advertised by locals. Guidebooks should help you figure out the best way to go about securing reservations in private rooms. As always, use common sense.

4. Volunteer tourism, or Voluntourism. This tourism/volunteering hybrid has taken off in the past decade. To give but one example, Andaman Discoveries’ volunteer gigs in southern Thailand charge around $210 for a week of on-the-ground volunteering. That charge includes accommodation, many meals, and airport transfer. Check out VolunTourism.org for more information.

5. Couchsurfing. This free accommodation option is the ideal recession-era budget travel trick. It’s a free and very popular way to bed down. Though there are a number of couchsurfing sites, CouchSurfing is the granddaddy of the movement. Couchsurfing fans get starry-eyed when discussing the practice, which depends on peer review and typically prompts guests to contribute something (like meals or a service) to their temporary hosts.6. WWOOF. This strange acronym stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. This is a fantastic organization that pairs up farm hands with work opportunities on farms, providing room and board in exchange for labor. WWOOF currently lists farms in 100 countries and territories around the world. Many people get involved with WWOOF in a kind of quasi-apprenticeship manner, though the organization is open to travelers.

7. Social media. Travel bloggers are notoriously friendly and forthcoming with their tips and their time. Reach out to travel writers whose articles you’ve liked and strike up a friendly rapport. Approach them respectfully and you’ll usually find that travel writers love to share their knowledge. Scour Twitter for interesting people in the destinations on your itinerary. Be friendly and make contact. The likelihood that you’ll meet someone who will give you some tips for interesting local action is high. If you’re lucky, you’ll meet someone who will show you around, treat you to a meal, and drink a cheap bottle of something or other with you.

8. Supermarkets and street food. You don’t have to eat in restaurants while you’re on the road. Supermarkets, public food markets, and street food can all help you save money while traveling. In many places, you will find fresher produce in markets than in restaurants. Public food markets and street food provide a route into local culture and are usually quite inexpensive. Follow the crowds for the freshest and tastiest grub.

9. Hitchhiking. All the caveats apply. Be prepared, be careful, use your judgment, and embark on your hitchhiking adventure with a friend. Beyond the shared cost of fuel, hitchhiking is more or less free. It is a great way to meet locals and learn about the places you’re visiting.

10. Home exchange. Swapping your residence with another is far easier than it sounds. Home exchange networks charge an annual membership fee, which allows a place of residence to be listed. Once a listing is in place, members organize exchanges with each other. The net result? Free accommodation. And sometimes intercontinental friendships. Home exchange networks include HomeExchange.com, INTERVac, and International Home Exchange Network. See this article (written, to be fully forthcoming, by my first cousin!) for one family’s experience with home exchange.

[Image: Flickr / ArchiM]

Spanish Immersion in Guatemala

Here’s a tip from a woman I met who is finishing up her master’s degree at the Ohio State University. If you want a cheap place to learn Spanish or brush up on the Spanish you know, try Guatemala. She was in Antigua for two weeks last summer and found it cheap, fun and an extensive Spanish language lesson.

From what she said, you can just basically show up in Antigua and find a school and a place to stay. Lodging with a family as a homestay is readily available and schools are everywhere. If flying-by-the- seat-of-your-pants travel isn’t your thing, here are a couple of links to websites for language schools so you can plan ahead. The first one, Casa de Lenguas has been around since 2001. The website includes information about the program, activities, lodging and who your fellow students might be. The average age is 30. People are as young as 18 and go up to age 65. I’m sure if you’re over 65, you won’t be kicked out.

One thing that caught my attention about the Casa de Lenguas program is there is a volunteering component. If you bring materials and supplies to donate to a charitable organization and donate your time to a cause, you can get a discount off tuition.

The Ixchel Spanish School, in business since 1999, emphasizes speaking and also includes homestay information and extracurricular opportunities. For even more options, check out Conexion. This is an internet café in Antigua that lists several Spanish schools and their contact information. “¡Buen viaje!” Have a good trip!