June 18, 2013

On Serendipity

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Serendipity is a funny thing. The mind-blowing intersections of fate and intention that lead a person down paths heretofore unconsidered is, without question, my favourite aspect of travel.  

We sat, last evening, in the formal dining room of Sir James Wallace, a Knight of the Realm, so honored for his philanthropy. How did we come to be sitting there, eating off his privately commissioned silver, discussing art and opera? We picked up a hitchhiker.

In this case, a hitchhiker who turned out to be a micro-biologist and one of the most interesting travelers we’ve run across in a long while. He tossed his pack into our van and regaled us with stories of crossing China, a protein-per-penny breakdown on the nutritional value of chickpeas, and how Shakespeare and the Brownian theory related to travel. It seems he impressed Sir James as well. He’s now ensconced in the Knight’s mansion-cum-art gallery as the “artist in residence.” He’s creating a planetary mood ring on commission. I can’t tell you how, that would spoil the surprise and endanger his beautiful idea, the intersection of art and computer science.

When considering who he might share his good fortune with, he thought of us, and so we were invited to a private piano concert earlier this week, and dinner last night.

This has got me thinking:

The path would have been entirely different if we’d said, “No,” to any number of tiny questions along the way.

I’m a believer that the Universe conspires to help us, but we have to give her some material to work with.

Serendipity is one of the reasons we travel: in search of those unexpected, delightful connections between worlds that we would not otherwise have a door into.

Have you experienced this? Talk to me about serendipity and where it’s taken you!

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Category: Hospitality, Oceania, On The Road

December 18, 2012

Christmas and community on the road

This year we’re celebrating Christmas in Borneo. Last year we were on Cape Cod, in the USA, the year before that, Guatemala, the year before that, Canada, the year before that found us in Tunisia, camped in the cold on the edge of the ocean of sand.

One of the most interesting parts of our journey has been discovering the differences in celebration around the world. In Tunisia, we were the only one’s celebrating Christmas at all. In Guatemala, we enjoyed the processions, broke a pinata, and sewed stockings for 16 people out of local huipile fabric. Sometimes we’re lucky, and family joins us in some far flung place, some years, we are completely alone.

But we aren’t. Not really.

As long term travelers we learned, early on, the value and necessity of creating community as we go. We actively look for other folks who are out of their element and draw them in to celebrate with us. In Tunisia, this was a missionary family for Thanksgiving. In Guatemala, it was a whole houseful of backpackers who slept on our floor, stacked like cord wood, in front of our fireplace. Even when we were cycling for a year, we always carried two extra sets of plates and forks so that we could invite people to share a meal, cooked on our camp stoves, at the drop of a hat.

We have a few family holiday traditions: stockings of some sort are always hung (and filled!) We always read A Christmas Carol aloud. The kids make decorations. We make a few cookies if we have an oven. And, we find people. There have been very few holidays that didn’t include friends or strangers in my life. I was raised by people who took it upon themselves to welcome the world, the sick and poor to the rich and ridiculous, and it’s a deep rooted part of our family culture.

We’ve just arrived in Miri, Malaysia, where we’ll spend Christmas this year. We’re on the hunt for some people to have in to celebrate with us. What are your Christmas traditions on the road? How do you create community wherever you go?

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Category: General, Hospitality, On The Road, Vagabonding Life

December 4, 2012

Housesitting: the perfect travel job?

Palm trees in Koh Samui.

Palm trees in Koh Samui. Photo: Chi King / Flickr

Here’s the deal: free housing, living in a beautiful island and some fun work. Oh, and the boss is far away and can’t micromanage you. Sound too good to be true? That’s what Meg and Tony of the Landing Standing blog experienced in their post titled Housesitting in Thailand: live for free in paradise.

Meg described the setup here:

For 4 weeks, we were housesitting on the beautiful Thai island of Koh Samui. The house itself was a luxury villa/mansion perched on top of a peninsula on the Northeast side of the island that boasted panoramic views of the Gulf of Thailand from every room in the house.

. . . Not one but TWO swimming pools, a jacuzzi, a full gym, a media room, a Snooker room, a pool-side bar and entertainment system…. The list goes on! This place was over the top and we were so excited to be spending the month there!

Sounds like something out of the TV show “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”

By now you’re wondering how to get in on this. Meg helpfully explains what website she used and the process of connecting with the house owners. She also stressed that this type of luxury situation might not be the typical housesitting experience.

A Canadian girl I knew had a ninja tip to share: read up on your competition. Check out the profiles of other prospective housesitters.  Pick up tricks on how to write a warm, personable profile that attracts house owners. Learn the right things to say that build up trust and rapport that gets people to give you the keys.

Have you ever done housesitting? Please share your stories in the comments.

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Category: Expat Life, Hospitality, Notes from the collective travel mind

July 12, 2012

Couchsurfing goes smart(phone)

A couple weeks ago, giant hospitality sharing website Couchsurfing has launched his new Android application you can download for free here.
I must admit, it was about time. Travelling a lot and being an active Couchsurfer, I was really stoked at the user unfriendliness of the famous website over a small smartphone screen. I am no technology geek nor I rely too much on devices during my travels, but I also seldom renounce to my amazing Couchsurfing experiences. Thus, I just felt so frustrated about the lack of browsing facility on a mobile device, which is actually what most travelers these days use as soon as they can connect to a wi-fi signal.

The new application has a nice look, with a pop-up menu on the left side that easily connects to your inbox, profile and a short list of settings. The user profiles have been reduced to a vertical scrolling tab with all the relevant information condensed in blocks. To see more and actually send a Couch request, you have to slide the screen horizontally to the right in order to access to the different screens. The same clunky procedure is needed to access to the actual Couch Request tab: there is a little button on the lower left corner of the screen you have to slide up to access to the request page and actually lodge your request. I must be honest, it took me several minutes to understand what I needed to do… I suggest to provide a simple screen for starters where these basic – and essential – functions are clearly explained at least once before usage.

What is quite sleek instead is the message inbox: you get a nice, chat alike record of the correspondence, and it is fairly easy to answer on the go, which is actually what most travelers needed. A good way to check for your last minute couch requests on the road.

I also think that another very important feature, the search option, may need some great improvements: first of all, some of the locations that actually have surfers come out empty when browsed on a mobile. The most popular destinations on the contrary work better, but do not list the users under the more organized referential and credential order found on the regular version, making it a bit of a “hit or miss” experience.

Ultimately, I am very glad something like this has been released as it has greatly improved what was a task of endurance I could not bear to perform on my mobile. Now, as long as I can see room for improvements, at least we are able to quickly connect and check the status of our latest Couch requests on the go. Overall, a much needed application that possibly has been rushed to the market without a thorough “on the road testing”… still, I am so glad it arrived! Anxiously waiting for an improved version two!!

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Category: Hospitality, On The Road, Vagabonding Styles

April 26, 2012

So what’s it like to Couchsurf in Asia?

Picture credit: http://www.theexpeditioner.com

A few weeks ago, Marcus Sortijas published an interesting piece on Vagabonding describing the Couchsurfing experience in the United States. As I am a Couchsurfing aficionado and have travelled more than 10 Asian countries using it, I would like to spend some words describing how this beautiful service works in another side of the world.

I would like to start introducing an important, ever present concept in Asian societies: a guest is considered as a gift from the Gods. Of course, only when it is a real, genuine guest.  I feel important to describe this duality, because Couchsurfing in Asia works on the same, subliminal dualistic level: it is either great, or totally awful.

Why? Because you may be very lucky and get to experience unique moments of true hospitality and kindness with some of the most humble, accommodating people on earth. Or you may end up in the hands of some businessman – tourist operator, tour guide, hotel manager, shop owner, restaurant owner etc. – interested in giving you a free – and sometimes dirty – bed in order to push his/her services.

On account of my personal experience, most of this “second category” people are to be found in the Indian Subcontinent: flashy profiles peppered with a bunch of predominantly local users’ references are generally marks of the Devil. To cite an example, in mid 2010 me and my girlfriend visited Alleppey, Kerala. We were welcomed by an apparently friendly Couchsurfer who took us to an ayurvedic center he was working at. We were accommodated in a dirty room which probably caters to paying guests during the regular season, when it is actually cleaned and functional: there was no electricity for the best part of the day. That night we spent simmering in the horrid heat – our bodies the feast of a thousand mosquitoes biting as hard as a gang of hungry living dead – still remains one of our fondest travel horror stories.

This Couchsurfer talked to us for about 10 minutes during the whole stay, and tried to sell us a Backwaters’ tour a few times before giving up. At last, as we were about to board a little boat hours after our arrival, we found out that our host wanted to charge us three times the going rate.

Nevertheless, like the ying and the yang, Couchsurfing in Asia – and also in India, let me clarify – can also be a dreamy experience: to give some credit to Indian Couchsurfers, I must say that I have also received some of the most amazing hospitality in this country, and have been able to exchange deep, meaningful relationships with its Couchsurfing community. I have been treated as a family member, almost spoon fed daily – and free of charge – and brought to experience places and situations as deeply as it can get.

I have got to know Couchsurfers’ family members as my own, and have been helped immensely in many aspects of my vagabonding. If this is not enough, I can also tell you that the reason why I met my lovely girlfriend and settled down in Malaysia is only because one odd night I decided to attend a Couchsurfing meeting in Penang!! So, for this and many other reasons, I can just recommend using this amazing community as you travel across Asia because it still gets you the easiest and purest access way into Asian cultures: as the members are English speaking locals looking for a genuine interaction, you will be able to receive a real insight into their lives and homes.

And if it is not… oh well, horror Couchsurfing stories make great conversation topics at the bar back home. People will look you in a different way after you told them you survived a night at the horrific ayurvedic clinic… or that you slept in the nest of a tour guide viper trying to poison you with a bunch of hiking tour options… and most importantly: happy surfing in Asia to anyone!!

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Category: Adventure Travel, Asia, Destinations, Hospitality, On The Road, Vagabonding Styles

April 21, 2012

Vagabonding Field Report: Mykonos, Now I Know Why They Built Windmills Here

Cost/Day- 60 euros

After a few months on the road, it takes something fairly odd to catch a vagabonder off-guard, but seeing a man herding sheep from the back of a scooter certainly threw me for a loop. The sheep didn’t seem flustered by the portly man zipping in and out of the herd, hurrying them along the hilly roads of Mykonos in loud Greek, all the while trying to weave around potholes. However, I on the other hand almost ran my beat-up red scooter into a fence as the road took one of its many curves and my eyes were locked on this episode of “Sheep: Hell’s Angels”.

(more…)

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Category: Europe, Food and Drink, Hospitality, Languages and Culture, Vagabonding Field Reports

March 30, 2012

What’s it like to couchsurf across America?

Young man lying under a red couch.

Young man lying under a red couch. Photo: Dave Austria / Flickr

When you think of places you’ve visited, do you remember the sights–or the people?  In this article, it was the latter that made the lasting impression: I couch-surfed across America.

The vivid and quirky cast of Couchsurfing hosts the writer encounters provide enough fodder for its own TV sitcom. An excerpt:

Bill, our host in Duluth, described himself in his profile as a Zamboni operator and freelance detective. In reality, he manned the graveyard shift at an assisted living facility and supplemented his income by donating plasma on the weekends. With the decline of the Iron Range, he explained, blood was now the city’s largest export. This was also false.

It goes to show that there’s no such thing as a standard couchsurfer (or standard American, for that matter).  Along the way, writer Tim Murphy goes through the highs and lows.  The highlights include flying in a WWII-era plane over the Mississippi river, followed by being treated to dinner.

One of the recurring challenges was finding hosts to stay with in popular big cities.  Being in high demand, these hosts can be super-picky:

Nearly every profile I looked at in San Francisco stipulated that requests must be sent well in advance—and write a real nice letter, too (one profile asks for “a touch of humor and/or flattery”), because they get 20 requests a day and won’t take just anyone.

Have you done couchsurfing or homestays with locals?  What were the pros and cons of doing that?  Please share your experiences in the comments.

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Category: Backpacking, Hospitality, Notes from the collective travel mind

November 8, 2011

Finding local guides and experts through Guidehop

One of the payoffs of the vagabonding lifestyle is that the more time you spend in an area, the more genuine your experience can be. While nothing will ever replace the tried and true method — stay longer and you’ll experience more — a new website aims to help short-term travelers find authentic local experiences.

Guidehop.com is an online marketplace that connects travelers with informed locals who provide personal activities or tours in their hometown. Whether you want to borrow a mountain bike in Connecticut and ride the best trails around, join a local for some backcountry snowboarding in Colorado, or get a taste of the street food in Austin while accompanied by a local food-trailer entrepreneur, the site offers a whole spectrum of activities, with new tours being posted daily.

Guidehop guides include folks like Aaron Bell, who we featured in a June 2009 post on hitchhiking. He’s one of the guys behind the site, and he exemplifies the type of people you’ll meet on Guidehop. Aaron is your everyday guy — he teaches at a high school in Austin — but when he’s not at work, he’s out exploring Austin’s outdoor scene. Through Guidehop, you can meet up with Aaron and other like-minded locals to get the lowdown on activities you might otherwise miss. Contact Aaron to surf a local river, kayak at sunset while 1.5 million bats fly overhead, spelunk to a 50-year-old clay art gallery deep inside a tiny cave, or cruise his extra scooter and ride with the local moped gang.

If that sounds like fun, or if it gets you thinking of the brilliant tours you could be offering in your own hometown, you can also use the site to post the activities you believe make your city tick. As a local guide, this can also be a great way to deepen your experience of your hometown while making extra money for your next journey. For more information, check out the Guidehop website.

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Category: General, Hospitality

January 13, 2011

Travel strategy: visit friends living abroad

Three years ago, I changed my travel plans in order to visit friends living in Croatia. The country was definitely on my list, however it didn’t happen to be in the top five “must go now” destinations at the time. What changed my mind? My friends were nearing retirement age, and would soon leave Croatia for their homes back in the United States and Honduras.

What resulted was a more in-depth experience in Zagreb than I may have had if I’d waited and just traveled there on my own later, with their notes and advice. Certainly, I enjoyed their company and the free bedroom. But traveling with them around the city and learning from their life there gave me a unique insight that allowed me to appreciate the often-overlooked capital city.

Making friends on our travels gives us the opportunity to see beyond our perception of a place and get a deeper look at that culture. And taking advantage of contacts we may already have in a destination is often the first step. When you’re making your 2011 travel plans, don’t forget to consider your friends living abroad. Who knows how long they’ll be there!

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Category: Hospitality, Lifestyle Design

November 23, 2010

People who love their neighbors, even hitchhiking travelers

Jordan Valley, Israel/Palestine

It’s not everyday that you stand on the side of a highway, a car pulls over, you get in, and moments later the driver says you’re an answer to prayer.

Up until this car stopped, the day had been full of disappointments. I had left Jerusalem that morning and gone to Jericho to meet a friend, but that meeting didn’t materialize. I then walked for an hour and a half with my full packs from the center of Jericho toward the Jordanian border, only to reach the Israeli checkpoint on the edge of town and hear that I couldn’t traverse the next 400 meters to Highway 90 on foot, that I would need to walk about three hours by another route to reach this spot only five minutes in front of me. Finally, at the border crossing, I was told I had arrived five minutes too late; it was closed until tomorrow morning.

And so at 2:30pm I stood on the side of the highway, hoping to hitch a ride 90 minutes to the north to another border crossing that was still open. I had been standing only two minutes when the car stopped.

The driver was a 20-year-old woman named Tehila, and in the passenger seat was her friend Richi, a young man studying at a yeshiva. They were religious Jews on their way from Jerusalem to a kibbutz in the northern Jordan Valley to celebrate Shabbat. Shortly before seeing me, Richi shared with Tehila the story of a rabbi who, in tears, told God he really wanted to follow his commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” and then was presented with an opportunity to do just that.  After the story, Tehila and Richi prayed for the same opportunity. Moments later they saw this guy standing on the edge of the desert highway and came to a stop.

I had planned to go to Jordan this day; instead I accepted Tehila and Richi’s invitation to join them for the Shabbat meal at the kibbutz. I ended up spending the next 36 hours here, embraced by people who would take in a wandering stranger, feed and house him, listen to him and teach him. “We are happy for your accident,” one man said at the kibbutz, referring to my having arrived too late at the border crossing which precipitated the events that led to me eating in his home.

The average reader of this blog, like this writer, is not a religious Jew. But all of us can appreciate the transformative power of love, just as we can actively show such love to others in our own journeys. Thank you, Tehila and Richi, for wanting to love God and your neighbor both. You modeled part of what it means to travel well.

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Category: Asia, Ethical Travel, Hospitality, Images from the road, Notes from the collective travel mind
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