Travel In Search of Locals

[Editor's Note: Thanks to Dave and Vicky for today's guest post on meeting locals! If you would like to guest post on IShouldLogOff, contact us at info [at] ishouldlogoff [dot] com and check out our submission guidelines.]

macys couch 450 Travel In Search of Locals

I love how in traveling locals are treated like a nearly extinct bird. There are literally thousands of posts on the web about how to meet locals. Isn’t it somewhat paradoxical that in a foreign country locals seem to be the minority – shouldn’t it be how to meet travelers? Oh well, the fact of the matter is it IS HARD to meet locals. I remember how Vicky and I traveled through Greece for 8 days. Sure, we interacted with locals, but we didn’t meet locals, not until we couchsurfed on our last night.

From that point on we knew that couchsurfing was going to be a wonderful opportunity to interact with locals/travelers, and we were determined to host people upon returning to the US. Since then, Vicky and I  have collectively hosted 10 people and while it’s always been a pleasure, we’ve had our share of stand out experiences.

The RTW Europeans

“Firsts” are a beautiful thing. It’s amazing how simply by being a first an experience automatically gets promoted to an unforgettable event. Whether or not this is deserved, I certainly will never forget the first couchsurfers we ever hosted – the RTW Europeans.

I don’t remember exactly how we decided on them – but I know the screening process was extensive. These guys fit the bill exactly. A RTW couple who had been traveling through Europe and Asia for the last year. They were us a year into the future, we had to host them.

When they arrived, 25 lbs backpacks on their shoulders, legs weary from months of travel, we welcomed them in to our 525 sq ft apartment. They were the experienced couchsurfers and we didn’t really know what we were doing. What do people usually do with Couchsurfers? What do they talk about? I immediately made a b line for the obvious conversation starter “Couchsurfing”.

But this was just the tip of the iceberg. Over the next two nights we soaked up hours of advice from these guys. I remember Vicky even pulling out a notebook. We couldn’t keep up fast enough with the travel tips and advice these guys were spewing.

The German Bachelor

With the ice broken and nothing stolen, Vicky and I were ready to open up our apartment once again. This time was different. Our Couchsurfer was younger, a student on break traveling around America. He had been to parts of this country, I’m sad to admit, I couldn’t even put on a map. We hosted him for 5 days, a record for us.

We decided to up the ante a bit by taking our couchsurfer to a comedy show in DC. It was really a pleasure to introduce American humor to a German. He loved it, and took us out for drinks later that night to show his appreciation.

The Colombian Nomads

Every now and then some couchsurfers come along that leave an impression beyond just the days they spent at your place. The Colombian Nomads were this more than anyone. Not quite RTW travelers, not quite on break, these guys fell somewhere in the undefined middle of simply wanderers. They came to DC without a plan, no idea how long they were staying, and no idea where they were going next. They spent two nights at our place during which time we had some great conversations and heard more than a few entertaining stories from their mishaps in India and Nepal.

To our luck Luis happens to be an incredibly talented photographer and graphic designer and when he offered to help design a logo for our travel site we jumped at the opportunity. What would we do in return? It turned out they were going to be biking up to Boston and were uncertain what they would do with their bag. It also turned out that during this same period I was going to be taking the bus home to Boston. My offer, to take their bag with me. A perfect barter system and a great way to consolidate our friendship – by taking their bag as hostage and forcing them to befriend us.

Christine From China

Women at market 250x176 Travel In Search of Locals

Vicky was giddy with excitement for our first Asian couchsurfer and especially for the cooking lesson she was about to receive. Christine only stayed with us for one night but this didn’t stop her from taking charge of our kitchen, sharing her family’s authentic recipe and preparing a 3 dish meal. She treated us to pork spare ribs in a soy sauce glaze, served with a tomato egg stir fry, a lettuce garlic stir fry and rice. The meal was finger-licking good and was by far the closest we’ve ever gotten to real authentic Chinese food. To sweeten the deal even more she even left us the spices and seasonings she used to make the dish so Vicky can recreate it herself.

The Refined French Man

Couchsurfers often give rise to the standard image of a younger, budget traveler with his clothes drenched from sweat and his soles worn from the miles he’s traveled, but this isn’t always the case. One of our most recent couchsurfers was  an established French gentleman in his mid 40s in DC for a work conference. Despite having the means to secure himself his own place in the city, he chose couchsurfering purely to meet locals.

We welcomed him with dinner and he brought us dark French chocolate and a bottle of red wine. It was not too long before Vicky and I both became uncomfortably aware how the French stay slim. Vicky gobbles her food up without even chewing and I’m usually only a few chews behind. Although she desperately tried to space her bites at 15 second intervals there was no way to eat slower then our French guest. We both looked at each other, and then our plates, trying to keep pace, but it was futile. By the time he finished his first portion I was on my third.

It was a lesson in fine dining – the art of eating slowly, savoring every bite, taking in the aroma of the wine before slowly tilting the glass up to one’s mouth. Discussions on the political and economic happenings of Europe filled the air. Ah to be French. The rest of our evenings together were much more American – we watched movies on Netflix from our instant queue (but they were foreign!). Hopefully we get a chance to return the favor someday, by taking him out to McDonalds in Paris.

Who’s Next?

With Vicky and I taking off in September to travel around Asia and Europe we’re determined to make Couchsurfing a cornerstone of our trip. It’s hard to predict who we’ll run into and what kind of interactions we’ll have, but one thing is for sure, we’re in search of locals.

About Dave and Vicky: Having spent 2 years in the working world, Dave and Vicky are ready to exchange their briefcases for backpacks, dress shoes for sandals, and beds for sleeping bags. Starting in September they will be embarking on a 2 year journey across Asia and Europe. You can follow along at A Couple Travelers where you’ll find travel reflections, blogging resources and restaurant reviews.

Flashback: Granada, Nicaragua

We’d had an awesome time going Volcano boarding in Leon and were on our way to the splendid Isla de Ometepe, one of our favorite places of the entire trip.  With one stop to make between those wonderful locales we decided to try and do something we hadn’t been able to do for a couple of months…couchsurf.

There weren’t many profiles available for us to choose from but we did find one for an ex-pat who said that if you stayed with him you’d help to ‘give back’ and paint the neighbors’ homes.  We thought that sounded nice and sent the request, we got a response back almost immediately upon our arrival in Grenada went straight to his home.

1.1237245660.granada nicaragua Flashback: Granada, Nicaragua

What we found surprised us a little.  This gentleman painted the neighborhood to help bring up the value of his home, which he wanted to turn into a night club.  We were subjected to a video of political conspiracy theory (something about how Obama and McCain are in the payroll of the Federal Reserve….which is no more Federal than Federal Express…according to the video) and we listened as he offered his very negative opinions on everything Nicaraguan.  The best part was probably when he told us the US Government tracked his whereabouts.

Later that night he took us to the local casino where we found some slots and blackjack games and not much more.  He had a pattern while there and the staff was all to eager to help him lose his cash….he wasn’t exactly skilled at the games.  We had a drink and gambled a total of five measly dollars in order to fill the time while we waited for him to do his damage at the Monte Carlo table.  We took him to dinner and he later asked us to leave $30 behind for some paint…so he could buy some more of the colors he liked to paint the neighborhood: he refused to let people choose their own colors.  This was one of the weirdest guys we’d meet in two full years.casino Flashback: Granada, Nicaragua

I’m not sure why, but we stuck it out for two days.  This was the ONLY time on our entire trip we felt uncomfortable with our couchsurf and although it was uncomfortable, we both felt we were not in danger in any way.  Still though, the experience caused us to make a plan for ‘getting out’ of a couchsurf gone wrong.  By staying with him we didn’t save any money and worse we were limited in what we were able to do on our own.  On the plus side we did see a side of Grenada we wouldn’t have gotten to see otherwise but the real positive here was that we learned a good lesson without any real consequences.

When it was time to leave we did so in the middle of the day, he was still asleep and we quietly let ourselves out.  We headed to Ometepe and had a wonderful time there…not couchsurfing.

Flashback: Northern Mexico

For a moment I feel nothing.

The Swiss girl we’re riding with shouts out and points at my leg.  It’s at that moment I look down and see the gash my bike gear has sliced into my calf.  It doesn’t hurt and it’s not bleeding badly but it’s in a position that’s hard for me to see.  I want to press on but Danny and the Swiss girl basically refuse.  She insists we go back to town to have it looked at. 

I curse myself for not bringing our first aid kit, for surely a band-aid would do the trick.

She wraps my leg in a bandana and we cycle the few miles back to town.  Our first stop is a pharmacy, where they tell me I have to go to see the doctor for stitches.  I learn a new Spanish word- profundo- deep.  Off we go, down the muddy street until we find the clinic, which incidentally is right behind our hostel.  I open the door and silence.

3424132696 2596baa8df Flashback: Northern Mexico

The entire clinic goes quiet.

I see a waiting room full of local women and children, literally covering every surface.  Babies are crying, kids are coughing and the whole scene looks directly out of a world health documentary.

The receptionist addresses me in Spanish and Danny steps in to explain what happened.  I’m whisked away to the backroom where a nun cleans out the gash with a bar of soap (locked in a cabinet) and some tap water.  She keeps telling me it’s not deep.  It’s clear this clinic survives on donations only, their supplies are extremely limited. The doctor comes in, prescribes me antibiotics, bandages it up and we’re on our way.  I pay and pass through the waiting room ashamed that my leg took priority over them.  Weeks later I meet an American emergency room doctor in Guatemala.  The cut hasn’t fully healed and he tells me I definitely should have had stitches – muy profundo.

3420458477 0c09ac6f77 Flashback: Northern Mexico

We had taken the railroad from the coast through to Creel, and while the views and vistas were amazing, I couldn’t help but compare it to our own Grand Canyon, which in my opinion is much more awe inspiring.  Not that the Copper Canyon is something to sneeze at, it’s certainly gorgeous!   The area is inhabited by the Tarahumara people, famous for their ability to run long distances.  They survived the Spanish conquistadors by hiding in the canyon.  The history of the area and it’s landscape gives the main town, Creel, a certain Wild West boom town feel. Without the cut we would have spent more time in the canyon, but with hiking and mountain biking now off the list, we were left with little to do and Creel is not a village you want to linger in.

3421238970 4efeff70ea Flashback: Northern Mexico

Looking back, I can’t say that I loved the Copper Canyon, but I’ll always remember it. The scar continues to fade, but the memory of that waiting room will stay with me forever.

It was the first time on our trip that I realize we’d be treated differently.

I quickly learned that the Gringo, who it is assumed has money, is King.  Ask and ye shall receive, no matter how many people are waiting or have waited for that item.  It was a shocking revelation.

Leaving the Copper Canyon, we went to our second couchsurfing host of the trip, Martha in Chihuahua.  Her father, unsure about this whole “couch surfing” thing, had taken a week off of his ranch work to stay with the family.  Fortunately our visit coincided with his birthday, so we gave him a good excuse to come home and celebrate with the family. We were simply humbled by their generosity, hospitality and friendship and immediately we were grateful to get to know them. Her father insisted we use Spanish as much as possible, which made for some rather awkward dinner conversations when I dropped in French or Italian words, but helped us forge a bond.

imgp0330 Flashback: Northern Mexico

Chihuahua has been affected by the ongoing drug and cartel violence that plagues the U.S. border with Mexico.  Our host told us a bit about how life had changed since the violence started, but besides her stories, we didn’t feel the tension or fear.   To this day staying with them was one of the best couch surfing experiences we’ve ever had.

IF YOU GO: The Copper Canyon Railway runs from Los Mochis to Chihuahua, but you’re better off taking a bus from Creel to Chihuahua.  Read our Copper Canyon Railway Review before you go for train tips. The best scenery is West of Creel, so don’t skip that part!  There are many hiking and biking opportunities throughout the Canyon and we’ve heard really good things about visiting smaller villages inside the canyon.  Creel is considered the market center of the Canyon, so it’s the best place to find other travelers and tours.  Plenty of hotel and hostel owners will meet the train.

Chihuahua is a great place to visit and has a real “Western” feel.  It’s not exactly a tourist center, but there’s plenty to fill a few days.  Soak in the history of Pancho Villa at the local history museum downtown. Take a walking tour of the historic areas and don’t miss the interesting cowboy boots in the market!

3424183128 c2d8206584 Flashback: Northern Mexico

This post was sponsored by LowCostHolidays.com.  With a great range of flights, accomodation and transfers you can be sure to find your perfect Mexican Holiday.

Photo of the Day: Aquaman

We spent a weekend at a couchsurfing meet up in Honduras. The group went camping and hiked up this river to this waterfall where we couldn’t really go any farther. Naturally, it was a good spot for a photo.

Special thanks to Flickr user Itinerantlondoner for marking this photo as a favorite.

To see a few of our favorite photos from Honduras click here.

Our PHOTO PAGE has links to all of our collections on Flickr. Be sure to mark some of your own favorites so that we can include them on this column. We’ll be highlighting a different photo every day.

IMGP0983 3575026661 Photo of the Day: Aquaman

A week in Istanbul

Promise. We won’t start the song again…yet. When we landed in Istanbul we really did not know where to start despite repeated recommendations from family and friends. We had to find our travel mojo again, but there isn’t really a better place to find it than Constantinople. I mean Istanbul.

Searching for our mojo, we headed straight to the touristy neighborhood of Sultanhmet. While the swarms of cruise 4873815278 8170a67d90 A week in Istanbulship passengers aren’t exactly our modus operandi, incredible mosques, enormous bazaars and a palace with a rather long history are.

The Blue Mosque which (supposedly) is rivaled only by Mecca for its beauty in the Islamic world was as expected- incredible. I was shocked that I was allowed to enter as I was wearing shorts, while the women were all given drapes to cover their shoulders or legs. Photos were allowed inside but no shoes. The building was beautiful, but honestly it was a little weird being inside “touring” while there were men busy with prayer in front of us.

4873774796 07778d2572 A week in IstanbulJust across the way from the Blue Mosque, passing by an Egyptian obelisk and lots of food vendors is the Hagia Sofia which dates from the time Istanbul was the capital of the Byzantine Empire. We’ve seen this byzantine religious artwork before and given the high admission price decided to skip, hey don’t judge. Instead we went just slightly further afield to Topkapi Palace. Used by nearly all of Istanbul/Constantinople’s rulers until the 19th Century, the palace is full of history and beautiful design. Despite all that, it was far from the best palace we would end up visiting.

The other palace, the one most people skip because it isn’t in that touristy neighborhood, is the one you must go and see. 4875069242 88c5626520 A week in IstanbulTopkapi Palace is great, filled brim to brim with Ottoman treasure and Islamic history, but if you want to see a palace fit for a Sultan, you need to go to Dolmabhace Palace just a 15 minute tram ride away. This palace has gifts from every corner of the earth: English lamps, Siberian Polar Bear rugs, American paintings, Chinese…china? simply everything. The staircase is made of crystal and one of the chandeliers is rumored to be the heaviest in the world. The palace was last used as a residence by Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey (post WWI) and all the clocks inside are turned to the time of his death. Trust me, the place was a PALACE.

With the main sites out of the way, and our travel mojo slowly returning, we turned our attention to wandering. The Great Bazaar’s labyrinth did not frighten us, in fact we found it rather easy to navigate compared to some of the other market’s we’ve been in and thankfully we escaped out of there without losing so much as a nickel. 4875124820 f0e319884b A week in IstanbulWe continued through a maze of streets, what seems to be today’s actual grand bazaar, to the spice market where we purchased a much needed pumice stone and….some ice cream.

Unfortunately it was ridiculously hot in Istanbul and with 100% humidity, we found ourselves sweating more than in the Sahara. After we headed up the coast to get our Uzbekistan visas (not exactly a typical tourist activity) we managed to take the boat—public transportation, mind you—back downtown. This counted as our very luxurious and relaxing Bosporus Cruise.

So what else did we do in Istanbul? We actually had a great time meeting up with couchsurfers, first at the weekly Istanbul meetup on the Asian side and then again further afield at a picnic on Prince’s Island. Istanbul has a ton to offer, spreads 100km wide, and is probably the most cosmopolitan city we’ve visited on this entire tour. We took our time and stopped for repeated doses of tea and fresh juice and even ate at an Ottoman restaurant (again with Couchsurfers) where we sat on the floor and enjoyed an elaborate mixed grill. We spent a full 5 days in Istanbul loved every second of it.

IF YOU GO:

Transportation: Ataturk airport is connected to the city by the fairly easy to use metro system. All services on the system (train, tram, and boat) use tokens but there are no transfers (say from train to tram). Most everything though is about 1.5TL ($1) so it is not too expensive.

Food: There is Donner Kebab on every corner and plenty of other treats. No need to eat in fancy restaurants.

Lodging: We stayed in the Sydney Hostel in Sultanahnet which was fine but nothing special. There are tons of options in the Sultanahnet neighborhood so feel free to shop around.