Monday, October 5, 2009

Welcome to the World of CouchSurfing

Recently, my housemate and I hosted our first couch surfer. Mark, 23, was from Houston, Texas, and was in the process of hitch-hiking from Melbourne to Darwin. He contacted me via my CouchSurfing profile, seeking to stay with us in Adelaide for a few days. My housemate and I said, Yes, and in due course, Mark arrived and spent several days with us.

As this was our first couch surfing experience, we were a little apprehensive about how things would pan out. However, our ‘apprehensions’ were entirely unnecessary. I spent three days playing host to Mark, showing him around the local area where we visited Fisherman’s Wharf, a Maritime Museum, and embarked on a dolphin cruise, as well as a quick tour of the city centre.

For his part, Mark was a quiet, respectful, and pleasant young man, who found time to cook us dinner and share some of his travel experiences with us.

For those readers who are yet to discover the concept of CouchSurfing (to use its official ‘brand’ name), let me quote extensively from the CouchSurfing website.

CouchSurfing is an international non-profit network that connects travellers with locals in over 230 countries and territories around the world. Since 2004, members have been using our system to come together for cultural exchange, friendship, and learning experiences. Today, over a million people who might otherwise never meet are able to share hospitality and cultural understanding.

Our mission as an organization is to create inspiring experiences: cross-cultural encounters that are fun, engaging, and illuminating. These experiences take many forms. CouchSurfing's initial focus was on hosting and 'surfing' (staying with a local as a guest in their home). Alongside these core experiences, we now also facilitate a growing array of activities and events.

We have a vision of a world where everyone can explore and create meaningful connections with the people and places they encounter. Each CouchSurfing experience shared by our members brings us closer to that vision.

So how does CouchSurfing work? Like many social networking sites, you sign in and create a profile for yourself. This profile includes your interests, philosophy, a personal description of yourself, and most importantly, space to describe your ‘couch’ information, that is, the type of accommodations you are able to offer a visitor – or couch surfer. Some hosts have a spare bedroom available, while others literally offer no more than a couch or mattress on the floor.

The length of stay is always negotiated in advance via direct contact with the person requesting the couch. Generally, anywhere from one to three nights seems to be the average length of stay, but this is entirely up to the host.

Also the number of visitors you choose to host is up to you and detailed on your profile page. Again, generally, most hosts can accommodate one or two visitors at any one time, but others may have facilities to offer space for more.

No money changes hands during the couch surfing visit. You host, or you are hosted without cost. Since visitors are guests in your home, it is not part of the CouchSurfing philosophy to see money exchanged for accommodations.

By the way, you can use your CouchSurfing profile page to spell out your own hosting conditions to potential visitors. For example, if you are vegetarian, a smoker/non-smoker, have pets, party hard or like to go to bed early, etc. All these can be made clear to surfers before they ask to stay with you, thereby eliminating the potential for a less than ideal hosting experience.

Part of my own profile reads: There are currently two people in the house - a 61 year old male (that's me) and my niece who is in her late 30s. We are both non-smokers, try to eat sensibly, drink moderately, and like to get a good night's sleep… I should point out that none of the residents are 'party animals' anymore, so if you want to rage late into the night, you might consider other couches elsewhere with more energetic hosts. We tend to be in bed by midnight - most nights.

I figure that anyone reading that, who still wants to stay with my niece and myself is probably looking for a reasonably quiet host to stay with, rather than a host who wants to stay up drinking, and partying late into the night.

Members can also add comments/references to the profiles of their visitors, and visitors can inturn add comments/references to the profiles of their hosts, thus providing feedback for other potential travellers/hosts.

When I myself travel next year, I hope to use the CouchSurfing website to put me in touch with fellow members around the world, which will enhance the whole travel experience I am engaged on. Given that the CouchSurfing community now numbers over 1.4 million members in over 65,000 cities, and speaks 1,270 unique languages, I think it is fair to say that travelling need never be same again.

We will be hosting a German traveller during November, so I expect to return to the topic of CouchSurfing more than once on this blog. In the meantime, why not head on over to the CouchSurfing website to learn more. If you like what you see, become a member yourself, and join this amazing world-wide community of travellers, hosts, and supporters.

I’ll leave the last word to a CouchSurfing member going under the name I Wanna Go To Tahiti who writes:

"CouchSurfing is just amazing. I joined this community a couple of years ago. Since then, I've had incredible experiences with all the people I've hosted, met at the gatherings, and whose couch I've surfed, from France to Vietnam. In everyday life, it can be hard to find deeply motivated, nonconformist, cultured people with high goals in life: really interesting people. But CouchSurfing is just full of these individuals. It's a conglomerate of well-intentioned people, of good karma, and you just have to jump in to enjoy it. The CouchSurfing project definitely changed my life. And it has changed many people's lives. Through this process, connecting people from elsewhere, bringing them together, I believe the world is also going to change. Perhaps we don't see it now. But in the future, we will." ~ IWANNAGOTOTAHITI (Spain)

Friday, October 2, 2009

Friday Photo #13: Moreton Bay Fig

Click image to view full size

Rising out of the earth like some type of prehistoric creature, this Moreton Bay Fig tree in one of Sydney’s inner city gardens, serves to remind us of just how transient our lives and years on this planet really are.

Hopefully, long after I have gone, this tree will still be standing here; its massive branches reaching higher into the sky, and its thick green leaves providing even more shade for the people sheltering under its canopy from winter showers and summer heat.

Imagine for a moment, the power it takes to keep those huge branches extended for generations at a time. If one of those branches was to be severed from the trunk, you would need a large team of draft horses to shift it even a few metres, such would be its weight. And yet the tree itself has stood (for who knows how many years), growing ever taller, broader, and more magnificent.

Long may it continue to do so.

Image: Moreton Bay Fig, Sydney

Photographer: Jim Lesses

Thursday, October 1, 2009

In the Shadow of the Samurai

~ I have been a long time fan of the late Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa, ever since I first saw his classic samurai epic, Seven Samurai. If you are not familiar with the work of Kurosawa, you will almost certainly be familiar with the work of George Lucas’ Star Wars, Sergio Leone’s A Fist Full of Dollars starring Clint Eastwood, and the 1960 western, The Magnificent Seven.

What these three films have in common is the fact that they are all remakes of, or films inspired by Kurosawa films. Star Wars was inspired by Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, Leone’s A Fist Full of Dollars is a remake of Yojimbo, and The Magnificent Seven is a remake of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.

What got me thinking about all this is a press release which crossed my desk (umm, computer screen), recently announcing a tour focussing specifically on the culture of the samurai warrior. Since I am not the only person fascinated by these ancient fighters and their culture, I thought I would pass on the information here.

Esprit Travel & Tours are specialists in tours which deeply immerse travellers into the heart of Japanese culture. The company is offering a new tour with a focus on the history and culture of the samurai. The way of the samurai, known as bushido, has fascinated westerners for hundreds of years. In this tour (planned for April/May, 2010), group members will travel through Japan focusing on the era of the samurai, with introductions to the castles, battlefields, customs and the mystique of the samurai.

The tour will include visits to a range of original, reconstructed and castle ruins which offer a glimpse into the lifestyle of the ruling class of the samurai. Participants will also attend a festival commemorating the battle of Nagashino, which serves as a template for discussions of the important battles that delineated the epoch periods of Japanese history. Introductions into the ancient craft of sword making, along with special sessions with sword masters will allow you to come to a greater understanding of the importance of the sword in Japanese culture.

Staying at an authentic onsen will immerse you in the style of living experienced by the samurai for centuries with tatami-matted rooms, full kaiseki meals and luxurious hot spring baths. As an upscale tour of one of Japan’s major historical threads – the way of the samurai that is woven into the very fabric of Japanese culture.

If you have ever yearned to learn more about the way of the samurai and explore historic Japan with its castles and donjons, now is the time to do it. Call Esprit to register at 800-337-7481 or visit to learn more. The Shadow of the Samurai Tour is a 12-day journey from April 30 – May 12, 2010 and costs approximately $6,250. More details about the tour itinerary can be found here…

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