Thursday, June 20, 2013

Couchhosting, a second time around

The day was upon me faster than I'd like it to have been: the day my second pair of couchsurfers were to arrive. I had agreed to meet them in front of the Boots Pharmacy in Paddington Station. Somewhere central and easy to get to. We had pictures of each other just like the last time so I'd be able to identify them.

To be honest I was a lot more nervous about hosting this time. They would be over for a lot longer than the Swiss girls and they were a married couple. They were also relatively new to couchsurfing and had been on the road for the past 4 months living out their travel dreams together. I should have done my homework more, I berated myself, thinking only the worst things could happen. I've been taught to fear the unknown in this way and it is this quality among others that I wish to root out. So I erased this thought from my mind as much as possible and walked steadily to Boots to meet them.

I'm also probably the worst hostess in the world - little to no edible food in the fridge (we're talking some expired eggs, some juice, beer and cider, and a entire crap-ton of raw vegetables...not exactly a snacker's delight), no cooking or sharing of that kind of time, no time in general...really weird and unaccommodating schedule. Sorry, I'm basically the place that you come to crash, maybe shower, and leave again to see the city. This is how I live my life.

Granted this is probably way awesome for most people - they are here traveling, after all. But still, this makes me feel terrible, since I do, at the heart of things, like hosting and making people feel comfortable when they are in my house...and it makes me nervous to think that my living quarters are somehow below par in some way.

I met them at the appointed time and nervously helped them buy their tickets to my train station. Mostly they (Paulo from Brazil and his wife, Carolina from Mexico) seemed tired. They were on a 4 month whirlwind tour of the world - they'd already been to countless places (India, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Holland, France, Italy, and others). When they wrote me originally they told me about the blog they were keeping about their travels: It was the blog that actually won me over more than anything. I think someone who is willing to share their thoughts with you in this way is easier to relate to than perhaps others...but perhaps I'm just biased.

My first night with them was pretty easy. They were tired but very interested in what I was doing in my life and especially where I had traveled. We exchanged stories and I learned more about them.

They'd been living in New Zealand (Queenstown, of all places - the home of my first bungy jump and other extreme sports activities) when they decided to literally give up everything but a small backpack's worth of clothes each and set out traveling. This is more courageous than anything I've ever done and I told them as such.

Carolina admitted to me that it wasn't as easy as it sounds. She, like most people, had attachments to the physical things in her life and it was the clothes that she had the most trouble getting rid of. When they started the trip and met at the airport she had a large suitcase full of everything she thought she would need for four months. Needless to say, she was not a light packer. Unfortunately though, given that they were traveling as budgetarily as they possibly could, this was unacceptable to the airline they were flying with and she was going to be forced to pay for her luggage for every leg they were to fly. They couldn't afford that, so just like that, POOF, half of her clothes had to be thrown away at the airport. She told me she cried over it. It was hard. I understand the difference between giving up something willingly and overtime, knowing that you'll need to give it up ahead of time. Having to give something up unexpectedly is...quite different.

As they traveled further and deeper, into poorer and poorer places, she embraced the traveler's life. It got too hard to carry a loaded backpack day in and day out. So over time, over places, over experiences...things just got left behind. Worn out. Cast aside. Until all they had were single backpacks each (these are the size of school backpacks, btw, not mountain backpacker's backpacks). That's it. The only thing that is consistently bought in every country - food (of course) and bar soap (since it doesn't surpass the liquid requirements and can be cheaply and easily dumped at will). She said they originally started out with bottles they could refill everywhere with liquid shampoo or bath gel but that became a real inconvenience. So it was abandoned.

Of all the places they went to and of all the things they'd seen, the one remark that they completely agreed on (since their favorite places were individual, just as they were), was that the best sights were always the ones no one talked about. The unbeaten path - the gloriously untouristy and free beauty of something unappreciated. The Sistine Chapel? Sure it was great and all, but it was disappointing after the four kilometer walk and hour of waiting. Much more worth it was the free basilica just a block away that no one was visiting.

I've found this particular observation to be true myself. All of the best things I remember about my travels are never the main attractions, the big bold highlights in the guidebook. They're always the small things, the publicly forgotten things. The special way it was that time for you.

One of my favorite quotes from reading (ever), has been:

"As an adult, I have often known that peculiar legacy time brings to the traveler: the longing to seek out a place a second time, to find deliberately what we stumbled on once before, to recapture the feeling of discovery. Sometimes we search out again even a place that was not remarkable in itself - we look for it simply because we remember it. If we do find it, of course, everything is different. The rough-hewn door is still there, but it's much smaller; the day is cloudy instead of brilliant; it's spring instead of autumn; we're alone instead of with three friends. Or worse, with three friends instead of alone."
Seems this is true. Not to say main attractions shouldn't be experienced, since they should be. But maybe experience the unbeaten path a few times and see which you like better.

Talking to them and describing my life made me realize a lot of things, as it did with the Swiss sisters.

  1. I really do work a lot. Work seems to dominate my life and I'm not sure I ever remember making the conscious decision that it should be so.
  2. I exercise a lot. Though I know this is a conscious decision because I have some mentality that the more I exercise the longer I'll live, it really does seem out of proportion the more people ask me about it and I respond honestly.
  3. My eating habits are hard to explain. Are you really that girl that only eats raw vegetables and fruit at work and doesn't eat dinner? Most of them accept it and maybe even slightly applaud me on my self-restraint, but the more I've thought about it, the more I've wondered if there is something else the matter.
  4. I travel, a lot. This I already knew, of course. But when compared to most people who travel maybe once a year, whereas I traveled to four countries in one week with less than 24 hour turnaround's a lot. I travel a lot.
  5. The people in my life travel a lot as well. Or are well-traveled. Seems all of my local friends are just as travel-bug bitten as I am. I was describing my, German K, and Hong Kong P's plan to meet up once a month in a new country and realized that...normal people don't do this.
  6. I am supremely fortunate. I have always known this, but I know this and feel this now more than ever.
  7. I am only as alone as I think I am.

They are lovely people, and I look forward to talking to them the next few nights. I think when I am ready again, I will open my sofa bed up once again to couchsurfers. Until I can get my own life under control though, I think I should leave it offline.

It's amazing the things you can learn from people. I hope I am always open enough to keep learning.

And on a related but hilarious note, this gem.

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