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Bed versus Couch

Probably you just had your INKOM and either had your own room or stayed at a friend’s place. During my first introduction week, I had a girl from my group staying at my flat for a week, until she had find her own 8m2 room. Perhaps you can consider this as my very first Couchsurfing experience. It turned out well: she is still one of my best friends.

If you are not familiar with Couchsurfing and are looking for alternative ways to travel, than this might be a good option. The Couchsurfing community has been esthablished in 2003 as a nonprofit organization. At the moment, it has over 5.5 million members, being active in 97 000 different cities, in 207 countries. It is a worldwide platform for local hosts and nomads. Hosts offer their so-called Couch to travellers, in return of a home-cooked meal or other favour, such as painting a wall. The website creates an opportunity for international voyagers to connect with the locals and to come closer with the culture of the country.

The thing that makes Couchsurfing special is that it is completely based on trust and mutual respect. There is no money involved and often even not appreciated. The cultural exchange and unique experience are more important.  The mission is “[…] a world made better by travel and travel made richer by connection. Couchsurfers share their lives with the people they encounter, fostering cultural exchange and mutual respect.”(http://www.couchsurfing.com/about/about-us/) The more you interact with the local community, the more special your journey will become in return.

Personally, I cannot agree more with the statement, especially after my own experiences with Couchsurfing. Last year I have travelled through Singapore and Java (Indonesia) with this service and it was the best decision I have ever made. I ended up teaching English in the slums of Jakarta, got on a radio show in Yogjakarta and attended a traditional Indonesian wedding. These specials moments enhanched my journey.

If you don’t like the idea of melting in with the local culture too much or you would like to have your own private room – with Couchsurfing it is usually a surprise how your bed looks like – than I can advice you to have a look at AirBnB. The American firm was erected in 2008 by 2 friends who thought it was a good idea to rent out a spare room out to travellers. They would only stay for a short time so they pumped up some airbeds and the idea of Airbed and Breakfast came into being. Today, AirBnB is almost as big as the Hilton Hotel group, with 3 million guests, booking 10 million nights in 34 000 cities, across 190 countries. Different from Couchsurfing, this is a paid service. You pay the house-owner and AirBnB gets 3% of the fee for bringing the renter and owner in contact.

AirBnB provides an easy way for locals who have a room to spare and would like to earn a little bit extra, cover their rent or would like to meet new people. When you want to stay somewhere but don’t like the high prices hotels offer you, you simply pop online and have a look if there is anything cheap available – very often AirBnB is more affordable than most hotels and hostels.

The different options between private room, shared apartment or a complete house for yourself, make it easy to choose your level of communication you wish to enquire. Whether you want a private castle or a cupboard, you probably can find it on AirBnB. Another plus, especially for highly touristic areas, is that you know where exactly at what location you will end up. Than you are sure that you won’t spend heaps of money on public transport to get to that one particulair church.

So what are the main differences and similarities between these services?

The biggest difference between them is their mission. Couchsurfing is completely based on trust, cultural exchange and social. No money on the table, only favours. If you are thinking “but buying ingredients to cook a meal costs money too!” than you are better of going to a hostel and Couchsurfing is not your thing. It is not about money, it is about being grateful for the unique experience hosts provide you. And that doesn’t have a price tag.

AirBnB’s mission is more commercial and can be seen as a hospitality company. “Unlocking unique spaces, worldwide.” Connecting. Creating. Sharing. Making money. Saving Money. The intension is not necessarily social, however, it is still a good alternative next to standard hotels, as each AirBnB room is different. It opens unique doors, at unique locations.

In my opinion, the most important similarity is the communual idea of sharing. Either you share culture, your couch or inside information, it doesn’t matter, you are sharing something. In that case, it makes an unique way to travel and to explore new places. Choose the way you feel comfortable with. Make your travel experience unique. Make it count.

 

 

 

Auckland

Hello stranger!

“I’m sorry, are you from here?” A guy with curly brown hair, holding an acoustic guitar, looked at me. “Are you from Auckland?” he asked again. It was raining. It was my second day in Auckland, New Zealand. Technically speaking because I had woken up at 4 PM, thinking it was 12 o’clock (thank you iPod) but after a quick look at my watch and a knock on the door of my Chinese room mate, I found out I’ve slept more than 19 hours. That jetlag really got me. Even my 2 day stop-over in Hong Kong hadn’t helped. “No I’m not”, I replied, “are you?” “Well, kinda, I’m from Hamilton”. “Where’s that?”, not knowing any other city in New Zealand, apart from Christchurch and Wellington (well done Marie, well prepared). “Bit south. And you’re… English? You sound British.” I smiled “Thanks, I guess”. Well hello stranger, thought. Here you are, in the middle of Auckland, standing at a bus stop, talking to a complete random person. Why does this happen to me? Maybe God has a plan. “No, I’m from Holland, next to Germany, Belgium, you know.” And that was it. That was the start of a 3 hour long conversation about languages, music, passion, films, books, New Zealand and Europe. We ended up in a small French café (in Auckland, yeah). The owner was a French woman, Françoise, half Parisienne, half Marseillaise. Live music playing in the background, nice company and it was pouring and raining outside. 2 hot chocolates please !

The complete stranger turned out to have an Irish name and Venezuelan roots. His study, Spanish and French, didn’t stop him from making music. His dream, to become a world famous musician, was still far away, but his motivation wasn’t. “May I have a look at your iPod? I’m sorry, it might be a weird question, I know.” “Would you just stop staying ‘sorry’ then? You just sound like a Canadian!” (Step on a foot of a Canadian and he will say sorry). He smiled. Although it didn’t help much because after that he kept on saying sorry. This stranger was really an awesome Kiwi.

On the third day, I had to move to another room. This time, I would have 2 roomies. I guessed at least one of them would be Asian, since they’re everywhere (which is good, if you want to find cheap sushi. However, if you don’t like them, it’s a different story). The Vietnamese girl tried to explain what she was doing and who the other girl was. Unfortunately, I was too distracted because of the HUGE fish, she was preparing (including the head and tail. At one point, the eyes popped out. She ate it). The other girl was French, and the next day, we took off to Takapuna, which was just 20 minutes by bus. After a lovely hike, up to Mount Victoria, we enjoyed the view and Willy Wonka Chocolate (too bad; no golden ticket). The ferry took is back to downtown Auckland in just 10 minutes.
I start to like strangers.

Lakes, design and coffee

In April I visited my friend in Copenhagen. The next time I arrived at Københavns Lufthavne, I was on my way to Helsinki, Finland. During your Erasmus time you get to know a lot of new people. In May, I decided to book my trip to my Finnish, Riina. So it happened; waking up at 5:30 AM, catching my train at 8, up in the air at 9:30. Suomi, here I come!

Finland is, for the people who don’t know, locked up between Russia and Sweden. It has only 5.4 million inhabitants, which is not that much since the country is around 8 times bigger than the Netherlands (with approximately a population of 16.7 million). The country is famous for its lakes and islands. Just look at the map and you will see what I mean. Moreover, maybe some people know Suomi better for winning the Eurovision Songfestival (2006). Or the high prices. It might not be the ideal place for folks whose wallet is just as empty as their fridge (like me). Except, if you know where to go. With my guide Riina-Malla, aka Riina or Riini, it couldn’t go wrong. Well… it became a similar experience as with our guide in Brno: “I just feel like her”, she said when we arrived in Suomenlinna, the only and oldest fort Finland has. “I don’t what or why all these buildings are here”, referring to our splendid visit to Hrad Veveří (“We don’t know what it means, it might be English, but it might be French as well. We lack funding to do research on the origin of this cupboard” blablabla).

Suomenlinna, by the way, is worth visiting. Just stroll around the island, which is basically one big museum. The only difference is that there are still people living there. The landscape will reminds you of the Teletubbies or the Shire, part from the huge canons and other military stuff which can be found all over the island.
Helsinki has more to give than just one fort and high prices. Take a look in the white Helsingin tuomiokirkko (aka Helsinki Cathedral). Don’t go here on Saturday because every hour, there will be a wedding. Great if you love Say Yes to the Dress or Four Weddings, but not so great if you want to see the inside of the protestant cathedral. The other red brick stoned church, a bit further down the road, is called Uspenskin katedraali (great word for hangman or Wordfeud). From up there, the view is marvellous. But not as marvellous as you can get from the Torni Hotel. Why go there? Because you can have the best shit ever; a toilet with a panoramic view over Helsinki plus its area.

I’ve met Riina during my Erasmus in Vienna. Vienna likes alcohol and so do Finnish people. Unfortunately, alcohol is very, very expensive in Suomi. So what to do? As much Austrian people drink wine, beer and other stuff, Finnish people tend to have more coffee (kahvi)  in their veins than regular blood cells. Don’t expect your favourite cappuccino or sugar sweet lattes; Finnish don’t rape their coffees; they drink it pure and black. Or with a lot of (cold) milk; luckily Starbucks hasn’t opened a branch in Helsinki, yet.  Riina took me to a place called café Regatta (note; when someone says ‘cafeteria’, they mean a café, not a snackbar). The little red house was situated by the shore; a crackling fire, little sparrows twittering around and… good coffee with free refill. For hipster hunters, Helsinki would be an utopia. Finnish design (e.g. iittala) is to be found not only in the Design District, but also in the clothing of the inhabitants. Some creations could go straight to the catwalk and Armani or Chanel couldn’t hardly better them.

Helsinki has surprised me, in many ways. The views, the culture, the people, the nature… Helsinki is beautiful and doable in a few days. But really; make sure you have a local guide. Riina showed me all the secret and hidden places in the city; places where no tourists were there to be found. I ate the biggest soft ice cream of the city; had sushi behind a rock club (Kuudes Linja; lots of metal heads past us), together with 6 other native, blond, Finnish people (iittala cutlery and Ikea table). Of course, you communicate in English because sometimes you need 5 words to translate the Finnish word to English, because the Finnish language doesn’t use prepositions and make endlessly long words which are almost unpronounceable. For example
Kiitos vieraanvaraisuudesta: Suomi on kaunis ja vierailun arvoinen maa.

which means: Thank you for the hospitality: Finland is a beautiful country and worth visiting.

 

Blown away

There are a lot of reasons for not visiting your friends abroad. Although they are your friends, you can’t visit them all. Money, will be the first and most important one, followed by time.
Last year, one of my best friends went to Malmö for 6 months. I promised her to visit, but I never did. The main reasons were indeed money and time, however, it seems to be that I had enough money to buy a Pinkpop ticket (passe-partout). Read more

Hello friends. Or not friends.

(We shall see.) The name is Sophie.

People in Maastricht are always so preoccupied with explaining where they come from. And granted it’s complicated. So just for the sake of satisfaction I’m going to throw in a few city names as to give you a gist because honestly, does it even matter… Places I call home are Berlin and Hamburg, Germany, and Richmond, Virginia- not always, and not always equally. Maastricht has a special position, but it will continue to be my home for one more semester. And it better be glorious. Read more