A trip to Egypt – part 2

Published on 8/1/2010

It was the day after our exciting night-time adventure at the pyramid and my friend and I were staying on a five-star cruise boat further up the Nile near the city of Luxor.

We decided to take a skiff across the river where we found a group of young boys playing soccer and joined them for a game. They may have been younger than we were but they definitely out-played us. Afterwards, we followed one of the boys as he made his way across the desert on his donkey, back to his village. Both my friend and I loved to climb mountains and there was one nearby that we particularly wanted to try. Our new young friend showed us the best way to get up the mountain but was reluctant to go up there himself. We could understand that there was something at the top he didn’t like, but we couldn’t tell what. So, we said good-bye to him, thanking him for all of his help, and set off up the mountain.

egypt part 2

A little below the summit we found a group of about fifteen teenagers and children. They were dressed in clothes halfway between uniforms and rags, and many of them didn’t have shoes. We couldn’t tell if they were part of the official Egyptian army or some other militia group, but it seemed their instructions were to sit up there and await orders. Hanging out under a tarp with one machine gun between them, they weren’t as intimidating as I think they were supposed to appear.

They were cautious at first but we struck up a friendship of sorts despite the language barrier. We shared some bubble-gum with them that we had brought with us from home, and they even let us hold their machine gun. One of the most fascinating things for me was finding nautilus shell fossils up there. I would have loved to know whether findings fossils from the ocean on top of a mountain was fascinating to them too, but I didn’t know how to ask. The panoramic photo below is the view we had from the top. You can see the village where we started our climb below, and the Nile in the distance.

egypt part 2 panomaric

When we got back down to the bottom of the mountain we found our friend with the donkey again, and he invited us to eat dinner with his mother and sisters who lived nearby. I was worried that we were going to miss our boat but we decided not to worry about it and stayed anyway.

The boy took us to the mud hut they lived in. One of the daughters worked in a larger town about five or six miles away and spoke a little English, but otherwise we got by with gestures and a few words. They had a tiny black and white television with the back missing that sat in the corner of the room. For someone who grew up in the US, this was old technology, but even still it looked strange against a mud wall. I’d never seen old and new contrasted so clearly. I wondered what programs they watched, but again, I wasn’t able to ask.

They shared their dinner with us, and gave it to us generously. I wish I could say it was delicious but it was cucumber and bread cut up on the dirt floor, to be dipped in a raw egg from one of the pigeons roosting in the rafters. I was worried I was going to get sick later, because in the US we eat mostly cooked and highly sanitized food. I wasn’t sure my body would be ready for this. But, I really wanted to share the experience — they were so generous to share their food with us when they had so little for themselves. We ate and sat and chatted with them as best we could manage.

The mother told us how difficult it was raising four children without a father. That much we could understand, although we couldn’t work out what happened to him. Only two of the daughters worked and what they earned had to provide for the whole family. Even they had to travel seven or eight kilometers across the Nile to get to their jobs. Despite not have a man’s income it didn’t seem as though they were any worse off than their neighbors, and they seemed to be a very happy family.

By the time we had finished our evening of food and conversation we had already missed our boat home so they invited us to stay the night. Because they all had to live together in the two-room hut, there wasn’t enough room for us inside and probably, by local customs, it wouldn’t have been appropriate. They gave us blankets and tried to make us comfortable on benches of dried tree branches that were about two thirds the length of my body. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep very well, but I didn’t care. I smiled up at the full moon, thankful for such an experience, and hoped for many more moments like it. At 6 A.M. the next morning one of the daughters who worked in town across the Nile let us walk with her on her commute so that we wouldn’t lose our way. Our tour group was moving on to another town that morning and we knew we would not have much time to spare before they left. We bought her breakfast and stopped in to see where she worked before rushing to rejoin our group.

For the rest of my trip and my journey home my head was filled with one thought: “How can I keep doing this?” My experience with both the families of the taxi driver and the boy with the donkey had opened my eyes to a new way of traveling. I had gone to Egypt seeking something interesting. I hadn’t even been sure what. I had wanted adventure, but it was the first time I had ever traveled outside of North America, and I was nervous. I hadn’t known if people could be trusted, but the people I met there had taught me what I thought to be true but had never really articulated. That people are naturally curious and kind, and that they are as interested in meeting me as I am in meeting them. I had shared with them as much as I could about my own culture and it had been received with warmth and enthusiasm.

It would be a few years and many more adventures before I started to get a clear picture in my head of what CouchSurfing would look like, but at the end of my time in Egypt, I knew this: I owed my adventure to the people I’d met. Interacting with real, everyday people had made what could have been just a vacation into something inspiring and life-changing. I decided right then that I would always make it my mission to find real, personal interactions with the people of the places I visited.

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A trip to Egypt – part 1

Published on 7/1/2010

In my last blog post on the Couchsurfing vision, I touched on the story of a trip I took to Egypt back in the spring of 1998. I’d like to tell you more of that story now, as I think it’s a great example of how one experience might just change the course of your life.

Tourism is an important part of the Egyptian economy but after a deadly attack on tourists in late 1997, it was at a serious low. Tour packages from the US were going for a fifth the normal price. I found a group that was traveling to Egypt to show support for the country in this tough economic period. I’d never been to Africa before and I wasn’t going to find a more affordable trip. With instructions from my friends and family to be careful, I boarded a plane from JFK airport, New York to Cairo.

One thousand dollars bought airfare and a two-week stay in luxury resorts in both Giza and Luxor. It also included time aboard a Nile cruise boat and daily excursions to famous sites. As grateful as I was for the opportunity and for the people in my group, I wanted something different. As fate would have it my roommate was a young man from Texas who, like me, was eager to have a more inspiring experience.

Together we would sneak away from our tour group and do our own thing, only rejoining them in time to make it back to the hotel. He was of Iranian descent and looked as though he could be Egyptian. This made it much easier for us to go to the places we wanted. He just had to keep quiet and not let slip his thick Texan drawl.

Normally, the tourist sites would be completely crowded, but while we were there it was a ghost town. This meant we really got to connect with the people who worked there. They had little to do so were happy to talk to us. They even offered us tea while we sat and chatted about what our different lives were like, and how difficult life had become for them since the drop in the economy.

egypt part 1
Our first evening we shared a beer with a taxi driver. In part because of the courage it gave us, we were able to persuade him to help us see the pyramids. I mean really see them. They’re so iconic and full of legend, and I wanted to truly experience them. After a while he gave us the name of a boy whose father was a high ranking guard, and was known to show people around from time to time. We didn’t find the boy very easily, but the taxi driver was happy to drive us around for hours, playing tour guide, until one of the people we asked said they had seen him. Once we found him he agreed to be our guide and told us to meet him at 4 A.M. the next morning. With quite a few hours to kill before our early morning adventure, we spent our time roaming the town on the edge of the desert, under a full moon, and driving around with the taxi driver. He invited us to attend a wedding celebration and eagerly acted as translator as we spent the night talking and smoking hookahs with the old men of the wedding party. When we told them we were going to try and see a pyramid, one of them even gave us some chakra oil to put on special energy points on our body while we were there.

Early the next morning we met our guide in a neighborhood near the pyramids. We had no idea if we could trust him to keep his word, or whether as young tourists, we were an easy target for a scam. My intuition told me that it was worth taking the chance, and that I could trust him even though he was a stranger.

The moon was bright that night. We crawled over a pile of garbage, and a part of the wall our guide knew to be broken, to reach the plateau where the pyramids stood. He led us through the grounds around the eastern side of the pyramid. I could see the hole in the ground where they had excavated the boats that had been discovered with ultrasound a couple of years previously. I remembered the photos I had seen in National Geographic, and I couldn’t believe that I was actually there.

Our guide introduced us to some of the guards and we sat and talked with them for a while. Eventually, after checking out some more of the grounds we had to leave to get back for a 6 A.M. sunrise meditation with our tour group. The group was taken to a large, flat rock about twenty minutes bus ride away, where there was a view of the sun rising behind the pyramids in the distance. I felt really thankful that I had taken a chance and gone out exploring the night before. Because we had trusted the people we met, our night time adventure included a closer look at the pyramids and and lots of fun moments with local people.

As exciting as this time had been, it didn’t end there. Later, my group left Giza and moved onto Luxor. Check back for my next post where I’ll be sharing the story of my time with the people of Luxor, and how they helped make my trip so special.

The importance of diversity

Published on 5/1/2010

How much of our time do we spend thinking about the right way to do things, either under the assumption that we’re wrong, or that everyone else is wrong? I’d like to ask you, is there one right way? Or, are there many right ways?

Obviously, there are a limited number of ways to put on pants, if pants are what you choose to wear. And, if the country you’re in says you must drive on the right side of the road, then in that instance the right must be right. But, when it comes to living your life, who’s to say?

sandpipers

One summer, back in ‘98, I was on a two month road trip with a friend, driving through the southern United States, and up the coast of northern California into Canada. At one point, as we drove through northern California we stopped at an unmarked beach to take a walk on the sand. The sun was blazing hot and the dark sand in the dunes was almost unbearable to walk on. But, the water was far from blue and inviting. It was the color of steel and the waves were fast and strong, and because the beach was short the waves could catch you by surprise and soak your shorts.

I walked about half a mile, just thinking and taking in the beauty. There were hundreds of birds flying around, and down the beach I could see a group of about thirty sandpipers dancing back and forth. They were scurrying in to peck at the freshly washed sand and rushing back to get out of the way of the next incoming wave. I watched them for a minute thinking, “Wow these waves are really coming in, I wonder if they feel like it’s dangerous.” I felt like I could get swallowed up at any second.

I watched a bit longer and pondered their movements. I wondered if their whole dance was completely random or if they all held their positions within the moving flock. To me, it looked as if some of them were risk-takers while others were timid. As I watched it became very clear. It wasn’t random. There were a few that skirted the very edge of the water, a few that stayed far away from all the action, and the majority bunched together somewhere in the middle.

I thought about what it would be like to be one of the sandpipers close to the waves. Would I think, “Why aren’t you all up here in the waves with me, where there’s more food to be had?” Maybe being close to the waves like that was risky and some of the birds would get swept away. And, maybe it was better for the entire flock if some of the birds are more cautious and stayed a bit farther from the waves. I guessed that the flock had a better chance of long term survival if each bird had a different role to play. In times of calmer waves, the ones near the ocean would thrive. In more dangerous and tumultuous times, the timid ones would ensure survival of the group. I guessed it wouldn’t work well if any of them, after watching other sandpipers, thought there might be an advantage to behaving differently. They needed to feel as though their position was intuitively right.

sandpipers 2

I had noticed that the flock was roughly arranged in the shape of a bell curve. After contemplating them for a while I began to wonder how much the different areas of my life could be depicted on a bell curve. Was I in the middle of the pack on some political thoughts, but closer to the edge of the group when it came to fashion, for example? The thought also dawned on me that I must spend a lot of my time feeling as though my way is the right way — how often did I look at other people and wonder why they were not doing things the same as me, and judging them for doing them differently? I became fascinated with my own, low-level assumption that my way was somehow the best way. This assumption pervaded my thoughts, and I realized that I spent a lot of time looking for ways other people were doing things wrong; finding evidence to support my own story.

Nature wants all the different kinds of sandpipers — timid, brave and all those in between — to exist together. If each of the birds didn’t think what they were doing was right, and started doing something different, it might upset the balance of the flock.

So what does this mean for our species? I think it wants nature wants diversity for us too. I think it’s extremely important for the survival of our species to move towards diversity because the more diverse we are, the more opportunities we have. There was a time in our evolution that it was necessary for our survival to reject what was different. But, now we’re at a point where that important defence mechanism is less necessary. We’ve evolved to deal with threats to our safety, and are secure enough in the continuance of our species that we’re able to appreciate people’s differences and recognize that everyone has a part to play. I think the problems that we will face in our future will be better solved if we can understand and appreciate our differences.

The experience with the sandpipers was very influential for me. After leaving the beach, I continued to wonder how much time we all spend thinking about the right way to be, and I still think about it now. I decided that I was going to try and be thankful for all the differences that people have, and recognize that those differences can lead to a better world. I was going to try and be open-minded and curious. I noticed, however, that it was easier for me to be more open-minded the further from home I traveled. In Egypt and Iceland I was curious about and receptive to the people and the culture, but it has been my experience that in your own back yard that can easily fall away. I found it was easy to revert to a more critical and less understanding way of being. I want to keep traveling and exploring the world with an open mind, but I realize that that learning to appreciate diversity will be a lifelong endeavor.

What are your thoughts on diversity? Do you agree that it’s important for the survival and evolution of our species that we cultivate our differences, or do you think it’s our destiny to become more and more alike, or something else? When you travel, do you strive to keep an open mind about your hosts and the other people you meet? How easy is it to do that? How about when you’re at home or somewhere familiar? Do you approach people with the same respectful curiosity or do you find it more difficult? I am fascinated by this topic and think it a valuable debate for Couchsurfing members to have.

A trip to Iceland

Published on 4/1/2010

The girl I chose as my host in Iceland may not have been Björk, but she was a singer, and quite the socialite in Reykjavik. She’d opened for the Fugees when they were there in concert and had appeared on the cover of a gossip magazine. You might think this was why I chose her over someone else, but it was actually the fact that she didn’t look Icelandic that I found intriguing. She had dark hair and looked like she could possibly have been from South America. “Wow,” I thought, ‘it would really interesting to get the perspective of a foreign person living in Iceland.”

Johanna picked me up from the airport and took me to her parent’s house. The whole time we were in the car together I could sense there was something unusual about her but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, so I kept quiet. Her home was classically Icelandic, set on the coast with beautiful views of the Atlantic. It could be argued that even her family looked classically Icelandic, and with his white beard and knitted hat her father looked like a happy fisherman. They looked so different from Johanna that I wondered if she was adopted. In the car ride from the airport she had talked a lot about wanting to visit Cuba. I thought maybe that’s where she had been adopted from as a child and wanted to go back and visit.

On the wall in the living room there was a picture of a beautiful, blond-haired, blue-eyed woman winning some kind of pageant. Johanna explained that it was her sister winning the Miss Iceland contest. I couldn’t keep it in any longer. I had to ask why she looked so different from her family. She laughed and told me that in Iceland everyone looks so similar that as a performer she needed a way to distinguish herself. She’d plucked her eyebrows into a thin arch and dyed both them and her hair jet-black. After looking at her closely I saw that underneath the hair and the deep tan there was a blue-eyed woman who looked just like her sister. I couldn’t believe that hair dye and a tan could change the way you look so dramatically!

Most of Johanna’s friends were socialites too and they took me out bar-hopping nearly every night. It seemed that part of the fun for them was to “see and be seen.” It was a time of year when the sun never really set so we would stay out until 4am each morning and then crash on someone’s couch or in their garage. It was my first true CouchSurfing experience with people I didn’t already know.

In addition to the Icelandic nightlife I saw hot-springs and volcanoes, but one of the most rewarding things was being able to give Johanna and her friends a very American experience. Near the city of Reykjavik was an American air base with a fast-food restaurant called Wendy’s that apparently served the best burgers around. Wendy’s is a well-known chain in the US but since I’ve been vegetarian all my life, I had no way of knowing if that were true. Johanna and her friends assumed that because I was American I would automatically be allowed onto the base even though they were not. I knew my nationality probably wouldn’t give me any privileges at all, but we decided to try.

They really wanted to try those burgers though, so when one day there was a helicopter show on the airbase, we hatched a plan. We rode up to the side gate, our car packed full. In as relaxed a manner as I could manage, I told the guard that we were there to see the air show. He told us we would have to use another gate around the corner. That wouldn’t work because that entrance and the airshow were separated off from the the rest of the base. If we went through that gate we wouldn’t be able to get to Wendy’s. I was frozen. We’d come this far, I didn’t want to disappoint my new friends by just turning around and going home. After staring blankly at the guard for a few seconds, I asked, to the shock of everyone in the car, “Uhhh, how about we just go to Wendy’s instead?” To our relief, he laughed. “OK,” he said, “just don’t let anyone know I let you in.” In my mind it was a funny thing to want to do, go to a fast-food restaurant, but I was happy because, in a weird kind of way, it was like I was showing my hosts a little of my own country.

As I sat on the plane preparing to fly back to the US, I remember thinking that this was one of the best experiences of my life. I thought to myself “I need to travel like this, every time.”

The Icelandic students had proven me right. My idea for a website that connected travelers with people who were willing, eager even, to host them, was going to work. The important lesson though was that this had worked because both my potential hosts and I had made an effort to describe ourselves before meeting in person. We talked about ourselves in such detail that when Johanna and I eventually met we weren’t like strangers at all. We had not only established trust, but we had established that we found each other interesting enough to bother meeting.

The website needed to do the same. It needed to go beyond the basics of name, age and occupation. It needed to ask people questions that probed deeply enough to discover what was really interesting about them. The site needed to be a social network that helped people share who they really were with people hundreds of miles away.

This trip inspired the questions that you see asked on each profile on the website today. Which of them do you find most useful in choosing who you would most like to host or surf with? Are there any other questions you think we should ask; any other information you would like to see?

Spamming Bjork – can I stay on your couch?

Published on 3/1/2010

In the year 2000 I had the opportunity to travel to Iceland for a long weekend. I knew I wanted to build a website, and that it would connect travelers with local residents who were willing to host them. But, I didn’t know what that website would look like or if it was even something people would be interested in.

I knew from experience that people could be open to hosting someone they had met socially, even if they hadn’t know them very long, but to host a stranger off the Internet? I didn’t know about that.

I was about to get the perfect opportunity to experiment. I found an off-season ticket to Reykjavik on a Monday that was a bargain-price if you could leave Friday and return Monday. Iceland was always somewhere I had wanted to go. I love rugged and unique landscapes, particularly those in northern climates, and flying there suddenly for a long weekend seemed like fantastic adventure. At the time Iceland was the second most expensive country in the world and even hostels were more than I could afford. I definitely needed to see if I could stay with someone for free and discover once and for all how to make CouchSurfing possible.

I didn’t know where to start trying to find someone to ask if I could stay on their couch. I tried Googling “Icelandic website” and contacting the owners of the sites. I wrote a nice email introducing myself, telling them that I would love to come to Iceland and stay on their couch. I can’t imagine what they thought of a young American man randomly emailing them and asking to stay on their couch, but needless to say, by Wednesday I had received zero responses.

In another search I stumbled across a student directory for the University of Iceland. After a little digging I figured out that if you could search for people’s email addresses by either their first or last name. I think this would be a privacy issue today! So, I had found a way to get in touch with people, but the question was “who?” I didn’t know any Icelandic names… but, then I realized, “Björk”! She’s famous, she’s Icelandic. It’s worth a shot. Sure enough, there were a handful of women with the same name. Then I was really on a roll because as I looked at the last names in the list, a pattern emerged. I did some research and I learned Icelandic people take their last name from the first name of their father. So, for example, the son of a man named Ísar would have the last name Ísarsson, and the daughter the last name Ísardóttir. Once I understood this, every time I saw a new last name I would take the first part of it and plug it into the search again. I repeated this process until In the end I had gathered about 1,500 names and email addresses.

I thought that maybe part of the reason I had been unsuccessful with the website owners was because I hadn’t made my emails personal enough. I had to make a more personal connection this time to give myself any chance of receiving some responses, and not be dismissed as spam. I knew I had to seem not only trustworthy but interesting enough to bother meeting.

If there was any way to know anything about these people, I would have written individual messages. But all I had was their names — I had no idea who they were or what they were interested in. So I had to do my best with what I had. I created a mail merge to make sure that each email used the person’s name. Then I wrote all about myself: where I was from, what I did for a living, what I was hoping to see in Iceland and links back to my own website so they could see what I looked like. I did everything I could to make make the letter seem as personal as possible. I even made sure to use their name at the beginning and end of the letter in the hope of making a better connection somehow. All 1,500 were sent in a matter of minutes. All I could do was sit back and hope for the best.

After a couple of hours responses started coming in, and they ranged from ordinary invites to hang out and get a beer, to staying in a house made of volcanic rock, and drinking vodka in the nearby hot springs. I was excited because people seemed very eager to offer up ideas of what we could do together and to open up their homes to me. Now I had the opposite problem. Too many awesome opportunities to choose from. But, it had worked! My experiment had shown me that there were people who were more than willing to host a traveler they had never met, they were really happy to do it. The idea could obviously appeal to hosts as much as it did to travelers. It seemed as long as you put the effort in to fully describe yourself and show yourself to be a sound and interesting person, then people were eager and excited by the prospect of meeting you.

Trinidad and Tobago

Published on 1/1/2010

In 1998 I spent ten days over Christmas in Trinidad and Tobago with a friend whose mother had fled to the US seeking asylum, and had never been back. My friend was born and raised in New York, and had never met her family that lived there. She was eager to spend time with her grandparents, but the islands of Trinidad and Tobago were not very safe, and she was concerned about going alone. Having recently ended a long relationship, I was feeling lost and empty. I had been feeling like this for a while and was unsure of how to move on. I knew when my friend asked me to join her on her trip that it was the perfect opportunity to get out of my normal space.

When I arrived I was told that I must stay with a member of her family at all times as it was too dangerous for me to be alone. As if to illustrate that fact, there were bars on nearly every window of every building. We stayed in the house of her grandmother who I was told practiced voodoo, and who assumed that we were getting married. We were so shocked by her assumption that we didn’t immediately correct her, and the rest of the family thought it best we keep quiet. I was surprised that simple friendships between men and women weren’t as readily understood or accepted as I was used to, and it made me wonder how different my life at home would be if my friendships with women were restricted.

I had other surprises in store too. When I tried to take a shower I learned that the public water would only come on at certain times each week and didn’t follow a strict schedule. My hosts tried to store as much as they could in buckets for to use later. When I was very young my family had lived in small wooden house that had few amenities by today’s western standards, but we were lucky: even though it had often been cold, we always had running water.

Also, they celebrated Christmas in a very different way to what I was used to. There was definitely no mashed potato and candies yams! The food was special, local food that was unlike anything I had ever eaten before. Even though my friend’s family were surprised and curious about my vegetarian upbringing, there was still plenty of options for me to eat, and it was fun comparing our cultures and customs over the diner table each night.

trinidad1

My friend’s grandfather drove us all around the island of Trinidad in a small, old, Eastern European car. It was made up of remnants of other cars, long since retired to the scrapheap, and had probably been rebuilt many times over the last decade. He enjoyed showing us around all his favorite places that he had known all his life, such as hidden caves, beaches, waterfalls and the ancient tar pits that the island was known for.

trinidad2

One day, on our way into the main town of Port-of-Spain, we drove past some shanty towns. I had never seen shanty towns before and thought they looked like a really bad way to live. They were very busy and chaotic. I asked about them, expecting my friend’s family to agree with me on their condition, but they replied that “it was just like that for some people.” I got to thinking about the different things we get used to, and how easy it is sometimes to get used to conditions that other people might find shocking.

trinidad3

About halfway through my stay there we took a six hour ferry to get to the island of Tobago where my friend’s aunt lived. Tobago was much smaller and safer than the island of Trinidad with many more holiday resorts. It definitely felt more easy-going. My friend’s aunt was a well-known and respected woman and seemed to know everyone on the island. So many people on the street would stop and talk to us that it felt like being in the company of a celebrity. I was quite shy so I was really thankful that she was so sociable. She introduced us to everyone and they were all interested in where we were from and what we were doing during our visit.

Staying with a family that lived in Trinidad & Tobago gave me access to the people and culture in a way that I never would have had traveling alone. The safety concerns on the island of Trinidad probably would have made it difficult for me to go there at all had it not been for my friend. In Egypt my experience had been amazing but at the time I hadn’t completely known why. In Trinidad & Tobago I was starting to realize that it was because I was able to get an understanding of the way of life there. I was able to ask questions about every single thing that interested me, in the moment that I was experiencing it. As a tourist I wouldn’t have been able to do that. As a tourist I wouldn’t have had anyone to provide me with the context necessary to help me understand what I was seeing.

This trip, along with many others, taught me something else as well. It taught me that travel can give you perspective and be therapeutic. I was able to temporarily step away from the challenges in my personal life and see the world from a completely new angle. I was able to begin to see that my problems, while important to me, were really quite small in the grander scheme of things. Looking at my life from an outside perspective allowed me to grow as a person.

Have you ever experienced a similar situation? Experienced travel as a way to gain perspective and work through a difficult point in your life? If you feel like sharing, I would love to hear your story.