17 September 2009

HOW TO dive beneath the Tourist surface: internet communities e.g. Couchsurfing

 How can you get to know locals and expats in a place you have never been to before ? It can take weeks and months to really meet people.

This used to frustrate me, because when I travel I often just meet other travelers or people dealing with travelers, working in hostels, restaurants etc... .That's nice but I wanted to meet locals and foreigners who had lived in the place for a while and see what life there was like for them.
Of course sometimes you can meet local people in buses and planes.

One way that has worked for me is to join an internet community of people who are into travel and who are interested in meeting travellers.
When I know what day I arrive in a place, say for example Macau, I ask if anyone from that community  is interested to meet up for an informal meal or tea 'n coffee session. Usually quite a few people are.  

The internet group I picked is called Couchsurfing.  It's a collection of traveler friendly people.

It was set up to develop a network of trust and allow those they trust to stay on their couches/Sofas - basically provide some space for people to crash overnight ! The idea has been around for ages. Servas was popular in the 1960's to 1980's before internet - when all was done by snail mail. They are still around http://www.servas.org/. I stayed at a Servas host in Singapore in 1985. The current incarnation of this idea is couchsurfing and other similar sites. I won't explain it all here, you can read more at: www.couchsurfing.org

Qu: Does everyone have to allow strangers to stay on their couch ?
My flat in Melbourne is too small for hosting people, so I only meet people for tea/coffee for a chat, there is no compulsion to provide overnight hosting. It is perfectly OK to just meet people for tea and coffee, in a public place.
I set my couchsurfing profile to indicate that.
 I usually stay at Hotels/budget backpackers when I travel. Unless work pays :-)

In 2008 I joined the Egypt-Cairo Couchsurfing group and asked if anyone was interested to meet up. A few people were and they suggested a nice Cafe. It ended up with about 9 people coming, locals Egyptians, travelers, and expats.

In  September 2009 I wanted to meet people living in Macau. We got a lovely group of resident Macau-ans, European Exchange students and travelers. We all met at a popular ice cream shop suggested by one of the active Couchsurfers in Macau.

I had never met any of them in person before.
In a strange new city I like to meet locals and expats, otherwise I tend to float like a cork, on the surface of life and remain the gringo tourist ready for the milking. I'll probably always be the gringo tourist, but there are ways to dive below the surface and meet locals and other travellers.
Seven of us met at a famous ice cream shop on Sunday at 12.30. Four were local Macau residents, a lady who was studying business and has a wine import business, a final year High School student who wants to study in Europe, a Goverment employee in education who loves to travel and wants to visit 100 countries before he dies and a Japanese Macau resident who runs a business.
The foreigners were a group of exchange Univ students (Germany, Finland, Holland...) and a Japanese visiting her friend, + yours truly. Pictures here: Sunday meeting

We  met at a small inconspicuous ice cream shop that was famous for its ice cream sandwiches. Then the locals took us to eat at a REAL traditional noodle shop, we shopped for a new camera for the German exchange student. Our High School guide took the rest of us who stayed on for a tour of her favourite spots in Macau: the bisquit making, juice shop, super fresh tofu shop, backpackers place where a famous movie was shot. (thanks VL :-) )

Oh yea, and we found out about the graffiti scene in Macau, nothing like as full on as in Melbourne but some really nice stuff, with interesting ideas.
It seems that multinational marketing is getting really sophisticated: Apparently Coca Cola sponsored graffiti that subtly promotes their Zero Coke brand, but looks like a huge graffiti mural. Photo to follow once I manage to get a cable to connect the camera to the computer. [update: photo below]

I'd never been to the other islands of Macau, Taipa, and Coloane. A lovely Couchsurfer in Macau took me  on a night time sightseeing tour of those other parts.  Photos of the nightime tour here.

I was asked if most CouchSurf people were the younger set ?

Yes, age tends to make people more
  • - scared,
  • - more tied  down  with kids & work, and
  • - richer i.e willing to pay for comfort i.e. unwilling to sleep on a couch, so yes,  most are young-ish.
However the more committed longer term active ones such as country "ambassadors" are often older, more mature and have made a clear committment.  Statistics are here

Couchsurfing is my way of meeting people who are NOT on the tourist trail, and NOT working in tourism, but who are interested in other countries and travelers.

In Myanmar I met a Couchsurfing lady doing great work with orphans, widows from Cyclone Nargis; we are still in touch working on how to do "useful" stuff. My old High school buddy GK who was a monk in Burma for 15 years is also going to see about linking in with her work.

In Macau I met great Couchsurfing member working for a Christian  orphanage/children's home: (kids 3-18year old, some abandoned, others from troubled families)
We went for a nigh time tour or Macau, after work, on a small motorscooter, a true whirlwind tour.  This was just straightforward  friendliness as I remember it in the 1970's  when travellers were a select group and there was an instant camaraderie 'on the road'. Less suspicion, more commonsense. 
               Photos of the trip here  - it gave me a chance to show off my new  camera (Canon G10) , which lets me take photos from a moving motorbike at night with NO flash, (at ISO 3200).

The Couchsurfing meetings remind me of the world I grew up in Germany in 1960's, a basic trust is still alive over here that is dead in most big Western cities after 2001. (not complaining, simply observing).

This kind of internet community is a great way to dive behind the tourist barrier and meet locals, expats who are at one end of the Bell Shaped Normal Distribution Curve, that is, the 3+ sigma group (explanation here).

I never surfed anyone's couch through the Couchsurfing site yet, because I'm one of the older ones. Also I prefer my freedom to come and go as I want, - it would have to be someone I really felt comfortable with and know for a while to actually do the couchsufing thing and sleep on a couch.
In Asia a cheap backpackers hostel  is my standard accommodation.

As I mentioned above: I don't host people, my place is too small 6.5 x 6.5 meters, I'm older (see above points re age again :-)) and it would have to be someone I really trusted to do the hosting-a-couchsurfer thing.

Clothes, dress, and the message it gives out to all around you:
Another thing about getting out tourist mode: dress in such a way that the local people think you are living and working there (i.e. an expat), travelling around for holiday.
        In Thailand I know I've hit the right dress level when local people ask me: "where do you work ? how long you been working in Thailand ?"- then I know I've dressed the correct way :-)
- Then I know I don't run around with clothes that scream "TOURIST !!!!!"
Thais have a phrase for certain groups of foreigners  'kii nok tourist' ... I'll leave you to work out what it means :-)

One really useful thing I found out over time was this:
I take a suit jacket.
- It helps me blend in,
- it is NOT the usual backpacker dress so instantly takes me out of that pot.
- It makes people (in SE Asia) think I am working locally (expat).

I take jackets that I can knock around a bit, older stuff, that is good for travel.

And in case people think it makes me look rich, no, not really, as I wear the suit jacket with clean pants, jeans, whatever, and the rest of me clean and casual.And it is not JUST clothes, attitude matters even more.

I also found wearing clothes like this makes locals trust me more, they are actually more friendly.
I get better service, better responses from most places.
Admittedly I am over 40 years old, so I guess that helps the image as well.

It is ironic because for my work at the University I don't usually wear a suit jacket. Or if I do, it is very casually.

 Travel tips for women in the links at the end talk about dress too.

Ok and we might as well face the inevitable question of SAFETY
I'm an Academic and Engineer, by trade, and researching things is in my blood. It is curious how our human psyche puts up with the incredibly high chance of getting killed in a car accident (details here)
            and yet turns itself inside out, about things that are really rare. Kids are taught a fear of strangers that changes the shape and the whole tone and feeling of our society, and yet we are quite happy to accept risks of 1 in 100  of being killed in a transport accident over the average lifetime. The social risks from strangers or in travel are 10,000 times less than that. Having said that, of course does not mean it NEVER happens, it just means it is rare - some good figures by a reputable group from Oxford Uni on accidents and travel  here    and on general healthy living here.
And having looked at the numbers does not mean my heart and guts agrees. Numbers don't mean little in the end.  In the end it is everyone's personal choice. I guess we all 'gotta go one day'.  ---  Enjoy the ride. :-)

I've talked more about how I used Couchsurfing to meet some great people in Macau in September2009 on another blog  here.

'dance me to the children who are asking to be born....'  - Leonard Cohen

I walk with her, and I hear the gentle beating of mighty wings....
I hear the sound of her wings.... and the darkness lifts from my soul...

04 September 2009

Macau - B - last days

Macau people burn paper replicas of money, food, utensils, gold bullion, even mobile phones, to send to their ancestors on the other side. This is the time in the Chinese calendar to do the burning Well that is what our local Macau Chinese expert told us at the Sunday meeting.The idea of sending messages to loved ones on the other side has a long tradition in Chinese history. I've done it on occasions, writing a letter using paper and pen and burning it. It's good. People here do it in big metal bins on the footpath all over town.

- sorry layout in this blog sucks, I need to redo in firefox, later, to make it look nice. Some sections are moved about other repeated, the layout on IE is not good, - I move one thing and it has funny effects on othe parts of this layout...  Haiko

This evening at 10pm as I walk back to the hotel I pass an old man, bent over, having difficulty walking pulling a bamboo woven garbage container. He seems to have pain in his legs. By the looks of him, he's a cardboard and plastic recycler who does this all day. Wearing only shorts he makes his snail's pace way across the road. On the other side three men sit drinking beer and playing cards. see photo below:

The act of observing alters that which is observed. It is an old principle known as the 'observer effect' which has found application even in quantum physics where it is known as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.

It applies equally to tourism. The act of observing and gawking at a tourist spot, creates a definite, often negative, effect.
An effect I like to keep to the absolute minimum.

People ask me what I do when I travel, don't I want to see the Casinos and the tourist spots ?
Casinos no, some of the tourist spots yes, but when I travel I travel ad hoc, without a fixed itinerary, I travel in a funny way, wandering about, exploring, photographing, and most of all blending in, not wanting to be noticed by anyone, just passing through looking like a 'regular', a local expat whatever...
For example: Yesterday I walked past and watched the huge tenement high risers, like anthills, like a termite colony, - we humans live in huge concrete cities... (not for too much longer I think, that makes me appreciate even those termite hills, as a unique thing in history. Funny how much the time/history perspective makes me appreciate things I would reject otherwise.)
And in those termite hills, at sundown hundreds of families go to the playgrounds, hundreds of lively squiggly shouting kids, eager and excited by life. Each one family, each one a story, each child (mostly) carefully looked over and after by a mother and father, each little life weaving itself into the tapestry of memories that the old men and women of the future will remember 70,90 years hence...


Talking with younger travelers last Sunday I realize how far the travel scene has moved and I start to feel my age... .
In the late 70's overland travel on YOUR OWN with a backpack was a NEW way, not established. There were odd articles here and there, by crazy dudes who tried it and lived to tell the tale.
I took a train all the way out to Geelong as a 17 year old High School student to talk to a guy who had 'done it'. He gave me good advice, much of which has become part of my mode of travelling.The method basically conisted of finding the first cheap traveller hotel - and asking other travellers what the best next stop was. "where do you stay in Singapore ?""Becoolen street has cheap accommodation, some flats are converted to cheap hostels.""Where have you just come from ?" "Jakarta.""Oh, what place d'you recommend ?"etc... Lonely Planet's famous yellow bible "South-East Asia on a shoestring" was in everyone's hands, it was small, 2nd edition, and it was sketchy, but it was a start, enough to go on. In those days you didn't insist on as much detail. A rough outline was enough.
Remember the hippy generation had ripped through Western society not very long ago, the echoes were still around. Maybe I'm one of those echoes... ?

(quavery voice)"In those days: there was no internet." (shock and horror !!!! how can one live without the internet arghhhh .... ) Today it is inconceivable to travel without the net.
Backpacker places provide it as a matter of course. To get mail I wrote to my parents 6 weeks in advance: "send mail to Calcutta GPO Poste restante until May, then stop 2 weeks before I get there because the mail will not reach me in time. Each major city had GPO Poste Restante sections where budget travellers would check to see if there was a letter from home. It was another hub of exchange. Everyone going through piles and piles of letters.

It was part of the 'ant trail' as I called it. When ants meet they stop and wave their antennae at each other, communicating in some way. The travel scene was like that, the stop-overs were the cheap hotels. You couldn't book these places, you just turned up, that was how it worked.

It was part of the challenge to set off into the wild blue yonder. The motto was:"if you can book it, it's too expensive" because the only hotels you could book easily were Hiltons and 5star places. By fax, phone of travel agent.
The typical accommodation of the 70's was fan operated, small rooms, bare bones, clean, neat, simple and Zen like. There are only a few left in Macau. Even I don't stay there anymore (--- much). Below is a picture of one such remaining place, a famous moview was filmed there in the 70's

These days carrrying your phone and buying local SIM cards is the norm. I had to go to shops and buy things to get coins, walk around to find a phone box...I find it hard to keep in the loop without a phone these days, still I didn't want to bring it this time.

Now the traveller's social scene is on the internet, and travel tips and the ant trail has moved to the NET. You meet on the net, develop trust, sus each other out then meet in person. One uses whatever tools are around.


Lots of schools in the area I'm staying in.

Walking around when the schools all finish, the remarkable thing was that almost every child had a mother or grandmother/father to taken them by the hand and pick them up and walk them home. Not many car pickups, there simply is NO space in this tiny island.


Speaking of using the Internet for social circles reminds me: In the previous email, I forgot to explain that the way all those strangers got to know each other and arranged a meeting last Sunday in that ice cream shop was through
www.Couchsurfin.org. It is set up for people to develop a network of trust and allow those they trust to stay on their couches/Sofas - basically provide some space for people to crash overnight ! The idea has been around for ages. Servas had this concept in the 1960's to 1980's before internet - when all was done by snail mail. I stayed at a Servas host in Singapore in 1985. The current incarnation of this idea is couchsurfing and other similar sites. I won't explain it all here, you can find out more at: www.couchsurfing.org My flat is too small for hosting people, so I only meet people for tea/coffee for a chat, there is no compulsion to provide overnight hosting. I usually stay at Hotels/budget backpackers when I travel. Unless work pays :-)

I'd never been to the other islands of Macau, Taipa, and Coloane. I got a great nightime sightseeing tour of the those other parts from a friend I met using the same site (couchsurfing.org) as for last Sunday's meeting. Photos of the nightime tour here.


I've moved to the Institute for Tourism Training Hotel the last two nights. The hotel is really classy and nicely done up, take a look if you want at:
I like the clean-ness. They are s***tscared about this silly Swine flu and go nuts on face masks. The place smells strongly of insecticide in fact it positively stinks of the stuff. I hold my breath as I walk quickly through the lobby.
The insecticide is doing more harm to staff than any flu virus would.
These are the vagaries of big bureaucracies...
the Hotel one notch down wouldn't dream of such extremes.

The air in Macau is around 28-33 Celsius, humid, pleasant if you like that kind of thing (I do). The hotel has the aircon on instant-freeze-dry mode, at cryogenic freezing levels close to absolute zero - ok a little exaggeration, but you get the point. It's the deep cold that hits you in the chest, hurts the lungs as you breath when you come in from outside.
Another reason to walk quickly through the lobby.
Why they do these things ? These are mysteries beyond the wisdom of the Sufi's themselves I think.

Then they wonder that some people get phlegmy and chesty.

A tip I picked up from an older traveler years ago: always take a suit jacket as protection when you change from hot to cyrogenic aircon. I even take a small silk scarf. It's the change over that is the tricky time, after 20mins the body adjusts and all is cool (pardon the pun).
Suit jackets serve the double function of looking nice and more formal which is important in Asia (and Australia I'm noticing to my surprise).


All these recent email articles are on: here

If you are interested in more esoteric tangents: Musings on the feeling of having lived in a place before, e.g. a city that I know I didn't ever visit in my life before - more here if you are interested.


Aswan, Egypt, Tombs of the Nobles