Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Globetrotters in Harlem:
the case of 'ghetto' tourism

Do tourists visit Harlem merely to gawp at poor, black people? The following is an extract from an article on the Guardian's Comment is Free site by a Harlem resident, Lola Adesioye.
"I'm still struggling to get to grips with tourists' fascination with coming into a poor area, one still considered by many to be a "ghetto", just to watch black people eat, worship and generally go about their daily lives - as if deprivation is somehow interesting and the way in which black people socialise really is so different from other Americans."
Just as India has "slum tours", Brazil offers the "favela experience" and South Africa serves up township "poorism", now Harlem is the must-see place to get down with, and get photos of, people less privileged than yourself.

Or is it?

As some of the blog respondents point out, isn't the Afro-American heritage likely to be more of a draw than poverty? I think many residents would be rather unhappy slotting modern Harlem into the slum/favela/township category.

One blog respondent, Raz, says:
I intend to visit Harlem on my next visit to NYC. Not to gawp at poor people but because it's another part of the jigsaw of a fascinating city. I'm not sure that you can live in an historical neighborhood and not expect tourists. Lola, I'm sure you've visited Chinatown. How did you feel about that?
I'd have to agree with Raz. As a home of jazz music, soul-food restaurants, gospel churches, historical sites and hip-hop, Harlem has all the hallmarks of a tourist attraction.

Two years ago, I went on a hip-hop tour of Harlem (tour guide Grandmaster Caz, pictured above). Admittedly, it was a group tour on bus, which is never my favourite form of tourism, but I did it to get to know another one of the city's neighbourhoods and learn about the origins of a genre of music that became part of my own youth on the other side of the Atlantic. I certainly didn't do it to get my fix of "deprivation"; my motivations were no different from doing a Bob Dylan tour of Greenwich Village.

Back to the idea of poorism or favela tourism, it's never going to be simple right/wrong, black/white case. Each experience depends on the individual tourist's attitude, as Lola concedes. If the alternative is to visit all other neighbourhoods and ignore the so-called "black areas", I can't see that this would be preferable.

Admittedly, bus tours aren't ideal and seem to jar with something as personal as church worship (Harlem church trips are very popular among tourists), but it is up to the congregations to decide whether to accept this or not. Meanwhile, tour guides are in the ideal position to breakdown inevitable preconceptions.

The best advice from Lola comes in her parting words. "I'd encourage anyone coming to Harlem to get off the bus, sit in a bar or café and talk to some locals." Travel networking anyone?

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Credit crunched? Try a home exchange

In times of hefty morgage payments, rising fuel bills and general financial doom, the Daily Telegraph has offered a solution: make your home your passport. Home exchanges are nothing new, but, as the credit crunch takes hold, the idea of living abroad rent-free has never been more appealing.

Last month, the Observer also renewed interested in such schemes with an entertaining account of a London-NYC home swap.

Juliet Kinsman writes:
Our introduction to the immediate neighbours was a hello over the fence - followed by the offer of a paddling pool loan. To parents of an infant in the sweltering city heat, this ranks with a private hotel infinity pool. Imagine our delight when they reappeared brandishing guests passes to MoMA, a mountain of toys and fresh-from-the-oven New York Times recipe cookies. We hadn't been there 48 hours and they'd already made our holiday.

It was a lovely piece and a huge success in terms of online page views. Well, who wouldn't be tempted to click on headline reading 'New York for a month without spending a dime'? (Even if this did seem to overlook living expenses and flights.)

The Daily Mail's money section has also been enthusing about home-swapping this week, while the Guardian launched its own home-exchange service, powered by Home Base Holidays, in January.

In general, as listing sites get more sophisticated, it's becoming even easier to arrange a house exchange. Although that doesn't mean swappers aren't thinking ahead: according to the Travel the Home Exchange Way blog, exchange plans are already underway for the London 2012 Olympics. Time to get on your marks? Here are the Telegraph's home-exchange tips:

  • Register with an agency, which will cost from £40 to £250, to display your home details on a professional website and give you access to details about other homes
  • Describe your home thoroughly with plenty of digital pictures, and remember that American and Australasian visitors love history
  • To start making a swap, either wait for another client to contact you or identify a place and home you like, and email the owners
  • Most agencies have checklists of details to discuss with your exchangee – cars, pets, wear-and-tear and breakages, insurance, and what’s out of bounds
  • Some agencies have pro forma contracts which can be exchanged between the two sets of home owners

  • Further advice on house exchanges on the Which website.

    Sunday, 21 September 2008

    Couch surfer: the song

    Proof that the word "couchsurfer" was around before 2004-established Couchsurfing.com. Here's an extract from Couch surfer, a Bran Van 3000 song released on their 1998 album, Glee. The band come from Montreal, which is the third most active city in the Couchsurfing.com network.

    Alongside a refrain of "I'm couch surfing, I'm a couch surfer", choice lyrics include:

    "Can I crash at your place again?
    Just one more night?"

    Plus a finale where the couchsurfer appears to have overstayed his welcome.

    "Mind if I eat those chips?
    Oh that's okay,
    I don't like salt and vinegar anyways.
    No no no, I didn't use pay-per-view.
    I figured it was free.

    Yeah, I'm going.
    I'm a couch surfer, couch surfing "

    Full lyrics here.

    Friday, 19 September 2008

    Is Couchsurfing the new Google?

    Is Couchsurfing the new Google? Not literally of course, that’d never work.

    What I mean is the word “couchsurfing” seems to have become a catch-all term for the whole hospitality movement. Today people refer to “going couchsurfing” when they may be sourcing hosts through multiple sites, while newspapers write on the “new trend of couchsurfing” when really it goes much broader than just Couchsurfing.com. (For proof, just see the list of links on the right of the Going Local Travel homepage.)

    Couchsurfing.com can’t take credit for inventing the word, it has been in the lexicon a good few before the site was established in 2004. However, Casey Fenton and co did make a very savvy move by opting for a site name that, like Google, also works as a verb (I couchsurf, you couchsurf, we all couchsurf).

    It’s certainly one of the key factors that has enabled Couchsurfing.com to pick up so much media coverage and leave its rivals in the dust. The rival conjugations don't exactly roll off your tongue: I BeWelcomed today, we are going Servasing, he has been Hospitality Clubbing.

    However, there’s one difference between Couchsurfing and Google – ok, there’s more than one, but here’s one worth noting for this discussion - whereas Couchsurfing.com has made no official statement on its service-marked buzzword, the search-engine giant has made it perfectly clear that it will sue your ass if you don’t refer to it with a capital letter (eg "I Googled it").

    In fact, the "what you are not allowed to do" section on Google's extensive permissions page is quite hilarious - in a threatening sort of way. I quote (and therefore hope not to be sued): "you can't mess around with our marks. Only we get to do that. Don’t remove, distort or alter any element of a Google Brand Feature. That includes modifying a Google trademark, for example ... Googliscious, Googlyoogly, GaGooglemania."

    Meanwhile, Couchsurfing.com have registered their term as a service mark, but don't seem to be strictly policing it. Their exclusivity rights are no doubt somewhat different as they didn't invent the name.

    The most public current use of the couchsurfing phrase includes the recent T-Mobile ad. One seemingly in-the-know member on the forum says (and this has not been confirmed):

    "Although T-mobile contacted CouchSurfers before the commercial aired, they refused to work with us before the commercial aired (...) The first thing that pops up when you google [sic] the term CouchSurfer is CS, so in the end we are still getting new members from the commercial."

    It's true that the "couchsurfer" in the advert makes no reference to using the internet to find his hosts and appears to be relying on a network of friends he contacts through his trusty mobile phone.

    Currently, there are references to couchsurfing on online dictionaries, but there’s no entry in that true bastion of language, the OED. Surely it won't be long...

    Monday, 15 September 2008

    Staying with weirdos and murderers

    Couchsurfing: an idea for weirdos and full of potential axe murderers. Discuss.

    This was basically the tone of the Richard Bacon Show on Radio Five Live, which I appeared on as a guest on Thursday night.

    It wasn't the approach I was expecting, or could have predicted following chats with enthusiastic researchers who had heard I was speaking about Couchsurfing across South America at the TNT Winter Travel Show. But that's tabloid radio, I guess. They were bound to be provocative.

    "I'm not offering my house to anyone!" cried out a melodramatic Bacon (pictured above) within seconds.

    "I'm sensing the plot of a very scary slasher movie," added comedian Steve Punt, a fellow guest on the show.

    I gave them both a telling off for being such cynics and, by the end, I think they were coming round to the idea.

    "Actually, I can see that having a personal introduction to a strange city would be good," said Punt. "You know how in a hotel reception, you go to the concierge and it all feels really impersonal? I really like the idea of having someone who knows the place being able to show you around."

    "I'm warming to it," admitted Bacon finally.

    It was a pity that such an interesting debate had to be condensed to such as short segement, but we had to make way for the breaking news of the XL travel collapse.

    Given more time I would have shared a recommendation with Punt, who mentioned he'd draw the line if his 18-year-old daughter wanted to go and stay with "complete strangers" on her gap year.

    The Punts should try YourSafePlanet.com, a site that, for a small fee, could put their daughter in touch with an in-country contact who has been fully vetted and could be on-hand if she had any problems. Not only that, she'd also have her first "friend" already set up in advance. Surely any father would be happier with this than knowing she was boarding a plane to a place where she didn't know a soul, as many gappers do.

    "Really, it's a terrible comment on the world that we both heard this idea and thought 'serial killers'," said Punt to Bacon at one point. And, on this, I couldn't agree more.

    Wednesday, 10 September 2008

    Unlit on the road

    The Unlit boys have gone up in the world. No crashing on couches for them anymore. They've bagged themselves a spanking new tour bus.

    With T-Mobile having pounced on Couchsurfing, it seems mobile companies can't get enough of hip, new social-networking projects. Orange are the latest to jump aboard, sponsoring the new Unlit tour round the UK.

    Nonetheless, the lads' concept remains as down to earth as ever. They travel around, putting on gigs in the homes of people they've found online, mainly through MySpace and, this time, through the Orange website.

    At the helm of the online series are two of my superbly talented friends Jont (singer-songwriter) and Dave Depares (filmmaker). They first took the road together back in 2006, travelling across the US and creating a series of films en route.

    Catch them if you can, or catch up with the movies online.

    Couchsurfing goes mainstream

    Wanna Couchsurf? You'll be "outta luck" without a mobile phone.

    Says who?

    Says mobile phone giant T-Mobile, which has used the concept in its recent US ad campaign.

    "Guess it was just a matter of time before mainstream marketers hitched to the buzz and good will of Couchsurfing," sighs World Hum.

    The girl who filmed this rather shaky YouTube clip is far more impressed. "Oh my God, that is like the coolest thing I have seen all week," she gushes.

    Go local, get laid

    “Meet the locals, get laid,” announces a Sydney Morning Herald travel blog about Couchsurfing.

    "Mate, it's sensational," Brian, an Aussie enthusiast, told the blogger. "It's a shag-fest. I stayed with this French girl in Paris, and she barely let me put down my pack before she jumped me. I'm doing it every time I travel now. You should get on there."

    Is Brian really that irresistible? Probably not, but that’s why Couchsurfing dating appeals. Suddenly - much to his own surprise - average old Brian has morphed into a exotic foreigner with a sexy accent and no strings attached. Let’s face it with all these random encounters (646,877 at last count) – sex is going to happen.

    “Couchsurfing is not a dating agency,” the site insists. However, what annoyed devotees most about the SMH blog (and caused them to complain in droves) was not that they implied sex happens, but the implication that this should be the predominant reason for joining.

    As an India-based member of the Couchsurfing forum explains: “We were pissed off by … the insinuation that CS has no other dimensions than young people hooking up for sex... The piece says clearly that no one but single people who do this... which in itself was quite a strong and untrue judgement.”

    Indeed, families and couples are just as likely to be Couchsurfing these days.

    The question is: can all these different groups coexist on one site?

    Monday, 8 September 2008

    Travel networking: the rules

    Want to start surfing couches round the world? Here are some tips on how to do it the right way.

    Keep it personal
    Contacting someone saying simply "Hello. Can I stay at your house for a week?" is unlikely to elicit a positive response. Introduce yourself and your plans. Where possible make the person feel you've chosen them for a reason.

    Always reply
    If you request to meet someone and they send a personal response to say they won't be able to make it, return the courtesy with a reply rather than just moving straight on to the next person.

    Keep to your plans. Don't leave your host waiting for you. Don't pull out at the last minute.

    Give a little
    If you're staying at someone's house, bring a gift (maybe something typical from your own country). If they're showing you around town, buy lunch or drinks if you can, and always pay your way. Many guests offer to cook their hosts dinner; cleaning up after yourself should go without saying.

    Be courteous
    If staying at someone's home, do not use it as a base to party with other people. Fit in with host's schedule. Don't sleep in for hours. Don't overstay your welcome.

    Make sure you spend time getting to know your host. If you're just after free accommodation or a tour guide, you've got the wrong idea.

    Consider a skill swap
    One way to give something back is through a skill exchange. Offering a dance lesson or DIY expertise can enhance the travel-networking experience and increase the chances of being hosted.

    Keep in touch
    Lots of hosts don't travel themselves, but open their homes in order to make friends around the world. Don't disappear off into the sunset when you leave. Drop an email every now and again. If they've got on a travel-networking site, it's highly likely they're on Facebook, MySpace or the like.

    Sunday, 7 September 2008

    Is sofa surfing safe?

    Safety. It’s everyone’s first thought when you mention couchsurfing. And rightly so. No one should enter into meeting “strangers” completely blindly.

    However, blind panic isn’t the answer either.

    A while ago I was contacted by a journalist from Sky News who was writing a piece about the safety issues of travel networking and staying at the homes of people you have met through websites.

    Oddly the readers’ comments don’t seem to be visible anymore, but here’s one I made a note of at the time. "Stupidest thing I have heard of,” it began. “I am a young male and I wouldn’t risk it, especially in places like South America and most certainly not in Austria. Imagine couch surfing at the Fritzl household. There is no level of safety you can maintain when you are sound asleep in a stranger’s house."

    Now, although I totally understand people concerns, and would always advise employing caution before embarking on any face-to-face meets, this view seems extreme, close-minded and rather sad. He appears to be writing off an entire country (a nation of Fritzls) and one of the world’s biggest continents (just full of drug dealers and pickpockets, right?)

    People have much more control over the risks they take through these sites than they think. After all, you could meet someone for a coffee in a public place in the middle of the day.

    As I said in my first Going Local column, any sort of independent travel relies on the kindness of strangers and you often find yourself hanging out with people you don't know, even if it's just another backpacker in a bar.

    Neither travel networking or straightforward backpacking ever 100% guarantees your safety, but I for one wouldn't pick the alternative: staying at home.

    Here are my tips for staying safe when travel networking:

    · Take advantage of the sites' own safety precautions. Couchsurfing.com offers members a security grading — from 0 (ie anyone who signs up) to 3 (name and address verified by a small credit card payment) — along with the chance to be vouched for by a high-level, "trusted" member. Other sites, such as globalfreeloaders.com and hospitalityclub.org, require users to exchange passport numbers and advise people to check identity documents when they meet. Most sites also store all email exchanges for at least a year.

    · Always meet in a public place and tell people who you are meeting.

    · Check references left by other travellers. Most social network profiles include testimonials from people who have previously met the person via the site.

    · Attend an event in your hometown first (Couchsurfing.com has loads). Get to meet some active members and they can recommend some of hosts/guests that they know personally. This way it is more of a friend-of-a-friend situation rather than complete strangers.

    · Suggest talking on the phone or via Skype or instant messenger before you meet up. Perhaps check out their MySpace, Facebook or Bebo page. If it’s your first time, tell the person. They’ll understand your nerves.

    · Consider parting with a small amount of cash to use vetted contacts who have undergone police checks and provide official references, like those on yoursafeplanet.com or Servas.

    · Don't be afraid to pull out of a meeting if it doesn't feel right and, above all, use common sense.

    Saturday, 6 September 2008

    It’s not such A Small World after all

    Is it the end of ASmallWorld.net? This week the Guardian predicted the demise of the exclusive, invite-only travel networking site. "Did you manage to get into the site?” sneered a well-to-do member at the reporter, as if this illustrated its downfall.

    I'm sure the same member would turn his nose up at me. Not typically moving in the same circles as other members, which include Naomi Campbell and Ivana Trump, I managed to wangle an invite to ASW through a very vague contact.

    I've dipped in from time to time, curious to how travel networking functions at the other end of the spectrum. However, when I mentioned the site within my weekly travel-networking column in the Guardian, it sparked a couple of reader emails.

    One wanted to know if I could hook him up. (Sadly no, I'm a low-level member without invite privileges). Another said it was wrong of me to include it when it was clear out of bounds to most readers. (Although perhaps not anymore, if this week's article is anything to go by.)

    I'd argue that ASW - even if you can't or won't join - is fascinating. Not just because of the outlandish snobery found in its forums, but it is also an interesting illustration of how the travel-networking movement is forming "niche" offshoots and how it is motivated by the idea of “belonging” to a likeminded group. Whether you’re a member of ASW or BeWelcome.org, people trust each other based on a presumed mutual understanding.

    The Guardian has recently reported on how the future of social networks lies in niche sites. I also predicted this when I started out on my trip.

    However, achieving a small-club feel on worldwide web must have its limits. Have some already reached their peak? ASW has now grown to 325,000 users. Far behind Facebook’s 90 million, but almost matching the 328,000 of Hospitality Club, a site that is open to all and sundry.

    I've always thought that ASW and HospitalityClub/Couchsurfing – although based on the same principles of bringing travellers together – share no overlap. But it seems this is changing too. One of the other big hitters in the ASW forum recently was a thread suggesting ASW members start accommodating each other in their own homes ("Couchsurfing on ASW" was its heading).

    What surprised me the most was finding there is already such a big cross over of members from the two sites. It seems many ASW members are also part of the exceedingly down-to-earth and non-elitist Couchsurfing.com. It’s something that must horrify the core elite. An old-school member (since 2004) replied to say he didn't believe the two networks are compatible: "Everyone is satisfyingly rich on aSmallWorld. Every ASW member I know stays in the Belle Etoile Suite at Le Meurice when they visit me.” He was soon shot down by the Small World Couchsurfers for totally missing the point.

    It seems ASWers aren’t as likeminded as they once were. Perhaps the original members will set up their own offshoot where people have to provide proof-of-funds before signing up.

    Meanwhile, the ‘Death of ASW’ thread (9,000 views) is nothing if not entertaining. One London member said the day they knew it really was all over was when a Foxtons estate agent told him he’d “discovered cool new website for chatting up girls and all his mates were on it”.

    A London/Dubai member added: "This used to be a playground for the jet set, the good looking, the creative and business powers that be. now i feel like a slimebag when i log in." Something tells me his inner slimebag has been waiting to get out for sometime.