Monday, 24 November 2008

Koalas in Bolivia?

What do you do when you get off a night bus in a chilly Bolivian city at 5am when there are no couchsurfers in town? You rely on your guidebook and book into the only place that it says isn't freezing at night: the Koala Den.

Despite my fear of the cold and the den's billing as "warm and cosy", this was not an exciting prospect. I was in Potosi, a traditional Bolivian mining town that claims to be the highest city in the world, and yet was checking into a clearly Aussie-owned place called the Koala Den. Could this be the furthest thing from going local? I was disappointed with the Lonely Planet for writing off everywhere else in town and I was disappointed at myself for falling for it.

But I was wrong. On one count, at least. Sure, the hostal was full of travellers, with a DVD library of American blockbusters and a fair few Australians, but, to my surprise, it was Bolivian-owned and staffed entirely by locals.

Why the name? "Because," explained the receptionist, "the miners here are famed for chewing coca leaves. Just as koalas chew eucalyptus."

Ah ha. Proof that you should never jump to conclusions.

In fairness, it turned out to be a very sweet place: cheap and friendly. The Aussies were ok too.

I'm only kidding. Aussie travellers are always fun. I'm not avoiding other travellers because I don't like them, I just hate being trapped in bubble, which is how it can feel in many of the hostels out here. There are less travel networkers in Bolivia and I am struggling to get off the gringo trail.

Here's hoping I'll have more luck in Sucre, the nation's capital, where I'll be meeting a Couchsurfer called Laura. Her profile pics is nothing more than a rather seductive pair of lips, so I'm rather intrigued...

Friday, 21 November 2008

Back to the future with MeetURPlanet

I've discovered a new hospitality network. Well, new to me. has actually been going since 2001 - three years before It turns out the founder, Jeff Mitchell, was quite the pioneer in the field, completing a world tour through members homes in Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, France, England, US and Australia back in the site's inaugural year.

Shame, then, to see it’s been left to go a little stagnant since then. I wanted to try and give it a whirl here in Bolivia, but there’s only one member in the entire country and he last logged in 2001.

I have been a little lazy with the site in the last year or two,” said Jeff when I emailed him. Come on Jeff, now’s not the time to be lazy. Hospitality tourism is storming forward and you should be leading the field, not playing catch up. Time to get back on it, or else you’ll certainly need to change the “the future of travel is now” tagline.

In the meantime, I’ll try that Bolivian. You never know…

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

PickUpPal picks up the bill

Bad news for carsharing site PickUpPal: they lost their Ontario hearing and now have to pay an C$11,ooo fine. The charge, which I reported on for the Guardian (Would you stick your cyber thumb out for a lift? Oct 4), followed a complaint by a local bus company that such car-sharing schemes were illegal in the Canadian province.

An antiquated law means PickUpPal users are expected to follow a bizarre series of rules, such only arranging a liftshare if you are travelling between home and work, riding with the same driver each day, and paying the driver on a weekly, not daily, basis. If you want to step outside of these rules - and, say, ask your friend for a fiver for petrol or arrange a cross-country roadtrip – the authorities demand you obtain a license first.

The ruling proved to be a shock for co-founder Eric Dewhirst, who had been confident in the run-up. Yet he's remaining optimistic.
"Because we made a case out of it and received a lot of media attention we were able to put enough pressure on the government to change the laws. Two weeks ago they introduced an amendment to the current legislation that would essentially allow us to operate. The laws still has to pass but we are hopeful," he says.

"We are disappointed at losing at the hearing, however we're thrilled that we got the attention of the government and they are moving forward on changing the laws."

With over 100,000 members, it will take more than this to keep PickUpPal down. While technicalities are being sorted out, Ontario members are being asked to abide by the local law.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Traveller´s Tree goes couchsurfing

It wasn´t easy arranging the interview from a small radio station in Cusco, but we got there in the end. Here´s a link to Traveller´s Tree´s virtual travel special, broadcast on Radio 4 earlier today. I spoke on travel networking and couchsurfing. Who knows, perhaps I have tempted presenter Katie Derham into giving it a go. She was very surprised to hear the sites are open to families too.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Adios to Friends Abroad is no more. The website that enabled users to practise languages with native speakers has become a part of The FriendsAbroad site will be closing soon, but all profiles are being automatically migrated over to Babbel (pictured).

I first wrote about FriendsAbroad for The Linguist magazine back in 2006. The site was established by Simon Murdoch, one of the early internet entrepreneurs, who after selling his online company Booksellers to Amazon for a hefty £5million, went on to run

For nostalgia's sake, here's an extract from my piece from The Linguist. I like to think my Spanish has improved somewhat since then. Meanwhile, for other sites that link you with language learners overseas, you can also try or

"''Hi. My name is Vicky. I am English and live in London. Je parle Français. Hablo Espanol tambien, pero solo un poco.’ My introductory post is short and to the point, and yet a couple of days later I start to get a series of messages. Many are in Spanish, which could be a bit of a challenge, but there’s a translation aid on the site if I get stuck. There’s also no hunting around your keyboard for the special characters menu, as accented letters are easily accessible onscreen.

Most of the messages come from men - which makes me wonder if some are using it as a dating service - but as long as you don’t give out any personal information, you’re safe. Members, I am told, tend to police the site themselves and report anyone who arouses suspicions.

The introductions keep coming. “Hello,” says Ange, a 29-year-old engineer. “I’m from Paris. I can help you with french and hope to learn from you english ... Are you OK?” A quick ‘hola’ from a 17-year-old Spanish schoolgirl follows.

When I was doing my A-levels, the latter would have been an ideal correspondent. These days, I doubt we’d have much in common. To find someone with your own interests you have to search around instead of letting people come to you - but there is certainly no shortage of people to choose from."

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Hello stranger

Not feeling up to boarding a place by yourself and taking the leap into travel networking with the locals? The first step could be finding travel companion that can head out there with you. Read my article in today's Guardian for all you need to know and an account of my recent trip to Barcelona, with friends met through

I'll meet you in the plaza...

When I first started out on my travel-networking experiment, a reader emailed me to tell me about his own adventures across South America using "Let's see how many times have you found yourself meeting someone at the main plaza, in front of the cathedral," he joked.

It's true that this seems to be the meeting place of choice in this part of the world and it still amazes me when it works out.

Yesterday evening, I phoned a Couchsurfer called Jose when I arrived in Cusco. "Meet me in the Plaza d'Armes [ie the main plaza] at 6pm," he said. "But where? It's a big plaza," I asked. "By the water fountain. Ok chau. Hasta luego," he said and promptly hung up.

A couple of hours later, I was found myself trying to make eye contact with every single guy in the radius of the said fountain. Not ideal, but fortunately, at ten past, up bobbed Jose with a big grin on his face.

Some travel networkers grow on you over time, but Jose was an instant hit. He seemed highly amused by the lost look on my face and we've been laughing pretty much ever since.

Since our plaza meet, he's taken me to the local market where we've chatted with some of the traders; he's guided me on an informal walking tour around the lanes of the San Blas barrio (and to a lookout point that I probably wouldn't have found myself); he's introduced me to local delicacies such as "te pitedo" (hot tea with pisco) and tamal (moulded maize, wrapped in maize leaves, resembling a banana); and he seems to be constantly waving to people he knows, which, somehow rubs off on me, making me feel more at home.

But, best of all, he got me out of my hostal. I made the mistake of checking into one of those sprawling great place that feels like a university campus. It's nice enough (clean, hot water, good facilities), but I don't think there's a Peruvian in the place, Arctic Monkeys CDs are playing in the bar, and English echoes off all walls, whether with an Aussie, Irish or Euro twang. With the in-house pyjama party last night, I felt like a gatecrasher at Freshers' Week.

All good fun perhaps, but no different from any other huge hostal around the world, which is the main reason I turned to travel networking in the first place. If ever I was glad of a local contact, it was last night. Gracias Jose!

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Couchsurfing and the importance of keeping in touch

“It’s tiring being a host,” sighed Thomas. As an active member of and, he has put numerous travellers up, for free, at his home near the French Guianan capital of Cayenne.

“I enjoy it,” he continued, “but you put so much effort into creating these friendships and then you never hear from the person again.”

He’s not the only host I’ve heard voice such an opinion. Felicia, a member of, who I visited in her home within a downtrodden barrio of Caracas, Venezuela also told me that “most foreigners come, and then disappear”.

With these conversations in mind, I´m trying my best not to do a disappearing act. It’s particularly important to keep in touch with the hosts who aren’t travellers themselves, but are putting people up purely because they want to meet people and make friends across the world.

Admittedly, Felicia’s emails, filled with stream-of-consciousness, punctuation-free slang, push my Spanish beyond its limits, but we’re getting by. In general, MSN and Facebook make it a lot easier and, of course, all travel-networking hosts are, by definition, often online. A short email or a round robin is often all it takes to show you haven’t forgotten a person.

I can’t claim to be an angel when it comes to keeping in touch with everyone I’ve met through travel networking. I have a backlog of people I need to drop a line and one slightly intense Colombian contact is constantly telling me off from sporadic contact. (A little unfairly, I feel. The understanding needs to go both ways.)

However, I’m doing my best and what I like about couchsurfing is the connection it enables you to build with the places you visit. Usually when backpacking, you only make friends with other backpackers. You might become good friends and stay in contact for years, but what becomes of the place? Once you all move on, it is little more than a shell for your memories from that one period of time.

The advantage of staying with locals is you keep in touch with the places as well as the people. Life goes on there; you receive the updates, you can picture it moving on; and, as many hosts repeat, the door is always open for your return.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

My city secret: Lima

After I posted on Benji Lanaydo´s best of the local blogs earlier this week, he alerted me to a blog chain he´s started, encouraging writers to share a city secret on their blog, call it ´My city secret´, and then post a link over at

"Could a ´My city secret´ post be part of the Going Local remit?" he asked. Well, it can be if I get a local to pass on their top tips instead.

I asked my newfound Peruvian friend, Claire Jaureguy, a journalist who also works for the Peruvian tourist board, if she had any tips on her hometown, Lima. Knowing she usually has her iPod glued to her ears and is more up-to-date on the London bands than I am, I asked if she had a tip for catching up-and-coming Peruvian bands when in the country´s immense capital.

Here are her suggestions. I´m not sure how secret they are, but I´d certainly trust her enough to consider them well worth checking out.

"Sargento Pimienta (Sgt. Pepper) is the rock bar in Barranco, the bohemian part of the city. Also El Dragón and Barrancois Discoteca Voce are musts for live music."

She also mentioned Juanito en la Plaza de Barranco "for something more traditional". When I Googled "Juanito, Lima", it lead me this interesting Peru-based blog,

Thus, Benji proved his rabbit-warren theory once again. I´ll let the Cool Peru guys know and maybe they can post a city secret too.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Going local in Paris, part one

Also in Sat’s locals special in the Guardian was my account of a recent B&B visit in Paris. It follows below and is part of a larger piece on tips on where to stay around the world.

Françoise was a fun host and I was impressed with the agency, While I was in town I also meet with one of their representatives, Jenny Johnson. It is part of her job to visit all the hosts, to personally vet the accommodation, and make sure they fully understand what their role involves.

Here’s my review. And stay tuned for part two of the Going Local Paris experience, when things got even more interesting and I met one of the city’s greatest local legends.

The Parisian B&B

Françoise Rousse answers the door with a big welcoming smile. Well, smiles are to be expected given that she is a professional laughter coach and the founder of the French University of Laughter. This weekend, this flame-haired sixtysomething is also my host. She has established her own Parisian B&B, offering her spare bedroom to travellers looking to get a more personal perspective on this vast, enigmatic city.

B&Bs are currently enjoying a resurgence in Paris. For proof, thumb through the newly released Chambres d'Hôtes à Paris, a pictorial guide of the city's 100 best (Hachette, €16). You don't have to be able to read the French text to have your imagination captured by images of Le Bateau Johanna (, a houseboat moored by the Musée d'Orsay, or Chez Bertrand, where the bed is fashioned out of an old 2CV (

According to Jenny Johnson of B&B specialists, Parisians are signing up to the idea in order to "meet more people and earn a little extra money". The plus points are just as obvious for the tourists: B&Bs offer the chance to tap into some local knowledge and are also a welcome alternative to overpriced tourist hotels.

Françoise's 1930s apartment block is just off a tourist-free road in the eastern suburb of Vincennes. Inside, the homely decor is just as cheerful as the owner. Its bijoux dimensions are enhanced by a wall of mirrors and a bouquet of lilies; wooden furniture is painted in primary colours; and my bedroom is pastel purples and greens.

I nearly backed out when told me I'd be staying in Vincennes, which looked far from central on my map. But it turned out to be just a 15-minute metro ride from the fashionable Marais district, on numerous handy bus routes (the number 29 takes you straight to St Lazare, for shopping at La Fayette), and there is even a Vélib stop so you can use Paris's hugely successful public bike scheme.

But, best of all, Françoise alerts me to the nearby Promenade Plantée, a green-fringed footpath (cyclists and skaters welcome) that follows an old railway line and takes you all the way to the Bastille.

There are some drawbacks to staying in such a small B&B: you are constantly aware that you are a guest in someone's home and you have to stick to a specified arrival time. However, it's certainly a more personal and insightful experience.

As for me, I still have some way to go before I get fully under Paris's skin, but I'd be happy to make my way through the 100 best B&Bs to get there.

• Françoise's apartment, Courteline, costs €34.22pp per night through (+1 47 34 01 50). There are around 120 B&Bs on the site, from €35-€100pp pn. Sister company has over 4,000 B&Bs across Italy. Eurostar ( runs from St Pancras, Ebbsfleet and Ashford to Paris from £59 return.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Going loco for locals

If you missed the Guardian´s local travel special, you can catch up online. Being out of the country, that´s what I´m planning to do. I´m particularly looking forward to reading Benji Lanyado´s piece on the best of local blogs. But, as Benji always says, entering the blogosphere is like falling into a rabbit warren, one good link always leads to another, so I need to set aside a decent amount of time. Right now I´ve got to dash back to my host family here in Peru. Lunch is on the table and we have a local fiesta to go to. More on that to come...