Monday, 29 December 2008

Hostels vs hotels vs couchsurfing

We Don't Speak The Language is a series of video travel blogs "for the young and the broke". It's the work of Sean Blanda and Chris Wink, freelance journalists from Philadelphia, who recently completed a three-month trip around Europe. Unfortunately, the series has come to end now the guys are back home, but check out this episode below, offering lots of good tips in the pros and cons of backpacking accommodation options: hostels, hotels and couchsurfing.

It's a two-parter and the couchsurfing tips follow in the second video. They're spot on about making couchsurfing requests personal to increase your chances of finding a suitable and willing host. Cut-and-paste efforts are instantly recognisable, expose you as having made no effort to read the person's profile and are not likely to elicit a response. Watch on for more advice...

Part one: hostels

Part two: hotels and couchsurfing

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Local travel: future trends

Geographical magazine coined all sorts of new buzzwords for their December “future of tourism” issue. Most include the prefix “geo” as a subtle reminder of where you heard it first.

First up is the “geotourist”. According to the term’s inventor, Jonathan Tourtellot of National Geographic Traveler, this is someone who “gets off a cruise ship and discovers an interesting town, then decides to come back and explore it another time”.

Tourists who like places and aren’t satisfied with a couple of hours docking in a cruise port? This didn’t strike me as anything new, but, reading on, the underlying point gets more interesting.

Geotourists are those who look beyond just ticking places off a list and want to build connections with the destinations and their people. Their aim is to "sustain or enhance the geographical character of a place: the environment, heritage, aesthetics, culture and well-being of its residents”.

Sustainable, or conscious, tourism may not be a brand new concept, but here's hoping Geographical are right and it will continue to spread. After all, something's got to give.
Tourtellot points out there could be seven billion tourists rooming our planet in next decade and “if four billion people decide to see the Mona Lisa, it would take 309 years, even with groups of 25 viewing it for one minute, 24 hours a day”.

So what else does the future hold? According to Geographical, travel by 2020 will also be “geo-local”. Basically, this means holidaymakers will travel closer to home. "We'll begin to travel more within our own countries and continents, and less frequently beyond them. A British family might head to Cornwall to stay in a locally run Cornish cottage, shop for Cornish crafts and enjoy a cream tea.”

Perhaps. Although, as the economic crisis takes hold, I’d say people aren’t going to wait until 2020 until they start holidaying closer to home.

So, it's buzzword number three that is arguably the most innovative of the lot: hyper-local sourcing. "
By 2020, we'll also see the majority of hotels getting their produce, employees, materials, services and the like from sources within their immediate vicinity," they say. They also predict a new type of hotel - 'the ten-kilometre hotel' - for which all food and materials will have been sourced from within a ten-kilometre radius. Hotels will offer energy and water for guests on a metered system, and there will be discounts for visitors who keep their consumption below average.

For me, "geotourism" and "geo local" travel are already in full swing, but I'll be interested to see if the "hyper local" prediction comes true. I can see the potential. My first, and only, such experience was when
received a discount for arriving by public transport at a tree-climbing centre on the Isle of Wight.

The hotel or excursion bill of the future ('s mock-up is pictured), which offers discounts rather than just piling on unexpected extras would certainly make a welcome change.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Local tips on trekking in Peru

Picture the scene: you’re high in the Peruvian Andes. It’s 5,000 metres above sea level, the air is thin, and you’re doing your best to keep altitude sickness at bay. You’re surrounded by snow-capped mountains and the rain is relentless.

This is when you happen upon a teary eyed backpacker, who has been separated from the rest of her group. She’s wearing cotton trousers, two T-shirts and a jacket that isn’t waterproof. She’s so cold that she’s verging on hypothermia and she’s even started to hallucinate.

This is what my group came across a few weeks ago on the week-long Salkantay trek through Peru’s sacred valley.

Fortunately, we were able to take her to a nearby lodge, where we dried her off the best we could, and gave her some hot food and dry clothes. Finally, her exceedingly casual guide showed up, accompanied by her shivering friend, who was similarly under-prepared with plastic bags on her feet to combat leaking boots.

This article isn’t meant to scare people out of trekking in Peru. The point is just because so many people are doing it (up to 500 people a day embark on the famed Inca Trail), it doesn’t make it a walk in the park. Altitude and weather conditions can make it tough, so preparation is essential.

I’ve been speaking to the experts (namely Jose from, Dameiro from Mountain Lodges of Peru and Jose at and getting their tips on what people should know before starting their big Peruvian trek.

If you’ve been trekking in Peru, feel free to add your own.

To combat altitude sickness
Keep hydrated by drinking lots and lots of water.
Don’t drink alcohol or caffeine.
Do drink coca tea - locals swear by it.
Go to bed early, as your sleep will be interrupted at high altitude.

What to pack
Decent trekking boots (fully broken in and making sure toes don’t touch the end)
Sock liners to go inside trekking socks to prevent blister-inducing friction (available from outdoor shops, or ordinary thin socks should do)
Blister plasters
Insect repellent
A warm hat
A sunhat/cap
Longsleeved T-shirt (to protect against insects/sunburn)
Waterproof jacket and trousers
Non-cotton trekking clothes (they dry faster)
Sleeping bag suitable for the season (or you can often hire one)
Consider taking or hiring walking poles, which, according to Cusco Guides, "reduce up to 30% off your legs' effort and also give more confidence when you walk downhill".

Book ahead if you want to do the Inka Trail
(at least six weeks). The trail is closed in February, which is the height of the rainy season. It’s not all about the Inka Trail though. Consider taking an alternative and less busy route. The Salkantay - which traverses nine bio zones and gives an unusual, distant view of Machu Picchu - is highly recommended.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Going local with the lingo

I've just spent a week in Santiago, living with a friend of mine, hanging out with her mates and generally getting a feel for Chilean life. People would pay a lot of money for that sort of language immersion. But for me, it was free. Xili was a contact from

Xili (pictured far right) and I met earlier in the year when was visiting her hometown, Panama City. She had listed herself on Couchsurfing as willing to show travellers around town and her profile carried an abundance of glowing references. We ended up spending the best part of two weeks together and got along so well that we vowed to meet up again in Santiago, where she was heading to study.

Our reunion was a testament to how travel-networking can accelerate language learning. The first time we met, back in March, we spoke almost entirely in English. This time, the tables had turned. I'd been travelling across South America pretty much ever since, hanging out with locals, and generally doing my best to get off the standard Gringo trail. All the while, my confidence and vocab have been growing.

For the past week, we have conversed entirely in Spanish, which is hugely exciting progress for me. This doesn't mean Xili's English isn't still far superior to my faltering efforts in her language. For example, I still have a tendency to speak in uncertain, approval-seeking questions when using the past tense - ie "I saw? the film", "I had? lunch already". However, ever-patient, she gave nods of encouragement where appropriate and ensured I retained confidence not to give up.

What I love most about learning Spanish in Latin America is that people are delighted when you have a go and are ultra patient, even when you make a mess of it. I remember it being rather different when I lived in France, where I'd often get "Quoi?" barked back at me, accompanied by a semi-disgusted wrinkling of the nose. I'm a big fan of French people, but it was tough at times and it took much longer to feel comfortable communicating. Although, the fact that I was a self-conscious 18-year-old may have been a factor too.

Spending the best part of this year hanging out - and, in some cases, living - with locals has worked wonders for my Spanish. It goes without saying that it's far better than learning it from a book or even in classroom setting - where, as soon as you get into the "real world", you often seize up. Or at least I do. When I first arrived in France - after seven years of lessons - I may have been able to discuss the films of François Truffaut but I didn't have a clue how to say "You're welcome".

I'd highly recommend travel-networking sites to keen linguists as a way to learn how a language is used on a real, day-to-day basis., for example, clearly shows you which languages members speak and many specifically use it to get extra practice with native speakers. So, you might find yourself in Milan, speaking Italian with your host over your morning cappuccino and then switching to English when you take an impromptu shopping tour.

My only criticism is that insists on dividing competence levels into just three categories: beginner, intermediate, or expert. I'd argue there's a big leap between the upper two levels. Could they not slot "fluent" in between? Fluent is a much better description for those who can communicate effectively, but would never claim perfection.

There are a range of travel-networking sites you can use to meet local hosts. Or, if you're rooted to the spot, why not have people come to you? When in London, my Couchsurfing profile specifically states that "patient French and Spanish speakers are particularly welcome". Alternatively, if you're feeling particularly shy, you can do it all via your computer with sites such as, and (incorporating what was Friends Abroad). Many of these also offer "voice chat", providing invaluable conversation practice.

You could also meet with a group of other enthusiasts through (Michael Muszlak runs a great Anglo-Franco get-together in Paris every Saturday night.) Or you could try a skill exchange via community sites such as Last year, Luz Marina became my Spanish teacher in London, thanks to Gumtree; this year, I visited her in her native Bogota.

Recently, in a gringo-friendly cafe in Sucre, Bolivia, I saw a good-old fashioned noticeboard request. "Looking for someone to practice English with. Nothing weird. I'm just planning to move to the US." My Couchsurfing contact in the town, Laura, noticed it too. "I used to do that," she said. "Until I discovered Couchsurfing."

I think I might try the old-fashioned note in a cafe when I get to Buenos Aires, or I'll revisit the local Couchsurfing group. I'm also hoping Xili will come and visit me while I'm there. That way I can finally return some of her hugely appreciated hospitality.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Paris Hilton is not your friend

What happens to members of elite travel-networking site that break the strict rules of conduct? Those, for example, who after gaining much sought-after membership simply can't restrain themselves from sending a wishful friend request to the site's celebrity contingency, such as Paris Hilton or Naomi Campbell?

Immediate expulsion followed by profile deletion was the worst I imagined. But no, it's much more humiliating than that.

ASW wrong-doers get relegated to a purgatory otherwise know as A Big World. Next time they log in, they find the normally blue welcome screen has turned a shameful green, access to the forums and other profiles is denied, and all they can read are the "what did I do wrong?" lamentations from other ejectees.

An old article from Wired details an anecdote from one reluctant Big World member: a 20-something
from Geneva called Talal bin Laden, who admits he's "distantly, distantly related to that guy no one likes".

"One guy posted some anti-Arab racist slurs, and I responded with a polite deconstruction of why I felt that was inappropriate," says bin Laden. "For that, I was evicted to hell."

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Tourists in Japan must dance to a different tuna

It was Tokyo's ultimate local travel experience: get up early and head to the world's biggest fish market, Tsukiji. See the giant tuna roll in, catch the auction action, and try some of the freshest sushi in town. It was a everyday life that few tourists had seen before. Until, that is, everyone caught on to the idea...

When 200 and 300 people started packing into the auction area, it became too much. Earlier this year authorities called for tourists to show voluntary restraint and stay away, but, of course, that was never going to work. So now the ban is complete. For at least a month.

As soon as tourism becomes a mass activity, problems usually follow. The main issue with "must sees" is that people usually go through the motions and forget their common sense - especially, perhaps inevitably, when getting up at 4am. There have been reports of tourists obscuring auction hand signals with flash photography, walking around in high heels and compromising hygiene by prodding the fish.

However, couldn't such stupidity be avoided without a total ban? Tsukiji's restaurants and shops must surely hope so.

"As far as sushi restaurants are concerned, I think more than 50 percent of their customers are [outsiders] on weekdays. On Saturdays, they probably account for more than 90 percent," Susumu Isono, director of local sushi chain Isonoya, told the Japan Times.

So is this just a clever PR scam? If the authorities create a storm of publicity by making such a drastic move, guidebooks and tour operators will be obliged to change their info. "Arrive at 5am to catch the action," says Lonely Planet. Expect an update soon.

Photograph: Derek Mawhinney/ Wikipedia images

Wanted: a friendly Parisian

Parisians rude and unfriendly? No, you´ve got it all wrong. In fact, to prove it, Paris Greeters will get a extra-friendly resident to give you a free city tour. Or, at least, that´s the theory. In reality, it seems all 11 million of them are a little busy right now. One will get back to you though. Maybe. If you´re very persistent.

Journalist Agnès Poirier waited six weeks to get a response - and only then after tipping them off that she was journalist. She wrote an entertaining blog about it over at Guardian Travel.

But friendly Parisians can´t be in that short supply, can they? My recent trip there showed that the best way to get behind closed doors - literally and metaphorically - is to stay with a local via a B&B network, such as or Alcôve & Algapes. Pictured left is my host, Françoise - a professional laughter coach living in the eastern suburb of Vincennes - with the equally friendly Jenny Johnson from 2binParis.

Or you could try meeting a Couchsurfer. Paris is the world´s largest Couchsurfing city, with over 15,000 local members.

And before you despair in all greeter schemes. Check out this follow-up blog, Pleased to Greet You, which covers more successful greeting experiences in Jamaica and Argentina, among others.

I'll add links to these greeter sites to the Going Local Travel sidebar. And thanks to Stephen Chapman of MakeTravelFair for making me aware of many of them.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

London shopping: keeping it local

Wards Corner is the latest London market to come under threat. The Latin American enclave in Tottenham is the being earmarked for "development".

Londoners have already lost a large chunk of Spitalfields and Camden´s future has been looking dubious for sometime. And what have we gained in their place? That monstrous shrine to excessive consumerism: the Westfield Centre.

But all hope is not yet lost. Big up to the site that celebrates London´s independent traders: Good luck to them and their New York branch.

And "suerte" to the Wards Corner community. If you´re in London, show your support at their Christmas party on Dec 5.