Friday, 30 January 2009

Couchsurfing the movie

Here it is: a promo by Couchsurfing founder Casey Fenton and sidekick to introduce 'Couchsurfing: the movie'.

Watch and learn, people. And prepare to cringe.

It's essentially a shout-out ahead of a documentary they're planning. They are looking for three Couchsurfers with "inspiring missions". Candidates are being asked to send in a short video message and, if Couchsurfing HQ likes what they see, they'll pick up the tab for your dream trip (or the production company they're teaming with, or one of their partners, will.)

Great opportunity, eh? Except they've made it sound like the most bog-standard travel comp in history. "My inspiring mission? I totally wanna go to the Amazon, and, like, meet local tribes and stuff."

Hopefully, the finished product will be a different story and have a very different style. Otherwise we could be in for two hours of "hilarious" (ahem) tongue-in-cheek comedy, followed by you-had-to-be-there outtakes.

It seems the site with details for video applications,, is currently down.

Which makes me wonder is this sequence supposed to be on the internet at all, or has it leaked? Did they really want to show this to the world?

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Secret suppers: where to dine with locals worldwide

What could make you feel more at home when travelling than an invite to dine at someone's house? It sure beats a restaurant for making an experience relaxed and personal.

But how do you go about getting such invites? Is the only option to make unsubtle hints to people you've just met in a bar or metro queue? ("Mmm, I just love homecooking. Sigh, I sure miss it. If only I found someone who...").

Well, before you resort to such desperate measures, read on. There are plenty of people round the world willing to have you round for dinner. You just need to know where to find them.

Call them in-home restaurants, secret supper clubs, salon dinners, or whatever you wish: they've been going for years and the internet is making them easier to track down than ever.

Personally, I love the idea. I've tried two so far: Casa Saltshaker in Buenos Aires and Jim Hayne's Sunday Dinners in Paris (which I wrote about in the Guardian last Saturday). I've also visited La Cocina Discreta in Buenos Aires, although I have yet to put their food to the test.

The set-up varies from home to home. They might resemble an intimate restaurant, a dinner party, a buffet at an informal get-together
, or an arts club with music and poetry. Typically there's a fee involve, but it's often reasonable.

So apart from a good feed, what do you get? A peak around a local house (within reason - noses out of the medicine cupboard), a sociable evening out (rather than just dining with your same old husband/wife/mate - yawn), the chance to hang with some locals (cue lots of insider tips for the rest of your stay), and maybe some new friends (further dinner invites if you're very lucky).

And the hosts? For them, it's a great way to meet people, share a passion for food/life/travel, and maybe even earn some extra cash. Tips on starting your own: here.

I've been doing some research and have uncovered lots great in-house restaurants around the world. I've also been corresponding with some of the people running them, who, by nature of what they do, are always interesting characters with stories to tell. I'm now longing to meet Jessica Buck who runs the arty Portland dinner club, D'Merde, which she describes as
"a toast to the spirit of Parisian Salons in the early 1900". [Website seems to be down, but stay tuned.]

So, it was during the course of this research that I had a brainwave: "I know! I'll compile all the ones I've found into a handy blog. What a great resource!"

So, I ploughed on, finished it (below), and then came across a version by Dan Perlman of Casa Saltshaker that is far, far better and makes mine look rather pitiful. Bah. (Just kidding - everyone should check it out, and his ever-interesting blog.)

Anyway, here's my little list nonetheless.
You never know there may be a few different ones on here. The London one is very new (a tip-off from my editor at the Guardian).

Paris, France, 1: (Sunday night)
Paris, France, 2: (Saturday night)
Paris, France, 3: (Sunday night)
London, UK:
The Secret Ingredient
Dusseldorf, Germany: Sunday Dinner Parties
Portland, Oregon, US:
Buenos Aires, 1: Casa Saltshaker
Buenos Aires, 2: La Cocina Discreta



And here's a link of world's best dining clubs that various Aussie papers nicked from Travel+Leisure magazine via Reuters last month. Rather unhelpfully, they include no contact details whatsoever. I guess the reader is just expected to Google around until they find them.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Slumdogging it: will a movie boost India's 'slum tourism'?

Will Oscar-tipped Slumdog Millionaire see a rush of tourists on Mumbai's shantytowns? That's what the Telegraph has predicted. It seems this could be the City-of-God-versus-the-favela-tour controversy all over again.

The subject was picked up today on Vagablogging. "I've never really understood how movies inspire people to travel," writes the author. Really? Big sweeping movie images of a foreign land just don't do it for you?

A Vagablogging reader adds: "It’s easy to judge a 'poverty tour' without actually experiencing one but ironically slum tours can be very educational and may be the very way to start change."

I'm not sure about the irony, but other than that, I agree. I've touched on this subject before with Harlem "ghetto" tours and I'm sure I will again.

Tourists here in Buenos Aires could confine their entire visit to the trendy neighbourhood of Palermo and think Argentina is the land of milk and honey (with lattes, wine and steak thrown in too). Many will never see the shanty towns here, which unlike Brazil, are kept more hidden away.

I visited one - the notorious Villa 31 - on a previous stay, not on a tour but with a friend. She was a local headmistress, who was looking to set up a teaching programme there and get some volunteers from overseas to help out. I can't see that this is a bad thing. I'm meeting up with her again in the next couple of weeks and will report back on how she got on...

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Going local in Paris, part 2

Published in today's Guardian: an account of my meeting with the so-called godfather of travel-networking, Jim Haynes.

Every Sunday since the mid-70s, Jim has opened his Paris apartment for any traveller that cares to join him for dinner. An estimated 120,000 have done it so far.

I think I am slightly in love with Jim Haynes and here's betting that, if you take up his invite, you will be too.

To get your name on the list, just go to his website,

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Save money: rent your room to travellers

"Get a lodger to help pay your mortgage," advised the Times at the weekend. It seems they've caught on to sites, such as Crashpadder and Airbed&breakfast, which allow users to rent out spare rooms and turn their place into a temporary B&B. They're peer-to-peer accommodation networks, like, but with the added twist of allowing cash to exchange hands and profits to be made.

Although I've had my reservations about such sites in the past, they certainly have potential. I think we could be looking at the next big thing here and we're sure to see more start-ups in the near future.

This week, I came across another one,, which runs under a motto of "rent your room to the world". Although it's new to me, it has been operating since 2007 and it looks like a good place for new hosts to start.

Until now, one of my concerns about these sites is they allow hosts to charge anything they want for their room and offer no pricing structure whatsoever. So, one thing I like about Roomft is its "value your room" function, which allows users to complete a very short survey about what they are offering and, as a result, suggests would be a reasonable per-night price. At least this adds some sort of scale to the process and gets hosts to think more realistically about what people need when travelling. Room size, location, transport links, internet facilities and local amenities should all be taken into account. charges the host a small booking fee, but doesn't take commission on the room price. By contrast, Airbed&Breakfast allows hosts to set any price they want, up to $3,000, with no guidance, other than pointing out the average charge is $90. The site also then takes 5-12% commission - meaning if you get overcharged, they still profit.

So, if you really are looking to boost your income through renting a spare room, RoomFt could be the most economical option. As part of a sign-up incentive, they are also giving every new host three free bookings. This means that hosts can rent out their rooms to travellers three times, at no charge whatsoever.

And, even when that booking fee does kick in, it's unlikely to break the bank. The site says the fee costs "one credit", which is "equivalent to £1 UK, $2 US dollars, €1.50 euro or 250 Yen". That seems highly reasonable, especially if these rates still stands for travelling Brits, for whom last year's £1 = $2 rate now seems like a distant memory.

Pictured: A special edition cereal made by Airbed&Breakfast and available through their site for $39 a box.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

NYC: When Couchsurfing goes wrong

Check out the Irish Times online for an article about the potential downsides of Couchsurfing. Their writer certainly didn't get a very warm reception from his NYC hosts, a couple who seemed to be in the midst of their own relationship meltdown.

I empathise with the writer although I do think there are some lessons to be learnt on both sides here. Here are some tips for all couchsurfers to keep in mind.

1. Do not presume you will always get a front door key to your host's home. In London, I don't offer guests a key. This is because I have housemates and, even if I deem a person trustworthy, I don't feel it is up to me to make that decision on their behalf too. However, I do make this clear on my profile and it was certainly bad form of these NYC hosts to wait until the morning to tell their guests that they expect them to vacate the building when they go to work.

2. Select your host wisely. If you're on a short city break, where your host can make or break your whole experience, it pays to do a bit more research than you would if you were on a schedule-free round-the-world trip, where you can change plans and move on the next day if necessary. Exchange a few emails with your host in advance to build up an idea of the sort of reception you might get on arrival.

3. I imagine the Irish Times writer would have been a lot more tolerant if his hosts hadn't been so frosty, however, you can't complain if a New York City apartment is cramped. It probably feels the same for your hosts too, and yet they've agreed to share it with you.

4. If it's that bad, move on. Granted, that's not so easy in New York, where hotel rooms and couches are in high demand. However, if it's got to the point where you are "escaping" your hosts and dread even thinking about them, then spending a few minutes to send a couple of mails to some alternative hosts is surely worth a try. The hugely active NYC forum has a sub-group for last-min couch requests.

5. Finally, and most importantly: the golden rule. Couchsurfing always works better if you socialise with your hosts and don't just use it as a place to crash.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Home swaps: a beginner's guide

When staying in a hostel or hostel, no matter how you spend your days, you can't escape feeling like a tourist. That's why, this week, I forced myself to move on from the best hostel in Buenos Aires (more on that at a later date) and into houseshare. It's a temporary arrangement with a couple of expats, so hardly complete local immersion, but it still feels good and I confess to getting a little buzz when walking down "my" street with door keys in hand.

Another good way to get this "at home" feeling when travelling is to try a home swap. If you've never tried it, today's Independent carries a full beginners' guide.

According to the article, the UK's biggest home-swap company, Home Link, expects to organise more than 13,000 exchanges in 2009. Vietnam, Senegal, Oman and the Reunion Islands are among the destinations on their books.

Tempted? "Get to work now," says the Indy. "The busiest time of the year for UK swappers to set up trips is between January and March."

Down with the prisoners in La Paz

Bolivia's San Pedro Prison is back in business. In the tourist business, that is. It’s never really been out of every other sort of business. Behind the heavy concrete exterior, it operates its own real-estate trade, cocaine factory, and, allegedly, does a good line in counterfeit banknotes. It's such practices that lead it to become subject of a cult book, a forthcoming film from Brad Pitt’s production company and, according to Lonely Planet, “the world’s most bizarre tourist attraction”.

There’s certainly no prison like it. The inmates here are expected to make a living just as they do in the outside world. The more enterprising might practice a trade or become proprietors of internal restaurants (complete with Coca Cola sponsorship), while all are expected to pay for their accommodation. Whole families live inside, with prisoners’ wives and children being able to come and go. And, even more bizarrely, every backpacker in town wants in.

Getting a tour of San Pedro Prison in central La Paz became a cult backpacker attraction a few years ago. However, safety concerns circa 2003 caused a complete crackdown and, until recently, only those willing to masquerade as a foreign prisoner's long-lost relative could get through the iron gates.

At the end of last year, that changed. The tours are back and gaining entry is now easier than ever. I wrote about my recent visit in today's Guardian.

Now, a typical day in San Pedro sees the place is swarming with backpackers. I joined about a tour with about eight 20-to-30-somethings: English, Irish and a couple of Scandinavians. Within a few minutes we crossed paths with another similarly sized group, one terrified member clutching his Bolivia guidebook to his chest as if it might double as a shield.

I've done prison tours before - most recently in French Guiana, where Papillion was once held - but these places have been long out of action. San Pedro, by contrast, is very much a working prison -
a place of corruption, violence and extreme poverty.

Is prison tourism a step too far in local tourism? I've tried to cover the pros, the cons and the ethical dilemmas in my article to let people draw their own conclusions. There were certainly times when it felt voyeuristic and uncomfortable. But, then again, I don't believe travel experiences always have to be sugar-coated. We should be learning about all sides of life in the places we visit.

Bolivia has lots of slightly dubious tourist attractions. Another involves going to see the mines of Potosi, which have almost medieval working conditions, child labour and appalling health-and-safety. And yet, for exactly these reasons, it can provide a quick thrill for tourists, who can spend a couple of hours ducking in and out of the claustrophobic shafts. I couldn't bring myself to do this one.

The most important thing, however, is that all these situations are approached sensitively and with respect. The danger, when they start herding tourists in and out as they are doing (up to 50 entering a day), is that it becomes just another "must do" and there is far less personal impact.

As for visiting prisons, here's some parting advice from Prisoners Abroad:

"We get quite a few requests from the public asking us about prison visiting, generally if they are going on business, or on holiday (including round the world trips). We don't arrange visits ourselves but tell people to get in touch with the British Consul in the country direct. We also run a pen pal scheme for people wishing to write to a prisoner which is a vital lifeline to the outside world. There is more information on volunteering on our website."

Friday, 16 January 2009

Some local blogs for the weekend

Desert island blogs: now that's a sign of the times. Following the premise of the long-running Radio 4 show Desert Island Discs - where a guest is asked to pick songs they'd want to have with them if stranded from civilisation - Cool Travel Guide has turned to the blogsphere and selected the travel blogs they'd continue to follow if island-bound. Author Lara Dunston admits that electricity and wifi might prove a problem - and email access means you probably wouldn't be stranded long - but let's just go with it. Especially as Going Local made the list and wants to enjoy the moment. Being deemed one of "coolest travel blogs on the web" by Cool Travel Guide is cool indeed.

What would make my own blog list for a desert island?
Of course, Lara's would be up there for me: lots of great tips, inspiring stories and yet never overlooking the difficulties of life on the road. It's also the site I recommend to those trying to break into travel writing as Lara has covered this extensively.

But what else? Here's my pick of the best local-travel blogs on the web:

Home Exchange Travels Everything you need to know about house exchanges from a New-York-based blogger with countless swapping experiences behind her.

Gridskipper Expert, insider knowledge on a range of world capitals. Always on the button and ultra quirky.

Couchsurfing the world - An online travel journal from DJ Ajam, from Bolton, who is aiming to couchsurf his way around every country on the planet.

Open Couchsurfing The behind-the-scenes blog for those interested in how Couchsurfing really works.

Make Travel Fair Newly relaunched, it's cleaner, sharper and more informative than ever. You can catch some Going Local content on their from time to time too.

And what about all the local destination blogs? The possibilities are endless. Here in Buenos Aires, you can't beat Saltshaker for foodie tips. And, back home in London, much respect goes out to the London Review of Breakfasts, who's author never tires of his quest to find the city's best places for starting the day.

However, when I think about it, would a really want to read about a good fry-up and a perfectly brewed cuppa on a desert island? Maybe I should reconsider ...

[Photo of the Indian island of Lakshadweep. Taken by
Lenish Namath and posted on WikiImages. It's not actually deserted, so does offer internet access if you're a blog addict.]

*Postscript 17/01/09: Vote for your favourite travel blogs in the Lonely Planet Travel Blog Awards.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Stepping out of cyber travel and into reality

"Apaga la tele. Vive tu vida." Turn off the TV. Live your life.

I saw this piece of street art in Valparaíso, Chile last month. Good advice, wouldn't you say? However, seeing as I rarely watch TV, turning off my laptop might be a better resolution for me.

Like many people, I spend a lot of time in front of my computer for my work. Consequently, the last thing I want to do is socialise online too. I have zero interest in virtual travel on sites such as Second Life.

Nonetheless, I am all for using the internet as a social stepping stone. That's why I like travel networking. Although you meet the people online, these virtual meets are soon transferred into real, life-enhancing experiences.

Map-based social network is the latest to encourage its members to get out more. In 2007, the site launched as an online community featuring worldwide maps where members pinpoint local attractions, sites, happenings, or just about anything they want. However, in a new twist, they've now launched the "Local Guides" subdivision, which highlights specially selected members who are willing to meet with others in person and show them around.

Here's how they describe it:
Local Guides are informal ambassadors volunteering to represent their unique parts of the world. They offer a unique perspective beyond traditional travel writers and editors, they are real locals offering up first-hand gems of information about their homes. They are eager to share and to connect.
Sounds good. So far the site has handpicked guides in Taipei, LA, Orange County, Malaysia and Chennai. More to come. Read more about it on Make Travel Fair.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Hostels vs hotels vs couchsurfing: part 2

What do today's budget travellers prefer: a hostel, a hotel or a couch? It seems the debate that I touched on a couple of weeks ago has been continuing over at Vagablogging, the blog of high-profile travel writer, Rolf Potts. The post - "Hostels go upscale as budget travelers discover couchsurfing" - refers to's announcement that hostel bookings by North Americans increased 20% in 2008. The site puts this down to hostels going upmarket and no longer being the last resort for just the skintest of travellers.

Now as hostels install pools and bypass the bunks for more single rooms, prices are inevitably being pushed up. Could they be pricing out their original market? With iPods and laptops now part of the typical checklist, backpacking is certainly not the frugal experience it once was. Last April, the YHA opened London Central (pictured), a £4m hostel offering wifi, pop art and organic cider. Although, from £12 a night, it's certainly not badly priced by London standards.

Vagablogging is predicting more budget travellers will switch to couchsurfing for a more affordable way to travel in these lean times. I think we'll also see people searching for cheap alternatives on the likes of Airbed&breakfast, Crashpadder and LeapLocal.

Budget travellers should be rejoicing. Not that long ago there were no such facilities tailored to their needs. Now we have choices.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Couchsurfing with a family is child's play

"Couchsurfing: not just for students and hippies." This could have been a slogan for my travel-networking experiment last year. One of my main aims was to show people that the concept offers something for everyone. As long as the attitude is right, there is no such thing as being the wrong age, the wrong economic group or the wrong marital status.

I was particularly keen to show that having kids doesn't prevent you from getting involved and, rather than expecting readers to take my word for it, I set about finding someone who could talk from experience. I can't remember how I first came across Leigh - I think it was just from searching the's families group - however we started corresponding via email while she was living in Panama. She shared some stories about couchsurfing with her husband and four-year-old daughter, Lila; and I, in turn, shared these with Guardian readers at the end of one of my columns.

To be honest, I've been sharing them ever since. Every time someone tells me they love the idea of couchsurfing but it's not an option now they have children, I use Leigh's story as an example of why it's never out of the question. I love the way that Leigh - a writer who's originally from New York - uses the site not just to stay with other families, but sometimes to simply find another family to go to the beach with. What a great idea. Mum and Dad get some interesting new company; Lila gets local playmate.

Why am I bringing this story up again now? Last week I clicked on a post on's Buenos Aires forum and found someone was suggesting a meet-up for any writers in town. It was Leigh. She'd moved on from Panama and was spending some time in Argentina, where I'm now based. I wasted no time dropping her a line and we soon arranged to meet for a mid-morning coffee at little place I know in Barrio Norte - Clásica y Moderna. It has a bookshop at the back, a live pianist, and some very strong coffee that had us jabbering for hours.

Leigh turned out to be just as inspiring in the flesh. It was great to hear more about her couchsurfing experiences, such as when they stayed with a single dad in Belgium. "It soon felt like we were visiting family of our own. It was wonderful," she recalls. She also says she gets a very good response rate from hosts because she takes time to select them and gives lots of detail about who they are and what they are looking for. She says that's one difference about couchsurfing with kids: there are lots more questions to ask in advance.

Lila is one luckly girl to be having all these great experiences at such a young age. I also love the way Leigh is encouraging her to document her travels along the way: Lila gets control of the family camera and Leigh posts the pictures on her blog, thefutureisred. You can browse her online gallery, including this self-portrait above, under the heading "What Lila sees".

What another great idea for helping kids get the most out of travelling. I can't wait to see how Lila portrays the family's impending move to Salta in Argentina's far north.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Facebook: Delete 10 friends, get a free Whopper

Fast-food chain Burger King has created "Whopper Sacrifice", a Facebook application that will give you a coupon for a free hamburger if you delete 10 people from your friends list.

Is social networking getting nasty? Or just moving with the times? As people's "friends" lists move into quadruple figures, an occasional friends cull could soon be common practice. On Friday, I met a hostel owner here in Buenos Aires who claims to have 2,000 "friends". "I'd say I actually know about 1,000 of them," he said. The rest are just people - or, in some cases, places, events or attractions - he has said 'yes' to without a second thought.

Personally I draw the line at adding places or events, as I have no desire to be bombarded with marketing messages. However, I do have a couple of people on my friends list that I talked to for a few minutes in a hostel. "Are you on Facebook?" is now just as common a question as "Where are you from?".

Admittedly, the site is a great resource when travelling, especially for helping you keep in touch with everyone back home and the people you meet on the road. Having been in my current hostel for nearly a month, I've got to know some of the other guests well. These are people I'd like to stay in contact with and catch up with again if our travel itineraries cross. Without Facebook, it's hard to remember every other backpacker's plans: who will be back in Buenos Aires later in the year, who you've tentatively arranged to meet in Uruguay in late summer etc etc.

However, some travellers are going even further and using the site to help make their plans. I've recently come across two Buenos-Aires-themed Facebook groups: one for people looking for a housemate and another for people who were in the city for Christmas and New Year. For this sort of thing, I'd say there are better places to look than Facebook (such as Couchsurfing forums or Craigslist), but it looks as though the site is becoming a one-stop shop for many users.

I'm sure I have some Facebook friends who would neither notice or be offended if I sacrificed them for a Whopper. Although in my case, unless veggie version is an option, I'm more likely to be the sacrificed one.

Then again, looking at the above picture - a Japanese Terriaki Whopper taken from Wiki Images - is it really worth the effort?

Saturday, 10 January 2009

The hottest barrio in Buenos Aires

Want to know the hottest barrio in Buenos Aires right now? Start by looking beyond Palermo, which reached its boiling point so long ago that its soul is now danger of evaporating. Head instead to Villa Crespo, which is just starting to simmer.

It's not a place where you'll find rows of hip bars and nightclubs, but you'll be in your element if you are the sort of tourist who is happy to leave the guidebook alone, wander aimlessly, and enjoy soaking up local life. Here you're likely to encounter residents having a makeshift asado (BBQ) on the pavement, admire antique furniture in ramshackled street-side shops, or catch a glimpse through a window into one of the local artists' studios.

On my last three visits to the city, this barrio has been my favourite place to wander. It still has the cobbled streets and low-rise houses that you find in Palermo, but it's much more "tranquilo", as they say here. I love the way hip bars, like Ocho7Ocho (878 Thames, pictured), rub shoulders with some of the most old-school joints in town, like the delightful 1930s icecream parlour, Scannapieco (Córdoba 4826).

I tipped Villa Crespo as the place to be in Buenos Aires in last Saturday's Guardian Travel.
You don't have to be a local to be down with the local knowledge, but you do need to look beyond the obvious. How did I find the places I tipped in the Guardian? Aside from spending many an hour pounding the cobbles, I simply asked those in the know.

One afternoon, I had a particularly good brainstorming session round the kitchen table at La Cocina Discreta. Run by Alejandro and Rosana, this is one of the city's newest in-home restaurants. The pair gave me lots of good pointers - including alerting me to their friend, Shoni Shed, who hosts blindfolded gigs in his house (see the article for details).

In the end, I was spoilt for choice. Here are some of the other local finds that I couldn't fit in the article:

Carlitos (Scalabrini Ortiz, 701) - This popular pancake house has hundreds of options that are filling and cheap (10 - 15 pesos). To make things a little more interested, the best combos are named after famous people. Try a Chaplin (roquefort, onion, ham); a Pablo Neruda (cheese, tomato and oregano); or even a rather odd homage to the inventor of Viagra (cream cheese, roquefort, celery, green olives). Open from midday until 1am. 3am on Friday, Saturday, Sunday.

Thymus (Lerma 525)
Stylish restaurant in a converted home on a sweet residential street just behind Corrientes. It's run by a sculptor and famed for its multi-course tasting menu. Evenings only, Mon - Sat. Book ahead on 4772 1936.

La Perla (Canning y Triunvirato)
Classic bakery and a Villa Crespo institution. Stop by for facturas (little pastries to be enjoyed with coffee or mate). I haven't had chance to check it out myself yet, but it is highly recommended by La Cocina Discreta and they haven't been wrong yet.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Couchsurfers coming up from the underground

Is it me? It the time of year? Or are there really more couchsurfers than ever in Argentina?

When I was on my Going Local trip last year - meeting locals while staying in a mix of hostels and homestays - the times I crossed paths with other travelling couchsurfers were rare. Occasionally we'd meet when staying with a particularly active host, who organised multiple meet-ups, but, generally, it seemed like a behind-the-scenes community, going on quite apart from the hostel scene.

However, since arriving in Argentina, every other traveller seems to be a couchsurfer, or part-time couchsurfer. I met at least four while staying in a hostel in Cordoba - all had failed to get a host because the student city was in the middle of exam period. Then, in Buenos Aires, I soon met another three: one in a bar, one in my hostel and one friend-of-a-friend, who used's BA forum board to find his houseshare - with a fabulous terrace where I ended up seeing in the new year (pictured).

Argentina is certainly a good place for a Couchsurfer to be. Aside from the obvious attractions (the steak, the wine, the culture, the diversity of landscape), it is also within the top 25 Couchsurfing countries (with nearly 9,000 members), while Buenos Aires is in the top 20 cities.

The BA Couchsurfing forum is quite simply fantastic for any new arrival in the city and yet, refreshingly, it is not just the domain of expats. Most of the regular users are Argentinean and seem to have limitless enthusiasm for new arrivals in their capital. On NYE they posted a hugely helpful list of suggestions of what to do in the city, including open invites for house parties and a camping gathering on the delta. Today I noticed a post from a Canadian newcomer asking how safe BA is for cyclists. Within no time, she received a string of helpful responses, including an offer of a personal bike tour.

I met a lot of these great people back in July and now I'm going to be staying in Buenos Aires for the foreseeable future I must admit that knowing about this forum has really taken the edge of any fear about not meeting people or getting homesick. I've already joined them for their regular Monday outing to an incredible percussion night called La Bomba del Tiempo and am sure this was the first of many for me.

However, here's hoping the balance is kept. Everyone that utilises the goodwill of such forumites should be willing to give something back to the community to keep it going and not just pop in to use it as some sort of nuevo Craigslist. I'm hoping that once I am more settled I can help out some newcomers to the city and, in one way or another, some locals too. My first mission: to find a way to get some specialist books from the UK over to a friend I met via I've had no shortage of folks back home expressing a desire to visit, so hopefully it won't take long.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Things get tricky for Fiiki

With so many travel-networking sites out there now, wouldn't it be easier if a single site pooled all the accommodation options into one, easy-to-view list? Need a bed somewhere? Just look for your destination on their drop-down menu and, bingo, every host listed on every hospitality site on the web suddenly appears before your eyes. This is exactly what the folk behind had planned. Unfortunately for them, the travel-networking community wasn't quite so keen.

The aim of Fiiki's portal was to collate information from around 10 different hospitality sites, including, and
The trouble was Fiiki seemed to have ignored members' privacy settings and thus opened up all manner of online copyright issues.

The forums of are now awash with suggestions that the site's creator must have signed up as a member, then proceeded to copy info without permission. Predictably, members are unimpressed. Hospitality sites work by creating a network of trust; if any non-members can find you through Fiiki, it defeats the object.

Fiiki also seriously underestimated the loyalty people have to their travel-networking site of choice. The more you use these sites, the more you realise each has a very different personality. While a member of might welcome likeminded fellow members, they may not be so keen to open up to members of

What erks members even more is the way Fiiki has misrepresented their details. For example, if someone types in New York, a snapshot of a Couchsurfing profile might appear reading: "Contact Belinda, 27, from Brooklyn, for a 100% chance of being hosted". This is totally inaccurate. The % figure displayed on all profiles refers to the response rate to messages. Belinda may be polite enough to respond to 100% of messages, but this does not mean she ALWAYS hosts EVERYONE.

The Fiiki crew also showed their ignorance by including sites such as UK-only StayDon' If they had done their research they would know the site is currently down and works on a very different, token-based system. You can't simply sign up, drop someone an email and turn up on a doorstep. general manager Matthew Brauer has addressed members' concerns on the site's message boards: "I just wanted to let everyone know that CouchSurfing has not endorsed or approved the content on [...] CouchSurfing does have the right to request the removal of member profile information from the Fiiki website, including information from profiles that are set to viewable by non-members. Our legal team is currently looking into it."

Looks like the legal team have made some progress as Fiiki is now out of action. The homepage reads simply: "Due to legal issues we're currently unable to offer our services. Please come back later". Before it went down, I emailed them via their contact us page to ask for more information on the official launch they'd said was "coming soon". So far, no comment. I'm guessing they've got some homework to do first.