Thursday, 26 February 2009

Danger! Language barrier!

There's a glitch in the website at the moment. (Well, it's one of many, if you listen to the discontented bunch on the site's "brainstorming" forum, who seem perennially on the verge of a mutiny.)

Before I go on, let me explain a little thing about Couchsurfing profiles for the uninitiated. Besides displaying general info about who you are and what you like, there is also room to list the languages you speak and the level: "mother tongue", "expert", "intermediate" or "beginner".

Usually, it's up to the individual to check out their host/guest's profile to see if communication will be a problem, however - owing to an apparent bug - the site is currently taking it upon itself to flag it up for you. So, if you aren't both "experts" in the same language, the person's profile is adorned with a warning in big, red letters: "language barrier exists".

Bit off putting, eh?

This happened to me last weekend in Uruguay. I contacted a local girl called Florencia. She speaks expert Spanish and intermediate English; I speak expert English and intermediate Spanish. For me, there was no question that'd we'd be able to get by. I've managed with people with zero English before and it's all part of the experience. However, the
language barrier warning appeared on her page, as if our meeting would be like stepping into a danger zone.

It's a shame if some people are put off by this. (I wasn't, although, in the end, Florencia and I couldn't meet due to conflicting schedules). Some of the greatest travel-networking experiences I've ever had have been with people where I've had a so-called "language barrier" (such as with Toyo in Panama - pictured). In fact, I've just written a feature for the April issue of the The Linguist magazine about my experiences and singing Couchsurfing's praises as a way to attain valuable language emersion.

So, imagine my horror today when I came across a blog post aimed at travellers, entitled Don't learn a foreign language (via the Travel Rants newsletter).

Fortunately, my concerns were abated as I read on...
Learning how to communicate without words is a travel skill that you can use throughout your life, in all parts of it. It can help you navigate bad situations, deal with people’s emotions, understand people ...

It turned out that the piece wasn't anti-languages at all. Instead it was praising the wonders of non-verbal communication, and the joy of understanding universal gestures/expressions. It was encouraging people not to afraid of interaction, simply because they don't share the same mother tongue.

The post was written by a traveller known as Nomadic Matt. A speaker of English, Thai and Spanish, he is currently in Tawain preparing to start Chinese lessons. Although he speaks around three words of it so far, he isn't holing himself up in his hotel room for the first week six of his course, planing to resurface when able to ask about people's favourite food or how old their siblings are. No, he's getting out there, meeting people, making friends. Nice one, Matt.

As for the hitch, I think it's up to the people - not the site's inner coding mechanisms - to decide whether there will be a language problem. We can get a pretty clear indication by ourselves, after reading a person's profile, looking their language list, and exchanging a mail or two.

The sooner the hitch is fixed, the better. In the meantime, sensible Couchsurfers should continue to ignore it. Especially as it is, occasionally, going completely haywire and throwing up completely inappropriate warnings, such as between two experts in English: one from England and one from Canada. This happened to me last week.

Now, I know they call beanie hats toques and their coins are loonies, but we can get by. Eh?

Friday, 20 February 2009

Going local on the Great Barrier Reef

Does Tourism Queensland's marketing body really need any help? They seem to have got the publicity thing down rather well. Their "best job in the world" campaign has been a monstrously huge hit. I've lost count of how many times I've seen it in the travel press or on a blog. Do a Google search for "best job in the world" and - bonza! - Queensland's right up there.

As a quick recap: they are on a worldwide hunt for someone to work a six-month, A$150,000 contract in the spectacular Whitsundays islands. No formal qualifications necessary, but the candidate must be willing to swim, snorkel, dive, sail and work to publicise the region. For this, they'll be able to live rent-free in a three-bedroom villa, complete with plunge pool.

Yep, these specs sure beat your average nine-to-five.

It was a clever idea and, thus far, it seems very well executed. I've just been having a look at the ultra-slick website. Candidates have been posting their video applications in their thousands - more than 19,000 so far. There are certainly some good ones and watching them is oddly compelling.

I'm not quite sure how they'll be judging it. Does the number of video views bump up your chances? Or the star-rating the public have given it? Will they choose a PR or journalism professional? An Aussie or a non-Aussie? An ardent traveller or someone who's never left their homeland? An experienced blogger and social-media fanatic? (After all, blogging and networking are big parts of the role.)

So far, the field (or should that be white-sand beach?) is wide open. I'll be interested to see who makes the grade and gets to live on Hamilton island for six months. If you're interested, you have just two days left to apply.

Failing that the Danish tourist board are trying their hand at a similar scheme. Be their travel "guinea pig" and get a free trip. No tropical reefs, no fat paycheck, but not to be sniffed at. In return, you just have to write about it. Good one for budding travel writers.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Couchsurfing meets Twitter

Apologies for having gone slightly Twitter mad this past fortnight, but here’s another interesting find. Twitter also has search facility, which enables you to look for updates related specifically to your interests or hobbies. I decided to put "couchsurfing" in and give it a whirl. The results showed reams of mentions. I scanned a few pages and came up across some interesting links. Here are the best ones:

Are couchsurfers 21st-ce
ntury hobos?
Article from Dakota Today nicely touches on the idea that good Couchsurfers are more interested in making connections with people than sightseeing. The writer, living near Mount Rushmore, also discovers how hosting a couchsurfer can help him rediscover his own area.

Couchsurfing for cyclists

Tips from two intrepid travellers who are blogging their three-year trip cycling from Alaska to the “end of the world” in Argentina’s Ushuaia.
Featuring, and too. This is a blog to watch.

Let the world come to you

Time Out Chicago profiles a local twentysomething who couldn’t afford a plane fare, so decided to travel through others by becoming a couchsurfing host.

Couchsurfing for Obama
CNN on how couchsurfing helped ease the accommodation shortage in Washington during Obama’s inauguration. Features one couple who hosted 16 travellers in their three-bedroom home. "We read about the people who are renting their houses for $2,000 a night, and we thought, 'That's so in contradiction to what we believe’."

Couchsurfing with kids

A basic intro from HaveKidsWillTravel for those interested in couchsurfing as a family.

Also on Twitter:
Within people's tweets - aside from the predictable "OMG! Have you heard about" messages - I also noticed people discussing's new logo (sneak preview above) and came across this interesting character, @CouchsurfingOri.

Here are some of the tweets I liked:

@wanderblah: Mum still cant quite get the couchsurfing thing...

@stefidi: Being active on CouchSurfing again makes me happy. :)

@houshuang: Found a CouchSurfing host for Houston Open Education conference. Great!

@arsie: At a local Couchsurfing party in Wellington. AWESOME!!!

@godfoca: Just switched "couch available" from "Yes" to "Maybe" on CouchSurfing. I really need some time to get some shit done =/ =(

And, on that note, like @godfoca, I’m off to get some shit done.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Where to network with millionaires

If you've never managed to get a sought-after* invite to the elite travel network A Small World, here's a solution. Newly launched network doesn't require a recommendation from another well-established member. Instead you can sign up yourself with zero prior connections. And it's free.

There's only one small hurdle: you must have a
demonstrable minimum household net worth of US$3 million, or an annual household income of at least $300,000. Or, if you come in a little shy of the required millions, you can also gain entry by getting invites from five others that qualify.

But, before you start calling all your millionaire friends, is it really worth it? The site lists the benefits as follows:
  • Interact with other affluent people from around the world
  • Receive free access to a dedicated Affluence Concierge
  • Attend the most exclusive parties and events in the world
  • Receive priority access to the world's most exclusive nightclubs, hotels, and restaurants
  • Find other millionaires, billionaires, and socially elite people to network with.
Choosing your friends based on their bank balance? Nice. I wonder if Affluence members can "poke" each other, Facebook style, or if this has been replaced by the virtual airkiss?

Perhaps the site will appeal to ASmallWorld members that complain the network had lost exclusivity since becoming overrun with estate agents, WAG wannabes and

* As for A Small World membership still being "sought after", I'm not so sure. The name seems to be being banded around almost as much as Facebook in expat circles. It's now dropped into conversation as if it no longer needs explanation. "Yeah, I'm looking for apartments in the usual places, you know, Craigslist and ASmallWorld," a backpacker told me the other day.

** Photo from WikiImages/David Shakebone

Friday, 13 February 2009

The world goes mad for Twestival

I didn't make it to Twestival last night. My internet connection went down so I didn't have means of contacting other attendees or, crucially, knowing where it was. (It looks like there are some drawbacks of internet-based festivals.)

For those who missed the build-up, Twestival was a multinational event taking place for users of social-networking site, Twitter. It seems it was quite a success, with 175 events worldwide.

Some of the most extensive coverage of the event came from the Twitter-obsessed Guardian. The point they made repeatedly was that - aside from raising money for Charity: water - the events were all about getting people away from their screens and interacting in person.

In San Francisco, co-founder Biz Stone said he was pleased that users were coming together to do something positive, rather than simply socialise with each other over the net.

Meanwhile, London co-organiser Tom Malcolm said he was amazed by the turnout. "On Facebook people tend to know someone else before adding them as a friend," he said. "On Twitter you meet people you wouldn't necessarily meet in real life."

However, these events were limited in only being able to allow attendees to meet users in their own city, thus giving a very narrow indication of the network's global reach on a personal level.

Predictably, the positive coverage (written by active Twitter users Jemima Kiss and Bobbie Johnson) was shortly followed by plenty of mockery from the naysayers. Unfortunately for these critics, most of their arguments fell flat because they simply didn't know what they were talking about.

Example one:
"I know who my mates are – I see them down the pub on a Friday night, I dont need to be kept informed of what the fat f****** are up to all week as well. Oh Richies up a ladder? Great. Daves stuck in traffic? Cosmic. Kevs having steak for dinner? Whoppee!"

Wrong. It's not just about leaving status updates. It's about interaction. For every status update, there are many more conversations going on and a mountain of information being shared. It's also not just about chatting with your mates - it's about expanding connections and "meeting" new people. If you only interact with people you know in the real world, you'll have a very limited experience.

Example two:

"Twitter is a load of people talking about themselves. It's the cult of the individual. Me! Me! Me!"

Wrong. Well, partially wrong. This does go on and some people do use it just as a platform to broadcast news about themselves. However, there's a lot of people helping each other out too. If you join, you'll soon learn to RT ("retweet" - ie pass on other people's news as well as your own).

Example three

"Is coming onto a website and having a conversation so Web 1.0? On Twitter, noone can ever point out you're an idiot."

Wrong. This person thinks Twitter is just for signing in, leaving a note and signing out. D'oh.

Example four:

"Argh! Twitter. Twestival. And I hate the world a little bit more"

Not wrong, not right: This person doesn't claim to know what they are talking about and they doesn't want to know. This is just pure, unadulterated cynicism - which, admittedly, made me laugh.

This may sound like I'm a huge Twitter fan, defending it vehemently, but I only recently signed up myself. I'm still finding my feet and making up my mind on it. I agree that spending too much time online is not a good thing, and agree that one of the pictures on the Guardian site could be a still from Nathan Barley. However, I'm also discovering that dipping in and out can actually increase productivity and forge lots of real-life contacts. Ask a question there and get it answered instantly: no phone calls, no waiting for email responses. It's certainly a good professional tool and it can come in handy for travel too, as Benji Lanyado found out on his TwiTrip in Paris.

If you still don't get it, read this great introductory guide to Twitter from a New York Times tech writer who gradually came round to the idea.

However, there's only one way you'll really be able to "get it" and make up your mind. And that's by trying it.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Google Latitude takes local knowledge too far

The other day I was having a bar-room chat about coincidental run-ins. I mean those times when you randomly bump into someone on the other side of the world, or someone you haven't seen for many years. I've had a fair few of these and they never fail to blow my mind.

"And for all the people that you do run into," I said to my drinking buddy, "imagine all those you just miss. If you'd been five minutes earlier, you would have walked straight into an old colleague. Or we could be sitting here in this bar and one of our long-lost university friends could be having a drink three doors down."

It seems that just as we got all dreamy eyed and lost in our own imaginations, along came Google. Again. Not content with having the world's web habits, email accounts, videos and world mapping sown up, now they've gone and bought up fate.

Google Latitude is a new application that you can download on to your mobile and track/stalk your friends, family and exes. If they opt in, their profile pics will appear all over your Google map (as above - although maybe not quite as goofy).

Google suggests advantages of using Latitude on the site, such as “only heading to a party when you see that several of your friends have arrived”. But what if everyone's doing it? Imagine a whole crowd of potential partygoers sitting at home looking at the iPhones all night, waiting to take someone else's lead.

Google Latitude is currently available in 27 countries, which could make it great for frequent travellers. In theory. However, I think I'd prefer to let people know my location as and when I want to - via Facebook, Twitter or Dopplr. Latitude is one networking trend I can probably resist.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

What is 'authentic' travel?

There's a new (beta) travel site on the block, According to the blurb, "It's all about discovering and sharing authentic travel experiences offered by passionate locals." They've got some interesting trips up there so far: from wine-tasting in the UK to photographing bears in Alaska. (The latter is possibly my dream trip. Although at US$750 a day, I'd better start saving now.)

The one thing I'm unsure about is the over-reliance on the word "authentic", which is plastered across the site. They are asking people to post their "authentic travel experiences". What exactly does that mean? Is it the same as striving to see the "real side" of a country? I've never been comfortable with that phrase either.

The Gecko Villa, for example, is billed on the site as "The real Thailand!" It looks like a beautiful place to take a holiday. It's intimate, it's tasteful, it's got traditional elements to the design, it's in a rural area. But does this make it "the real Thailand"? At £125 a night, I'm not so sure.

But this isn't just about prices. It's more about the constraints of labels. In trying to pin it down the real Thailand/Egypt/Tanzania, you'll inevitably end up chasing myths.

At its heart, Tourdust has good intentions and I wish them luck. They support responsible travel and want to encourage travellers "to think twice about the impact of their holidays". They also believe in working directly with local guides and hosts so tourism money goes into the local economy. (See also

Ultimately, travel companies and tour sites have products to sell. "Real" and "authentic" do that job quite nicely. What's worse is seeing them overused in travel journalism. "So-and-so discovers the real Brazil on a favela tour in Rio." No, they don't. They discover a different side of Brazil.

All countries have multiple identities - not just a dichotomy of the "real" (typically used as a synonym for "poor", "unvisited", "authentic") and the "unreal" (ie "more affluent", "popular").

Of course, the good news is this means that your ways of experience a country are limitless. Just think of all those different sides within every country in the world...

Friday, 6 February 2009

Another godfather of Couchsurfing

Ah, they're all coming out of the woodwork now. I've already mentioned Jim Haynes and MeetURPlanet founder Jeff Mitchell as forerunners to Now introducing ... Ramon Stoppelenburg, the Dutch founder of LetMeStayForADay.

Ramon travelled the world from May 2001 to July 2003. He did so without any money, relying on people who had agreed to host him through his website. His invite-me-over page
led to 3,577 invitations from 72 countries.

Inspired by online schemes such as SendMeADollar and the RedPaperClipGuy, he gained sponsorship to help him travel the long distances, and hitchhiked the rest.

Read an extract from his book (translated from Dutch) on WorldHum.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Is Twitter useful for travel?

Like many people, I didn't get Twitter at first. "Bit limited, isn't it?" I thought. "Why would I want to use that site to tell people what I'm doing or where I am. Might as well just update my status on Facebook."

Ah, poor misguided fool that I was.

But although it's proved its worth for following the exploits of celebs, like Twitter legend Stephen Fry, or reporting breaking news. Is it really any good for travellers?

The aspect that I totally overlooked about Twitter is the interactivity. It's not just about telling the world where you are or what you're doing; it's about their reactions. This is great news for travellers.

Imagine you're in an unfamiliar city, in a rather lame bar. Your guidebook only gives you options for places right across town. There's nothing obvious on the doorstep. What do you do?

A quick tweet from your mobile saying "Vicky is looking for a cool bar near so-and-so street." Next thing you know you have a reply from a friend who used to live there. "There's a great speakeasy with live music and cheap cocktails, two blocks down," they say and pass on an address. Bingo.

Guardian Travel has gone Twitter mad in the past week. First news of Benji Lanyado's Twitter Trip to Paris (where he'll be guided around the city by people's tweets), then they got Twitchhiker on board, a guy who plans to travel for 30 days relying solely on the hospitality and advice of the Twitter community.

Will Twitter Trips catch on? I can certainly see people gleaning advice from time to time, if not for every move.

I'd love to give it more of a trial myself, however my mobile phone is from the dark ages and can't even cope with sending a text back to the UK, let alone access the net. Best to follow Benji, who is in the middle of his Parisian jaunt right now.

Photo: Benji Lanyado arrives in Paris. (Reproduced with permission.)

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

From fridgesurfing to pottysurfing

The couchsurfers and the cynics have been having virtual fisticuffs again. This time, they've been arguing the merits of travel networking in response to an article on I must admit the cynics make for a better read.

"Just what I want, someone I don't know staying at my home. Might as well pick up a hitchhiker and invite them home for dinner," says one of the commenters. "If anyone is interested, I am start a fridgesurfing site. I'm sure it will become all the rage."

It's shortly followed by this suggestion...

"I have what I think is a perfect business for possible cross-promotion. It's called PottySurfing. It's a network of kind, caring, progressive-minded households across the country who make their loo available to travelers in their time of bodily need. For the traveler it replaces the sometime frantic search, gas station, to grocery stores, to the bushes by the side of the road. For the homeowner, renter or squatter, it provides the opportunity to meet some really interesting people. You don't really get to know a community until you can say for certain if its an over the roll or under the roll town. Our company motto is ´You know where to go, when you got to go´."

Actually, it´s not far off the idea of WarmShowers - where cyclists open their homes to other cyclists who need to freshen up after a long ride.

Perhaps an enterprising soul should buy up the domain before it´s too late.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Thelma and Louise go home swapping

Apparently, they cut a scene from 1990s road movie Thelma and Louise. Just before the fugitive pair took a drive over the canyon, the smarter one looks at her ditzy-but-lovable friend and says, "Darn it, Thelma, I know how to solve this mess we've got ourselves in to. If we wanted to escape our day-to-day lives, we could have just done a home swap."

It might not have made such a good movie and, from what I remember, they would have had trouble convincing anyone to swap with them. ("On offer: one bedroom in Redneckville. Abusive boyfriend included.") But it certainly could have provided the getaway they needed, and for very little outlay.

Ok, as you may have guessed, it's not really the movie heroines that have moved into home-swapping, but the women's travel networking site of the same name - (Founders Grace and Christine, pictured.)

One of the site's reps tells me: "We started offering the house swap service because we had received requests from members who were keen to share their homes with other members, however they weren't sure how to go about doing this. We thought swapping accommodation was a great idea, as it is a fun and cost-effective way of seeing another region of the country or the world."