Monday, 30 March 2009

Work your way around the world as a housesitter

Here's news to me: non-homeowners can house swap too. Well, kind of. Instead of offering a house in return, you offer your time and become a "housesitter". C - est. 1983 - brings the two parties together. Check out Caretaker Gazette, their subscription newsletter. I've yet to really explore it, but it's surely worth a look. Here's a very low-key vid (above) that offers tips for gaining trust.

And here's a sample ad:

"HOUSESITTER needed near Edinburgh. I need a housesitter for various time periods, but at least one week for my comfortable home located about 10 miles east of Edinburgh. I prefer two people, and don't mind if you are friends, a couple or married. We have two dogs, one horse and one pony, a large garden, and stables. You can have the use of a car if needed, since we are very accessible to Edinburgh and only 10 minutes from hills, the beach, and golf courses. Would love regular housesitters, if possible, to allow us to get away fairly regularly, but don't mind one off's. Our house is on the edge of a small town in a peaceful but not isolated location. The dogs run around the garden and don't need to be walked. Horses need to be mucked out daily, fed three times a day and stabled at night. Housesitter must have experience with horses and dogs."
Thanks to NaiveAbroad, who's post on Free Travel [Almost] alerted me to the site.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Going local in the 19th century

An 19th-century female traveller, Edith Tweedie, was discovering local travel before us all. Here's an excerpt from Wanderlust: a social history of travel, by Laura Byrne Paquet. Pictured: how the world looked in 1897. So-called "British possessions" are marked in red. Map from Cambridge University Library.

One of the most cheerful nineteenth-century adventurers was an Englishwoman named Edith Tweedie, who published her impressions in a series of books under the name Mrs Alec Tweedie.

During a trip through Finland in the 1890s with her sister and some friends, she gets it into her head that she would like to experience a traditional Finnish bath, and nothing will satisfy her until she gets one. Disappointed that she can’t arrange to have one with the local peasants — for reasons that are unclear, but probably have something to do with the fact that the locals aren’t keen on sharing their ablutions with a stranger — she eventually manages to arrange for a woman named Saima who understands the traditional rituals to come and give her and her friends a group bath.

Difficulties arise almost as soon as the Englishwomen enter the bastu, or bathhouse. Saima gleefully begins tossing water onto hot bricks, and the visitors are soon roasting. Gasping for breath, they plead with Saima in broken Finnish to stop. The problem is that Saima is Swedish and doesn’t understand a word they’re saying, so she continues to steam them like a bunch of pale, damp clams. Finally, through hand signals and a general aura of panic, they make their wishes known. Saima obligingly stops pouring cold water on the bricks and starts scrubbing the bathers with soft soap and a bundle of rags. Once she deems them clean, she sluices them with pails of hot water, then flails them with a birch switch for a while. “It was an awful experience!” Mrs Tweedie exclaims. Nonetheless, the Englishwomen persevere. Finally, Saima signals that the bathers should head for the cold bath. They take a quick, frosty dip before wrapping themselves in piping hot towels and scurrying back to the room where their clothing is stored.

In retrospect, far from the birch switch and icy bath, Mrs. Tweedie is exhilarated by her adventure:

Whether it was the heat, or exhaustion, or the loss of one skin or many, we know not; but after a glass of mjöd, that most delicious and refreshing of Finnish drinks, we slept splendidly, and felt fit next morning for any amount of hard work, even for a journey to Russia through Finland, though we did not speak or understand the language of either country.

It’s hard not to get into the spirit of the adventure as Mrs Tweedie recounts her Finnish journey; she’s a splendid raconteur and game for just about any adventure. Her quest to explore Finland from a watery perspective leads her to try an “ant-heap bath,” which she has heard is good for rheumatism. Traditionally, an entire anthill would have been tossed into the bathwater, but in deference to the visitor’s presumed delicate sensibilities, her Finnish bath attendant bundled the ants into a little linen bag before pouring boiling water on them. To Mrs Tweedie’s dismay, when she entered the bathhouse she saw the bathwater was brown. “Did I shiver at the thought?” she asks the reader. “Well, a little, perhaps; nevertheless, I tumbled into the warm water.”

She also attempts a “waterfall bath,” where she and her friends enter a small structure built around a waterfall and simply let the cascade wash over them. “[T]he water, simply thumping on our back and shoulders, came with such force, that we felt exactly as if we were being well pummelled with a pair of boxing-gloves, or being violently massaged, a delicious tingling sensation being the result,” she reports. One wonders how a genteel Victorian lady would know what it was like to be pummelled with boxing gloves, but Mrs Tweedie does seem to have led an adventurous life.

Even when she and her sister try the more usual amusement of swimming in the lake, hilarity ensues. Since no bathing suits are available in the local shops, they buy some fabric and sew their own. The locals, who swim in the nude, immediately assume the crazy Englishwomen have fallen into the lake.

For Mrs Tweedie, her adventures with waterfalls and birch switches were the essence of her trip. Simply observing historic buildings and sipping tea with friends would not have been nearly as illuminating. “[B]aths in Finland are an art, and Finland without its bath-houses would not be Finland at all,” she concludes.

My sister blog: Facing the street

I feel like Going Local has a sister blog. I hope that author of Facing the Street, Laura Byrne Paquet, doesn't mind me describing it that way.

I came across Laura's site about a month ago and instantly noted
we have very similar interests. From her base in Ontario, she writes about ways travellers can "live like locals" on the road. "Tired of anonymous hotels? Sick of chain restaurants? Want to broaden your understanding of the places you visit? Me, too," she says. Me too, Laura, me too.

Laura's also just published a book, Wanderlust: a social history of travel. In it, she looks at where passports came from; why 1930s stewardesses carried wrenches; and how teetotalers shaped the modern vacation. Intrigued? So am I. I hope to get my hands on a copy soon. The hurdle is that it's only available in Laura's native Canada ("A long, long story," says Laura). But, for the curious, Going Local has an extract about another woman who was always seeking local ways to travel. This one, however, was ahead of us all: going local in the 19th-century.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

TwitchHitching: can anyone do it?

TwitchHiker has caused a media storm beyond his wildest dreams. His perfect timing has made him a Twitter celebrity. Just as the site broke the mainstream, up he pops up with his quirky and ambitious demonstration of just what the site can do.

I'm very impressed with his go-getter spirit. Plus, he seems like a nice, down-to-earth guy you'd want to have a pint with.

However, I do wonder how representative this is, and how much of his experiment could be replicated by others. Without the media buzz would it have worked? He certainly wouldn't have got the support from Visa, AirNewZealand and the like. So, no, he probably wouldn't have got as far.

Yet Twitchhiker is doing this on a grand scale to make a point and, more importantly, to raise lots of money for charity. Who can knock that?

The average Twitter user may not be able to score a free nights in hostels or their own PR team, but they could certainly harness a lot of goodwill.

I've been really impressed by the Twitter community. People are constantly bigging each other up, helping with problems, passing on links, sharing successes and generally being nice to one another. Where are all the scathingly bitter trolls you usually find on the net?

Right now, Twitter is the easiest place in the world to make contacts and I can certainly see how this would transfer into the real world. I've already corresponded with a worldwide stream of people through the site, many of whom I'd happily take out for a drink if they came to town, or maybe even host in my house.

Note to non-Twitter users: that statement's really not as strange as it sounds. These aren't just randoms strangers offering no more than a user name - most of them have very public internet presence and are highly traceable. You find yourself reading their daily thoughts, through blogs and tweets. You could probably even browse their holiday snaps.

A vast majority of the people I follow on Twitter are travellers. And it's interesting to see how they've all meet up and hung out at big industry events SXSW and ITB in these past weeks.

There are some really interesting characters out there. People like @soultravelers3, a family of globetrotters who are currently nominated for the Lonely Planet microblogger of the year award. When they mentioned coming to Buenos Aires, I didn't hesitate to suggest a meet.

I did jump the gun a bit though. They replied to say they've got another two years of travelling before they arrive here. I guess I won't put the kettle on just yet...

Photo: Guaka on Wiki Commons

Saturday, 21 March 2009

39 British pubs close each week: time for local action

It's a story that's inspiring and upsetting in equal measures. How did we get to the point where so many of Britain's most beloved community assets - its pubs and its rural shops
- are being forced to close? According to the British Beer & Pub Association, the combination of high taxes and low supermarket prices is causing 39 pubs to close every week.

Today's Guardian carried a story on the dedicated groups of locals who are banding together to save these services. Pooling their time and money, they are forming
limited-liability community companies.

It's a fascinating story and well worth a read. It also made me think of the community cooperatives here in Argentina. When the economic crisis hit in 2001/02, redundant workers took over abandoned factories, where they once worked, and put them back in to operation, sharing the profits between them. Circumstances were very different - there were no loans or official channels, and they didn't have permission - but it's another demonstration of the strength of local communities.

Want to know more about what happened in Argentina? I highly recommend watching The Take, a documentary by No Logo author, Naomi Klein. The powerful trailer (above) should certainly wet appetites.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Where are Uruguay and Paraguay? Don't ask Brazil

Everybody needs good neighbours, right? Perhaps someone ought to mention this to Brazil; they seem to have forgotten theirs. On a map released to primary school children in Sao Paulo, they've committed the ultimate error: Uruguay and Paraguay appear the wrong way around.

And that's not the only clanger. Paraguay also makes a second appearance in the middle of Bolivia and poor Ecuador has been missed off altogether.

Come on Sao Paulo! You may be Latin America's biggest city and within its biggest country, but don't forget the little guys!

Argentinean newspaper Clarin has been having a field day with the slip-up (above right). They report that textbooks featuring the map won't be retracted, although an amendment will be printed on the internet. That's fine then, as all school kids are clearly in the habit of double-checking all their textbook content online.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Beat the crunch with a home swap on home turf

HE10019_1There's a new trend in home swapping, according to Home Base Holidays. The economic downturn has prompted many members - mainly in the UK - to look for exchanges in their own country.

"In the past, swaps closer to home had often been primarily for short breaks but now many more are exchanging for longer holiday periods," says the site's blog.

Could this perfect way to escape the mortgage shackles and get the break you need, without falling victim to guilt?

"It's easy to take for granted the many attractions close to your home," say Home Base Holidays, who are living up to their name in new ways. "With many people having to make savings on holiday costs, now is a perfect time to re-discover your own country."

If economic doom and gloom is getting you down and your job enables you to work remotely, why not try a temporary change of scene?

Sample properties include the above - Huntly, Highlands & Islands in Aberdeenshire, Scotland (HE10019): "Converted 19th-century mill house in heart of Scottish countryside on the Castle Trail in Aberdeenshire. Situated in a valley with lovely views of the surrounding hills, waterfall and stream, which runs through the garden. The garden extends to about an acre and is a mixture of lawn, flower beds and woods stepped into the valley."

Monday, 16 March 2009

Couchsurfing gets its millionth member - or does it? has just broken the millionth member barrier. Or has it?

If you count the people who register under one profile (couples, housemates etc), they got there a while ago. There are also those who also argue that there are far less than a million who participate actively.

Bah, whatever. The millionth
profile at least shows this many people have at one stage identified with the idea. It's a huge milestone and there have been plenty of celebratory events going on this week around the world.

The site has also got a new logo and a very subtle redesign (basically just a new navigation bar).

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Want to meet locals? Pack a cassette tape

Travel tips on meeting locals? I thought I'd heard them all. But here's a rare and interesting one, courtesy of TravelAnswerMan:

"Bringing your own music in an MP3 player or portable CD player is a great way to block out the screeching noise of foreign cities, smooth the ride on trying bus or jeep journeys, or pass the time during long transit periods. On the other hand, there is nothing more isolating than a pair of headphones.

"Instead, try traveling with one or two classic cassette mix-tapes. When you tire of the cab’s selection of “the coolest American music”, or a jeep driver’s library of Mongolian throat singing tapes, offer the driver one of your own.

You’re not the only one who may be interested in hearing something new."

Depends where you are and how you do it, of course. You can't go calling out: "Hey, driver! Call this music?! We do it much better where I'm from!" He could just as easily have the same opinion of your indie hits as you do of his throat singing.

However, from time to time, it can certainly be a good conversation starter and a form of cultural exchange.

I've done it myself in Australia on bus ride across the Great Ocean Road. The tour guide liked it, we became friends, and, when we arrived in his hometown of Melbourne, he took me out for a day, showing me all his favourite hotspots.

Nonetheless, we shouldn't be too keen to listen to our own soundtrack, or it's no different from keeping those headphones on the whole time. The music you don't consider "to your taste" almost always makes the best memories. I'm thinking of the pumping reggaeton on the Panamanian diablo rojo (red devil) buses and the 1990s power ballads in Cusco cabs. Anyone enjoying the pleasure of having forgotten Rod Steward, Bryan Adams and Sting's All for One? Sorry to ruin it for you, but, believe me, it's all the rage among Peruvian taxi drivers.

See TravelAnswerMan's blog for more tips on meeting locals when travelling.

Photo: Wiki Images

Friday, 13 March 2009

AirBnB moves into apartment rentals

AirBed& has rebranded itself as AirBnB. Why? Because, despite only launching last August, they've already outgrown their original concept. Users aren't simply offering other travellers an airbed. Many of them are pulling out all the stops. Take a look on their homepage and you'll now see a gallery of bedrooms that wouldn't look place on a boutique hotel site. Ok, they've been specially selected by the powers that be, but there's definitely not an inflatable mattress in sight.

In another departure, the site has also found that members have been actively posting listings for holiday homes and slightly longer-term stays. There's certainly a gap in the market for this. Especially for a site that is going to move with the times. So far, AirBnB has shown itself to be a savvy worker by using Twitter and often linking in with current events, such as touting accommodation for this week's SXSW festival in Texas.

They'd better act fast though. Just yesterday, Tripadvisor announced at ITB (a huge international travel show in Berlin) that they were looking to do a similar thing and wanted to encourage more of their members to review holiday-home rentals. Last year, they bought FlipKey, a US-orientated site that carries thousands of rental-property reviews.

These sort of peer-to-peer sites could also be great for finding travellers' houseshares. When I found myself searching for a place in Argentina, I used Craigslist.
(It surprises me how many people still think this is a US-only site. Check out the worldwide coverage here.)

Craigslist is legendary as a simple, no-frills replication of newspaper classifieds, b
ut there's definitely room for a more sophisticated alternative. The first houseshare I found here had a basic listing with a couple of pic, but, helpfully, they'd added links to an MSN Spaces account and a Facebook group - which brought more pictures and references from past housemates. Now, wouldn't it be great if there was one site that did all that? Can AirBnB fill the gap?

Monday, 9 March 2009

Learn to swear like a local in Argentina

You're never truly down with the local lingo, unless you pick up the slang. This is probably never truer than in Argentina, where they speak Spanish like no other. I'm considering buying this Argentine phrase book, Che Boludo, just so I can try to fit in.

The title, "Che boludo", is the most Argentine of phrases. If you can say it naturally, and don't sound like a try-hard tourist, it's the ultimate linguistic success.

Literally, it's a hard one to translate. "Che" is used to mean "mate" or simply "oi!". Boludo, meanwhile, means "big balls". Together, I've heard the phrase translated as "oi, big balls", or "mate, you're a big-balled fool". But generally it's used as a very informal way of catching someone's attention and, although not one for polite company, it's not considered offensive.

As soon as you become aware of this phrase, you hear "boludo" everywhere you go.

It was while on my quest to learn more Argentine slang words that I came across an interesting podcast teaching Spanish swearwords. Sorry to lower the tone, but it did make me laugh aloud - less for the words themselves, more for the American guy's translations.
Even if you don't speak Spanish, it's worth a listen. Note how the Spanish speakers remain "tranquilo", while the American translator starts off calmly and then gets a little too into it. Is he a frustrated actor or just plain angry? You'll soon see what I mean.

To hear it, click on the audio player on this page of LearningSpanishBlog, under subheading of "Learning Spanish like crazy".

After that, if you want to practice what you've learned, there's no better place than an Argentinean football match. The above video contains no swearing, but the Argentine commentator will give you a taste of the local enthusiasm. It's an old YouTube classic, where Juan Manuel Pons of Fox Sports is so moved by a goal from Thierry Henry he sings a rather spectacular song.

Bambino Pons, as he's nicknamed, is famous for his singalong commentaries, which often include background music. Here's an internet "best of", where highlights include singing Dennis Bergkamp to the tune of We Will Rock You. Note the slang in the YouTube viewers' comments: "Es una boludez que me mata de risa!!" - "It's boludo (here meaning 'silliness') that makes me die laughing."

Friday, 6 March 2009

Local blogs for the weekend: part 2

Looking for some weekend reading? Try working your way through the shortlist for the Lonely Planet blog awards.

There are some great destination blogs among them and two mentions of SpottedByLocals. It's also good to see the categories are not entirely Anglophone.

As for microbloggers (ie members of Twitter), I'm now following all the LP nominees. I'll see what they have to say over the next week before I cast my vote. Interesting to see a Buenos Aires hostel is among them: Hostel Colonia. I've never visited, but perhaps I should check it out. It's amazing how prolific Twitter usage can thrust the little guys into the international spotlight.

For more tips on travel people to follow on Twitter, see the Telegraph's 50 best travel tweeters.
It'll be interesting to revisit this list - and Lonely Planet's - next year to see how things have changed.

But what about here and now? Any sites - blogs or microblogs - these lists have missed?

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Couchsurfing tips for flashpackers

"Is couchsurfing for flashpackers?" This was a question posed recently by TuxInBackpack, a site aimed at travellers who wants to see the world independently, but without using those two dreaded words: "roughing it".

The site's author - an Italian career-breaker called Andrea
- admits he's yet to try couchsurfing himself, but he has used a blog post to brainstorm a few ideas on why it may, or may not, be suited to flashpackers.

Personally, I believe this type of travel is less about people's budget and more about their mentality. It could certainly work for flashpakers, providing they are flexible, open-minded and easy-going.

Even those with sofa phobias will find that there are plenty of people offering up beds and spare rooms. You just have to keep searching through the profiles until you find something that suits.

Andrea presents a couple of hypothetical situations when looking at potential downsides. "What if you'd like to go to a place different from the one your host is suggesting? Wouldn't it be bad to be stuck for dinner with your potential messy-chef host when you're dying to visit that restaurant you read about?"

The advice for avoiding these situations is simple:
never turn up on someone's doorstep with a backpack full of expectations.

Here are some other points flashpackers should note:

  • Most hosts are keen to help their guests have a good time, but they're not mind-readers. Establish some email contact with your host before you arrive. Tell them what you want to do while you're there. If you communicate properly in advance, you'll be able to predict potential personality clashes and still have time to make alternative arrangements.

  • If you really want to be in charge of your own schedule, consider staying in a hotel or hostel for some, or part, of your time. You'll still be free to socialise with couchsurifing contacts for coffee, lunch, or a night out.
  • Try using a site such as AirBnB or Crashpadder instead, where you pay a small fee to stay in people's houses. Hosts on these sites sometimes post more detailed pictures and info on what you're going to get. Plus, if you're going to be handing over money, you may feel more comfortable asking questions.

  • Find equally flash travellers by bypassing sites like and getting yourself into one of the more elite travel-networking sites, such as ASmallWorld or Qube.
  • And, as for worrying about not going for a meal at "that" restaurant. If you're really flash why not treat your host as a thank you?
So, what do you say, Andrea? Ready to give it a try? If you do, let us know how you get on.

Photo: Napoleon's bed in Château de Compiègne is not on Wiki Images/Andreas Praefcke.

Monday, 2 March 2009

The best secret bars

Travellers can't seem to get enough of speakeasies. Check out this top secret drinking dens piece from yesterday's Observer Escape.

As soon as I read the headline, I scanned the page for the mention of Buenos Aires. It was inevitable given t
his city's long-standing word-of-mouth culture. And, sure enough, there it was: a mention of good ol' Ocho7Ocho - which I've previously tipped in the Guardian.

Today's speakeasies can be divided in two genres. There are the rare, gritty ones that are hoping not to get caught. And the above-board, new ones who are playing marketing games, such as a New York bar calling itself PDT, standing for Please Don't Tell. As if.

So, what is it about a lack of sign that makes people go ga-ga?

First, it makes people feel in-the-know. (
Even though it may have been going for years and everyone in town knows about.)
Second, it conjures a boho spirit. (Even though the owners are probably making a fortune.)
Third, it feels rebellious. (Even though most are completely above board.).

Yes, it's one big, fat illusion and we're all falling for it. But let's enjoy it. I am. Here's another "bar escondido" (hidden bar) I've recently discovered in Buenos Aires: Puerta Uno in Belgrano.

Want to know where it is? See their ultra-flashy website, telling you, er, exactly where to find it. The website designer must have let that one slip accidentally. Don't tell, will you.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Going unplugged

Right, that's it. I'm burning all my social-networking passwords and logging off.

Ok, not really. (Plus, that "click if you forgot your password" button makes such drama impossible.) But this is how I felt after reading a great piece by Make Travel Fair's Stephen Chapman entitled Unplug, Enjoy The Journey & The Experience Of Travelling. As the name suggests, it encourages people to turn off their computers, forget the pressure of finding the "best" places in town, and rediscover the simple joy of unplanned wandering, or, as the Australian Aborigines say, "going walkabout".

The internet is, undoubtedly, an incredible tool for travellers - helping to enhance experiences on so many levels.
I'm continually advocating the use of travel networking to make contact with locals. Often, a quick search and an email exchange is all it takes to get a fast-track straight into a side of the country you may never otherwise see.

However, the net is not the only medium for achieving this. You can gain a lot just through simply keeping an open mind and putting your ear to the ground. Heavens, you can even go so old school as to ask people for tips in person. No online forums, no emails, no Tweeting.

Although I still love social networking, I do occasionally feel bogged down. The internet has become both my blessing and my curse. Last week I went to Uruguay and was shamefully concerned over whether my rural, beachside hostel had wifi. (It did. So many do these days). A second rush of guilt followed when I was sitting inside typing when the sun was shining and all the other backpackers were heading to the beach or on various excursions.

Yet it's this that enables me to do what I do and work remotely. I meet a lot of travellers doing the same thing - writers, the occasional professional poker player, and even the odd trader. It's something we'll all be seeing more and more.
But although this way of life has many good points it also makes it even harder to draw the line and switch off.

Any what about those who are travelling to take "time out" on a gap year or a career break? With more and more now packing their laptops, "getting away from it all" is not what it was.

I talked with a backpacker the other day about her pre-email travels in Asia. "I used to have to go to the poste restante every month or so. The feeling of getting a letter had so much more impact. It felt so special. I just never get the same buzz from Facebook."