Africa In Photos La Reunion The Nomadic Life

Hello Reunion, Thanks for Smelling Nice

Women in La Reunion

Back to the Developed World

After over a consecutive year and a half in Madagascar – minus three weeks in Thailand – stepping off the airplane in La Reunion felt like going back in time to the world of my memories. At first glance, it was the developed world of my daydreams when I’m having a bad day in Mada. There were paved roads, large busses that didn’t sputter black exhaust fumes, quaint cafes, and an overarching scent of plastic, clean, and sea, rather than piss and unidentifiable stench. (Seriously Madagascar, would you stop peeing on everything?) Most everyone had shoes, and even if they were wearing cheap clothes they were still the sort of thing only Malagasy with a higher status could afford. I noticed two beggars in the entire week I was there.

Judging from our surroundings, Chip and I knew this trip was going to be easy. Normally, I like a challenge while traveling. I like choosing the more difficult route, because it usually means more adventure; better stories. Peace Corps has been one long series of travel challenges and honestly, I’m getting a bit tired and burnt out. For once, the thought of exploring a place where I didn’t even have to bargain for a freaking coconut made me excited to be there.

Couchsurfing and a Home-Cooked Creole Feast

Being in La Reunion also meant I got to do something else I haven’t done in a long, long time: couchsurf. We ended up getting hosted by a group of seven friends – one Reunionese and six French – who lived in a house that overlooked Saint Denis and the Indian Ocean. I like surfing in houses like that because it means there’s always something going on, but, if I’m honest, the language barrier made things a little awkward at first. Chip and I sort of speak French, and could handle ourselves one on one, but once the group started going and making jokes, I clammed up. Even so, I still ended up really liking the group.

Then again, how could I not? They were all laid-back, 20- and 30-somethings who had moved from France to La Reunion “for the sun,” and a more relaxed lifestyle. Our first night there, the one Reunionese housemate and de-facto chef of the house, Fred, cooked up a huge meal of Reunionese creole food.

Bouchons“I saw on your blog that you like food,” he said.

“Fred should be a detective,” one of the others joked.

I was flattered that he had read some of these silly blog posts that I’ve been writing (seriously, I’m always a little flabbergasted that people read my dribble, and that my following has grown to what it is… oh, and hi Fred!). I was even more surprised that he had rightly assumed that we’d appreciate some creole home cooking and had gone through the trouble of putting it all together. He started off with a steamed dumpling called bouchons, stuffed with duck and vanilla. I never would have thought to put those two flavors together (although I did once eat a delicious vanilla zebu steak in Madagascar) but they were fantastic; a tangy mix of sweet and savory. The main meal looked much like Malagasy food, but with more use of spices and a better rice to other stuff ratio. The spread included a spicy cucumber salad, bread mafana – a cooked leafy greens dish – pork with sauce, beans, and rice. The meat and beans thing became a common theme during our meals, and I left Reunion feeling like I had just consumed a year’s worth of protein.

Breaking Out the Funk Moves

Totally stuffed with food, wine, and beer, Chip and I and three of the other housemates left to go dancing at Funky Terrace at Les Récréateurs – a dance night that played old funk, disco, and reggae hits while reruns of Soul Train were projected onto a wall. “We usually go every Wednesday, but they were closed for awhile because someone brought a gun into the bar. Now they’re open again,” one of them told us before we left. Oh, phew, I thought, funk dance night is back on.

At the bar, I felt like a ‘real human’. Nobody creepily tried to dance behind me on the dance floor. We could pay for our beers with credit cards. People bought rounds (and I still feel bad that we never were able to sneak in there and buy a round for our CS hosts). It all felt foreign yet familiar. I fumbled, but it was fantastic. I drank beer and did the twist. Sadly though, at midnight exactly, the DJ cut off the music and we drove home in a tired, beer haze. Before crashing, Chip and I got instructions on how to get to the beach by bus, figuring that even if La Reunion isn’t much known for its beaches (they’re littered with pine needles and rock fish dot the waters), lounging by the ocean was exactly the sort of day we wanted to have after a night of a few too many drinks. Without a doubt, this trip was going to be blissfully easy.


DSC_1385DSC_1371Cilaos Bar

GraffittiCoconutPhotos: (1) Women sitting in a park in Saint Pierre (2) Bouchons at a bar (not Freds!) (3) The closest beach to Saint Denis — L’hermitage (4) Ice cream truck in Saint Pierre (5) Fast food chicken (6) Bar in Cilaos (7) Saint Pierre Graffitti (8) Coconuts in a road-side market

North America The Nomadic Life The United States Travel

Couchsurfing Beyond Travel: Getting Involved in Local CS Communities

Couchsurfers at an art galleryThe Seattle Freeze
“So, you’re new here?” the obviously drunk girl in front of me in line for the bathroom asked, “have you ever heard of the ‘Seattle Freeze’?” “No, I haven’t,” I replied, and as though she were purposely continuing the mystique of the question, she merely said “look it up,” and went to the next open stall.

According to a Seattle Times article (and not the drunk girl), the Seattle Freeze is a sort of “have-a-nice-day-(elsewhere)” mentality that many transplants to Seattle experience. People in the Pacific Northwest are notorious for their polite, laid-back demeanor, but newcomers to the city find it difficult to get past these initial, superficial interactions and form a circle of friends.

Breaking the Ice
My experience of moving to Seattle felt nothing like the frustrations transplants in the article and at various temp jobs spoke of. In attempt to make friends, I decided to tap in to one of the many resources for meeting people I use while traveling: Couchsurfing (CS). If it works when I’m on the road, why shouldn’t it work when I’m relocating to a different city?

I approached moving the way I would traveling and in the process discovered that although Couchsurfing generally has a reputation as a resource for connecting travelers and locals, local CS communities put like-minded travelers and travel enthusiasts in touch who, for whatever reason, aren’t traveling. “Couchsurfers are naturally curious people,” one friend theorized, “and I think you have to have a sort of open mindset to sign up for the site in the first place that makes it so easy to befriend strangers.”

How Local CS Communities Connect
Seattle’s Couchsurfing community celebrated their second annual camping trip (which I was lucky to be a part of!) a few weeks ago and more than 45 couchsurfers and friends drove out to the Olympic Peninsula for a friendly take over of 5 camp sites and to meet new people living in and around Seattle. Although some travelers joined the epic camp trip, most attendees were either transplants or natives to Seattle. Some found linking up with fellow CS-ers at home a way to cope with coming back from a long trip, while others were simply interested in making friends with other well-traveled, adventurous people. Either way, the trip demonstrated CS’s ability to be more than just a travel resource.

Find CS-ers in Your Area
In both Washington D.C. (my hometown) and Seattle (my new town), regular CS happy hour events were posted on the “groups” forums as well as other random hikes, yoga sessions, or outings to art galleries and outdoor cinemas. There’s even a CS camp at Burning Man now. Sift through community posts by location or theme, or browse events in your area. Alternatively, if you have an idea of something you’d like to do, create an event or post yourself — even if you don’t know anyone, you may be surprised by the responses you receive.

However, while Seattle has a unusally active group — with at least 2 or 3 meetups with great turnout each week — not every city has such a strong bond between local CS-ers. Maybe it’s the Seattle Freeze or high rate of transplants that pushed us towards alternative ways of making friends, maybe not. In any case, I’d like to think Seattle is living proof of the potential CS has for bringing people together, both on the road and off.


5 Things I Learned From Sleeping on Couches

Like most of the website’s some 2.5+ million members, I first joined in order to travel differently, meet people living in the places I planned to visit, and possibly host a few. Over the past three years, couchsurfing (CS) has definitely facilitated more than a few adventures and sent some wonderful characters my way, but it also had the unexpected side affect of refining some serious life skills through the unique social interactions it creates. Who knew sleeping on strangers’ couches would later help deal with things like doing temp work or relinquishing some control in kitchen? Here are 5 skills CS helped me improve:

The Nomadic Life

Sleeping With Strangers: What it Means to do a Home Stay

Reflections on the awkward and awesome of doing a home stay abroad.

The host family's goat.

At the age of 19, and still very much a natural born introvert and novice world trekker, I daringly set out for a month-long home stay with a family in Senegal — a notoriously candid and extroverted country. In all honesty, I wasn’t terribly excited about it, because no matter how much I weighed the glossy study-abroad brochure promises of “cultural insight” and “rapid language immersion,” having my independence compromised and living by someone else’s terms simply seemed awkward. And whether my preconceived notions perpetuated it or not, I never did feel totally comfortable at my host family’s house. And this wasn’t so much because of differences in what is considered obscene/revealing (apparently, being topless ain’t no thing if the men aren’t around…), or my host sister’s persistent attempts at finding me a nice Senegalese boyfriend, but more because of how little independence I had.

To some extent I had been prepared to have no say in when I ate, what I ate, or when I had to be home by but traditional Senegalese hospitality seemed to take things way further than I could have ever imagined — part of the cultural insight, right? As was emphasized in the cross-cultural training I took at ACI Baobab, hospitality, or teranga as it’s known in Wolof, is a strong source of pride and families demonstrate their teranga by treating guests “like kings”. Coming from America, where independence and respect for the individual’s choice reflects strong character, this was by far the most difficult thing to adjust to (even moreso than my host mother walking around topless). As a my family’s guest I never had to do anything for myself. Someone always hopped up to fetch a bucket of water to flush the toilet with when I headed towards the bathroom. They even had a hot towel warmer ready for my every use. I was more or less being barred from helping in any household chores. Even my morning baguette was buttered for me, and my American disposition always had me feeling awkward about not being able to repay my hosts’ by helping around the house. One mistake I made was never letting go of this, and never giving in to my new position. Looking back on it now, I wish I had had this list in front of me every day, reminding me to relax, laugh, and immerse myself in my host family’s life.

However, when I tried it again a few years later in Costa Rica things went far more smoothly. By that time independent travel and accepting hospitality on the road, both through networks like Couchsurfing and random events of serendipity, had taught me to feel comfortable in other peoples’ space — a skill that doesn’t always come naturally to us quieter nomads. Ultimately, they do want you there and at least through my experiences as a (CS) host, I always feel best when my guests treat my home as their own. And oddly enough, it was these briefer stints hosting or staying with couchsurfers that in the end made my home stay in Costa Rica less awkward. When staying with couchsurfers, CS suggests being respectful of space and bringing gifts, but while taking advantage of the fact that having someone open their home to you is a wonderful opportunity for cultural exchange, and a unique social interaction. Home stays are similar in a lot of ways, so having the CS philosophy down and well practiced helped immensely.

Even so, home stays are more of a commitment than a few nights on someone’s couch and even with a better idea of what this entails, I would give it a lot of thought before electing to do another home stay elsewhere. Although it can be an incredibly enriching experience, there are the inevitable sacrifices of comfort as well.

Is it worth it? What experiences have you had?