Tuesday, November 11, 2008


When I traveled around India and other parts of Asia for a year, my most incredible experiences were all somehow related to homestays. In those cases, they just happened to be people I met along the way on bus rides, chai shops, internet rooms, etc. Joo and I haven't really done that as much on this trip for various reasons, and so it has been one aspect of traveling I have missed. So, when I ran into a couple from Austin, Texas who had travelled all the way down the Americas by land and he gushed about the wonders of couchsurfing, I was keen to give it a try.

So, what is couchsurfing? The superficial answer is a worldwide network with a hub at http://www.couchsurfing.com/ where people from nearly every country in the world have offered up their homes as free places to stay. But in truth, it's much more than a super-budget way of traveling; it's an instant opportunity for two trustworthy people or groups of people to come together and share in the beauty of each other's culture.

Of course the big question is, how do you know beforehand whether someone is trustworthy? Isn't it just like home hitchhiking? Not at all. If you go to the website yourself, you'll quickly realize there is an established multi-layer security system to assure you of a given person's trustworthiness (note that just because someone has few measures, like myself, it doesn't mean they are NOT trustworthy, but someone with a verified lock and many solid recommendations would be every bit as credible as any given hotel you might choose to stay in instead.)

Anyway, our first experience was in Santiago, Chile. I sent out several requests and quickly received three offers of places to stay. I chose the most secure one, Monica, who had already had received many positive recommendations from other travelers. She met Joo and I at the large bus station in Santiago with extra two metro passes with attached sticky notes reading "Dan" and "Joo." From that moment, we knew we had found a very kind and considerate couchsurfing match for the next few days.

We gabbed all the way to her house in the Northwestern suburbs where we met her parents, José and Marcela, and her sister Paulina. After we freshened up with a quick shower, we were a bit hungry and I asked Monica when Chileans usually eat dinner. She said, "Dinner? We don't eat dinner here. There's only once (eleven)." As it turned out, the central staple of the Chilean diet is bread and the breakfast and once (tea time instead of dinner) consist mainly of tea and bread with a few sides. It was quite yummy and a lovely time for all of us to socialize and get to know each other.

When we woke up on our second day, I did some proofediting work while Marcela advised some construction workers who were building an extra bathroom on the house. Joo and the younger sister Paulina must have had a surprising encounter when Joo woke up because I heard some screams followed by a lot of laughter and giggling. Marcela then prepared us some Chilean spaghetti which was similar to American style except with sliced up hot dogs taking the place of our meatballs.

On the second day, Joo and I were in charge of dinner, so we decided to introduce some Korean culture by serving the traditional kim-bap. Unfortunately, as Chileans tend to prefer their rice firm rather than sticky, Joo had a hard time rolling the kim-bap.

Nevertheless, it turned out deliciously and everyone in the family devoured them all...

However, even a large meal like the kim-bap couldn't overpower tradition and so once was served in due time for our final evening with Monica's family. Marcela has a pacemaker and has had heart problems in recent years, but José told us many stories about her fierce determination to live a normal life and how she didn't hesitate to follow him all over on fishing and camping trips.

The next morning, Monica woke us at 5:15 and we said goodbye to the family before climbing into the taxi of one of Marcela's friends who zipped us to the airport in time to catch our plane to Lima, Peru.

The whole experience was one of those that just left you with an overwhelming fuzzy happiness in your chest at the truly good people out there in the world. For the rest of our lives, whenever Joo and I hear any mention of Chile, I doubt if we'll think of the winter crocodiles...

the crazy statues designed by the guy who missed the boat for Easter Island...

the scrumptious pistachio chocolate ice cream we were lured to by an advertisement...

the cute cafés...

or even the towering Andes...

When we think of Chile, we'll think of Monica's kindness and maturity, Paulina's crazy spirit and love for dance, Marcela's fighting spirit, and José's contagious laughter. To me, true traveling is all about the people you meet along the way (or the people you travel with), and couchsurfing does a good job of supporting this belief.

1 comment:

  1. You are correct, the people make the experience! Viva couchsurfing! -Dad