This Is Not a Postcard

Tales of 2 people on 3 continents

Archive for Couch Surfing

Listen to the minor cords

When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe. (John Muir, 1869)
Part I: Birds of a Feather

One of our delights while traveling consists of finding connections between presumably unrelated places. It’s like coming across a sparkling line of spider web that you have to tilt your head just right to see. Once you see it, others magically come into view.

I’ll give you an example:

During our time in Scotland, we heard every so often about a critically endangered bird called a capercaillie (pronounced “kayper-kaylee”).

The elusive capercaillie is the largest grouse in the world, inhabiting the (similarly endangered) forests of the Scottish Highlands.

I had never heard of a capercaillie before coming to Scotland, but James recognized the name as the name of a band that performs from time to time on NPR’s “Thistle & Shamrock.” It’s an apt name for a Scottish band, in fact, because traditional Scottish dances are called ceilidhs (“kaylees”), otherwise known as “contra dances” in the US.

It’s also apt because the capercaillie itself dances in an elaborate courtship display.

Up until the late 1700’s Scotland was still largely covered with Scots pine, the preferred habitat for capercaillies. Then a combination of factors including massive deforestation as well as the onset of the “Little Ice Age” conspired to wipe the capercaillies out.

Today there are less than 1,000 capercaillies left in Scotland, largely confined to a patch of land of just 11 square miles. Some experts say the real population figure is probably closer to 500. In 2009, a census of the Loch Lomond population counted just five individual birds, a decline from the 32 individuals counted ten years earlier.

Bonnie banks of Loch Lomond

Bonnie banks of Loch Lomond

James and I snuck up on a small group of capercaillies while we were hiking on the Isle of Mull. They explode out of their hiding places like wild turkeys, scaring the bejeezus out of you.

Hiking on Mull

James hiking on Mull, bejeezus still intact

>> fast forward to Finland

Our very favorite city in Finland was Tampere, once known as the country’s industrial “Manchester.” Tampere has also historically been a hotbed for labor and socialist organizing.

Baby clothes

James shows off the package that all Finnish parents receive for free whenever they have a baby. Long live Scandinavian socialism!

These days, Tampere is a beautiful, vibrant town that has reinvented its old factory buildings into gorgeous downtown centerpieces.

Downtown Tampere

Why can't more US Steel Belt cities do this?

It is also home to a great university that I profiled on my Parlez-Vous Green Campus? website.

When we first arrived in Tampere, one of our couchsurfing hosts took us on a walking tour of the major sights, including their fantastic public library designed by a couple of Finnish architects named Reima and Raili Pietilä.

Tampere Main Library

The library has earned itself an endearing nickname: “Metso.”

Why? Because from above, it seems to resemble a beloved local bird by the same name.

Tampere Library Overhead

Look familiar yet?

Despite her superior English language skills, our host Johanna had to admit that she was at a loss to translate.

Walking in Tampere

Our host Johanna and her daughter Venla

She took us inside to see a stuffed version of the bird in a case in the lobby. Before I even saw it, I knew what it would be.

Life is just like that sometimes.

After doing a bit of further research, I learned that the capercaillie actually became extinct in Scotland back in 1785. Today’s population was bred from capercaillies brought over from… the Scandinavian peninsula.

Part II: Burning down the Caucasus

Whenever I go to Nancy, France where my mother was born and raised, I make a pilgrimage to the Musée de l’Ecole de Nancy. This last visit was particularly special because I was with my parents who were in France celebrating my mother’s 70th birthday and their 50th wedding anniversary.

Place Stanislas

With my maman in her home town. Notice Place Stanislas in the background, Nancy's magnificent central square.

The Ecole de Nancy museum showcases the incredible craftsmanship and creativity of local artists who contributed to the founding of the Art Nouveau movement at the turn of the last century such as Emile Gallé, the Daum brothers, Louis Majorelle and René Lalique.

The designs were always based on natural elements – plants, flowers, insects, fish.

Wall sconce

Love seat

Dining Room

Luffa stained glass

Nancy storefront

One of their favorite motifs was a highly invasive plant called “ombelle” in French (Heracleum mantegazzianum). In English, this plant goes by a somewhat less refined common name: Giant hogweed.

Ombelle Chair

Notice the design of the chair

Hogweed

This plant typically grows to be at least 7 feet tall

Late summer hogweed

Late summer hogweed

Hogweed is phototoxic, meaning that its sap causes severe blisters to appear on skin that has come into contact with it. It was introduced from the Caucasus region (Central Asia) as an ornamental in Britain and later France, and it has since made itself highly unwelcome, displacing native species and terrorizing unsuspecting victims who have unwittingly reached out to touch it.

Hogweed blisters

Don't worry, this is a picture I stole on the internet

ABC News described hogweed just last year as the “summer plant from hell.”

Despite its obvious shortcomings, giant hogweed was showered with affection by the artists in Nancy. In fact, it is even planted in the gardens surrounding the museum, though new shoots are systematically removed – with gloves on.

>> fast forward to Jordan

We came across this fine specimen in the middle of the Dana Nature Reserve. I would have stood next to it for scale, but I was scared to get anywhere near it.

Hogweed Jordan

Hogweed Jordan CU

Dana campsite

Our campsite in the Reserve. Little white specks in the middle are tents.

James and I have a theory about how this plant ended up here. But first let’s back up a little and talk about Jordan.

Jordan is an absolutely fascinating country that has been home to many different cultures and peoples throughout its history. And still is.

Its capital Amman is a sprawling, cream-colored city whose homes, mosques and staircases spill over tightly packed hills.

Amman mosque

View from the balcony of our hosts' apartment

Amman started out as the capital of the Ammonites, referred to in the Bible as Rabath-Amman. King David slaughtered Uriah the Hittite here.

[At which point you say to yourself, “Ah, of course! Uriah the Hittite. I always wondered how he died.”]

Later, the Romans renamed the city Philadelphia. That was back when it was one of the most important centers of power in the Roman Empire. Its amphitheater seated 5,000 spectators at a go.

Amman amphitheater

Steps of Roman amphitheater

Watch your step or you'll fall into the lion pit

Temple of Hercules Amman

That one column got accidentally knocked over right before we got there. Oops!

Amazingly, by 1900 Amman had shrunk to a real 2-horse town; the city counted just 400 total inhabitants.

Most of its residents at that time were Muslim Circassians. The Circassians had been expelled from their homeland by the Russians at the end of the Caucasian War in the 19th century. Some early Circassian settlers took up residence inside the ruins of Amman’s Roman amphitheater.

James at the amphitheater

James taking up residence on this staircase

Back to our theory about the hogweed: Did the Central Asian Circassians drag that infernal plant along with them as a bitter reminder of home? Perhaps they didn’t want to feel too sentimental about the motherland they had left far behind. Or maybe they planted it as a defensive measure against the Russians should they ever come back to town.

Sure, why not? This theory was sounding better and better all the time.

Unfortunately, we later learned that the plant in Jordan is native to the Mediterranean region: Ferula communis, aka “giant fennel.”

Family? Umbelliferae. Also the family of the giant hogweed.

Close enough.

Folks, don’t forget to request a real, live postcard before you leave this page! We love sending them to you. Also, there are loads and loads of pictures from France on Flickr to look at if you feel so inclined.

p.s. Blog is the new black.

Blog is the new black

Scotland: A tale of death and life

I. Appalachia, UK

There’s nothing particularly normal about the Scottish Highlands.

The wide open landscape of rolling hills, dotted with sheep and the occasional wild goat. The heather, the grasses.

The bogginess.

The bare and craggy peaks. The ruins of old farmhouses.

As we climbed over hill and dale along the West Highland Way, I kept being struck by the feeling that something was amiss. Sad, even.

Scots might say those were the echoes of an exceedingly bloody and painful history. Probably true.

But there was something else.

Whither the trees? Wither the forest?

Whither the creatures?

Whither the… people?

Whither the life?

To me, it looks apocalyptic. Like a vision of what West Virginia will be once the coal companies really get their way.

Naked mountains. Mountains that seem to ache from the pain of prolonged exposure. Mountains that continue to suffer the daily indignity of millions of tiny herbivore-inflicted bites.

I mean, these mountains look raw.

The puny little isolated stands of planted pine only serve to punctuate the overall effect. And there’s nobody living out here. It’s just miles and miles and miles of empty until you hit a little farmhouse, or a guest cottage.

That’s about as much as James or I knew about it all the while we walked along the West Highland Way. We spent seven days covering about 95 miles on foot, camping every night except the last which we spent in a hostel.

Once we got off the trail I started investigating further. It’s weird actually how little anyone tells you about the history of the landscape here. Either through brochures, or informational signs, or tourist offices, or even in conversation. It’s all just about the aesthetic appreciation.

Ok, so here’s the deal:

The trees in Scotland were all chopped down ages ago. So long ago, in fact, that no one really knows what the forests even looked like to begin with. Paleoecologists have attempted to reconstruct past ecosystems based on fossilized remains (many of which were preserved in peat bogs) as well as written accounts, but it’s still mostly conjecture.

The earliest farmers arrived in Scotland about 4,000 years ago and began clearing the land. By the time the Romans arrived, over half of all the native forests had already been felled.

Beginning in the 18th century, the Highland forests were exploited, burned and otherwise reduced to a greater extent than ever before.

When the trees were lost, so were the animals. Lynx, wolves, giant wild cattle (known as aurochs), boars, bears, salmon, elk and beavers all thrived here once upon a time.

What we are now left with is a highly degraded ecosystem, unable to successfully regenerate even when left to its own devices. Most all of the arable soil has eroded into the sea. The only sizable patches of forest are mini-plantations of introduced species like Sitka spruce which are unceremoniously clear cut when mature.

Certain creatures, of course, have found success in this “new” Scotland: the hunted species, namely red deer and grouse, and the heathers and grasses with provide them with habitat and sustenance. The domesticated grazers –sheep and some cattle – have also fared well.

But the richness and complexity of this ecosystem (if you could even call it that anymore) has been drastically reduced.

What James and I found really interesting after some more reading was the historical relationship between land ownership patterns and land use in Scotland. An environmental scientist named Richard Hobbs wrote a particularly interesting article on this topic entitled Ecology, history, culture, economics, politics and change (ain’t that a mouthful).

Here, he discusses the changes that took place before and after the Jacobite Rebellion in 1745, which ended in defeat for the Highlanders at the Battle of Culloden (note: citations have been removed).

The clan, or family, system was the main social system within which the clan owned lands and the clan chief, a hereditary position, was responsible for the welfare of clan members who farmed smallholdings and tended cattle, in return for military service when required by the chief.

After Culloden, many of clan lands fell into the hands of non-hereditary chiefs and at the same time the clan chiefs grew more attracted to more sophisticated ways of life which were expensive to maintain. The clan members who had previously been secure within the clan system now found themselves without any security of tenure. Numbers on the land were also increasing because of the advent of the potato as a reliable staple food.

The need to pay for expensive lifestyles led to an expansion of the few industries which were capable of making reasonable profits from the highland landscape. These were kelp, or seaweed, harvesting at the coast and extensive sheep grazing inland. Extensive sheep grazing increasingly replaced the more intensive cattle husbandry previously practiced and was incompatible with the continued presence of large numbers of small farm holdings. The fact that the farmers had no security of tenure allowed landowners to remove the farming communities from their lands, at first from the inland areas to the coast and then increasingly away from Scotland altogether.

A long period of systematic depopulation of the Highlands began in the 1750s and continued into the late 1800s, hurried along by other factors such as the potato famine which occurred in the mid-1800s. This process, known as the Highland Clearances, resulted in the forced eviction and emigration of thousands of people, many of whom were transported to the United States, Canada and elsewhere. The message from landowners was clear. Buchanan quotes from Lady Matheson, speaking in Lewis in 1888, well towards the end of the clearance period, to tenant farmers: “The land under sheep and deer is my property and I can do with it what I like.”

When demand for Scottish wool decreased and the land lost its commercial importance, wealthy English families from the south turned the Highlands into their high-end hunting playground. Romantic era depictions of the landscape commissioned during this period portrayed the region as a wild and empty place. This is the characterization we are most familiar with today.

On a positive note, I’ll leave you with a picture of a small community forest in the town of Tyndrum where native species are being propagated – and deer and sheep are being kept out, at least until the trees have a chance to establish themselves.

The forest is dead; long live the forest!

II. Rat-ho!

We began and ended our visit to Scotland in Edinburgh, the Scottish capital. We had the great pleasure of being hosted by a Canadian couple there named Brian and Sharilyn Clowes. We met them through Couchsurfing.

Sharilyn and Brian live in a little canal town called Ratho which is located about 45 minutes by bus from downtown Edinburgh.

James took to calling the town “Rat-ho” in honor of Rathole, his sister Molly’s beloved childhood Monchichi.

There is one pub in Ratho, the Bridge Inn, which you can see in the above photo. This was the scene of one of our most memorable Scottish experiences – single malt whiskey tasting followed by an appearance by a giant (i.e. room-sized) inflatable elephant. A gag engineered by some (seriously tanked) pub regulars.

We didn’t have the good sense to take any pictures, actually. But through the magic of Facebook, a photo of the event in question appeared online the next day. What happens in Ratho does not stay in Ratho!

Sharilyn and Brian enjoy a lifestyle that seemed familiar to us. They get local produce delivered to their home once a week. They only use hot water in the shower. They have three chickens in their backyard that produce one egg a day each – when they’re not being broody. They bike and walk to work – no car.

Brian is an ironsmith, a real craftsman. He was kind enough to take us to the forge on a Sunday and teach James how to make a leaf out of a rod.

What’s interesting about this forge where Brian works is that they do really creative contemporary stuff, not just repairs of historical ironwork. Here’s a beautiful little gate that was recently completed by some of his colleagues, for example.

Sharilyn works at a world-class climbing facility that just happens to be located near the little town where they live.

The structures in the photo above are about 5 or 6 stories high. This place also functions as a sort of community center – Sharilyn is a crafts instructor at “The Honey Pot” ceramics studio.

Here are a few images of a walk we took from Ratho up the Union Canal with another one of Sharilyn and Brian’s couchsurfers, a cyclist named Ryan from upstate New York. Notice how the canal actually crosses bridges over highways and gorges. Also, May was (invasive) rhododendron season in Scotland – they were spectacular.

Sunny days are a bit of a rarity in these parts. You can tell from the way that the sheep loll around like ragdolls as soon as it hits.

One last nugget on the Scots – they are big fans of traditional dances called ceilidhs (pronounced “kay-lees”). We were lucky enough to be invited to one in Edinburgh the night after we arrived. Guess what? They are exactly like our contra dances. Exactly! Same music, same dances, same crowd. It’d nice to see that this particular tradition has been so dutifully maintained across space and time. I suppose that is another outcome of the Highland Clearances, albeit a more positive one!

Loads more fun pictures at our Flickr site of Edinburgh, Ratho, the West Highland Way, as well as Oban and the Isle of Mull in the Inner Hebrides. And don’t forget to request a postcard before you close this page!

Love, Sonia

p.s. I still like the blog format that we chose but the one thing I really don’t like about it is the fact that the photos need to be relatively small in order to fit into that first column. Do click on them as you read so that you can see them in a larger format. They’re so much more interesting that way.

Fukushima, mon amour

A few disclaimers:

  • Many thanks to Laura Allen and Jonathan Mackenzie, our hosts in Japan, for invaluable information about Japanese language, culture, society, history, etc. We would have been completely lost without them. If there are any elements of the following post which might humbly be considered insights, it is likely that they there Jonathan or Laura’s to begin with.
  • Much of this post is utter nonsense. A note at the end will help you separate the wheat from the chaff.
  • The photos below are small so they fit in the blog column. You can click on any one for a closer look.
I. The Meaning of Japan
In order to write “Japan” in Japanese you need to use two kanji, or iconographic characters.
Fig 1. The ancient art of Japanese calligraphy

Fig 1. The ancient art of Japanese calligraphy

The first kanji means “small” or “cute.” The second kanji can be roughly translated as “eccentric” in the common sense of uniquely strange, but also in the outlier sense – alone and away from the pack.

I’ll give you some examples that illustrate this Japanese brand of strange cuteness perfectly.

Fig 2. Cap’n James Huth

Fig 2. Cap’n James Huth

When Japanese passengers board a long distance ferry such as this one from Kobe to Kyushu, they don this miniature version of the captain’s uniform in order to symbolically assume their share of responsibility for the welfare of the ship and its crew. You’ll note that the resulting image is both reassuring and creepy, no?

Here’s another: Many children in Japan (most?) wear t-shirts that feature the English language in some delightfully mangled form. Others are delightfully mangled by association. This child’s t-shirt reads, “Happiness comes quickly and certainly.” Keen observers will notice the revolver in his right hand.

Fig 3. Happiness is a warm gun

Fig 3. Happiness is a warm gun

Though the Japanese declare themselves to be a-religious, they actively engage with gaggles of monuments, shrines and temples scattered throughout the country. This one in Kyoto is a Buddhist shrine for the unborn.

Fig 4. Unborn Babies R Us

Fig 4. Unborn Babies R Us

Women who have lost a foetus, either by choice or by miscarriage, will place a baby doll on a shelf along with some kid-friendly snacks as a way of encouraging it to be re-born under more auspicious circumstances. Traditionally, abortion has not been stigmatized and criminalized in Japan as it has been in many communities in the US. This ritual, for example, is considered an acceptable and public means by which to seek atonement.

Fukui prefecture, where our friends Laura and Jonathan are living, has the highest concentration of nuclear power plants of any region in Japan. Local displays featuring cartoon characters tell you what the ambient radiation levels are at any given moment. The display here reads 449 nGy/h (nanoGrays per hour).

Fig 5. "Four o'clock and all's well!"

Fig 5. "Four o'clock and all's well!"

Public opinion has shifted slightly since the Fukushima Daichi disaster, but the Japanese people remain firmly pro-nuclear.

Tomes could be (and probably have been) written on the cute strangeness of Japanese fashion. Take this article of “clothing”, for example.

Fig 6. Foot thong

Fig 6. Foot thong

What the frack? And I’m supposed to pay 10 bucks for this?

So as you can see, the fundamental strange cuteness or cute strangeness of Japan is alive and well. We found that, rather than question or recoil from it, the best thing to do is just embrace it.

Fig 7. Sparkle me good times

Fig 7. Sparkle me good times

 II. Little Miss Manga

I have never felt more disconnected from the rest of the world than I feel here in Japan. Plus, it doesn’t really remind me of anywhere else I’ve ever been. It’s like the Japanese are a bunch of marsupials who have been evolving for centuries without contact with the outside world.

This sensation has been compounded by the fact that there is no WIFI anywhere in Japan. The WIFI revolution just skipped Japan entirely. James thinks they maybe just leapfrogged into 3G or something. Who knows. But it’s impossible to get online for free and the internet cafes are incredibly expensive. And weird.

Here, they’re called “Manga cafés” and they are open 24 hours a day. There are showers and food available so you never have to leave. We spent the night in a manga café in Nagasaki because our campground fell through and everything else was all booked up.

Fig 8. Our street in Manga café town

Fig 8. Our street in Manga café town

Here’s how it works: You register at the desk and you are assigned to a numbered cubicle. Inside the cubicle you have a fully outfitted entertainment center, as well as a phone to the front desk so that you can place orders. Here’s a view of the inside.

Fig 9. The Japanese are fond of making peace signs when taking photos. So is Laura.

Fig 9. The Japanese are fond of making peace signs when taking photos. So is Laura.

Your hourly fee (about $10 for both of us) entitles you to unlimited use of all media, including movies, videos games, and of course manga, which are insanely popular and sometimes raunchy Japanese comic books. And free drinks in all sorts of strange varieties.

There are no windows at the manga café, so you have no idea how much time has passed. The floor of the cubicle is covered with a big foam cushion and you are given pillows and blankets. It is not at all unusual for folks to check in late at night as we did and leave in the morning. I don’t think they sleep, though.

III.  I am a rock, I am an island

For a long, long time, Japan was completely closed off to the rest of the world.

Like, 200 years.

During that time (ending in 1868) Japanese citizens were flat out forbidden to engage in any contact with foreigners at home and foreign travel was banned.

As many of you will remember from history class, that period was forcibly ended when the United States under Commodore Matthew Perry brought warships into Tokyo bay and demanded that Japan open itself up to foreign trade.

So international relations have been a bit of a rough road, to say the least. And it’s hard not to imagine you are seeing the legacy of those events in everyday life on the ground.

For one thing, Japanese people don’t speak English for the most part, so even conversing with them is incredibly challenging.

I know, I know, why is it that we expect people in other countries to speak English (or print signs in roman characters) in order for them to engage with foreigners? That’s so arrogant and imperialistic.

Well, the God awful truth of it is that English is the international lingua franca, and we Americans just happen to be some of the lucky native speakers of that language. Like it or not, it is English not Japanese that open doors to the world. And if you don’t speak English, you’re out of the international conversation.

Back to Japan – It’s not just that the Japanese don’t have a gift for or an interest in learning other languages. It’s that they also seem to have a deep-seated distrust and distaste for non-Japanese people and things. Coupled with an astonishingly high regard for their own culture and traditions.

Here’s a trite example of that.

Fig 10. Puppy etiquette

Fig 10. Puppy etiquette

This is a little flyer we picked up at a temple in Kyoto located within the park of the Imperial Palace. It’s in some mumbo-jumbo language that we don’t understand, but thankfully they used pictures.

The dog on the left is a “shiba inu” (Japanese dog breed), which fans of internet pet videos will no doubt recognize. Many, many Japanese dog owners have shiba inus.

Who’s a good dog?

No one has dogs like the one on the right. No, sir.

I gather from reputable sources (see disclaimers, above) that the Japanese traditionally believe themselves to be a superior race. And while they may strive to emulate certain aspects of “Western” society (big Manga-style doe eyes, for example), they mostly reject it outright. They also reject immigrants for the most part, fearing that they will dilute Japanese-ness.

This is not necessarily an attitude that is unique to the Japanese. But they seem to manifest it to a greater degree than many others I have personally encountered.

In some ways, this is wonderful. Because it allows them to maintain their identity, their traditions, their culture, their architecture, their environment, their art forms, their language, their cuisine, their lifestyle.

Fig 11. James and Laura expertly sanding enameled chopsticks

Fig 11. James and Laura expertly sanding enameled chopsticks

Please see our other photos to get some sense of the intense beauty, genius and magic of Japan. It is truly extraordinary.

But what also happens as a result of their Japan-is-best attitude that they end up cutting themselves off to a large extent from the rest of the world.

Over the years, foreigners have made a few inroads in Japan. Take the couch surfing house we stayed at in Kyoto, for example.

Fig 12. Our home in Kyoto, with conventional exterior

Fig 12. Our home in Kyoto, with conventional exterior

As you’ll recall from my last post on couch surfing, the owner of this house maintains it for exclusive use by couch surfers visiting Kyoto. Looks pretty standard on the outside. But on the inside…

Fig 13. Kitchen at CS house

Fig 13. Kitchen at CS house

Anything but!

Thousands of visitors have stayed at this house since it was made available in 2008, and they have left notes like these all over the interior. In every nook and cranny (bedrooms, bathrooms, closets, cupboards) you can find them. Guests from all over the world (US, France, Korea, Italy, Ecuador, New Caledonia, UK, Singapore, Canada, Argentina, etc etc etc), all extolling the wonders and delights of Kyoto. And the magnanimity of Shoji-san, the owner of the CS house. It is truly heart warming.

And Shoji-san himself, whom we met on our last day in town, is a lovely husband and father who has yet to travel outside the country (!) but who loves meeting the world via this house. It’s his main extra-curricular activity, when he’s not farming.

That is, until the recent earthquake and Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Once again, due to events and circumstances beyond their control, the terms of Japan’s engagement with the outside world have changed.

This time, back to a position of isolation. The world has recoiled from Japan with as much intensity and resolve as it demanded entry in.

All the tourists have cleared out. Everyone. And many of the Westerners who were living in Japan have taken off. Some personally fearing the aftermath of the earthquake, many others under intense pressure from their families back home who have been exposed to a flood of dire media reports.

The Japanese will pull through this. Heck, if you can pull through Hiroshima and Nagasaki, you can pull through anything. And the fact that all the foreigners have cleared out doesn’t seem to be all that disturbing to the man on the street. Life goes on. Maybe that’s the way they prefer it anyway?

Not Shoji-san. In its heydey, the CS house accommodated up to 10 guests a night! Now it is a shadow of its former self. Shoji says he’ll probably have to close it down soon, because it’s hard to justify the expense particularly with the Japanese economy in the shape it’s in.

He’s had a total of 8-10 visitors since March, and that includes the four of us.

Dear Japan,

Your extraordinary beauty is beyond my reach and comprehension. You so often seem cold and disdainful. You don’t seem to have a very high opinion of me. Our relationship must always be on your terms.

I left under dark skies, but they will brighten again.

You are not alone. I will always love you.

Sonia

p.s. I lied about a few things: the kanji for Japan and the Captain’s uniform thing. Everything else is true.

Sleeping around

I realized recently when we were visiting with my sister Rachel and brother-in-law Edward in Bangkok that many of you are not familiar with “couch surfing”. James and I are enthusiastic participants in this new-ish travel phenomenon, and we have had some great experiences with CS hosts on this trip and hope to have many more.

Couch surfing is a means by which people (both hosts and guests) around the world can connect with each other and meet up. It’s essentially a vast online community of friendly individuals (nearly 3 million in all) who like meeting people from other places, either while they are at home or while they are traveling.

The idea is that many folks have a couch (or a mattress, or a bedroom) to spare at home and enjoy sharing information about their countries and cultures with guests. And many travelers are much happier staying in people’s homes than staying in hostels or hotels. No money or payment is exchanged at any point.

To be a couch surfer, you first create an online profile at this site: http://www.couchsurfing.org/

You can see our profile by clicking here: http://www.couchsurfing.org/people/spmarcus/

As you can see, there are various ways that you can give people a sense of who you are and what sort of hosting arrangement you can offer, if any. Many people on CS cannot offer people a place to stay, but are happy to meet travelers for coffee or a drink or just to show them around town. The CS site is a bit similar to Facebook in that you can indicate that certain people are your friends, and you can also write on people’s walls to say thank you for hosting me, or thank you for being a good guest. You can also write something negative on someone’s wall if things didn’t work out for some reason, but that seems to be very rare. CS-ers come in all shapes and sizes, it’s not just young people. There are even families on there who travel with their kids.

James channeling his inner Bob Dylan on Lamma Island, Hong Kong, where we stayed with a CS host

James channeling his inner Bob Dylan on car-free Lamma Island, Hong Kong, where we stayed with a British CS host

I think what people find most strange about the whole arrangement is that you are staying in the home of someone that you don’t know. For whatever reason, it doesn’t seem strange to me at all. You can pretty easily tell from the profiles that your potential host/guest is someone who seems nice, interesting and responsible. Usually I look for people with whom we have things in common.

For example, I just arranged to stay with a lovely woman in Helsinki, Finland who is completing her masters degree in environmental economics. I told her in my request that James also has a degree in this field. She was pretty excited to meet us! She actually attended the most recent United Nations climate negotiations in Mexico. When she got back to me to say that we could stay with her, she sent me the link to her blog from that trip: http://enterculture.org/?cat=5. Cool, right?

So far, James and I have been lucky enough to stay with CS hosts in Bangalore, India, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Thailand, and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. They were all wonderful experiences. The apartment in Bangkok that we stayed in was particularly lovely – we had own own giant bedroom in a spacious apartment, and free access to their pool and rooftop garden.

Florian & Cillia, our CS hosts in Bangkok. They are both French and have been living in Thailand for about a year.

Florian & Cillia, our CS hosts in Bangkok. They are both French and have been living in Thailand for about a year.

To “pay” people back, we have made them special meals or taken them out to dinner, done odd jobs around the house (James is especially handy), given them little gifts. But they really don’t expect that. The people who have hosted us have been environmental activists, bankers, teachers, hotel industry professionals, factory managers. Some of them are natives of the places where they now live, others are not. James and I got a chance to host someone for about a week in Athens before we left who was in town for a Wilderness First Responder course at OU and it was a really wonderful experience as well.

Here’s a fun story: When I was looking for CS hosts in Phnom Penh, I came across the profile of a guy who seemed very nice who was willing to show people around. As I was writing him a message about when we would be arriving, I noticed that I knew one of his friends: a Thai woman that I had worked with at OU! Turns out this CS guy named Bruce actually worked at OU too as a residence hall director and we actually had met before! No wonder he looked nice to me. Bruce has just opened a restaurant in Cambodia and he invited us for a meal there when we arrived. He also brought us along to a birthday party on a boat that cruised along on the Mekong river. It was great connecting with someone from Athens so far away from home.

Bruce (center) with his partner Dara and James in Phnom Penh

Bruce (center) with his partner Dara and James in Phnom Penh

We are getting ready to stay with two more CS hosts here in Japan over the next week, in Kyoto and Osaka. The guy in Kyoto actually keeps a whole furnished house there just for CS guests! Apparently he lives elsewhere with this family. How ’bout them apples? Seems he’s rather wealthy and has had many, many extraordinary CS experiences abroad during his own travels and this is his way of giving back.

So, all in all couch surfing is wonderful because it allows you to connect much more intimately with the places you are visiting, it lessens the costs of travel, it gives you access to a real home instead of just a room, and it creates many new friendships. We absolutely love it and we recommend it to all of you! Why not just offer to meet someone for coffee or a drink for starters? You can always say no to any request, no questions asked.

I have recently uploaded lots more pictures on Flickr, including many from Japan. There are some fun ones in there of Laura and I practicing our calligraphy and ikebana skills. Oh, and I recently made some lovely postcards at a Japanese paper making workshop that will be sent out today to 3 lucky recipients. Who knows what you’ll receive when you request yours?

Love and hugs to you all!

Handmade postcards, Sonia Marcus originals

Handmade postcards, Sonia Marcus originals