Couchsurfing

Couchsurfing is, in its own words, “a service that connects members to a global community of travelers.”

Often, when I plan a trip, I at least scout out my destination on Couchsurfing. I originally joined Couchsurfing as a way to meet locals in some of the places I visit. I have had a few experiences though Couchsurfing’s “coffee or drink” option over the years in several of the cities that I visited. I had my first experience through Couchsurfing when I met a local in Anchorage, Alaska for lunch and a walk around the UAA campus.

I first saw the full wisdom of Couchsurfing when I was traveling from Mexico City to Oaxaca in the south. At one point on this journey the bus stopped to change drivers in a very small village along the highway. I took the 30 minute rest stop to do a perfunctory look around that village and realized that this was the sort of place that I would love to visit and get to know.

Now I was intent on getting to Oaxaca that day so I was not tempted to stop. However any future attempt to come back to this village would face a major logistical problem: There were no hotels, thus any visit would have to be for the day- which is hardly enough time to build a rapport and really get to experience life in that small village. Furthermore, making first contact and making friends in a new place can always be a little daunting.

A few weeks later, I ended up in Belize City. I previously arranged to meet a Couchsurfer in Belize City while I stayed at a local guesthouse. I arrived in Belize after 3 months in Mexico and Guatemala, so it still felt weird to be hearing English and it was also a bit of a culture shock to be in a country that seemed more Caribbean than Latin American. Furthermore, I was feeling a little uncomfortable in the guesthouse. I eagerly accepted when my Couchsurfing connection invited me to surf his couch.

While staying with this host, I got to live the life- absence of hot water in the shower and all. Over the course of a few days, he introduced me to some of his friends. We went grocery shopping, I tagged along for the mundane. He knew the good restaurants around town, introduced me to the local tastes, and could readily advise me as to the things to see and the hidden gems of Belize City.

Since that time, I have surfed couches from Alaska to Monterrey to San Marino. I have not yet had a bad experience. Couchsurfing has a wonderful vouching and review system where one can see a CSer’s connections and past experiences though Couchsurfing. While perfect safety cannot be guaranteed: so it is with hotels, hostels, and life in general. One can always change their minds upon meeting a host or a guest.

In the case of Nuevo Laredo, I stayed with a wonderful family during the Christmas holiday. Living with them for this week, I was able to experience a traditional Navidad Fronteriza. I was there for the dinners, the posadas, the piñatas, and the gifts. I also got to know some truly amazing people who I stay in contact with to this day. I could not possibly have had this experience in my own hotel room.

Money is never exchanged or asked for. A guest returns the hospitality by bringing a gift, cooking a dinner for their hosts, or taking the host out to eat. This is diplomacy and friendship, not a business arrangement.

Aside from actually surfing a couch or meeting with someone for a one on one interaction, there are group events as well. In both Miami and Sevilla, I availed myself of the Couchsurfing Events. There are a plethora of groups on Couchsurfing, many of which are based on geography. Some of these groups are very active and have meetups at either set or random times. For example, the Sevilla group had a weekly social at a local hostel’s rooftop lounge. Miami has a monthly social at restaurants in Little Havana.

These gatherings are always interesting as they attract both out of town visitors as well as local members with a common travel interest. Sometimes there are mostly visitors. Sometimes there are mostly locals. Either way, the conversations are always engaging and everyone has stories of past adventures.

So, this is a little background about Couchsurfing and my experience with it. Overall, my experiences have been positive and I look forward to more of them in the future. For more information, check out  http://www.couchsurfing.org/ .

Letters from the Last Frontier

In 2007 and 2008, I did some seasonal work in Alaska. Below are some of the letters that I wrote to people who were following me back in the Lower 48 back in 2008:

 

LETTER 1

Greetings from beautiful overcast Alaska!

I am pleased to announce that I survived the journey to Alaska. Except for TSA taking my toothpaste in ATL, I had a very pleasant flight and coach ride to Trapper Creek. It is the coldest summer on record here in the Last Frontier. The lows have been in the upper 40s and the highs have not been reaching 70 for the most part. I am not complaining at all as I do not care for heat too much and it is a welcomed change from the upper 90s. This time, I am living in more rustic accommodations. I still live in company housing, but this time it is in a travco trailer with 8 other people and a laundry room. My room is about 10 X 10 (13X10 if you count our toilet and shower). I have one room mate and we have 2 beds, a desk, a closet, and not a ton of room for luggage.  In my travels, the only luxury that I cannot do without is hot water and I have that. It seems to be looking good here for the next two months. As a front desk agent and night auditor, I will be doing at least 48 hours per week and more as people start leaving over the next few weeks. We are under a new general manager this year as well as a new CEO, and it seems that even here we are bracing for an economic slow down. Princess too has a hiring freeze now on full time positions and has restrictions on overtime for many departments. I hope all is well back home, I hope to report back a few times before my Trans-Canadian Journey. (Of course that $15/night cruise deal may cause me to change my Greyhound plans….)

Derrick Feinman,

Denali State Park, AK

 

Letter 2

Greetings from the top of the world!

Since the last time that I e-mailed, I have been working many hours in Night Audit and Front Desk here at the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge. Just today, I was given permission to work a shift or 2 a week with housekeeping which will put me at about 60 hrs per week. I live in an area of Denali State Park that is just south of the Kasugi Ridge. This area has the highest concentration of black bear of any place in the US. That being said, I finally have a bear story to share. The other day, I was taking a walk down a trail to the bank of the Chulitna River when my friend and I heard the bellowing of bear cubs. Though I could not place them at first, I discovered two cubs had ascended a tree and were signalling their mother. We stood still for a few seconds and placed the mother down on a slope trying to get a better look at us. After deciding that we were not a threat, she wandered back down to the creek for some fishing/foraging as her cubs remained in the tree. We were in a safe spot on a bridge from which we could watch for about 10 minutes as they all went about their daily life. It was an amazing experience. The few times that I have seen bears in the lower 48, they tend to be rather skiddish and never there long enough to grab a camera. After 10 minutes, the mother gave up on catching the fish and called her cubs out of the tree. One came down pretty quickly clawing his way down the whole way. The other one took about 5 minutes and a lot of urging from his mother to come down (It appeared that he was a very confident climber.) My friend took pictures, and I will get some copies to send when I can. Overall, this was an amazing experience- only to be had in Alaska.Nature is not always so friendly. As you might see on the news (or not as Alaska is often forgotten about), we have a little Volcano problem at the moment. Anchorage Airport (that never closes all winter) is closed for the next 3 days due to ash. This will be seriously affecting my mail delivery….. Other than that, I am back in the swing of things here at MPL…. I have made some good friends already, including a girl from Bartow, FL and a guy I knew at Durant High School. The food is better than I remember it with chopped eggs on the salad bar daily! Hope all is well down there (or as the Anchorage Daily News calls it “The Bottom of the Country” [am I the only one that finds that slightly offensive?]).

Have a great day!

Derrick Feinman

Denali State Park, AK

 

Letter 3

Hello,

First off, I am sad to say that the McKinley Princess community lost its 5th person this year. Our lodge and transportation division has over 300 employees and we form a community here in the Alaskan wilderness. Though I did not know this person much at all, a death always be felt throughout a community of this size. That being said, lets move onto living here in Alaska…. I live in Trapper Creek, AK which is between Fairbanks and Anchorage on the Parks Highway (AK 3). To give you the scale, if Anchorage were Tampa, Fairbanks would be Atlanta, and I would be in Lake City. The Parks Highway is the only road that directly connects Fairbanks and Anchorage and for the most part, is an undivided 2 lane road. Just a few days ago, a truck overturned on the Parks Highway and made quite a mess with the liquid methane that it was carrying. The Parks Highway was closed for nearly 20 hours! The fumes were so bad, that the Alaskan Railroad (2 miles away at that point) was shut down for a few hours. We could not ship our north bound guests out that day and had to recheck them all into their old rooms (most had to be comped significantly). This was on a ship day, so we had a load of cruise passengers (500+) to then reassign to different rooms when they arrived. Of course, the cruise passengers arrive en masse all at one time so this was utter chaos. I was never happier to be on the overnight shift…. Despite the annoyance at work, this whole situation hurt a lot of businesses and vacations from Anchorage to Fairbanks. One truck and one road closure. This is about the same as the Overseas Highway closing and disconnecting the Florida Keys to the mainland. It is almost scary how quickly I can be disconnected from the road system. If this had happened to the south of us, the nearest hospital would be 4 hours away and the nearest ambulance would be dispatched from the borough (county) 1 hour north of us. I deal with a lot of medical emergencies here so I am a bit mindful of these things. I am often asked about cost of living up here. For informational purposes, I have decided to list the prices of various items that I purchase frequently in the lower 48. These prices all reflect the cost at the general stores and other businesses in the villages of Y and Talkeetna:

Can of Tuna: 2.96 Cake Mix: 3.25 Gal of Milk: 5.89 Soy Milk: 4.89 Pound of Spaghetti: 1.99 Can of Diced Tomatoes: 2.59 Can of Green Beans: 1.59 Box of Cereal (off brand): 3.59 Gallon of Petrol: 4.36 Pint of Beer: 4.50 Cheese Pizza: 12.75 USA Today: 2.00 Of course, things are far cheaper in Anchorage, but still slightly higher than in the Southeast. Well, my return is a little over 1 month away. I should be back in Georgia about mid day on the 24th.

Have a great day,

Derrick Feinman

Denali State Park, AK

 

Letter 4

Greetings from Alaska!

Only 24 more days until I return to Atlanta and only 12 more scheduled work days here at Princess. I head to Fairbanks, Whitehorse, Skagway, and all points further south in 18 days. A few days ago, a few friends and I took the flag stop train to the bustling metropolis of Hurricane, AK. This is a train that Alaskans use to get to cabins, villages, and trail heads in South Central Alaska. We passed plenty of these places and dropped off several locals during this trip. In the case of Curry, Chulitna, Sherman, and Gold Creek, the Alaska Railroad is the only connection to Talkeetna, Anchorage, and the rest of the world. These are people completely disconnected from the road system and fully dependent on the Alaska Railroad’s 3 day a week service during the summer and 1day a week service during the winter. As remote as the ARR is and the cabins along it are, there are still more cabins and villages that are accessed by unmarked trails going off into the woods. We dropped off a few people going to these places. Sometimes these people had an ATV waiting for them, other times they donned a backpack and disappeared into the bush. Two of these villages have active pebble or gold mines. In fact one of the gold mines is leased and operated by a couple and 3 of their daughters. The conductor was trying to hook me up with the oldest one (age 20 who has been living out there since she was 13), but somehow I did not think that relationship would be very convenient. I found it odd that in Gold Creek, I saw a mini bus parked not far from the ARR. It almost seems pointless to have a motor vehicle like that when you cannot even drive to a store. Actually Curry- about 30 miles north of Talkeetna was once a major stop along the ARR. There was a 5 star hotel, golf course, and ski trails. The train switched from steam power a while back and begun passing Curry. Finally in the 1950s, the hotel burned down and the village just declined in importance. It is now a major pebble mine operated by the ARR, but the weather beaten tennis court and basketball hoops are a reminder of what used to be there. I could mention Hurricane Gulch, where we turned about, but suffice it to say that it was a big hole in the ground that I have seen before from the highway. Hurricane itself was a transient village with 3 permanent structures and a ton of RVs and tents. Hurricane, AK is a summer camp of railroad workers and not much more. It was here were I saw the Parks Highway at MM 171 and thought, “This would be a great place to open a sandwich shop.” The nearest restaurants are at MM 135 (down the street from me) and MM 230 (at Denali National Park Village). There is nothing more than a few bars between the two. I hope that this has been an educational e-mail…. all of a sudden living in Helen without a car does not seem too extreme at all….

Have a Denali Day,

Derrick

Nuevo Laredo and the Frontera: La Zona de Tolerencia (Boys Town)

Look up other accounts of Nuevo Laredo visitors and you will surely find reference to the Zona de Tolerencia, or as it is known in English: Boys’ Town. La Zona is one of Mexico’s red light districts which spot the border. Being one of the known places of Nuevo Laredo, I decided to go and see what it was all about.

In its glory days, La Zona was a place of bars, brothels, casinos, restaurants, hotels, and just about anything else you could want for a care-free night out. It is most literally a walled town within a town, complete with infrastructure for its residents and visitors. Only ten years ago, rides were readily available to take willing tourists directly from the border to La Zona. Upon arrival, visitors would be searched at a security booth at the compound’s only entrance. To the right, there was a fully functioning police station and clinic. Here is an old map of what used to be in La Zona:

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While many of the places listed are no longer in use, the above map does show the overall layout of La Zona.

Entering La Zona, one passes by a lone guard shack in the centre of a dirt road.

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No one mans neither this post nor the adjacent police station which looks long abandoned with broken windows and broken furniture inside.

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 After checking out the former police station at the entrance, I proceeded down the road in front of me. I was attracted to the other side of the Zona by what looked like a shrine on the outside wall facing the entrance.

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As I neared, I found my suspicions were correct and it was indeed a shrine prominent on La Zona’s main street.

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This altar was not only prominently seen, but it looked down La Zona’s main street for all to see. Here is a view of the entrance from it:

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This part of La Zona is where some of the only remaining bars and strip clubs are. If one proceeds to the left at the black building, there is a road with ruins of clubs, hotels, and brothels. There were also a few rather unsavory characters loitering down there, which is the main reason I took no pictures.

I proceeded to the right, where again my attention was drawn to another slightly bigger shrine.

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La Santa Muerte is a religious figure venerated by people across Mexico. Devotion to this figure is condemned by the Catholic Church, yet many either incorporate her into their faith against the ecclesiastical magesterium or proceed to worship her completely divorced from Catholic teachings and practices.

While regular people will visit her altars and petition her in prayer, she infamously has a reputation as the patroness of the cartels, prisoners, prostitutes, and other underworld figures.

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Next to this shrine was the transvestite strip club and bar. While I was walking past, one of the “girls” called out to me. “Hey you, come here!” I smiled and shook my head.

Walking onward from the Santa Muerte shrine along the perimeter road, I walked by some of the open prostitution cribs where independent working ladies live and work.

At this early hour most of the doors were closed, however there were a few enterprising women who started work early. Some women were simply engaged in cleaning their cribs, ignoring me as I walked by. Some were laying on their beds in costume, apparently hoping that a client would be lured in while they were watching television.  Some of the women were a little more active: standing by their door and greeting passers by. This was rather difficult for me as I had to walk the fine line of being polite and returning greetings while trying to appear completely disinterested. I was not sure what the etiquette is in this situation, so I just returned the greetings and passed by as fast as I could.

I was not at La Zona to purchase any services and I can honestly say that none of these women could have tempted me- even if they offered their services for free. For those who are interested, I later came to learn that the more attractive and younger prostitutes were more close to the center of La Zona or worked the bars.

At that corner, there was a bar playing loud music that seemed to have attracted a share of locals. Beside that bar was another row of cribs that were all shut or having their floors scrubbed. Interestingly, amid these cribs was another altar to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

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In the above picture you can see the front door of one of the cribs to the right and this was in the center of a row of about 7 or 8 total. Amazingly, everyone passing this altar crossed themselves before walking on. It is so odd to me to see the symbols of faith and reminders of God within the Zona, especially so prominently displayed.

Walking past the entrance again, I took the opportunity to check out some of the echos of La Zona’s glory days.

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While I did climb through some of the ruins, I wanted to be a little more on guard and decided against taking pictures. The bar pictured above was pretty small and intimate with most of its space devoted to the brothel that it ran back stage. The brothel rooms were small and simple and the bed frames were often still inside of them.

I also found the building which used to house Nuevo Laredo’s infamous Donkey Show. While some bloggers have written about it I am happy to report that, as of the end of 2012, the Donkey is Dead. Of course I am sure there was more than one donkey, but I mean to say that the Donkey Show is no longer and the facility is now being used as an ordinary bar.

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Before

After (circa December 2012)

After (circa December 2012)

Other ruins and closed shops included some restaurants, a notary office, a barber shop, and some hotels. Some of the buildings show signs of squatters within. While I was exploring the center steets, there were a few men who would approach me and welcome me to Boy’s Town. They would address me in English, refuse to switch to Spanish, and offer to escort me to where the “nice girls” were. One of the men was rather persistent and while he was following me, as if on cue, rather attractive women would approach and start talking to him in Spanish. He would relay prices to me and when I kept walking, he attempted to negotiate a lower price. After a few attempts, he gave up on me and went into one of the bars.

While I was poking around near the front, I attracted the attention of two younger prostitutes. They were done with their work for the day, so they were not too interested in soliciting my business. I ended up having a conversation with them which skirted around the nature of their work.

In the end, I learned that they were going to another part of town and I offered them a ride [which I feel obligated to say had no strings attached]. I learned that these women were 24 and were from the State of Puebla about an hour or so to the south of Mexico City. They seemed intrigued that I came to Nuevo Laredo to spend a week. We had a lovely chat for about 10 minutes until I dropped them off and parted ways.

So, this is the story of my visit to La Zona / Boys’ Town. It was an interesting experience and fascinating place, even at 9:00 AM.

UPDATE: For recommendations of food and other activities in Nuevo Laredo, check out my Things to do in Nuevo Laredo post.