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/ .

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Nuevo Laredo and the Frontera: Inspiration and Arrival

Don’t go there! I hear it from both my fellow Americans as well as Mexicans. The Border is a dangerous place, and Nuevo Laredo is the worst of them all! Everyone merely passes through Nuevo Laredo, and these days they try to do so in broad daylight and as quickly as possible.

The border region has a bad reputation and ongoing bad press. Of course the press goes out of its way to find threats and incite fear sometimes, so I decided to ignore the hearsay and see for myself what the situation is. Bottom line: people live their lives, work, marry, have families, and spend their entire lives in some of these border towns, and I wanted to see who they were and what life was like. So I decided to spend the Christmas holiday with a family in the border town of Nuevo Laredo to see and experience life in a place of such infamous reputation.

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This Christmas trip was to be my fifth time in Nuevo Laredo. I first visited Nuevo Laredo in 2005. On an adventurous whim, I decided to venture into Mexico for a short visit to Monterrey- just three hours south of the border and just far enough in to consider myself fully within Mexico. Nuevo Laredo was, as it was several times after, merely a wayside stop on a bigger journey.

Since 2005, there has been a marked change in the tone of things. In 2011 I rode through to find that soldiers have wholly replaced the local police force. These soldiers took positions at the border, in the city, and along the highway. They were not just standing there with weapons strapped to their shoulders and keeping up appearances: these soldiers were poised and ready for something. One could tell that there was some threat out there which they were taking very seriously.

I arrived via I-35 and crossed at International Bridge #2. The sun had already set and I was rather nervous to be crossing in the dark. Despite my sense of adventure to go in the first place, I kept remembering my friends from Monterrey who had pushed hard to clear Nuevo Laredo before sunset for fear of their lives. The final 3 miles of US Interstate was packed and chaotic as everyone was searching for a place to rest for the night on the “safe” side of the border. Once I cleared this chaos, the bridge had very light traffic which flowed through very quickly after I paid the $3 toll (please note that, unless otherwise indicated, all further references will be in Pesos and not Dollars). On the Mexican side I had to drive through some speed bumps and around barriers, but was ultimately waved through without even the most perfunctory glance at my passport. Before I knew it, I was in Mexico and driving the streets of Nuevo Laredo.