Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Couchsurfing (CS): A Vibrant Community

I first learned about couchsurfing.org, an online community from my sorority sister, Tiara Mejos. A fellow traveler (and she knows how restless my feet gets), she shared that there is an online community herein you can stay with someone’s couch at a certain area where you want to visit. You can message them for a meet-up and they can possibly give you a tour on their own place. It is not solely about getting a ‘free accommodation’ but it is also about sharing stories and meeting new people. It is a community ‘based on trust’. I was sort of doubtful as it is not easy to trust. Online scams and human trafficking are my major concern.

Then I went to Wageningen University for a two-week short course and Nur Hassanah, my classmate and a travelbug too shared about CS. A CSurfer picked her up from the airport and showed her around. So I got very interested. Sis Tiara was able to host 2 CSurfers already. And I heard positive feedback from Nur too. So it's my 2nd day at Wageningen, I signed up in CS and started the search for possible people to meet over a cup of coffee and just have someone to talk to. Close friends know how I love words and stories (in short 'talkative' haha!)and visiting a place is more memorable if you know someone. And my current work entails a lot of networking and meeting of new people.

We had a free day on Sunday and I decided to go to cities of Utrecht and Den Haag (The Hague) for a short visit. I went alone while my classmates went to Amsterdam. Since I’ll be staying for another week in Amsterdam after the short course, I did not join my classmates. So I searched couches in Utrecht and viewed profiles of people. I sent couch requests and message 2-3 people only within Utrecht. Just for a start. Then they started replying. I got excited!

In Utrecht, I got to met Kevin Basari and Freek van Den Steen.


 Kevin and Freek, The two travelbug gentlemen of Utrecht! :)

Kevin said, he can only join me on the morning as he’ll be helping a friend to move out in the afternoon. He invited me over if I wanted to help and also meet his friends. Then Freek also replied to my message. He’s okay for meeting up but he’s not a morning person. So I decided to meet Kevin first and then Freek after. I arranged for a meeting at 9AM on a Sunday! That was stupid of me since it’s very early but Kevin was so gracious to accept. He met me at the train station.

 
Kevin had visited Palawan already. :)
A man with Indonesian descent but he doesn’t know any Bahasa Indonesia and a communication specialist. He wanted to know what I wanted to see. The thing is, I never have anything in mind really. I just want to walk around and explore the city. So we just walk around and talk about trivial things. We walk on deserted stores and streets as the people are still sleeping at home, with a Saturday party hang-over probably. Then we had a coffee and life conversation at a quaint shop near the museum area. He even volunteered to pay for my Museum tour which I think is very sweet. But I declined. Not so much time for that. I am after the architecture. I learned from him the ongoing struggle of welfare states cutting more on support especially for education. He works with an advisory body for union on the public education system (as what I understood it. Hehe). One thing that drew me with his profile is, his background on communication. He’s a communication specialist. He shared the video he made with his friends as a birthday/congratulations gift for a friend who got a PhD. He also has a blog but in Dutch! So I told him that probably, he should post mroe blog entries in English too. hehe.  So we got to exchange the intricacies of science of language learning and phonetic. Kevin also brought me to a former Church now converted into an apartment. (I was wide eyed for this discovery!)

As it was about noon, we went back to De Doom and waited for my next CS host, Freek. Kevin waited with me. Good thing I got my pink scarf and bonnet with yellow flowers so I am easy to spot. Both guys shook hands and I was ‘turned over’. Ahahaha! So Freek, is not really into history and architecture but he knows a lot of cool stuff around. He knows ‘undiscovered’ alleys and places to hang-out.

 
Cheers at Olivier's

So he brought me to Oliviers. Little did I know that the said pub is…a former Catholic Church! High ceilings, organ instrument and statues still at the walls. Coming from a relatively ‘religious’ environment, this is something really shocking. And Prof. Rosanne Rutten of University of Amsterdam (one of our network)  told me, there is a ritual of ‘unchurching’ the Church...hhmm.. Very interesting. So I got to drink a beer inside a (former) Church!

Then, while we are enjoying a drink, there was an Indian girl who went to our table and asked me. “Miss, excuse are you from here?” I said no. Why? She smiled and was embarrassed. She thought I was someone she knew. Oh! That was so random. I got a familiar face eh? Freek just laughed with me. He told me that I could have just played along. I could have pretended that I knew her, smile and make ‘beso-beso’ just for fun. That was a good suggestion.

Then I had to leave for Den Haag. I didn’t send any Couch requests or messages for anyone in Den Haag. I wanted to explore the city alone. This is the place where the Institute of Social Sciences (ISS) is located. This is where most of my colleagues went for their masteral and diploma courses, as it’s known for its progressive curriculum. I dreamed of going there too. Soon. By His will. :)


Then I also wanted to meet someone around Wageningen as we will be staying there for 2 weeks. I sent a message to Maarten Ackerman and he graciously replied. Nur HAssanh and I will be going along. Maarten invited us over for a beer and dinner at his place with his friends.

We crashed at Maarten and his friends' weekly dinner

 We got to meet his circle of friends from different parts of the world. Wageningen attracts lots of ‘international’ students and it was fun eating and talking with language switching from Dutch, Spanish, English and German! There group has a weekly dinner tradition of potluck and cooking together. We met Cheon from Malaysia and he cooks delicious pastries (his a pro!) and Alex for desserts. Everyone talks freely and it made me missed university life!:)




Maarten, Nur et moi

Maarten lived with other 3 people on the apartment. His friends thought Nur and I will be sleeping in a couch as they thought ‘couch surfing’ is literally sleeping on a couch to a stranger’s home. Well sometimes. But not all the time, Maarten said.

To truly ‘test’ a stranger’s generosity and hospitality and my unyielding trust to humanity’s goodness, I went to Brugge and made the first real ‘couchsurf’. I posted my itinerary for Brugge, Belgium as a cross-country trip (and to make use of the issued Schengen visa, hehe). One Sri LAnkan Dhanush replied that he’ll try to see if he can accept me as his relatives are coming over and his been travelling lately. The short course if about to end and I want to go to Belgium on March 5-7. Antwerp, Ghent, Brugge and Brussels are on my mind (as advised by Ate Lisa too. She said, skip Ghent if you have a limited time). Then one Peter Lanckriet replied to my post and said, if I don’t have anyone replying to my request he’ll host me. Holy camote! I said yes. I’d be grateful. So I arranged the dates and time of possible arrival as he’ll pick me up at the train station. When the training ended and I went back to Amsterdam, I immediately purchase the tickets to Brugge (change of trains at Antwerp). The good thing? I got a huge discount for train tickets because I am under 26! eiiiiii. And they don't ask for any evidence of my age. hhmm...Face value and height maybe are enough proof! hahaha

Touring Brugge with Dhanush

Peter, my gracious host
And true to his words, Peter was on the dot on picking me up. He’s a traditional medicine practitioner and food supplement supplier. I was kind of uncomfortable knowing he lives alone in a huge house but I just kept myself calm. I read his profile and surfers got good references for him. And truly, he’s a very gentle soul. He cooked warm soup and spaghetti for dinner. He even prepared mixed fruit juice composed of melon,strawberry,kiwi and banana every morning to perk up the day! Sadly, his mother died 3 weeks ago so he has to keep track of his business and he can’t tour me around the city. I told him it’s okay and thankfully, Dhanush offered to meet me and take me for a walk around the city.  Peter and I had 'deep' conversations over life, technology, love and conquering the world. :)  He loves to read Paulo Coelho and tends a garden (for me, this is a rarity for a guy!) :)


Johannes, my 'fallen angel". (a stalkerish pic I took. haha!) :)

My adventure there has some 'mishap' but I was 'saved' by a 'fallen angel' who happened to speak 4 languages fluently. Still in awe with that oddventure.:) But that made my Brugge trip truly memorable. I enjoyed it tremendously.

In Brussels, I was supposed to meet a Filipino, Jem Fernandez. A student from Ghent but he has classes in Brussels so we planned to meet there instead. But one mishap led to another. As Murphy's Law said, when something goes wrong, it will. I can no longer send an SMS through my roaming number, I cannot connect to the net (I forgot to write down Jem's mobile number), it rained hard that day, et.c etc. *sad face* I can only imagine how Jem and I would banter in Hiligaynon as he's fluent in that language too! But yeah, we just laughed it off and probably it's not just meant to be.

Jem, the unsuccessful meet-up. :(

 So I went back to Amsterdam and continued my journey. CS Community in Amsty are quite active. They have a weekly Saturday meet-up in a cafe somewhere Anne Frank's House. I was supposed to join a CS lunch meet-up when Eder Garcia, a fellow Filipino who's attending a training in Sweden will come over to the City. He sent me a message for meet-up and I gladly took his invitation. With Eder, I was able to explore more the city's alleys and Hemp museum. I also made a little experiment and I giggled with the thought. It's nicer if you have company with whom you can laugh and be silly with.

Having fun with Eder at Marihuana Museum

All in all, my CS experience is BEYOND POSITIVE. I just joined this month and just grateful for the experience of meeting and knowing these people. They made my Eurotrip more enjoyable and enriching. As one writer said (I forgot the name), there are people who just passes by our life who will teach us something,And it's really comforting to be in a place and be able to create conversations with a local. It's an empowering mindset: You have to communicate and travel together through words and truly share each other's experiences.

PS. CS is not a dating site. You might want to ask why I just met all guys? It seems CS guys were more active in answering my queries and requests during that period. :) 

Thank you CS for the opportunity of meeting these people.


In everyone's life, at some time, our inner fire goes out.  It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being.  We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.  ~Albert Schweitzer

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