Couchsurfing story

How to use Couchsurfing

I like to think I’m an adventurous traveler, and I mean that in various senses of the word. I love to get dirty in a new place, climbing mountains, jumping off mountains, and everything in between. But I also like to be a bit adventurous in my accommodations, and veer off the hostel/hotel path once in a while to try to meet people and get a better sense of where I am. One of my go-to’s for this is Couchsurfing.com, but the site can offer up a lot more than most people initially think (and from what I initially thought too), so I wanted to give some ins and outs I learned along the way.

Couchsurfing main page

Doesn’t this make you want to jump on and meet people?

Hidden benefits

  • Meeting other couchsurfers: A couple times while Couchsurfing, it turned out others were also staying with my host, which made for a fun night and an even bigger network of friends. When I first landed in Stockholm for a 6-week stint in Europe, I used Couchsurfing to stay with a host, and ended up meeting a great group of people (including another Canadian girl who was also staying with my host) to kick things off with. We ended up all staying out til 3am, huddled under a tarp in the rain, and who knows, you may even meet people to go visit on your next trip. I now know exactly where I’ll want to be staying on my next trip to Montreal. 

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Warsaw: a special gem in Poland

Warsaw: the city that would bring me back to Poland in a heartbeat.

So I can’t say I got to spend too much time in Warsaw, or really have a recommended itinerary after my whirlwind time there (including a missed flight and a night that lasted until 7am -those are whole other stories). But it was just enough to make me want to come back again and again, and discover even more of Poland. Note: I was there in October 2015, just as it started to get colder and the air a bit crisper.

First off: Poland is cheap. Like, really cheap – despite being the 2nd biggest economy in Central Europe and 6th biggest in the EU. It also has amazing food and really friendly people. And, compared to Krakow, Warsaw is like its hipper, younger cousin. A lot of people say you prefer one or the other: like a San Francisco/Los Angeles or Berlin/Munich rivalry, and in this case, Warsaw reminds me of Berlin. Continue reading

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Krakow: a day full of food

Sometimes you leave a city and your biggest memories of that place are the food. And the eating. And the drinking. It happens. Krakow was one of those places.

We got into Krakow late at night (sensing a pattern?) after a day full of train rides from Budapest into Brno, Czech Republic, a BlaBla car to Gliwice, Poland, and then trains all the way to Krakow.

Undeterred and obviously determined to soak in all of Poland, we headed right out after checking into the hostel and ended up at a Pijalnia Wódki i Piwa in the Old Town. I’ll say right away this place was probably one of my favorite parts of the entire trip – including the ones in Warsaw. From the second you walk in, it’s like walking into a Russian bar and old-style American diner, blended into one. White tile, swivel bar stools, and 2 chalkboards – 1 for food, at 8 zl each (about $2), 1 for drinks (4 zl each). Old communist posters and advertisements cover the walls, and people – young, old, and everywhere in between, keel over laughing, drunk, red-faced, and enjoying life. It’s a crazy scene. It’s sadly also somewhere I knew right away I never would have ended up had I been alone or with someone other than a Polish person.

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Thoughts on traveling so far

Note: This post was almost entirely written about 2 weeks into my 6 week backpacking trip from Germany all the way down into Montenegro and back up again through Poland. Some extra thoughts on how these feelings changed by the end of the trip, and a post-trip catch-up will definitely be coming.

Traveling alone

I’ve had a lot of rambling thoughts about traveling so far- about the way I’ve done it, the people I’ve met, and how I may have done it differently. Overall, when my mom asked me last night if I’d rather have done it with someone, I can hands down say ‘no’ without pause.

Three reasons stick out: Continue reading

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2 days in Belgrade

After a great 2 days of hiking in Montenegro, I was ready to hit the “Party City” of Belgrade. Now, Serbia’s definitely not on most Americans’ radars in terms of travel destinations, but I’m here to encourage you to go. I never felt unsafe there (I was with a guy, but I don’t think I would have felt any differently if I had been traveling alone), and really wish I could have spent more time exploring the city and seeing the nightlife.

The bus ride was long: 9 hours from Zabljak to be exact. I think I’ve learned a new level of patience from the long bus rides in Europe (from Berlin all the way down to Montenegro, I hadn’t yet taken one single flight), and this one was no different. It did help to have someone traveling with me.

Tara River Bridge (crossed over on the bus from Zabljak to Belgrade)

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Bobotov Kuk: I can see 3 countries from here!

If you’re in the Balkans and looking for a (relatively) easy, off-the-beaten track day-hike to the tallest mountain in the country, you should make it out to Bobotov Kuk in Durmitor National Park.

So, after a decently adventure-filled day of biking and hiking the day before, today it was time to hike the tallest mountain in Montenegro – Bobotov Kuk. The whole reason I’d come to Montenegro (OK, there are obviously many more things to do in Montenegro, but with my short amount of time and desperate need for more nature, this was it). Somehow the Polish guy from the hostel and I ended up as the only ones without a ride from hostel host Alex to the start of the Bobotov Kuk hike. Undeterred, we of course took matters into our own hands. There was no way either of us was leaving Montenegro without climbing to this peak. So, after a hearty breakfast, we set out (with the dogs in tow) to the parking lot next to the supermarket. A few attempts at calling out “Seblo? Seblo. Seblo?” (the town where we would start the hike) to anyone who would listen, I found a woman in a newsstand who called a taxi driver to come drive us up the mountain, a ride which included a nice taste of local Montenegrin music with our white-haired driver.

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Montenegro: stray dogs, deep canyons, and biking without brakes

If you like hiking, consider yourself pretty adventurous, and like getting off the beaten track, you have to make it to Durmitor National Park in Montenegro. Formed by glaciers, the Tara River Canyon is the deepest in Europe, and makes for some gorgeous views.

I started out my trip to Montenegro mostly unplanned. At 1am, in typical non-planning-backpacker fashion, I was sitting around my hostel in Mostar, Bosnia, with one other Australian backpacker, curled up on the couch writing down all my bus times to get to Sarajevo the next morning. I had “planned” (because any sort of planning when you’re mostly just deciding on a whim which place to go next is always up for change) to go on to Durmitor National Park in Montenegro after Sarajevo for 1 quick day of hiking. I knew it wouldn’t be enough, but at this point in the trip, I was really trying to squeeze everything in. After a last minute move to check the weather, though, I realized the one day I had marked off for Montenegro hiking was expected to be a fully wet one with 90% chance of rain. Back to the drawing board – made a whole new page of bus times and routes to go to Zabljak, Montenegro at 7am instead of Sarajevo, and with that, snuck back into my dark hostel room, packed up last minute things, and crept into bed.

One mistake I did make (not even sure why because this is the first time I decided to do it) was purchasing my bus ticket online. Note: especially in these areas, it’s much easier to just buy your ticket at the station. Buses and trains were never full, and showing up with an online reservation and no printed ticket usually just causes more hassle. Sure enough, at my stopover in Nikšić, I had to buy a new ticket (only 5€ luckily) since the attendant wouldn’t accept my email confirmation. Luckily, the bus driver at the station in Mostar was extremely helpful, and even walked with me over to a tourist office near the station to ask them to print my ticket for me, reassuring me in broken English “Is OK. Is OK. Don’t worry” the whole time, as if caring for a lost, injured songbird. That’s about how I looked I’m sure. Continue reading

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Bosnia: instantly one of my favorite places I’ve ever been

While I “only” made it to Mostar and the surrounding area (a detour to Montenegro got in the way of coming back to Bosnia for Sarajevo and more), I cannot say enough about Bosnia and Herzegovina. I ended up extending my stay by a night, and it turned out to be one of the best decisions of my trip. If you didn’t have Bosnia and the Balkans on your radar, add it. Now. 

I got in to Mostar, Bosnia mid-afternoon, my first place I showed up without a reservation of somewhere to sleep. I rang the bell at the Hostel Majdas, which had great reviews online and which I’d luckily starred on my map. I was ushered into the courtyard by a young woman who sat me down at one of the picnic tables, handed me some colored markers and some fresh cake, and asked me to create a colorful nametag for myself while she went off to make me hot tea. Living the life much?

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The row of shoes outside the hostel entrance (you’ll definitely be asked to remove shoes inside any house in Bosnia)

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The outside courtyard of the hostel where everyone eats breakfast


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Inside the hostel living room on the first night

 

Once I was all checked in, I browsed some of the travel books on Montenegro and Bosnia she had on a bookshelf and got ready to go wander out to see the Stari Most bridge, the bridge that was built in the 16th-century, destroyed by Croat bombing in 1993 and then recreated from the original stones in 2004. On the way out, came across an Australian girl curled up on the couch drinking tea and a Dutch guy with long hair. Talked to them for a bit (turns out the Dutch guy is traveling for 2+ years, spent 5 months in Mexico, and is only planning to stop when he runs out of money), and then the Australian girl ended up joining me to go out and wander.

The main street of the city (from what I can tell) is much more lively than I expected. Kebab shops and little cafes line a cobblestone street, and you eventually get into a really cobblestoned street just before the bridge (which, by the way, is really hard to walk across since it’s so steep and the stones are so slippery). There are actually elevated stones across the whole thing to help you stop from slipping. It was nice to see it at night and see all the mosques lit up across the city. There are 26 of them – all destroyed during the fighting but now rebuilt. On the way back, we stopped in to a quick place for cevapi – basically beef and lamb grilled meat sausages served with onions and pita and ajvar (red pepper paste). For 5 euro total, we got a massive plate of it and brought it back to the hostel to eat outside. On the way out, a table of 2 middle-aged women and men stopped us to ask where we were from. Sadly, I’ve realized my instant reaction is to want to say “American” and expect jokes or semi-insults. Instead, one of the women lit up and talked my ear off (in a great way) about how her family now lives in New Jersey and how excited she was that we were visiting, and offered help with any part of the rest of our trip. It’s the first time I can really remember in traveling that someone was so excited to hear from an American and so welcoming and surprised about my own time in their country.

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Back at the hostel, a huge group got back from a tour organized by the hostel, raving about everything they saw. Again, the beauty of traveling without plans: I decided on a whim to stay an extra night and go on the tour the next day. It’s just too worth it, they kept saying.

So, just like that, after an amazing homemade breakfast in the courtyard made by Majda herself, the group of us (including the Dutch guy and the Australian girl) got in Bata’s van and headed outside the city. Before that, though, I did stop by the Sniper’s Tower in Mostar, an old bank that was used by snipers and professional killers in the Bosnian War to terrorize the Bosnian part of the city. While I didn’t climb up to the top because I was short on time, it’s an eery place to be even on the ground floor. There’s politically-related street art all over, hanging TV boxes left over, and main stairwells still intact, but missing all railings. On the top floor, casings of the bullets still lie there. The building was chosen because it’s one of the tallest in the city and easily separates the city. Hearing our guide later that day tell us all about how best friends of his from school became enemies of his overnight, shooting down from the roof of this building to try to kill him just for being from a Muslim family, gives you chills. The city itself is very much divided, but not by the media-propagated line of the river. Instead, it’s where this sniper tower lies and then beyond. To this day, every year the government from Sarajevo (mostly made up of Croats) decides which buildings in Mostar to renovate. Yet, every year, it’s the buildings where the Serbs and Croats live that are redone, and the Muslim area is left in complete disrepair. Buildings are bombed out, rubble left, and gunshots left on walls.  Continue reading

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Brač: life on the biggest Central Dalmatian island

Brač (pronounced “Bratch”) is the largest island off the coast of Split, but also one of the less touristy (compared to Hvar and Korcula). It’s mostly known for 2 things: its white stone and the Zlatni Rat beach, which were about the main highlights during my 1 night stay there with a Croatian family. 

The easiest way to get to Bol (the city on the other side of the island where I’d booked a small AirBnB room in the home of a Croatian family) from Split is probably by the once-a-day direct ferry. But since I didn’t want to wait until afternoon to take the ferry (it runs at 4:30pm during the summer and 4pm the rest of the year), I got the 9am catamaran over to Supetar first, and then the 1 hour-long bus from there across to Bol. Let’s just say, I think I underestimated how much of an ordeal it would be getting there, just kind of floating with the idea of “island=small” in my head when I booked the room without much research. Oh well. The bus ride allowed me to see a lot of the piles of white stone I’d read about (mostly after my visit). Did you know that a lot of the stone from major monuments (like the Reichstag in Berlin, Diocletian’s palace in Split of course, and even the White House), comes from Brač? Pretty cool.

Boats in the Split harbor

Adorable family on the ferry. Ferry was a lot like the Marin-San Francisco one back home.

“Old Boys Club” sitting around one of the bus stops in the middle of the island.

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Split: when a city doesn’t always satisfy expectations

Sometimes you get to a city and instantly know you’re ready to leave- that the main “story” you’ll get out of it is “well, I guess now I’ve seen it.” If you’re thinking of going to Split for more than just a stopover, below is my account of why this city for me was Split. I also considered titling this post “French tourist mecca.” Take it with a grain of salt.

I decided to head to Split because I’d heard good things about the city. Granted, this is all from someone who’s never been there. First mistake. And I admit that I can see how the city might have held a certain charm before it exploded from being just a transit hub into being a full-blown tourist mecca.

On my way to Split from Šibenik, I did get into a mess that I knew would happen at some point. Since I was sick of being that obvious tourist and repeating “Split? Split?” (insert name of city you’re trying to get to here), I did my best to check the signs on the front of each bus, and hopped on board the one I thought was headed to Split. Big mistake. Turns out, the bus was coming from Split. 5 minutes after we pulled out, the ticket guy got to my seat, checked my ticket, and said roughly and matter of factly: “Split? No. Zagreb.” Continue reading