Monthly Archives: January 2013

Friends And Strangers On A Train

At the Mamas & Papas Hostel in Gdansk, Poland, in the Hendrix room, a.k.a, Purple Haze. A long stopover here.

At the Mamas & Papas Hostel in Gdansk, Poland, in the Hendrix room, a.k.a, Purple Haze. A long stopover here.

ON A TRAIN FROM TLEN TO GDANSK, SOME THOUGHTS: Travel to places where people don’t speak your language of course creates challenges. The language barrier traps you in a maze of confusion and constant struggle to understand what’s going on around you. It isn’t something that can’t be overcome, but if you let it, it will do a job on the good energy you need to continue on your merry way. I was waiting for a train – this train that I am now on – that was more than 15 minutes late. Then came an announcement over the loudspeakers affixed above the station platform. It was a woman’s voice – a soothing voice – albeit going on for an eternity about something of some urgency. I don’t speak Polish, but based on the reactions of the people around me, I instantly knew something was up that had to do with my train. In the land of language barriers, where ears are rendered useless, eyes do the listening. I was at the train stop that serves the tiny village of  Tleń – population 260 – on my way back to Gdansk.

With Michal at the “gate to Hell” in Bory Tucholskie National Park. The large boulder was dragged to the area by advancing glacier during the Ice Age. And yes, my layers of clothing was not working for him so he gave me the winter coat off his back!

With Michal of Tlen, Poland, in Bory Tucholskie National Park. The  guy gave me the coat off his back . What, my layered look wasn’t working for you all? 🙂

It was a very cold Saturday morning, and everything coming from that woman’s mouth would determine if I would spend another night in Tleń or be on my way. Soothing as her voice sounded, it was hardly soothing enough to ease my growing anxiety sparked by the people on the station platform appearing to go into mild panic. As I stood there in the freezing cold, I watched some of them swarm around a weather-beaten train schedule that had clearly seen better days on the support beam from which it hanged. Others nervously checked the time on their watches or cell phones, frantically sent text messages, or made phone calls.  I scanned the people in sight for a  friendly face, one not so apparently consumed with worry, in a quick search for someone who seemed likely to speak English – usually someone in their mid-20’s to mid-30’s or early 40’s. I approached a young couple and half-apologetically asked if they spoke English. In a unison that couples and twins often muster, they said “A little.” Poles are kind of funny when it comes to the question “Do you speak English?” In the relatively short time I’ve been in the country, I’ve noticed that regardless of the person’s ability to speak English, most will say  “a little”, perhaps to save face should their command of English falter. In the case of the young couple, “a little” could not have been a more on target self-assessment. They struggled with every word and in very broken English they managed to say the train was late, a  “duh!” fact I and everybody standing on the station platform already knew. My rephrased question was whether there would be a train at all and if so, when?.  “It’s late,” the young woman sheepishly said. Double duh! Aha! Okay. But do you know when it will come? The two turned to each other and in Polish began to confer as if world peace was at stake. I stood and watched as they tried to come up with the right English words to explain the situation to the American who speaks no Polish. She then said “wait” as he made a phone call. He spoke a few words in Polish to the person on the other end of the line and handed me his sleek new iPhone. On the other end, a woman with a much better command of English explained that the train was delayed by mechanical trouble and that there would be another update as to its arrival. She said it would likely be along in approximately 20 minutes, but an announcement would be made to update us. Sweet. A language hurdle cleared by Apple Inc. Steve Jobs – rest his soul – again saves the journey. I thanked the woman on the phone and the couple for going the extra mile. In Polish I said “Thanks”, which made them smile. Thirty-minutes later, here comes the train, even if there was no heads up announcement. Did I mention that Poland has the most painfully slow and worst train systems of all the places I’ve seen in Europe? In places like Tleń,well outside of big cities, the difficulty to find someone who speaks English increases. So your eyes take over where your ears are of no use. When the train is not doing what the posted schedule says it’s going to do, watch how others react to any official announcements made entirely in Polish – or any other foreign language you don’t speak, for that matter – and you quickly realize you don’t need to know the language to know you better act and fast.

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Main train station, getting to know you.

I am leaving Tlen, the village in north Poland where 260 people live. To say Tlen is a small town is the ultimate understatement. It’s the smallest town I’ve ever visited in Europe. I am on my way back to Gdansk, just over an hour away. I am sharing the compartment with a young Polish woman who has been really helpful with the “a little” English she speaks. At the train station the ticket office was closed and so I had to buy a ticket on the train. The conductor spoke no English, and I of course can only say “good afternoon” and “Thank you” and “yes” and “no” and the “F word” in Polish. Yes, I need to add a few more words to my vocabulary. So the young, blond woman has so far acted as my interpreter and my bodyguard. She helped me buy my train ticket, interpreting for me and the conductor. Then when some guy opened the compartment to our cabin and asked “Are you English?” and “Do you have some money for me?”, the young woman said a few choice words to him that included the “F word” and “Thank you.” That much I understood. The guy shut the door and left. And my defender returned to reading her book. That’s the one thing about traveling in some places. People come to your help and sometimes when necessary, to your defense. They see it as their duty to help. The good in people comes through. For instance, I am now the proud owner of a winter coat. I didn’t pack one because I thought I could just wear layers of clothing and be warm enough. But all along the way in Poland, friends and strangers kept offering to get me a coat, even as I stated and restated that I was plenty warm with what I was wearing, and even as the temperatures dipped way below freezing. My layered look apparently didn’t look warm enough for winter, and so the offers for a winter coat. And so now I have one, thanks to Michal and Ana. Ana, who drove me to the train station, brought it to me as a gift. “If you’re going to stay in Poland you need a winter coat” she said. Cool. People can be generous and so cool and come to your aid even if you don’t think you need it. I had the situation under control – I think – with the train panhandler, but the young woman had the language knowledge and finesse to tell that guy to piss off. He got the message quick. As I am now in Gdansk, where I will be spending the  month of January and part of February working at the Mamas & Papas Hostel, I left Tlen content to have so many friends across Poland: Michal, Anna, Anna, Anna, Anna, Anna, Anna, Anna, Kamila, Karolina, Kamil, Kasia, Ada, Mama, Papa, Mateusz, Martyna, Allan, Kasper, Monika, and the feisty young blond woman on the train. Her name is…Mystery.

Down by the riverside in Gdansk, Poland, my new home for at least another month

Down by the riverside in Gdansk, Poland, my new home for at least another month

 

 

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Goodbye Couchsurfing?

Have a couch for me?

Have a couch for me?

I have once or twice already stated that one of the pleasures of world travel is the joy of meeting people from many countries and experiencing their culture and customs firsthand.
That is why I have long sung the praises of Couchsurfing to anyone who would listen. The hospitality and social networking website allowed me for the past two years to connect with thousands of individuals from around the world. Through Couchsurfing, I hosted hundreds of travelers in Miami. And since I began this journey, many of them  have returned the favor and hosted me in their countries. And I have met hundreds more that I now call friends. What an amazingly brilliant idea, Couchsurfing! Truly life-changing.
For those who have never heard of Couchsurfing, allow me this introduction: You go to http://www.couchsurfing.org, click sign up, fill out a profile, upload as many photos of yourself as you like, choose whether you want to host travelers in your home, just meet them in a social setting, or just give them tour information about your city or town. You also have the option to attend dozens of weekly activities or events and meetings organized by local or visiting couchsurfers or create activities yourself that others can join.
Plainly put, Couchsurfing is about intercultural exchange. You invite complete strangers to crash on your couch – or whatever space you have in your home – and you part as new friends. What you gain is knowledge of another person, his or her country and culture, and no money is exchanged. Yep, all free. You leave each other references on the site – sharing whether or not the experience was positive, neutral or negative. There are also other safety valves on the site. It works. Or should I say, it worked?

Money sometimes corrupts. It has a way of destroying beauty, derailing a good thing. Insert money in any positive situation and watch the negatives fly. In the past

Lots of time spent in Miami hanging out with CouchSurfers. That's me on the right, front row, in the New York Yankees baseball cap. Respect!

Lots of time spent in Miami hanging out with CouchSurfers. That’s me on the right, front row, in the New York Yankees baseball cap. Respect!

year at Couchsurfing, the negatives have unfortunately outweighed the positives, with the site remaking itself from a nonprofit, member-run organization to a for profit company with salivating investors rubbing their hands as they try to come up with ways to turn a profit on the millions of dollars they’ve invested. And the members of Couchsurfing, who see themselves as a community of volunteers who helped build the site and make Couchsurfing the success story that it is today, are upset, confused, left feeling betrayed.
Couchsurfing – which was launched in 2004  by founder Casey Fenton – counts “ambassadors” among its most active volunteers. Couchsurfing ambassadors keep the community  engaged, going to extra mile to help visitor and local alike. I am proud to say I became an ambassador after months of involvement with Couchsurfing, hosting, traveling and promoting activities. I was asked to be an ambassador (while traveling in Chile) and I gladly accepted the honor. But months later, Casey Fenton  changed the legal status of Couchsurfing from a nonprofit to a for-profit corporation and sold the new company to outside investors. Fenton walked away with a hefty load of cash while the volunteers who were directly or indirectly responsible for building the site were left wondering what would become of them and the site. What followed was the hiring of a CEO and paid professional staff. Almost immediately, there were grumblings from members around the world that the staff was inexperienced and unfamiliar with Couchsurfing as a community. The person brought in to oversee the ambassadors – Bill Loundy – gave them fuel for the rising fire with a memo in which he said he would not communicate with them in a forum where ambassador gather on the site to discuss issues. Loundy made a series of other  missteps and pronouncements that did not go over well and there were calls for his dismissal. One ambassador in from Australia left with a reference on his profile that called him “a turkey.” That reference was quickly erased. Other ambassadors came to his defense with the words “give him a chance”. But Loundy didn’t take that chance as he proceeded to ignore the ambassadors and their concerns for months at a time. His defenders pretty much grew silent.

Then as more investor money came, the staff of clueless 20-somethings hired to run the site grew. Most had not even been members of the Couchsurfing community until they were hired and it showed in every statement – or should I say misstatement – they made. And the man brought in to lead the team – CEO Tony Espinoza – proved to be no brainiac himself. How else to explain the incompetence that has since followed? So thus began the beginning of the end of a Couchsurfing, a once great travel and hospitality website. I say the beginning of the end even as I  hold out hope that Espinoza and his reckless crew will wise up and not completely destroy Couchsurfing. At this writing, it’s only partially damaged, and the Clueless in San Francisco – that’s where Couchsurfing is headquartered – have already said they do not intend to fix some of the problems they’ve created with the changes of the site. It’s their way or the highway. With that attitude they will all soon be out of a job. But they don’t yet get that.

Well, hundreds, perhaps thousands of experienced couchsurfers around the world have taken that highway and abandoned Couchsurfing, many of them ambassadors, the very people you want to attract to a site such as Couchsurfing. Others have also quit and joined another hospitality website – BeWelcome – as still many more say they will wait to see what happens next. They – like me – have one foot out the door. My patience is long, but the utter disrespect I can’t take much more of it.

Traveling without Couchsurfing, but still on track

Traveling without Couchsurfing, but still on track

A great “migration” of Couchsurfers to BeWelcome is planned for February 14 – Valentine’s Day – presumably just so Couchsurfing leadership in San Francisco is made to feel the love? 🙂 Date aside, many have not bothered to wait. They’ve already left the site, complaining that Couchsurfing management is only about quantity not quality – the number of couchsurfers has grown in the past year largely because of word of mouth, linkage to Facebook and other social media. The couchsurfers that have recently joined have done so lured  and misled by the notion of a free place to stay while they are traveling, rather than by the idea of intercultural exchange espoused by more experienced couchsurfers. The “old timers” complain that the uninformed “newbies” have contributed to the deterioration in quality experiences on the site. They argue that the Couchsurfing management team only cares about growing the numbers to satisfy investors looking to sell the database with member information and get a big payday on their investment. The clash recently escalated and grew more heated when the website underwent a complete makeover without word or warning or consultation with the members through a beta test. The roll out of the new site was so bad and so mishandled and the changes so widely hated that thousands of couchsurfers around the world took to the site – once they were able to access it – to strongly log a global protest not seen on the site in recent memory.  Couchsurfing headquarters was so beset with complaints that it set up a feedback forum to have members voice their concerns. The complaints persisted for weeks and the Couchsurfing leadership certainly got an earful. Some changes were made based on user suggestions, but the unprofessional behavior of Couchsurfing staffers only fanned the flames. In response to members concerns, some of the paid Couchsurfing professionals posted “funny” pictures of cats. Other staffers deleted posts they didn’t like, while others issued threats in response to tough questioning from users. The message was loud and clear: “Couchsurfing is not a democracy” – as one staffer wrote. That was a bitter pill for some longtime Couchsurfing members to swallow as they had grown accustomed to open discussions, no censorship.
The backlash that San Francisco got from the membership was so intense that CEO Espinoza and others were forced to admit that they handled the whole roll out poorly and to announce that any future changes to the site would involve the community. Espinoza and Loundy held a live webcast to address concerns but some still remained skeptical. They’ve been asking Espinoza and his team to roll back the changes to the site, something that Espinoza has said he won’t do.
And so people continue to leave the site while others wait and hope the site can be saved. Personally, I am giving Couchsurfing another month or two – beyond Valentine’s Day. But I – as others have already done – will create a BeWelcome account. My advise to friends who have asked my opinion on this matter is to do the same. It doesn’t hurt to have a Couchsurfing and a BeWelcome account. It’s smart.

Couchsurfing isn't the only way to meet people while traveling, but it was/is the best. Here, friends I met through another site, www.workaway.info

Couchsurfing isn’t the only way to meet people while traveling, but it was/is the best. Here, friends I met through another site, http://www.workaway.info

You increase your chances of finding a host and meeting people. And should Couchsurfing turn out to no longer be your cup of tea, you will BeWelcome.
As for my journey, the changes at Couchsurfing have made it difficult to navigate the site. Any changes were supposed to improve, not make the site worse. And the Couchsurfing leadership team to its credit has made some changes after the outcries of members. And now they insist they are listening to members, but there’s still censorship – something that didn’t previously exist on Couchsurfing. Anything that smacks of bad-mouthing the changes or calling for defection to BeWelcome is deleted. Some members have even had their profiles deleted after criticizing Couchsurfing staff or changes. Because of all this and more, the mass worldwide mutiny has not been silenced and won’t be in the face of these changes and perceived attacks from management.
With all this, I’ve had to change my mode of traveling. I was primarily using Couchsurfing. But a travel website that is not user-friendly, censors, has implemented an outrageous terms of use policy (which also caused mass uproar), and is run by a bunch of inexperienced 20-somethings who don’t know anything about the site and behave like third-graders, would  have such an ill effect.
I now travel through workaway.info, choosing longer stays in certain places, and for shorter stays, through established contacts on Facebook. And while I still maintain friendships I’ve made on Couchsurfing, most of those friendships are on Facebook. I am hoping Couchsurfing will survive. I really am. But if the people in San Francisco continue down the path they’ve so far chosen – ignoring and outright dismissing the concerns of members and censoring posts and groups – I fear it is indeed the beginning of the end of Couchsurfing. At least it will be for me.

One of many social events around the world I organized as a Couchsurfing traveling ambassador. This one, attended by hundreds of couchsurfers, was in Krakow, Poland.

One of many social events around the world I organized as a Couchsurfing traveling ambassador. This one, attended by hundreds of local and traveling couchsurfers, was in Krakow, Poland.  Look at all those awesome people representing many countries! That’s me in front (legs on my shoulders). The Couchsurfing banner is the one I’ve been traveling with, but it soon became an “old banner” after Couchsurfing headquarters changed our logo for a puzzling loop that looks like a highway on ramp, or a weirdly shaped figure 8, or a hangman’s noose (oh, the irony) another random and unilateral decision that confused and angered couchsurfers around the world. I still have the banner and a bunch of the “old style” stickers, all relics.  Maybe they’ll become collectors’ items and tangible evidence in business schools on how not to ruin a successful website in one year without even trying? Carry on.

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