Things fall apart – or are lost – or are simply intentionally left behind.
I’ve lost many items along the way, some through theft, others through carelessness, but the bulk of it all I happily gave away to someone in need. Traveling for a long time you shed things but you also somehow gain things. The trick is to carry just what you need. Your spinal column and aching shoulders sure appreciate it.
Among the things that have mysteriously vanished or I’ve had to let go: a laptop that was nothing but trouble from Day One; two cell phones; a beloved Swiss Army knife; items of clothing for all sorts of climates; shoulder bags and backpacks for day trips; and on and on. Some I’ve replaced. Some, such as the laptop, I still need to replace. And now, one of the few items that has been with me from the first day of this long journey – my trusted walking shoes – must be retired.
It’s been a good run for my New Balance MW955’s. They weren’t built for running, but I ran in them hundreds of times trying to catch some bus or train or boat or plane. Or just trying to catch up and keep up on some uphill trail or jagged mountain slope. In them I’ve sloshed across rivers and streams, their Gore-Tex technology effectively keeping my feet dry. For more than three years, they served me well on rocky trails and city streets. And they even showed their nimbleness on a few dance floors :). In rain or snow, from the beaches of Tayrona in Colombia, to the salt flats of Uyuni in Bolivia, to the high reaches of the Andes in Argentina, these shoes have seen it all. In a deep freeze or extreme heat, they’ve done their job with magnificent comfort. (Wow, do I sound like an advert or what? 🙂
Over desert sand and mountain snow; these shoes have covered some serious ground
But seriously, shoes, any season traveler will tell you, are probably the most important purchase you will make toward fulfilling your travel goals. If your shoes are uncomfortable, so will your trip, plain and simple. So it was important to me to have the proper shoes for a journey that would involved every conceivable type of terrain and weather condition. A shoe that would hold up over time to overuse and overexposure even to things one could not have imagined. Oil spill? Yeah, I saw that coming! Raw sewage all over the ground? Ah ha. Ice and snow on the desert sand? Very funny, Mother Nature!
I went to an REI store in Portland, Oregon, U.S.A., in anticipation of this journey.The store clerk said these shoes would stand up to any harsh environment and golly gee, they did. But nothing lasts forever. They’ve now started to crumble at the soles and comp apart at the seams. As I set out on a short hike recently in Lagos, Portugal, I felt a dampness at the bottom of my feet and at that point realized the shoes were disintegrating. Now they must go – or risk grave injury to my dear ol’ feet. We can’t have that, now, can we?
For those curious or with a deep interest in shoes, a bit more specifics about the walking shoes I chose, as described here on Amazon.com:
Leather and mesh
ABZORB provides a superior blend of cushioning and compression set features with Dupont Engage and Isoprene rubber for the ultimate ride
C-CAP is a compression-molded EVA for superior midsole cushioning and flexibility
ROLLBAR TPU posting system minimizes rear-foot movement that, when combined with TS2 system, achieves the ultimate in motion control
3/4 ROCK STOP plate utilizes a flexible protective layer that protects feet from rocks and shock, minimizing pressure, and dispersing shock energy
Now doesn’t all that sound badass?
A hole in my sole
This week I am off to a outdoor store to find a new pair of proper walking shoes. It won’t be easy – shopping for shoes outside of the United States has never been easy for me – because I have big feet, size 13’s to be exact. For years I had been squeezing my feet uncomfortably into size 12’s or even 11 and a halves depending on the cut, in denial that I have big feet. But in the REI store in Portland, the sales clerk was not shy about dishing out a huge dose of reality: “You are size 13,” she said. “Buy size 13 or your extended trip won’t last beyond the airport departure gate.” When I slipped on the shoes I was wowed by that new feeling of shoe comfort, after years of torturing my feet. Heck, I trip over them often enough, how could I possibly deny them?
Just last week here in Portugal, I was shopping for flip flops at the local surf shop where they had hundreds of them on display. But only one pair in my size. One pair! If I didn’t jump on them, I would be out of luck if another guy with oversize feet walked in to buy them. That’s been my challenge with shoes traveling abroad. Big American feet don’t get a break. And Europe isn’t half as bad as South America! I once tried to buy dress shoes in Chile for a special occasion and it became a shopping expedition that lasted weeks through several stores. I finally settled on the largest size one store had buried deep in the stock room – size 12’s – with the sales clerk assuring me that they would stretch after several wears. Yeah, right. After I squeezed my feet into them, not without discomfort, I was out of them before the evening was through, dancing in my socks at one point instead. Everywhere I went I was told there isn’t much of a demand for size 13’s in much of South America where much of the population is indigenous, small in stature, and have small feet. Even South Americans of European descent as a whole can’t touch size 13. Nevertheless, off we will go in Portugal to shop for new walking shoes. I can’t travel the world shoeless, can I? Hmmmm….
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!
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
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, 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.
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 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.
A family readies to take a picture with the Saint Bernards. The smaller dog at the right is still a puppy. The man in the red baseball cap dragged and kicked the pup after it sought shelter from the sun under a park bench.
I was simply stunned. So was a woman standing behind me. We both confronted the man simultaneously with our outrage. We had just witnessed the man drag and kick a sweet, cuddly, lovable Saint Bernard puppy.
This was no ordinary man. And certainly no ordinary puppy. The man, you see, works in the Civic Center square with a couple of fully grown Saint Bernard, including the pup maybe a couple of months old.
MORE CUSTOMERS come to pose with the dogs, but little do they know...
He, and others who have also have Saint Bernard, offer tourist a chance to be photographed with the oversize dogs built for cold weather and used in snowy rescues. I love Saint Bernard. They are my favorite breed of dogs. They apparently also the favorite of hundreds of tourists who come to Bariloche, Argentina. They line up for a chance to pay up to $20 for a photograph with the dogs. I admit, I considered having my picture taken with the dogs as well, but I thought the quality of the photographs did not warrant the $20 cost. So a couple of days earlier, I had turned down the man’s offer to have my picture taken with the gentle giants of the dog world.
THE VICTIM heads for the bench. Moments later he gets a swift punishment
Fast forward two days later. I’m back in the square, watching kids and their parents go gaga over the dogs and agreeing to an 8 x 10 photograph. I kept my eyes on the dogs, as it was an extremely hot day and they seemed uncomfortable in the sun. In fact, when the man tried to pose them with visitors, the tourists taking their picture with the dogs didn’t seem to notice that the hot stone pavement caused discomfort to the dogs’ paws. The dogs kept rapidly shifting from one paw to another as if standing on hot coal. They also didn’t seem to notice the man was being rather rough with the dogs, shoving them and yanking them by the collar into position. That alone troubled me.
ONE DOG runs off to seek shelter under the arches. Sometimes the handlers give the dogs a break here. Sometimes it's an umbrella in the square. Sometimes nothing. But does it really matter? It's still hot even in the shade!
But the real troubling treatment came in between photo shoots. The puppy ran off to a bench in the square to seek shelter from the sun under the bench. He was looking for a cool spot. The man walked across the square, grabbed the leash, dragged the pup from under the bench and gave the animal a firm kick in the stomach.
“Woahhhh!”, I yelled out immediately. It was a spontaneous reaction. From behind, I also heard a voice scream out. The woman and I, strangers to each other, walked up to the man and berated him. “Was that really necessary?” I asked the man, as he walked across the square back to the waiting tourists. The woman shouted to him “How would you like me to kick you in the stomach?” He just looked at us and looked away as if trying to not draw any attention from his waiting customers. I was really tempted to make a sign that read “ANIMAL ABUSER!” and stroll the square, but then I remembered reading somewhere that it is illegal for foreigners to take part in any kind of protest in neighboring Chile, and I imagine it to be the same in Argentina. Automatic expulsion or who knows else. This is Argentina, where the police is not trusted by its own citizens. Corruption in their ranks is rampant, Argentinians tell me.
WIDER VIEW of Civic Center in Bariloche, Argentina
So I tried another tactic. For at least an hour, I walked the square talking to people who looked remotely interested in having their photos taken with the dogs. I told them what I saw. Some were just as outraged as I was. Others just saw a black guy trying to talk to them and refused to listen. So after a few more of those, soaked in sweat from the heat, I left, not before taking these photos of the dogs at work in the square and the man I witnessed mistreat the dogs. He’s the old guy in the red baseball cap, but there are others with the same breed of dog pushing photographs to tourists and who seem to not care about the animals, but rather about money.
So I am taking an activist stance here and telling everybody who travels to Bariloche: Do not pay these folks in the square a dime to have your picture taken with the Saint Bernard. You want a picture of the dogs? Snap one. They are in a public square and anybody is allowed to take a picture. To support these so-called human beings is to support animal abuse!