Making plans to use Couch-Surfing in Brussels for a few nights, there were not a large pool to choose from, but the message I got back from one guy had me sold:
“Hi Caitlin, I can only host you for 1 night because I am going out of town, but Tuesday is my swing dancing night is that ok?”
Swing dance in Belgium? Sure!
I left the train station and headed towards Madame Moustache, someplace I recommend anyone to visit just for the atmosphere. It’s designed like an antique circus, freak show acts not included. A room was sectioned off with glass doors for smoking and there was a large wooden floor just for dancing.
My new host immediately bought me a nice beer and then led me out onto the dance floor. Did I mention there was a live swing band? Because there was, and it was wonderful. My host stayed with me for the first few songs to teach me the basic steps gradually getting a bit more advanced. Since I have been dancing since I was 8, I consider myself pretty musical and a fairly quick learner. However, it didn’t hurt that he was also a really good leader so I had to do was basically keep moving my feet…
There were all types of people there; old and young, beginner and very advanced. And for each song everyone changed partners. The young and advanced danced with the old; women danced with women; people who were very serious with people just there to have a good time. I always had a new partner and each time I clarified “I’m a beginner”, although I did have a few steps under my belt. There was no pressure. No embarrassment for mistakes. No time to rest. And no cares in the world.
Dancing like this, for fun, with no pressure and not trying to impress anyone doesn’t happen too often in the world of dance I grew up in. I’m used to the idea of competing with others around me, or trying to impress the teacher whether in class or auditions. This night I was free. It was bliss. I never wanted this night to end.
At one point in the night I did stop twirling to enjoy a beer so I could stand back and take it all in. Moments like these are not only the things I enjoy about traveling, but life in general.
So after spending a night walking around the catacombs with my couch surfing host and his girlfriend and spending the following day attempting to wash the muck off my pants and boots and of course, sleeping, we pulled another all nighter. This time about an hour outside of Paris to go to an old rock quarry…
Still feeling a bit dazed and amazed (to say the least) at last night’s adventure, we set off for another. This time it was my CS host and his friend. I was told the walk would be easy, and as my hiking boots and short pants were out of commission, I was left with some wide-leg pants and my 10euro H&M tennis shoes, not ideal but I could manage.
Packs filled with food to grill, snacks, drinks, and a portable movie projector and screen we set off. The emotional roller coaster of having my things stolen just 2 days earlier followed by a night of no sleep where a wrong step or turn could’ve lead to my demise, put me in a sort of daze for this car ride. I could not tell you one thing I saw or one thought in my head in that time…
We eventually parked at some random farm house and just started walking. Turns out the 2 guys couldn’t find the correct trail. We back-tracked. A lot. Then, we trekked through a rather large motor cross track. The day after it had rained. Long pants? Muddy nearly to my knees. Shoes? Destroyed and constantly sticking in the mud instead of to my feet (imagine Ezma in the Emporer’s New Groove).
And then we where there. At the top of this…hole. A pit. Covered in trees, bushes and all sorts of beautiful growing, naturey things. We climbed nearly straight down and found the group we were searching for in a little cove set behind some tall trees. Soft, white rocks with ledges to sprawl out on. Some one had brought candles to place throughout all of the levels and a bonfire was already warming up for everyone’s dinner. There were at least 25 people already there when we arrived.
It was another dream-like experience. I think everyone can relate to nights like these- bonfire, beers, friends, music. However, this night had a twist. Eventually there was a commotion of conversation I couldn’t follow and people started to grab headlamps and blankets and move away from the fire.
We were heading underground.
A guy in front had a map and once again I was led into a vast maze of tunnels. This time beneath my feet instead of water was the whitest, softest sand I have ever felt. And instead of coming into rooms full of hundreds of years old skeletons, there were vast chambers with sand floors and pure white rocks for walls. This was where we set up the movie projector and watched most of ‘Waterworld’ before the group collectively decided it was horrible and turned it off.
When we went into these tunnels it was still pitch black outside. When we emerged the sky was beginning to lighten. I could hardly follow conversation (English or French) and was content to sit back and slowly watch the sunrise. My energy was zero but my happiness was 100. I was back in a fog of exhaustion as we eventually made our way back home (with my pants and shoes caked with mud). I think around 2pm I was finally able to shower and sleep.
The strange thing is that my CS host and I are not exactly good friends. We didn’t really ‘bond’ during this time together. For him this was his normal life and I was just tagging a long. My spirits were soaring as the next day I headed off to Belgium where I was greeted with another CS host in Brussels…
Visiting the catacombs of Paris was definitely on my to-do list. I was expecting to go on a nice tour with nice people and maybe we’d all be a little freaked out together about the dead bodies. And maybe I would even learn some nice things, even though I tend to forget 95% of everything I hear on a tour. I was really excited then, when I arrived at my first ever CS host’s house and he mentioned he was planning to go in a few days and that I was welcome to join. Perfect!
The day before we (me, my host and his girlfriend) were planning to go underground he gave me the scoop. He took out this huge map of Paris that showed the catacombs with one tiny little section darkened in the south that is where the tours are. Then he gestured to the rest and said, ‘This is were we go’. ummm what? I just met you 3 days ago how trust worthy is your map…
Well apparently there is a whole community of people who are trusted with these maps. In these endless miles of tunnels they have found a few places to join to together to hang out, cook food, drink, watch movies on a big screen and even have music concerts. Sometimes they steal electricity from the city to have rock concerts. My host had tons of videos to show me. I was shocked to say the least.
So it was finally time. The three of us put on our adventure outfits, wrapped bandanas around our heads, strapped on headlamps and filled our backpacks with snacks and beer. Around 11 pm we drove to some area of Paris no tourists go, climbed over a brick wall onto abandoned train tracks, through a tunnel and down a tiny hole into the never-ending, multi-level, pitch black tunnels under Paris.
The super crazy part about the whole thing was that, as my host warned us, we had to follow his steps exactly. Why you ask? Well, aside from the fear of getting lost, occasionally there are holes along the paths that drop you to oblivion and when the water is coming up to your waist, well, you don’t want to slip. Let me try to paint the picture for you- think of visiting the 5 most confusing cities you’ve ever been in at once-that’s what the tunnels are like, it’s pitch black except for the 3 head lamps, the paths are on slopes so you have no idea how far below ground you are, and you have knowledge that people have gotten lost and never returned from going down there. It’s also impressive to mention that if you go around a corner you lose the sounds of those ahead of you…you become completely alone in a matter of seconds. It. Was. Wild.
After a few hours of walking, the girlfriend and I are helped up through a hole in the wall to a room so small we had to crouch down. I found a stone to sit on…look down…and I realize I am sitting on a pile of human bones. Yuuuuup. Creepy hardly even begins to describe it. I was stunned at first, gave a moment to respect what happened to these people… and then the small science nerd inside of me came out and I was naming the bones I found. I was lucky enough to find a femur someone had made into a candle torch (see photo).
Anyways, the night was only just beginning. We settled in a room for a drink with a castle like structure carved in the middle where other adventurers have left little figurines or candles. In another (where the films are usually watched) there were murals on the wall of famous movie characters and super heros. There we saw another couple cooking some beans on a small camp stove. No big deal. In another room full of bones we met a group of Dutch people and continued through the tunnels with them. Throughout this whole time I like to point out that with the uneven ground and low ceilings I managed to bash my head.. too many times to count. There was literally a cartoon-like bump on the top of my head the next day. Sadly, I was not able to just push it down and make it go away, it was really quite painful to do that, I tried.
I had completely lost track of time, but we finally started to make our way out. Did we have to back track? No, of course not. We squeezed through a hole so small we had to climb through one at a time with our backpacks handed to us afterwards and climbed up a ladder at least 4 stories high out through a manhole cover. It was 7:30 am.
After we found our way to civilization, said goodbye to the Dutch group we were able to head back home. Quick showers for everyone followed by a day of sleep. I know this was a super long story, but it is one of my greatest travel stories and it came from couch surfing. The next night was followed by another epic all night adventure that maybe I will share another time.
Couch Surfing is a (relatively) new and incredibly amazing tool when it comes to travel. If you don’t know, it’s a community of people around the world that offer their couches to travelers as a free place to stay. On top of that, there are forums and events for each city you are in so you can meet other travelers or locals and explore/party together. Free to join and there is even an app for your phone. It’s pretty neat.
For first-timers, don’t be scared. Remember that if you feel uncomfortable you can always say no and leave. You can request to meet with your potential host before going straight to their house. Use your gut. I’ve sent out requests and gotten responses from people that just sounded shady, liiiiike:
“I only have a big king sized bed we would have to share, but I’ve hosted friends before and it hasn’t been a problem”
“Oh and I’m really into message therapy and have a large collection of oils and lotions if you would like me to try any of them on you”
No. Aaaaaand no.
I kindly replied with ‘I found something else but thank you for your response. Cheers’. No biggy. The main thing I do after checking out what they have to say for themselves, are the reviews other Couch Surfers have left about them, it’s always insightful as to what you are getting yourself into. So on that note, make sure to be thorough with your profile and get your friends to write nice things about you!
If you don’t need a place to stay or are not currently traveling, CS can still be helpful. There are monthly or weekly CS Meet Ups hosted in all major cities for anyone who wants to hang out and make some new friends. They are usually at bars and it’s basically one huge party. You can also make a post looking for someplace to go clubbing, or to find people to sit in a park and have lunch with or to join you on a day trip to a nearby city or whatever you want! There are always people looking for something to do and open to your ideas.
If you are a local in a city- offer up your knowledge! Show someone around town or take them to your favorite watering hole. Make connections with people from around the world, help out a fellow traveler, share your stories. Some of my best/ridiculous travel stories come from the nights I used CS. You never know who you will meet and what they can show you about that city.
For instance, that photo was taken in Paris with my first CS host and his girlfriend. We went to the opening of the Magnum shop- they made those treats individually for each of us. We chose the type of cream, the hard chocolate on top (dark, milk, white) and the candy to cover it. I never would of found that place on my own and it was followed by an all night adventure through the catacombs…but more on that in my next post:) I will share the full stories of my CS adventures with continuations as I use it more and more in the hopes that it will convince everyone to give it a shot at least once.
Every time I meet someone from Couch Surfing for the 1st time:
First 5 minutes: Introductions- where you’re from, how long you’ve been in Munich/traveling, what you do etc
10 minutes in: Awkward silences filled with one or two last lingering question about new ‘friend’
15 minutes in: abruptly start walking around Christmas markets or city/looking at drink menu at bar to fill silences. discuss topics related directly to that activity only
if you’re lucky…25 minutes in: start to relax a bit. get back to some personal questions and start telling stories about current situation/family/friends/your love of dogs
..jump to time when you want to go home: ‘well , wow it’s getting kind of late, yeah I think I’m gunna go, it was great meeting you. Yeah, yeah we should definitely hang out again. Ok bye *extends hand to shake* oh hug yeah ok good to meet you *awkward laugh* byyyye’