Mark in Fiji

 

 

Someone once said that strangers are just good friends you haven’t met yet. One of the great things about taking an extended trip through so many countries is that you end up with so many great friends…and so many more excuses to pass back through the same places yet again, sometime in the future. These days with email, facebook, skype and messenger it’s easier than ever to keep in contact with people you’ve met on the road…and even to hook up with ‘unknown good friends’ even before you arrive in a country.

 

It is particularly reassuring to be able to touch down in a new country and have instant access to knowledgeable, friendly and hospitable local people who can point you in the right direction towards interesting places or secret spots that are way beyond the realm of the average guidebooks. Couchsurfing (www.couchsurfing.com) is a forum that I’ve used several times on this trip. I’ve surfed four couches on this trip (in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Hawaii and, now, Fiji) and I fully intend one day to catch up with the people that so quickly became good friends, either to visit again, or to repay their phenomenal hospitality by hosting them with my own spare bed somewhere on the other side of the world.


Once you put a profile up on the Couchsurfing website you are able to search through a database of over a million couchsurfers. Major cities like LA might have over a thousand contacts offering (mostly) a bed/couch for a night or two or, possibly, just a contact who is more than happy to meet up with for a coffee or a beer. Although on the face of it is essentially free accommodation, in some cases it might not actually turn out to be cheaper than staying in a local hostel since you really ought to turn up with a small gift and on a short stay it is a good idea to invite your host out for dinner or (on a longer one) perhaps also stock the fridge. Beyond what is often very pleasant accommodation Couchsurfing’s main advantage is that when you touch down in an unfamiliar place you immediately have the benefit of sound local knowledge and, with luck, perhaps the most enthusiastic and interesting guide you will ever find.

Fiji: Within 15 minutes of meeting up with local lady Milika in her Nadi boutique I had learned more about Fiji and Fijian life than I had in the previous two days at a beautiful (but sterile) resort on the coast. Milika has hosted more than a dozen travellers in her lovely four-bedroom house. She clearly enjoys meeting people from all over the world and continues to take typical Fijian hospitality to a new level. The five days I spent with Milika’s family gave me a chance to experience Fijian life from an angle that few tourists will ever experience…including an unexpected and very rushed jaunt to the highlands during what seemed to be an extremely serious tsunami warning.


Hearing of my ambition to learn how to cook with a traditional Fijian ‘lovo’ (ground oven) Milika even arranged for me to spend a morning, in company with a good part of the local rugby team, burying chicken, fish and taro in a bed of superheated rocks in her front garden. And we spent the same afternoon feasting and lying around drinking ceremonial kava (known here as ‘grog’). 

Hawaii: Never in the history of Hawaiian tourism has a weary ‘haole’ landed on his feet in the islands in quite the style that I did. Within forty minutes of touching down at Honolulu airport I was on a leaping speedboat (piloted by a screaming Hawaiian speed-freak) with four bikini-clad beach babes. And within an hour I was standing up to my chest on an oceanic sandbank sipping from a frosted bottle of Longboard beer while my host Allison and her boyfriend Mike clued me in on island life. I spent a week crashing on Allison’s couch and learned a lot about island life from her and her Hawaiian flatmates (…and their pet rat!). It might have been a week of sleep deprivation (due in the first instance partly to the mescal and rum I smuggled in from Mexico and afterwards to the more or less limitless endurance of this house full of University of Hawaii scholars). But it was great fun and when I again hit the road I had the feeling that I had left some of my favourite people in that house in Hawaii.

San Salvador: “Ok, no problem,” the young lady on the phone said, “I won’t be back from work for a few hours but the girl is at the flat cleaning. Just tell her who you are and make yourself at home. There’s beer in the fridge and coffee in the cupboard. I’ll see you later.” She had never even met me before and knew nothing about me beyond my Couchsurfing profile and yet she was confidently inviting this weary wayfarer into her home. San Salvador has a reputation of being a dangerous city (though not as dangerous as it was when I last passed through here in the early nineties). Yet this level of trust is something typical of many parts of Latin America…and something that is rarely found in the so-called ‘developed’ and ‘civilised’ countries farther north. (Among a thousand couches on offer in LA I was unable to get a single invitation).


I was only in San Salvador for one night but I invited my new friend out for a steak dinner during which we chatted ceaselessly and even in this short time I still came to understand more about her city than I might have learned in several days at one of the big hotels.

Nicaragua: My first couchsurfing experience was in Managua where two European women took me under their collective wings. They had wracked up several years of Nicaraguan experience between them and, since I was on the lookout for a magazine story from Managua, they were the best possible contacts I could hope for. Also, they had a deep interest in their adopted country and a limitless thirst to learn and enjoy their time there. I had planned to stay 3 or 4 days and ended up staying for 10. And I wish I could have stayed more!

I have just arrived in Sydney – halfway around my ‘world tour’ – and these people are responsible for some of the most memorable highlights of what has been a truly astounding six months..

 

 

By Mark Eveleigh