Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Twenty-five years and counting

Last Thursday I went to Porto, Portugal (also called Oporto) to celebrate my quarter-century of living on this earth. I went to Portugal as a couchsurfer. It was the first time I tried Couchsurfing and it was a great experience. For those of you who don't know about couchsurfing, let me sum it up for you.

The idea of couchsurfing was born from people who wanted to travel the world cheaply but also wanted to get to know people from the cities they were visiting so that they would get a better feel of the cities, instead of just what they would find out from doing the touristy activities. The concept is simple. Many people have a spare couch in their apartment, dorm room or house that they could offer for one or a few nights to someone to sleep on. On the couchsurfing site, there are hosts who offer their couches for free to visitors (called couchsurfers) to their city. The couchsurfers get free accommodation and the chance to find out about a city and/or country from a local resident. In return the hosts meet interesting people and learn about other cultures/countries without having to leave their city. Of course, the site works because most members are both hosts and couchsurfers. Usually couchsurfers are hosts when they are in their own cities or living in another city for an extended period. Thus, everyone on the site is called a couchsurfer.

I had heard about couchsurfing when it first started in the States and I thought it was a great idea in theory. I kinda forgot about it until I came to Europe and knew I was going to be travelling around. That's when I remembered the site so I signed up and decided to try it out. I found cheap plane tickets to Porto, Portugal one day while looking for cheap flights. I had never heard of the city before but a quick google search brought interesting results so I decided to try going there. I went to the couchsurfing site and couchsurfed for a host from 25 - 30 years old. I sent a couple emails off and, surprisingly, quickly got a positive response. Thus, I bought my plane ticket.

As you can imagine, there is a great deal of trust involved in couchsurfing on both sides, especially when the couchsurfer is a woman, as in my case. As a couchsurfer you are taking a risk by going to stay in a stranger's home, having never met the person before. In addition, the host can easily decide at any point to not host you. If you did not make any other plans you would be stuck in a strange city with no place to stay. As a host, you also take a great risk inviting a stranger to your home. Hosts often leave couchsurfers in their home and some, like mine, even give their couchsurfers an extra key - a great risk. Hence, it is no surprise that when I told my parents about my plans they were vehemently against me going. In fact, a couple days before I went, they were both on the phone chiding me and telling me to cancel my ticket but I was determined to go. I'm glad I did! I had a great time! Also, in my short time in Porto I met many couchsurfers (male and female) who had couchsurfed or hosted and had never had any major problems.

Before I even got to Porto, I knew my host was great because he told me he would call me and come meet me at the metro after he finished work. I arrived in the morning but walked around and then went back to the metro station in the evening. When my host called, he wished me Happy BDay, sweet of him to remember, and then took me to a great restaurant where I had arroz con bacalhao (rice and saltfish/codfish), another rice, bean and seafood dish, crab/saltfish cakes and some other great food. On our walk to the resto he took me along a route that the locals take, with a lovely view of the Duoro river, and he explained the background to everything.

The food at the resto was excellent and cheap! Another benefit of going out with locals is that they know the cheap but good places. With regards to food, Portuguese people love their seafood. That was fine by me as I love seafood. In my entire time since I left Canada I ate no fish or seafood (except that time I mentioned when I had shrimp appetizers). However, while in Portugal, I had seafood at least once per day and it was all good.

My gracious host had a very big and very nice apartment right in the centre of the city so I didn't need the 3-day metro pass I had bought as a precaution just in case what he said about being in centre wasn't exactly correct. After being in Paris, the city of 8 metres square rooms, anything would look big but his apartment was truly big for just one person. Plus, it had a big balcony! And it was nice. And it was very well decorated. I think this was because he is an architect. Also, it was clean! A guy having a clean apartment was something to be celebrated in my books. Porto is a seaside city. I think because of this many of the houses that were by the beach remind me of Jamaica. They were nice and bright and didn't have carpets inside! The streets in the beach area also seemed more like Jamaica, wide but flanked by palm trees at times and sand and dirt, not just concrete like in Toronto or even Paris. In the houses and apartments it was nice seeing concrete floors again and not thinking I was gonna freeze to death.

Besides the sea area, there was the mainly older historic area to Porto. It including where I was staying. I found out that the city centre was declared a World Heritage Site. Every street there was cobbled and most of them extremely narrow. Oh and the hills. Let me not forget the hills. It reminded me of Montreal but much much worse with the great number of hills everywhere.

Good exercise though. After the first day walking around, my legs were sore. After the second day, they hurt a little and my last day there, I had no pain. Hmm, but I digress. I was talking about my first night in the city...

After the resto, my host took me to a bar where the young people and students hang out, so that I could meet and hang out with some of his friends and get introduced to the night life. They bought me a little cupcake (only type of cake selling at the bar), with a little candle and their famous little bottle of sweet wine called Moscatel de Favaios. Then they all sang Happy Birthday to me in Portuguese.

The wine at the bar was only 0.80 cents Euros a bottle and a cup of beer 1.00 Euro but, being cool Europeans, no one over drank. It was nice just sitting, drinking and talking. It had been raining when I got there earlier in the day and was still kinda chilly so everyone was apologizing for the unusually bad weather. Afterwards, at around midnight they invited me to a concert. I knew that my host had work the next day, plus I had not slept the night before, thanks to procrastinating as usual and doing last-minute packing. Thus, I told them I would pass. My host and I walked home with him telling me more about the city. From that night alone, I learned many Portuguese words. My birthday night ended with me being very happy and thanking God that I enjoyed myself.

The rest of my visit included doing sightseeing by day then hanging with my host and his friends at night on Friday, going home very late. Thankfully Friday and Saturday, while still too cool to go swimming at the beach, were sunny. Saturday was full of activities, guided tour from my host, going out, meeting people, café stop by the sea and two birthday parties (one with only Portuguese and the other with a mix of Portuguese and international). At both parties and in general, I was welcomed like an old friend. Everyone in Porto is very friendly. Maybe it's because I had my own personal and local tour guide. I heard lots of portuguese but most people knew english so we could converse. Anyways, we didn't get home until 4:30am and then talked for an hour before going to sleep for 2 hrs as I had to get to the airport the next day. He even woke up with me and walked me to the train station although I told him he did not have to. Needless to say, I think my host was awesome. He had a very active social life and was exactly what I wanted in a host - someone who could show me the city as they live it. I think if people came to visit me in Paris, or even worse, in Toronto, I would not have even half as many fun activities for them (besides sightseeing).

Other noteworthy things I remember from Porto besides the expected (beach visit, eating by the riviera, winery visit, walking the cobbled streets, etc) were visiting a cool concept mall with independent trendy art, furniture and fashion stores where they serve loads of champagne all over the mall and apparently do this every weekend, laughing at jokes made by drunk Portuguese speaking in half-portuguese half-english and when some got pretty drunk a smattering of french (bday party), drinking tea in a cool tea place, having a 3-language conversation with some guy who approached me. He spoke Portuguese and I was speaking to him in my very poor spanish. He was actually selling sunglasses. I bargained with him and got a nice pair for what I think were a good price but I'm the worst haggler so I don't really know. Anyways, from this exchange we ended up speaking for like half hour. With him speaking portuguese to me and I in spanish to him, we were fine and went on like this for a good 15 minutes. Then I learned he had a Senegali background so we switched to french. I LOVE EUROPE!

1 comment:

Case No. 3KY687p said...

That is so fucking awesome that you had such a great time. Wow, and your host was so effing amazing. Is that just how Europeans are, 'cuz I can't imagine that happening in the U.S.

What a wonderful adventure; bravo for trusting yourself and not listening to "dissident voices" : )
I gotta try this couchsurfing thing sometime! You've inspired me!