Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Couchsurfing and travels in Bilbao

The first part of this entry is about people because they have been so important to the success of this, my first trip in Europe and my first long solo jaunt. There are photos and some more "travelogue" down below a bit....

I've had a very special trip, special in a way that  most of you have probably never experienced. I've been Couchsurfing. The organization I'm associated with, Couchsurfing.org, has been around for a while and has many thousands of members. The idea is that you stay with people, in their homes, in the countries you want to visit. The organization has a system built into it that allows and encourages one to leave references, short evaluations of the people you're encountered, so that others can know in advance if a potential host is trustworthy. (Ebay uses a similar system to rate buyers and sellers that are unknown to you.) If you've found someone especially trustworthy and in addition have met them in person, you can leave a special kind of reference; you may Vouch for him or her. Vouching is never done lightly. It is an indication that you trust this person very much.

Furthermore, the people who host you do not expect to be paid. They host people because they like doing so. They enjoy meeting people and showing them the place where they live. They enjoy sharing stories, especially travel stories, with others. And, if you're like me and speak only English, they will be invaluable in helping you find special places to visit, places that may or may not be in travel guides, helping you to use the Metro or the rail system, helping to understand the local customs, turning you on to their music and art scene, helping you enjoy the experience of visiting their area much more fully than you could ever do on your own. And sometimes you will find that you've made a new friend. That's perhaps the most fantastic thing about traveling this way. If you are open to this I can almost guarantee it will happen.

I have been extremely lucky to have been hosted by some fantastic and interesting people during this tour. I came to Europe because I had met a few folks in Fiji last spring and who lived in Paris, and I had a desire to learn something about my European roots. Teahana and Arnaud are not part of Couchsurfing.org but, hey let's be real, they might as well be. They put me up for 10 days in their small apartment near the Bastille in Paris and then they proceeded to show me Paris. They showed me Paris as only Parisians can. They didn't only suggest where to go and what to see, they actually came along and guided me; guided me through the Paris Metro system, took me to their local coffee shops and markets, made me feel totally at home in a city that otherwise might have remained foreign and unknowable. Thanks to them I learned to love Paris. I will return to stay with them for the last few days of my tour as my flight back to the states departs from Paris on 22 December. I'll enjoy finishing my trip in their flat, eating fine French cheeses with Arnaud, drinking some more of that excellent Cote du Rhone with Tea--and I feel fairly sure that will not the last time I'll see them.

Then I traveled to Berlin to my first true Couchsurfing host, Jana, who lives in the heart of Berlin near what to me is one of the most impressive war memorials I've ever seen, the Kaiser Wilhelm Church. I arrived and the first thing she did was to cook me a breakfast of bacon and eggs with coffee and toast. Pretty nice. She cooked some fantastic meals throughout my stay and acted as my tour guide, sending me to some of the best sites in Berlin. Plus, she helped me obtain my railroad tickets to Poland, my grandmother's birthplace, and then said, if you like, why don't you stop back here after Poland. There's lots more to see in Berlin. I did and there was.

Poland was the most difficult place to visit because so few people I encountered understood English. But Ewa (and Daniel), my host there, speaks perfect English and was really helpful and generous to the point that she gave over the office, the only private space in their very nice but tiny flat, for four days. My trip to Dobrzyki is covered in another blog entry but I must admit I'm not sure that visit would've happened without the generosity of this wonderful young woman. I didn't have too much interaction with her husband Daniel because he doesn't speak any English but he was also very gracious and reconfigured his wireless Internet so that I could get online.

I had a great time in Amsterdam but rather than Couchsurfing there I stayed in a nice, budget hotel there, the Euphemia. It was ideal in many ways; it is close to the major museums, my favorite neighborhood the Leidseplein,  and not that far from the bustling downtown area and the bars and cafes in and around the Red Light District. Oh, and of course, the Mellow Yellow Coffeeshop and the Little Coffeeshop were literally only a few steps away. While Couchsurfing is a very cool way to travel, I wanted to occasionally be in a place where I could keep my own hours and do my own thing.

And then I chanced to come to Bilbao, Spain, which is where I'm writing this. The connection with my host here was not through Couchsurfing but, as with Tea and Arnaud, because I had met Naroa in Fiji where she was one of the dive instructors with whom I made my first scuba dive. Naroa since quit her job in Fiji and happened to be home in Bilbao when I contacted her to ask if she would be willing to host me. She said, come ahead. It was a wonderful visit. Below is a photo of Naroa and her best friend and traveling buddy, Ainara:

Naroa and Ainara

Naroa has spent much time with me, taking me on walking tours of her hometown and bringing me into her circle of close friends. Her best friends Ainara and Fanny and flatmate Marta, have been super friendly and relaxed. When we drove out to San Sabastian they had the music going in the car and were rocking out just as though I were another girlfriend. They were playing music by Spanish group Los Delinqüentes. However, I was surprised to learn that Naroa's favorite group is Dire Straits, a group that I count among my own favorites, and that she has all their stuff. It was fun to be around all that good female energy and to see how they relate to one another. We've had a great time together and mostly because of them I've had a fantastic visit to this part of Spain. Below are a couple of photos from a little ride we took out to the ocean at Elixaide about 15 miles from downtown. Here is a view looking west toward the estuary that leads back to Bilbao.

Earlier we had crossed that estuary on one of the strangest bridges I've ever seen, the Puente Vizkaya Bridge. It is, in fact, the only "bridge" of its kind in the world. Once the crossing starts you'd bet you were on a ferry of some sort but you're actually in a gondola suspended by cables from the superstructure above. Check it out (click on the image to see it full size). It can carry about 8 cars at one time. The bridge was built in 1888, destroyed during the Spanish civil war, then rebuilt in 1941. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Puente Vizkaya Bridge

The next few pictures are from our visit to San Sabastian. This is a resort town and in the summer is crowded with tourists from Bilbao and elsewhere.

Here are a few shots of the street scene in San Sabastian and a couple of us in a cafe, eating pintxos, of course, drinking canas, short beers the gals like to drink, and red wine:

San Sabastian street scene
Here's a great shot of Fanny. As I have said in a previous post, I wish I were 20 years younger (among my group of friends, who doesn't?), because if I were I would be chasing after this vivacious and beautiful woman for sure.


Below is one of Fanny and Ainara, and then a shot of the four of us in a cafe at San Sabastian:


Naroa, me, Fanny and Ainara

Noted on 12 December: I want to add a note here concerning smoking, both dope and tobacco, in Spain. It is very common to find people smoking cigarettes in restaurants both in Bilbao and Barcelona. Also, marijuana, while officially illegal, is smoked as well. In Bilbao at least, it's often mixed with tobacco but nevertheless, you see it all the time. I reckon there's a helluva lot of cigarette smoking going on in Europe compared to the U.S. Although I haven't spent much time in a big American city recently I'm pretty sure smoking has dropped off in popularity nationwide. Not so here. Practically everyone you see is either smoking or getting ready to light up. People smoke on their bikes, on their motorcycles, in their cars, on the streets, and as I said, in restaurants and bars. If this offends you, perhaps you shouldn't visit Spain.