lessons in hospitality

A huge part of why our journey thus far has been so amazing is the kindness and hospitality that we’ve been shown by others. Whether it be by chance, old friendships, ultimate, or couchsurfing, our trip has been blessed by other people who have been our travel angels.

Perhaps the greatest traveling lesson I’ve learned thus far is how helpful it is to explore a new place with a local. They can help you avoid getting ripped off, find all the best food spots, and give recommendations on all sorts of things from how to get around, sights to see or avoid, and what the craziest local dish to try is. They’re also useful for learning about a place’s culture and understanding what life is like for them. And, greatest of all, having a friend in a new place makes traveling so much better.

 

couchsurfing
For the uninitiated, couchsurfing is a community of people around the world who are committed to connecting travelers with one another. Hosts are people who welcome travelers into their home at no cost (besides in-kind gifts, if the surfers so choose), offer a bed or couch to sleep on, and help share their hometowns. Every host is different in terms of what they expect from surfers; some prefer to interact with their guests in a sort of cultural exchange, but some expect nothing in return for their hospitality. Some will show you around town, and some may never see you. 

Though we’ve only legitimately couchsurfed twice, we’ve been able to meet up with many more couchsurfers who have been so friendly and helpful to us. Prior to this trip, I had no experience with the CS community, but all of the CS people we’ve met thus far on the trip have inspired me to actively become  a host once I get back to the States. I don’t know if I could ever be as good a host as the ones who helped us, but I certainly hope to be!

In El Nido, Philippines, we met couchsurfer Efren. He was unable to host us because he was already hosting another surfer, but he scored us a deal on a bungalow on the beach right next to his place. He gave us great advice on things to do in the area and helped us figure out how much to pay for even the most mundane things. The best part was he organized a DIY camping trip to a remote island for us and several others! Efren is also an amazing and inspiring traveler who will soon be attempting to travel around Southeast Asia with no money. By comparison, our trip seems so easy compared to what he is about to undertake!

We stayed with Hoang in his amazing former-pharmaceutical-factory-turned-industrial-chic loft in Hanoi, and he was an amazing host who shared experiences with us that we never could have anticipated prior to this trip. More recently, we stayed with Omar in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and he took us to an amazing satay stall our first night there. The next day, he drove us to the Thai Pusam festival at Batu Caves before showing myself and Cara around the city, including a stop in the Central Market where he waited while we did a dorky little art project (think Canvas & Cocktails without the cocktails….). We could have made our way around the city on our own, but he was happy to share his day off with us and show us around.

In Ha Giang in northern Vietnam, Matt was able to get information on buses to and from Dong Van from Thao, the only couchsurfer in that part of the country, via couchsurfing messages and text. There is hardly any information online about public buses in Vietnam, so it was nice to have a local confirm prices and scheduling for us. As we were waiting in the pitch dark for the bus at 4:30am, who shows up at our hotel? None other than Thao who had just hopped off a 6-hour bus from Hanoi! Even after a long and painful bus journey, she had come straight to find us and make sure that we got on our bus to Dong Van alright. And she invited us to come hang out with her when we returned the next day and had time to kill before catching our overnight bus back to Hanoi. When we took her up on her offer, she let us rest and shower at her parents’ place, made us a delicious lunch and dinner, and took us on a hike. All this when we had just wanted some information on the buses!

Later in Vietnam, we were lucky enough to roll into Hoi An the same night as the weekly CS meetup run by Allister. There, we met Allister and Kong. Throughout our meandering stay in Hoi An, these two would frequently check in on us to make sure we were getting along alright and if we needed help with anything (i.e. finding the best food) or just wanted company. In Hoi An, it is actually illegal to host foreigners at your place, so couchsurfing is a risky venture. While we didn’t actually stay with these people, both Allister and Kong were incredibly hospitable to us and took us to all the best street food places. More importantly, hanging out and getting to know the two of them and how they find Vietnam (Allister is originally from the Philippines, and Kong is Malaysian by way of Holland) was really fun and interesting. I think part of the reason I loved Hoi An so much was because of these two and how friendly and welcoming they were.

In Cameron Highlands, Malaysia, we stayed with Troji at his unopened hostel. Troji had hosted dozens of couchsurfers in previous years but had recently decided to open his own hostel at his parents’ flower farm. We were among the first guests to stay at the Westwood Highland hostel while the place was still having finishing touches put on it. Even though we were paying guests and not couchsurfers, Troji went out of his way to make us feel comfortable and welcome and gave us advice on things to do in the area. He picked us up from the bus stop, gave us advice on how to hitch hike and to where, and took us out to the night market in Cameron. He even helped us acquire durians for our first tasting of the disgusting fruit! Troji is part of the reason I think Malaysians are some of the friendliest people in the world.

ultimate players
Our initial rough itinerary had us following the Southeast Asian ultimate tournament circuit for the first few months, and it has turned out to have been so much more useful than we had anticipated. I thought that it would be cool to play ultimate occasionally, and it has been, but the best part of ultimate is meeting like-minded and kindred spirits. The ultimate community the world over is full of adventurous and friendly players who all share a love of chasing plastic. I am so grateful to be part of such a great group of people.

In Manila, we were fortunate enough to have gotten connected with Lester, a pillar of the Southeast Asian ultimate community. Everyone knows him, and he put us on his team for Manila Spirits which introduced us to many Filipinos who were extraordinarily friendly and helpful throughout Matt and I’s stay in the Philippines. We also met countless other ultimate players from Southeast Asia who, without fail, offered to host us or help us should we ever end up in their corner of the world. Having such warm and welcoming people introduce us to Southeast Asia was a great way to ease into our adventure.

I can’t even list all of the ultimate players who we’ve come across in our travels who have helped and welcomed us. But, in Singapore, we reunited with two players who blew us away with their hospitality. Bryan was on our team for the Manila Spirits tournament, and he told us then that if we happened to make it to Singapore during our travels to let him know. When we did, he and his girlfriend Nadine took us out to an amazing dinner before walking around the Marina Bay area with us. We spent the night enjoying delicious foods that they ordered for us and that we would never have ordered on our own, and then we spent the rest of the evening walking around and talking with them about their lives in Singapore and our own back home.

The very next evening, Matt and I went to play in the local pickup game and were reunited with Maureen, a friend Matt had made playing indoor ultimate with back in Denver. Maureen had studied at DU for two years, and she came out to play with us that evening before she and her brother and another ultimate player, Matt, took us to dinner. After figuring out what few Singaporean dishes we hadn’t eaten yet (a short list), they took us to get bak kut teh (a pork rib soup), which was delicious. Then, they took us to get dessert: Milo Godzillas (Milo chocolate milk with powdered chocolate on top… with a scoop of ice cream!) and apple-cinnamon pratas, an Indian dessert that we’d never had and immediately hoped we could find back in Denver when we get home. Imagine a doughy crepe with apples baked in it and dipped in curry. It sounds weird but was incredible.

Having these two groups show us around Singapore was awesome, and I loved being able to spend time with them and talk about ultimate and life. We only spent two nights in Singapore, and each night, we had these great people showing us around. The ultimate community in Southeast Asia has been such a blessing for this trip!

old friends
Seven years ago, right out of college, I worked for Deloitte Consulting. It was overall a very poor experience, but there is a silver lining to everything. For me, the miserable eight months I spent there were completely worth the friendships I made; several of my closest friends today are from that period in my life. One of them is Thiti.

Thiti was my “counselor” at Deloitte. That’s corporate-speak for cat-herder. His role was to make sure that I knew what was expected of me and to guide me on my path to becoming a corporate tool.  He was also from the Denver office and on the same project I was staffed on in Houston, which meant that I spent a good six months traveling to and from Texas with him.  Despite my issues with the company, Thiti and I always got along really well. In those dark days at the office, he was always there to make me laugh and cheer me up. If it hadn’t been for Thiti and the rest of our team at that project, I probably wouldn’t have lasted even those eight months. He and our other teammates in Houston taught me everything I know about business traveling and points systems, and they helped sharpen my penchant for snarkiness (you’re welcome). Thiti and I still meet up at least once a year to share our love of the snow and hit the slopes.

Long before I ever started traveling the world, Thiti told me that if I were ever to visit Thailand, wait until he was back in his homeland and could show me around. Seven years later, I finally took him up on his offer. He isn’t even living in Thailand right now, but he is traveling to a project in Australia and happened to be in Bangkok for a week that coincided with our dates for Thailand! He graciously offered to let us crash for a few nights at his parents house with him and has been driving us around for two days after he finishes working in the mornings. He has taken us around to some of the major sites in Bangkok and also waited around patiently while we do the tourist thing.

Thiti’s parents also happen to be the cutest people in the world. His dad, Thanes, is 80, and his mom, Noi,  is 77. They are so incredibly excited to have us staying with them, and they have been such wonderful hosts. Each morning, we wake up to a table full of plates and plates of fruit and rice and dessert that we couldn’t even dream of finishing. On our first night, they played the accordion for us while we ate dessert. They have brought us all manner of toiletries and gone out of their ways to make us feel comfortable in their home. Noi has been trying to teach me a little Thai (she also knows Vietnamese, Mandarin, and Laotian), and Thanes ran around the restaurant our first night here trying to get the servers to hurry up because we were hungry. It’s clear that they love having people in their home and making sure everyone is comfortable and happy.They are so incredibly nice that we have been at a loss as to what we could possibly do to repay their kindness. We asked Thiti for advice on things that they might like, but he said that they are just so happy to have us as guests that there’s nothing more we could do!

Everyone who has hosted us has shown us such openness and trust with letting us into their homes and lives, and I’m so grateful to have met so many hospitable people. I grew up with a much different mentality: strangers were not to be trusted, much less  allowed into the home. This trip has shown me a completely different approach: instead of fearing others, being open and welcoming to weary travelers who are far from home. In Malaysia, two older Chinese ladies picked the three of us up while we were hitch-hiking. They didn’t even speak the same language as us, but they just saw people looking for some help, and they didn’t hesitate to let us hop in with them! I wish we were as trusting back in the states. Hopefully these experiences will help change my view when I’m back in Denver. For me, the hospitality that we’ve been shown on the road has helped the world seem like a much friendlier place.  

About lisa

28-year-old Asian-American hailing from Denver, Colorado, USA. Traveler. Adventurer. Ultimate frisbee player. Snowboarder. Photographer. Giffer. Blogger. Sarcastic / snarky / sassy comment-maker. Fond of eating, sleeping, and wandering.

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