My dream to come back to the Middle East after a six-year absence came true by accident. Last summer, I was scheming for ways to find cheap flights from Asia to America…and what I found surprised me. An Abu Dhabi stopover was the answer to saving hundreds of dollars on my trip. Here’s how I spent my 24 hours in the United Arab Emirates on a budget.
Sleep off jetlag by Couchsurfing in a villa
Not only was I on a tight student’s budget, but I also wanted to experience Emirati culture firsthand. What better way to do this than by Couchsurfing?!
Many women are afraid to do this in the Middle East. However, if you follow proper Couchsurfing etiquette, you will have a wonderful experience. My host was very respectful and open.
Even though I went to bed right away and he had to go to work the next day, he was kind enough to go back to his apartment at lunch to take me to a traditional Middle Eastern restaurant. From there, he offered to drop me off at the beach so I could relax for a couple of hours until he was out of work.
At night, he gave me a tour of downtown Abu Dhabi and took me to the spectacular Sheikh Sayed Mosque. I wouldn’t have had it any other way!
Relaxing afternoon at Saadiyat Island
Opening hours: 8 a.m. until sunset; AED 50 per adult includes lounger.
My 3 p.m. arrival to Saadiyat Island’s public beach was surprising. The blinding-white powdery sand and sky-blue waters could have fooled me into believing I was in Florida. That is until I noticed that less than 10 of over 300 sun loungers were occupied.
The weekly beach yoga class wasn’t in session that day, but I experienced my own kind of zen. I decided to forgo the eco-friendly water sport activities and just relax until sunset. It was, by the way, one of the most beautiful I’ve seen anywhere in the world.
Sheikh Sayed Mosque, the highlight of my Abu Dhabi stopover, is one of the most spectacular places I have ever visited. It is even more special if you visit within an hour of its closing time, like I did. While its grandeur flabbergasted me, it was its special aura that touched me deeply. I coined it 82 Domes of Holiness, as that also happens to be one of its key architectural features.
Also known as UAE’s Grand Mosque, it is the third-largest in the world. It is estimated that as many as 40,000 people may kneel underneath its Swarovski-Crystal chandeliers during Eid and other important Muslim holidays.
My transatlantic journey wouldn’t have been the same without my Couchsurfing host. Between hotel rooms, taxis, and guided tours, I would have spent more money on this stopover than I would have saved if I booked a shorter flight itinerary. Thank you, Adel!
Welcome back to part 2 of my “Solo Female Traveler Winging It in Thailand” series! This week I delve deeper into my Couchsurfing Chiang Mai experience, so you know what it’s really like to surf a couch… alone. With a guy.
While I have already told you about the different attractions and things to do in this charming old town, Quebec City Couchsurfing was an experience in itself. For 4 days, I stayed in a neighborhood north of Rue Saint-Jean and Avenue Turnbull (up the hill) and it was the perfect solo trip. And then some 🙂
me in front of Château Frontenac, Québec City
My Quebec City Couchsurfing experience: The arrival
It was a gray, chilly, rainy summerday. “Worst day ever,” I thought. After being lost, wet, and cold for over 30 minutes looking for her apartment, I wasn’t in the best of moods. Until…
FOUND it! Not only that, but as soon as the door opened, warmth overtook me. My host, a Polish translator who also spoke Spanish and French, had invited over her best friend, who happened to be an Argentinian studying languages in Québec City, so she could meet me. The welcome included plenty of Spanish discourse, hot apple cider tea, and Polish beet soup. Suddenly, everything was all right. Everything was perfect.
Neighborhood I was Couchsurfing at in Quebec City!
Couchsurfing, I freaking love you.
What I experienced thanks to my Quebec City Couchsurfing host
Just about an hour into my warm Quebecois welcome, Kasia’s Argentinian friend had to go back to studying and my host herself had to get back to work (from home). Which meant only one thing: whether I wanted to or not, I had to go out and explore the city on my own.
“Oh, you must be cold dear. Here, take my waterproof parka, sneakers, and scarf. Oh! And don’t forget the city maps!”
Somehow, I was leaving my host’s apartment with a new wardrobe, scores of self-guided walking tour itineraries and maps to choose from, plusa full belly. AND I got to explore a new city and have the rest of the day all to myself.
My crazy layers! I wasn’t prepared for the cold…so Couchsurfer gave me what she had (sneakers included!)
I started heading south of Rue Saint-Jean and Avenue Turnbull, down the hill. The multiple cultures I encountered within the first five minutes shocked me. Why I don’t know, but it was wonderful. From an Eastern European international grocer to a French bakery and authentic Arab restaurants — it was a quaint version of a small New York City neighborhood. With much more character! And beautiful architecture…
the gorgeous cabaret theater by the entrance gate of Old Québec
the charming streets and architecture of Old Quebec City
Within easy walking distance was Vieux Québec. I made it back to Gare du Palais (central train station), now able to truly take it in as I wasn’t running toward a bus as to not freeze to death. From there, I ventured into the Marché du Vieux-Port (Old Port market) and couldn’t help but stuff my face with sweet macaroons. Continued down picturesque Rue Saint-Paul, Château Frontenac, all the way down to Basse-Ville — and North America’s oldest commercial street, Rue du Petit-Champlain.
MACAROONS, O heavenly macaroons!
me walking around Quartier du Petit Champlain! Impressive Château Frontenac in the background
Around 5 PM I figured I would like some company over dinner, so I headed back to my Couchsurfing host (Kasia’s), hoping she would be done with work so we could check out the Tunisian restaurant I walked by on my way to Old Québec. I did so by taking the long way though: along Terrasse Dufferin, up La Citadelle, past the Parliament Building…
Terrasse Dufferin, the beautiful boardwalk with gorgeous views of the sound Lawrence River and nearby towns
Tunisian dinner — and free BYOB! — at Restaurant Carthage
No corkage fee and an incredibly sumptuous Tunisian dinner in an unreal environment — plus an unexpected price! Little place I wouldn’t have seen unless I stayed with a local in Quebec City. Got some excellent, affordable red wine from a nearby shop and had a dinner for the ages: some relaxing hours talking about the beautiful world of translation, world affairs, and even got to practice my Arabic with the friendly server 😀 why don’t we dine like this in the U.S.?!
Tunisian lamb…couscous underneath!
the ambience and architectural details: just so so gorgeous
Another day, another adventure: French-Canadian style
I spent the next 3 days walking alternate routes around Old Québec, paying close attention to and lingering around landmarks I only took a photograph of on my first day. Favorite experiences include playing a mural scavenger hunt along Base-Ville; spending hours learning about the ambiguous Quebecois culture & history thanks to the Musée de la Civilisation‘s “People of Québec…Then and Now” permanent exhibition; and of course, eating rich, creamy duck confit poutineat Le Cochon Dingue… *sighs*
I want poutine. Right NOW…
Dinner would be even richer: traditional French-Canadian fare at the historical, fancy Aux Anciens Canadiensrestaurant. Better yet, go between noon and 5:45 PM in order to get an incredible three-course lunch or early dinner (including a glass of wine or beer!) for a fraction of their regular prices. Game-stuffed pies, thick seafood bisques, sweet cream brulés, and a turnip soup that could lift the spirits of the dead–perfect for the unusually-cold summer I experienced:
the turnip and honey soup that could lift the spirits of the dead
traditional Quebecois pie made with bison, elk, and other wild game
UNREAL maple syrup pie. OMG
SO! My Quebec City Couchsurfing review equals…the perfect solo trip?
I know many solo travelers overlook Couchsurfing because they feel they have to give up most of their independence during their trip. However, if you contact the busy busy bee as your CShost, you’ll get the best of both worlds! And so my Quebec City Couchsurfing experience was a perfect mix of self-guided walking tours, multicultural chatter, and exotic dinners shared only occasionally with someone just as passionate about languages and travel as I am.
St. Lawrence river view from Vieux Québec
What a perfect trip: can’t wait to go back!
Have you ever gone Couchsurfing? What was your experience like?
As I planned the Hippie Hajj trip I’m taking next month (more on that lata!), I realized something. While I have sung on rooftops about my love for Couchsurfing, I haven’t shared that many details about my individual stays. And so on this Travel Tuesday I decided to share my Toronto Couchsurfing review so you read firsthand of another amazing, unexpected experience!
Messages left by other couchsurfers on my host’s wall
Toronto Couchsurfing review, Act I: The Layover
Call me weird, but I absolutely ADORE those long, awkward layovers. Why? I have plenty of time to get out to the city and explore it in a whim! SO, when I had one of those overnight layovers on my way to Montréal, I was excited to contact Toronto Couchsurfing host Art to have some fun 😀
First off, he picked me up at the airport. How sweet is that? Second, because his roommate was away for the weekend, I got to have my own big bed and bedroom. Yay! Happens to me more often than not when Couchsurfing and I absolutely love it.
My host Art and me on his balcony, the morning of my flight (and BARELY any sleep)!
In the few short hours I got in that big city, he showed me all around Little Italy, we ate at some amazing halal place, and then…
OMG, that was incredibly fun. It felt like I was in the middle of Eastern Europe, in a warm toasty basement with long-lost friends. Don’t ask me for the name of the bar…*hides* I forgot! Sorry! One of the few things I remember is that we started drinking a lot of vodka, a lot of artisan beers, and between Latvian, Russian, Spanish, and Spanglish, we all kind of understood each other. We were meant to go salsa dancing afterward, but with bars closing at 2 AM around there (BOO!), we just went back to his place.
Good, because I would only have 3 hours of sleep before going back to the airport 😀
[no, he never tried to make a move on me. He was respectful. It was great.]
what my “couch” looked like while Couchsurfing Toronto!
Toronto Couchsurfing review, Act II: The Opera Singers
“No f**ing way.” I was definitely going to miss this one. After several people misled me around the massive Montréal bus station, somehow I made the Toronto bus by the skin of my teeth. Outside, it was about to drive away, but someone was kind enough to stop it. And to offer me a rock star seat with a table and all:
“Feel free to sit here!” or something like that he said. I was partly deaf from the hasty jaunt, my apologies. Anyway, after introducing ourselves, I found out Mr. Jonathan happened to be an opera singer, on his way back to Toronto to record his very first album with the CBC. Friggin’ sweet.
After he found out I was a couchsurfer who wouldn’t meet her couchsurfer host for another couple of hours, he offered lunch and a place to stay. Yup, that was my second Toronto Couchsurfing experience on the same trip! Out of the blue, when barely making a bus 🙂
My Toronto digs for the first few days, in the affluent Annex neighborhood
Yes, I even got a welcome raspberry champagne glass from my Couchsurfing host. Take THAT, Four Seasons
And it got even BETTER: his other friends were just as fun, and they showed me several different neighborhoods around the Annex. I even got to meet his opera singing uncle, who had a SWEET place in downtown Toronto and bake some traditional Italian recipesfor us (all while drinking great wine, of course):
Downtown Toronto digs
The rest of my days varied between scrumptious brunches and gay bar hopping. One at which, by the way, on a Thursday night I won the dancing contest (and a free shot. Haha).
Amazing brunch place in Toronto! Forgot the name, we were partying the night before…
OH! And on my last day, when I was supposed to check into my hostel and go to TBEX ’13? Jonathan allowed me to accompany him to one of his opera rehearsals before recording his album. I got to go inside the Conservatory of Music (I think that was the name?) and watch his one-on-one. It was amazing! He wasn’t happy with any of the clips I recorded, so I’m sorry about that 😉
my Couchsurfing host Jonathan, on his way to his opera rehearsal!
Homemade Thai curry lunch. It was AMAZINGLY tasty
In conclusion: STAY with couchsurfers in Toronto!
I’m sure I wouldn’t have found 97.9% of the places I experienced in Toronto if it weren’t for my Couchsurfing hosts. Sorry my stories were not that full of details… I guess when you’re having so much fun, you forget to take notes/many photos!? (This is horrible to say as a blogger, but that was the DETOX trip…!)
“Thanks for a spectacular night in Toronto! I will never forget my first trip to Canada”
Have you also had great Couchsurfing experiences? Share them with us!
Ahh, some great memories from hitchhiking and Couchsurfing Iceland! Not only did I get to stay in a house full of great locals (having my own room and computer) for 6 days in the middle of Reykjavik, but even hitchhiked with others we met at the corner Icelandic sub place. And partied with all of them right after. These little spontaneous moments are what make my trips so memorable.
Reykjavík by Andreas Tille
Iceland’s history is quite short in comparison to other European countries, as evidence of inhabitants only goes back to the 9th century. Incidentally, its first inhabitants seem to have been Norwegians, which settled in Reykjavik. Curiously, this happens to still be the country’s capital today.
Reykjavik, the world’s closest capital to the North Pole, is a cosmopolitan city that, at the same time, happens to be one of the “greenest” the world: 100% of the country’s electricity and approximately 80% of its total energy come from renewable sources, specifically geothermal and hydro-power. So fascinating! CO2 emissions are still high; yet, I believe this country is an example to be followed =) and talking about “green,” this reminds me of the following paradox, and favorite fact about Iceland: Greenland is mainly composed of ice, while Iceland is very green at least during the summer. Funny huh?
Geography and climate
Fortunately or unfortunately (the former to me!), I visited in the middle of winter, so landscapes were covered by a white blanket, reminding me of Santa Clause’s place! Which reminds me, Iceland is located almost too close to the Arctic circle for my (tropical) comfort. However, an interesting fact is that the Atlantic Ocean’s currents actually allow for relatively-pleasant seasons in Iceland and not the eternal, bitter coldness you would expect from a country with such geographical location. For instance, temperature fluctuated between -5 y -3*C (Celsius) approx. throughout my stay, while my friends in Boston, USA (significantly more south) were freezing, suffering temperatures below -9 C* plus windchill!!! Interesting how that works no?
Me! Odd formation at volcanic ash beach close to Vik, Iceland
Ahhh, I fell deeply in love with Iceland’s eerie geography. I never imagined I would encounter such landscapes, which seemed as if they were snapshots from a Winter Wonderland on a different planet. So cool!
landscape at melting glacier during Iceland travel tour
Reynisfjara volcanic ash beach, voted by NatGeo as one of the Top 10 most beautiful in the world
Well, now that I have given you a little overview of this fascinating country, let me tell ya about my awesome trip!
Accommodation = Couchsurfing!
Couchsurfing Iceland babay!! 😉 my host’s name was Asgeir, although in his town home several people lived and many others came in and out throughout the 6 days I was there. My travel buddy at the time was Marcello Arrambide, or @wanderingtradr on Twitter, which I convinced to take his Couchsurfing Virginity 😉 I think he enjoyed it more than I did, so real cool!
We had several options: Innumerable couches and air mattresses on the living room or our very own guest room, with free personal computer included haha =P it was great, our host Asgeir always had so many friends around and they were all locals, so we got a feel of what it was to know an Icelander, their lifestyle, etc. They were very talkative! Gave us some delicious smoked whale (couldn’t help myself!), even took us to an Icelander rave party which was awesome–we were the only tourists! Basically, nothing short of amazing. This was one of those stays that really made me understand what Couchsurfing really is about: Getting to see the country from the locals’ perspective, feeling their warmth, their knowledge, going to places only they go to, etc.
Icelandic electronic concert we went to one night
And talking about the locals, they were much more affectionate than I was expecting. I mean, they kissed me on the cheek and hugged me and were “touchy”! I said I wasn’t expecting this because I have always been told that Nordic people are a little more “cold,” which doesn’t mean less nice but rather that they are not as “touchy” sp in comparison to Latin Americans! But I was wrong, at least with the people I met. It was so so nice =) by the way, I noticed there are many Spaniards living and studying in Iceland and vice-versa (Icelanders in Spain). I noticed this as I walked the streets of Reykjavik, hearing several people engaged in Spanish conversations! Curious me of course peeked into one of these groups and had to ask, “where are you guys from!? It is odd hearing people speaking Spanish all the way up here!” and that’s what the Spaniards told me =)
Another episode or so to speak that always brings a huge smile to my face is the time Marcello and I hitchhiked in Iceland–because we were urged by some locals to do so! We were eating dinner at a corner Icelandic sub place when apparently, my big black curly hair grabbed the attention of two young women. They just approached me, introduced themselves and started giggling as they played with my curls. Then they just went on full interview mode, asking what we were doing in Iceland, where were we from, etc. hey liked us so much they said we had to party with them! *big grin* I just looked at Marcello and we gave each other the “Let’s go!” head shake!
Marcello and me with the locals that made us hitchhike!
And here’s where things got interesting: After barhopping, the girls wanted to go to a different place a little further down the road. They just grabbed our arms, pulled us to the middle of the main road and said “ok, we hitchhiking!” I was like “huh?” lol! Literally in like a minute or two, a random car stopped by, they spoke in Icelandic where we were “going” and then gently shoved us inside the strangers’ car lol! And those “strangers” weren’t any different: They asked us about our travels, how cool it was we were visiting their country, etc. Soon enough, we were off to another Icelandic party at the bar (far) down the road. Gotta LOVE it! lol!
Things to do in Iceland
Marcello between two continents: North American and European plates, the ridge!
Of course, Marcello and I had to do some touristy stuff as well *wink* we saw many sites thanks to the travel agency Go Travel Iceland. Our guide, Gummi, was absolutely brilliant and knowledgeable. The service is very personalized and we saw sooo many places in so little time! The most amazing part about this is that in our little mini van we reached places that not even those agencies with 4×4’s reached. I’m telling ya, Gummi is the driver. We were all super impressed! A little scary at parts, where we were like uhhhh are we reeeally going UP there in this mini van? lol. But so so worth it =D
Geysir explotion! (click to enlarge)
The Golden Circle tour
Thingvellir (the world’s very first first parliament!)
Haukadalur (geothermal area)
Kerið (a very impressive crater)
SEVERAL beautiful waterfalls
Among many other sites!!
South Coast tour (my favorite!!!)
No words to describe this tour, you MUST book it if you visit Iceland!!
Reynisfjara beach (black volcanic ash, voted by NatGeo as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world)
Me at Winter Wonderland! (click to enlarge)
And many other random photo stops
I cried when I saw the Aurora. It is so crazy how you literally can hear it “sing,” too! It makes sounds as it brushes the sky with beautiful green hues. Oh dear here we go, I’m teary-eyed again just reminiscing! =’) great thing about it is that if you don’t get to see them your first night, you get a second trip half-off (as of 12/09)! Also, we “hunt” for the aurora for much longer than other groups, which gave up quite early. On that light, you need to be patient and go with tons of layers. But the rewards? Life-changing =)
Blue Lagoon + airport transfer
Such a timesaver. Visit one of Iceland’s most popular attractions either when coming from or relating to the airport!
Aurora by Bruce Cowan (my pics didnt show it!)
me with silica mud mask at Blue Lagoon
I hope this is enough info to inspire you to visit Iceland some day, an amazing island indeed! If you have any questions or doubts about this country or my visit please do not hesitate to ask below in the comments section!
Have you hitchhiked or Couchsurfing Iceland? What was it like?!
So! I just came back from Couchsurfing in Orlando this weekend and was reminded, once more, of how wonderful is the community and how much spice they add to my travels, even locally! While I was absolutely exhausted from an all-day affair with NKOTBSB (VIP event + long freakin’ AWESOME concert!) and thus could not enjoy the city with my host as I usually would, it still put yet another smile on my face *grins* and so, I was inspired to write this post! Here you have a couchsurfing review and guide to get started =D (click on any picture to enlarge!)
Tram party in front of the Colosseum organized by my Couchsurfing host in Rome, Italy!
Are you a CouchSurfing Virgin? I’ll take it! For the past 3 years, this community has dramatically shaped the way I see people, other cultures, and life in general. Honestly, I don’t even quite remember how I found Couchsurfing. I do know, however, that it has changed my life. Seriously. My travel tales would have never been the same without the wonderful Couchsurfer, as they call themselves. And as the veteran Couchsurfer that I am, today I will introduce you to this popular subculture, hopefully brushing away your fears and taking your Couchsurfing virginity in the process *wink* I have taken it from several of my friends and they are all glad they did it with me (twss lol…), so I’m hoping this entry will do the same for you!
First, let’s start with a visual (right-click, open new window): Click here for my Couchsurfing profile.
Now that you have my profile as sample on a different window, keep reading this entry and put this window side-by-side with my profile so I can guide you through it!
Scroll down the page until you find a highlighted (light yellow) box saying “References.” I’ll start with that, as it is (in my opinion) the most essential feature of the site. Basically, you can “trust” the site as it has this feature, which happens to be similar to eBay’s feedback system. Here, you may read detailed references left by other Couchsurfers about your potential host or guest. They are categorized as positive, neutral or negative. This section is one of the deciding factors on whether I stay/meet up with the person or not. Not only do I look for positive references, but I also read them to make sure the Couchsurfer and I will be “a good fit” or so to speak. Needless to say, Couchsurfing is NOT a dating or free accommodation site. You stay or host people with the purpose of “traveling further” (if surfing) or “traveling without leaving home” (if hosting). This is a way of seeing and learning about a place from a local’s perspective, or a way of learning about a new culture from a traveler’s perspective. So, you want to make sure not only this person can be generally trusted, but also that you guys have some things in common so a connection is likely. See it as finding a travel buddy: While you may want someone different in order to learn new things, you also want to have certain things in common so you can connect. With all that said…
My couch in Rome, Italy!
Read a person’s profile thoroughly before accepting or sending a couchsurfing request. This will further confirm whether you have things in common or not with this potential host/surfer. Also, if surfing, read the Couch information section carefully. It can be found on the left side of the user’s profile, right under the picture and Couchsurfer’s general info/interests. Read the rules, understand them. If you don’t agree with them, it isn’t a good fit, so don’t stay with that person. This is where house rules are usually displayed, so make sure you agree with them prior to sending a request.
So! Read this far and think you are up for it!? Want to get started!? Let’s do it!
Step 1: Register on Couchsurfing.org and fully fill your profile. Add a picture, talk extensively about your travel style, your personality and interests (specially if you haven’t traveled much yet). Many CSers will not accept a couchsurfing request or request your couch (if you wish to host) if your profile is empty and without a picture. So be sure your profile is presentable and a bit of a reflection of your personality prior to exploring the site further.
Step 2: Once your profile is dully filled, hover your mouse over the “Surf / Host” tab, then click on “Tips.” Read this section carefully and understand the community.
Oskar, one of my CS hosts in Iceland, his gf, and me at a local rave concert they took me to. I look tiny!
Step 3: While you could go straight to waiting for surfers to request your couch or go to “Couchsearch” immediately, I recommend you gather some references either from friends of yours that are already CSers and got references on the site or by joining Couchsurfing events on your community. You can simply go to the “Community” tab and browse through groups in your area. If traveling, see what CSers are doing in that city. This way, it is more likely to get surfers or have CSers accept your couchsurf requests, as you will already have some “credibility” in the community by having some positive references stacked up. This is how I started in Egypt and it helped me not only with getting CSers to host me, but also for me to trust the community and understand it a little better prior to surfing.
Step 4: So you got some nice references decorating the wall of your Couchsurfing profile? Then start Couchsearching (found under the same Surf / Host tab) or wait for the surfers to start requesting your couch!
Step 5: If you are a surfer, this is for you! Once you click on Couchsearch, fill in the appropriate fields. The form is quite self-explanatory and the site easy to navigate, so you should have no problems. Now, once you submit this form, follow the advice given by Couchsurfing under the “Tips” section and what I told you about references and couch requests above.
with my CS host Angel in Madrid, Spain! Me on left
Step 6: Now let’s get to writing a Couchsurfing request! So you followed the tips? Read the couch information? Agree with the house rules? Now write your couchsurf request as personable as possible. Maybe comment on something you found funny on that Couchsurfer’s profile, or how you also visited Australia and loved it, or how you love dogs and can’t wait to meet his/hers. You get the deal! Also, read the couch info carefully more than once, as some Couchsurfers love to put “passwords” or keywords that you must insert into the couch request or else your request will be declined! For instance, I may say “please put ‘COLA’ on the title of your request so I know you read this section and my profile–or else I will not respond your request!” Some Couchsurfers go even further and hide this “password” somewhere in between their interests or even caption of their profile picture. So what’s the morale of the story: READ the profile and couch information carefully, more than once! Not only for the passwords, but this will simply let you know your potential host (or surfer!) fairly well so it is a blessing in disguise, really.
That should be enough for our Couchsurfing 101 course! I shall write some tales of my couchsurfing experiences worldwide later on, so stay tuned for more!
Have you ever gone Couchsurfing? If yes, tell me about an experience! If not, what else would you like to hear about Couchsurfing!?