Couchsurfing

About a week after I came back to Brazil, I journeyed back to my hometown of Santana do Livramento, on the border with Uruguay. My mum and my sister were going to Rio on holiday and I agreed to house and pet-sit. I was quite looking forward to having the house, the dogs and the cats to myself – it would feel like a much needed break. I’ve been freelancing as a translator since I left Scotland in 2012 and although I’ve travelled a fair bit during this time, my life has been so erratic that it’s easy to forget to simply have time off every so often.

Staying at home in Livramento in the summer now doesn’t have the same feel as it did when I was younger, though. Most of my old friends have moved away and the entertainment options are very limited. I tried to organise a group reading of a play, the South American version of a project run by my Edinburgh peers, but no one turned up. It would be a long month, even though it was February.

Then it occurred to me: my couchsurfing profile had been on the “I can’t offer you a couch” mode for a while – what if I turned it back on? I switched it to “yes, I have a couch for you”, thinking no one would request to stay there. People who can locate Livramento on the map are generally just coming from Porto Alegre or other parts of my home state to buy cheap booze, cosmetics and clothes in the Uruguayan duty free shops – not really the couchsurfing type. To my surprise, I received a request a couple of days after that, from an Australian dude.

This poor lad had probably met someone with a wicked sense of humour while visiting Buenos Aires, for this person recommended Rivera/Livramento for a fabulous Carnaval experience. You see… my border isn’t exactly famous for its Carnaval festivities. In fact, we were not even going to have a street party this year. You can imagine why, exciting as it was, his request confused me. I told him he would be welcome, but tried to warn him that he’d be underwhelmed.

It wasn’t a complete disaster after all – Freg was an awesome guy, really easy to chat to, involved with art, theatre and politics. As it happens, Rivera had a bit of action to offer and we managed to see some of their street party with samba and candombe groups. I shipped him away to Rio to see the real thing after a few days, and he drew me this lovely thank you card, showing a pair of candomberos and a funny numbat eating a golden butterfly:

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Transculturalism at its best

Then the requests kept coming in. I never thought Livramento would be this popular. One of the many things I like about couchsurfing is that it attracts the artsy community. So after my Aussie friend Freg, I hosted a pair of lovely Uruguayan backpackers: Alicia, who was just getting started with her travels, and Kobe, a tango dancer and excellent baker. They only stayed for one day, but had great chat.

A few days later and already into March, I got a beautiful birthday present: couchsurfers Rodrigo and Gabriela (no, not those ones), two talented filmmakers based in Curitiba, in the Brazilian state of Paraná. I remember the moment I spotted Gabriela’s big smile outside and (cheesy at this may sound) knew we would become good friends. Again, the time they spent in Livramento was very short, but the hilarity was immense. Rodrigo and Gabriela overlapped with Cristóbal, my last couchsurfer of the season. A music producer hailing from Chile, Cristóbal had been travelling around South America collecting data about each country’s folk music for his Latiendo America project. He’d been to Argentina and Uruguay and decided to enter Brazil through Livramento. I helped him contact local musicians and took him to a radio station to be interviewed about the project, it was all rather cool. He moved on, travelling across Brazil all the way up north and as I type this, he’s on his way to Paraguay.

Some people are a bit suspicious of couchsurfing, but I’ve only had good experiences with it, both hosting people and being hosted by them. I have made new friends, learned about their countries and others they had visited, and have encountered a handful of interesting journeys and projects. In spite of the surprising popularity when I switched my couch back to available, the practice is still not widespread in Brazil. My friends from Curitiba have recently worked on a documentary about their own experience, which might help people trust couchsurfing a bit more over here.

I left Livramento after that month and went back to being in a different place every couple of weeks, so I’ve turned the availability of my couch off until I have a more permanent base again. If you’ve considered using it at some point but weren’t too sure, go for it. It’s a great way of making new connections and expanding horizons.

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A Frog and Sealions Tale in Cabo Polonio

When the time came for me to leave Edinburgh again at the end of September 2013, I felt like the dog in this video:

 

However, I had a couple of visitors and some South American travelling to look forward to. My mate Neale had moved to Canada when  summer started and one day, I randomly got an email from him saying he had found some cheap flights from Toronto to Buenos Aires, and if he could come visit, as that is kinda near where I am. I promptly agreed and when the time came, I took the bus from Rivera to Buenos Aires and met up with him there.

We had a fab time in Argentina and made a few new friends at the hostel, went to the football, and consumed our combined body weights in meat. Took the ferry across to Colonia, in Uruguay, a very beautiful town. Then the bus down to Montevideo for another day, tried to sneak into a sold out football match, failed. And then we went to Cabo Polonio. This is a coastal village in the south of Uruguay, tucked away behind sand dunes that can only be traversed by 4×4, on horseback or on foot. There are about 60 houses there and most of them have their own wind turbine or solar panel, and some of them simply don’t have anything. The ‘streets’ aren’t paved, they’re just paths in the sand, and obviously, there are no street lights either. It’s one of those typical places where you go to “find yourself”, which is what we felt like we were doing sat at the foot of the lighthouse watching the sealions sealioning about and talking about life’s mysteries for a whole morning. Cliché as it may sound, I think everyone needs to do that sort of thing once in a while to reboot the system.

This is hardly a coincidence, as there are only about 5 hostels in the village, but we ended up unknowingly staying at the same hostel that two of my actresses had stayed a few months before, after we finished our Fronteiras Explorers project. Chatting to the owner, I told them that I had a theatre company in Scotland and he mentioned them. You know those “must be the same people we’re talking about” moments… yeah, that. And despite having had to spend the whole night with a frog on the wall looking at me in my dorm, then in the morning decided to go inspect my boots and finally thought it was a good idea to jump into my bag (at which point I caved and called in the cavalry – gracias, Luis!), I had a lovely and much-needed quiet time to regain my strength and plan the next steps.