December 12, 2008

Backpacking with a Baby while CouchSurfing Eastern Europe
Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Traveling by oneself teaches you to laugh at problems.
Traveling with a friend teaches you compromise.
Traveling with a lover teaches you to find a comfortable bed.
Traveling with an infant teaches you patience, planning and sacrifice.

CouchSurfing

As difficult and bizarre as the concept of perpetually backpacking with a newborn seems to be for most people, most of my initial stresses in Eastern Europe weren't about Aidric, but associated with accommodation and budget. Although I managed to place us in some truly wonderful locations, we were still hemorrhaging cash at levels that seemed far from the shoestring lifestyle that we felt we were living.

Something had to be done about it, and that something has been (and will continue to be) an amazing chapter in my life as a wanderer of this planet.

Known as the CouchSurfing Project, or simply CouchSurfing (or CS), the project Web site is a social network of outgoing individuals (couples, groups and families) seeking out exchanges of culture and hospitality. You locate a potential host by evaluating their profile page, contacting them, and (hopefully) after some brief correspondence regarding arrival date/time and duration are welcomed into their home as a guest, free of charge.

CouchSurfing has been an integral part of our survival in Eastern Europe, not only from a budgetary standpoint, but from a family one as well.

CouchSurfing: Balancing Knowledge and Time

Urban backpacking in Europe conjures up mental images of overcrowded hostels stuffed with dormitory rooms of intoxicated travelers. By renting space in apartments and in guesthouses far, far away from the tourist trail we successfully avoided such things, but it came at a price. CouchSurfing has allowed us to have the all the perks of a home, without having to endure the $30/night rates for dorm beds in the same city.

How well does a normal tourist really get to know a local?
How do you even meet locals?
A look… but not a taste. A taste… but not a meal.

My approach to CouchSurfing has always been about the people, not the city they're in or a prescribed path that I'm trying to follow. For me, it's not about seeing places (for there's little that I feel compelled to see in these places), but being a part of the country; absorbing it through our proximity to our hosts, and the lives they lead.

CouchSurfing has restored the balance to my required daily quotient of knowledge and exploration. As a (solo) independent traveler, I use to spend hours upon hours every day walking the streets and exploring the city or nearby villages and towns. With an infant in the mix, nearly every waking hour is now dedicated to, or shared with, the care and maintenance of the baby. It's very unusual to be outside for more than two or even three hours per day (it's not only tiring carrying him around everywhere, but the supplies to do so must also be brought with).

Imagine a balance scale. On one side you have a thirst for the local country that you're traveling within, and on the other all the other internal and external forces that take time away from your day (be it sleep, a lover, book, drinking, Internet, etc).

Every day, right out of the gate, I'm trying find a balance between being these five things: a father, a boyfriend, an explorer, a writer, and a photographer. But with the majority of daylight hours consumed by the little one, I found myself wanting badly for more stimulation and knowledge.

So what does CouchSurfing do? It dumps knowledge and conversation on you. It gives you more than you can possibly digest, and then it attempts to give you some more. Instant cultural immersion, oddities explained, questions answered, access to local insights, and regular Internet access—it can be a powerfully educational experience, but beware! It also steals your time.

CouchSurfing: A Lack of Personal Time

Between being a father to Aidric during the day and a proper guest to our CouchSurfing host(s) in the evening, there just didn't seem to be enough hours in the day for everything. Normally evenings times when the baby is asleep is the time for personal and private moments, but with continuous, back-to-back CouchSurfing sessions, all these other balls in the air seemed to begin to hit the ground.

These were aspects of my life that I loved very much. I needed my relationship to be strong, to be an attentive boyfriend. I needed to keep my travelogue current, and to spend the time necessary photographing (and retouching photos of) my son and my environment.

All these things are very important to me, and it's a sad thing when you've got to prioritize your days in a manner that can't fulfill all aspects of your life. This is a part of travel that I'm very unaccustomed to.

So what happened? I started passing on intimate time with Tatiana to write, or (more commonly) skipped writing to spend time with her or late nights with our hosts. Some days you just pass out at 9:30 in the evening from the exhaustion of it all, only to be awoken by your infant son in the predawn twilight (like he does every morning).

For over 100 nights we've been staying in the homes of others, and I fear there is no solution to this other than to mix CouchSurfing with hostel/hotel life. But that prospect is so expensive in this region that just a handful of nights in such a place would nearly equal the spending for an entire month while 'Surfing.

CouchSurfing brings with it luxuries that we need, like a kitchen, washing machine, and conversation with others, but reduces (or removes) our privacy and free time. Days can still be miserably repetitive.

But CouchSurfing has allowed us to continue traveling in this region. Without it, we'd be gone a long, long time ago.

The Hardest Part about Travel with a Baby: No Childproof Zone

Even with an infant in tow, Eastern Europe has been one of the easiest places on the planet I've ever traveled. We've made friends and changed the way people look at travel and children.

Of course it takes a certain type of personality travel like this, but to add exotic diaper purchases, foreign languages and alphabets on packaging, making all your baby food by hand, and a constant lacking of product or produce availably into the mix, a traveling parent must not only be patient and open minded, but adaptable and innovative.

This type of travel is stressful and far from carefree. There's quite a difference when comparing it with that of an independent lifestyle, versus that of with a girlfriend, versus that of with an infant. Many days feel a hundred times more stressful than any day an office job produced.

Simple things like finding the types of food to we want to prepare for Aidric and diapers that are somewhere between the outrageously priced Pampers and ineffective house brands are a challenge. Babies are hard enough when you've got your environmental variables locked down (you know where to shop for their food, clothes, etc), but since we're in a new town every week (or less), excess supplies are purchased when we can find them, and end up being carried along as an additional burden. Jumping out of a too-high train door with a 76-pack of diapers in one hand and 50 pounds of backpack on your front and back isn't exactly fun. (related: Essential Baby Backpacking Gear)

Never the less, I'm so pleased to be exposing Aidric to the types of textures, sounds, smells, and sights that a normal child might not ever see. He's not afraid of strangers or new rooms as he's got a new auntie and uncle at least every week, and although he doesn't know he just played with a small frog, I do, and that's pleasing. Urban cities are no place for children.

A naughty Aidric managed to climb from the sofa/bed atop a dresser

So we struggle to find peace between the meal battles, maintenance, and traumatic crawling experiences. Having no crib or safe haven for Aidric only adds to the stress of it all, as one parent can't go shower while the other makes breakfast. Someone always has to be minding the child, as he easily gets into trouble in the homes of others. There's always something he's trying to put in his mouth, always something that's too dirty or too sharp or too dangerous.

All three of nearly always sleep in the same bed (sometimes it's just a single, or an expandable couch). Neither of us like having to sleep away from each other, but sometimes putting Aidric in between us (or sleeping head to foot) is the only way we can fit and keep him safe (from rolling off the bed).

I personally yearn for a time when I'd get wake up of my own accord again (instead of being woken up every morning like it's Christmas Day).

But we push on. For this is what I do, and by proximity, my small family does. This lifestyle of perpetual travel with an infant isn't an easy one, but damn, do I love it.

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