A couch potato's guide to couch surfing

A couch potato's guide to couch surfing

A couch potato's guide to couch surfing

WHAT’s that? Heard about this practice of lodging with complete strangers while on a trip abroad? Aneesha Coelho gives you the low down on couch surfing

 I first heard of couch surfinvg back in 2007. I’d just returned from two and something years in Australia, and my cousin and his new bride (who live in Mangalore) were planning a trip across Europe. Couch surfing? I wondered what that entailed. It sounded suspiciously like a sport where competitors laze on couches in front of massive widescreen TVs and channel surf, the prize going to whoever can do it for the longest (a sport in which, I might add, if it did exist, I would instantly and undisputedly become champion of the world).

Arjun (the cousin), clarified that “couch surfing” actually refers to the practice of temporarily lodging with a stranger — free of charge, unless you count being incessantly sociable as payment. He and his wife, along with some four million others, are members of couchsurfing.org, a hospitality exchange network that pairs travellers looking for a place to crash with locals willing to accommodate them or perhaps just meet for a beverage.

There are members in every country, including North Korea, Pakistan, and the Vatican, and also in Antarctica. They speak, all told, three hundred and sixty-five languages — Saramaccan, Yapese, Quiché, and Nicaraguan Sign Language, to name some I bet you are not fluent in. The WikiLeaker Julian Assange belonged to couchsurfing.
What better way to be able to see the world, meet people and save money all at the same time? If you’re like me and think it’s high time you got your behind off your own couch and plonked it on someone else’s, preferably half-way around the world, read on and maybe we can do this together.

How it all began

Couchsurfing.org is the brainchild of Casey Fenton, who launched the website as a public company in 2004. A random traveller ever since he graduated high school, Fenton got the idea when, in 2000, in preparation for a trip to Reykjavik, Iceland, he spammed 1,500 university students, asking for a place to stay. He got 150 replies with offers of accommodation, and ended up staying with several of them. The rest, as they say, is history.

In this, the age of social media, couchsurfing.org is a sort of Facebook for travellers, connecting people who are travelling to a particular locale, with people who already live there, and are happy to “host” these complete strangers in their houses.

Getting started

There are three ways in which you can get involved. You can “surf”, “host” or “meet people”. Surfing entails connecting online with people in places you want to visit, and asking them if they’d like to have you. Hosting is being on the receiving end of the same deal, where you invite total strangers from all over the world, to stay at your home free of charge. And if you’re not in a situation to do either you can still be a part of the couch surfing community and take part in various activities that are planned with other couch surfers in your area. You can also meet foreign travellers to your city for a meal or a cup of coffee and give them the local’s perspective: where you think they should go, how not to get ripped off, etc.

To do any of the above, however, the first thing you need to do is create a couchsurfing profile. And, while I’m sure the rewards it reaps are rich, be warned that the process itself is long and rather arduous. The website encourages you to “Be yourself”, and then proceeds to ask you every minute detail about everything: your personal philosophy, skills, hobbies, education, occupation, whew!

You might as well be filling out a college application. While I do get that all of this information is meant to ensure compatibility between host and hosted, if you’re not someone who likes to write endlessly about themselves, you’re going to find the going pretty tough. I have yet to finish mine.

You’re also encouraged to upload photos of you in your daily routine, as well as photos of your travels, so that people get a better sense of who you are.
What happens then?

Once you’re done with your profile, the real fun begins. Having never done any of this myself, I decided to speak to some seasoned couch surfers and get some tips.
The first person I spoke to is the abovementioned cousin, Arjun. He’d read about couch surfing in the Lonely Planet, and it’s how he and his wife Smitha spent 20 days, out of their 70 day Europe trip. They couch surfed in Barcelona, Munich, Amsterdam, Madrid, Toulouse and Padua. When Arjun’s parents first heard of the plan, they were flabbergasted. His father even offered to give him the money he would save doing it, just so that he’d give up the idea. Arjun stood firm.

“I wanted to do it, because I wanted to meet people”, he says “The saving money part was secondary. I wanted to make friends and build relationships.” Since he’s been back, two of the people that he stayed with have already returned his visit, and the others promise that they’re not far behind. He’s also hosted many more travellers from around the world, about 15 in total. He has nothing but positive comments for the whole couch surfing thing in general.

Arjun put me in touch with Kedar, someone he met through couch surfing. Kedar used to live in Chennai, but has now moved to Pondicherry. He uses the couch surfing network not only when he travels abroad, but also when he travels within India. He says we need to open ourselves up to new and different experiences, and the way to do that is not to bunk with relatives everywhere we go, and choose to couch surf instead. This is a novel idea that I must admit never occurred to me. “India is such a diverse country;” he says “There’s so much to learn from the people here, so many different cultures, so many cuisines to sample. If you allow yourself a little open mindedness, who knows what experiences you might have.”

 Kedar is also a semi-professional host and has had people come stay with him from all over the world. He clarifies what “hosting” entails saying “You need not be a tourist guide. When you get the time you can hang out with your guests. It’s not necessary that you spend every minute of every day with them. You go about your daily routine and fit them in when you can. They don’t expect anything more.”

Devathi, who is currently doing her Master’s degree in Europe, couch surfed through Portugal in February of this year. She was travelling with a friend, but says that she would still feel safe doing it alone, just that she’d be more careful in selecting the people she chooses to stay with.

Aishwarya got interested in couch surfing when she was visiting a couch surfer friend in Delhi who had two Belgians staying with him at the time. Since then, she’s hosted about 15 people. She says “If you’re hosting, you should show the best side of your culture. Be friendly, nice and respectful.” She has never used the network to stay at another couch surfer’s place, but she did meet up with a bunch of people when she was in Kuala Lumpur, who gave her a lot of insider information that really made her trip worthwhile.

Advice to aspiring couch surfers

Of course there are certain things that must be borne in mind before you embark on your round-the-world couch surfing escapades.

n A piece of recurring advice that I got from everyone that I spoke to was to read the reviews on people’s profiles. Hosts and guests rate each other after each experience and the reviews and comments tell you a lot about the person/people and how compatible you will be with him/her/them.

nAlso, when looking for places to stay, make sure there are some factors of commonality between you and your would-be hosts. If your hosts belong to the same age group as you do, it’s a huge bonus. And, because, let’s face it, Indians in general are not thought to make the best houseguests, ensuring that your host has an Indian connection (like perhaps if they’ve worked in or visited India in the past) makes things much easier.
nDon’t go empty-handed and don’t treat your host’s house like a hostel. Take a gift, clean up after yourself, and maybe cook a meal to show them how grateful you are. Remember that these are people who are inviting you into their home and that trust works both ways.

n And finally, it might be a good idea to attend the various couch surfing events in your city, and talk to the people there about their experiences, so you know what to expect. I’m certainly planning to. If I ever manage to finish writing that god-forsaken online profile that is!