World on a couch

Cultural Exchange

World on a couch

Guide books are a waste of good money and time. This is the conclusion I’ve come to after years of backpacking in countries across the globe. In a city in Far East Asia, what one guide described as old world charm with lots of character turned out to be a hideous nightmare. The guide completely neglected to mention mattresses infested with bedbugs, which allowed for no repose. Besides, in spite of the guide book being only a few months old, it seemed to be already outdated. It had conveniently forgotten to note the boutique hostel next door which offered at much the same price, spacious spotless rooms. No doubt hostels are a great place to meet people from around the world. But even better is to stay with the locals. And at what price this authentic experience? It doesn’t cost a pie.

Couchsurfing.com was launched as a public website in January 2004 by Casey Fenton, in the United States. The hospitality network allows members to either host or be hosted by individual members. You need no longer worry about arranging for accommodation in far flung places. Most times, with a little effort (you need to send out preferably personalised couch requests on the site after becoming a member), you can always find someone more than happy to receive you into their homes. In return, if you so wish you can host people in your town.

All you need is a free couch, a large heart and predisposition for adventure. With over 1000 members the world over joining every week, its popularity is on the rise. From sleeping bags on hard wooden floors to plush rooms, all sorts of people have opened their homes to strangers. Couchsurfing now has members in more than 200 countries.
No matter where from it’s easy to bond with fellow couch surfers as it’s the love for travel and its accompanying experiences that bring couch surfers together. In the year and a half I’ve been a member, I’ve hosted about half a dozen people. The backgrounds of my guests have been diverse, ranging from a glass-blower from Oregon to two German students to an Irish bartender/world traveller. Among other things we have swapped travel stories, discussed world philosophies, tasted different global cuisine, shared intimate stories and best of all, made friends for life.

Wide open doors

This rich cultural exchange was further enhanced when I decided to first try getting hosted which happened quite by accident. It was on the New Year of 2009. Two of us who were students in Swansea, Wales, on the previous day, on short notice, decided to fly back to India. We booked tickets from London Heathrow for the afternoon of January 1. On New Year’s eve, with all hotels and hostels being fully booked, we arrived in London with no clear idea on where we were going to put up. It was couchsurfing to the rescue.

We used the London emergency couch request sub-group to appeal for a couch. The first email got us an immediate response in under an hour. Daniel, an Australian with Irish roots, now settled in London, welcomed us warmly into his home. He even took each of us on his BMW bike on a London tour. In return, we made a lavish dinner to express our gratitude. What we expected to be a harrowing experience turned out to be a very pleasant one. From the cozy comfort of his apartment in Canary wharf we watched the famous New Year fireworks over the London Eye.

The response of couch surfers to emergencies is overwhelming. The recent volcanic ash from Iceland disrupted travel and stranded thousands of travelers for days in airports across Europe. Many couchsurfers of their own volition have stepped up to aid hapless strangers by providing food and shelter.

Couchsurfing is not just for young people. It’s for the young at heart. On another trip to Cheltenham, Olga, a young Polish student was host to both me and another surfer. An efficient tour of Cheltenham and Gloucester that covered the church where Harry Potter was partly shot was followed by an introduction to all the local digs and hot spots.
In between discussing the merits of British ales, the other couch surfer and Olga discovered that they both had stayed with the same person in Ireland. She enthused, “Simon’s awesome. He is this guy in his fifties who used to be the bus driver for rock stars on tour in Europe during the 70s and 80s. His doors are open to anyone who asks. And he has the most fantastic stories.” 

Anyone from anywhere can sign up and membership is free. However, safety is definitely an issue. There have been infrequent instances of abuse that one hears of on the forum. Women, especially lone travelers, undeniably have to be more careful. The easiest way of getting around this is to travel in pairs or choose other women. Either way it’s best to choose somebody with reliable references.
Some others like Donna and her partner are unwilling to take any risks and prefer to use it solely as a network for socialising. She says, “We use couch surfing mostly as an interactive forum. In France, local couch surfers took us to the countryside for some fabulous wine tasting.”

Concerns over security

Says Akin from Nigeria who’s been in London for a couple of years now teaching English, “I don’t even try sending couch requests out to women because it’s next to impossible to get them to host men.” While it is widely acknowledged that there are ways to get around it, a recent makeover of the site has tried to make the verification system more secure for a small fee.

Job opportunities, language exchange, city/countryside walks, information about flat shares and much more, the site provides a forum for it all. The site is a blessing for those moving to big cities like London which can be quite a daunting experience for those doing it solo. It presents an excellent platform to make new friends and meet like-minded people. With spring around the corner, the couch surfing group in London has an array of activities to offer. Let me recount a typical day spent with other couch surfers in this captivating city.

It was counter-intuitive to see the sun shining brightly in clear skies after the barrage of news on the volcanic ash cloud hanging over Britain. On impulse, I dropped in on a couch surfer picnic in Hyde park not wanting to waste such a glorious day. We lolled around in the sun consuming large amounts of coke and munching on cakes, tortillas and other goodies. Kites, frisbees, ball games were all idly tested and enjoyed intermittently by the 20 or so of us congregated in the park. Some took off to a nearby café but for me after a few hours of lazing in the rare sun, it was time for an aural treat.

I met Arnaud outside Prince Albert Hall for a night of symphonic rock by the Royal Philharmonic orchestra. Arnaud’s friend had backed out in the last minute and he was left with an extra ticket. He used the couch surfing site to give away a 45£ stall ticket for as little as 10£. It was a sweet deal. Having little to do that evening I had no hesitation in snapping it up. The ambience was enchanting, the music familiar yet unusual and beautifully arranged. It was with a sigh of contentment I listened to Arnaud, who being from the wine country of Burgundy, regaled me with stories from Gaul during the long interval, as we sipped on Merlot.

You constantly learn or experience something new with couch surfing. Akin was mildly put out however with media reports on couch surfing. He is dubious of the sudden surfeit of people signing up to become members. He complains, “For many, it’s just a cheap travel alternative. Most don’t realise that it’s much more than that. Some join to misuse it, many just drop off.” 

All said and done, for those who do stay, the multi-cultural experience it brings is enriching. What better way of bringing the people of the world together, of fostering understanding and respect for a multitude of varied cultures. As Karthik, another couchsurfer summed up, “The pros far outweigh the cons.”

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