Total Pageviews

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Couchsurfing - A Community of Travellers

As I write this article, Duncan Stokes, a traveller from Britain, is staying on my couch. At his request, I shall describe him as "lanky with a goatee." I will also add, this time without his consent, that he's not like most Brits in that he can't really hold his liquor. He's not like most Brits in the way he travels either. He has been on some extensive adventures: trained from Moscow to Beijing, drove across all 48 mainland US states, scootered all around southeast Asia, and cycled from the top of Scotland to the bottom of England.

Duncan came to Calgary because he was "bored with work" and wanted to live in Canada for awhile. But he quickly discovered that he wasn't suited to the weather; and it wasn't even that cold yet! So after a couple of days on my couch, he up and got a flight to LA where he will buy a motorcycle and ride it down to Peru in search of Macchu Picchu. One word comes to mind when I think of Duncan - spontaneous! I met Duncan through the Couchsurfing (CS) website, and only first met him face-to-face when he showed up on my doormat.
At a Couchsurfing free hugs event - Trafalgar Square, London
The previous week, couple Mathias and Anne-Laure, from the lonely island of St. Pierre, belonging to France yet lies just 500 km from Quebec, showed up with their energetic dog to graciously stay on that same couch. We (dog excluded) shared a few beers at Calgary's main monthly Couchsurfing meetup event in Calgary, which occurs first Mondays at the Hop 'n' Brew. This month's meetup was more alive than usual, with at least 40 Couchsurfers shuttering in from the cold to make friends and share their travel stories. Mathias is a journalist and formally interviewed me in the pub, sticking that big fuzzy microphone in my mug. He asked me about Calgary and my thoughts on travelling, generating soundbytes destined for a radio station back on his obscure island of St. Pierre.

In the past few months I have opened my doors to 9 different Couchsurfers with exotic origins and exciting adventures such as Duncan and Mathias.

However, as great as hosting is, the best part about CS is the surfing. During my 10-month sabbatical backpacking through Europe from July 2012 to May 2013, I visited 20 countries and surfed on 33 different couches, and met some amazing and memorable Couchsurfers.
With Yulia after her dance lessons
Meet Yulia from Moscow. She has professed to hitchhiking over 25,000 km in her young life, criss-crossing Europe several times over. She is fluent in 4 languages and is aiming for 9. She is also a yogi, hardcore vegan, and a dance teacher. I stayed with her for 4 days, basking in her shining optimism. I had a truly local experience with her when she took me to a bustling market in suburban Moscow. What was special about it was that it sold discount food! Yes, food that was no longer fresh nor presentable, yet still edible. Yulia is now enjoying the sun and surf in Portugal.
Marc holding a concert, Kiss style, on his birthday
Meet Marc, a man who has done it all. Throughout his life he was a video engineer for the Rolling Stones, joined the US Army, ascending to the rank of officer before losing faith in his job and bailing, and is now teaching English in Prague, and enjoying life more than ever. I met Marc in the epic tomato fight in Spain called La Tomatina, then several months later, stayed with him for 3 days in Prague, where I got to watch him hold a birthday concert starring his own band.
Awaiting the tomatoes - at La Tomatina with Couchsurfers Stig from Denmark, Sam from US, Hanga from Romania, and Claire from US
But few experiences match the time I was hosted in Budapest, my favourite city in Europe. My host was Gabor, a Couchsurfing legend with over 500 references on his profile. He is also a travel superstar, having hitchhiked to some very remote and avoided areas in the world, such as Pakistan and Siberia, and proudly calls himself on his Facebook page The Most Travelled Hungarian. At the time I arrived, he was hosting 4 different Couchsurfing parties at once, plus a friend and his 2-year old from Germany. However, the guy who stole the show was CSer Nicolas, from France. Nicolas, a philosophy and English teacher back in Nice, France, is on an epic pilgrimage of self discovery and world change, travelling around the world with no money (save a bit for visas), relying on kindness along the way, and plans on writing a book about the human connection. While Nicolas may not have any cash, he offers seemingly lifetimes worth of inspiration and wisdom, like a modern day messiah. To this day, I still can't believe the dinner table conversation we had that night, which was about how best to hitchhike across Pakistan to get to India.
At a Couchsurfing haven in Budapest
Nicolas is someone who has had a profound impact on my life in the space of a few days. His incredible journey is one that I still follow regularly through his blog posts on his Facebook page Teacher On The Road, living vicariously through his words and images. He is currently teaching English in China.

These are some of the most interesting people I met through Couchsurfing, people who shaped my travels as well as who I am today; people who I still call friends, who I will keep in touch with and potentially visit again one day. My meetings with Couchsurfers in Europe, and now through hosting here in Calgary have greatly enriched my life as much as I have enriched theirs.

Couchsurfing may still sound to you a bit like a "free hotel for travellers" and can sometimes be that way. However, it really is a community for travellers to meet eachother and make life long connections.

Couchsurfing has become quite popular today in backpacking circles, but its rise was a bit tumultuous. The seed for was planted in 1999, when American Casey Fenton e-mailed 1,500 students at his future travel destination, Iceland, asking for accommodation, and received 50 replies. Upon his return to the US, he began work on the website, eventually opening Couchsurfing in 2003, from San Francisco. When it was finally becoming popular, in 2006, a major database failure caused Casey to shut down the website. However, the community members rose up to the challenge, forming collectives to work together and revive the website. Today CS is going strong, with over 6 million members.

Being a one-of-a-kind website, there are naturally many questions about how it works. The one you attentive readers are probably wondering about most is: is it safe to use?

To overcome the trust barrier, Couchsurfing has in place a rating system which functions like most shopping websites. Much like rating your favourite products online, Couchsurfers can rate each other with either a "positive" or "negative" experience, including a short explanation why. There are additional ways to validate your character, such as verifying your address by receiving a postcard with a verification code on it, and a vouching system, where the most trusted CSers of the community dole out the equivalent of "gold stars" to CSers they deem trustworthy. If a CSer gets enough vouches, he or she can start doling it out themselves, and such is how the vouching system proliferates itself.

Still, it's not a perfect system, and these failsafes are not enough to prevent negative incidents from occurring due to people using the website with poor intentions, such as mooching off of their host, or making inappropriate sexual advances. Negative incidents can also be caused by misunderstandings between host and surfer, or unexpected events such as emergencies or changed travel plans. Such can result in Couchsurfers giving eachother negative references, some ranging from justified to completely untruthful, others dangerous to hilarious, and which challenge profile viewers to use their best judgment of character based on loose subjective descriptions (often in poor broken English too).
The cozy interior of a Couchsurfer's "dacha" - a Russian country home in the countryside
In fact there is a forum on Couchsurfing called "Funny Negative References" where contributors post the most outrageous references they find from other profiles (omitting names, of course), and just have fun with it. While it can be fun to publicly scrutnize negative references, it is just a way for Couchsurfers to blow off steam and to recognize, satirically, that CS is not perfect.

I should now take the time and effort to clear up a big misconception about Couchsurfing:

It is NOT a dating website. But it can be... way to clear that up, huh?

While it certainly is not first and foremost a dating website, it is a community where like-minded individuals can meet and, if the feeling is right, hook up. I have two friends in Calgary who met through Couchsurfing and are now married.
Anna, a Dutch girl living in Bucharest, Romania hosted me and introduced me to hitchhiking
To be completely truthful, when I first signed up for Couchsurfing, I exhibited a slight bias towards meeting the opposite sex. But since then I have evolved to become a true community member, with the intention of meeting interesting people, bringing them together, or providing a couch to those who write a thoughtful enough message.

I have heard through the Couchsurfing grapevine of bad incidents happening through CS. I will say one thing - if you are a woman, be very careful surfing in Muslim countries, where men are culturally restrained and ready to let loose through CS. And in Italy, which is an anomaly, really. Italy has somehow produced chock fulls of traditional thinking, macho men, and it shows on CS. Through my experience, there seems to be an extremely low ratio of Italian women using Couchsurfing, and all the guys selected gender preference as "female." (Sorry to the good Italians, if I offended you. This is of course a blanket statement. I repeat, just a blanket statement.)
Some of the most common travellers to Canada are Germans and French. Here I am hosting two of them! 
Fortunately, I personally have yet to have a bad encounter on Couchsurfing. Two experiences that came closest to being bad were when the cat of my host in St. Petersburg peed on my jeans sitting on the floor, and when my host in Glasgow played videogames late into the night, on the couch that I was tired and needing to sleep on! Another experience that comes to mind is when I stayed in a squat in Brussels, with no running hot water, old reused mattresses with no sheets, and a dirty kitchen covered with dumpster-dived food, taken over by fruit flies. While most would call this disgusting and uncomfortable, I thought it was an interesting experience worth trying once!
David Beaumont, from England, baked me a Yorkshire pudding on National Yorkshire Pudding Day. I hosted David in August. He is now in Mexico
If you are just starting out Couchsurfing, and would prefer to avoid these unseemly encounters, just follow these tips and no harm will come your way:

1. Do NOT rely on it as the sole source for accommodation. If you do you will choose poor hosts and eventually have a negative incident. Have a backup plan such as a hostel, or tenting. In 10 months in Europe I actually only Couchsurfed one third of the days. The rest consisted of hostels and work stays.
2. Pay it forward. If you plan on travelling in the future, start hosting now. Hosts prefer to accommodate CSers who have themselves hosted, because they will know how to behave as surfers.
3. Only trust people with several references. I would say 5+ is the critical point at which a CSer becomes trustworthy enough to place your safety in their hands.
4. Fill out your profile. Consequently, carefully scrutinize each profile you come across. Good profiles are long or carefully written and tell enough about that person to validate their character, as well as their surfing or hosting situation. Naturally, it is best to choose CSers with similar interests to you.
5. If you are surfing, take your time to send a good Couchrequest. Write to your host and appeal to him or her as a human being and potentially as a future friend.

Conversely, you will know Couchsurfing is not for you if you:
1. Do not trust easily, or are not comfortable with meeting people through this thing called the Internet.
2. Do not have the time or effort to plan around others. Some hosts have many rules and restrictions, what you can do in their home, or when you can be there. Some surfers expect you to spend time with them and show them around town.
3. Do not have the flexibility or spontaneity to plan around others and for unexpected events, such as last minute cancellations.
4. Prefer staying in a prime location where hotels and hostels are usually located. Many hosts live in less touristy areas far out of the centre, and I have occasionally gotten lost trying to find them.
5. Prefer to travel in comfort and security. The term "couch" is only metaphorical. Often times it actually is a couch, but sometimes you get a comfy mattress in your own bedroom, other times there could be no pillows or blankets, and at the rarest of times you share the same sleeping surface as your host.
6. As the saying goes, have a lot of money and you like to spend it.

As you can see, Couchsurfing is not for everyone, and using it properly takes a lot of time and effort, but the rewards are worth it.

Besides hosting and surfing each city has a message board where people can organize get togethers or post exciting events that are happening locally, such as language exchanges, coffee, festivals, music and theatre, photowalks, hikes, bar and clubbing and much, much more. In new cities, I often post looking for a partner in crime to meet up for the day, wandering the streets, exploring the cafes and bars. In Calgary, I have on more than one occasion hosted a board game night, as well as posted events such as film festivals, and even tried looking for a roommate through CS.
On a photowalk in Portugal
Couchsurfing is a constantly evolving website and community, and has steadily grown as backpacking has become more common. Unfortunately, it has experienced a few setbacks according to the community driven individuals. CS recently became a for-profit "corporation", which can only mean the degradation of the integrity of the website to attract more users. Not everyone belongs to CS, yet several recent changes have resulted in an influx of undesirables. Couchsurfing's membership grew by 2 million in the past year alone. Thrusting CS into the mainstream is not the answer to maintaining a healthy community based on trust. One website trying to be the "new Couchsurfing" is, but it just doesn't enough membership and, in my opinion, lacks an integral component to verify others - there is no reference system. However, I did sign up and succesfully host one German girl through Be Welcome, and we are still friends today.

Despite all this, Couchsurfing is still a strong and vibrant community and one that I am proud to be a part of.

I am a Couchsurfer for life:
because I seek genuine experiences and cultures in new cities, which can be best achieved through a local guide;
because I host, always remembering what it was like when I was travelling and desperate for just a roof and a flat, if slightly soft, surface in which to sleep;
to make friends from across the globe; and
lastly, though not least, to save money

No comments:

Post a Comment