Backpacker Travel: Couchsurfing

Adrift on the kindness of others

The romantic picture of The Backpacker is that set against a dusty backdrop, a landscape void of human habitation seemingly put there for the sole purpose to find oneself in.  The lone seeker, turtle-like in outlook, teeth gritty after days of aimless wandering – though somehow imbued with an indefinable sense of purpose – puts one foot in front of the other.  In the expanding silence, the approaching eighteen-wheeler can be heard rumbling long before announcing its presence on the horizon.  Thumb at the appropriate angle, our backpacker slows the truck and climbs aboard.  The two roving souls share their tales of up-rootedness and part ways better for the experience.  Perhaps an old Bob Dylan riff wafts in the air as they turn their backs on one another.

coachsurfing bedfellows
Coachsurfing bedfellows

In modern day travel, most would deem such reckless trusting of others to be foolish at best, fodder for a cheesy slasher flick at worst.  But there does exist a community who refuses to believe that the basic goodness of humans fell victim to “modernity.”  These people are known as Couchsurfers, and their philosophy, Couchsurfing.  Taking advantage of this oft-scorned modernity, Couchsurfers connect through an online community with strict social rules and hierarchy, taking solace in that aforementioned inherent goodness of others to self-regulate.

How Couchsurfing works:

The basic tenant of Couchsurfing is the sharing of experiences with others and expecting nothing in return.  People open their homes for a period usually of a few days or a week, sometimes longer if agreeable to both parties.  It is not just a free place to stay and this is important to all members of the community.  Even though you are not required to pay in monetary terms, there is an expectation for you to give something of yourself – skills, entertainment value, deep and meaningful conversation, a specialty desert – in return.  There is a certain pay-it-forward element, where travellers who have surfed will in turn offer their couches to others in the future, when they have put their own backpack into the cupboard under the stairs with a promise to visit often.

To meet Couchsurfers, you are required to join and create a detailed profile on the website.  All members are reviewed by their respective hosts/surfers in as honest a manner as possible, helping you to pick someone with whom you feel you might gel.  For example, some state specifically that they like to party and expect their surfers to be up for a night on the town, while others express a preference for the quiet life and trying unusual cuisine.  Local representatives have special power to “vouch” for others, and once you have been vouched for three times, you may proffer the honour on others.  Since vouching is done strictly between those whom the voucher has met and deemed trustworthy, it is a fairly solid system.  The local reps also organize monthly or weekly “meet-ups” where community members can get together.  It is both a good way to make some friends in a new city or dip your toe tentatively in the Couchsurfing scene.

Is it safe?

Thanks to the vouching system, detailed profiles, shared recognition of the importance of honest reviews, as well as a location verification option, Couchsurfing is quite safe.  There are very few stories of situations gone wrong, and mostly these are of personality clashes that precipitate an awkward confrontation.  It is nonetheless good advice to keep some cash in a special wallet compartment for a taxi and night at a hotel, just in case.  The best guide for any surfer or host is to peruse profiles carefully and perhaps have a policy of meeting potentials for a coffee before addresses are known and front doors locked behind.  Ultimately, your own savvy is the best guide.  If you have a bad feeling about a place, leave, post an honest but not nasty review to help others, find a new host.

What can I expect?

I have surfed on everything from a sleeping bag on the only floor space available, to a granny flat with private entrance, stocked kitchenette and en-suite bathroom with heated floor.  I’ve shared in family meals and eaten at local markets.  I’ve been driven from and to the airport, waved at from the front door as I struggled into a tuk-tuk and met at a local café near the train station.  The only thing you can really know for sure is that you will experience generous hospitality.  A certain attitude of adventure is a good thing, but at least you know you will (almost) always be able to have a hot shower in the morning.

Above all, Couchsurfing is a wonderful way to access the heart of a location you are visiting for the first time.  Away from hostels with their agenda of tour operators, breakfast served from 7 – 10 am and pay-per-view TV menu, you get to see where the locals go, enjoy what the locals get up to and plug into a community network that is just waiting to welcome you with open arms.  The familiarity can be second to none for the world-weary backpacker.  Surfers on their way to a new city will often suggest “meet-ups” via the website, getting a crowd together to see the sights or share meals.  The beauty is that you can never know whom you will meet, nor where you might go together and for how long you will share space and time.

How do I get going?

Visit www.couchsurfing.org and register.  Take time to read the fine print and perhaps attend a meet-up in your own city.  Just because you live there, doesn’t mean you have to lock your inner wanderer in the cupboard under the stairs!  Once you are ready to begin active involvement as a surfer, contact one person at a time just a few days in advance, as it is considered rude to contact many and then turn them down when they offer you a place to lay your head.  And never look back.

About Mary Llewellyn

Mary Llewellyn is of Irish citizenship and spent four years traversing remote areas around the globe.  Keeping off the main tourist trail, she worked several jobs from farm hand to non-profit foundation manager in Asia.  Now back home for a spell, Mary enjoys meeting other travelers, sharing experiences and offering helpful tips to those setting out.

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