Travel broadens the mind, or so they say. One of the modern characteristics of travel is how it is most often arranged completely through the internet. Plane ticket bookings, accommodation, travel within a country, maps and tourist guides are all available online, and often very easy to access at the click of a mouse.
Probably the most ground-breaking and inventive system of travel that I have discovered through the internet is Couchsurfing. This ingenious system of accommodation was conceived by Casey Fenton in 1999 while trying to find a cheap place to stay in Iceland. Fenton decided to e-mail 1,500 students from the University of Iceland asking for a place to sleep, and received over 50 positive responses.
The idea grew into a social website that today boasts millions of members throughout 207 countries. The site offers members the opportunity to travel and stay for free with other members, become part of online groups that arrange meetings and adventures, or meet with members for coffee or a pint to help learn more about a region. Membership is completely free. I have been a member for over three years and have participated as both a host and a surfer. Below I am going to attempt to summarise my experiences with this ambitious site.
Surfing with Couchsurfing
For any traveller wishing to see any of the world, I cannot recommend Couchsurfing highly enough as a way to engage with people and learn your way around a new place in an instant. In my experience I have never felt anything other than welcome in groups or alongside individuals who acted as my Couchsurfing hosts. Aside from just being given a place to stay, a surfer is welcomed into the home of a person or people who (in all cases that I have experienced) are very familiar with the town or city that they are hosting in.
As a result, I have been brought sightseeing and hiking, have been made meals and have watched movies (including a cinema trip to see the remarkable film The Gleaners and I). I have drank copious amounts of alcohol with a wide selection of outstanding people, have sat up all night conversing, sharing, playing chess or playing music. I have been given maps and advice, have been fed expensive whiskey and taken out for a traditional South Indian meal. I have played with innumerable friendly pets, and above all else I have gotten to know, on a quite personal basis, a whole host of incredible people of all ages, from all walks of life.
In one case of surfing I arrived at the house of a wonderful Danish couple who had suggested I bring some beer for the evening. When I arrived with a 6-pack it was scoffed at. I was quickly informed that “The Danish are like the Irish, we know how to drink”. We returned to the shop to buy a full crate of beer. I learned many photography tricks that night, and was introduced to the best of contemporary Danish music.
The only issue that I have ever found with travelling with Couchsurfing is that it is never a done deal. It is regularly (particularly in large cities) very difficult to find a host, especially at short notice. The best technique I have found for finding a place to stay is to begin sending mails to members about two weeks in advance, and to contact a lot of people. Sooner or later a space opens up, and then the adventure begins.
Hosts are all unique. In some cases I have been given a key, in others I have been given a curfew. In every case these are just rules that any CS traveller has to stick by, and as long as you are open and easy-going it is not difficult to adjust to the customs of each place. Couches are not always the resting spot either; I have slept in more beds than couches on my journeys.
Hosting on Couchsurfing
Being a host on Couchsurfing is almost a more interesting experience than travelling because it offers a completely different engagement with people. As I discussed with two of my earliest CS guests (or two and a half if you count the unborn child), hosting on Couchsurfing is like travelling without ever leaving your home. Like the exchanges at hostel meeting-points, as a host you invite people from different cultures and backgrounds to share some of their own personality with you. You learn about different parts of the world without having to step outside your door.
Through hosting I have had the opportunity to show off the things that I love about my home-place. I have brought surfers to local pubs, gigs and exhibitions, on short and long hikes, and on (similar to travelling) long drinking binges that spewed forth hours of engaging conversation. I have never had a surfer that I didn’t enjoy the company of, and I have never had anyone depart without leaving behind a good memory or a great new piece of knowledge. I regularly quote observations from past guests on Irish culture, and I have intensely fond memories of many of my hosting adventures through CS.
One memorable hosting experience involved a Canadian and a Russian, two translators who came hiking and adventuring in the Sligo countryside. I learned that people who speak multiple languages also dream in multiple languages. In another experience a French writer taught me about the Irish Pub as a cultural marker during a research trip to the country. He also remarked on the Irish obsession with storytelling, and what he saw as the specifically Irish use of parentheses, where stories are told veering in and out of different stories.
I have kept in contact with many of the people whose lives crossed my path for, in many cases, only one night. I even ended up living with a former surfer who had come to Sligo to study. I received little gifts from several hosts, which were in no way necessary, but were always more than welcome. My own attitude to hosting was to have complete trust in any guests, and if I had to leave on errands or to work, I always left a key so that guests could come and go as they pleased.
Couchsurfing is a lesson in the wonderful nature of the human race. It has always reinforced my belief that the negativity and mistrust that is brandished throughout popular media in our society is hogwash, and that it is important to trust and welcome people. The site has always reminded me of old folk stories or of travellers wandering from town to town seeking refuge wherever they went. We live in a society that breeds a certain paranoia about people, with daily news reports of horrible instances having a severe effect on many people’s attitudes towards others. CS has underlined to me how dozens of positive experiences can come from simple engagements, and to me these experiences have been invaluable. Members that I have met have been young and old, male and female, extremely wealthy or typical thrifty backpackers, and from four different continents to date.
I see Couchsurfing as the true embodiment of what the internet is really all about. This simple idea brings people together effortlessly, to experience and enjoy one anothers company without any angle or ulterior motive. I remember each of the members I have met vividly, and every experience has been a positive one for myself, and also hopefully for the others that I have interacted with.
All that said, CS is also user-specific. Not everyone is comfortable with sleeping on rough surfaces or conforming to house-rules. But even for these people CS offers meetings with members as a function, and these too are invaluable for travellers looking to learn more about the place that they have gone to.
There are no negatives here. I’ve run out of superlatives and yet I still don’t feel I’ve done Couchsurfing justice. Hostels will always be there as an alternative, and there are other similar online options like Air BnB (like Couchsurfing, only you pay the host and stay in a more B&B style atmosphere) or homelink (swapping your home with someone in the place that you are travelling to). However, for me Couchsurfing will always remain the number one way to bed down in foreign lands, and long may it remain so.
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