Less than ten years ago, the thought of sleeping in a total stranger’s home was generally a very silly one. Back then strangers were crazy. They would drug you while you slept and then steal your kidney. They would drill pea-sized holes in the bathroom wall and watch as you showered. They would invite their strange friends round for a giantsupersexorgy that you were expected to take part in. Yes, strangers were bad people, all dangerous and strange.
Then CouchSurfing came along.
Genius. Pure genius I tell you. But why hadn’t this awesome idea been conceived sooner? Admittedly, it did take a while to get going; coushsurfing – ‘CS’ for short – was founded in 2004, yet the site only managed to procure 6,000 users in its first year (seems high, but relatively low when compared with other social media giants). By 2011 it had reached 3 million members, and now CS proudly proclaims on its website that there are over 7 million global members spread across 100,000 cities, although roughly half of these members are thought to be inactive. So it’s kind of a big deal.
What is it?
The principle of the project is simple: stay with a local you don’t know in a city you don’t know for free, or vice versa. The former is what is known as ‘surfing’ and the other way round is – unsurprisingly – ‘hosting’.
The values of couchsurfing, however, extend a little further: it’s not just about catching z’s on a free couch or bed for the night – it’s about creating meaningful connections with the people and places you encounter on a journey, thus, becoming more curious, open-minded, respectful and appreciative of diversity. It’s also about restoring faith in humanity, and realising that in fact, strangers are often quite nice.
I first heard about CS through a friend in 2010. I was staying with him in his box flat in Oxford for the weekend, and he suggested we went to a couchsurfing ‘meet-up’ at a local casket ale pub. I’ll level with you: I was far more excited about the idea of casket ale than meeting a bunch of hobos – that, I regret to say, was how I initially read into it – and later, when we sat down for a drink with the hosts and their surfers, this sheer lack of understanding rather embarrassingly revealed itself by way of me asking if anyone had ever had to sleep on a couch with ‘dubious looking stains smeared across them’. My jokey remark was not well received, except by my friend, who got a good laugh out of seeing me squirm in the aftermath.
Good CS Times
That night stuck with me, and although it took me a while to get around to it, I eventually created my own profile and subsequently surfed for the first time in summer of last year. I was in Trieste, northern Italy, where I was given a bedroom and at least three bowlfuls of delicious, home-cooked Italian pasta before being taken to another of these CS meet-ups where I managed not to upset anybody. My host was fantastic and helped me unconditionally with buses and trains etc. Three days later, I met and stayed with a Slovenian girl who treated me as though I were an old family friend, showed me around town and cooked me yet more delicious food. A week later I surfed again, this time in Split, Croatia, where I, along with another surfer, was given keys to my own apartment for two nights. Naturally, I was blown away by all this; not only had I saved a lot of money, I had seen far more than I’d bargained for and made some great friends too.
Since then, I’ve surfed far more times than I’ve hosted on account of having had to live with ‘CShaters’ for most of my life as a ‘CSer’, which, at least to some degree, I can comprehend: not everyone is up for welcoming strangers into their home. My best ever experience was a fleeting stay with a true CS partisan in Pamplona. My couch request had been accepted at the last minute by my host, Nacho, who spent my only afternoon in town showing me around the city by bike – something he did up to three or four times a week. That night he introduced me to the Pamplona couchsurfing community who all turned out to be best friends. They told me of their renowned couchsurfing parties that often drew CSers from neighbouring cities like San Sebastian and Zaragoza. One, which had taken place in Nacho’s apartment, apparently reached 100 people, all of them couchsurfers.
After that experience, I went back to Granada utterly amazed and enamoured with couchsurfing. Now I regularly attended the Granada CS community’s meet-ups, which, although not quite reaching the dizzy heights of Pamplona’s, have proven excellent ways of meeting new people and practicing my Spanish.
All in all, couchsurfing absolutely rocks.
Yet, despite its palpable popularity and however many incredible experiences each CSer has invariably had, many retain justified reservations about the project. All it takes is one bad experience; they’re the ones that stick with you the most (like the casket ale pub incident).
Bad CS Times
I wouldn’t be the first to recount a harrowing CS tale. Rich Urban of Amateur Traveler knows only too well, after witnessing a fellow surfer, who also happened to be naked, inebriated and Australian, unknowingly walk though a sliding glass door onto his host’s balcony and proceed to piss off it. Then there’s this business of sexsurfing, a topic extensively covered by Agness of eTramping, which I’m sure many a female CSer can relate to.
My story, however, is either spine-tinglingly creepy or side-splittingly hilarious, depending on which way you look at it. It happened in Zadar, earlier this year. I’d arranged to stay with a chap who I’d actually been in touch with the year before regarding the possibility of staying but it had never quite materialised. This time, I thought I’d give him another try, as he had seemed friendly enough.
He met me off my ferry in the morning and we sat down for a coffee by the port. I could tell from the off he was a quirky sort of fellow, but then a lot of couchsurfers are and these often turn out to be the best hosts, so I was not at all concerned. Then he went from quirky to slightly creepy when he explained that he was trying to build a photographic montage of his surfers doing some thing or other that he felt represented their personality, whilst wearing pyjamas. I chuckled nervously and changed the subject, hoping he would sense my averseness to the idea and not bring it up again.
Later that day, in the Internet café where he worked, he told me that he was openly bisexual. Fine. Not a problem.
Then he started quizzing me on my sexual orientation. I answered honestly: straight. Though this evidently didn’t seem to register. Over the next couple of hours, as I sat at a computer, back turned, busy researching a day trip to the Plitvice Lakes, my host – ‘Z’ we shall call him – persisted in sneaking up behind me, draping his arms around my shoulders and planting wet kisses on my cheek, saying things like ‘Arr you’re a special guy’. Not fine. Problem.
I should have been frank with him there and then, told him to stop it and perhaps that would’ve been the end of it. British as I am though, I didn’t want to cause a fuss. Thankfully the impromptu kisses soon stopped but the unnecessary hugging continued.
That evening he took me to a friend’s house where we ate, chatted and laughed for several hours. That part was fine, and I actually began to feel as though I had misjudged Z. Inevitably, there was a big hug and another far-fetched complement before bedtime, to which I responded by back-slapping him, saying ‘cheers mate’ and heading to my room for the night without another word.
Next afternoon, there was another surprise in store. Z had copied and pasted my entire CS profile page onto MS Word, printed it out and carefully scrutinized it with a highlighter pen. He began interrogating me over an otherwise very enjoyable coffee, demanding further details of basic profile information to make sure I wasn’t lying about myself. It was at this point I realised just how unusual Z really was. I’d have been happy to answer questions about my personal interests and previous traveling experiences but not like that. I made an excuse and set off into town alone.
Yet still I remained under Z’s roof, fairly certain that despite his unrivaled creepiness, he was completely harmless, and what was one more night anyway?
Later, we returned to his friend’s house for more food and this time several bottles of wine. Again, it was a lovely evening and Z didn’t weird me out once. When back at his place though, he remembered what I had desperately hoped he wouldn’t: the photo. Worse still, he remembered – remarkably – just after I had taken my shirt off.
‘Yes like this!’ he exclaimed.
‘Like in yoga meditation pose, on the couch, without your shirt.’
‘You were doing yoga in the garden yesterday. I saw you!’
He was right, sort of. I had been doing yoga (badly) but I hadn’t realized he’d seen me.
‘Fine. One photo, but I’m not wearing any pyjamas.’
‘Ok. Please, do like this.’
He held both arms out, bent at the elbow, fingers pressed against his thumbs in a meditation pose. I reluctantly replicated his stance.
‘Yes, ok. And now wear this.’
I turned to where his finger was pointing. A battered, straw hat sat in on a desk in the corner of the room.
I sighed. ‘Fine. Give it here.’
And then there I was: sat cross-legged, elbows balanced on knees, fingers pressed against thumbs, shirtless, wearing a ridiculous straw hat, while a balding, worryingly excited Croatian man stood in front of me taking photos. The line had well and truly been crossed. In fact, the line was no longer even a line; it was a tiny spec a thousand miles or so back the other way. I suddenly freaked. I mean – completely lost my shit. I threw down the hat in fury and called time.
‘Alright this has gone far enough. Seriously what the fuck am I doing here??’
It was late and I knew I probably wouldn’t be able to find a hostel but I didn’t care. I got dressed, grabbed my stuff and left, ignoring Z’s pleas. Sure enough, there weren’t any rooms available in the one hostel I managed to find. Instead, I spent the night on a bench in the bus station before boarding for Split first thing in the morning, still feeling majorly creeped out and praying to God the photo would never see the light of day
In hindsight, that experience with Z could have easily been avoided if I’d just had the balls to tell him to fuck off, but then again it did open my eyes to the pitfalls of couchsurfing: that you never know what you’re going to get, even if a person’s references are gushingly positive.
Ultimately, I love couchsurfing – Z is one bad experience compared with about eight or nine others that have been absolutely fantastic. And let’s face it – that’s a damn good ratio.
Have you ever been couchsurfing? Have you ever had an amazing/awful experience? Have you ever met Z?