"Couchsurfing? Why do you do it?”, I hear from a face filled with a thousand frowns to question my sanity.
I’ve heard this before. Multiple times.
“Because it is like having the whole world in your living room”, I answer.
The head is slightly tilted to the left and the frown lines dig a little deeper as if my face is a mystery wrapped up in a Rubik’s Cube.
“But it’s so risky. How can you trust a complete stranger?”
I’ve heard this one before as well. Another golden oldie: the insanity of putting trust in humanity.
“Well, there is this mutual understanding between Couchsurfers…”
The answers are never enough. The Rubik’s Cube gets turned upside down but the bigger picture stays a vague challenge.
Couchsurfing is really simple.
In a nutshell it consists of an online profile, an extra (or shared) sleeping space and the click of a button – request or accept – and boom, before you know it you have a stranger in your house or you are a stranger in someone else’s house. You can filter your options by gender, age, languages, interests and whether or not you’ll be sharing a room or a bed.
If you surf, you get what is offered. If you host, you offer what you want.
It’s like AirBnb except it’s free (and less fancy).
But for most travellers it is never about saving money on accommodation; it’s about the cultural exchange and spending time with like-minded people. It’s about believing in human kindness, sharing stories, food, traditions and languages, getting out of your comfort zone and realising that the world is not such a big, bad scary place after all.
Based on the “there is this mutual understanding between Couchsurfers…” the experience is generally good; I’ve hosted and I’ve surfed – across many borders and in different homes - and while I’ve never heard from a few again after the references, other Couchsurfers became lifelong friends while some I nearly chased away from my home.
The one that got away (with some help).
You might still find this “one” trying to hitch a lift somewhere on the N2 between Knysna and Port Elizabeth on his way to Swaziland, or Lesotho or Madagascar. Who knows?
I can just see the frown relaxing a bit and the Rubik’s Cube being twisted into a solution of, “yes, I told you so. I told you Couchsurfing can be dangerous, I told you it is risky to trust a stranger”.
Be still and chill; it was never dangerous, I never got stolen from and trust was never an issue.
The issue was manners, or rather the lack of manners.
My patience was tested, my hospitality was abused, my ears heard too much information, my house was a dirty mess and food was gobbled up before I could even dish up.
I should’ve put my foot down right from the start when “the one” told me that his bus will arrive 3 o’clock in the morning. I should’ve told “the one” that there are other buses with more convenient arrival times.
But I was a good host; like always I had a milk tart in the fridge for my foreign friend and put a day aside if the Couchsurfer wanted to be shown around town.
I should’ve put my foot down when “the one” shared sexy time stories with my ears varying in lengths, colours and speed within the first few hours.
But instead I focused on the road ahead and said an uncomfortable “okay” in a conversation that was more monologue than something else.
I should’ve put my foot down that first morning when I got to the bathroom after “the one” left me snippets of little bearded presents in the basin, a poop-splatter in the toilet, a water-flooded floor and a towel, in a bundle, in the corner.
But I picked up the towel and cleaned the bathroom.
I should’ve put my foot down when “the one” slipped past the till and went outside when it came to paying for food for a braai. Plus a pumpkin. Because “the one” wanted to taste a South African pumpkin.
But there I stood, alone at the till with no one in sight but my own wallet.
I should’ve put my foot down when I drove “the one” from forest to coast, view point to historical site and the only words I heard was, “it’s okay, it’s not that spectacular”.
But I continued on the next stop, with my car, my petrol, worrying about pay day in the distance.
I should’ve put my foot down that time we finally shared the cost of a small take-away pizza and while driving home “the one” gobbled up 5 of the 8 slices, plus another slice when we got home.
But instead I called my friend and ranted in Afrikaans.
I should’ve put my foot down when “the one” asked to be dropped off in the nearby town – 100 km away – before I went to work.
I put my foot down as silently as possible, but I did it.
I loaded “the one” in my car with joy - bags and all - and gave him two options: I could either drop him off in town where the buses will leave from or, I can leave him on the main road where he can catch a taxi (which will be cheaper than the bus) to the next town.
He chose the latter.
I dropped “the one” off and merrily carried on to work with a petrol light flashing in bright red.
It was finally over.
When I eventually looked at my phone two messages from “the one” waited for me.
08:15: How do I catch a taxi? They are not stopping for me.
11:47: I got to the next town.
I should’ve put my foot down right from the start but you live and you learn and you speak up. Twenty Couchsurfing experiences good, and just one bad.
He will forever be known as the rude, dirty and stingy “one” that got away (with some help).
“Couchsurfing? Why do you do it?” the question of sanity continues.
“Because it is like having the whole world in your living room and it’s about sharing stories.”
A few things to keep in mind when Couchsurfing:
At least eight out of ten Couchsurfing experiences will be positive while the other two might be negative because of personality clashes, cultural difference or just the lack of manners from a host or Couchsurfer.
There are a few negative Couchsurfing stories circling the net; always be aware of your surroundings, leave (or ask someone to leave) if you don’t feel comfortable, have emergency numbers at hand, beware of fake profiles and join Couchsurfing groups and communities to stay up to date.
· Familiarise yourself with the Safety Basics from Couchsurfing
· Read references thoroughly, don’t just read one and click on “request” or “accept”.
· Leave references.
· Couchsurfing is by no means an easy way to get a lay as one travel blogger brags about his hosting experience; he even wrote a complete guide on How to seduce naughty Couchsurfing girls. Always read the references; if you smell a rat it is because you are probably dealing with a rat. Stay with a host from the same gender if that will make you feel more comfortable.
· Trust your instinct.
· Don’t accept friend requests from random strangers.
· Don’t overstay your welcome.
· Always be considerate with regards to culture, traditions, religions, curfews, other people’s working hours and buying food.
· Bring a gift: If you are on a short trip, give your host a souvenir from your country, if you are on a longer trip and don’t have any space, pitch up with a snack or something similar. It’s just a gesture and it does not have to be big or expensive!
· Keep things clean; offer to help with the dishes, keep your sleeping space neat and tidy and make sure the bathroom is not a mess after you’ve used it.
· Respect your host, respect your Couchsurfer.
· Couchsurfing is not the same as a hotel; do not treat it like that.
There are a million other things to keep in mind when Couchsurfing, but all in all, just Couchsurf with the manners your mama has thought you; be respectful and considerate and don’t be an arse. As easy as a shared home-baked pie.
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