I was introduced to Couchsurfing all the way back in 2016 shortly after David Bowie had died. Why wouldn’t I equate this experience to the death of the closest thing humanity ever had to a dick-wizard powered by cocaine?
CS as it is affectionately known was, at the time, this really wonderful thing where people from all walks of life could use your living room and fridge when they were blowing through your city. It was a means for people to get to know one another. If you had CS, you did not have to be a stranger in a strange land. You could just be in a strange land. You could also be strange. In short, you didn’t have to be a stranger but it did not stop you from behaving like a demented walrus whose feed had been replaced by rare cacti. Mom, if you are reading this, I have no idea what drugs are and that joke makes no sense to me.
With CS, you could rock up in a country, and depending on how much cleavage your profile picture had, folk would allow you to crash on their couch. I really am not lying when I say that some of my best nights were with couch surfers. These were youngsters who had it figured out. There I was, late twenties, doing a job I objectively had no idea how to do and these kids were just talking about the months they had in Bali or Mozambique with not a care in the world. They had learnt at an age which I envied what it meant to be alive. To truly live. Not that travelling is living. I am not fooled by those terrible posts online, but that living is simply the act of doing what you want. This is what CS did for me, taught me that there were people out there doing what they fancied. Little by little my starched collared resolve broke down and they rubbed off on me.
I will always be grateful to CS. I really will. I have met incredible people whom I still have the fortune of keeping in touch with. Without having to travel myself, I have had the privilege of having the world come to me. This is the joy of being a host.
Though I probably do it wrong.
I do not host. Well, not anymore. I believe, and this is purely a personal preference, that you should only offer what you would take yourself. This has been a predominant philosophy in my life. I would not want to go to a foreign city and stay on some guys couch. I understand that is literally the title of Couchsurfing, however it is not something I would particularly enjoy for myself. Instead I have figured out a work around – dinners, lunches and activities.
It is my opinion (again, purely personal) that the safest thing for a backpacker to do when in a new country is to check themselves into a hostel. These places may not always be the nicest, but there is more of a guarantee as to what you are getting. See, I know exactly how anally retentive my cleaning habits are. I also know I am not on any federal database. I am safe, polite, and generous to a fault (countless pairs of socks have been given away here). However, my guests do not know that. They have no idea. Everything on my profile could be a front. I have always felt as a host that slight sense of unease travelers experience when meeting me for the first time. When they are being ushered across your threshold, they just do not know who you are. What does not help are the stories I have heard from my guests – terrible men expecting sexual favors; poor backpackers being unwittingly hauled to drug exchanges; late nights spent waiting for hosts in diseased neighborhoods. The list grows longer every time a traveler comes to my home for a meal.
That seems to be the thing that works for me – meals. People bond over food. I have been lucky enough to learn my way around a kitchen with reasonable competency. As a result, I have had the great fortune of sharing meals with people from Mexico, Luxembourg, Moscow, Austria, Germany, Canada, Ireland, France, America… the list goes on. I have learnt the universal language of laughter. It is loud and care-free.
Therefore, I tend to advocate for travelers to treat Couchsurfing merely as a means to meet people. It is a wonderful app, but sadly it has become abused by those who would ruin it for the rest of us. I want to keep meeting backpackers. I want to keep hearing about their travels. I do not want more horror stories. I do not want to see the relationship travelers have with CS slowly disintegrate. I have been incredibly lucky to have had exclusively good experiences with couch surfers. I want to continue meeting them, lighting fires and exchanging cringe-worthy music. I do not want this to end because hosts are ruining the experience of CS for those of us who do not treat it like a creepy-tinder. If this entry is anything – it is an impassioned plea to travelers to be wary when using CS. Use it cleverly and not with wild abandon. I cannot control the behavior of my fellow hosts. Some of them are sadly beyond reason. But I can inform you of the potential dangers so you do not get burned.
What would I recommend wary traveler? Allow me to offer some tips from experience:
- Avoid sleeping at private houses. Check into a well-known hostel and use CS to meet local people in the city. Hostels are great for exchanging information with other travelers who would have insights about a city. Sometimes travelers observe things unnoticed by locals.
- Only accept offers from the most well-reviewed hosts. An obvious one but it bears repeating.
- If your host has very little reviews, ask to meet in a public place first. Some hosts are new to CS and are yet to garner a good body of reviews. This is the best way to give them the benefit of the doubt.
- You have a say in everything you do with your host. They are not your fascist tour guide. It is your holiday, your adventure, they do not have a right to interfere unnecessarily.
- Always leave a review. The biggest check on CS is the ability for hosts and backpackers to be reviewed. The more you review, the better-informed others who follow you will be. I know some people feel that reviewing a wonderful experience with a host cheapens the memory but it must be done. Reviews allow you to relive memories. It also allows others to make decisions.
- When you review, be honest. Personally, I would rather have an honest review than an insincere one. You achieve nothing when reviewing your host by being disingenuous. Remember, reviews help others.
I do not think this list is exhaustive. In fact, this is probably the start to a piece on fair use and CS. I just want CS to be a safe place for everyone. It has been such an eye-opening experience for me. For purely selfish reasons I hope it continues to be the go-to app for backpackers around the world. Maybe this will help keep it that way.
Author’s note: If you have had any Couchsurfing experiences (bad, good or just weird) I would love to know. Hit me up in the comments below.