I want to write about Couchsurfing.org today.
If you are unfamiliar with Couchsurfing, or CS for short, it is an on-line community for “travelers” whom find more enjoyment in meeting people and exchanging their culture with each other as they travel or while they are at home. There are two main aspects of CS; 1) a Surfer, and 2) a Host.
A Surfer, like me right now, is a person or several people traveling with each other, who in exchange for a safe place to sleep free of charge, offer their perspectives on their native culture; their experiences in traveling; the activities they enjoy, such as cooking or playing a musical instrument; funny stories of their lives; their knowledge of a different language, etcetera; or any combination of the above. In other words, a Surfer offers of themselves something that cannot be measured in terms of money or a hard value, in exchange for a place to sleep, a bed, a floor, a safe and secure sleeping location, or as the name implies a couch.
The other side of the CS Community equation is a Host. The Host or Hosts are people, often travelers themselves, who when they are at home, desire to offer an extra bedroom, a safe living/sleeping arrangement, or a couch, to a Surfer, in exchange for the opportunity to learn of another place, another person, one of a million different cultures that exist on the planet we share. A couch, like a Surfer’s experience, knowledge, language or cultural understanding is offered free of charge.
Whoever the founder of CS.org was, he/she/they were geniuses in my opinion. They had the ability to recognize the shortcomings of “traveling for the sake of traveling” or to “just check off” another city, country or culture from some “bucket or dream list”, and to develop an on-line forum and community for people wanting more from their travels, something not measurable in Dollars, Euros, Pesos or Yen.
Hostels have for the most part always been the “go-to” for travelers; a safe place to sleep and to meet other people while traveling, but not requiring a person to spend all their money on a bed and a location to store their travel gear as they explored a city. Hostels were not hotels, a place all for yourself, a home away from home, but as business travelers knows, hotels are sterile environments, devoid of any cultural experience, etc. They are place to shower and sleep, restaurants are likewise the place at which one eats… something resembling being at home, providing the comfort and safety humans need in order to survive, but bland like bleached white bread. Hostels, in their shared, communal sleeping and gathering rooms, are the compromise between expense and basic necessities for a traveler.
Couchsurfing was the next evolution for a person traveling either because they wanted to, or while they are on business, but not wanting the sterility of a hotel, or sharing different versions of the same adventure of fellow travelers common in hostels. AirBnB.com likewise is another variation of travel accommodations, “private homes” for the business traveler or people on holiday who do not wish to compromise their personal space in exchange for reduced expense in a living arrangement.
In essence, a hostel, a hotel, a “home” on AirBnB, or a “couch” through CS, are nothing more than different versions of the same questions humans have been facing from the dawn of our existence, “Where do I sleep tonight and not be eaten by a wild animal?” The Couchsurfing Community and website answers this basic question while returning to a trading system where the object of value and desire has no hard currency; it has no measurable quantity… “I have a safe place to sleep, you desire to sleep safely, why not exchange our knowledge and skills instead of money to experience something that cannot be measured in bills or coins?”
It is a great concept, and I would be lying if I did not say I absolutely love being a part of this community! Over 15 years of my traveling life I traveled without knowing about CS, but in that time I spent close to a year’s worth of nights sleeping on different friends or family’s couches, extra beds or floors even. Hey, they are safer, warmer and possibly more comfortable than city parks, but I can do that too! 😀
After learning about CS, and prior to AirBnB growing like wildfire, my extensive travel experience for work the past couple years, did a complete one and eighty degree turn for the better when I incorporated CS into my work travel plans.
Two weeks after learning of CS and picking my jaw up from the ground being in complete disbelief something I had lived existed, I was off to Costa Rica Hans’ Style (read – I did not plan anything, read anything, look at a guidebook, or know anything about Costa Rica other than “Pura Vida”) and yet, a CS profile and a few frantic, last minute messages later, I had a Couch to Surf with Diego and a safe place to go directly from from the airport.
Another CSer, Cris, answered my questions about buses and cellular SIMs (an absolute necessity at HansWorldTravels, data for Google Maps from which travel freedom arises) so I could get to the Pacific Ocean from San Juan, the capital city. Although Cris was away from his home when I passed through his town originally, I made it a point to return to his “bus through” town on my route back to Diego’s before flying home, so we could at least meet and have coffee, and a beer of course.
Sharing a beer with CSers, I have discovered is the only real “currency” understood by Hosts or Surfers alike, and it is my favorite “coin of barter”! Wine will do as well, although there are a few strange CSers who enjoy cooking a favorite recipe or a traditional meal from their homeland, but I digress. 😉
I have carried this CS interaction style forward in my travel for work also. Too often, my work sent me to little BFE (Bum **** Egypt) towns, too far from the “must see” cities or sites of the world, and not even a “pass through” location to stop for a bite to eat. And again, to my surprise CSers live there too!
I did not need a place to stay, work required a receipt for a hotel, and I could not arrange for them to authorize a mutually beneficial agreement, where I would take less in cash than a hotel, stay with a Host and use the money to take them out to dinner, or you guessed it, drink beer! 😛 So I did the next best thing, I searched for CSers living there, sent them a message asking if they wanted to meet, as I did not need a place to stay, but I did not want to eat in another Outback Steakhouse alone either.
And sure enough, great conversations later, I have a few more friends like HB in Pensacola, Florida and Mike in Port Aurthur, Texas, whom I enjoy seeing their travel adventures when posted on Facebook and I will call them in a heartbeat if I returned to their towns.
Then there are the weekly or monthly CS Meetups.
CS Meetups, thankfully arranged by someone other than myself, are a great way to meet other members of the Community, not only in the town or city you live, but also, they are a place for travelers to feel welcomed into a new place and not feeling like an outsider, standing outside the window, looking in on the life of others.
My first CS Meetup ever was in Denver, my home city, once my work travel schedule actually allowed me to go several months after Costa Rica. It is not memorable for who I meet that lived there, but rather, who I met that was doing what I just explained above, using CS not for a Host, but rather for the connection to the community while living a busy business travel lifestyle. And that of course was Bryon, by pure luck we met through CS, although most likely we should have encountered each other years before as our pathways in life crossed repeatedly, but unknown to us at those times.
Since then, I have attended Meetups in Denver when I can, but more often than not, I go to Meetups where I am traveling. There’s a different feeling for me when visiting somewhere else than when at home, so I tend to enjoy them more.
Denver’s community is very active and a great model for other smaller towns and cities to start or reactivate Meetups that have passed into the sunset for whatever reason, and I like to share what seems to work and not work with other CSers that are trying to start or build meetups in their cities. Louisville in Kentucky, Georgia’s Savannah, Baton Rogue, Copenhagen, Charleston, London, and many others I cannot remember, all I have had the opportunity to enjoy over the past 3 years.
CS and the travel mentality it supports, are the “ice breaker” moments I have always searched for in my travels, given I seem to be afflicted with a disease that stops me from saying “Hi!” in a group of people I do not know, or do not care to engage in subtle chit chat about the weather, politics or the score of last night’s soccer match. I can now say I have more “friends for life” gained since CS, than all the years I traveled the world that proceeded my awareness of the Couchsurfing Community, and of course my travels are much richer because of it.
So… the big questions that arise every time I have a conversation with another CSer about our experiences or someone that may have been a part of it before, but left active participation due to the “elephant in the room” bad experience. It is of course encountered when I tell another person I meet outside of CS about CS.
Instead of “beating around the bush”, let’s just get it out – Sex and CS.
It exists. I have been a consensual participant on several occasions, as Host and as Surfer. Friends, both male and female, have engaged in it of their own choosing and with the willing and freely made decision of their partner. Every person I have met through CS has their own stories, told told to me in our conversations or kept private of their own accord.
In this regard, it is no different than any “community” of people; i.e., work places, universities, travel destinations, Spring Break, bars or clubs, etcetera, where relationships develop. This is as natural as humans talking to one another, equally as natural as humans not talking to each other as well. We’re sexual creatures, there is no other way to say it. And so it is, sex happens in a community of people sharing common interests. Couchsurfing is no different.
So what is the problem, why the backlash against CS?
Let’s go back to the basics of what is being offered and sought in CS… A safe place to sleep without fear of “wild animals” eating you in the night. The exchange is all about safety, “I have a place you can sleep in safety, you are looking for safe place to sleep.”
And here is where the problem arises, like a rotten egg, those not respecting this fundamental agreement, leave the foulest taste in one’s mouth and linger the longest in our consciousness.
The horror stories abound, both experienced in the flesh or relayed CSer to CSer as “Urban Myth”. Without going into detail, there were elements of complicity, gross negligence and willful abdication of responsibility throughout all levels of the CS Community in addressing growing instances of the “Golden Rule” being broken.
There are no questions this drove many dedicated members of the community away, and in hindsight all can say more should have been done to collectively remove the bad apples from the community for good and be vigilant in making sure they did not return under different aliases. But CouchSurfing is an open community, all are welcome and rotten eggs are a demographic in all segments of society.
We as a community need to do our part in identifying those bad eggs in our community as they first appear, and likewise, CS.org should also dedicate some resources towards these ends.
Something CS.org might consider – Setting up a fund and an 24/7 call center, where when a Surfer is faced with the choice “sex or the street”, there is a process by which that Surfer can walk out the door and be provided an actual safe place to stay, be it hotel, responsible host in the area, whatever it is, the basic tenants of the community are upheld. This would therefore need to trigger an actual process by which the offending party is subject to removal from the community.
All this is above my head technically, but there are ways we as a community can ensure 90% of the bad apples are removed, hopefully for good.
I’ve dragged this on long enough, the elephant is unsheathed. Many have asked me about this and encouraged me to write about it, so it is done. I absolutely love what CS has added to my life, it has enriched my travels beyond measure. I hope all others are likewise blessed in their experiences.
Writing from the start of my third month traveling in Europe, from Sofia, Bulgaria… Hans out and happy CSing! 🙂