A couch for culture

Pooja Bhula

Local experience worldwide, cultural exchange and free stay are Couch Surfing features that have attracted several in the country. This is especially true of youngsters, who want to make friends across the globe and travel on small budgets. Yet, for many, it is just ‘something they’ve heard of’.

Couch surfing is the brainchild of Casey Fenton from San Francisco. Living in locals’ homes during his trips to Egypt and Iceland changed his outlook towards the world. So in 2004, he started this global community with a few friends with the objective of making travel a truly social experience. To achieve this, couchsurfing.org gives members the opportunity to get to know people from other countries, request to stay at their homes (surfing) and open their homes to travellers (hosting).

22-year-old Rahul Arora and his friend went to Canada for a year-long exchange program in Film Studies, without making arrangements for accommodation. They stayed at a youth hostel for the first two nights, but found the fee, $60 CAD (Rs.3500) per night, steep. Rahul’s sister, active in the community, requested members in Kingston to host them for two days. Interestingly, the member who responded was away, but asked another friend to take them in.

“Our host wasn’t a member, yet he didn’t ask us for money. Unsure of how long the hunt would take, we offered him $100 CAD (Rs.5800) for a week, and split the cost. There weren’t many rules, but we were expected to wake up early, clean up our mess in the kitchen and avoid making noise at night. He even gave us spare keys to access the house when he was at work,” shares Rahul.

Couch Surfing, which boasts 6 million members across 1 lakh countries, explicitly states that hosts can’t charge surfers. Rahul’s case is an exception yet interesting because the stay was merely organised by members, but the host and students were non-members.

Encouraged by his first experience, Rahul signed up with the community before his recent trip. “I volunteered for an American company during the Cannes Film Festival 2013 and wanted to visit cities around. Hoping to meet locals, I put up couch requests for Rome, Nice and Venice, and found a host for one day in Rome. It saved me 30 Euros (Rs.2400) but didn’t help out with the itinerary. Another member offered to host me for two-nights in Paris, in response to the emergency request I’d made after extending my trip to include Amsterdam and Paris last-minute. Unfortunately, I had already made hostel arrangements by the time he responded. He called me over for dinner, but due to the distance that didn’t work out either.”

The community lays emphasis on empathy and consideration for other peoples’ points of view to foster cultural exchange and mutual respect. Reflecting on his experience, Rahul says, “I realised hosting is a favour, you must respect the host’s rules and also make time to mingle. But sometimes it can become difficult on a vacation, and more so, if you can’t get along with your host.”

29-year-old Kanika, who introduced Rahul to the community, knows enough about being on the other side as she has hosted several foreigners during their stay in Mumbai. She says, “I only host women, and haven’t surfed as yet because a trip abroad hasn’t worked out and I don’t want to surf in India. All surfers can’t become your best friends, but you can always have good conversations. I learnt about the place, Ban Ganga at Walkeshwar and some good restaurants in Kalbadevi from them.”

Giving space to a complete stranger not only involves hosts but also their families. Recollecting her first experience Kanika says, “My mom was hesitant the first time, but everyone got along with the surfer from Spain. And it wasn’t like having relatives over—we weren’t obligated to provide anything, not even food; although we did offer when we were eating.”

Typically surfers need some guidance when they first arrive, spend the day exploring the city and all the chatting and getting to know each other happens at night. The laissez-faire structure of the community works well for many, but rejection to requests can also be disappointing.

Ajay Mane (name changed), 27, who tried to find a host on his trip to Hong Kong, shares, “A member from there only helped me out with apps for planning, but didn’t respond to my request for a city tour. She responded to my email on the last day of my trip saying she’d been away and wouldn’t have been able to accompany me anyway. In my opinion, Couch Surfing has picked up well in western countries, but I am not so sure of India; the concept doesn’t exist here traditionally and there’s nothing to rely on.”

The community tries to ensure safety by asking members to fill up a detailed form and lists some general safety tips. One of its special safety tips for women discourages them from hosting men and clearly states that the community is self-moderated; couchsurfing.org isn’t responsible for untoward incidents. This factor lends to people’s scepticism, but optimists think that adherence to suggested safety measures coupled with street smartness make it reasonably secure.

One such member is 23-year-old Niharika Sanyal, who has set out on a backpacking trip through Europe with a girl pal. It’s her first surfing experiment, her parents know about it but she hasn’t left room for objections and has only good things to say about her male host in Athens.

“Most hosts here are men and the one in Athens was extremely generous. I’d read positive references about him and got a good feeling from the pictures of his house. He let us use the entire living room and gave us spare keys. He really helped us plan for Athens, met us at the station, explained the transport system, showed us around the city square and even cooked us a wonderful Mediterranean dinner on our last night. He was so sweet, we couldn’t believe it!” says Niharika.