Yesterday we left Sancti Spiritus, Spain and drove to Malveira, Portugal. We splurged on tolls (35 euros/$55!!) which we felt we deserved after putting 2500 kilometres on our van in a week – all on non-toll roads! Guess what? We are the first people ever to stay in this rental in Malveira! The owners have upgraded an old house 30 minutes north of Lisbon. For the next three days we will be “los guinea porcos”. So far we have reminded the owner that the styrofoam is still in the dishwasher (just installed!), the fuses blow if you use two stove burners at once (electrician coming this afternoon!) and that there is no phone (owner rushes to parents’ house and gets their old cell for us to use). He is in a complete panic state but we are trying to impress upon him that we are perfectly happy here in his spacious country house.
SWMBO thought everyone was familiar with couch surfing but has discovered that that is most definitely not the case. Hence, the topic of today’s post.
Couch surfing is kind of like Airbnb (see previous posts) but it is free. Yes, you read that right. Free. Money is not allowed to change hands.
I often get Couch Surfing confused with Extreme Ironing! Extreme Ironing is where you take a picture of yourself ironing in a crazy setting.
Couch surfing is not that! What you do is go on couchsurfing.org and register/create a profile. Then you can offer a couch or a spare bedroom in your home to couch surfers. But you are not obliged to do so. Instead you can surf for couches on which to stay. There is much grumbling in the couch surfing world about how what began as a beautiful experiment to bring people together has shifted to focus on the free part of the equation.
Although I was already familiar with couch surfing, I never had any intention of trying it. Come on. Who would have space for seven extra people. Who would even want to host a group of that size? We are talking about putting up people you have never met. For free.
Before we left, an experienced traveller friend came over to my place and proceeded to convince me to sign up for couch surfing. She made a few points that left an impression:
- Her husband was completely against the idea because he thought it was a front for promiscuous 20 year olds. Once they agreed that they would join a sub-group for families and only stay with families, he felt more comfortable.
- They only couch surfed a few times during a several month trip but felt those experiences were the richest of their journey. They met wonderful people that they have kept in contact with.
- You don’t want to couch surf too much because it is stressful. You want your children to be well behaved and for an introvert like me, it is a lot of work to keep socializing with people you don’t know.
- There is a temptation to stay for as short a time a possible to minimize inconveniencing your hosts while also benefitting from a night’s free accommodation. BUT, it is a lot of work for a host to have someone come for one night. And there really isn’t anything in it for them. If you stay two or three nights, they don’t have to do any extra work (bed is already made, everything has already been explained to you etc.) but they get to benefit from your delightful company. Traditionally, the hosts will feed you supper on the first night and after that you will cook a meal from your country to share with them. So if you stay longer than one night, they also benefit from your delicious cooking.
- People you stay with really want to show you their neighbourhood. Let them.
After thinking it over, I decided to give it a try without any expectations. I thought that even if no one had room for us, maybe someone would let us park our van at their place or let us do a load of laundry.
I certainly didn’t want to be a taker not a giver so when I was contacted in January 2014 by a 20-something female couch surfer from France, I decided to make the leap and open our house to a total stranger. How is this safe? Who can ever say what is safe? But she was coming to Ottawa for an internship and wanted a place for 2/3 days while she apartment hunted. I am SO glad we welcomed her. She is a wonderful person with whom we have kept in touch. And she told me so much about couch surfing. She couch surfed all over Europe with a friend. Her mother was adamant that was not allowed to couch surf in Canada because she would be alone and it wouldn’t be safe without a friend. She told us that when she showed our profile to her mother, her mother said, “Oh go ahead, I am sure you will be safe with that family.” My kids loved having our couch surfer. In fact, they have asked me to invite more couch surfers when we get back home. Even if they have to give up their bedrooms!
So where do we stand?
- I DO NOT like the couch surfing website. It is not user friendly at all. But I guess you get what you pay for. Nada.
- Couch surfing seems designed for 18-25 year olds and for groups of 1-3 people.
- BUT, I love reading couch surfing profiles and seeing the diversity of people doing this.
- I also love the grassroots nature of this project. Escaping the clutches of “The Man”.
- We have two invitations to couch surf! Yes, all seven of us!! Despite middle aged parents and young children!!
- I expect good things from both.
The friend who told me to join couch surfing, stayed with couch surfing family #1. She kindly sent them an email recommending us and even though we exceed the number of people they are looking to host, they have invited us to come. For Easter. Wow. We are so very grateful and excited.
The second family has 4 children and an extra child they foster. SO – when we stay with them, there will be 10 kids in the house!!! The age range of their kids is the same as ours and they live in a huge, rambling country house in Wales. My children are wild with anticipation for this!
Breaking news: Just moments ago we received a third invitation to couch surf!!!
Let us finally address the elephant in the room: why would people do this? Most people will assume that surfers are doing it because they are broke and looking for free accommodation and that hosts are doing it because they are insane. In reality, there is more to it than that. Surfers are looking for warmth (physical, emotional, spiritual) and a window into an authentic experience. Many people with sufficient funds for a hotel (us included) choose to couch surf.
Hosts want to share something that is very dear to the surfer but so inconsequential to them. At home in Canada we don’t think twice about buying a bag of oranges, harvesting tomatoes from our garden, doing a load of laundry or buying a $15 Itunes card. But hit the road and these things are either hard to come by or luxuries that don’t fit into the daily budget. Most hosts are travellers who have experienced the kindness of strangers and want to pay it forward. But there are others. My traveller friend told me of a host in a remote Spanish village who had no interest in travelling but who hosted surfers to experience a broader perspective than that of her nosy neighbours. We host for all of these reasons (minus the nosy neighbours because our neighbours back home are diamonds). Because we have so much to give when we are at home; because we have been needy and hosted by strangers; because we are always curious to learn new things.