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SWMBO tries the hard sell to promote couchsurferism.

Saturday noon

We said goodbye to our little Welsh cottage (sniff). Clough William-Ellis set out to create a utopian village in Portmeirion when heaven on earth was already there across the water. It has been nice to put down roots even for as short a time as two weeks. But we have moved on – to our fifth couchsurfing experience. The couchsurf is about an hour west from the cottage, along the coast. The original plan was to stay a few days there in Bangor before taking a ferry to Ireland but we’ve opted to scale back and forego Ireland. Our new plan is to spend two days in Bangor before heading north to the Lakes District and the Scottish border.

Last sunset in Welsh cottage was spectacular

Last sunset in Welsh cottage was spectacular

carreg sunset2 carreg sunset3

A few months ago, I spent some downtime surfing on couchsurfing.org (see what I did there?). Travelling with a family our size means that more time and effort is needed in the hunt but not as much as you would think.  I have been surprised at how much easier and more fruitful the searches are than I ever would have believed. Each person on couchsurfing.org is a member and has created a detailed profile outlining interests, space available, travel experience etc. As people host and surf, they are reviewed by their guests/hosts and reading all this, you get a sense of the accommodation and person. Granola? Marxist? Rabid up-cycler? Steam punk enthusiast? Party animal? Proselytizer? Fitness nut?  And/or just Regular Joe.

Having found a Welsh family with five children and the space to accommodate us, I sent a request to surf. Nothing for a while. Nada. Not a peep. I have since found that I am a planner whereas most couchsurfers seem to be more spur of the moment and spontaneous. Either that or I am on vacation and they are really busy.  My sense is that it would be more effective to send a request about a week before the arrival date.  Will experiment with this.  Eventually, I received an email to let me know that my request was accepted. We were invited to come any day but it was suggested that we come before June 2 because until then, the children would be on “half-term” and would be available during the day.  There was a bit of emailing back and forth to introduce family members, confer on dietary preferences, provide address and directions and arrange a time of arrival.

We arranged to spend the afternoon at a National Trust castle near our hosts and then to arrive at the house around 5 pm.  Plans changed and we decided to skip the castle and head straight over.  Despite best intentions, we rolled in just after 6:15 pm.

Saturday 7 pm

Parents chatted and instantly felt comfortable with each other.  Children glued their backs to walls and looked at their feet.  We have four girls and one boy – they have four boys and one girl.  We were given a tour of the (beautiful) home with a view to die for.  Then we were shown to our quarters – double room for mum and dad; room with three singles for Onlyboy, Paris, Venice; twin room with bunkbeds for Firstborn and Lastborn.

We were fed an amazing feast of home cooked Indian food – Chicken Korma, Chicken Tikka Masala, Curried Eggs, Dal, Curried Potatoes – all served with naan and basmati rice and yogurt.  Absolutely delicious.  We all squeezed around the massive dining table and marvelled that we still only made up 2/3 of the family with 21 kids on T.V.!  The teen boys retired to the “man cave” as soon as their appetites were sated but everyone else stayed at the table for a long time, chatting and relaxing.  We made plans for the following day and for the first time at a couchsurf, our hosts were available and interested in joining us in our sightseeing.  From the list of possible options, we decided on going to the beach and visiting the Telford bridge as our activities of choice.

View of castle and sea from upstairs

View of castle (in distance) and sea from upstairs

Saturday 10 pm

We were given the wifi code, sleepy children were put to bed and older people retired to enjoy a bit of emailing and such.

Sunday 10 am

Everyone rolled out of bed late – some later than others.  The two dads set off for Tesco’s to shop for the evening meal.  The weather was beautiful.  We packed a picnic lunch and set off for a beach on the Island of Anglesey.  Of course, during the course of the half hour drive, it turned freezing so we put on our jackets and hats and huddled as we ate our sandwiches and crisps.  The beach was beautiful despite the wind and cold.

On the way back, we parked and had a beautiful walk across the Minai Strait on a bridge designed by Thomas Telford (yes, he of the aquaduct we crossed by narrowboat).  It was hot and sunny once again and all was good.  The bridge is two hundred years old but still used to cross from Bangor to Anglesey by car or on foot .  Unfortunately, with over a dozen people in our expedition, no one had a photo-taking device so you will have to take my word for it that it was pretty spectacular.

Lastborn shocked us by asking to ride in the couchsurfers’ car without any other members of her family.  She wanted to be with their Lastborn (3 yo)!

Lastborn settles in

Lastborn settles in

Sunday 5 pm

We arrived back home.  The kids had bonded so well, our hosts were so lovely and Bangor has so much to offer that we regretted having to leave the next day.  At that moment, our hosts asked us how late we could stay tomorrow and said that maybe their kids could miss one itsy bitsy little day from school.

Fahbio set about cooking dinner – roast chicken and potatoes with mushrooms, carrots, green beans.  For dessert he made a (few) berry pies.  While all this was being cooked, the girls were playing a weird game whereby they would gang up and kidnap someone, drag them into the bathroom, and then subject them to a complete spa makeover.  Their Onlygirl requested that a pillowcase be put over her head when the kidnappers came for her.  Like I said, they got along famously (great minds think alike).  Dinner was yummy and the company was excellent.  After dinner, kids ran off to play while parents traded war stories about life with teenaged boys.  True stories from the trenches.  None of the kids wanted to go to bed because everyone was trying to delay the next day’s departure.  By 11 pm, the kids had been wrestled to bed.

We wouldn’t see our surfer-dad the next day so we had to say good night and good-bye to him.  When I emerged from the washroom with Lastborn after brushing our teeth, I was touched to find two almost-18 year old boys waiting to say good night and good bye as they would be in college early in the morning.  I was even more touched when they gave me a big hug and said how nice it was to meet us.  Wow.  There is something about homeschooling that makes children more accepting and also more willing to show their true selves to people without fear of ridicule.  I firmly believe that there is something in couchsurfing that does the same thing.  Couchsurfing teaches children to be good hosts and good guests and it exposes them to many people they wouldn’t normally encounter, creating a safe environment for them to be real without fear of ridicule.

It is fashionable in travel circles to witter on about “authentic” experiences.  Everyone wants to be a traveller rather than a tourist.  You can’t get much more authentic than dipping a toe into the couchsurfing pool.  With that, I rest my case and promise not to write any more blog posts about the joys of couchsurfing.

Throne with a view (couchsurf) - doesn't get more authentic than that!

Throne with a view (couchsurf) – doesn’t get more authentic than that!

Monday noon

Children played together all morning while SWMBO borrowed the printer.  Couch-mum had already done so much for us but offered to return our library books since we were rapidly running out of time.  SWMBO inwardly felt her bad karma growing as she was so smarmy about the library card in the first place.  Like all the other bad karma stuff, it was added to the growing new year’s resolution list and then shoved in the glove box.  Then came the sad, sad moment of saying good-bye.  Saying good-bye to great couchsurfers is, in fact, quite sad.  You hope to see the family again and accept that you very well may not.  That is sad.  So sad.  We got in the van and headed north to Scotland.

So far we have stayed with:

An architect and professional storyteller couple with one child.  Not sure why they started couchsurfing but they do it a lot – both hosting and surfing.  Recently, they decided to take a break from hosting because the mom had gone back to school full-time.  They live in a simple flat but are generous beyond compare.  We were greeted with open arms and a key and ate wonderful food.  They invited us to come and stay over Easter weekend.  They sent emails to their surfer friends to open doors for us in other cities should we choose to visit them.  This was our first couchsurf and a more stereotypical surfer gang, I don’t think you could find.  These people have two fridges – one has food in it, the other is filled entirely with greens from the organic farmers market.  One member of the family is a professional story teller.  They give strangers the key to their home.  The surfer mom described to me some friends of theirs and told me that they (the friends) were “alternative” and were often judged because of that.  She told me that they (the surfers) were not (alternative).  With a straight face.  That is, hands down, one of my all time favourite quotes from this trip.

A Masters of Education student living in his childhood home, parents having moved to the city.  His sister has surfed all over Europe and urged him to make a profile so he did.  About a year ago, someone sent a surf request to someone but that person couldn’t host because she had no space at the time so the surfer sent it to our student instead.  The surfer came and stayed with the student and it was agreed that the surfer and host would meet up with the too-busy host for a drink.  WELL, the student and the too busy surfer have become very good friends and Fahbio suspects a romance…

A young couple building their first home from scratch – he a carpenter, she an English teacher.  They were often hosted by strangers over the years (informally, not through couchsurfing.org) and wanted to pay it forward.  I don’t think they surf anymore but they host whenever they can.  They impressed me by welcoming a family with five children even though they have decided that they don’t want to have any children themselves.  They were funny and played a lot of games with the kids and we were fascinated to hear about all the innovative things they were doing in their home build.

An air quality specialist, a disabilities awareness expert and their three teenaged boys.  These are the legendary hosts who have been blogged about on this site in the past.  The ones who ended their holidays by getting up at 4 am and driving all day to welcome us to their home.  Then decamped to grandma’s house so that we could have their whole house to ourselves.  They have never surfed themselves and we were their first guests.  They joined couchsurfing after hearing about it from a work colleague.

A doctor, an accountant and their five children.  They have never surfed but host A LOT of surfers.  They joined couchsurfing after hearing about it from a work colleague as well.  They thought that they could build bridges across the globe and then in a few years when their boys are in their 20s and backpacking, they would have friendly faces they could reconnect with.  They told us that what they weren’t prepared for was the good friends they would meet through couchsurfing.  Although they haven’t stayed with any couchsurfers, they have made detours while on vacation to visit families whom they had previously hosted.  They are an amazing family – wonderful parents with wonderful children.  The generosity they showed us was beyond description.

Lambs in front of cottage, Wales

Lambs in front of cottage, Wales

Beyond that, we have had a handful of rejections that have come with:

Cell phone numbers to call in case of an emergency or problem while we’re travelling.

Something to the effect of, “Try to find something else, because we don’t really have the space but if you can’t find anything, we’ll make room for you.”

A sentence like, “We don’t have room for all of you but we could take a few of you and try to sort something out with our neighbours for the rest of you.”

Each and every one of the people we’ve been lucky enough to couchsurf with has been kind, respectful, interesting, intelligent, warm, generous, welcoming, witty, and NORMAL. In them, we have found personal guides willing to answer any questions we’ve asked to help us understand puzzling things we’ve noticed. It is these conversations that have taught us the most memorable things of our trip.