By Russ Slater from On the Road to Find Out
ARGENTINA, South America- Okay, so I do feel a little bit guilty, relying on people’s hospitality, but what can I do? They’re just so damn hospitable! I have this all to blame on a German with smelly feet I met in Ecuador. He told me about a website called Couchsurfing where you can easily stay with local people wherever you go, who will host you, feed you, show you the town, and never ask for one penny. I was skeptical at first. Now I am evangelical!
Now to me the idea of Couchsurfing is great. Someone has a spare couch, or floor. They want to meet people and show them around their city. On the other hand travellers are always looking for a cheap place to stay, me included. The major revelation for me though has been the amount of trust that has been shown. I am currently in Brazil and have so far stayed on 3 couches. Every single person has given me the keys to their house, told me to treat it like home, feel free to eat any food, etc., etc. I could go on. Yet they’ve only just met me. Okay, I have a profile on the website with a few jokes and a little bit about myself, but it’s not much to go on. This isn’t to say I am complaining, more I am praising the amount of trust that people are willing to endow on stranger. It’s a beautiful thing.
I also have not had to buy a meal while I’ve been staying with anyone. The only time I did buy a meal was shortly before meeting a new host, who then took me to his house and placed a mountain of food in front of me, informing me that I should eat everything as otherwise it will just go to waste. Safe to say I slept with a slight sweat on that night. During these meals I have had the chance to try some of the staple local foods, ask about what foods I should try when I go out and also learnt the names of all the dishes and ingredients. As a traveller whose days revolve around food, this instant knowledge is something of a god send.
This only paints half of the picture though, and it’s a slightly rose-tinted one as well, as no expectations should be with the hosts other than providing you with a couch so any food provided or the occasions where they give you a key so you can treat the place like home should be seen as unexpected bonuses. There is a whole other side to Couchsurfing too which doesn’t get mentioned as much as its use as a hospitality exchange. Users are able to create groups (essentially forums) where they can exchange messages. It’s the perfect platform to get knowledge on all kinds of things by asking the people who actually live there. Pretty much every city has a group, and may have sub-groups too, broken down into emergency couches, football, trekking and a whole variety of topics. The fact that these groups are so active are what make it so useful. There are numerous travel forums out there, like Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree, but whereas they are generally the opinions of travellers who’ve returned home these are the opinions of both locals and travelers.
If you’re as accident prone as me you’ll really appreciate these groups. I lost my glasses in Buenos Aires then got completely confused when I tried to buy some replacements by just walking into the glasses shop down the road. I did some investigation via the Couchsurfing groups and found that I needed to go to a clinic first for a prescription before I can buy glasses, as well as getting a huge list of recommended clinics and eyeglass shops. When I found out the price I then also asked some groups in other parts of Argentina and Uruguay for a rough idea of price and realized I would be better to buy the glasses in my next destination which was the Argentine countryside. The same also happened when my laptop broke. I sent messages to the next few cities I would be going to and put together a good list of shops and people that might be able to help, so that when I then arrived I really hit the ground running.
The groups can also be used to find someone to go on a trek with, find out how to buy tickets for the football, buy a surfboard, find a job (in fact the hostel where I am currently working and living was discovered by me thanks to Couchsurfing). There are many ways of doing all these tasks but by bringing them all together with the local/travellers knowledge of CS users it has made the search so much easier. Even people who don’t have a couch or don’t necessarily want to lend out the use of their couch should consider joining Couchsurfing just for this reason, as it can be an incredibly useful tool for both hosts and surfers alike.
Travel Hospitality/ Homestay Programs