I’m writing this introduction in a Grade 4/5 classroom where I am substitute teaching. The children are are quietly designing a title page for their science unit on pulleys and gears. Before the class began, I spoke with their homeroom teacher and explained that while the students worked, I’d like to type up an article explaining the wonders of Couchsurfing (if she wouldn’t mind).
“Couchsurfing? What’s that?”
I explained to her what Couchsurfing was. I gave her a very barebones explanation: Couchsurfing is a global social network of travelers looking for a place to crash and/or unique experiences on a shoestring budget. You can be either a host or a surfer. Surfers can search for hosts in various cities around the world, and send requests to stay with them. A host can choose to either accept you, or decline your request for whatever reason. There are no monetary exchanges – you’re exchanging experiences, company, and culture.
She didn’t get it. Nearly every person I’ve explained it to is initially skeptical of the service — especially in terms of safety. This is silly. Sara and I have travelled across several countries, and stayed with dozens of Couchsurfers. Not once have we felt unsafe; to the contrary — we’ve been welcomed with open arms, and often made to feel as though we were part of the host’s family. Here are a few examples of the hospitality and warmth we’ve been shown by strangers (now friends) along the way, and the unique experiences and perspectives we’ve gained through Couchsurfing.
Introducing a Couple of Our Southeast Asian/Japanese Hosts…
Taka – Homemade Takoyaki in Osaka, Japan
Taka was an interesting man whom we grew to adore. In his Couchsurfing profile he emphasizes a very thorough set of house rules he expects his guests to respect. Although nearly all of his 200 references are positive, most of his guests make note of his strict policies and rigid structure. This is unusual because 99% of hosts are casual in their house rules, and super warm.
We found Taka’s transactional style to be endearing, and his rules reasonable. In the evenings we engaged in deep conversation where we gained a more complete understanding of Japanese culture and customs. He even taught us how to cook takoyaki – a Japanese flour ball snack which is typically filled with octopus, or other seafood, and drizzled with sauce. Taka practiced his English skills, and gained a more thorough understanding of North American culture.
Amanda – Mentawai Elders in Jakarta, Indonesia
Most hosts are eager and excited to give a glimpse inside their cultures and to introduce you to experiences most tourists simply aren’t aware of. Our host in Jakarta, Indonesia took us to dinner with her father and family – native Mentawai tribespeople – who were in town to promote tourism to Mentawai Island.
It was a surreal experience sharing dinner at modern karaoke pub with elders who wore only loincloths, smoked tobacco from rolled banana leafs, and were covered in bamboo tattoos.
Halfcha – Campus Life & Amazing Company in Chiang Rai, Thailand
Halfcha is a University student at Mae Fah Luang University in Chiang Rai, Thailand with whom we visited for several nights as we checked out the city and it’s White Temple by motorbike. She taught us how to write our names in Thai (แมทอาย is how to spell Matti; ซิลลี่ เซอร์ is my brewing company’s name), and introduced us to her amazing friends.
Walking around campus with Halfcha was like walking around with a celebrity – everybody seemed to know her. She was very warm, and welcoming. Visiting Chiang Rai became more about the new friendships that we made than about visiting the tourist sights.
Jens – Brewery Tours and Strange Manga in Kobe, Japan
Jens is an English Language Instructor teaching in Kobe, Japan. Because of his witty, relaxed persona he immediately felt like an old friend with whom were were reconnecting. Together we explored the incredible Minoh Brewery in North Osaka before hiking an enchanted forest to a beautiful waterfall. He helped us make a sign and wrote our intended destination in Japanese so we could hitchhike to Hiroshima. He introduced us to hilarious Japanese television and bizarre, captivating manga. We “cooked” him to a sad version of Canadian poutine by purchasing some McDonald’s french fries, covering them with cheese, and pouring a Japanese curry sauce over them.
Phoc – Helping to Run a Family Restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Phoc met us in the pouring rain to walk us to his house in a residential part of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam. Here we conversed with Phoc helping him improve his English and learning all about his ambitious plans to grow his restaurant business. We cooked Vietnamese inspired funnel cakes for his friends (who doubled as his patrons), drank cheap beer, and passed around a guitar. Phoc showed us around Ho Chi Minh City and taught us lots about its history. We even visited a local food market with his mom to help buy fresh ingredients for the family restaurant.
There you have it – a sampling of some of the unique experiences and amazing people you’ll inevitably befriend through CS. We cannot recommend Cough Surfing highly enough. It’s a great way to experience places from a unique insider perspective, and you’ll undoubtedly make great friends along the way. Travel is of course more about the people that you meet than the things you see, and Couchsurfing reinforced the fact people are inherently good. The world is not a place to fear, but embrace.