My husband and I are starting, hopefully, a project about alternative travel. I’ve begun this blog, Rice and Beans, Alternative Travel, and we’re putting together questions and situations that will help us research this idea of how to travel in a world with not only rising airfares but also environmental and social issues. CouchSurfing is part of our experiment, although I am quickly understanding that it is a lifestyle. We have our first Couch Surfing date with a woman and her family in Montevideo, Uruguay on the second day of our trip. So I still can’t give you my experience yet, but in this post I want to explain the concept and share some Couch Surfers’ opinions.
I first heard of CouchSurfing when I started college, back in 2004ish. About the same time when Facebook came out. At the time I thought it was an interesting idea, but way too sketchy. In fact, when Casa HOY director Gerardo suggested that we check out CouchSurfing for our trip, all I could think of was yes, I like alternative travel and backpacking and all, but you really want me to sleep on someone’s couch, someone that’s not even a friend of a friend of a friend? But that’s what we do here at Casa HOY- you meet someone, you make a connection, and before you know it you’re planning a trip to bring a group of college kids to sleep on their floor. So I guess CouchSurfing isn’t much different. And after looking at the website, I realized that CouchSurfing has grown exponentially- there are thousands of members and people have dozens or even hundreds of recommendations.
So how do you get started? I’m going to be traveling, so right now I’m “surfing” and not “hosting.” You can make any kind of connection- sleep, host, get a coffee or go for a bike ride. You fill out your profile, add pictures, plan your trip, etc. After you meet up, you leave feedback, positive, negative or neutral. The more positive recommendations you have, the more likely you’ll be able to host or surf. There’s a whole lot more going on, but that’s the basic gist.
Now it’s been a few weeks and I’ve written at least 20 people in each city where we’re traveling, but I haven’t gotten more than one or two replies, and only one positive. Since I’m bringing my hubby along, I wasn’t really looking for a friend, just a floor for my sleeping bag. I was copying and pasting the little blurb I wrote about our trip plans and who we were so that people wouldn’t think we were weirdos. But apparently I wasn’t fully understanding the concept. While some people want to use CouchSurfing as a free hostel, or maybe even a dating site, the majority of the members have quite a different philosophy.
CouchSurfing is about meaningful connection. You don’t pick someone because they’re close to a subway station, but instead because they like spicy food, too, or secretly enjoy knitting. To me, so far, it still seems like a trivial link to look for, because I think you can still have an amazing conversation/time with someone even if you have few common interests. I mean, just because I like green salsa and love reading Harry Potter doesn’t mean we’ll enjoy each other’s company. But who knows.
After looking at enough women’s profiles to make me feel like I’m sneaking through the classifieds, I realized that the key to getting accepted is actually taking the time to read a profile. Now, I haven’t looked at any men’s profiles, so maybe it’s just a female thing? The whole, I want you to “know” me? Maybe with guys it’s just if they like your picture and from there on it doesn’t matter. (Note to self, update picture). Some quotes to express women’s ideas (caps already in quote): “I WILL NOT REPLY to people who [write] messages like spam, (who just copy and paste them),” “… [if you] took time to read about me,” and “I'M NOT A HOSTEL!!!!!!!!!!!”
These are just some reminders to travelers who, like me, think they’re getting a free ride.
I get it. I’m getting it.
I’ve redone my profile, updating all the cool things about me, like that I stand on one leg when I cook and I silently correct everything you say in Spanish or English because I can’t get rid of the annoying teacher in me. I’ve started thinking about the things I can share, and what I can teach, and what I hope to learn on this trip. It feels like homework, but it’s getting me in the correct mindset to take on this kind of project and travel. It’s no longer about a safe space to leave my crap while I go gallivanting around the city; it’s about teaching an Argentine all the great Mexican slang, learning about social issues in Bolivia and sharing chores at a house in Peru.
Just like Casa HOY, CouchSurfing is about a cultural exchange. It’s about the idea that travel changes you; you might not realize it, it might not be immediate, but it will happen. Travel opens your mind, changes your perspective, inspires you, reunites you, challenges you and most important of all, connects you to the world.