I recently returned from a 3.5-month long Eurotrip, which wouldn’t have been possible without the goodwill of strangers I met via CouchSurfing who gave me a couch to sleep on.
For the uninitiated, CouchSurfing (also known as CS) was the pioneer of the sharing economy, way before Airbnb and Uber came along. Founded by Casey Fenton in 2003, CS started out as non-profit hospitality exchange service and social networking site, with coding for the website provided by volunteers. This was before the age of social media, before you could add your host on Facebook before even meeting them, just to make sure they weren’t serial killers. People opened up their homes to complete strangers and vice versa, based purely on blind faith that both parties will honour the values of the site.
In 2011, the company raised an initial funding of US$7.6mil, marking its move into a for-profit startup. As its membership continued growing by the millions, the core values of the site began eroding. That’s a common problem many businesses face as they scale. Users began noticing the diminishing sense of community which made CS so appealing when it started.
What used to be an online space for travellers and hosts to connect in real life, share stories, perspectives and cultures has turned into a breeding ground for creeps and perverts looking to get laid. With such a massive number of users, it’s difficult to control what people do in the privacy of their own home. A friend who’s been to a CS meetup told me that members were obviously there to hookup instead of socialising. Even complaints get unfairly resolved sometimes. If there is mutual attraction between host and surfer, then as consenting adults, they are free to do whatever they want. But getting laid is not what CouchSurfing was created for.
Would you stop flying because of plane crashes or stop driving because of car accidents? So why should I let the few reports of sex crimes stop me from CouchSurfing? You may argue that there’s probably many more that’s gone unreported, but the probability of it happening is not as high as one may think, although it remains a real fear.
Despite the risks involved, I didn’t want to write it off before I tried it. I decided to take a leap of faith and I emerged relatively unscathed.
You’ll be hard pressed to find a female host on CS, and nobody knows why. Each time I accepted an offer from a male host, I would find myself fervently hoping he wasn’t a creep.
My first host was an Italian man living in London. I helped prepare dinner and we shared a meal together. We had a chat for an hour and he invited me into his bed. I said no, and ran downstairs to the couch. I should’ve been indignant, but instead I was relieved that he didn’t follow me down. It also helped that he had housemates around, a Pakistani couple with a kid. He respected that the attraction wasn’t mutual, and I left him a positive reference.
I CouchSurfed again in Barcelona. My host waited up for me and picked me up at the bus stop at 4AM. He made me tea, offered me chocolates, had a chat, and offered me a room of my own for the night. He made breakfast the next day and refused to let me wash the dishes. With a few hours left before I had to go meet my Airbnb host, he showed me around his neighbourhood and then made me tapas and a salad before we said goodbye. We had great conversations and he showed me warm hospitality the Spanish way; I couldn’t have asked for a better host. We still keep in touch and I intend to meet up with him when I return.
Funnily enough, I met my host in Berlin off Tinder. He’s been on CouchSurfing for 10 years and has hosted guests before, so he knew the rules. Even though we met on a dating app, we ended up talking about our CouchSurfing experiences, amongst other things. He told me he’s gotten laid because of CS, but has never actively tried to make it happen. He doesn’t agree with using CS for that purpose either. We never hooked up. He was respectful, accommodating, and genuinely wanted to show me around the city, and let me come and go if I needed some time to myself. I now consider him a friend and hope to return the favour some day.
Before I was due to go to Dresden, a wild unicorn appeared: A female host offered me a couch the day before I arrived. Her profile was incomplete and she had no references, but I decided to accept her offer. Seeing as we were both Asian women, we already had a few things in common, and we would most likely be safe with each other. She’s from China and she’s been living in Dresden for five years. She welcomed me into her spotless apartment, made sure I was comfortable, and showed me around and told me about the history of the city. We hung out, had dinner in a traditional restaurant, and learnt about each other’s cultures. She enjoyed her first hosting experience and told me she might continue to host other travellers too.
BEING A GOOD COUCHSURFER
On the flip side, hosts have also encountered rude guests who treated their place like a free hostel; who didn’t hang out or even get to know the person they’re staying with. That’s just bad etiquette.
I made sure to have conversations with them beyond the superficial, actively listen, hang out, and form a genuine friendship, even if it’s just for a few days. There’s no one better than a local to show you around their city. If you’re smart and set clear boundaries, there is nothing to lose.
To be fair, if two like-minded people are spending days in a row together and are attracted to each other, hookups are inevitable. It’s no different than meeting a backpacker you’re attracted to in a hostel and deciding you want something more. That has nothing to do with how safe CouchSurfing is. Maybe it’s sheer luck, but I’ve had more positive experiences than negative ones.
Apart from the unpaid accommodation, CS for me is simply about making meaningful human connection with people from different cultures. It’s about seeing life from someone else’s perspective. We’re all social creatures. The solitude of solo travel can get overwhelmingly lonely and sometimes, all we need is the kindness of strangers to restore some faith in humanity.