My two main pillars of travelling have always been how to do it cheaply, and how to do it authentically. With Couchsurfing, both of these criteria are fulfilled. A free place to stay is always nice and as an added bonus I gain new friends eager to share their lives and culture with me. Plus it beats staying in a 6-person dorm where there’s almost always a group of drunk teenagers making a racket when they stumble in at 3 in the morning.
Couchsurfing.com was conceived by its founder Casey Fenton in 1999, after he found a cheap flight to Iceland from Boston, but did not have a place to stay and did not want to stay in a “boring” hotel. Fenton hacked into a university database and randomly e-mailed 1,500 students from the University of Iceland asking if he could stay with them. He ultimately received 50-100 lodging offers. On the flight back to Boston, Fenton came up with the idea to create the website. Above finding a place to crash, Couchsurfing is about “having deep and meaningful experiences every day,” says Fenton.
I especially love travelling alone, so having hosts in an unfamiliar place gives me a sense of coming home at the end of a day. These people are tuned into the sharing economy, of freely giving what they have with virtual strangers from a place of innate generosity. The hosting enthusiasts that have welcomed me into their homes were also mostly travel aficionados themselves, with their own amazing stories of being on the road.
Read some of their stories below.
Daniel was moving houses when I visited Pico Island in The Azores, allowing him ample room to host myself and Caterina, another surfer from the US. After I left, two other surfers came; Daniel is a busy host. When we met, he was working remotely as a web developer, but was also living his dream teaching music, playing in a symphonic band, practicing permaculture and living off the land. And hosting travelers, of course. He has since left his idyllic home in the Atlantic to respond to the calling of the wild.
Hey Dan! It’s been a while since I’ve spoken to you last! Where are you currently in your travels, and what are you doing there?
For the last 13 months I have been around South America on a volunteering journey; so far Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Argentina and Chile. At the beginning of 2016 I decided that it was time to stop working just for the money and to start doing only what I’m passionate about. After all, life can be quite short… So I started saving money, sold most of my already few possessions and left the Azores in September with my backpack and a clarinet. My main passions are nature and helping people develop sustainable ways of living, community living… and music. So when I left the Azores I already knew that I wanted to find or create a community where people live in synchronicity with each other and Nature. I wanted to create a space where we can produce our own food, build our own houses and live as a family. I also wanted to help the communities around us transition to a more connected, more sustainable way of life and to reconnect with our true essence: Love. Presently, I’m doing a series of volunteering work on organic farms, communities, bio-construction projects and social projects to inspire myself and to develop my knowledge in these areas.
Tell us about some of the places you’ve stayed at that have been awesome.
I’ve had many amazing experiences so far and it is hard to choose just a few! My first volunteer experience was for 4 months at an empowerment center in Florianopolis, Brazil where I met some of the most amazing and inspiring individuals. There, I was working in the sustainability and green leafing department. But there were people working in many others areas like body movement, yoga, alternative therapies, marketing, life coaching, social connections and much more. Our calling there was to inspire visitors to be the best version of themselves giving them the right environment and many different tools within the many areas we had. I definitely had an amazing time and made great friends for life. I highly recommend everyone who’s passing through Florianopolis to visit them and to experience being a part of it. Still in Brazil, I had the opportunity to visit two national parks on the border between the states of Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul. Most people don’t know about them but there you have giant and narrow canyons that are just stunning! They are called Parque Nacional dos Aparados da Serra and Parque Nacional da Serra Geral.
In Uruguay I had a very nice time with a German guy who moved to The Aigua hills and bought 300 hectares of property and lives there by himself for the last 10 years along with more than 400 animals such as horses, cows, sheep, goats, chickens, dogs, cats, and more. He is able to produce 100% of his food and more than 90% of the food for all his animals, and it’s all organic! The place was just like a movie and his work a true inspiration for me.
In Argentina I was in Patagonia, the most beautiful region I have ever been in my life. Especially the region of El Bolson, Bariloche and San Martin de los Andes. The landscape and the trails in the mountains are out of this world!
In Chile, the Parque National de Torres del Paine is also something impressive! I was there at the beginning of the Spring and got some very nasty and extreme weather. Which made my experience very intense physically and psychologically because I have no gear for winter, especially Patagonia’s winter… my tent, clothes, sleeping bag, were more suited for Spring in Europe. Still an amazing and gorgeous place to visit!
Currently, I’m in Bariloche, Argentina being hosted by a couple that I met while trekking in the El Bolson mountains. So far my experiences being hosted have been amazing. I have met many people with big hearts and nice vibes!
While you hosted me, you were also hosting another surfer at the same time. Why do you think Couchsurfing culture is important to you?
For me, it is hard to say no to someone who makes a request for me to host them because I really love to meet new people, share memories and to learn from them, either about their culture, a specific subject or about themselves as individuals.
I believe that travelling expands your horizons and makes you grow in many different ways. And for people who don’t have many opportunities to travel, like me in the past, it is an amazing alternative to host travellers, getting to know them and their culture. Thanks to Couchsurfing exchanges, I opened my mind in so many ways and I made so many good friends and shared so many good moments!
Who were some of your most memorable guests, and what did you do with them?
This is a hard one! Especially because I had so many good experiences and made so many good friends…
Back in 2009 I was windsurfing and a Swedish surfer approached me asking if I could give him some classes despite knowing I was a beginner. After the class, two girls from the Czech Republic showed up and the Swedish guy, Niklas introduced me to them – Kristyna and Jana. We exchanged contacts and then they left to another island. One year later they wrote to me saying that they would be back in the Azores. They stayed at my place and we had a very good time together. But the story is not over yet! A year later, a friend and I did an Inter-rail trip around Europe and one of our destinations was Prague. Kristyna was not there at that time but Jana hosted us for a few days, showing us amazing hidden spots of this romantic city, teaching us about traditional Czech food and drinks and made very nice memories with us.
The second experience was was in 2016 when I hosted Kamila and her sister Agnieszka and almost at the same time Edyta along with her two friends, all 5 of them from Poland. The two groups didn’t know each other but we all got along very well. We all climbed Mount Pico together and had an amazing time jumping from cliffs, trekking and eating local food. Later the same year I went to Poland for a week and they all hosted me back!
Daniel shares his passion for permaculture on his Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/penaculture
Solen and I hung out while I was on an 11-hour layover in Istanbul, Turkey. It was the holy month of Ramadan and even though we were both raised Muslim, neither of us were observing. We spoke about secularism and religion in politics, and she guided my first proper experience with Turkish food. A year later, Solen was passing through Singapore on her journey exploring South East Asia and we met up for dinner again.
Hi Solen! You’re quite the traveller. Tell us some of your favourite stories on the road! What were some of your most memorable surfing experience?
After almost 2 years of travelling I have too many to count. But the best ones usually involve Couchsurfing. In 2014, I hosted an Ecuadorian traveller in Istanbul and we became good friends. While I was travelling through South America in 2016 he invited me to Ecuador to spend Christmas with his family. I took up on the offer and ended up staying with them more than a week. I instantly became like a member of their family. I had an amazing time with them and it was great to meet him on the other end of the world. Another story is again meeting one of my guests in Chile. She came all the way from Santiago to San Pedro to Atacama to see me a couple of years after we first met. It’s always great to reconnect with your former guests or hosts in different parts of the world.
Once in Chilean Patagonia, my host was supposed to pick me up from the street. Apparently, she forgot that I was coming and didn’t show up. She didn’t have any data plan so I couldn’t reach out to her as well so I ended up waiting outside in the snow for like an hour and then I gave up and went to a hostel. When she saw her messages, she apologized a million times and invited me for the next day. Before I went to her place, I had some seafood for lunch and got food poisoning. I couldn’t leave the bathroom during the night I spent in her apartment. It was such an unfortunate experience.
A couple of years ago I attended the CS camp in Amalfi Coast, Italy and had a great time. I met great friends there and discovered that all of our birthdays fall very close to each other. The next year they all came to Istanbul, to stay with me and we celebrated our birthdays together.
How did you get into couchsurfing, and why do you participate in the community? Why do you think it’s such an important movement?
The experts say that 21st century is the era which collaboration between people rises. I think CS is an excellent example of this statement. It connects like-minded people all over the world and makes the boundaries those separate us thinner. I think I love it because It gives me hope and renews my faith in humanity. There are kind, generous and awesome people all around the world and they are not scared to get to know other people and cultures. CS functions like a hub where all those people meet.
What advice do you have for someone keen to travel like you?
The best plan is no plan. Do not over-plan your trip and let surprises happen along the way. When things start to happen, go with the flow, because usually that’s when the best experiences come along your way!
PETER PAN SUCKOW
When I met Peter, he was being hosted by a bunch of skater-filmmakers in a shophouse in Little India, Singapore. He had arrived by hitched-hiking across the Indian Ocean from Sri Lanka on a 100-year old marine research sailboat called the MIR, where he had begged them to take him onboard. This guy is a “professional vagabond” traveler, roaming around the world using wit and charm instead of money. He occasionally sleeps on the street and eats from dumpsters. I dated him for a year, and his family hosted me in their homes in Geneva, Switzerland, Virginia, United States and Montreal, Canada.
What’s up Peter! I know you have plenty of crazy stories. What are some of the most insane places that you’ve slept while being on the road?
I’ve lived like a vagabond for so long it’s hard to pinpoint the most insane places. I got used to camping on rooftops in Tokyo for a month, but in fact crazier than that was sleeping in the century-old Yoshida Ryo dormitory in Kyoto. Other places that come to mind include sleeping on benches around Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, lying on the floor in the tiny alley of a bus to Mongolia, around train tracks and in temples in India, on a bench in a hospital compound in forbidden areas of Myanmar.
What does hosting mean to you? How did you get into Couchsurfing, and why do you participate in the community?
For me, hosting is one of the most beautiful pleasures of life. While travelling, I am used to being a guest most of the year, so when I get an opportunity to host someone, I put all my knowledge into showing them the best time possible.
I believe sharing is caring, and the hosting is a beautiful art and mindset at the same time, to give and receive freely and to care for others like family
There is no other way to get to know a place as well as staying with someone who loves it and is dedicated to helping you get to know and love the place and its people. The host is the shaman of the oneiric world of travel.
I used Couchsurfing when I first started travelling, but quickly found that I preferred just winging it. I didn’t need the feeling of security of having a place to stay, rather I preferred the excitement of being free and going wherever I wanted, and finding a place to rest by asking people I liked from intuition or finding a place to sleep by seeking out a calm place anywhere.
Furthermore, Couchsurfing has lost its soul. It’s a company and it’s doing what it can to squeeze profits. It has become too popular and its main beauty and purpose – making friends and staying with them – has become just a platform for free accommodation. Most people don’t care who they message, don’t fill in their profile… and don’t get the vibe that it isn’t just about a free place to stay.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to travel like you?
My advice: your travels should be motivated by a deeper purpose, and you should have the resilience and willingness to really rough it out and forego all certainties, securities and comfort. But essentially, what you need to know is what you are interested in… then pursue it full on. Get as far away from the first whiff of tourism, and don’t half-ass your explorations. To explore, you need to arrive in places you never even imagined existed. Get on a random bus and go as far as it goes. Then walk, or hitch-hike. See how far you can go off the tourist trail. Friends await you in the forgotten corners of the world, where life lessons abound and true connection stirs you at the very core of your being.
ATHENA ABU BAKAR
Athena and I have been friends since we were teenagers. She hosted me while she was on a short stint teaching yoga in Bali. Her house was a small outhouse attached to a massive villa which belong to Peter’s (see above) friend, MJ, whom I had met the year before when she hosted us in her suite at the Fairmont hotel in Singapore. Wow, small world. Their place was 5km from Old’s Man Beach in Canggu, in the middle of rice paddies in the most brilliant shade of green. Cab drivers would often get lost finding the place, but for the peace and quiet, it was worth it.
Hi Athena! You’ve travelled to many wonderful countries around the world. Tell us about some of the exciting places you’ve called home while on the road.
I would have to say San Carlos de Bariloche in Argentina and Huaraz in Peru were my favourite places!
I spent about 3 weeks to a month in each place, and managed to experience the local cuisines, culture and even picked up some local slangs and dialects! I love them both because they were at the foot of beautiful mountain ranges; Bariloche is the start of the Patagonian mountain range in Argentina and Huaraz is home to the Cordillera Blanca and Codillera Negra mountain range. I usually base my travels in accordance to the mountain treks and hikes I can do in the region. Also because I had amazing hosts and people to spend time with in these places!
What does couchsurfing mean to you, and how has it enriched your life?
Couchsurfing is basically a lifestyle and a community of really cool and beautiful people who are open minded, accepting and trusting. It isn’t easy to open up your home to someone who is not family, what more isn’t even your friend! But because of couchsurfing, you see the good and hopeful side of humanity. A side where you know you can give others the chance to be in your space and also, be able to receive space from others when you set off on your own wanderings. It has allowed me insight to how locals live, to how different and similar cultures, people, lifestyles are, even if they are halfway across the world from each other.
What were some of your most memorable hosts?
A lovely family in the middle of the suburbs in Argentina. They had a huge compound with 3 beautiful dogs and endless cat companions. They also had an enormous lovely walnut tree, of which I would spend a few hours each day picking walnuts and cracking them open. Everything they cooked was organic, vegan, healthy and enriching. It was definitely one of my most memorable hosts, in terms of how their amazing their lifestyle was.
Were there any fear or concerns (yours or your family’s) about being hosted or “staying at a stranger’s house”? If yes, how did you overcome that, and if no, please elaborate why.
My mom would always advise me on anything I embark upon with ‘Follow your heart and listen to it. If it says something is wrong, then get out. Even the smallest tinge of doubt or worry is something for you to investigate. But always have an escape route, or a back-up plan, no matter the location, situation’.
So I guess I have always followed this advice. I usually meditate before I make a decision. This has led me to avoid most undesirable situations, and even if I did end up in one, there was a valuable lesson to be learnt from it – usually of me not listening to my inner voice!
Do you have any advice for female solo travelers keen to start couch surfing?
Personal safety is number one. We females are wired with a stronger sense of intuition, for a very good reason. Listen to it, and if there is a single reason to doubt, worry or not trust, then listen to it. Sometimes we are wrong, as we always impose our own perceptions into our thoughts, and it is difficult to have an unbiased thinking. But it is always better to be safe than sorry. Take up defense classes; Muay thai is my personal favourite. It empowers you, and also is super fun and kicks up your confidence levels through the roof! It’s okay to let your guard down sometimes but do not be naive. And you ALWAYS have the right to say NO, in any situation. Absolutely no one can take that away from you!