One of the great rites of passage into adulthood is backpacking around the world – staying in grotty backpacker hostels, experiencing different cultures, trying new foods, seeing sights that you haven’t seen before. However, one begins to notice after visiting several cities, that this routine doesn’t provide for a lot of interaction or immersion with the people who actually live there.
Then, along came Couchsurfing. Couchsurfing is “an international non-profit network that connects travelers with locals in over 230 countries and territories around the world.” Couchsurfing has been around since 2004, and has focused on cultural exchange, friendship and learning exchange through sharing hospitality and cultural understanding. A fancy way to say that if you find yourself in a strange place and don’t know anyone, Couchsurfing is a great way to find a couch to sleep on, or a friend to show you around town.
Cesar Valentim, does media for Couchsurfing and is a veteran couchsurfer.
“I can remember the first day that I couchsurfed – it was June 11, 2005,” he reminisces. He recalls seeing a news article on television about the concept, and was intrigued.
Valentim has since couchsurfed and hosted couchsurfers at his home in Lisbon, Portugal, over 500 times.
“Actually, I’ve lost count,” he laughs.
Below, Valentim provides his five takeaways of couchsurfing.
1. Couchsurfing is not for everyone.
“Why should you couchsurf? Well, couchsurfing is for people that really want to see and feel a different culture, who want to mingle with locals. Couchsurfing is for people who don’t want the tourist life, and don’t care for deluxe travelling accommodations,” explains Valentim.
This scene is not always for everyone, however.
“With couchsurfing, you have to be able to share some of your privacy – all this cultural exchange is not for everyone, and not everyone can open their house to a complete stranger. You could be showering in a bathroom that is filthy, which you may not like. You could be sleeping in someone’s living room, or sharing a room with the host’s kids. There’s not a whole lot of privacy every time you have to couchsurf, and you have to be respectful,” says Valentim.
2. There are couchsurfing hosts in places you couldn’t even imagine.
Two hundred and thirty countries is a lot of countries where you could potentially couchsurf.
“I’ve hosted people that come from the middle of the US and usually live in treehouses. I’ve couchsurfed in East Timor, where there are no tourism facilities, and I couchsurfed with a family there, and ended up having an amazing time.”
If you can imagine a country, it’s more than likely that there will be a willing friend, if not a willing host, ready to receive you.
3. Couchsurfing is quite safe, however instincts are very important.
“It’s up to you what couchsurfing it – it’s your own experience, and you have to use your own good sense. Couchsurfing and all the volunteers and couchsurfing staff put a lot of effort into safety tools. We have references, a vouching system, and other safety tools to provide a better and safer experience. However, it all comes down to your judgment – if you don’t feel comfortable with something, it’s probably not right to do it.” says Cesar.
However, as reassurance, the initiative boasts 3.2 million positive experiences, which is an amazing 99.6% of all couchsurfing experiences.
4. There is no such thing as an average couchsurfer.
“The average changes daily because the number of people who join couchsurfing each day – we’re at over a million couchsurfers now. You never know who’s going to knock on your door – I’ve had 62 year old women, 48 year olds, 18 year old teenagers – there isn’t really a particular profile,” explains Valentim.
“However, if you want statistics – the average couchsurfer is 27 years old, almost 90% have a college education, and everyone speaks at least a second language, or tries to. And generally, they all have an amazing will to experience new things,” he explains.
5. Couchsurfing runs on a whole lotta love… and a whole lotta volunteer labour.
Couchsurfing is only run by a few paid staff members, and over 2,000 volunteers. Pretty amazing for a site that boasts over a million users.
To learn more about Couchsurfing, head over to http://www.couchsurfing.org.