When I first heard of CouchSurfing my immediate reaction was, “That sounds dangerous”. I could only think of staying in some strangers house, or them in yours, and of all the possible risks. What if they murdered me? What if they stole my stuff? What if, what if, what if…?
When the guys I was traveling to Spain with suggested we CouchSurf I immediately responded, “No, Thank You”. I opted for the usual hostel experience. The guys ended up following through with their CouchSurfing plans, and ultimately I was a bit…jealous.
What is CouchSurfing? In summary, CouchSurfing was developed as a cultural bonding experience. Basically people stay in other people’s’ houses around the world for free and everyone benefits through culture familiarization and meaningful connections.
You’re probably wondering, as I did, how that could possibly be safe. Nothing in this world is 100% safe, but this organization is based on trust and information. In fact it’s most likely safer than meeting someone in a hostel or on a train where all you have are your first impressions of them. When you CouchSurf you have an abundance of information available to you. Much like eBay ratings, people have profiles that others can leave positive or negative feedback on. The profile also contains their interests, and perspectives on things. In effect it’s much like meeting a friend of a friend on Facebook. I found that CouchSurfing was an incredible cultural experience. While I didn’t stay with the CouchSurfers I was able to enjoy vicarious benefits from my friends.
When we arrived in Barcelona, we headed toward the guys first CouchSurfing place. The man of the house was an Austrian bachelor living in Spain. We headed into an older, local apartment building and headed upstairs. The man was quick to offer us tips about where to go, and what to see. He showed the guys a collection of maps and advertisements, how the toilet worked, and showed them their mattress in the other room. He had an appointment to go to at 11pm so he left rather quickly after we arrived. The guys said that was the last they saw of him as he handed them the spare keys, and left his apartment full of us three strangers. They were only staying there for one night, because that is all that he had available.
The next day, after a full day of exploring, we headed over via subway toward the second house. It was a bit of an adventure finding the house, but we eventually found it. The first man was a Catalan in his late 40’s or early 50’s, divorced with grown children. The guys had their own room with full-size bunk beds. The first thing that the man drove us to was a delicious, local Catalan, off the beaten path, tapas restaurant. This restaurant was where I had the absolute best patatas bravas in Spain. While we traveled with him, he would explain cultural difference between Spain and Catalonia. He informed us of the variations in the law and the underlying feuds between the two. He then took us on the best, in-depth tour of local Gaudi buildings at near midnight. I learned more from this man, for free, in a few hours then I did from many tours and museums that I paid good money for.
When we arrived in Madrid we dropped my bags off at the hostel and then headed out to find the second house. The guys were staying in a university area with a group of college students. These kids were a ton of fun. It was a diverse environment with a mesh of nationalities, personalities, and backgrounds. They loved having various CouchSurfers come through and relay their life and stories. They even kept a journal for the CouchSurfers to write in. While I was there they cooked us dinner and we sat around and discussed different viewpoints on various subjects. They also told us about all the interesting people they had met, and about the Fruitarians that were coming and how they had no idea what to make for them to eat. Along with the guys they also had another CouchSurfer from Italy there on his way out, and a guy from Holland as well. We sat around sharing our various interests and talents. It was truly an international and enlightening evening that all started with an empty couch.
The last CouchSurfer’s house was in a little outskirts area in Valencia. The host was a very nice, older college student. He was working on an advanced degree. He lived in a little local area complete with its own little weekly flea market. We walked through the residential area full of little stores, restaurants and schools. The host even took us to a couple of his favorite local hang-outs. The first one was a little restaurant/bar. It was family owned and even had a child watching cartoons while doing his homework in the middle of the tables. The food was tasty, and the beer was cold and delicious. We then headed over to his favorite night spot and enjoyed a few beers and great conversation. We were lucky to also meet up with our old Camp Adventure (link in German) buddy who lives in Valencia. Throughout our visit with him he shared many insightful stories into local culture, cooked us delicious traditional paella, and took us to some delicious local restaurants. If we hadn’t met him we would’ve missed out on a unique experience!
CouchSurfing…. is it for me? I would have to say that without this experience I would’ve missed out on some valuable insight that you can only receive from a local. I believe that the CouchSurfing organization is a unique, positive, and mind-opening vision and experience. I really believe that only when you veer from the regular tourist routes are you able to get a real taste of the local flair. When you are willing to open up your mind to embrace new styles of living, new foods and new languages as seen from a local point of view… the discoveries are endless.
What about you? Would you try CouchSurfing?