If one thing brings your travel plans to an abrupt end, it is cost. You may be lucky and come across a cheap flight online, but the thought of pricey accommodation can be off-putting. This is probably one of the reasons why Couchsurfing has become such an attractive alternative.
Starting out as a small organisation in 2004, the popular website has matured into a global community boasting millions of members. The idea is simple, use Couchsurfing to find a place to stay or share your home and hometown with others. Forget about arriving in a city and finding a hostel or a hangout spot to meet travellers, Couchsurfing offers you the chance to meet like-minded locals as well as a place to stay. That seems pretty good, right? Well, it is, for the most part. But these are also real people and there is always the chance that you might not get along or have different views. Things go both ways and few hosts would appreciate a traveller arriving at all hours, dropping their bags and heading straight out the door with camera and guide map in hand. Couchsurfing is more intimate than that, it allows you to walk into a local’s life (who may well have a job and other activities on his schedule) and experience their city through their eyes. Who knows? It could be that you learn a great deal more about the place than you would do from a guidebook or internet reviews.
I was introduced to Couchsurfing around five or six years ago, but it took me some time before I used the service myself. In truth, I was a little sceptical at the thought of allowing a stranger into my home and feeling obliged to entertain them for the duration of their stay. In terms of using it for travel, exploring a city with people I met in a hostel seemed pretty adventurous and open-minded to me. I was finally turned to the idea of giving it ago when a friend, who also uses the service locally, shared some of his great experiences with these ‘randoms’ with whom he has established long-term friendships. I witnessed the return of one of these guests while hanging out at his ‘Couchsurfing Mecca’ and their embrace suggested a strong connection. They even had their own in-jokes.
I was to head to Morocco for my next trip and I was determined to experiment with this alternative from of travel, but I had no references on my newly created account. Without one, I was basically asking someone to take me in on the basis of information such as my name, age and interests. Despite this major disadvantage, after sending out around ten requests, I was accepted for one night by my first Couchsurfing host, Mohamed from Rabat. Although he quickly relinquished his personal number so that I could reach him, I have to admit that I was still a little unsure, even at this point. It didn’t help that the train was delayed for over three hours and the tangerine sky began to dim into a harsh dark purple. As I exited the train station in Rabat, I pressed my digit to my ear in an attempt to drown out the feverish calls of ‘Taxi! Taxi!’ bouncing in-between my temples and pulled out my phone to contact Mohamed. He instructed me to approach a taxi and pass the phone to the driver so that he could explain the directions to him in Arabic. Before I knew it, the cab had turned into a district devoid of street lights and filled with the shadows of hooded figures prowling the streets, “Safi – That’s it,” the driver said to me as a stray dog paused at the sharp sound of the man’s voice. “Hamza Dirham.” I knew that was five and it seemed about right. We had only crossed a few blocks. I jumped out of the cab and remembered that I hadn’t checked with Mohamed what the name of his street was, nor had I confirmed it with the taxi driver. You can get distracted easily when you are on edge. Although hesitant to pull out my iphone in this sort of area, I gripped my senses and tried to relax,
“Salaam Alaikum Mohamed”
“Hello Mark,” he replied in perfect English. “Where are you?”
“I’m not sure… I think I am outside your house, but everything is dark and there are no street names. What’s the name of your street?”
“I’ll be right down,” he said, abruptly hanging up the phone. I feared the worst. If I was stuck in this labyrinth of dusty roads with my backpack in pitch darkness and, it wasn’t the right area, then things could turn nasty. Out of the darkness someone was approaching me at a steady pace, but all I could see was the bobbing light of a phone illuminating the road. As he came into view, I could not tell if it was Mohamed. All I had was a blurry Couchsurfing profile picture to go by,
“Hello Mark,” said the friendly familiar voice from the phone. “Are you ok?” I was fine. I had worked myself up into a worry for no reason. Mohamed was splitting his sides when I told him what I was thinking, “This is not a bad area,” he said. “The houses are quite expensive actually.” When he ushered me into his home, my jaw dropped at its elegance. Mohamed was an architect and his house was enormous, immaculately decorated with Arabic and Berber design and ornaments. My senses were further stimulated when I followed my nose into the dining room where he had prepared a Berber tagine. It was far too big for one person, surely we were expecting guests, but it was just for us and followed by the sweetest cakes and Berber tea imaginable. We went on to discuss his daily life, which was fascinating as I foolishly underestimated the progressiveness of life in Rabat, and he was also keen to know about Gibraltar, or Jebel Tarik as he referred to it. Gibraltar was of great interest to him as an important landmark in Muslim history and we were soon encapsulated in discussion on the mixed forms of architecture on the Rock that span different dynasties.
Mohamed had much more than a couch, he had a whole spare room for guests and he told me to make myself at home as he placed enough blankets alongside me to survive a second ice age. I felt completely at ease with someone who I had just met. I was in his home, eating his food and sharing some great stories. My kind host had to work the next day, but he told me all about the best places to visit, what time to go to avoid tourists, cheap but authentic restaurants, hidden secrets and much more. I felt that I had given little, if anything, but he seemed happy to share his life with me, even if it was for just a couple of days. Before I left, I explained to him that I felt that I hadn’t fulfilled my side of the bargain, whatever that was, and asked him if he would accept some sort of payment. I didn’t feel right giving nothing back for what was an experience that far surpassed that of a hostel. Mohamed laughed in that same contagious way he did that first time we met and just said, “Well, the next time I’m in Gibraltar, you can show me the same hospitality.” I knew that I could never live up to it, but it gave me some measure on how I should behave when I would eventually become a host myself. I left a glorious reference and I hope that it somewhat reflected my gratitude to this man who opened up the world of Couchsurfing to me.
Under a different light, I used the service to help me with some freelance work in Portugal. There, I stayed with Susana, a kind soul from a beautifully traditional Portuguese town close to Porto called Ovar. With a stable marketing job and a modern home that was spotless, I landed in Susana’s life in the beginning of the week, so we both had work to contend with during the day. We would share a ride into Porto, a 40 minute drive from her town, and part ways on our separate escapades work-wise. When evening time came, she asked me if I liked to dance. My response was shy to say the least, but I was willing to give anything a first try.
Porto is a vibrant young city with historical roots and the modernism, slashed with tradition, is evident on peoples’ faces. She took me into a classic building with a fine-dining restaurant up top. I was, needless to say, unsuitably attired for a night in this sort of place, “Não, é por aqui,” she said, taking my hand and leading me down to the basement. Downstairs, it sounded as though several violins were soloing together in feverish crescendo, but as the three-piece band came into view, I could see just one, stomping his foot in time as a ring of supporters clapped him on. This was Forró, a Brazilian dance where you let your emotions run wild and improvisation takes over.
Susana was well-known around the place and greeted passers-by, the men pausing to soothe some words to her before taking a quick snapshot at me, the new guy. But she was not the only one. These Casanovas’ confidence emanated from their mastery of the dance. The very girls who may have been mocking their masochistic undertones were soon swept off their feet by their mesmeric moves. I had no such talent in my worn and torn Nike rubber shoes, but Susana snapped me off my feet, taught me some basic steps and said, “Ok. You need to lead because you are the guy… so.”
I don’t know what it was about the music but once I had watched others and was given a few quick tips, I was ready to lead. After a few rounds with Susana, I left her with the experts and set out on the hunt on my own. Earlier, I had spotted a beautiful woman who exhibited my previous lack of confidence, so I approached her with intent. She said she wasn’t very good, but I joked and said we could have a clumsy dance together. It kind of knocked me back to see her smile and get off her feet, but I returned the gesture and placed my hand on her waist, taking the first step on the next beat. At the end of the night, I was filled with a new passion for this dance and to think that it all came from Couchsurfing.
Following that experience, I decided to open up my home to travellers. The way I saw it, I was back at home doing my day job, but I wanted to keep on travelling somehow. I set myself to some spy-work on who was active in the area and, to my surprise, there were over 650 people. Not all of them were Gibraltarian, there were a few recognisable faces, but I was shocked to see that this area was a relative hotspot to its size. I wouldn’t have a chance with a measly five references alongside these Couchsurfing gurus. Nonetheless, in September last year, I set my status to ‘accepting guests’ and waited to see what response I would receive. Lo and behold! My message board was flooded, sometimes five per day and not just individuals…whole groups! I didn’t think that I would have the chance to be so selective in this process, but soon, I was accepting surfers from all over the world and all walks of life. All come with a smile, all want to learn about Gibraltar and the variety of characters would fill countless stages. That’s what it’s all about. Connecting people. Now with over 50 references from stays and as a host, I can safely say that I am addicted to Couchsurfing. I am still in contact with more than half of these people, both on a personal and a professional level. Is this something I would recommend to everyone? Probably not. You need to be open-minded to eventualities that may not be scheduled and have no control over. In my experience, going with the flow allows for the most fulfilling experience. It certainly is a far-cry away from the experience you would have in a hostel or hotel, which can become somewhat isolated from a truly local experience.
words | Mark Viales