Monday, 30 April 2012

Responsible, Authentic Adventures with Couchsurfing!


The Couchsurfing world map!

Part of what reminds me that there is magic in this world is meeting new, interesting and compassionate people. It can be easy to read about all the negativity in the news, to find examples of nasty people trolling online forums, or to find yourself surrounded by cynical, negative people who drain your energy and leave you with little faith in humanity. But I’ve found a lovely way to meet exciting, wonderful people, sometimes without leaving my own home – it’s called Couchsurfing.

Like many, I was cynical when I first heard the premise behind couchsurfing – a traveller in need of a place to stay crashes on your couch for the night, and in return you can stay at the houses of similarly altruistic people. There is no exchange of money involved – although some couchsurfers might bring gifts – it is an exchange based on kindness and curiosity.
Naturally, this brings to mind questions of trust – and of course, in these cases the thing you should trust most is your gut instinct. On the official website – Couchsurfing.com – you can view the profile of anybody who requests to stay with you, including any reviews that other members have left for them. This way, you can see whether a person has created a good impression on their past couch-hosts, and negative reviews (as well as any information in their profile you don’t feel comfortable with) can act as a warning. You’re never obliged to accept a request, but the rating and member validation system means that you can feel more confident about the people you let sleep on your couch/spare bed.

When a couchsurfer stays at your house, you can spend as much or as little time with them as you wish, but I usually like to show them around Prague, introduce them to my friends and take them to some of the nicer (and cheaper) restaurants and bars that they probably wouldn't find in their guidebook. This is the charm of couchsurfing – you are staying with a local, and so you could find yourself enjoying customs or traditions that you never normally would, learning about secret places that no guidebook has touched, and peeking in to the everyday life of somebody in a completely different city or country. It can inspire people to pack up their lives and move to another place when they see how much fun the other expats are having! And how much easier would some of your backpacking adventures have been if you’d had a local to explain the public transport system to you?

I have hosted a few people in the last year, from various countries – France, the U.S.A., China, Germany, Slovenia, Japan and Wales (my own home, but hey!) – and have greatly enjoyed it every time. Somehow, Couchsurfing.com attracts the kind of beautiful, interesting, “real” people that I love to meet, and as well as exchanging tales about our own travels and countries, we have had some of those wonderful, philosophical conversations that really make you feel connected to the rest of the world. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, perhaps you should try it! Meeting people from all over the world can really open your eyes and your mind, not only to the differences between cultures but to the core similarities between us all.

To me, Couchsurfing is a wonderful, global community – a place for the travellers, the wanderers, those who never quite felt at home in their own communities to extend hands, to transcend borders and oceans and to create international friendships based on mutual trust, respect and kindness. It begins with the brave act of trusting a stranger (or a friend you have just met) to sleep near you and your possessions, and hopefully (for those who abuse and ruin the system will inevitably exist somewhere) - when nothing bad happens - the realisation that good does exist in humanity. When I let a person from across the sea stay in my home for a couple of nights, and they treat me to stories and insights from their own lives, my life feels richer.

So, why not have a look at the website couchsurfing.com? Even if you don’t offer your home to others, you can put yourself down as “up for meeting for coffee and a chat”, join interest groups and make new friends! And, of course, if you’re planning a trip somewhere and fancy a change from a hotel, why not have a look at some locals’ profiles? That’s my suggestion for today – be smart and careful, of course, but push yourself out of your comfort zone a little and see how exciting it can be!

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