Couchsurfing. What is it really? And why do I care that you get involved? [UPDATED]

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Yes, this is Couchsurfing!

I’m just like you. When I first heard of “Couchsurfing”, I instantly dismissed it. I came across the concept years ago, but then it was just what it sounds like: poor backpackers saying “you can sleep on my floor/couch, if I can sleep on yours”.

And as age ensured that wifi, air-con and a bloody big bath were my new minimum expectations when looking for somewhere to sleep, I thought that I would leave the sharing of couches to the kids.

All this changed in 2013 though, when I was planning a “round-the-world-by-train” trip.

Near the top of my list of countries to include was Switzerland. And more specifically, the Albula Line (at the time, it was the only UNESCO listed railway line on the planet – it might still be). And, as part of my research, I got talking to “Alex” who was the foreman/chief engineer on the line. During one of our conversations, the subject of hotels came up (and how expensive it was in Switzerland, especially near St.Moritz, where I would have to spend at least one night if I wanted to travel along the Albula Line).

“Why don’t you try Couchsurfing?” suggested Alex.

He’d being doing it for a while, and invited me to stay in his house in Samedan (near St.Moritz).

So not knowing what to expect, but being an adventurous soul, curiosity got the better of me, and I accepted his offer.

And I am so glad that I did!

His beautiful house, built in 1608, stands in the middle of the stunning Engadine Valley in Switzerland. And the “couch” that I was expecting, turned out to be a proper bed, in my own private room. This was like living in a classy hotel, except that I had my own personal, and local, expert tour-guide on hand as well.

And he also cooked for me. A local “racclette” recipe – served with lashings of locally-produced beer (this was back in the days when beer was still on my radar).

We also had a shared fascination for 70s music, and in his case, specifically for Mott The Hoople (or Mott the Hupple as he called them).

But, because of his job, Alex has no time to visit all of the places that he would like to. So, instead,  they come to him!

And he is a very meticulous man, and has kept a spreadsheet detailing all of his “Couchsurfing” guests. So I was to be guest number 37.

I spoke to him recently, and his spreadsheet has now recorded the stays of over 200 visitors!

Which I found amazing, as Alex only hosts guests on the weekend (when he’s not working).

“You must have had people most weekends then” said I.

“Not *most* weekends, *every* weekend”

“What about Christmas?”

“If guests arrive at Christmas, then they get more of a treat!”.

So this is it? This is “Couchsurfing”? I was hooked.

Since then, I have been a guest in over 30 family homes.

But it’s just a bunch of sponging backpackers. Former Space Cadets.

Not at all. And I really prefer not to share my life with such people.

No. The people who use Couchsurfing are just “normal” people like you and me. But people who recognise the value in sharing just a little bit of their lives with others. And who recognise the value, the spiritual value, of doing so. Everybody is richer as a result.

So how does it actually work?

Every person who uses the Couchsurfing website, has to first create a basic profile. And, importantly, also the type of accommodation that will be made available. This allows prospective guests to assess their prospective hosts, to see if they will actually get on, and to see exactly what kind of accommodation will be offered. Yes, sometimes this *is* a couch, but 90% of the time it is a proper bed (and then some – but more about that later).

At the heart of the system are the “references” though. Both hosts and guests, after the fact, can leave honest and truthful accounts of each other. So a fuller profile begins to form (and so too does a “network” of “friends of friends”).

So as a host, you can instantly see how prospective guests describe themselves – and then read the views of their former hosts. So nothing comes as a surprise. And if, for any reason, you don’t want to host a specific request, you just say No/Sorry.

And after a while, as I now do, you can pick and choose exactly the people that you want to stay with (they all invariably say “yes” now – now that a body of references has been built up).

Families and Couchsurfing.

I found this strange at first. People with young children inviting complete strangers into their houses.

But now, I actually look for families first!

Until recently, I have stayed with 4 families through CS (although after this week, that number rises to 7). And the parents who take part all have the same story to tell:

In a world where the media constantly tells us of the dangers that strangers can pose, these parents would prefer that their children grow up without an irrational fear of unknown people. And to realise that strangers can actually bring something positive into a household too. Yes, they still teach their children the importance of being wary of strangers. But not to fear them out of hand.

And there is nowhere that a child feels safer than in their own home. With their parents within cuddling distance.

And (own-trumpet-blowing time), every single parent has thanked me for being a positive part of their child’s education.

So Couchsurfing is a “hospitality exchange”?

Yes, on the face of it, that is exactly what it is.

On the face of it.

But at it’s heart, Couchsurfing is more of a personal exchange.

A spiritual exchange perhaps.

And I don’t mean spiritual in a “sitting in a circle, singing ‘Kumbaya'” kind of way.

If anything, I am probably the most irreligious person that I know. Not that I have anything against religion itself. I don’t. But I have absolutely no time for “preachers”. People who would like to impose their beliefs on others.

I mean spiritual in an essential way.

For me, and most of the CSers that I have I have met and talked with, it is a sharing of our selves, of our experiences, of our lives.

And with every exchange, both parties learn a little more. More about others. More about ourselves.

A global network of Friends.

The Couchsurfing community is a worldwide network of friends (friends that you have yet to meet though). So, if you find yourself in a far-off land, and you need help, a friend is not far away.

An example of this in action:

Last summer, while I was walking along the Mediterranean coast of Spain, I put a huge hole in one of my walking socks – and needed a replacement pair.

Believe it or not, kilt socks are impossible to find in Spanish markets 😉

So I contacted, Highlander, my kilt makers in Scotland and asked them to send out a replacement pair.

And that was the moment that I realised that there was a problem with even this idea!

I didn’t have a postal address in Spain. And as I was constantly on the move (and couldn’t wait around for the week or so that it would take for the Spanish postal service to deliver them to me), there was no immediate solution.

And that’s when I thought of Couchsurfing. Of a network of unknown friends who I might be able to turn to.

I estimated how far I might travel in 2 weeks, then added another 100km on just to be sure. And I came up with the town of Adra.

It was then a simple case of contacting Couchsurfing members in Adra, until I found somebody whose address I could use.

And that’s how I met Olivia.

So, wherever I am in the world, I am reassured to know that a friend (an as yet unknown friend) is never too far away (it is just a bonus that they are usually local experts too 😉 ).

So Alex, thank you for introducing me to the wonder that is Couchsurfing!

And I hope, that by writing this, I have convinced just one person to dip their toe into the world of possibilities that Couchsurfing promises.

The Couchsurfing website: https://www.couchsurfing.com/

My Couchsurfing profile: https://www.couchsurfing.com/people/kiltedwalker

My Couchsurfing references: https://www.couchsurfing.com/people/kiltedwalker/references?type=host

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