An enlightening Couchsurfing experience

Published by Qmunicate

Qmunicate's nomadic columnist on his alternative travels around the world.

“The best way to find yourself,” said Gandhi, “is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Arranging to stay with a complete stranger in their town or city, anywhere in the world, makes a similar point. During the summer, I took a leap of faith into the phenomenally-popular travelling network Couchsurfing.com.

Couchsurfing put simply: You sign up, host a traveller in need of some crashspace in your town or city (or just show them about a bit if you have no space to offer), and other travellers reciprocate when you’re on your own adventures.

I'll begin with the image of my girlfriend and I, emerging from Bremen train station at 5.36am. We'd spent the night travelling back from Berlin, a journey usually accomplished in under three hours by day, but with a wait of four hours in Hamburg station by night. Being quite the budget traveller, I'd insisted upon the latter to avoid paying another night's accommodation. After a long, sleepless night, we couldn’t wait to find the flat of our Couchsurfing host, a girl named Isis, which wasn’t far from Bremen station.

“Just call me at 6am and I'll open my door,” Isis had assured us, her words comfortably echoing as we staggered through the empty streets. We were tired and needed to sleep, but we didn't know whether or not to feel daunted or excited – after all, in how many different ways could this go wrong?

Taking reassurance in Couchsurfing.com's own statistics – 99.7% of surfers report 'Positive' experiences – we arrived at Isis' flat just after six, and she greeted us with an exhausted embrace. “I'm getting ready for work,” she told us, leading us upstairs. “You need coffee?” She showed us round her flat, and into “our room” – not a dingy cellar with an old mattress and a couple of dirty airline blankets thrown on the floor, which had entered the darker side of my imagination – a well-kept, clean, three-person apartment in the shade of a local park, with a marvellous home cinema.

“I told my friends you were coming – they want to go out with us tonight and meet you!” Isis enthused. Her hospitality seemed surreal yet normal, and all I could do was keep thanking her, before she prepared our couch and we sank into it without any grace.

725,000 couchsurfers represent 48,000 towns and cities in 231 different countries around the world – not just Europe and the United States, but spread over all continents. Even in the earth's most unpopulated areas there are couches available, cluttered among far eastern Russia, Saharan Africa, even the North and South Poles.

So when Isis returned from work that evening, I decided to grill her on her experiences as a Couchsurfing host. “You are the first,” she told us, to our surprise. With 700 couches available in Bremen alone, to stumble upon another first-timer seemed a coincidence – but it also showed just how fast Couchsurfing.com is growing.

“But I've already turned two people down,” Isis admitted. “A 45-year-old guy sent me a request – but from his profile I could see from his age and his personality that it wouldn't have been very comfortable having him stay here.”

Browsing the profiles of other couchsurfers can be a dark and unpredictable affair. As with most social networking sites, you can find seedy, bare-chested males with taglines such as “I have the ability to synthesise some compounds and I can separate drugs from bile, plasma and urine” going unpoliced, but the site does offer some safeguards.

Before negotiating a stay with some stranger, you can read how previous surfers or hosts have referenced them, and take comfort in the ‘vouching’ facility (similar to eBay’s rating system). The extent to which users fill out their profiles can also give you a good idea of who you’re dealing with.

“When you sent me a request I could see from your profile that we would get on fine,” Isis told us, as we awaited her friends.

They arrived soon after, and warmly greeted us with a bottle of Becks and a handshake. We went to one of the city's Irish bars, and before long we were downing pitchers of beer as if in a student union with our flatmates back home. It was a truly exhilarating night, bantering about everything from books to boyfriends, gaining an insight into local habits and – albeit briefly – trading the familiarity of seeing the world through tourist maps and Google for a far richer experience. In the morning we caught our flight, disappointed to be going home.

Growing up in a world far more likely to place safety before adventure, I used to believe that the well-documented 'Golden Age' of travelling – thumbing lifts around whole continents and crashing in generous strangers' homes, personified by Kerouac and glamourised by his sixties children – was only something to read about. Concluding from a thoroughly enlightening stay with Isis, it is making its resurgence.

(A longer account of my stay with Isis can be found here, and here .)