I first encountered CouchSurfing earlier this year, when a friend explained that, as all their housemates would be away over summer, he would allow strangers off www.couchsurfing.com into their pad to keep him company. I was flabbergasted; why do that when you could walk around in the nuddy and not clean the toilet instead? I met one of his guests, a sweet little German with a weird accent, and as my own housemates trickled away into the summer I became curious.
The website currently claims to be a global community of over 10 million people in more than 200,000 cities. Make a profile and state whether you’re seeking a couch, or want to host. In a city, especially during the height of summer, you’ll be inundated with requests. You can view travelers’ profiles, read reviews from other hosts, and pick and choose who you’d like to meet.
Couchsurfing is a neologism referring to the practice of moving from one friend’s house to another, sleeping in whatever spare space is available, generally staying a few days before moving on to the next house. You aren’t providing a free hotel; you’re providing an alternative experience of the city through a local’s eyes.
I was skeptical about hosting guys, so my first CouchSurfer was a Canadian named Elizabeth. Elizabeth was also a novice and curious about this completely unobligated exchange of hospitality. We spent the day missing each other because of my not getting through to her international phone and her lack of wifi.
I lived in what resembled a small hostel, with its 20 bedrooms and four kitchens (but no supervision so parties made it more like a unisex frat house). I was a little anxious about telling my remaining housemates about letting a stranger stay in our home without permission, and thought about introducing her as my cousin, but I’m bad at keeping up with my own lies. They were unfazed and I saw her as an exotic new pet who everybody loved.
I’d offered to surrender my room so she could snooze off her travels, but she was a good sport and joined in our beer pong party. I fed her some garlic bread, lent her a pair of earrings and off we went to sample the delights of baked bean tequila and to view a stuffed dog wearing a gold chain and sunglasses.
At 2am I offered to show her my favorite spot in the city, trekking up to the creepy graveyard beneath the Anglican Cathedral, immediately thinking this had been a bad idea and please don’t give me a bad review for endangering your life. The view up to the cathedral was stunning, and I demonstrated my fire dancing skills. I almost pooped my pants on seeing a man-eating cat-beast; I hadn’t realizes that foxes live in cities since there were no sheep to eat. She told me how in Winnipeg locals ice skate down the river to work and I made fun of how she said the word “out” (oot). When my new Canadian best mate left for a lake in Scotland the next day I was a little heartbroken and so were my housemates.
After Elizabeth I met Spanish Olga, who always wore lipstick and informed me that the phrase ‘tapas bar’ isn’t technically correct; real tapas are free, say, if you’re at a bar and are given a bowl of olives. She was flabbergasted that I didn’t own tea bags so we had to go buy some as she couldn’t function otherwise.
With Chito the Mexican, I visited the Williamson Tunnels and explored Lark Lane, where we bought vintage prints and snacks from the Moon & Pea and sat under a Sefton Park tree in the pissing rain watching the ducks. A bonkers Beatles fan, in Liverpool ONE he played some cheerful Beatles covers on a free piano, to the delight of female shoppers.
To show their gratitude most brought small gifts, which I hadn’t expected but made my day; violet sweets only widely available in Madrid; Baileys chocolates from previous travels to Ireland; a bottle opener shaped like a moose from Sweden.
After hosting five or six surfers, my experience came to a temporary end. Now back in Liverpool after a summer at home, I already miss hosting CSers despite living with three Italians (Italian CHEFS!). Unlike most students, Surfers have a go-go-go attitude and are keen to explore, and I love learning random titbits of information. Gallivanting around the city with these new people, I sometimes forget I’m not on holiday.
HOWEVER, there are risks and you shouldn’t blindly trust every request. If a traveler hasn’t bothered filling in their profile with interesting content, chances are they’re more interested in free digs than an organic introduction to the city. Likewise, it’s a sad fact that females are more at risk, so on the occasions when my house was empty and a male CSer was staying, I would have my boyfriend stay over for peace of mind.
Bad eggs are few and far between, and mine came in the form of a young French musician named Valentin. His arrival had been planned well in advance, but the day came and went without any communication. I hung around the house all day because I’d feel terrible if he surfaced, exhausted from his travels (I’ve since learned CSers should accommodate my schedule, not vice versa). After several days with zero explanation I left him a negative review, which future prospective hosts could take into consideration. He suddenly came out with this retaliation:
‘Lowri accept to host me one night in Liverpool , unfortunetly i had to moove out before meeting her… you were saying you want to host people because you feel bored during the summer because your housemates have gone home , so… i’m sure you are ok about that :)’
I understand why most people would be wary of inviting a stranger into their home, but I wasn’t particularly worried, as I didn’t really have anything to steal except a really smelly stale pineapple. Until I’m given reason not to trust guests, I will keep hosting!