"Don't talk to strangers!" was one of those first don'ts that mom had taught me in life. I was taught to fear strangers, not to accept toffees from them and that strangers are bad and I can get abducted. But more than two decades since that lesson I would like to tell her "Sorry Mom. I now refuse to obey!" You see Mom, I have met good strangers too, men and women alike. And I haven't just met them, I have even spent some nights at their places. And Mom just fainted...
Spent some nights at a stranger's place! That does sound shady. Let me rephrase - I "couchsurfed" at a stranger's place. Couchsurfing.org is a platform for hospitality exchange. Whether you want to surf on the couch of a host in Nicaragua or host travelers at your home in Goa or just want to catch up with like minded travelers during your free time, your one stop destination would be Couchsurfing.
Though I joined Couchsurfing in 2011, I am an active member only since last year. It took me 3 years to find the courage to host 'strangers' and once that happened I even gathered some more courage to experiment with surfing in India. And so it happened that my first host in Goa was not only gracious enough to let us stay in his spare bungalow at Anjuna, but even hung around with us for a Saturday night party. That was the last strike in driving xenophobia out of the window. Since the experience has been incredible so far, I would love to tell you the pros and cons of this phenomenon which is lovingly abbreviated as CS by its members.
Pros of Couchsurfing:
1. Culture Exchange - As a traveler, it helps me in culture exchange, whether I host a fellow traveler or surf at a local's place. I have spent many nights sitting on my balcony with my surfers, while they have told me their story of being on the road, of Berlin Wall, recipe of Paella, about Nicolae Ceausescu - the dictator of Romania and what not. During my only surfing experience, I have seen Goa from a Goan's perspective as I and my friend traveled to some not-so-well-known and yet amazing places of the beautiful state with our host. I can go on and on with many great stories, but bottom line is I am on CS mainly due to my interest for exchange of travel experiences, cultures and customs with fellow travelers.
2. Budget Friendly - This is the main objective of many people registering on Couchsurfing, if not connecting with people. Yes, Couchsurfing is free accommodation. And yet, Couchsurfing is NOT freeloading. Though the host is not charging money, it's always a nice gesture on the surfer's part to offer some gift in return or to help in household work like cleaning up or to cook a meal. My surfers brought me beer, wine or dinner because they felt it's courtesy to do that. Similarly we left wine bottle for one of our host in Goa and bought dinner for another. In the end it's still a budget friendly option over hotels or hostels, if you keep the interaction part in mind.
3. Make lifelong friends - I spent one of the best New Year's Eve night with 2 of my couchsurfers - Giorgio and Anna, a couple from Venice. My first surfer Javi left me a candle with 2 matchsticks and a lovely note that said "I know you love to keep the lights on. I leave you a candle. In case you have a grey day, you can illuminate it". Stupid like his note mentioned, and yet it flooded me with tears and emotions. These are happiness that money cannot buy. I now know I have good friends around the world and some of them will be my friend for life.
4. High on Safety Factor - Not all strangers are good. Some may be creepy too. But how do we judge strangers? Couchsurfing has a system for References, where fellow CSers can write positive/negative/neutral references for a host or surfer. Surfers can also vouch for hosts they have stayed with and hosts can do the same for travelers they have hosted. The messaging system provides security too as the exchange of conversation cannot be deleted and can be tracked, if needed. And of course, there is the pay and 'Get Verified' option, but majority of the hosts/surfers rely on the number of references a profile has. More the number of references from fellow CSers (who in turn should have a decent number of references too), more would be your chances to be deemed as safe and trustworthy by surfers and hosts alike.
Cons of Couchsurfing:
1. Host-Surfer thing didn't click - Quite possible! You may end up disliking your host for many reasons - may be he is creepy or rude or just quite unlike you. It happens mostly when you have 'free stay' as your objective and have not researched much about the host or interacted enough times before landing up at his or her place. But what's done is done and now you are stuck there and have to spend an entire night with that host. Or if things turn more ugly, you might even need to walk out. The problem is, you don't want that to happen at the middle of the night. Reading the host profiles and references and interacting with the host beforehand helps in choosing wisely. And I am glad I did that before choosing my hosts in Goa.
2. Comfort and Privacy - It's a couch or probably a spare mattress so it might not be comfortable. It rarely is a private room. The bungalow we stayed at Anjuna had no curtains, so we did some 'jugaad' and stuck newspapers on it for some privacy. Also, I got the above bungalow to surf at, out of sheer luck. That is not always the case. You hardly get any privacy while CSing, with the host always being around. If you value privacy, CS is not for you.
3. Beware of the Date Mongers! - Sadly among thousands who are trying to use Couchsurfing for what it is supposed to be for, you will find few who join the site to find women for dating and thus degrade the site's code of conduct. I like to call these men "Datemongers". Remember this word. I'll come back to them soon.
4. Freeloaders (This one's from perspective of a CS Host) - Personally speaking, it does feel awkward to accept even gifts in kind, but it is any day better than few of those CS hosting requests that mention things like "looking for free night place to save money" or "I made this couchsurfing account, cause its not easy to find cheap hostels here". Excuse me! My place is not an alternative for cheap hostels and I would never welcome people who go by such thinking. If you are not interested in interacting with me and just looking for a place to crash, you should look elsewhere.
Cons of Couchsurfing - IN INDIA:
The pros stay the same, but there are few extra cons when it comes to CSing in India.
5. Character Assassination of Single Woman Host - Single Indian women who offer to host strangers are never perceived in a right way. If it would have been the previous society I was staying in, there could have been a hue and cry by now. Here just my watchman stares. He stared strangely on two occasions when I walked in with a male surfer. I don't know if it was because it was a man or because it was a foreigner. After that I just decided to stick to couples or women. He still stares!
6. Safety of Women Surfer - Safety is a concern for both men and women all over the world, but in India, a woman surfer needs to be extra careful while couchsurfing at someone's place at night. It is always better to choose couples or female hosts with good number of references. If you are choosing a male host, ensure he has enough references, especially from solo women travelers (this applies to anywhere round the world). I have couchsurfed in Goa and incidentally both my hosts were men. But I was travelling with a friend and we never shared space with our hosts.
7. Guess What? Seeing the pictures, you would have got a gist of what I am going to talk about. You guessed it right - the Datemongers are prevalent in India. I get at least 10-15 CS messages in a week asking to be friends or to host them for a night or to catch up for a drink or even worse, to add them on Whatsapp or BBM. I had replied to the initial few with a "No" and then I just put up a disclaimer and started ignoring them.
I have since been called a racist by one Indian man. Another said I hate Indians and alleged that I am comfortable staying with a foreigner man at night and not an Indian man and even asked me to learn to be friendly with my own people. I would have forgiven this, but in the end both of them offered their friendship. To all such hypocrites out there, not that I need to explain my decisions to you, but since you asked for it, here is my answer -
"Firstly, yes! I am more comfortable HOSTING a foreigner man than an Indian man, as the chances of the former making advances on me are far far lesser than the later doing so. Travelers who do not know the language and the local way of life are in genuine need of a place to stay and irrespective of their gender or race, I would host them if I feel they have good number of references. That is my decision and I do not give a damn about what you think.
Secondly, I really do not get it why an Indian man would want to be hosted by an unknown Indian woman, unless he has an ulterior motive - and more when in spite of the presence of more than 1000 male CS hosts in Mumbai, you end up sending a hosting request to a girl. Give me one good reason and I would stop declining those hosting requests. Having something in common with me isn't good enough a reason.
Thirdly, the Datemongers! You courageous fellows (pun intended) who straight away drop a CS message asking to be my friend. Some of you audaciously ask for contact number (Like I'll give you!) and some of you are dumb enough to leave your numbers or BBM pins and think I would ping you back (What great expectations!). To all of you datemongers - I know that friendship isn't your motive. If it was, you wouldn't be hunting for girls on sites like Couchsurfing, Linkedin, etc.
This doesn't mean that all Indian men are perverts or 'tharkis'. But to those who are actually 'Tharki' - Go get a life! It is because of you all Indian men get a bad name and that also includes my father, my uncles, cousins and some of my very good friends who are - you guessed it right - Indian Men!"
So since the cons outweigh the pros in India, would I stop Couchsurfing? Of course not! It is an excellent option for travelers like me. I am good to adjust with less comfort and privacy. I know how to detect and avoid freeloaders and datemongers. I don't give a damn about what the society or some narrow minded watchman thinks. All I need to worry about is the host-surfer click and of course, my safety. I can do that by -
1. Carefully reading host/surfer profile (preferably couples or women) and their references, and references of the referencing CSers; and ensuring it is a trustworthy person with similar interests.
2. Meeting the hosts/surfers at a public place.
3. Keeping a friend informed while hosting or surfing.
4. And by refusing to host Indian men. There you go again!
For new couchsurfers, people will host you only if you have a decent number of references. That makes it a little difficult for newcomers to get hosts. Finding the first host totally depends on your luck, as very few people would let strangers stay at their place. Zero reference of course doesn't make you a bad person, but there are actual psychos and weirdos out there - the last people on earth someone would want as surfers at their house at night. I am not trying to scare or dishearten you, but put yourself in the shoes of a host and tell me if you would take the risk to host someone with zero references? You just need to be patient to get your first reference.
This trip was originally published on A Traveller's Diary.