Couchsurfing is an app that undermines Airbnb based on only the good intentions of hosts and the open minds of surfers, allowing them to unite under each others roofs with the simplicity of sharing stories and friendship with complete strangers in exchange for good company and a safe place to sleep; along with an authentic local experience and some inside tips on the area. The platform is simple. Create your profile, Upload your journey itinerary, And search for hosts that may have availability on your travel dates and hope to whatever your chosen worshipped deity or constellation they don’t turn out to be complete weirdos (most of the time it ends in great friendships).
Unfortunately Couchsurfing may now be a thing of the past since the COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the tourism and aviation industries, not only has travelling fallen exponentially; but also many countries are banning ‘sleepovers’ altogether due to pandemic quarantines aimed at minimising the risk of contracting the virus. There’s also the fact that Couchsurfing is no longer free to use and requires a subscription fee- defeating the whole purpose of the apps creation and transitioning it to final stage of a corporate takeover. I must add that while the fee is not through the roof; nor is it uncalled for to be able to maintain the platform and have the capital to verify profiles securely etc- it will still be a detriment to many nomadic old school users who still live almost entirely off the grid, value a community sense of sharing and just generally love doing whatever things they can for free. This app was a lifeblood for all the souls that neither wanted to play a part in capitalism nor had the option to.
The changes to the app will definitely scare off the freeloaders who made no effort to give back to the community (although you cannot exchange money for your stays on Couchsurfing). Some people use the platform selfishly in the hopes of just saving money on their trips, and not returning the gesture when called upon by other surfers and hosts. Some are just straight up terrible guests with a misguided sense of entitlement with a minority of people who just believe it’s a dating site or somewhere to advertise their holiday properties for rent. This defeats the whole reason ‘Couchsurfing’ was set up in the first place which was to offer gay individuals a safe place to be themselves in places all over the world where they might of faced discrimination or hate crimes in any other circumstances. In some sense you could say Couchsurfing was a gift to the world from the gay community- but i think that would be belittling the vast demographic of users that made it into what it is today.
It goes without saying that this wonderful app that has created so many extraordinary memories, amazing friendships and equally shady experiences has been taken advantage of over the years. I do hope that one day it will be able to rise up in all it’s glory once again and connect people all over the world, creating relationships and experiences that you just cant buy. You cannot put a price on authenticity, it’s simply priceless. But for now whilst we live in hope for a better future for our beloved travellers social network, here goes my best and worst experiences with Couchsurfing- May it be an inspiration to give it a try and a warning to those to do their research first.
“Do whatever you want but don’t bite my cat” in Rotterdam
My first ever experience came after my partner and I decided to take a break from the UK during the Brexit propaganda hysteria and our first stop was in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. We arrived with 20kg rucksacks, camping kit – the lot, at Rotterdam Centraal on a sunny day in June 2016 with absolutely no idea what we were doing or where we would stay. We decided to try our Couchsurfing after receiving a message from a local guy that had invited us over whilst on the bus from London. We sceptically agreed to meet him after searching for places to stay and many places already booked up. He met us on his lunch break from work after riding the train back from Den Hague to take us to his apartment 10 minutes from the city centre.
He showed us in, told us “I only have 2 rules, 1 don’t bite my cat and 2 there are no other rules” then said he would be back in the evening and we could make ourselves at home. We were shocked that a complete stranger had gone so far out of his way to allow 2 tired British guys into his home and then leave them unattended without a shadow of a doubt that we wouldn’t be capable of robbing him or biting his cat whilst he was working. It really blew us away that there were people in the world who could trust people they’d only just met and go out of their way to help strangers like that.
When he returned from work that evening we tried our best to be gracious guests and cooked him a meal, shared some wine and exchanged travelling stories as we got to know each other better, he even asked us to stay longer, he invited friends over for insane parties that lasted days- one friend was asleep so long we held a mock funeral around his body (and he still didn’t wake up), we explored the city on foot and by bike, he gave us tips and tricks to getting by frugally in The Netherlands which came in very handy. The Netherlands is a notoriously expensive country for tourists and Dutch are renowned for being good with money so there had to be loopholes to get by.
All in all we had been given the full tour of the city, made so many friends and ended up staying around 14 nights spread over our first month in the country. He and his friend even visited us to stay when we were back in Cornwall, and are still in touch to this day. This had to have been the best first impression of Couchsurfing but of course, not all lived up to the same standard.
Barbara Streisand & Hostility in Den Haag
One of our more infamous nights is one we will never forget, but not for the same reasons. I often searched for gay hosts or at least hosts that expressed they were gay friendly to avoid uncomfortable questions or awkward moments. So one of our earlier experiences was with a mature couple in their 60’s, they had a beautiful home in the suburbs of South Holland, esteemed jobs, greeted us in formal attire and offered shared their fine wines over gourmet sandwiches. We may have had sexuality in common but we definitely felt out of place to start with, showing up to their home in torn Primark clothes, ripped bags (we skimped on those too and they only lasted a few weeks) and we stank of tobacco smoke and sweat from lugging around our entire wardrobe on our backs.
But after a shower and getting to know our hosts a little better we started to ease, just because they appeared rich to us, it didn’t make them any different, they were just 40 years ahead of us in life. They had gone through similar struggles to get where they are, everything they had, they had earned. So we enjoyed conversing with them about their journey from coming out in the 70’s and living in a shed to living the high life in the suburbs outside the countries political capitol city. All was going well until the wine had flowed a little more than planned and Barbara Streisand along with other stereotypical gay show tunes had turned into a performance by one of the couple and an embarrassment for the other half. Then the conversation had got heated after they started discussing a few negative experiences they had with french guests.
To which we added that our previous host was French and escaped the country because of this exact arrogance they were speaking of. I froze not knowing how to react, my partner was in shock for being shouted at and one of the hosts was utterly embarrassed at his partners outburst so we all agreed to change the subject and try to salvage the rest of the evening and we moved onto hot topics in the Netherlands – sex and drugs, of course. When finding out our hosts were a little wilder than we had believed we thought it would be time to break out our little plastic bag of Dutch culture and offer to pass the peace pipe, but the response we received had not been close to what we could have expected.
The offer of a joint then brought out a carnal side of our host and he toyed with the idea of us engaging in a sex party after screaming “I just wanna F*CK F*CK F*CK”, his partner called it a night and apologised once again on his behalf before leaving us to finish our joint in peace with the knowledge that we were not expected to partake in an evening filled with debauchery. We decided to cut our stay short the following morning and returned to Rotterdam to stay with our friend, our first host.
Swings and Laksa at home in Amsterdam
We had surfed all over Europe by now and were in a great position to give back to this community, after settling in Amsterdam with a huge apartment and busy work schedules we began to miss meeting strangers and decided to ‘travel from home’ by allowing guests into our home. Our first guest (excluding our friends who stayed with us in Cornwall) was a fantastic experience, he was a nomadic traveller, crossing Europe through to the Americas to figure out what he wanted to do with his life. A fantastic photographer and we’re still in touch now. We spent 2 nights with him in our home, we played in the children’s park on the swings, explored the neighbourhoods, shared meals and of course got to know each other. After learning he was missing his food from home I cooked an Asian feast comprising of Malaysian Chicken Laksa, Vietnamese style spring rolls, Indonesian Nasi Goreng to make him feel slightly more at home and he flattered my ego and assured me it was the best Asian food he had had since leaving his home in The Philippines. After exchanging details and following each others travels through social media, I can honestly say we met an inspirational friend and look forward to meeting him again.
No hints taken and a Stolen bike at home in Amsterdam
One guest in particular stood out for many reasons, he was new to the community, but not at all unfamiliar with exchanges on travels. On a drunken night out we received an alert on an SOS group for somebody who was in town for a conference but had no where to sleep so we reached out to him and arranged for him to arrive in the early hours of the morning, we stayed up late, shared some food and beers and enjoyed getting to know our guest unbeknown to us at the time he appeared to think he had moved in, but I’ll get to that.
The next day he decided he’d like to get to know us better, explore more of the city that he had only planned to visit for one night and requested to stay another night, sure, what could go wrong, we’d hit it off so well one more night couldn’t hurt. So another night of food and drinks, showing him around our neighbourhood, swapping travel stories, cultural exchanges of where we are from and where we have been. So the next morning we invited him to stay for one more night and gave him time to find a new host, hostel or continue his adventure, now that the weekend was over the prices had dropped significantly. But he had sold my partner a story that he was in trouble and needed to work remotely before he could afford his flight home, so we agreed to 2 more nights but then he would have to go.
He cooked us dinner, bought us wine, kept himself quiet and entertained when we needed the space. Then he told me that his bank card had been cut off, despite the fact i saw him use it to buy the dinner, followed by excuse after excuse after excuse as to why he could not leave and wanted to stay with us. Even played the best friend and like family card, so we gave him until the next day out of pity to move on. When I offered to use my card to pay for his ticket as long as he transferred the money from his online bank, he started to sweat and tried to change the subject.
He said he was going out to the city to buy his bus ticket, so we took the time to enjoy having our apartment back to ourselves before heading out for a cycle, only to find out my partners bicycle was missing, after searching all around the block just to be sure we hadn’t just forgot where it was locked, our guest showed up with it and said “it’s no big deal we are like family”. We were enraged, we went out for our cycle, came home and booked our travels for the holiday time we had planned and called our guest to pick up his stuff, he returned and asked to stay for another few days only to be ultimately distraught that we weren’t going to be here and tried to ask if he could come with us, somehow his bank card suddenly worked and he could afford to follow us around Europe? NO. After he had finally gone, we decided to take a break from hosting, sure we had made some great friends already but we where exhausted from the few bad eggs that came in between.
Do I have any regrets? Perhaps. But if I could, would I change anything? Absolutely not. Sure there were some awkward moments, tough times, hostile environments and seedy propositions, but each experience held it’s own merit in shaping the person I am today. I learned so much from staying in the homes of complete strangers, getting to know how other people live and how they cope with being hosts before inviting Tom, Dick and Harry to crash on our couch. The friends made and the stories shared made for some of the most interesting and occasionally treasured times. So to anyone that’s thinking of giving it a try – Go for it! Just make sure that if you’re a surfer to obey the rules of the home and get stuck in. And if you’re a host, lay down the law clearly to your potential guests and don’t be afraid to go about your own life when having people stay. Always research your prospective Couchsurfers and be sure that your expectations of each other match along with personalities to an extent.
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