Imagine traveling to a new country alone, where you don't know anyone at all... What do you do?
Well, as I mentioned in my last report from Africa, one option is the CouchSurfing Project. The idea behind CouchSurfing is incredibly simple. When someone travels from one place to another and has no friends or relatives at that new place, his options - until recently - were pretty much limited to a hotel, hostel, or sleeping in a park (but I wouldn't recommend that third option to anyone!)
But in 1999, Casey Fenton, a Californian, came up with another option: staying at the house of a local who lives in the destination city, with no monetary exchange taking place. Picture it as visiting your friend. You might buy dinner or some drinks, but you wouldn't pay your friend for the privilege of staying with him.
The idea arose after Fenton found an inexpensive flight from Boston to Iceland. He then randomly e-mailed 1,500 students from the University of Iceland, asking if he could stay with them. Astoundingly, he received more than 50 offers. On the return flight to Boston, he began to develop the ideas that would underpin the CouchSurfing Project.
Since then, the organization has grown so fast that today it has almost four million members (myself included), in 251 countries, speaking 365 different languages. The most common language by far is English (almost three million speakers), followed by French, Spanish and German.
I personally heard about CouchSurfing about a year ago from fellow travelers in Colombia. At first, I thought the idea of staying in the house of a complete stranger was absolutely nuts, so I quickly forgot about it. But during the past year, I heard about CouchSurfing several more times, and the more I thought about it, the more it started to make sense.
Then I asked myself a question: why do I travel to a new country in my leisure time in the first place?
- To relax. Get an all-inclusive hotel on the beachfront, and take no interest in any local experience. I have done this a number of times, and am fast losing interest...
- To experience and learn something new. Experiencing new things and the local culture through local people in their own environment, in my opinion, is an amazing opportunity. Ask yourself: what can you really experience in a hotel watching satellite TV in English? Probably nothing.
The best part about CouchSurfing is that you can choose who you want to stay with. (Of course, they can choose not to host you too, so the desire needs to be mutual.)
Needless to say, one must be selective when picking a place to stay or accepting a surfer into your home. The CouchSurfing website makes that process easy by posting references from other travelers who have already been in contact with that person one way or another. If you don't like the references, then there's no need to meet.
My first personal experience with the project was in Chile, and it was truly fantastic. I stayed with a guy in his apartment, which had an amazing view of Santiago City, and he could not have been more welcoming. We both benefited. I got an expedited introduction to the culture, and in the two days I stayed there, met his mother, several relatives, and a few friends who all spoke only Spanish. I even received a bottle of pisco as a gift. My host got to practice his English and learned a great deal about the US and Russia too. It was all about positive intercultural experience. And I paid zero dollars.
I do want to say that this kind of experience is probably NOT for everyone. But if you are adventurous, love to travel, and get bored at hotels (like I do), then definitely, definitely, try it, no matter what your age. It's worth it. I promise.
A Russian by current and current US resident, Mark Svoboda has been traveling around the world searching for his next "Shangri-la". Mark has prepared "on the ground" reports for a few places he's visited so far - Malaysia, Singapore and Tanzania. These 3 reports, and more, are available to members of the International Man Network. For more information, click here.