For some years now, I have invited complete strangers into my home to stay a few days, and use my food and facilities as if they were members of my family. No money has changed hands. Sometimes I have accepted similar hospitality from others when travelling.
This has been done within the context of an international web-based community hosted by www.couchsurfing.com. It is the brainchild of computer programmer Casey Fenton. According to Wikipedia “the idea arose in 1999 after Fenton found a cheap flight from Boston to Iceland but did not have lodging. Fenton hacked into a database of the University of Iceland and randomly e-mailed 1,500 students asking for a homestay. He received between 50 and 100 offers and chose to stay at the home of an Icelandic rhythm and blues singer. On the return flight to Boston, he came up with the idea to create the website.”
Couchsurfing.com now has 15 million members worldwide, with some 400,000 active hosts. It connects hosts to travelers, who can check out each other’s information, read and write reviews of each other, and arrange meetings. It describes itself as part of the gift economy, where the only “transaction” is the free decision to share one’s home, one’s time, one’s skills and experiences.
When I tell friends and family about couchsurfing, I get a variety of responses. Many focus on the possible risks. What if the guests are dishonest, disrespectful? What if they trash the place?
My experience is that the risks are small, and can be minimized with good sense. But, of course, one wouldn’t take any risks at all if there were not compensating benefits. It’s pretty obvious what the benefits for guests are – free room and board with a locally knowledgeable host to show you around. But the benefits for hosts are considerable too.
Over the last 6 or more years, I have got to know a huge range of adventurers. Although many are young, and needing to watch every penny, money as such is hardly ever what drives them to travel in this way. They want the deeper human connection that comes from reciprocal exchange with true locals. Each of them have had a story to tell, a gift from their culture to share, a passion to follow. And the most often asked question of me is “can you show me the London that you know and go about in, away from the tourist hot-spots?”.
The couchsurfing experience is often part of a deeper journey and search. Travellers are often seeking to learn, grow, extend themselves beyond a comfort-zone. For instance, I recently hosted a young traveller from the Far East, who had never been outside his country before. At the age of 19 he decided to take a 2-month tour of Europe, alone, in a harsh winter. When he arrived with me, he had almost run out of money. So he walked the 6 miles from central London to my place – in the snow! Another young couple from Eastern Europe were on a combined budget of £10 per day. So they found the cheapest way to travel around London, using the public bikes (£2 per day), preparing their food in my place, and only visiting free museums and parks. A third visitor, who has become a friend, was a middle-aged man, bringing up 5 boys in rural mainland Europe. He wanted to give each of his sons a special experience – so has been bringing them one by one to London in the only way that was affordable. Others were not so short of money, but chose anyway to couchsurf as a more authentic way to travel. For instance, one pair of visitors were from a conservative religious background, using their travel as part of their process of working out how to transcend the restrictions of their prior upbringing. For one visitor, staying with me helped someone who has now become a friend to make the decision to come and live in London permanently. It is amazing to me that, despite all the challenges, the world is still full of Anglophiles who aspire to realise their dreams here in the UK rather than in the country of their birth.
My visitors have been eager to learn about me too: what I have done, where I have been, how I relate to what is going on in the UK politically and culturally. The shortness of time we are together (I usually have a maximum hosting of 3 nights) means that we can get into some quite intense conversations quickly – no time to waste. Where possible I have taken out a couple of hours to give my visitors a walking tour of my locality, including Clissold Park, Stoke Newington Church Street with its plethora of small independent shops and cafes, and Abney Cemetery. It is so rewarding to see their eyes light up as they discover “the real London that tourists don’t see”. Recently a young couple from central Europe said “we liked Trafalgar Square and Big Ben well enough, but actually we liked hanging out in Stoke Newington best of all”. Some of them have researched the area in advance, and have shown me things I didn’t know. A pair of coffee addicts took me to what has been rated the best local coffee shop in my area. Before their visit I had not even heard of it. Another couple had found that there was one of Banksy’s wall paintings less than a mile from my home. I had never seen it till they showed it me!!
Meals are at the centre of the couchsurfing culture. I lose count of the delicious home recipes that my guests have brought with them. It is such a pleasure to watch someone “take over” my kitchen, and prepare food for us to eat together from their family and culture with pride and satisfaction. It is as we sit round the table, with a glass of wine, that the conversation flows most freely, and the deepest confidences are shared.
Naturally, when one is meeting such a variety of people from so many backgrounds, of so many differing temperaments, some connections are warmer and smoother than others. But all have been on the positive side of neutral. This has helped to shift my perception of my home. Rather than seeing it as a private bolt-hole, I see it as a resource which good fortune (and a little planning) has placed at my disposal to share with others. If there are empty rooms, why not fill them – even if sometimes that causes a little inconvenience (as when I can’t access a needed book because someone is asleep in the room where it is). It has even got to the stage now when I feel a little strange when it is just me at home, and I start wondering how to fill the spaces again.
Living quite close to the centre of London makes my home a very popular one for travellers. I get several requests each week, most of which I have to turn down. But it is also a privilege not to have to “hunt” for my guests. They choose me, and my only task is to decide whether to accept. Even the ones I reject have done me the respect of “making a case” for why they should stay with me, and in the process have shared something of themselves, often at some length.
A huge and recurring element of the internal British conversation at present is about community, how and why we have lost it, how we can rebuild it. I live in an apartment block with 20 separate residences. I don’t have any knowledge of who lives in 15 of them, and would not even recognize them if I saw them in the street. When people have moved into the apartment next to mine, some are genuinely astonished when I have dropped a welcome card through their door. One recent neighbour said that this had never happened before in a lifetime of renting around the capital.
Couchsurfing.com is just one vibrant and life-affirming manifestation of the fight against the atomization, isolation, and commercialization of human experience, particularly urban experience. As such, it is part of a profoundly political process. Long may it prosper as a means of “using the internet to get people off the internet” and into each other’s lives.