Couchsurfing: This Traveler’s Reassurance

I am a CSer. You?

Perhaps you’ve never heard of Couchsurfing. Perhaps you have. Maybe you’ve come across it somewhere, especially if you are a traveler–but only a particular type of traveler, really, for CSing is different than many mainstream modes of tourism. Far different.

Without any doubt in my mind, without any wavering of any notion I have of the site and its system of hospitality exchange, I can tell you that it is, in concept, based on being a global citizen, being generous to other like-minded travelers, being openminded to the goodness in people. Without hesitation, it is also about practicing that goodness, as well.

Naturally, perspectives of what being a CSer entails differ, but the foundation of the program should be known as it was intended–as the founders of the website claim it is/was. Of course, there are people who participate for a variety of reasons, running the gamut from good to bad, from genuine to superficial. However, I still value Couchsurfing for the wholesome approach to life that it should be founded on: helping other globetrotters. Nothing more. Nothing else.

Google it. Undoubtedly, frustratingly, you’ll find terrible stories of abuse which have transpired as a result of some asshole using CSing for less-than-ethical purposes. There are rotten people, however, all over the world. So it is from that angle that I reveal this morsel of simple knowledge of the world: No matter where you go, there will always be a chance of running into one of kind of schmuck or another.

Meet some charming dude at a bar? He could be a pick axe murderer. Meet a lovely gal at the beach? She might be looking to boil your bunny rabbit on your stovetop (see Fatal Attraction, the 80’s movie, for the reference). Come across some hottie smiling at you on the grocery store checkout line? Watch out, for he/she could be a psychotic nut job. So it is with CSing… There is no way to ensure total safety. The site offers some safeguards, but even crime happens around the corner from police stations; shoot outs happen on Army bases. The list goes on. Simply put, people are sometimes fucked up.

In any neighborhood in any city, in any country, you can cross paths with trouble. Should that stop you from stepping out into the street when the crosswalk lights motion you forward? Some idiot driver may come bolting out of nowhere and cause you to drop your laundry basket. Or worse.

Should that stop one from CSing? I think not. The benefits far outweigh the disadvantages; the goods, the bads.

Along the same lines, there are CSing folks who want more of and from these hospitality exchanges. Bing it. What I mean is that some CSers, hopefully very few in number and as a total percentage, thrive on the potentiality of romance. Some participate in the program with that end in mind, using the site more as a social networking option than as one for travelers. Moreover, wackos like those aforementioned will take the romance by force, if you will, salivating at the arrival of some groggy, road-weary, but not wary, innocent gal (or perhaps a guy, at times), who doesn’t suspect a thing–for he/she is a CSer for all the right reasons, trusting in the expectations of behaviors we set in the moral boundaries within which we should all, ideally, operate as CSers.

Now, don’t get me wrong here. I am not naive. People are people, so if someone makes a connection with a fellow traveler, and all unfolds consensually, so be it. Human nature we might chalk it up to be. But that DOESN’T make Couchsurfing a hotbed of such activity, inherently. Such experiences, and I am sure they occur, shouldn’t paint a picture of this website as a hook up service and online dating site, as a method to get into someone’s bed for other means than having a place to lay one’s head while exploring this or that culture. On the contrary, as I have stated, true travelers use it as an exchange of kindness. Any other assumption about it is, well, wrong, simply because the overwhelmingly main purpose tends to be purely for hospitality. Check out blogs on such endeavors and you’ll see. There are fantastic stories out there of CSers exploring the globe with the help of locals along the way.

Last year, a CSer told me of her stay in Switzerland in a chateau, where there were 18 other guests, all staying for free, and how they cooked and cleaned together every evening, learning about each other’s cultures in the process. You won’t get that at a local hotel or five-star resort. The skies the limit with the CSing community.

With that said, I must now reveal my experiences with Couchsurfing, hitherto. To start, a few words could sum them up, but one will suffice.

Reassuring.

Couchsurfing, in concept–and based on all my experiences so far, reassures me that we, the human race, are intrinsically good. With all that is abysmally horrid about so many aspects of life and the human condition, it is challenging enough to have hope that people are still to be trusted. We are bombarded be the media’s coverage of the ills of humanity. It’s nonstop. It’s sensationalized. It’s sold. And we buy it.

We need to be reassured from time to time of all that is good; CS has, thankfully, for me, been such a reassurance.

Over 4.5 years ago, while backpacking in Myanmar/Burma, I used the CSing site for the first time (well, actually I signed up a few weeks before, having been prompted by a friend to join) to make arrangements to meet a few individuals in Rangoon. There, having been in touch with said members beforehand, on CS, my traveling companion and I met a Burmese man for lunch. He brought us to a traditional, run-down and damn good, nevertheless, local hole-in-the-wall joint for noodles. For an hour or so, he explained, since it was our first day in town, the ins and outs of the city, even alluding to some aspects of life there–though some locals prefer to not talk about such topics (particularly back then–before the changes that have recently transpired in Burma) out in the open–for fear of eavesdropping informants.

This isn’t about all that we learned, though, really, but about the kindness and generosity of this man to bring us there, and, as we learned in the end, to even treat us for lunch. Although he did admit that he worked as a part-time tour guide outside his teaching job and that he’d met CSers in the past to provide them options, he didn’t pressure us at all to do any of his tours. He was just a nice guy. That’s it. No obligations. No expectations.

Later that same day, we meet a German gal, a really down-to-earth, at-ease spiritual sort, who’d resided in Yangon for four years or so, and she gave us a good three hours of her time over coffee and cigarettes (hers) to share insights of life in Burma. We weren’t interested in surfingher couch but rather in just learning from somebody who knew more than we did. That’s it. That’s all. Lounging at a cafe sharing stories was our purpose… Voilà!

The following day, after my buddy had taken off to Inle Lake on a separate leg of the journey, I met up with a Burmese gal, and for the next six hours, she brought me around, showing me typical shops, introducing me to Burmese music (even buying me two CD’s–for around 50 cents US), and bringing me out for lunch. In the late afternoon, we sat on well-worn, leaning-to-one-side-or-another plastic stools on the shoulder of a main thoroughfare in town, inhaling exhaust from the passing traffic, chatting about our respective cultures. To top off a great day, via taxi, she took me and introduced me to a neighborhood (not tourist) food stall, one that I never would have gotten to if I’d relied on a guidebook or tour agency to decide my whereabouts and route. She opened my eyes to much, and all by merely giving her time and sharing meaningful, eye-opening conversation. That’s it. Nothing more. Nothing expected, other than insights.

Two years later, I experienced–and relished–a similar outing in Thailand. Yes, Thailand. Simple. Innocent. Innocuous. Imagine that. On a few-day trip to Bangkok for an employment recruitment fair, although I could even see beer-bellied expat sixty-something blokes walking around the streets out in front, with Thai gals three-quarters their age, I simply talked one evening, for two hours, over coffee with a Thai business woman, one who worked in the finance district, and that was all it entailed. A CSer looking to meet other internationally-minded individuals. Nothing more. Nothing expected.

In Beijing, the next year, my CSing exchange truly made me a believer in the concept and practice of the exchange “program”. For three days in a row, I met a CSer, a female in her late 20’s, who showed me the ins and outs of the city, places off the beaten track as well as main sites, like the Bird’s Nest and stadium, etc. One day, we spent nearly eight hours together; the next, around six–and the final day, a workday for her, about three hours in the evening. Without her, I would have made my way to perhaps half of the things we saw together, if I were lucky. She knew the right alleyways, the right shortcuts. Easily and efficientyly, she led me through the subway system without error. For three days, I had a personal tour guide–all for free–and without obligation. There was no sex. She didn’t take a switchblade knife to my back and make off with my wallet and camera. Her six gruff cousins weren’t waiting for me around a Hutong alleyway corner. Eagerly, we listened to each other’s stories. I talked, proudly, of my family back home (in Taiwan) and travel stories. She shared cultural knowledge and perspectives. Nothing more. Nothing expected. CS. That’s what it’s all about.

And while in Beijing, too, I met another lady who, solely, wanted to practice speaking English in a groovy, hip bookstore/cafe, where we spent around two hours before heading off to dinner. All was fine and I appreciated her time–especially because she was so busy with many ongoings in life.

Those moments in Beijing were all amazingly, profoundly, reassuring; furthermore, I learned from my CSing engagements in Myanmar, Thailand, and China that we can crisscross this globe safely, learning more from each other, regardless of the ills that humanity partakes in. However, there was something amiss, a dark cloud over my CSing-minded head.

My own wife distrusted the system, and that started years ago. That isn’t an attack, folks. She just doesn’t trust it. That’s her perspective, and as we all know, there is nothing wrong with one’s perspective; it is just different from another’s. Admittedly, she was upset that I accessed Couchsurfing–and that I’d suggested I’d use it while planning my trips to Myanmar and China. Without a doubt, she was a non-believer in what it is all about (which is my perspective of her reaction, in itself). Her perceptions of the world and of the conceptual foundation of the website’s purpose differ. She’s not the only one that is incredulous–and she is not the only one who wouldn’t use such an exchange, so it isn’t that the focus is on her, exclusively, but being that this mentality had/has affected me, personally, I address it here. Our differences in our opinions of it made CSing less attractive as a travel option, i.e., possibly staying at someone’s home became practically impossible, and it turned more daunting to even feel that meeting someone for a tour or a meal was appropriate.

I would have loved to have had her support it. She couldn’t. She wouldn’t. Whether there was an underlying distrust in me to begin with isn’t clear or not, but, regardless, she didn’t want me to use CSing services; consequently, partly because I hadn’t yet trusted staying at someone’s house… but mostly because of a need to at least partially placate her, I didn’t surf anyone’s couch for the first 4.5 years of using it, which is one of the options on the site (in addition to going on tours/outings or meeting for meals while on the road, or, on the other hand, offering similar choices for visiting travelers to one’s own country-or adopted country, as is the case more frequently with me).

If you check out Couchsurfing’s site or even Wikipedia, you will understand the options more in detail.

So knowing that there was ample resistance on the home front to my engaging in future hospitality exchanges, with my wife not seeing CSing the same way I have, I asked her to partake in some CSing options when we visited Brunei in January of 2013. After much haggling and plenty of near-begging, she agreed. Immediately, I jumped on the website, entered our travel dates, which posts to easily-accessible notice boards about visitors looking for local hosts (and these notices are even sent out to users listed as willing to host, in weekly messages and emails), and I then sent messages, myself, which are called ‘couch requests’ to around fifteen residents of the capital city as well as smaller outlying towns in Brunei. Over the course of two or three weeks before our departure for Bandar, I started receiving offers from both local Bruneian folks and expats living there. Some rejected us, for they didn’t have the time or were out of town themselves, yet we received positive offers, too.

A family of four, with a one-year-old lad and four-year-old girl at the time, we didn’t opt for crashing in someone’s home. Opting to stay in hotels, we did, however, put out that we were up for meeting whomever for simple outings. As is often the case with my CS experiences to date, and possibly more so because it seems safer, everyone we met in Brunei was female, or female with family or friends joining in.

The ensuing nine days after our arrival in Brunei were truly fantastic, and much of that was due to the outstandingly friendly, generously hospitable CSers we met while there.

I could go on and on about the details of those encounters, and I should, but because of time constraints while writing this, a mostly one-shot entry without much editing nor revision, I’ll just provide a relatively brief glimpse into our Brunei family adventure.

While there in Bandar, we meet a 50-something woman from the UK on two separate occasions. She was amazingly kind, bubbly, fun-spirited, and insightful. Our first encounter was at a private beach/yacht club, and there she ordered poolside drinks, played with our daughter and son, in and around the pool where we swam, and treated us to a great dinner. Later in the week, she met up with us once more to show us some local eats down by the waterfront in the capital, a place we couldn’t find on our own a few days prior based on a guidebook’s description. Much she taught us about the culture and the people (from her point of view as an expat). Much she revealed about life in Brunei. On the walk back to the Radisson that night, she held hands with my daughter, who’d really grown attached to her. Saying goodbye out in front of the hotel included a memorable rendition of the “Food, glorious, food” song, which my daughter loved doing, to entertain all.

Also during our stay, another lady, a British citizen, too, met us at a different waterfront spot one day and then drove us out to a resort-like building a bit out of town, where we enjoyed her companionship while chowing down on a buffet of Brunei (and regional) cuisine. I still recall some hesitation about getting into her car at first, for we were heading totally into the unknown with her, but that minimal anxiety was all for nothing. She was a perfect host. Though we attempted to pay after our meals, she insisted on it, with many accompanying smiles that just oozed hospitality. The walk out to her car in the parking lot also allowed time for my daughter to hold hands with our CS host. An awesome experience for all, once more, was had. To get my daughter to socialize with others, providing a bit of international understanding, to boot, concurrently, made it all thoroughly worthwhile. Nothing more. Nothing expected. Just reassurance.

Best of all while in Brunei, of all the CSing experiences there, however, were the three days we met a local woman and her teenage daughter, who met us our first or second day, and then on two subsequent days. They weren’t any “better” than our first two hosts, but they merely brought us to some great places and gave us local Bruneian perspectives.

The first evening we got together, they met us at a Coffee Bean cafe for a chat before moving on, in their vehicle, an SUV that fit everyone–compared to our small rental–to the well-known night market in town. Again, there was some slight hesitation that we were going in a “stranger’s” car in the late afternoon and into the evening–to uncharted-to-us locales–with two small tykes in tow, but I reassured my wife that it was all good. That they were good. And they were.

At the market, my daughter held hands, too, with the teenage girl as we strolled, while the mom treated us to various snacks and drinks, explaining the details of everything as we went. Kindness prevailed. Trust was the foundation. Goodness was key. Later, they took us out for dinner at a suburban shopping complex’s eatery, where we tried, somewhat begrudgingly, the Bruneian speciality ambuyat. Without their help, we wouldn’t have known where to go or what to do–or we would have eaten it at a tourist-oriented place for double or triple the price most likely.

Two days later, they planned to get together with us once again to take us to one of the nearby urban parks, where we strolled and chatted for a few hours–and on this outing her six-year-old son joined us, too. I still recall, nearly a year later, some of the stories they shared about hiring maids/cleaners of various ethnic backgrounds and how different salaries are paid because certain ethnicities are considered more trustworthy than others. Purely insightful stuff that one doesn’t usually get in a guidebook.

For the next few days after that, we toured other parts of Brunei on our own, yet even down in the coastal town of Kuala Belait, we met one more CSer for dinner. Coming from a well-off (it seemed) family background, she shared her perspective on life in Brunei, the royal family, university life, etc., so we listened with great interest. And while she was doing so, i.e., sharing her insights, she drew pictures with my daughter, side by side, in the restaurant. At the car afterwards, where they said goodbye (her sister joined us halfway through the meal–which they, too, paid for), my son even offered up one of the first kisses on the cheek or a hug goodbye, which we all celebrated. We all benefitted from the exchange. Hospitality was again king/queen. No expectations and no obligations.

For other parts of the journey, we did get some independent family time focus in, and we eagerly explored parts of the interior by rental car, giving it a go on our own. But we’d learned more from all the CSers we’d met, and that information helped pave a smoother road for us while journeying just as a family. Yet when we returned to Bandar, the capital, we meet another twenty-something CSer and her friends for a meal one evening, and then on our last day, the woman who’d taken us with her teen daughter to the park, restaurants and market met us at the airport to give us a going away gift, some local food products to take back to Taiwan. Can you believe it? She, essentially a stranger still, went out of her way to give us a fond farewell. Reassurance? Check.

Though there are plenty of details above that do give evidence of how utterly special CSing can be, the upshot is that such experiences have reassured me–and to some degree my wife after the Brunei experience, that CSing is a legitimate avenue for travel-minded world citizens to share, to help, to guide. I see no harm in it, conceptually, of course, and if proper precautions are taken, to ensure the safety of surfers and hosts alike, as much as possible, I see no harm in partaking in all CS-related activities. You learn. You gain insight. You prosper. I could go on and on about similar benefits.

Since Brunei, and even before so, I started putting out on CS that I was also available for sightseeing and food-oriented tours of Kaohsiung, the city I’ve called home for 8.5 years to date. This year, I’ve toured around, by car, a couple from China, two Chinese university students, a Korean-American who teaches English in Taiwan, etc. However, because of our children, we never hosted people for a night. All outings were done with just me on Saturdays, usually for a few hours at most. Even though I’d asked my spouse if I could take the kids once or twice, rejection of my idea followed almost immediately after.

Being that I know my city quite well, I have been able to give CSers an American’s perspective on this Asian nation’s current events, economics, the housing market, etc., and I know many a local food shops, about which I champ at the bit to show them, for I am a local food addict. Nothing more. Nothing expected. Having been a tour guide for international students in California (USA) and for college students in Minnesota (USA) in the past, and even for new teachers at a former school in Asia–and even now at my current school, I know that I love giving tours, informing folks about all I can, helping them learn about tidbits that they might not otherwise know.

Around 1.5 months ago, because I had moved out from my family home and found my own apartment, for my marriage came to the point of separation, I changed my profile setting on CS so that I could also host travelers at my new apartment, which was the first time doing so in nearly 4.5 years of CSing experience, offering a couch on the nights that my children are not with me, i.e., when they are at their mom’s. I at least provide that measure of additional safeguard for them, so that there are no chances some weirdo wakes up in the middle of the night and stabs us all (I really don’t think that will happen, but I use it as an example of the worst case scenario).

However, for me, I totally support taking them with me to meet visiting CSers if I just tour someone about in the car, by subway, or around the city on foot. They wouldn’t be left alone with a CSer. I’d always be at their side. Especially if I meet a CSer the day before or host them and then meet up with them the next day, I’d feel much more comfortable knowing that I’d already spent time with him/her, getting to know them, seeing his/her personality, reactions, quirks, etc.

In the last month-plus since I put a “couch symbol” on my main page, traffic on my CSing site profile has increased (instead of the “coffee mug” symbol they otherwise employ to denote someone is open for meeting but not hosting at home), and I’ve received more requests than before just in the last couple of weeks. Since changing my couch status, a bloke from Singapore wrote me–and he’s still pending (in status) for a late December visit, and a few females have also contacted me with couch requests recently. Even last night (at the time of writing), I received another Singaporean’s request for April.

During this same period, I surfed a couch (for the first time, ever), while traveling elsewhere in Taiwan. Naturally, being a first timer, per se, I was ever so slightly nervous when I went to sleep on her couch, solo–except that four of her seven cats had been lounging nearby until she put them out before calling it a night. However, because she’d shown me around for a good six or seven hours beforehand, I had been put at ease based on her demeanor, goodness, genuineness, etc. You know what I want to write here, right? Yes, nothing expected.

Once more, I was reassured.

Moreover, in the last few weeks, I have finally hosted, providing a couch for two guests, separately. Those surfers, as we call ourselves, also benefitted from my tours of the city on Saturdays, and I took them out to the night markets, to local eateries, and, for one, even to a favorite bar for food and drink. Both gals, one from Taipei, Taiwan, and one from China, were quite pleasant. Both were/are lovers of travel and sharing travel tales. They trusted me. I trusted them. Nothing more, nothing expected.

All that has transpired, not only with me surfing someone’s couch but also with helping others here, has been legit, innocent, innocuous, and all that has happened remains totally on scale with my erstwhile CSing moments, either with family or solo, in China, Myanmar, Thailand and Brunei. I operate under and within the identical mental paradigm as I always have, hoping to provide the same help, the same insight, the same generosity.

Nothing will change regarding my reasons. My purpose won’t change. Simply put, I hope to continue, unhindered, with Couchsurfing for all the aforementioned reasons and with the same benefits. And I hope to share outings with my children. They’ll learn. I’ll learn. The surfers will gain. I’ll gain. Occasionally, my kids will gain, too. And if only one impression or learned lesson that we’ll all derive from our experiences together stays with each of us, it will hopefully be the one that matters most: Reassurance.

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