Travel – CouchSurfing.com
The couchsurfing project, CS as it popularly called, is perhaps the largest online hospitality exchange network in the world. It enables its members to find willing hosts in different countries who will give you a place to sleep, and in some cases food, free of cost.
For backpackers, of course, it is a great way to save money, and it also helps them understand the place better than the most expensive package tour ever can. When travellers live with the locals, they eat their food, understand their customs and way of life. It offers them a unique and complete travel experience.
The success of CS is backed by numbers. Up to 2009, the members had shared over 4 million positive experiences (99.7 per cent of all close contacts among members in the real world) while travelling and meeting each other, and forged over 1 lakh close friendships.
Waseem Khan, 48, the country ambassador for CS in India, became a member in 2006 while planning a trip across Europe. “When I explored the site, I found it very interesting and I came to know that I could be hosted free of cost by locals at most of the places I planned to visit. I wrote to some of the members, telling them about myself, requesting them to host me for a few days in their homes. I also offered to cook Indian meals for them and if they wanted anything from India, I offered to bring it to them,” recalls Khan. He eventually stayed with seven CS members during the entire trip. In 2006, he hosted his first CS member in Mumbai in his 1 BHK apartment in Bandra which he shares with his wife, two children and mother. He has hosted more than 100 travellers ever since. For CS members, space is a matter of large-heartedness .
The Couchsurfing website was started in January 2003 by an American called Casey Fenton, with an aim to “connect people all over the world for inspiring experiences that create understanding, personal growth and trust.” CS’s mantra attracted the footloose and fancy-free . Its tools help you search hosts in unfamiliar territories and in some cases, extremely remote areas, like Kiribati, a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean. CS reaffirms the importance of ‘word-of-mouth’ publicity. The hosts, after they have visited and stayed with you, leave reference messages on your page.
To an outsider, the community may come across as a congregation of free loaders but for the members it’s a unique experience that restores their faith in the basic goodness of all human beings.
The message of CS was brought to India by foreigners like Wahid Bennmeriam, a 27-yearold travel agent for whom travelling is not only about business but also about people, cultures and forging bonds. Bennmeriam , who holds a French passport, joined CS a few months before he arrived in Delhi in 2008 to learn English at the British Council. “I started travelling when I was 16. As I was soaking in the cultures of Arabian and European countries, I realised staying in hotels and visiting tourist spots is not all that is there to travel . The fun part is meeting the locals, spending time with them and learning about their customs ,” he recounts. In the past one year of his stay in Delhi, Bennmeriam, who is considered an authority on Bollywood films among his expatriate friends, has hosted nearly 15 people at his apartment in east Delhi, acting as their guide in the Indian capital and “sharing experiences of a foreigner about this country” .
Indians may have latched on to the concept late but have more than made up for the lost time. At present, there are more than 23,500 Indian members and they have hosted over 14,000 of fellow community members. In the words of CS member Anil Singh, “Couchsurfing is an extension to the essentially Indian concept of vasudhayva kutumbkum (world is a family). It is a great platform with limitless potential… a place to share engaging experiences ,” says Singh, a 61-year-old businessman, who along with his wife Meena, has hosted over a dozen people from across the world at their four-bedroom house in Lucknow.
The uninitiated may find staying with strangers just after a couple of online exchanges a bit dodgy. But once you are part of the community, you take a leap of faith. Just like Bennmeriam did. “When I joined CS,” he says, “I restricted myself to eating at my host’s place. I was not confident of staying with people I had come to know just minutes before. But after interacting with the community, my confidence grew. In 2008, I finally stayed at the house of a CS member in Lisbon and Porta, Spain. I loved it.”
The community, however, knows the difference between believing and being taken for a ride. The website’s safety features minimise fraud and keep away freeloaders. There are two built-in concepts for safety: verification and vouching. “Verification involves locking your name, paying a small donation (token money) that validates your credit card and hence your real-life identity and then you receive a letter at your residential address with a code that you have to enter online. This authenticates your address,” says Khan.
Vouching, on the other hand, is the process of the community building trust in you. “Members can vouch for any CS member after meeting them in real life. However, before you can vouch for others, one has to be vouched for by at least three other persons ,” explains Khan.
Couchsurfing – as noted by Us Now, a documentary released in April 2009 – is an experiment in harnessing the power of internet to bring together people and forge trust, based on the humane values that we all share.
As Khan says, “Free accommodation is something that just happens in the process. That is not an end in itself. Instead, CS is about the realisation that even in this competitive environment, goodness exists. You just need a spark to ignite it. CS has the power to change lives. Trust me… it changed mine.”
Pen pals and letter writing have become casualties of a shrinking world that now comes together on the World Wide Web. In times before the advent of the internet, there was a vacuum of information that pen pals filled in perfectly, and therefore they were in great demand.
It’s been more then 15 years since Priyanka Bhattacharya, a freelance beauty writer and editor based in Bangalore, last heard of Dana Dickie. The two were pen pals through their growing years in school. “We were the same age,” recalls Bhattacharya, of her Canadian pen pal. “Dana used to travel a lot. She would send me cards from all over the world and sometimes even post me trinkets as gifts,” says Bhattacharya.
In the pre-internet days, pen pals were people’s window to the world. Pals from different countries exchanged cultural details in letters. Couchsurfers do the same thing now by actually landing up at your doorstep and exchanging notes with you while you have dinner together.
Children’s magazine Target used to have a popular ‘pen pals’ section that would carry names and addresses of children who were looking out for pals in different cities. “The cultural differences between countries, cities used to be astounding. It made children very curious. Now that the world is more homogeneous, the surprise element is missing,” says Vatsala Kaul, editorial director, children’s books, Hachette, and former editor, Target.
BREACH OF TRUST
Sometimes the numbers don’t tell the whole story. In the case of couchsurfing that could be true. Its members do report an overwhelming number of positive experiences while meeting each other but sometimes things go wrong. On March 5, 2009, a 29-year-old woman from Hong Kong was raped by her Moroccan host, Abdeli Nachet, 34, in Leeds, UK. Nachet was later sentenced to 10 years in jail by a UK court. He had invited her to his flat through couchsurfing. The incident was widely reported by the media and a Hong Kong newspaper even came out with an elaborate advisory for women who were using the couchsurfing community to find accommodation during travels. “Even though I trust CS members, I would suggest that people, especially women, should exercise caution before agreeing to stay at someone’s place. A good way to spot a genuine host is by seeing how many people have vouched for him. I would say anyone who has been vouched for by at least 10 people can be trusted,” says Wahid Bennmeriam, a CS member.
Read the couchsurfer’s profile carefully. You are not obliged to host anyone. Check with your landlord /room mate/family if they are okay hosting a complete stranger Discuss the details – what time is your guest arriving, does he have your correct address and phone number Define boundaries. Your guest should know where to get in and out from, and what facilities he can use Share feedback. If you are unhappy with your guest’s behaviour then let him know. Often, the problem can be because of cultural differences or language.
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