When backpacking on a budget, the choices for refuge tend to range in anywhere between a bench and a really really really cheap hotel. I personally did not want to sleep in benches all throughout my previous trip, but I also did not want to spend a thousand or more pesos for staying in a hotel. As you may have read from my previous posts, for the benefit of travel we took advantage of Couchsurfing whenever possible to avoid spending on hotels, motels or even hostels. Even recently while leaving the big city on weekends to explore elsewhere, Couchsurfing has proven my greatest travel tool. The experience was much more rewarding than spending time in a room without contact with locals, so here is my list of things I learned:
1 – There are nice hosts, there are bad hosts, and there are hosts who ruin your experience. Keep it cool.
During my backpacking trip, we had quite a variety of people answer our requests, and that variety included the way we were received. Most of them where polite because they understood you where a guest in their house and some stretched the politeness to friendliness, but some felt more obliged rather than happy to lend a hand and it got a bit uncomfortable after a couple of hours. Some where even mean afterwards, showing their discomfort through hate mail and hate posts. It can get real nasty. So after a rant or two, I learned to keep my cool in those situations, because people who openly and publicly show their hate won’t have their minds changed by anyone. However, with the hosts who barely face you while you stay in their homes you can simply keep it all very polite and leave as soon as you can to the next one. It’s very hard not to let a host’s rude behaviour ruin your experience of a city, and in our case we do remember at least one city rather bittersweetly, but the best anyone can do is move on.
2 – They make the best tour guides, enjoy it.
When looking for a couchsurfing host, you are basically asking a local to have mercy on your tired back in need of a bed, and if anyone knows their city well it’s locals! Buildings, monuments, legends, myths, rumors, food carts, drinks, they know a little about everything! Usually your host is just as passionate about travel as you, with that passion comes the desire to get to know new things, and naturally as a traveler that means YOU want to know new things, right? So they take this chance to show off their city and all it has to offer. Take advantage of that: ask them questions, take as many pictures as you can of the places they show off (trust me, they are happy to wait for you), request the best and cheapest place for a meal, openly wonder wether or not the rumors about their town are lies or otherwise, educate yourself! You are more than likely to have a better experience and will remember the city a little more fondly. I know I do.
3 – You might end up meeting the whole family. So watch the language.
Out of all the homes I’ve stayed at, four live with their families, and two ended up taking us to their parent’s home. When sleeping at your host’s home with their mother, father, sister, and/or grandparent, it can get a teeny bit uncomfortable. Mostly because of travel habits which might not be the most appropriate in the family scene. Mainly I had to watch my language, offer to help (more often than normal), and in general make sure I didn’t do or say anything that might discomfort anyone, which is hard to do if it’s not written down anywhere and the only way to find out is when they call you out on it. So sticking to the personality you use when your grandmother is around is a good way to not leave a bad impression, either as a person or as a citizen of wherever you come from. But not to worry, there are also those families that want to hear all about your trip and all about everything you’ve seen without censuring the content, and they might tolerate a swear word or two. So enjoy everyone’s company and trade stories, you might be surprised of your host’s relatives and their travel stories. Either way, there is no use in being intimidated by anyone’s family, but be respectful above all!
4 – The heart and soul of the site might be lost on some people.
In a minor way, it’s still an underground concept. Well, 50-50, some of the people I’ve met during travels have no idea of what Couchsurfing is, so when explaining to people what the service/system/concept was all about it;s important to have your facts straight. Some thought that there’d be some compensation for their services, others assumed you had to pay for a membership, then there were those who used it more as a social site for meeting travelers and organising a party or two, and while having a Couchsurfing meetup/event is not out of the question, it’s not the main reason the page exists. Because of this misconception we had a person or two end up angry that there had been no profit in opening their doors to us, so it IS important to spread the word about what this whole community is all about: Lending a helping hand to your fellow travelers in order to build good karma, but also sharing lives and learning everything you can from each other.
5 – Not everyone is a creep, so don’t make that assumption.
I made this (possible) mistake once, but to be fair he was our third host and although his profile had great comments from all who stayed, something about him just weirded me out. Maybe it was his suggestion that we all sleep in the same bed. In any case, by making this assumption I missed out a bit on creating any sort of solid connection, to the point where we have never spoken to each other since then. Through this service we all naturally fear that the stranger we read of online might not match the one we meet in person, but we have to keep our mind open an try to believe that they are not all full of bad intentions.
6 – People’s pets do, in a way, match the owner’s personality. And it’s adorable.
The majority of the people I’ve stayed with have either a dog or a cat, some have been together for years, others were recently adopted, but either way they seemed to be in eachother’s lives for a little more than companionship. So as an added bonus to socialising with new people, you will learn to handle their pets! I met a guy who was a giant compared to his tiny chihuahua (She’s named “Beauty”), there was a rather shy girl who had a sassy black cat, a very hyper and youthful girl who had adopted a street dog who was equally hyper, then a couple that owned a salon who had two dogs with plenty of hair to groom, and I could just go on and on. Point being, everyone and their faithful companions have an adorable way that they mirrored or complimented each other.
7 – You are still in someone else’s home, don’t be a slob.
When you are in someone else’s home, wether it’s for lunch or just a little visit, you make sure to offer to pick up the dishes, right? And you probably say please and thank you about everything, right? And hopefully you also try and help out with whatever they are having a little trouble with, right? Same here! Sometimes you are asked to keep everything as it is, sometimes you are given full liberty to use the space you were given (a room, living room, small space within their own room), in any way suitable to your comforts. Either way, it’s important to leave everything tidy when you leave, it’s not only polite but it’s also a way of showing respect of the home you are in.
8 – Anyone appreciates when you cook for them, especially your host.
Breakfast, lunch, dinner, if you’re good at cooking any of the above might as well make yourself shine now! My specialty has always been pasta, so whenever I had the opportunity to make it for our hosts I did (as illustrated by the tweets below)! It’s the easiest way to break the ice if you are all in your own little corners minding your own business, and it’s a great way to show your appreciation. But remember to do the dishes afterward, ‘kay?
— Whiteliphant (@Whiteliphant) March 31, 2014
9 – Finding our host’s home is the best introduction to each city’s transportation.
With every new city we visit not only does the scenery change, but the way to get everywhere does too. From Mexico City’s Metro system we moved to Morelia’s taxi system, then to Guadalajara’s bus system, and so on. A good way to get the hang of how to use each city’s transportation system is to have a solid destination and well explained instructions, in our case the very first destination is normally our host’s home. However, when you have a semi-solid destination and vague instructions, it’s like being thrust into one of Hercule’s mighty tasks to prove ourselves worthy of travel, so by questioning locals and following your host’s instructions you can learn the best ways of getting around the city.
10 – People can be very very very very generous, make sure to show gratitude.
As mentioned in point number one, we have met and experiences a variety of personalities and have had different experiences with each, some awful, but some beyond heavenly. It’s be unfair to list and mention people who exceeded my expectations because everyone exceeded my expectation of being welcomed with open arms and smiles in the first place. Some did the best they could to accommodate us with the limited amount of generosity that they could bestow, and some went above and beyond what they could give us, and asked absolutely nothing in return but that we keep in contact and finish our trip. It’s always important to not expect that you deserve such generosity and show how grateful you are of it. Even though nobody might ask you for compensation, you can give back what was given to you in many more ways than money.
11 – This experience is not just about you, it’s also about your hosts.
I’ve mentioned this once, and I’ll mention it as many times as I need to: this service/program/website/what-have-you is about building good karma. This exchange of favors is as much about us as it if about them, for us the surfers it’s about getting a helping hand along the way of our trip, and for them the hosts it’s about opening up their doors to strangers and do a little culture exchange along the way. And the roles are constantly swapped: one month I am traveling, the next I shall receive people in my home. So always be aware of the home and the lives you’ve just entered, try and be a part of their lives through going out together, exchanging stories and experiences, giving each other tips, and participating in each other’s projects. For example I was asked to help out in one of our host’s neighbour’s school projects, and of course I did! You’re not landing in a hotel, you’re landing in a future friend’s home. It’s like asking a friend if you can stay at their house for the night, but the process to getting there is in reverse: You arrive and then grow a friendship out of it.
12 – I guarantee you the experience will change you.
What changed in me was that I’ve become less stressed when running out of money on things during travel, essentially because of the stories our hosts shared about how they overcame traveling on little to no money at all and still making their way back home. Also the experience of finding ways to spare a dime or two helped me trust in the goodness of others even when they are strangers and you both have little reason to trust each other, which is the biggest lesson of all. We are all good people, and we are all willing to help each other along, but we are all very suspicious of one another. It’s the reality that we live in, but we should never forget that within that reality lies the reality of kindness.
P.S. Here’s my Couchsurfing profile: https://www.couchsurfing.org/people/lauramercado/