Sofa so good: the couch-surfing life

Staying in the homes of strangers is a fun, cheap way to travel. Just open your door in return, says Brian Canty

IF either of my house-mates rang me to collect them at the bus stop five miles away, have a dinner waiting at home for them, and have a few entertainment itineraries for the night, I’d say ‘Get a taxi, Lennox’s is open late. See you in five.’

But when two strangers email to say they’re lost in Cork City and need a place to crash for the night, my doors swing open with generosity.

Couch-surfing’s an odd concept to some, but to me it’s a simple solution to feeling cultured and good about yourself.

“There’s food in the fridge, what’s mine is yours, I’ll take ye to town later if ye want, and I’ll leave the key out,” I say.

Billy and Ray, my house-mates, snarl in the background as the tourists are welcomed with boundless enthusiasm. When I ask Billy if Manuel can have some of his hot chocolate, Billy’s curt rejoinder from the living room cum bedroom is ‘go on’.

Couch-surfing adds drama that my housemates can’t. The promise of a random story ... not Billy’s ‘same s**t, different underpants’ attitude.

Couch-surfing’s been perceived as a nightmare cultish community of gypsy scroungers and tree-huggers who take from you what they can. But, in my experiences, save for one unfortunate case, it’s full of care-free philanthropists who I often want to be more like.

Last weekend, I had Anni from Germany and Rebecca from Italy. Both are trainee dentists but deferred college for a year. Both hitch-hiked to the city from Clonakilty, got free grub at a food-fair in town, enjoyed the buzz, and stayed for the night.

I meet many very intelligent and highly qualified people, actually, like Johnny Garvey, from Clare, who stayed once. Physicist, poet and DJ are his three professions, and like he says on his profile, the first gives him business, the last gives him pleasure, while the middle one gives him sanity from the extremes of both.

If he’s not mixing it up and breaking it down with Lisa Lashes in Ayia Napa, he’s decked in a white lab coat in Shannon trying to decipher the reason we’re all here.

I often feel I’m only operating at 10% after spending a few hours with these kinds of people.

But there are downsides to couch-surfing, too, of course, and though some ‘stayees’ will give you something in return — other than the vague promise of reciprocating the favour when you’re passing by Dartmouth, Nova Scotia (as if!), very few leave, as Anne Robinson would say, ‘with nothing’. But that’s exactly what happened when I was in my most prolific couch-surfing form in Galway in 2008. The west of Ireland is rampant with couch-surfing and Galway is the most advertised city per capita in western Europe, according to the website. Amsterdam and Munich are up there, but for your stereotypical ‘save-the-trees’ host, no-one matches Galway, and when Richard, from Reykjavik, stayed about a month after Landsbanki went to the wall in October of that year, I should’ve known to revise down my naivete levels.

“I’ll be back in the afternoon Rich, I’ve three lectures in the morning but I’ll see you around 1pm if you’re still here,” I said.

Of course, I came back to my unofficial hostel to find the fridge and freezer had been cleared of its contests. As in, he completely starched. Not that there was much in there anyway, but, I thought, he must’ve been very desperate.

So, it’s not for prima donnas and the accommodations I’ve encountered ranges from skin-crawlingly disgusting to the ‘it’ll do for now’ variety.

But, sometimes, you do land square on your feet. Like the time, in January, I stayed in a rooftop apartment in Malaga with a German couple who took me to the best bars; put me on the best and most scenic bus rides into the snow capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada and the stone-washed villages high up in the Alpujarras, and were there on my return with directions to the best tapas bar.

A week is a long time to be on your own, but, one night, I sat at a table with 11 nationalities, enthralled by each of their languages, backgrounds, stories and plans.

They were all couch-surfers and they flung suggestions at me like the best tour guides could only dream of.

I don’t want to give the idea that couch-surfing is always going to be perfect, because that’s just not true.

But you can stay for as long as you like, or as short, and you’re not bound to any contracts or obligations. Surfers are, for the most part, hard to offend and easy-going, so if you say, ‘I’ve to leave,’ you’ll be told ‘best of luck’ more often than you’ll be quizzed why.

No matter what you make of it, couch-surfing is guaranteed to create some of your most memorable travelling experiences and certainly some of your favourite ones, as well. You’re more of an insider and less of a tourist; so, shirk away from shyness and open up to the possibility that hanging out with complete strangers can actually be the best thing ever.

* Brian couch-surfs with www.couchsurfing.org


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