So I've spent a few of my nights now staying with random strangers. How does that work?
Well you can read what Couchsurfing have to say themselves at http://www.couchsurfing.org/about.html - but basically, thousands of people who are into travelling - or just meeting others who are - add a profile to the site inviting others to contact them for a chat, advice or usually somewhere to stay. Most people have both hosting and surfing experiences, so the "love goes round the world man". It seems a bit utopian/idealistic, but is it realistic? Is it safe?
It doesn't surprise me that (as far as I can tell) it hasn't taken off in the same way in the UK or USA as other parts of the western world - I think we're overall less trusting of our fellow man. We're very hospitable to people we know, or even have a secondary connection to, but complete strangers? What's in it for the host? Well, I've so far only been on the surfing end of the bargain, but actually I think quite a lot, if you're open to meeting new and friendly people. Throwing your doors open to someone from a far flung part of the world is a gamble (what if they're boring, or they smell?), but they need only stay a night - and it seems many friendships have been formed this way. In fact, I'd describe it as 'having a holiday without leaving your ront door', as you get to be an active part in someone else's adventure. There are so many people looking to travel the world but put off by the costs of accommodation, and Couchsurfing seems a great solution to this. Sure it's not for everyone (I can think of a few of you reading this that would rather eat live rodents), but there's something quite exciting about it.
Making a request is a matter of first searching for people in the area you want to stay in, then browsing the profiles for people that you think would be suitable (e.g. what sleeping facilities they have available, when they are liekly to be around, as well as whether they sound interesting). You then just send a message through the site, and wait for a reply. But in larger towns, there can be hundreds of Couchsurfers! Well, you can't contact them all, so there are a few ways to filter it down. This is something they could improve on the site - meanwhile, I'm using the 'pretty girl' filter if there are too many to choose from (Though what's a guy to do in Berlin though, where there are 10,000 registered people, and my 'pretty girl' filter still lists over 1000!)
Is it safe? Well, you get to read about each other first, and you only give out your contact details if you want to, so you get an impression. No-one's ever obliged to say yes. In fact, I'd say only about 20% of my requests are accepted and I think I'm doing well - people are interested in my unusual trip, and I give the address of my website upfront so people can get a better idea of who I am. There are also some checks on the site, like address validation, and a 'vouching' system where more experienced users of the site can vouch that they've had a good experience with someone. But at the end of the day, there's still an element of trust. There must be some bad apples out there, because that's how it goes. So far for me, I've got nothing but fabulous things to say about my hosts, who have all been generous, hospitable, friendly, interesting. I hope they've enjoyed my company too.
I'd go as far as to say it has been my lifeline on this trip. When I have a few consecutive days staying in guest houses and the like, I am starved of conversation beyond the bare essentials. Couchsurfing gives me friends along the way, reasons to reach a particular town, and second thoughts as to whether I want to move on so quickly. Even though I've spent such as short time with each along the way,and so have barely met, I know there are a few I will keep in touch with and look forward to inviting them to stay with me.