“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.”
– Miriam Beard
Online media has a tendency of making things too easy for us; in the past decade, we’ve seen an influx of mass, commercial tourism, thanks to travel websites relentlessly offering high-cost accommodation, fuss-free get go tour packages, resort getaways and more recently what is dubbed as ‘voluntourism’. Of course, this is perfectly valid if you’re into cookie cutter holidays…okay, in all seriousness, no condescension there, because holidays are subjective to the person experiencing it, etc etc. Fair enough – but what about those who want a more authentic, cultural experience? No, that doesn’t mean take a day tour around Tokyo and stop by for a McChicken burger with seaweed in it. What does the online media sphere hold for us? Cue the gem, the beacon of light, that is Couchsurfing – a non-profit organization that seeks to “internationally network people and places, create educational exchanges, raise collective consciousness, spread tolerance and facilitate cultural understanding” since 2003.
Couchsurfing is an online phenomenon that has changed the way millions of users interact, and more importantly, has completely overturned people’s travelling experiences from head-to-toe. Let me explain:
How do I swear in Malay? (Ask me later!) When you’re couch surfing and living with local people, you get new answers and new perspectives, make meaningful connections and just have a really cool time together, in a way that you never would were you to be on tour or a holiday with your friends. These are the people who will immerse you in their culture and make you feel at home even if you’re an ocean away, with their home cooked meals, what they watch on TV and their languages. It’s pretty heartening to know that these relationships created by an online site transcends religions, socio-economic backgrounds and nations – plus you make some kick ass friends all over the world!
Oh, the local places you’ll go! Sure, I guess it’ll be cool to drink a few cocktails in the world’s tallest bar and shop in the biggest shopping mall in Hong Kong, but wouldn’t you rather eat some homegrown hawker fishballs, get yelled at for bargaining (but getting the deal anyway…), or see monkeys in the wild? Local people are your anti-tour-guides tour guides; they introduce you to their everyday stomping ground and you get to see the place for what it really is – sans all the tourism rubbish. Couchsurfing attracts a varied demographic, but the majority have one thing in common: the desire to travel outside conventional or commercial paths of tourism, and get to know a place through the “locals'” eyes.
Host a couch surfer. The impact and experience of Couchsurfing goes both ways; while the surfer explores the city from a local point of view, the hosts themselves learn about their city. I had a friend from Melbourne crash on my couch (still counts!) for a few days in Sydney, and I found myself panicking – Oh my God I’m not interesting at all I don’t go interesting places, I eat tacos all the time, have I even touched a koala, how do I prove that Sydney’s better than Melbourne?! And so I traveled Sydney as if it were brand new ground, and hunted for places to show anyone who’s willing to explore, and that there’s a lot to be proud of in this city! There’s also a lot you can gain from hosting travellers; in an exchange for their stay in your home, you learn about their cultures and cooking, and have also proven to be helpful for people who want to flex their languages skills. Saila, a frequent host of couch surfers around the world explains, “It’s my way to keep up the traveling spirit. Even though I’m not traveling myself, I can host people who are traveling in Finland, so we can share traveling experiences. It’s nice to help people to have a cheap place to stay, but not only that…it is meeting the people and having the conversation that is my priority.”
Couchsurfing exists on the Internet, but is more than a platform for ‘freeloaders’ or just a place to stay; in reality, surfers and hosts share meals, life experiences, different cultures and exchange ideas through the act of travelling. The Couchsurfing community attribute the value of their travels by the currency of meaningful social connections and cultural exchanges, rather than the photos they took at ‘some temple’ or the koala key chains they got at Paddy’s Market. If you’re up for surfing some couches or hosting some great people, read our Couchsurfing guide. Happy surfing!