Contrary to what one might expect, couch surfing is not just for kids. It’s actually a world-wide phenomenon catering to adventurers of all ages, sex, and religious persuasions. Singles, couples, families and pets have all been happily accommodated in the homes of former strangers.
While online researching a solo trip to Latin America, I discovered a plethora of hospitality options starting with the Hospitality Club, (hospitality.org), Global Freeloaders, (globalfreeloaders.com) and the Couchsurfing Collective. Among the best of these primarily internet based organizations, Couchsurfing.org, provides free accommodations in private homes, ranging from a bed and bathroom, to a spot in the back yard to pitch your tent or hang your hammock.
Among Couchsurfing’s goals are a desire to give back to humanity by connecting people of diverse cultures, making the world a smaller, more peaceful and tolerant place through cross cultural, educational exchanges. Couchsurfing’s growing membership boasts of over 400,000 couches and 1,000,000 members in 231 countries.
While the average age of the Couchsurfing membership is 27, my first hospitable host, in Playa del Carmen, was a retired American auctioneer, who provided me with an air mattress on his living floor room in this rapidly expanding Mexican resort town. Sounds of construction filling the air everywhere were mitigated by the lovely long beach. When a Canadian friend flew to Cancun for a long weekend to meet me we discovered Duke, a late 20’s Mexican musician and Couchsurfing ambassador extraordinaire. Duke had recently returned from a year spent couchsurfing and busking around Europe.
Duke not only picked me up at the bus station, he showed me how to get to Isla Mujeres via public transit, and where to find second hand English novels for the road ahead. These hospitality sites all discourage paying for accommodation, so I took a trip to the local supermercado to help set up Duke’s new kitchen. (I encourage the buying of food and gifts for your hosts, and please clean up after yourself!)
Upon my return to Canada I surfed several less exotic couches. When a woman in a downtown Vancouver condo provided me with a bit of floor space, I found a new friend. While attending a music festival in Ontario, my friend and I stayed at the historic house of a woman who graciously allowed herself to be volunteered by her son, who had just finished cycling across Canada, hosted by members of the warmshowers.org group who cater specifically to touring cyclists.
As a host I’ve welcomed a cross cultural and country couple from Quebec and Florida, (a Metis puppeteer and a computer tech who proved to be very useful), and an enthusiastic Aussie botanist with an interesting haircut, tales to tell and pictures to share. A Fringe Festival theatre director from Tel Aviv, stayed a week and left with an open invitation to visit anytime she’s not traveling herself!
While the vast majority of travel exchange experiences are positive there have been some exceptions. As an often solo female traveler I appreciate Couchsurfing’s well designed system of verification and vouching, coupled with profiles for both hosts and guests
A gardening friend has been a WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, wwoof.org) host for years. Her experiences, particularly with young Japanese women have been fabulous, but she suspects that an Irish WWOOF’er may have been responsible for the subsequent loss of her laptop, ipod and camping supplies. Incidents such as the above are however few and far between.
WWOOF is a work exchange program where people commit their labour in return for room and board. It has no global organization but rather a number of individual ones which, for a yearly fee, provide lists of prospective hosts in the areas represented. One of the many distinctions between WWOOF and HelpExchange (helpx.net) is that the later offers online profiles with feedback opportunities and it can be updated to indicate whether a host actually has room at the moment and HelpX requires only one lifetime membership for everywhere. In addition it has listings for other sorts of exchanges in lodges, B&Bs, hostels, on ranches and sailboats.
Subsequent research unearthed other online and on paper resources, each catering to a specific traveling clientele. These include Servas International, (joomla.servas.org). Servas translates as “serve” in the international language of Esperanto. Participants are interviewed and provided with a letter of introduction and the encouragement to, “Open a door. Knock on another and get involved”. The Lesbian and Gay Hospitality Exchange, (lghei.org) has over 500 listings in 30 countries. Couchsurfing.org recently joined Bewelcome.org in adding a section for travelers with wheelchairs. The Mennonite Your Way Hospitality Directory is available only in book form. Eldertravellers.org and the Evergreenclub.com, are exclusively for folks over 50 and Womenwelcomewomen.org.uk, is specifically for females. Stay4free.com also includes information on home exchanges.
Whatever your age, gender, orientations, physical abilities and interests, home stay networks have made traveling both more affordable and more entertaining through the generosity of local hosts. Why not consider hosting, or being hosted yourself?
Alice Grange supports seniors as a travel companion and personal assistant. www.seniorstravelcompanion.info