When was the last time you picked up your daily newspaper and the headlines read: “Despite Corruption and Corporate Greed, Every Day Citizens are Saving the World.” Chances are, it’s been a while, so you turn to your groovy alternative sites instead. Here, you do get the bad news. You learn that not all citizens can resist greed, like the fellow who tried to sell 14 peregrine falcon eggs for a hefty sum, but we also try to bring you stories of real people doing small things that make a big difference: there’s the woman with nine children who built a straw-bale house in Israel, and Ana Seco, who spreads her grandmother’s thrifty fashion techniques throughout the Middle East. But what if I told you that over one million friendly citizens are collectively, right now, changing how we interact with one another one couch at a time?
Probably you would think that I am exaggerating. Yet, since 2004, the non-profit organization known fondly as Couchsurfing has facilitated 1.7 million couchsurfing stays, and 4.3 million positive experiences. Of all the experiences that an international organization present in 230 countries could enable, 99.7% of them were recorded as positive.
If you relied only on your daily news, these numbers would seem improbable. There we read about political dramas and economic scandals and irresponsible environmental practices. But on the ground, where the real people carry on with their lives, a series of wholesome, interactive exchanges has swept Israelis, Bulgarians, Egyptians, Argentinians, and Swedes, and every other nationality you can recall without an atlas, right off their feet.
Zero star experience
Before I tell you how it works, let me say how it doesn’t work:
Though you are encouraged to develop a profile on www.couchsurfing.org, where you record your likes and dislikes, and your philosophy and travel agenda, and though you are encouraged to contact people from other countries who offer a couch for travelers seeking a genuine, intimate, 0 star experience of the city or country in question, this is not the appropriate venue for free-loaders looking for a cheap place to crash.
It’s an exchange.
If I tell you the secret hummous ingredient, you might have to die
By that I mean you contact John Doe and his girlfriend Jill, in advance of your trip preferably – demonstrating that you have planned carefully and chosen your couch in accordance with mutual philosophies and likes and dislikes (which drives up the trust quotient). You ask to stay on their couch for one, two or three nights. If you find your soul mate, it may be appropriate to stay longer, but otherwise, three nights of hospitality is enough.
And then you arrive with something to share. The Israelis are renowned for their hummous, for example, so they may bring a bag of garbanzo beans, a clove of garlic, some lemon, and whatever other secret ingredients they’ll kill you for, if you learn them.
A new measure
It’s important to know that your contribution to the community is not measured by its economic value, but by its thoughtfulness and sincerity. Once you’ve shared a meal, a cup of coffee, an esoteric conversation, or a few new words from a language you’ve never heard before – depending on your comfort level – you might join an activity.
One of my first activities was in Israel, at a potluck Shabat dinner. Of all the activities I’ve enjoyed throughout the world, it remains one of the most memorable. We feasted and learned traditional prayers and sang and dance and clowned around (literally) and then at the end of the night, a few of us got locked out of our ride home. It took a few hours to rectify this, but we did it, and we did it together.
Another favorite was when an Egyptian man met me at the Kentucky Fried Chicken at Tahrir Square in Cairo, and escorted me, though I wasn’t feeling very well, to a Sufi dance. Along the way he bought me water and “power” – a sugar cane juice – and then we watched the most extraordinary dance based on traditional Sufi dancing. It was so strange to see these men twirling around in circles for up to 15 minutes, inducing a trance in themselves and the audience. Strange, but beautiful.
And this is what it’s all about. Showing foreigners what is strange and beautiful in your country, so that when they return home, they will have a more honest assessment than the Hilton, the Holiday Inn, and the Golf Club can ever provide.
Of course, couchsurfing is not always so pleasant.
The other side
Within my first week of being in Egypt, I had received ten offers from men looking to have an adventure with a “loose” western woman. And there are freeloaders who don’t read the guidelines before getting involved and treat your home like a hostel. Also, whenever you put representatives of several political and religious traditions in one room, there is bound to be a certain amount of friction.
Even so, the statistics speak for themselves, and the system is specifically designed to discourage unsavory behaviors.
Is someone treating the site as a dating service? Report them.
Is someone consistently using bad, offensive language to express themselves in online forums? Let the organizers know.
They are based at various locations, a movable feast, but they are always at hand, ready to keep couchsurfing clean.
Speaking of clean: though not every surfer is a treehugging vegetarian, almost every country has a group of nature-loving people eager to set up events that draw environmental awareness, or share recipes and other green-living advice. In Israel, the green group has met several times to experience various environmentally-focused projects – such as the Hariya dump – or to share a meal and watch an ecologically-themed film.
There are 11 guidelines posted on the couchsurfing website, but I’ve chosen just one that I think best reflects the community’s spirit:
We practice gratitude towards everyone.
We believe in actively practicing gratitude. We are grateful to all people: those who assist us, those who challenge us, those who contribute to the world’s diversity, and those who assert their freedom of self. We hold a special gratitude for our teammates, who contribute alongside us with a common mission. No act is too small or too commonplace to deserve thanks. (Thank you!)
So if you’re a traveler, you like to know the nitty gritty of a place, and if you enjoy forging lifelong relationships with kind and hospitable people, then set up your profile, reflect on your life and travel philosophy, and become a part of a global caring and culturally-aware community.
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