“What about this couple? Lorena and Daniel. They have got 112 positive references.”
“Their location has been verified. And they have been vouched for.”
“So, let’s couchsurf them?”
“Yea, sounds cool. Why not?”
Finally, I have got a host that Jacintha is willing to nob.
It is late at night. In a common room of a hostel in Oaxaca, Mexico, Jacintha and I are planning the last part of our one-month journey in Mexico. She is researching on our itinerary and I am trying to arrange accommodation.
It is the third week of our end-of-semester travel. Jacintha and I were doing our exchange in Monterrey, Mexico. She is an Indian Singaporean. Both of us are tired of traveling with a larger group of friends, which requires more compromises to reach consensus, so we decided to conduct our own adventure after finishing our exams.
We have visited Mexico City, Puebla and Oaxaca during the past 3 weeks. While budgeting for our journey, it is not hard to find that a big chunk of our budget has been eaten up by the place where we lay our head at night. Life like this is not sustainable. We do not have financial resources.
After hearing from our fellow exchange students about their positive Couchsurfing experience, I have persuaded Jacintha to join the movement. So what is Couchsurfing actually?
It is an online volunteer –based worldwide network connecting travelers with members of local communities, who offer free accommodation and/ or advice; the network part resembles Facebook.
Its origin is silly and simple, and simply amazing.
In 1999, a guy named Casey Fenton traveling to Iceland on a limited budget decided to email 1,500 random students from the University of Iceland and ask if he could stay on their couch. He received enough positive replies to accommodate him throughout his trip. There, he got inspired to create the Couchsurfing project.
Since then, Couchsurfing has been a way to quench a thirst many travelers have: free accommodation. Yes, it is FREE; staying with locals, intimately experience the real culture of everyday life; and connecting with like-minded travelers. Basically, it all boils down to the phrase “mutual trust”. But travelers have to register as a member first.
You enter some information about yourself, such as who are you, where you live, your current mission, one place you have been to, and ‘one amazing thing I’ve seen or done.’ You can also state whether you are currently available to host someone (this is not mandatory) or would like to meet people for a cup of coffee and show them around (not mandatory either).
Go to the website, http://www.couchsurfing .org and you can find all types of people. It also gives you the freedom to portray yourself as you see fit. After you read someone’s profile, you will have a pretty good idea of whether you would enjoy surfing them —or letting them stay on yours.
Being a virgin backpacker, Jacintha doubted the phrase “mutual trust” — “how can you trust a stranger you met online?” she asked me.
She is right. Security is a valid concern. There are few ways to verify other users, according to the website.
First, there is an official “verification” system. It is not obligatory, but is a good way to build confidence as both a “sufer” and a host. It charges you $25 USD if you wish to do so. Couchsurfing project staff term the charge a “donation.” After verifying your name off your credit/ debit card, they will send you a postcard with a code to finalize your address.
Second, you can refer to the references from previous surfers or hosts. After you have hosted or stayed with another member, you can leave a reference on their Couchsurfing page. You can leave positive or negative comments. Just by browsing the previous references of a profile, you can know which members are well-loved and connected.
Additionally, there is also an exclusive vouching system. It is a way for members to declare their trust in other members. The only way to become vouched for is to be extremely trusted by someone who has been couched for by three other members.
Of course, you can also find out through direct communication with a potential host by trading messages.
Couchsurfing Christmas Party
Based on Lorena and Daniel’s profile, they passed all the security checks. After gaining Jacintha’s approval, I sent them our Couchsurfing request.
Their reply came the next day.
“Hi, Chau. We are having a gathering with friends and family during your requested surfing period. So you really need to stay on couches in our living room. If you find it inconvenient, you may opt for surfing other CS (couch surfing) members. But you are welcome to join the Couchsurfing Christmas party we are gonna hold in our house. It is gonna be a big one.”
Thrilled, honored, gratified, we happily replied with, ‘Yes, please couch us. We are humble.’ What can be more privileged than being allowed in their homes to see how they live, do what they do, and get the insight into the place we are going to visit? At the same time, we are viewed as ‘hostable’ by them. As mentioned earlier, CS is a project based on mutual trust. We are judging what hosts are ‘surfable,’ and our hosts are also taking the adventure.
Daniel and Lorena have been married for 11 years. They work in the state of Tabasco during weekdays and return to the state of Chiapas during weekends. From their profile, you can tell that they have couch surfers nearly every week.
After a 14-hour bus ride, we made it to San Cristoal de las Casas, Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico. Winter weather has arrived. It is so chilly that I have worn 3 sweaters and a jacket, but still have to huddle myself to keep warm.
The surfing experience has been amazing.
For the first day, we have met their friends and family members from Tabasco to participate in tomorrow’s Christmas party. There are also a couple of couch surfers in the house too. Both are retired teachers. The wife is French while the husband is Canadian. They have houses in France, Canada and Guatemala.
The date is one of guests, Jair’s, birthday.
With all the nationalities gathered, six versions of “Happy Birthday” have been sung: Chinese, Tamil (an Indian Dialect), French, Quebec Canadian French, English as well as Spanish.
As people take turns sing in their own language as to the birthday boy, a beautiful picture is constructed. There are different nationalities and cultures among us, yet couchsufing binds us together, sharing the moment of joy and we are all receptive towards the differences we inherently carry. The acceptance has given us the freedom to be who we are. It is such a moving moment.
It is a week before Posada celebration. But as Daniel and Lorena will be staying in Tabasco next week, they put the celebration a week earlier than the official one. Posada is a festive period before Christmas. It lasts for 10 days, representing 10-month pregnancy. Posada can be regarded as the prelude of Christmas. During this period of time, people party a lot and drink a lot — although Mexicans participate in these two activities on a regular basis.
During the day, Lorena and her friends are busy preparing food for the party.
“I have created the event on the Couchsurfing page; more than 20 people are coming.” Lorena said.
When the night comes, only two Australian students and four neighboring couch hosts show up. We still have a good time.
To celebrate Posada, usually, people will visit neighbors, singing posada songs like “treat or trick” during Halloween.
The posada song is a duet, dividing A and B. A acts like Joseph and Maria, right before the birth of Jesus, they were asking a couch. B acts like the host, trying to respond to the couch surf request. After the song, A’s couch request is accepted, and invited to enter the house, where a feast is awaiting…
Daniel joked, ‘Jesus is the very first couch surfer in the world.’
Then, there will be a game, called Piñata-hitting.
Participants need to be blindfolded. With a stick in hand to hit the Piñata, which is made of paper and small/thin bamboo sticks, like the making of lantern, filled with candies, chocolates.
When Piñata is hit to crack, the candies inside will spill over. Then participants will fight for their collection.
The religious meaning is that: Piñata symbols Devil which can appear in any form, splendid outside, but pernicious. Only by confronting it hard till defeat it, you will be able to enjoy the fruit of blessing.
The third day is even more amazing.
Daniel takes us, the two Australian students and two of their hostel friends to a Zapatista village. In 1994, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), which was formed by indigenous farmers to demand their land rights, rebelled against the Mexican government, followed by brutal repercussion by the government. There are currently 32 Rebel Autonomous Zapatista Municipalities (MAREZ) affiliated with the EZLN in Chiapas. It was hailed by the New York Times in 1994 as the “first postmodern Latin American revolution”.
Villagers still wear masks when they have contact with outsiders. They check our passports before letting us in; no photos are allowed of villagers, only of the murals. Two villagers have followed us to see if we have snapped pictures on the villagers ‘illegally’.
All the above would not have been possible by just joining tours.
Even though you can’t get a host, you can still check on the site and see what’s happening in the community. Couchsurfing provides a platform for critical mass and like-minded people find ways to get together. Self-motivated members have organized themselves into groups within most countries and bigger cities and very interesting classifieds. Often these groups are well-connected and they arrange excursions, dancing nights, soccer matches, and then there are useful subcategories.
On our next destination planning, Jacintha pushed, “Chau, can we couchsurf? Try your best to get a host. You know, I began to feel sick and tired of constantly settling and resettling in different cities. I felt like I was living out of a suitcase. But these few days have given me a feeling of coming home and being grounded. And I felt like I learned a lot about Mexico compared to our traveling for the past few weeks.”
Somewhat, I hesitate, “It has been a great stay, but you know, it is pretty energy-demanding. You know, you need to be ‘on’ all the time. The host wants to chat, get to know you, maybe go out, go do something, be active. I don’t feel like being communicative for the next destination. I want to reflect on our previous journey. It is our last week in Mexico…”
“That’s true. But it really has challenged my traveling perspective. It helps me to step out of my comfort zone. I think the CS website will be my best friend apart from the Lonely Planet when I do traveling.” She giggled.
A few days later, Lorena and Daniel left a positive reference on my CS page:
“Lovely girl!!! Have an idea how is Chau: cute, funny, sweet, full of energy, great cook, and tons of positive words… We had a great-great time with her in home! We dance, cook, and had fun with Chau and her nice friend Jacinta… So you need to host her or surfer with her, because you’ll get a nice Couchsurfing experience!”