For the last three years, I have been travelling mainly around Asia with bits of North America and Europe thrown in when possible. What most people ask me when they find out about my semi-nomadic lifestyle is: “How do you do it? How can you afford to travel so much?”
Rest assured I am not a millionaire! On the contrary, I grew up in Toronto, a very expensive city to live in, and went to university which means debt is following me around the world (thanks to OSAP – or other government loans).
During my first year living in Korea, I discovered something that changed my life. It's called CouchSurfing (www.CouchSurfing.org); a very simple concept that I have thought of before but yet a large percentage of the world would never imagine could work. The small percentage of people who do believe in the kindness of strangers have opened up their doors to travelers in their cities, giving them a place to stay, either on the couch, floor, or if you are really lucky, an extra room! And, it's all for free! Well, sort of.
How does it work?
Through CouchSurfing, you are immediately connected to others in the city you are visiting. They might be locals or expats who are willing to host you, or travelers like yourself who are just passing through and want to share their experiences or hang out for a day or even just for a meal.
Think of it as the traveler’s equivalent to Facebook, where each person has a profile describing their interests and CouchSurfing history, and instead of a 'wall', you can leave a reference so that others can learn more about this person. It's a wonderful system in a world where kindness is underrated. You can read about people trying to cycle their way from Europe to Asia or those who lead a nomadic way of life for years all throughout the world.
Thanks to CouchSurfing, I have been able to meet people like this who have inspired me to further pursue my adventures around the world. I have ‘surfed’ in over 10 countries, some being Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, and Canada, but I have met up with surfers in almost every country I have visited in the past 3 years.
Throughout my travels, the locals I’ve encountered have been very helpful, sharing with me their favourite restaurants, the best watering holes (bars or pubs), where to rent a motorbike at a cheap rate, or even how to get to the next destination on a bus that Lonely Planet hasn't discovered yet.
From CouchSurfer to couch host
The perks of CouchSurfing don’t just come from being a surfer. In Korea, as a host to over forty CouchSurfers, I had the opportunity to meet people from all over the world – China, France, New Zealand, South Africa, Estonia, and many more. I was able to show my guests my perspective of the city as well as learn about their country and customs.
Of course as with all things, the good never comes without the bad, and there are times when you encounter the odd greedy person who is simply trying to take advantage of the system. Unfortunately, I have come across many people like this (luckily I haven't hosted any) but as an experienced CouchSurfer, I am able to sniff them out from a mile away.
And the sort of free part – well, nothing in life is ever free. It's all about karma. A good host who is willing to invest their time and energy to make their guests’ trip memorable, is most likely going to get a lot of respect from their guests and the same treatment from other hosts when on their own travels.
Throughout my time CouchSurfing, I have yet to experience any negativity and I'd like to think it’s because I'm an awesome host!
Being a Tamil CouchSurfer
Many of the requests that I receive are from surfers who are interested in meeting me because they are planning to visit or have already visited Sri Lanka. The idea of a Tamil Canadian is intriguing to many people outside of Canada. They always ask me questions about Tamil food, films, and the language, and a few have even asked me to share my Tamil MP3s with them!
Now, how does Amma feel about CouchSurfing? Of course this is a big no-no in our culture – a Tamil female staying with strangers in random countries??? When I first began CouchSurfing, I was completely scared of the whole concept; it can be quite overwhelming. I began surfing with a friend who eased me into the whole process. My family doesn’t quite understand it – even though I have explained it numerous times – but it is a foreign idea, not just to our parents but to our generation as well. Although it is in our culture to welcome people into our homes, some are hesitant to do so simply because it is more difficult to trust strangers.
My best experiences of CouchSurfing have been in India, where I was treated like family. And, I have many other memorable moments from my travels thanks to surfers that I have met and hung out with – such as wigging out at New Year’s Eve in Beijing, dancing at the Full Moon Party in Thailand (www.fullmoonparty-thailand.com), and camping at Mudfest in Seoul. In the end, the whole experience is priceless and totally worth the risk of hanging out with strangers. Besides, aren’t strangers just friends you haven’t met yet?
- Ann Jaimi Alexander