If you don’t mind going a few nights without a drunken massage, you might find that couchsurfing with families is a whole different, and very worthwhile experience.
Couchsurfing is not a dating site. It really isn’t. It is a global network with some two million members and a specific mission of “creating inspiring experiences”, but it is definitely not a dating site. If some of those inspiring experiences happen to involve mutual nudity, that’s really just a lucky coincidence.
Couchsurfing is not a dating site, but you can be sure that the nubile young massage therapy student with no couch gets a lot more accommodation requests than anyone else in the city. You can’t blame Couchsurfing for this; sex sells regardless of the platform. This is especially true in the backpacking world, where let’s face it, far more time and money is spent on seduction than on museum attendance.
If data was collected on such things, undoubtedly the most frequently petitioned lady surfers would have photos featuring (in no particular order) beer, tattoos, bikinis, poles, bars and flattering lighting. The most frequently contacted guy surfers would have photos featuring guitars, well-groomed stubble, interesting hats, bicycles, surfboards and adorable pets.
Interests: my convertible, my board, my hat, my intense gaze.
Regardless of photos, it’s pretty safe to say that certain people will never receive their fair share of Couchsurfing traffic. Taboo profile phrases include ‘live with my family’, ‘wake up early’, ‘work long hours’, ‘don’t drink much’. The taboo CS age is probably somewhere around 40.
Anyone who has done a lot of CSing has probably availed themselves of the hospitality of the nubile young massage therapy student at some point. Why not? It’s a way of travelling cheap without the usual loneliness (or horniness). The thing is at a certain point, this obliging student starts to get in the way of what Couchsurfing is all about. That is because he/she is everywhere and everyone. You can travel the world and stay entirely within the Couchsurfing club. You’ll meet a lot of fun people that think like you, you’ll bed a few promising masseuses, you’ll go to bars that look the same as the bars in the last city you went to and the next city you’re going to (depending on your taste they’ll either be playing Arcade Fire or Gaga on high rotation). And that’s about it.
I’m not advocating a boycott of massage therapist couches (or yoga instructor couches or surfing instructor couches or DJ couches), but I am saying that there are other ways to couchsurf. It took me a long time to learn this.
Current Mission: finish this bottle before I fall off the bar.
My first Couchsurfing experience was in Slovenia, staying with a family. My friend and I were picked up by our hosts. We were given a guest room with its own bathroom. On our first morning we were driven (early) out to a Lake Bohinj and pointed towards the best hiking trails. That night we were treated to a traditional dinner featuring a massive stew and excellent local wine. At no point were we offered a drunken massage. But we were ok with that.
This experience violated several CS taboos. We stayed with a family, two members of which were over 40. We woke up very early, which meant we also went to bed earlyish. There was no awkward ‘do I sleep on the floor or do we share a bed?’ moment.
In the Philippines I stayed with several families. Each of these insisted on chauffeuring me about, on providing me with my own room, on stuffing me full of local food (durian ice cream?), and on giving me (very) detailed information about local culture. Again, no massages (and this was South-east Asia).
The penny finally dropped for me in Bolivia. Even after Slovenia and the Philippines, I tended to request the hospitality of the massage therapy student before the family. Then came La Paz. At the time, there were two couches definitely available in the city; both attached to the profiles of guys in their fifties who lived with their families. Neither of these had ever had a guest. I arranged to stay for one night with one of these guys, then carry on to Lake Titicaca. When I informed the guy of this, he was ecstatic. It turned out he worked with UNESCO on preservation of ancient sites around the lake. He sat me down, emptied his encyclopaedic knowledge of the country into me head, and then planned my itinerary. Was I going to Tiahuanaco? I didn’t know. He informed me that I had to. Then he called the mayor of Tiahuanaco to ask about bus times.
In La Paz I kicked it oldschool; I slept on a couch under a pile of spare blankets. Almost every other time I’ve stayed with families, I’ve had a room to myself. You may not get the practice-massage-with-hope-of-happy-ending treatment with the average family, but generally speaking families mean access to a spare room, private transport, and a kitchen. All big pluses if you’re travelling cheap.
More importantly though, staying with a family means encountering a spread of local life. Let’s face it, nubile young students the world over don’t change very much. Staying with a family provides a rich glimpse of the social workings of a culture. Exchange students pay good money for this kind of experience through home stays. Getting to know different generations of a family gives you a much greater insight into the individuals themselves, and to the culture they live within.
Never was this more apparent to me than when I stayed with a women and her father in Alabama. They owned a mariner, and delighted in taking their few guests out on the sleepy water, spinning tall tales about the local human and animal life (although I later found out that turtlegators really do exist). With time the father opened up and told us about the days of the civil rights movement, how the Klan rode with impunity, and how one of their ‘boys’ was kidnapped and thrown from a bridge. The woman talked about working on the legal team that helped bankrupt the Klan. The father also took us to meet his friends, the old rich white boys of Alabama who ate breakfast in the cheapest diner in town. Retired supreme court judges, lawyers, authors and bankers complained about the $2 grits and the quality of the bacon, all the while launching affectionate tirades against each other. Alabama remains probably the most unforgettable Couchsurfing experience I’ve ever had. And again, there were no massages involved.
I’m not saying the nubile young massage therapy students of the world don’t deserve to have people stay with them. I’m not saying they shouldn’t have the chance to hone their mad skills. I’m definitely not saying there’s anything wrong with the odd reciprocated happy ending (although Couchsurfing is not a dating site), but I am saying that for me this isn’t the way to make the most of Couchsurfing (we’ll have to wait and see if I’m still saying that after months without a massage). It seems to me that a lot of the time the most interesting people are hiding behind the most unassuming profiles. They’re the people you’d never normally meet, the people that surprise you and change how you see the world.