If you are a traveler you’ve probably hear about this, but for those of you not familiar, Couchsurfing is a website that connects people that are traveling and looking to meet local people with people offering a couch or a bed to stay in their homes. And this is without actually knowing the people, so in other word, strangers offering a place to stay in their home town to other strangers.
What a concept right? I love good use of technology like this, connecting the supply and the demand, sort of like Air BnB only that it is “free” and the whole concept lies in the kindness of people wanting to share their hometown with others and share an experience.
When I first heard this concept through colleague in Japan hosting visitors in his home, I thought it was crazy! How can you invite complete strangers from the internet to you home and trust them enough to have them there even when you are not there? What do they expect from you and what do you expect from them?
I didn’t quite get this until I myself started traveling.
I realised the value of meeting people that live there and the experience you get when locals show you around and invite you to their home. It’s not just the places you get to go, not on the guidebooks, but also the deeper experience and understanding you get from being able to share their “real lives” with them.
Though I must say, until now, my travel experiences have been heavily influenced by hostels and the amazing people that I have met there. In a hostel, it is so easy to meet other travellers and people from around the world, especially if you are a solo traveller. You share activities and adventures together, you stay up late nights partying and talking about life and travel so naturally, many of my favourite moments have been through hostels and I deeply cherish that.
However, the past few weeks, I had a small doubt in my head that I am merely an “observer” in the cultures that I visit and not really “living” in it. I visit and experience many things with my fellow traveler but how deeply involved have I been with with the real culture and the locals aside from when I talk to people in hostels, shops, restaurants, tourist attractions or the taxi drivers?
I felt like the times when I stayed with friends or when I did my 2 weeks home stay in Guatemala, there were deeper discoveries about the culture on a daily basis, even without going to look for them. It was already fascinating to see what the homes look like, how they decorate, what is in their fridge, what they eat and how much they eat, what they watch, what they do to hang out. To get to know the neighbourhood, what the supermarket looks like, how people interact with one another.
Oh and of course it’s awesome to have a place to call home even just for a short while. Being able to cook, sleep, shower in one place, spread your things out and not have to carry your products to the shower every time. Feeling like you “live” there for a change and not just a visitor.
But the more important experience lies in connecting with the hosts on a deeper level, sharing their lives with you. Conversations over breakfast or over drinks exchanging cultures and language. Cooking together, taking a walk, watching a movie together or even talking about local politics. Every opportunity has even a deeply fulfilling memorable experience for me.
I knew that I wanted more of these experiences and Couch Surfing could provide this to me, but I was reluctant to try until now. Because after all, they are strangers right?
But my curiosity and the need for it has been growing and as I asked more traveler about their experience, I was determined to try it finally!
And I gave it my first try in Queretaro, Mexico.
In the site, I searched for hosts that were ” Accepting Guests” and narrowed down the hosts down to females, that were closer to my age, had interests or job experiences in common, spoke primarily Spanish and those that I could feel a good and fun vibe from from their profiles. This was my first time so I wanted to be quite careful about having a good match and not take too much risks.
I was very nervous about this, but actually the hosts are the ones that are taking a much bigger risk than me. They’re people willing accept a complete stranger into their own homes! Especially me, because I had no references or not even a complete profile so who the hell knows what I could be!
Thankfully, I got in contact with one girl ad we were quickly communicating about when and where to meet. It’s like online dating, only they’re already showing a huge commitment by offering you their home even before meeting! Wow, that’s some courage and generosity!
After a few exchanges on whatsup, we decided on a time and place and she kindly offered to come and pick me up.I was obviously very nervous about the pick up. Would she really show up? Where would she take me? How far is the home, if I wanted to run away? Would I get along and be able to sustain a conversation all in Spanish for a few days?
My host showed up in her car along with her adorable 2 dogs and she looked friendly and down to earth. She was very casual about the whole thing and helped board my bags and we were off! As we drove away from the commercial areas and to the suburb neighbourhoods, I was really excited that I was stepping into territory I would have never seen if I had just been a tourist. Away from the sophisticate, well restored and presented historical areas to the real and raw neighbourhoods where people live.
Arrival to the house:
When we arrived I was surprised to see that she actually lived in a house rather than an apartment, all by herself. A house with an enormous garden that looked almost like a retreat somewhere out in the country side. Apparently it is a home of her family which was not used and she has been building the garden and fixing it up for the last year.
The garden was very impressive and so peaceful. She grows various plants and vegetables to consume and to use medicinally. Limes, noplaes (cactus), aloe, lavender, thymes, lemongrass, and a whole bunch of other plants and herbs I did not know.
Also, the striking HUT in the middle of the garden. It is called “Mazcal” which was this huge round stone structure which is used similarly to a sauna. Stones are heated by fire outside the mazcal and brought into the centre of the hut, along with flowers and herbs for a aroma filled steamy sauna experience. How cool is that!
I would have loved to experience it but usually she uses it on full moons or when there is a special ritual, inviting her friends and meditating, sweating overnight. The mazcal can fit up to 10 people and they have a huge feast after the several hours of being in the sauna.
The home and the garden was decorated with many hand crafted items that were original and showed her taste.
I was like a kid, asking “Whats that?” “What does it mean?” and admiring everything in sight.
We went to pick up something to eat at the store next doors because I was slightly hungry. Picked up Queso (cheese) and tortillas. Even this was a cool experience because I didn’t know you can order Queso by the grams or by pesos. The store person just tore up 20 pesos worth of Oaxaca cheese by hand and weighed it on the scale. Cool.
She quickly prepared the tortillas and cheese. Simply dish but it was cool to see what a easy snack in a normal home would be like. When I remembered that I had only met her a few hours ago and now was standing in her kitchen cooking and talking like we had been good girlfriends all along, it was an amazing feeling.
We sat outside with the snacks and talked about my travels and the observations I had about Mexico, Queretaro and its people. She laughed about my observation, confirming how some of them were very true and giving me me insight in those that were not. She is also embarking on her journey to travel in South America in a few weeks so I shared some experiences of the countries and what to expect in long term travel.
She showed me around the garden picking leaves off the various plants and herbs and explaining to me its characteristics, its efficacies, and letting me taste and smell some of them. What a new experience and a completely new type of person to encounter. If I had not stepped outside my comfort zone, I would not be here tasting and smelling the herbs and conversing all these in Spanish. I was very thankful.
My room was separate from the living and her room, a big room that was partly used as storage now, a bed and a table and even with its own bathroom. Clean sheets and blanket was provided and it was great have my very own room and space for a change. I slept well.
Next morning, I went for a run around the neighbourhood and no it was not as glorious and tourist attracting as the city centre but it was real. I picked up some vegetables and we cooked breakfast together. It was all so easy, as if we had been friends all along. Living and cooking together.
She gave me the keys to the house and said I can come in and out as I pleased. Wonderful. I was a bit concerned how attentive I need to be to my host but it was just like I was another roommate. I came in, out, slept, ate, cooked, played around, played on the internet as I pleased. I was living “like a local” in this suburb and it was completely comfortable.
She trusted me with all her stuff because she wasn’t even there for 2 of the nights and I was just living there. Though I must say, staying there without her was a bit awkward.
In the end, I ended up staying 4 nights instead of 3. She kindly offered that I stay more if I wanted but I decided to not overstay my welcome and move back into city centre. I gave her currencies from Argentina and Peru I had saved for her travels ahead.
My first experience in Couch Surfing was absolutely amazing.
I met someone that I probably wouldn’t have met if I had just been traveling as a tourist. Her encounter gave me interest and information on medicinal and herbal plants, spiritual rituals and a real look into one Mexican chica’s life and I hope I was able to give her some insights into my culture and my travels as well.
I will definitely be trying more on Couch surfing in the future but think there could be good balance between Surfing and hostels. Surfing is good to get a in-depth experience with the locals, but it could be in a location that is a bit far from the centre and less convenient compared to centrally located hostels. (especially in Queretaro, the only public transportation is buses and they stop at 9 – 10pm at night so the only other way is by car or taxi). Hostels are good to meet other traveler when you are exploring the city for the first time. Also, after only speaking in Spanish for 4 days (which right now is like 50-60% comprehension), I felt a need be able to express and understand with someone fully (preferably in English) I guess this comes with learning a new language, but its sometimes so frustrating when you can only communicate half way. Your sense of humour doesn’t get through, you can only understand and express half of what you are saying, so you kind of want to re-confirm your conversation skills in your own language.
Thank you so much Makech, for opening up your home to me and for being such a lovely host!
Buen Viaje!!! xoxo!