So next week I embark on a trip to Budapest, Krakow and Bologna. I have a roof over my head and hopefully good company to follow in Budapest and Krakow but today I set out to find a place to stay in Bologna.
I used to stay in hostels, which offered a great experience of sleeping with dozens of strangers, meeting people from the far reaches of the world and the chance to fondly reminisce about your childhood as you climb to the top bunk that you used to fight with your brother for. Hostels are great for the most part. They’re accessible, tourist-friendly and some even offer free breakfast where you can probably sneak a few pieces of toast into your bag for a later snack. But last year while I was staying in one of the grimiest, run-down crack shack of a hostel in London where I squandered but a measly £7 for the night, I met a traveler who told me he couchsurfed across Europe and was only at this joint because he couldn’t find a host in London. “What is this couchsurfing?”, I asked him. He smiled and told me it was a venue that allowed a community of globetrotters to connect with each other and allow intrepid travelers to find local hosts that offer them a place to stay in exchange for cultural enrichment. Okay, I flowered up his words. He told me it was a website that allowed you to find people to stay with when you travel. Right, that seemed legit. People can’t even get past the stigma and insecurity of online dating and here is this site offering accommodation to travelers. I was weary but as a student in poverty, the free-ness of it appealed to me greatly. So, I decided to explore this world of Couchsurfing.
I looked up the website and it was a .org domain. It didn’t make it any more legit but it made me feel a bit better. I perused through the content and decided to set up a profile. I have Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter… what’s one more profile in addition to my ubiquitous online presence. It was interesting. Quite reminiscent of an online dating profile, a user would have his or her interests in travels, music, books, movies life philosophy and pretty much whatever PG-13 content they wanted to put up. You get to glimpse at this person’s polished online profile. But any Joe Blow could write about how fantastically fabulous they are. What cultured my faith in this venue were the “peer-reviewers” of wayfaring strangers that have passed by and have actually stayed with the host or vice versa, references left by the host for the traveler. These comments are categorized as positive, neutral or negative and they are permanent. Once you tarnish your profile with a bad review, it sticks. It was like hitchhiking but the cars are couches and each one has a Google review. So thus was my first foray into the world of Couchsurfing. I have been an active member of the site for more than a year and I’ve both surfed and hosted travelers from the world.
I’ve met a lot of interesting people via this venue and a few live-long friends as well! Everyone that is on the site has the spirit of hospitality and open-mindedness to culture – that’s actually what this site thrives on, the pursuit of cultural exchange. The marked difference from staying at a hostel (besides the cost) is that the host is a local and can guide you to the best local dishes, sights and sounds undocumented by Frommer’s and enrich your travel with a personal component of friendship. I’ve included a link to the site and my personal profile so you can check it out in the “Staying Frugal” section 🙂
So here I sit, shifting through profiles to find someone whose personality speaks to me. A recently innovation of the site is that you can post your itinerary and host can peruse your profile and offer you a place to stay. Tons of awesome people have offered me a place to stay in Budapest and Krakow. One guy messaged me and told me that we must have the same spirit of adventure because we share a favorite quote and so I’d like to leave you with that:
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
– Mark Twain