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Surf to stay

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Dear wanderer, there’s a spare mattress laid out for you in a strange country. So put that perennial where-do-I-stay-when-I’m-travelling dilemma to rest as a community of young global travellers — aptly called couchsurfers — change the way you travel.

For, surfing the Net for a couch in a foreign country is what they do. And it’s not as dodgy as it sounds, so hold that thought right there.

So when Kenneth Lobo, one of the founders of Bombay Elektrik Projekt, an artist-focused enterprise, set off on a 12-city tour stretching from Chicago to San Francisco, he was heading into unknown terrain in more ways than one. For, he stayed with strangers during his entire three-month sojourn — but felt right at home too.

This growing community is bonding together via the Net. They’re touching base through couchsurfers.org, the website that started it all, and other sites like globalfreeloader.com and Servas.org.

The principle of give-and-take is at work here. Users who enlist on these sites can find a host who’ll put them up on their travels, provided they’re willing to return the favour.

The idea is to junk that budget-or-otherwise hotel and stay with a local instead. And it’s not entirely about saving money. “It’s all about cultural interchange,” says Satyajit ‘Toto’ Lahiri, an avid couchsurfer, who’s spreading the word about couchsurfing.org in India.

“If you’re staying with a family or with a group of flatmates, you get huge insights on living like a local. You get to meet their friends and so widen your circle, besides receiving tips on neighbourhood pubs and restaurants,” says Lahiri.

Hosts can become lifelong buddies too as Lahiri discovered with his Polish host in Bangkok, Kasia Malewska. Many moons later, he hung out with her in London. “And the cost-saving means that you can indulge in that odd extravagance like even a $150-meal in a Michelin-star restaurant,” he adds.

Shoestring travellers around the globe are embracing the concept though it’s still to catch on in India. Couchsurfers.org has 1.5 million registered members, says Cesar Valentim, a member of the site’s media team in Lisbon.

So how do you embark on this journey? Just fill in your personal details and register yourself on a site like www.couchsurfing.org, and you’ll have access to the entire community.

“Suppose you want to locate hosts in Georgia, just feed in the city’s name and a list of potential hosts will pop up,” explains Angie Paul, a Calcutta-based couchsurfer, who travelled to Turkey with two friends recently — and found a host conveniently enough.

Like Paul you’ve got to be prepared for hitches. “Our host ditched us at the last moment as he was going out of town. We ended up surfing for a new host hours before our departure on the ‘urgent couch’, a feature that allows you to find hosts last minute literally,” she recounts.

Now, if you’re not comfortable hosting strangers, don’t worry. You can still be part of the community and only take visitors out for coffee or even sightseeing, like Vikas and Vani Singhal are doing in Hyderabad.

“I’m planning a trip to Europe for which I’ve already contacted possible hosts in Amsterdam, Barcelona and Madrid,” says Vikas. He’s looking for women hosts as he believes they’re a safer option.

Safety is a prime concern for many couchsurfers though surprises — and faux pas —– are par for the course too.

“The key element is trust. In Washington DC, I stayed with a DJ who had to be at a trade conference in LA. But he’d left his keys behind for me — and instructed his girlfriend to take me around,” recounts Lobo. Another time, one of Lobo’s guests walked away with a laptop he’d borrowed for her.

Lahiri says he gives his house keys to guests without a second thought. “I reckon that if they steal, their need is greater than mine,” he states. His flatmate, Pablo Chaterji, expects him to do the basic checks, and to ensure that there are no intrusions like the time when a guest wore Chaterji’s jeans.

“I was mad at first. But then, I let it go. Now, I’ve just ensured my flatmate knows that nobody should touch my stuff,” says Chaterji.

Kenneth Lobo with his host family at the Grand Canyon in the United States

It takes a while to navigate around the community. For instance, as hosts, members can tick on one of three ‘Couch Availability’ options: Yes, definitely or maybe.

“I’d filled ‘yes’ and was flooded with requests. I’ve had 1,200 profile views since I signed up in July and my inbox usually has 25-30 couch requests,” says Monica Grover, a tarot card reader in Mumbai.

Grover is one of the few women hosts offering a couch. “I’ve even received requests from men from Mumbai. I report all such cases. Couchsurfing isn’t a dating site or free accommodation service. It’s for the genuine traveller,” says Grover.

So how do you ensure safety? There are three checkpoints. One, look only for verified members. These are people who’ve confirmed their name and physical location. Second, look for references from fellow members. Then there’s ‘vouching’, whereby users vouch for members they’ve met in person.

Couchsurfing.org’s Valentim says: “Safe surfing and hosting boils down to common sense. If you don’t feel comfortable with something, don’t do it. By using these features, you can help increase awareness of potential guests and hosts. But the decision to host or surf is up to you. It’s anyway about experiencing new cultures and people. Make the best choice for you.” So, are you ready to couch-surf?

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