I’ve been a member of couchsurfing.org for a couple of years. I’ve hosted people and been hosted, but mostly I used it to meet people in new cities–particularly in Tunis and Cairo, where most members don’t host travelers, but instead attend social events. I’ve met people in various countries who are downright evangelical about the site and say things like “it changed my life!”, and indeed, for people who don’t have the wherewithal to travel but want to have some connection to the world outside their country, it can be truly wonderful. But personally, I have mixed feelings about couchsurfing, both the practice and the site.
The Good Being able to show up in a new city and stay at a stranger’s house is, for the most part, pretty rad. Your host will probably be excited to meet you and curious about your life, and you get the opportunity to see how people live–a wonderful thing in a place like Iran, where oppressive religious dictates have pushed most socializing into private spaces. A local can give good advice about tourist sites, foods to try, etc. There’s of course also the cost savings, though that for me is only incidental. Hosting is nice too because it feels good to share with others, and I like to do what I can to help people (women in particular) navigate this big crazy city. I had a guest here in Cairo pretty recently, and it did me a bit of good because as soon as I returned from Iran I plunged into depression and anxiety, due in part to my relationship with Cairo. But taking her around and seeing things through her eyes helped me reconnect–if just a little–with some of the features that made me love Cairo in the first place (viz., the general good humor of the people, the availability of quality vegetarian food, the vibrant street life).
It’s exhausting If you’re an introvert like me, it can be grueling to stay with someone because you can’t just waltz into the house, make a beeline for your bedroom and shut the door, which is sometimes what I want more than anything else. In Iran I had to balance my desire to get to know people on a deeper level and my desperate need for alone time, so I ended up staying with people about 25% of the time, for two or three days at a time. It so happened that all my hosts were off work while I was staying with them–either because they worked sporadically or because it was Norooz–which meant that they went sightseeing with me all day. It may sound like a contradiction when I say that in almost all cases I enjoyed their company and at the same time was anxious and tense, but I contain multitudes.
The site’s feedback system is well-nigh useless How do you judge whether you can trust a potential host or guest? You parse the profile and read the feedback that other guests/hosts have left for them. The problem is that most feedback is blandly, inoffensively positive, because no one wants retaliatory negative feedback. (I think the site should have a system whereby feedback only shows up once both members have written their blurb and is undeletable–that way, you can’t tailor what you say based on what they said about you.) So most of the comments come off as insincere to some degree, and unless someone was beyond horrible to share space with, you probably won’t find out about it. Not all feedback is positive, though. When I was surfing for hosts in Isfahan I checked out the profile of a doofus with an Ali-G-style shtick that no doubt would wear very thin after a while. His profile contained a lot of references to hip-hop and getting drunk. He had over 10 positive reviews and one negative one, written by a European woman who had stayed with him the previous week. She claimed that he started talking about whores and blow jobs as soon as she arrived, and despite her better judgment, they got drunk. In her account, he propositioned her, she refused, and “after a blackout” she found herself shoeless and hijabless in the street, where she was picked up by the police and, she says, interrogated for two days (but she says she didn’t give up doofus’s name, because she didn’t want him to get in trouble). The account is very weird, and is silent on the nature of this “blackout” and how exactly she ended up in the street with no shoes or hijab (did she leave her luggage behind too?). It could be true, and his profile certainly struck me as douchey. But if this guy truly is a menace, no one will know about it because about a week later he deleted his profile, created a new one, and enlisted his friends to write positive feedback. (I should note that all my hosts were nice and took good care of me, and I felt fairly confident about all of them before meeting. And couchsurfing in Iran anyway is a big enough phenomenon that a solo woman traveler doesn’t really need to stay with a single guy–there are plenty of families and married couples that host.)
Some dudes treat it like a dating site… …which is why today I got two unsolicited messages from local guys wanting to meet, for no stated reason. Well, maybe that’s not strictly true, since the one guy’s message was, in its entirety, “You look Amazing , i think you are amazing , request immediate meeting.” He describes himself in his profile as “A Handsome white ,Intellectual type with many interests and skills.I am tolerant, modest…”. He also prefers to host females as opposed to males, a clear warning sign of creepiness. The other guy addressed me as “princess” and gave me his skype address so we can “talk more.”
In sum: Positive, as my fondest memories of Iran involve the people who shared their time and their homes with me. On the other hand, the site itself has its limitations. And my maximum limit for company is two days in a row, at which point I need a couple days at least of minimal social interaction.