On a number of occasions I’ve helped my sister Kylie run her backpacker hostels in Northern Ireland and Scotland. In the middle of the busiest summer we’d have over eighty people check in each day. That’s eighty-five people you’ve never met sharing your kitchen, assaulting your bathroom and hugging you and singing Galway Girl at the top of their lungs. It can be a tall order making friends with that many random punters each day, so I didn’t. But I did discover many, many gems. A group of Finnish music students who alternated Finnish folk with Metallica covers, photo journalists who’d catalogued the transition of Bulgaria, nightclub singers from Essex. Passionate, interesting, interested friends. Sometimes for three days, occasionally for life.
Over these periods I discovered more about the wider world in a few months of crazy experience sharing, than from thirty years of book absorbing and Woody Allen films. I got to learn about “The Troubles” with Basques, watch New Zealand get ejected from the Rugby World Cup with a room full of Australians (shudder) and lead hilarious pub crawls through Irish streets with my sis. I debated Gaza strip politics with ex-Israeli soldiers (unsuccessfully obviously…), nearly convinced a French plumber that NZ could make good wine, and almost finished painting an Asterix mural in an Irish summer. Ok, so not all victorious moments, but I also grew confidence in myself, got a little heavier (Irish food, Danish beer, minimal exercise), and increased my places-to-visit list by eighteen items. In short, it was the most elucidating period of my life, and at times I missed the camaraderie (if not the toilet cleaning) of strangers in strange lands.
It had been around two years since my last stint in the bunk-bed paradises, when I found myself single, living in a big apartment in central Wellington. I loved my home city, had far too many couches and I was missing conversations with travellers. And then I remembered discussions of Couch Surfing. couchsurfing.org is a little like an online dating site for travellers, and those of us in between travels. If you have a spare couch/bed/pillow-pit, and you love introducing people to your lifestyle, in exchange for learning of theirs, you can set up a profile as a host. If you’re off for three weeks in New York and can’t afford $300 hotels, you can set yourself as a surfer. Whichever side of the sofa you’re on, you fill in a profile about who you are, what you like, and how you like to travel. Then it’s time for hook-ups!
I hosted around a dozen people last year, meeting some ridiculously entertaining legends, along with a couple of dullards. For every five up-for-it mental health nurses from North England, I encountered a lobotomised iPod-insulated graduate from the mid-west of the U.S. But I learnt about snake breeding, seaweed soup and swing dancing, and that was just from one Canadian (props Linds, my frozen-rodent delivering food hero). In return I dragged people through tide pools on the South coast, took them surfing on Lyall bay, and even dolphin swimming in Kaikoura. Then it was time for my own travels, and two days ago one of the women I hosted caught up with me in Colorado, where I’ve been learning about the U.S. with another. Bliss.
Frequently people express concerns at the thought of inviting strangers into your home, or spending the night on an unknown potential train-spotter’s/Viagra-addict’s/Republican’s couch. Fortunately couchsurfing.org prompts you to make comments on your host/surfer after your stay, so you can get a sneak preview of the sort of person you might be spending time cooking sea snails, scarfing mulled wine, or arm wrestling with. You can also bitch about their lack of hospitality, or their leering, sweating, side-burned flatmate once you leave. More importantly though, you just need to put a little faith in humanity, and hopefully an equal amount in your ability to judge others on meeting them. In general I’ve found that around the world, people are good. They may have ulterior motives, they may be stingy when it comes to buying a round, they could have different political or religious viewpoints. But there are very few of us aiming to injure or take advantage of others, without remorse.
We often get to know ourselves better through our encounters with strangers, than our times with our friends. If we spend time with people we meet through a simple desire to exchange viewpoints and share a couple of meals, we hopefully both part enriched. To all those friends I’ve met and befriended while travelling, or while they were travelling, thank you for contributing to my adventures. And for providing endless material for my writing…
To my sister Kylie, thank you for the opportunity to join you in a mad, mad, but thrilling world. You’re always an inspiration.