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Couchsurfing 101

Exploring the social capital of the world's living room furniture.

Enid Godtree 21 Apr

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I had been in Indonesia for almost a year and had managed to avoid it. The "it" in question is Bali. To tourists it's a paradise: beautiful beaches, exciting nightlife, great food and friendly people. It's said to be the ultimate weekend getaway in indulgence. I, however, wanted to see for myself exactly what to make of Southeast Asia's most famous island.

Nothing could have prepared me.

It was, compared to what I had seen of that beautiful country, a western fantasy camp gone horribly, horribly wrong. Everything was manufactured to support tourism. People struggling to support themselves selling massages, tours, friendship and sex. Towns paved over with Internet cafes, surfing shops, tacky art and pizza restaurants. There were made-for-tourist parades, statues, streets and museums. And legions of vacationers from the US, Australia, the UK and Canada consuming it all.

Consumption is a major problem associated with tourism and travelers are starting to seek salves for their guilt. Both the United Nations and scholars like Katrina Brown argue that the sudden flow of thousands of people into areas like Cancun, Cairo, or even Salt Spring Island can push the environment and infrastructures of these areas to ten times their normal limits. Water, electricity, space for social housing and sewage systems can all come under severe strain. And when systems are overrun, it is usually the locals who are the first to their services reduced.

Surf on

Even worse, in order to increase tourist revenues, governments and local communities will often turn to commodifying culture. In Bali, this was so apparent, that after a day, I immediately got on a bus, got to a ferry and got off the island. Almost everything on the island seemed to be catering to tourist dollars: Hindu temples being used to conduct 20 minute tours instead of prayer; "traditional" parades in the main town every 20 minutes, a nightclub and drug culture thriving on Kuta Beach, half-nude men and women with no concept of Indonesian dress etiquette and a total gap in living standards between locals and travelers.

It's a problem that plagues many major tourist areas and it creates a dilemma. So how could I visit and learn about other parts of the world, but do so in a way that is ethical? Well, my most recent attempt at a solution is couch surfing. It sounds too good to be true: a free way to access somebody's couch/floor/extra bed anywhere in the world.

It is true. And it's already popular. Hospitality Club has been around since 2001 and has over 100,000 members. And has just surpassed the 65,000 member mark with over 190 countries represented, even Afghanistan and Antarctica. Both are NGOs.

Return on investment

Couchsurfers like me like that we don't have to pay for accommodation. But more than that, we benefit from experiencing a culture from within. When I'm couchsurfing, I'm usually staying somewhere central, so the strain on resources is less. And if the water or electricity goes out, I have to deal with that just like the locals. In Northern Sweden, sub-zero temperatures and frozen pipes meant I had to break out the blankets and boil water. In Istanbul, closed roads and bad city planning forced me to stay indoors for a day or two and wander around the burbs.

I get the real thing. And the local economy still benefits. Victor Alieixo, doing his PhD in eco-tourism in Massachusetts, is a member of the couchsurfing eco-tourism group and promotes sustainable tourism with an emphasis on helping the local economy. With his model, countries still get the benefit of foreign capital, except that the dollars which originally would have been put into hotels, kitsch and pizza, can be put into the local restaurants, local art, local transport or your host.

I like all of that. And the final benefit for me is that I've made relationships with my hosts. Robert Putnam argues in his book Democracies in Flux that trust in others is an important factor in our health, our safety and even our democracies. Our "social capital," as Putnam calls it, and our communication with each other is steadily going down. We meet each other less, have dinner together less, volunteer together less, trust each other less. In the current political environment of East versus West, North versus South, a few open doors go a long way to promote cultural understanding.

Not all my experiences couchsurfing have been great (the couch that was a foot too small for me and the host that stood me up in the middle of Sweden immediately come to mind). Last time I was in Indonesia, couchsurfing wasn't around. But as of today, Bali has 7 surfers available to share their couch.

Enid Godtree is a freelance journalist, who dabbles in academia, activism and (ethical) traveling.  [Tyee]

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