His hair was crazed and wild, his eyes shone brightly. “Come”, he gestured to a bright pink landrover. I opened the door and jumped in the front. Ghassab, my Couchsurfing host, got in next to me. He turned to look at me and looked me up and down. “Why are you here”? he said with a half smile. I thought for a second, “I want to meet your goats” I answered.
It was the correct thing to say, he grinned at me, gunned the engine and we jolted along the bumpy road. We passed through a dusty town built up just outside of Petra’s National Park and headed into the emptiness of the desert. We crossed a dry river bed and headed further in to the desert. We passed towering rock formations and followed a faint track into the horizon.
After an hour of stunning scenery, Ghassab made a sharp turn and we left the trail completely, it occurred to me that this would be a great place to murder someone. We continued to drive until, in the distance, I could make out a small tent and a dry-stone wall, seemingly in the middle of the desert. We parked and got out, Ghassab strode over to me, he seemed excited. “I am very happy you have come, welcome to my cave”.
He stepped back and pointed with an outstretched hand. Just ahead of us was a large lump of rock, it was perhaps ten meters by eight meters. I could make out stairs, an entrance and nearby, a small enclosure of stacked stones housing a couple of goats. “We must get wood for the fire” Ghassab commanded. I dumped my pack by the door of Ghassab’s stone home, gestured to my travel buddies and we all headed into the mountains armed with a stone axe.
We spent the afternoon scrambling over rocks, traversing gullies of red sandstone and hiking along isolated mountain paths. Later that night, we settled around Ghassab’s fire whilst he handed round freshly cooked mutton. He passed me a different sort of joint and told me he considered himself to be a Rastafarian Bedouin. Inside his spartan cave a poster of Bob Marley looked down at me as I admired Ghassab’s small collection of trinkets, gifts from his past Couchsurfers.
Later on, relatively stoned and very content, I hefted a thin mattress up the stairs hacked into the outside of the cave and lay atop the roof. The stars above me were some of the most striking I have ever seen, they twinkled brightly, casting shadows off the looming faces of rock nearby. The desert had turned a crimson red as the sun had set and with the departure of the sun the valley had quickly turned cold.
I huddled in my blanket and prepared to sleep. Above me, shooting stars raced by with incredible regularity. Surfing with Ghassab, sleeping atop his cave and exploring the ruins of Petra was to be one of the most unforgettable Couchsurfing experiences I would ever have.
So what is Couchsurfing?
Couchsurfing is a global online community for backpackers, expats, students, families and pretty much everyone in between! The concept is that you get free accommodation all over the world from a community of hosts. Ultimately however, it goes a little deeper than that, couchsurfing is an exchange of ideas and cultures.
When I couchsurf, I have the opportunity to explore little known local hang-outs I would never normally discover. Couchsurfing is free to join and surfers do not pay hosts however most surfers will make their host dinner or contribute in some other small way if possible. In the end, if you surf a lot, you should really consider hosting and in my opinion it’s probably better to actually host first, so you know what to expect.
How do I join?
There are a few online hospitality sites but the most popular is, obviously, Couchsurfing.org – simply visit the site and make a profile. The sign-up form will prompt you to ‘get verified’ for a small fee but there is ‘skip donation’ option in the bottom right-hand corner. When filling in your profile try to make it as complete as possible and include a couple of mugshots, people want to know what you look like! Couchsurfing relies on a reference system to keep surfers safe so if someone has negative references you should try to avoid staying with them.
Me at a Couchsurfing wedding in India
How do I find a host?
Once you have built a profile you can then search for a host – click on ‘Surf’ and type in the name of where you are visiting, e.g Bangkok. A list of available hosts will pop up, you can then opt to sort them by experience. Once you have found someone you like the look of, check out their profile and send them a request. I recommend applying early (at least a month for expensive and popular cities like Tokyo or London), I myself normally apply two weeks in advance.
If you are a brand new surfer with only one or two references you may find it hard to get a host so if you have friends already on Couchsurfing try to get them to lead you a reference. You are much more likely to get a positive response from potential hosts if your request is personal – read the host’s profile and see if you have any shared interests such as spear-fishing…. spear-fishing is awesome by the way!
You are also more likely to find a host if you have hosted surfers yourself; a lot of people use Couchsurfing to find free accommodation for a holiday but then never repay the community by hosting other travellers themselves; this is a major problem for the community and over the years has lead to a bit of a decline in the effectiveness of Couchsurfing; admittedly, it is proving harder these days to find hosts!
Is it safe?
If a host has negative or neutral references make sure to read them, I recommend avoiding people with negative reference all together. I’m going to level with you here; a small amount of hosts are involved in the project for the wrong reasons; namely trying to use Couchsurfing as a dating website or trying to sell backpackers’ tour packages.
I have had three bad experiences (none of them terrible) and over one hundred good ones. Never let hosts take money from you and if a host does anything inappropriate just leave. If necessary contact the police. Couchsurfing, like hitching, is vastly safer if you are not by yourself, so if possible try to find yourself a travel buddy.
The Couchsurfing groups are a great way of finding reliable information on anything travel related. The groups are also an effective way to find travel buddies as each country often has a group dedicated to helping backpackers meet up and travel together.
So, is Couchsurfing for me?
Yes! Couchsurfing is an amazing community of truly awesome people! Many of my travel highlights were only made possible through Couchsurfers welcoming me into their homes and showing me cool places I never would have found otherwise. If you are a budget traveller, like me, Couchsurfing is also a really smart financial choice.
Through Couchsurfing, I have discovered underground bars in Romania, been spoiled at a Michelin star restaurant and been welcomed into an exclusive Samurai training school, as well as making some amazing friends!