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The couch traveller

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A growing community of travellers finds willing hosts across the world. Sohini Sen on what makes so attractive.

When Paroj Banerjee, a student of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, decided to visit some time back, she simply went to the website of hospitality exchange organisation Servas and surfed for the ideal family that would be willing to host her. Not only did she save up on money that would have gone into paying hotel bills, she also got to be part of the culture of the country which she would have otherwise experienced from a distance like any other tourist.

“Couchsurfing in Denmark was a great experience for me,” says Banerjee. “It’s one thing to stay in a hotel, where you are quite removed from the local people, and another to live like a member of the house in a foreign county.”

Couchsurfing, a concept which is gaining popularity the world over, has more and more Indians opting to live with locals while travelling out of their city, within or outside the country. It also has an increasing number of Indians opening their doors — and their hearts — to tourists for a cultural exchange.

Here’s how it works: register yourself on a website that connects travellers with members of local communities the world over and put up your travel plans. This helps you connect with existing members who may be willing to host you free of cost. Some hosts would not even ask the guest to pay for food. And, it is not binding that if you have couchsurfed in someone’s house, you have to in return let out your couch to him or her. A person can also choose to register as a host.

Several portals like Servas and CouchSurfing — from where the trend got its name — act as a platform for free home stays. To couchsurf through Servas, one has to fill a form and pay a token amount — Rs 600 to travel to countries and Rs 1,500 to visit other countries. A team from Servas then conducts an interview to make sure that the person is genuinely interested in knowing about the country’s history, culture and beliefs. If the person qualifies, he gets a letter from Servas which has to be shown to the host in the state or country he is visiting. Servas, a non-governmental association run mostly by volunteers, is present in over 125 countries. Names and addresses of hosts appear in its annual list made available only to approved travellers.

CouchSurfing, which connects over three million users in over 230 cities across the world, does not conduct interviews. Instead, it has a huge member base which gives a platform large enough for people to exchange ideas and contacts. Member profiles on the website are much like social networking profiles. A guest or a host chooses where to go or whom to allow into his house after direct interaction on the Net. Once a traveller zeroes in on the host, he can send a request to the person. If it is rejected, he can send the request to a different person. In the last one week, the site claims that 32,644 couchsurfers around the world have met in person.

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Safety is critical while couchsurfing. “While choosing a host, I always look at references,” says Shreya Sanghani, a self-confessed couchsurfing addict who has surfed all over North, Northwest and South India, as well as UK. “If there are a lot of positive references, especially from female surfers (if it’s a male host), and if the person is verified, then I feel safe sending a request. I also scan the profile of the person to see if it is someone I would be interested in hanging out with,” she says. As a woman touring the country she says she has to take precautions, especially when she is meeting the host through the virtual world. The site has a verification and reference system through which users vouch for people they know and trust in real life.

This doesn’t always prevent potential perpetrators from using the websites. “It’s better to meet in person before surfing someone’s couch or letting them surf yours, or at least talk over the Internet or phone,” says Sanghani. “While I generally trust my instinct and go with people who have tonnes of positive references, I can’t guarantee that this will work for everyone,” she adds. All portals urge users never to compromise on safety.

There are some members who are more comfortable playing host. Delhi-based is one of them. Couchsurfing, he says, connects him with a vast range of people from the world over, which in turn helps promote his NGO that works for the education of poor children. He gets funds or, at least, volunteers from among the surfers. The exposure also helps boost his diamond and precious stones’ business. Having hosted 1,200 people from 82 countries in four years, Chhabra now has a separate three-bedroom flat for surfers, a facility for which he does not charge. “When people from, say, America or Russia come and see the jewellery which we make, they not only buy it but also talk about it when they go back home. So it’s a win-win situation,” says Chhabra.

A Kolkata-based lawyer who uses the profile name of Randomspaces started hosting people in Delhi in 2006. His decision to give spare keys of his apartment to foreigners has invited both rebuke and warnings. But he feels that with a little research and some trust, one cannot go wrong with the guests. He cautions, “Girls have to be careful. There are basic things to keep in mind. For example, if a family is hosting a person, it would be safer, or if the host has many references. But avoid people who host only girls, or those who have an incomplete profile.”

Couchsurfing is not restricted to travelling or hosting people. A person can be part of it even if he does not have an extra room or even a couch to let out. People can meet simply for coffee or dinner, or just for a chat or a walk. Kolkata-based photographer Diganto Gogoi says he has shown many people around the city. A dinner or a walk with travellers lets him interact with them without letting strangers into his house. A monthly meet is also organised so that hosts and guests within a city get to know one another. Tips are exchanged, references given and sometimes friends are made for life.

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