Couchsurfing describes itself as “a global network of travelers, adventure-seekers, and lifelong learners,” and also as a “hospitality exchange.” It has also been described as “every mother’s worst nightmare.” Site members create a profile and can either offer their “couch” (or futon, or spare bedroom, or floor) for visitors, or search for couches in places they plan to travel. Free lodgings in another country with local hosts? No wonder membership has taken off, with millions of users–mostly 20-something and hailing from Western countries.
I joined during my sophomore year of college and “surfed” on three couches: twice in Spain (with a friend), and once in London. All were good experiences, particularly my stay in Valencia for the Las Fallas festivals. Our host was extremely generous, taking us to parties, helping us find places around the city to visit, and letting us use her public transport cards. My London experience was fine (although my male host did seem to come onto me a bit and I was very glad for the presence of his two female roommates).
I personally have several qualms with Couchsurfing as a business and as a community: their “identity verification system” is based on an online credit card payment–which does nothing to verify your actual identity but does provide the company with a nice income, that the company listed itself as a charity when in fact all it does is enable people to practice charity on their own, and that many users stubbornly refuse to admit that Couchsurfing is about free accommodation, insisting that the real “Couchsurfing spirit” is only about cultural exchange. Even if they are homeless hippie college grads who certainly couldn’t afford their their around-the-world backpacking gap-year without that “free housing” component.
The “Couchsurfing spirit” is what has plagued me most since I switched my profile from “surfer” to “host.” This is because I have decided only to host females, which apparently means I am closed-minded, have no faith in humanity, and nurture a sexist grudge against men. That I am a 21 year old girl does not matter. That I have a highly visible courtyard-facing apartment does not matter. That I only have one bedroom to share does not matter. That I am trying to be respectful of my neighbors’ socio-cultural norms and sensibilities does not matter. I continue to be flooded with requests from male surfers who either don’t read my profile (stating the females-only policy), or feel the need to lecture me about my backward ways, or think that enough winky emoticons will somehow win me over.
I finally got a reasonable request from a female surfer, an Iranian tourism development student making a tour of the Caucasus. In this case, I think the free couch/cultural exchange worked quite well–she corrected many of my misconceptions about daily life in Iran, and I shared my experiences growing up and going to school in the US. The know-it-all in me enjoyed showing her around historic Tbilisi and leading her off the Lonely Planet track (note: the Lonely Planet guidebook, at least for Tbilisi, is extremely bland and inadequate–you’re honestly better off winging it).
Talking to a 3-day visitor made me realize how truly lacking Tbilisi’s tourism infrastructure is. Aside from the museums, a ride on the new cablecars, and a walk down Leselidze Street to Gorgasali Square, there aren’t many places of interest obvious to tourists, which is a shame because there are so many things to see and do here. Stay tuned for the upcoming 3 Days in Tbilisi: a short-term visitor’s guide produced by the A. Wheeler Tbilisi Tourism Agency.