In every age I guess there are some people who are explorers and wanderers at heart. In ancient days, these people used to travel from city to city, from kingdom to kingdom, telling the tales of their culture and absorbing the cultures that they visited. Some of them had a vision and wrote their travelogues. Those days there was an unwritten code of conduct that people and travelers followed, both respected each other. Traveler was treated as a guest and stayed with the families who took good care of them. At times they had the patronage of the rulers but most of the times they wandered around in villages. They stayed as the people of the land stayed and ate what they ate. They traveled as travelers and not tourists, who visit to see what is shown to them. Rather they traveled to live as the locals live and experience their lives.
Somewhere in the modern times we lost these travelers and wanderers ,as the culture of hosting strangers ( or should I say people not know to you) was lost. Looks like this may have been because the world was going through a turmoil through the last century and people lost trust in each other. They found it difficult to believe and give shelter to people whom they knew, how could they trust someone who they do not even know where he or she came from.
In the internet era, when lot of people are better networked in the virtual world than in the real world, the era of travelers is being revived by movements like ‘Couchsurfing’. Couchsurfing is a website where you can become a member and be a part of the community which travels and hosts other travelers visiting their home locations. You can write about what kind of accommodation you have and for how long would you like the guests and if you have any preferences in terms of what guests. The guests visiting your town / city can then get in touch with you and if you are available with a couch, they come and stay with you. If you can take them around the city, they have nothing more to ask for.
There are multiple ways to look at this kind of traveling. First that comes to mind is cheap travel, as living cost is the highest cost when you travel. But to me that is a small part of the whole experience. It is the best way to have a cultural exchange, to meet the people who live in the place you are visiting, live the way they live, hear from them the local stories, stories that you would probably not get to read in all the tourism promotional material. They will take you to the best places to eat, again these may not be the best promoted places. They show you the place as it exists and not as it is prepared for the visitor. They will take you the ‘never talked about’ places and events and at times end up being a tourist in their own city with you, discovering or re-discovering some parts of their own place with you.
I have been a member of Couchsurfing for 6 months, wanted to write about it since then, but was waiting for some first hand experience before I do that. I had my first CS experience when I visited San Antonio couple of weeks back and then had the opportunity to host some guests last week for breakfast. Both these were amazingly comfortable experiences for me. I felt completely at home when I was a guest and my guests never made me feel they were visiting and meeting me for the first time.
To have your travel experience through this movement, the people at both ends, the guests and the hosts need to be open and sensitive to each other. There may be certain amount of apprehension and risk involved, the site tries and builds communities and verification techniques which help is building confidence, but at the end you need to take the call. And what is life without a bit of risk…