‘Mummy, I’m fine, just with a couple of guys I met on the internet’
By Isobel Smith
It’s not what most parents want to hear, and certainly not a paranoid mother worrying about her youngest daughter wandering around South America by herself. Once she had calmed down I began to explain.
It was true. I had met them over the internet. Not from a chat-room full of 50 year-old paedophilic men pretending to be 11 year-old girls but from CouchSurfing. For those of you wondering what this sport for obese people might be, it is actually an online database of people all over the world who offer their hospitality for free, be it a bed, coffee or travel advice, to other people. The essence of CouchSurfing is that it helps people learn about other cultures and can be a life-saver for those whose travel budgeting skills are almost non-existent (aka me).
I was logging onto CouchSurfing for the first time when Carlos emailed me asking if I wanted to go for drinks. I was staying in a city on the coast of Northern Peru where few travellers bothered to visit so I was likely to be spending the next three days alone. I was initially sceptical and, like any arrogant Westerner, thought that Carlos only wanted to meet me because I had blonde hair and pale skin (which is a prized complexion over there). I looked at his profile anyway and was very surprised. He was studying engineering whilst working for Peace Corps in his spare time and enjoyed surfing. His references left by other travellers were all extremely positive so I emailed him back and waited anxiously in a cafe.
Carlos’ references couldn’t have been closer to the truth: he was charming, polite, didn’t get fed up with my Spanish and, like any student, relished telling me about how lashed (choborra) he’d been the previous week at the annual city fiesta. Over the following days, I got to know him better. We visited the Nazca ruins, went surfing and played guitar on the beach with his friends. His cousin’s parents invited me for Sunday lunch despite having never met me. They served up a fabulous array of Peruvian food, brilliant company, and a lot of neat alcohol that had an aftertaste not dissimilar to that of fuel.
Carlos was just one of the many friends that I made over CouchSurfing. Initially I was too scared to actually stay in someone’s house, but I soon plucked up the courage to do so. Since then, I have stayed with Chalex, a tour guide and part-time mountaineer in the Andes; Joe, who is training to be a chef at Le Cordon Bleu in Lima; and have been for drinks with countless others.
Besides having fun and learning about different cultures, CouchSurfing allows you to save money whilst travelling. At £3 a night in a hostel, it doesn’t seem expensive. But over 6 months, the costs start to rack up. Thanks to CouchSurfing, I was able to spend money on more gap yah stash (copious amounts of alpaca clothing and a lot of Peruvian alcohol)
Over six months I drank a lot of Pisco Sours, ate several guinea pigs, tried shark and chicken feet, and, to top off any gap year one-up-manship, I managed to get salmonella and seven parasites. But those details are all trivial. What matters is that I made lasting friendships, was accepted into families, and learnt about their hardships and how, despite this, they always manage to find something to smile about. And I can guarantee that by staying with someone on CouchSurfing, you will have more fun, meet more interesting people and spend less money than if you stay in the Marriott down the road.