Saturday, 12 May 2012

Why CouchSurfing is the only way to travel

Time to say goodbye to St Gallen
After an incredible week at the St Gallen's symposium (blog to come), it was time to get moving again. I was fortunate enough to meet the CEO of a large professional services firm in Switzerland at the Symposium and decided to go and meet him in Zurich to see if I could convince him to set up a ridesharing system for his employees. 

The only question was, where would I stay?
Would I go back to Zick Zack, the American rock and roll hotel I'd stayed in on my first night in Zurich? It would be expensive (everyone keeps telling me Zurich is the most expensive city in Europe and I can believe them!), but at least I'd have my own room. Or would I take a gamble on, hoping that I'd get a friendly host and a comfy couch to sleep on?

I chose CouchSurfing!
I took the gamble and it was one of the best decisions I've ever made. Not only did I get a friendly host, but I got my own room as well:D Plus it didn't cost me anything.

The best host I've ever had
That was only the beginning. I stayed with Erwin Faessler, a Swiss native, who'd recently moved to Zurich from the hills outside the city. I rocked up to his place on Monday morning and we ended up chatting over lunch for about three hours. I was keen to hear about his experiences travelling to the Ukraine and some of the other ex-Soviet states because I'm going to travel to Lithuania in two weeks. He had some fascinating stories about the role that Soviet culture still plays in these countries (apparently they still have statues of Lenin everywhere in the Ukraine). He reminisced fondly on the difficulties he faced not understanding Cyrillic script including spending six hours walking home because his map was in English and the street signs were in Cyrillic. (Gulp! Hope that doesn't happen to me!)

I had my meeting with the CEO in the afternoon (it went very well - will share more when the details are firmer) and then Erwin gave me a real treat. He drove me out of the hard lines, expensive shops and clean streets of Zurich and into the gentle, rolling hills of the Swiss countryside where he grew up. He took me to see his 'Schulweg', the steep path he walked up as a kid to get home for lunch. It was sunset by the time we got out there and the dazzling beauty of the landscape combined with Erwin's rich storytelling ability to create a truly magical experience that I will never forget. Rather than attempt to describe it in words, here is a video that captures the experience.

This is why CouchSurfing is so special
There is no way I would have had this experience had I stayed in a hotel. Even if I had gone on a tour, it wouldn't have been anything near as authentic. How else but with CouchSurfing could I have had a local person so generously give me his time to take me to his most beloved part of the world, all for free? For me, these rolling hills are Switzerland. The orderly streets of Zurich have little appeal for me. It felt safe, but at the same time, boring. I could have been back in Melbourne. But as soon as we left the city boundary and Erwin began telling the stories from his childhood, I was in a land all on its own - a unique juxtaposition of the natural beauty and Erwin's history. That experience can never be repeated. It was a one-off performance made specially for me. I will never forget those precious hours I spent with Erwin and I will forever be grateful to him and to CouchSurfing for bringing us together.

Reciprocity on CouchSurfing
I felt so grateful to Erwin that I helped him get set up on - an experience marketplace where locals can offer tourists authentic experiences off the beaten track. Erwin shared with me that he wants to become a tour guide. He gets so much pleasure out of showing people the Swiss mountains that he would like to do it as a business. If you're going to be in Zurich and would like to have the same experience I had, drop Erwin a line through Vayable.

It surprised me how much he appreciated my help. It felt like no effort at all for me to go out with him to the hills again and record a video and then help him upload it on the web. But as we discussed afterwards, that's the whole thing about CouchSurfing: it's about freely giving what you have, knowing that other people (not necessarily the same person) will pay you back. There's something very pure and selfless about a mutual exchange of time and effort without the intermediary of money. I think both people give much more because of the uncertainty and because of the inbuilt reputation system that encourages good behaviour.

Is CouchSurfing for everyone?
It makes me wonder what the world would be like if everyone was on CouchSurfing. Would we become a much more generous and trusting society? I believe we would.. though I must throw in a few caveats:

1. Too much generosity can be unhealthy
Erwin had been deluged with CouchSurfing requests over the last few weeks. He was still cleaning out his apartment after hosting 8 people for a week! Giving that much of yourself is draining and Erwin was already telling me how he was starting to feel a bit burnt out from hosting. We both concluded that boundaries are necessary so that you can have some time to look after yourself.

2. CouchSurfing needs a more robust reputation system
Couch Surfing hosts place an enormous amount of trust in their guests. Erwin left me alone at his apartment for a whole day while he was at work. If I had been a less moral person, I could have plundered his apartment and made off with all of his valuables. This and worse things have happened on CouchSurfing because the reputation system does not encourage negative feedback (read my post for more details).

I'm looking forward to more positive experiences with CouchSurfing
Despite those potential downsides, I'm going to keep using CouchSurfing the rest of my time in Europe. I'm saving a LOT of money on accommodation and I'm getting to meet some amazing people and have experiences I would never get otherwise. Stay tuned for more stories from my CouchSurfing adventures.

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