Have couch, will travel

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As small children we are taught not to talk to people we don’t know, nevermind let them into our homes.

Cris Valdes-Dapena and her husband Ian Birch have ignored that advice for years.

Since the couple joined Couch Surfing International two years ago they regularly invite complete strangers from foreign countries to stay with them in their Warwick home and visit others in theirs.

The pair were featured in The New Yorker magazine after hosting writer Patricia Marx at their Harbour Road condominium for a night.

Couch Surfing International has more than four million users from 246 countries. Its appeal, according to its members, is the authentic experience gained by staying with locals, and the savings from not having to pay for a plush hotel bed.

Bermuda currently has 12 people registered to allow visitors to stay in their home be it a couch, guest room or spare cot.

According to couchsurfing.org, hosts decide on the duration, nature, and terms of the guest's stay, often times in advance. No monetary exchange is supposed to take place, except for compensation of expenses like food.

Ms Valdes-Dapena learned about Couch Surfing through her grandson. She thought it sounded like an interesting way to approach travelling in foreign countries.

“You get to meet local people and spend a night or two with them to see the country in a different perspective,” she explained.

So far the couple has taken on a dozen or so guests from places like India, Canada and Australia. Many of them bring some kind of small gift or token representing where they are from.

Ms Marx brought a copy of a book she’d written; others might cook a traditional meal from their homeland.

The couple haven’t taken advantage of staying in others’ homes very much. Ms Valdes-Dapena said they stayed in a bed and breakfast run by a couple who’d subscribed to the website, while trekking in northern Spain.

When the owners heard Ms Valdes-Dapena and Mr Birch were also members of Couch Surfing, they gave the duo their money back.

“It’s called couch surfing because theoretically someone might put you up on a couch,” Ms Valdes-Dapena said.

“But in that instance [in Spain] we were on bunkbeds in a dorm, which is not normal. Most individuals are hosting couch surfers in their residence on a bed or in someone’s guest room.

“Every couch surfer host offers what they can, but it’s not always the same.”

Ms Valdes-Dapena said they haven’t had any ‘strange characters’ stay with them; the website has a vetting process.

“Couch Surfing makes some attempt to identify the origin of the people who sign up for it and when someone sends an e-mail they do it through the website, so people don’t actually get your e-mail address.

“When someone makes contact, they say only that they want to stay there, how long and why they want to stay in your house in particular. You can kind of vet people from that.

“If you get [the impression] from them that them and their college buddies want to come down to party, then you can say [no].”

The couple tries to stick to mature guests, the kind that are likely to go to bed early and wake up with enough time to enjoy the day. They believe most older people also have more interesting life stories to share.

Ms Valdes-Dapena said she most enjoys meeting interesting, new people from around the world and “feeling like we have contributed something to their experience in Bermuda”.

Guests typically ask them for advice on where to go on the Island and how best to get around. But part of the experience is also about just sitting down and exchanging stories and eating a meal together, said Ms Valdes-Dapena.

They were overloaded with requests from couch surfers even before The New Yorker article hit newsstands in April, she said.

“I think there was such a barrage of requests because we are Bermuda and it’s an attractive destination. Inexpensive accommodation can also be hard to find.”

Despite that, she and her husband don’t accept more than one request a month.

“[After the story ran] I got a call from a guy in New Zealand who saw that we were coming over there trekking in the fall.

“He told us to look him up and he would give us contacts and advice.”

She admits couch surfing isn’t the kind of thing everyone would be into.

“I think you have to be a special kind of person, probably a weird kind of person to invite a total stranger to sleep in your house.

“But it’s been a fun experience for us. I certainly would recommend it, it’s been pretty much what we expected out of it and we’ve met really interesting contacts from around the world.”

Link to The New Yorker article: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2012/04/16/120416fa_fact_marx?currentPage=3

Useful website: www.couchsurfing.org.

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Published Jun 11, 2012 at 8:08 am (Updated Jun 11, 2012 at 8:07 am)

Have couch, will travel

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