Written and photographed by Wilhelmina Assam
The aroma of sizzling cheese and corn dough fills the small, family kitchen – the grease splatting messily on the countertop. Several pairs of smiling eyes are on the strange foreigner seated at the dining room table in her pajamas. They watch with judgement and anticipation. I am about to sample my first homemade pupusa (a thick, corn tortilla stuffed with a savory filling, typically accompanied by spicy coleslaw), the national dish of El Salvador.
Notoriously known for having one of the world’s “murder capitals,” it isn’t always a tempting option for travelers to venture off the Central American tourism path into El Salvador. Even less likely is for a tourist to attempt to stay with and connect with the locals there.
However, that’s exactly what I was able to do in January 2016, thanks to Couchsurfing.org. This is a website that self-proclaims that “couchsurfers open their homes and share their lives,” allowing travelers to “connect and be inspired.” And it truly does. It lets you stay on the couch/bed/floor of a stranger in any city, for no money at all; the currency on Couchsurfing (CS) is kindness. You repay your host in good stories and good vibes.
I started couchsurfing with this trip, mainly as a way to save money and keep my backpacking fund going for longer. But meeting people like Susan and her family solidified my love of CS, whatever my budget. I was given delicious homemade food every day, taken to some remote spots (I now know where to swim in a natural hot spring and get the best pupusas in Ahuachapán!). Honestly, I was “living the vida local,” which is something all “true” travelers dream of! All this in a country that everyone back home had warned me to be careful of.
Gwangju CS host, Park Hwee-sung, thinks that hosting can be just as eye-opening when travel isn’t an option. “In Korea, people have to work all the time. They’re very busy. Sharing cultures, food, and travel stories happens naturally [when hosting] with CS.”
Park began using CS as a surfer whilst overseas, and when he returned to his hometown of Gwangju, he felt it was important “to give back and provide as a host” as had been done for him abroad. He enjoys it so much that he decided to skip a potential career in anthropology and, instead, build a life around housing travelers. Park has recently set up his own guesthouse; however, he still uses CS, opting to give travelers a bed in his place when there is space.
I’m sure you’re now thinking how to sign up.
Getting started with CS is easy: You just sign up with your email address or Facebook account to make a profile. It’s really helpful to fill out your personal profile with plenty of information about yourself and past travels to make it easier to find kindred souls.
And just how do you trust those kindred souls?
First off, CS has a paid verification process using your ID, address, and/or telephone number. However, this is optional, and to be honest, most people opt out. The most reliable method for choosing safe and fun couchsurfers is the reference system. After staying with a host or hosting, you are required to fill out either a positive, neutral, or negative reference. This should include lots of information about the stay and the person who hosted you.
As a solo traveler, I would never stay with someone with less than two positive references and would especially rely on references from other females. However, I have hosted people with absolutely zero references and not yet experienced anything terrible. Well, there was the Spaniard who somehow managed to break our toilet seat, but that’s a funny story for another time.
As Ibn Battuta has said, “Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” Likewise, that’s the thing about CS. You build up a wicked repertoire of stories about people from all over the globe, and all at no cost. So, what are you waiting for?