When the Polish photographer Bogna Teuchman arrived in Abu Dhabi in January, she had expected to end up sleeping in Abu Dhabi airport instead of getting the chance to visit Emirates Palace and the Grand Mosque. And a Berliner named Jens Steinhaus would not have visited the UAE at all, much less ended up staying with and being shown around by one of the city's residents. For Inger Krueger, an American librarian who recently moved to Abu Dhabi, acting as host for those two strangers was anything but a burden. Instead it was a fun payback for her own travels, which were for longer and further and involved more fun than she would otherwise have suspected.
In the olden days (a phrase which now includes the dial-up internet era of 10 years ago), finding someone in a distant city meant asking around and eventually discovering that your Aunt Lilly's neighbour's niece was living there. As with everything else in the superconnected internet era, such difficulties have gone the way of the floppy disk. Now a host of websites exist to connect strangers via a combination of modern-day bandwidth and an endearingly old-fashioned faith in human nature.
Krueger's situation is a perfect example of the reason for existence of websites like AirBnB.com and CouchSurfing.org, which connect people offering and seeking a place to sleep in a private house for either a modest fee or free of charge. As a university student, she had travelled through Europe in the summer vacations but even then the thought of sharing youth hostels and backpacker accommodation with hordes of other similar travellers was unappealing, despite being friendly to her travelling budget.
Now in her thirties, it is inconceivable, but the alternative - hotels - tended to be isolating and expensive, she says. Then she read a story about AirBnB on The New York Times website, in which it was described as both inexpensive and personal. For the hosts, usually all well-travelled, it was a chance to have the feel of travelling by meeting a range of interesting people. All this came to a head at Eid al Adha last year, when she wanted a European break from Abu Dhabi and realised that hotels would have crippled her budget and halved the length of her holiday. She also wanted to visit Copenhagen when the climate-change conference was on, a time when hotel rooms were unavailable for love nor money.
"I knew if I could find a way to get (cheap) accommodation I could stay for longer," she explains. "So I did AirBnB and CouchSurfing. I only paid for accommodation on a couple of nights. I went to Germany and then to the climate conference in Copenhagen. "What this meant that was instead of going for a week, I went for two weeks." Financial factors might have been an initial attraction but they soon faded in comparison with the human connection that was made, particularly because she was travelling solo. Rather than staying with a random stranger, each side could read the other's profile and choose someone with a similar mindset.
"In Berlin, it was a regular neighbourhood so you saw how regular people live, instead of staying in a hotel. Cheap hotels can be dirty and there are a few that are dodgy that I won't stay in," she said. "In the past I did the whole European backpacking thing but I've got no desire to do it now. I'm past it. It's one thing to sleep on a friend's couch and it's another to sleep with 40 clubgoers."
Krueger got on so well with Steinhaus and his partner Tabea, her hosts in Berlin, that the following month they came out to visit her in Abu Dhabi so she could return the hospitality at her flat in Al Bateen. "They had friends in Abu Dhabi. They may not have even come here if they had not met me and known they had a place to stay," she said. She has since hosted others in similar circumstances, in part to pay back the generosity of others she has stayed with by paying it forward to others.
The most recent one was Teuchman, a 24-year-old Polish woman who had just completed a six-month contract as a cruise ship photographer on board the Brilliance of the Seas. If she had not contacted Krueger through CouchSurfing.com, her stay in Abu Dhabi in late January before flying on to Indonesia would have been completely different. "Honestly, because accommodation is so expensive in Abu Dhabi, I probably would have been stuck," she said. "If I hadn't found CouchSurfing.com, I might have had to go to the airport and stay there without seeing anything. It's very expensive.
"This way, I can see the sights through the eyes of someone who lives here and also get to know the culture. We went to Emirates Palace, the mall, the beach and we went to dinner at a Lebanese place and then lunch at a Vietnamese place." Her job on the cruise ship meant working seven days a week and with a raucous farewell party on the final night, she ended up sleeping for 12 hours after arriving at Krueger's two-bedroom flat, but that was all part of the give and take.
Staying with a woman also gave Teuchman a sense of security to offset her inexperience of the region. "This is my first time in the Middle East. I have to take into account that this is an Arab country so it's a different culture and I'm well aware of that fact," she added. She has couch-surfed in the United States and through Europe. And when she is at home in Poland, between contracts and her own globe-trotting travels, Teuchman also hosts fellow travellers at the house she shares with her mother and brother.
"I haven't had bad experiences. I've had very respectful guests in my house. So long as they can tell me in advance by a week or two," she said. "I always have to ask my mother and brother. Sometimes they have to say no because there's something going on at home. That's one of the good things about couch-surfing: you don't have to say yes all the time. I can say no. It's very simple." Her mother's vicarious encounters with the CouchSurfing ethos through her daughter's hosting has the added benefit of quelling some of her maternal fears for Teuchman's travels.
"My mother feels I'm safer and feels more comfortable for me when I'm couch-surfing," she adds. All that is exactly the goal of the site, which was formed just under 10 years ago when the American techie Casey Fenton found a cheap airfare from Boston to Iceland and then randomly emailed 1,500 students at the University of Iceland seeking a place to sleep. He received more than 50 offers and on his return, the concept of CouchSurfing.com was born.
It existed as a database for about four years before the idea went viral and the numbers went from about 4,000 at the end of 2004 to about 45,000 a year later. Some only offer to meet for coffee rather than to stay but most have couches or beds available. Despite a 2006 computer glitch which wiped out the entire database, the project was reborn with the enthusiasm of the existing members using the slogan: "Participate in creating a better world, one couch at a time."
Since then, the site has gathered more than 1.6 million members and is represented in almost every nation on the planet. There are about 180 registered members in Abu Dhabi. Krueger wished it had been around when she was backpacking but is happy to become a late convert, having registered both through Air BnB and CouchSurfing. For safety, she adopted a circumspect approach of only hosting with other women or couples and also of having extended communication before staying.
She was similarly cautious when she hosted for the first time, providing accomodation for a woman who was looking for a job in Abu Dhabi. "We chatted online a couple of times and then phoned a couple of times," Krueger added. "You can tell from the CouchSurfing references from other people they've stayed with or hosted - and especially by the kind of questions she was asking - what kind of girl this was.
"She was my first person, so I didn't give her a key. I just told her that the door locked when she left and she couldn't come back until I came back from work. She gives visitors, like Bogna, a key now. "I'm not doing it for money - I'm registered on Air BnB, but I haven't charged anyone. I'm doing it because I have space and I know the favour will be returned. I've already reaped the rewards."