x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Couchsurfing: New world views from the homes of kind strangers

On the road It was midnight and I was acutely aware of how dodgy I looked prowling from door to door. I was searching for the apartment of a host I'd found through CouchSurfing.com.

It was midnight and I was acutely aware of how dodgy I looked prowling from door to door under the watchful eyes of the only other person on the street, a Cantonese woman standing in a pool of light outside her home and sweeping the pavement. I was searching for the apartment of a host I'd found through CouchSurfing.com, which connects travellers with people all over the world who are willing to let them stay in their homes for free. But while the directions to the building in the remote Hong Kong suburb of Tai Po Market seemed simple enough in written form, following them was proving tricky.

Then, instead of calling the police, the woman smiled and pointed me to the corner of a car park where, upon closer inspection, I found the correct door. I wasn't the first clueless foreigner to visit this corner of the New Territories, it seemed. As instructed, I fiddled with the combination padlock on the letterbox in the darkness. Inside was a set of keys. I opened the door, walked upstairs and was confronted by a laminated notice written in felt-tip pen: "Welcome to my pad. Now that you're here, please replace the keys; turn off the stairway light; and read the dos and don'ts." I'd made it to Sid's place.

Until my trip to China, I had never stayed with or hosted anyone via Couchsurfing, but Hong Kong seemed the perfect opportunity to break my duck: it's a territory where there is huge pressure on space and cheap accommodation is a rarity. A day before boarding the Beijing-Hong Kong sleeper train, I scoured the listings for members who "definitely have a couch" and fired off five requests. Initial signs weren't promising and the only response I'd got seemed like a lacklustre invitation. But just as I was giving up hope, the e-mail from Sid, a 30-year-old Indian working as an assistant professor of engineering at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, arrived. He had added me to his online calendar of guests, he said, and sent me directions to his home.

Couchsurfing, which describes itself as an international not-for-profit network, is a free-to-use website that launched in 2004 and now has more than 1.5 million members spread across 62,000 cities in 230 countries and speaking 1,270 languages. Users create a profile and can then request to "couch surf", or sleep on a sofa or spare bed offered by other members in other countries. The UAE boasts the Gulf's liveliest Couchsurfing scene with about 1,000 members, about five times as many as any other GCC country. Overall, there are more than 20,000 members in the Middle East. The concept has expanded from simply providing a place to sleep to organising activities, which has made it easier for people to take part in regions where the concept of inviting a strange man or woman met on the internet into your home does not sit easily with local tradition. In the UAE, activities such as evenings out or trips to the desert attract both residents and travellers alike.

UAE-based members say Couchsurfing enabled them to learn much more about places they visited and to forge friendships all over the world. Essa, a 24-year-old marketing executive from Dubai, can guess why he gets a lot of e-mails from visitors to the UAE asking to meet up with him - he is one of just three Emiratis who have joined Couchsurfing. "I'm Emirati, so I do get a lot of requests. I feel like a rare species of an animal or something," he says. Essa came across CouchSurfing in 2008 when he was planning a trip to Japan. At the time, the website was blocked to Etisalat internet users but was accessible through Du.

"I found the idea really fascinating," he says. "But I was completely overwhelmed by the idea of strangers staying at my place." Essa lives with his family and is not in a position to offer a couch, but he became an active member of Dubai's burgeoning Couchsurfing events scene, attending one of the city's first meet-ups with an Egyptian resident and an Italian tourist in June 2008. Such events now regularly attract more than 30 people, he says.

"It's fun, and the most interesting thing is that we all have one thing in common - travelling - so there's always something to talk about," he says. Maurice Acana, a 26-year-old Filipino office worker in Dubai, took the plunge and came away from his first Couchsurfing experience in Casablanca, Morocco, with new friendships and a love of his host Mehdi's favourite local band: Hoba Hoba Spirit. "It was totally great. They hosted me and took me all over the city, which I didn't expect at all," he says.

So far, about 1.6 million people have stayed with complete strangers through Couchsurfing, the organisation claims. In response to fears that travellers might be putting themselves in harm's way, Couchsurfing says its system of references left by users ensures transparency, and the site also runs a voluntary verification process to confirm members' names and addresses as well as a vouching system whereby already "vouched for" members can in turn vouch for other members. This, it argues, has created a "trust circle that has trickled down from member to member to help ensure safety".

Couchsurfing says its overall record is very good, with members reporting more than four million positive experiences, about 99.8 per cent of all couch-surfing experiences. But it's not a cast-iron guarantee. In October last year a 34-year-old Moroccan living in Leeds, northern England, was jailed for 10 years after he raped a Hong Kong woman he had agreed to host through the Couchsurfing site. "We have very few problems here," says Firas al Tamimi, a 34-year-old consultant who is also a Couchsurfing "ambassador" in Abu Dhabi, a role that sees him coordinating activities and trying to resolve any difficult situations that may arise.

For Nikunj Gupta, a 27-year-old Indian working as a computer engineer in Abu Dhabi, Couchsurfing enabled him to feel at home in the emirate within days of his arrival. "I've been here just a few days but already I've met five Couchsurfers," he says. "It might take more than a month to meet so many people otherwise." Nikunj was among the first 10,000 people to join Couchsurfing in 2004 after reading about it in the back of a Lonely Planet guidebook while travelling through South-east Asia. He has since stayed with local people from all walks of life in more than 30 countries.

While the money he has saved on accommodation has allowed him to travel more often and farther afield, both he and Firas say it is not just about maintaining a budget. "For me the best thing is that couch surfing gives you a much deeper impression of the place's culture," Nikunj says. "If you stay with someone, eat with them and walk with them, there is a bonding and something is created that never ends."

Essa says Couchsurfing broadened his horizons when he found himself alone in London, a city that after numerous visits he thought he knew well. After his friends from Dubai had returned home he joined a Couchsurfing curry night in the city's gritty yet trendy East End, a far cry from the swanky west London areas he was accustomed to. "It was completely different from the London I knew until then. I loved it. I've seen something that I'm sure none of the people I know have seen before." travel@thenational.ae