The dusty town of Kekri, 80km from Ajmer, with its kuccha roads, farmlands and oil mills, isn’t exactly the kind of place you would expect to find a single woman traveller from Canada. But at 10 on an October night, having taken a bus from Udaipur to Ajmer, and then to Kekri, 24-year-old Anna Cote arrived at Ram Niwas Khati’s house to hot pakoras and cups of sugary chai (tea).
Small world: Anna Cote with her host Ram Khati’s mother in Kekri, Rajasthan. Courtes: Anna Cote
In the bus, curious passengers were shocked at her choice of destination. Upon arrival, Cote gave Khati, a 48-year-old public health engineer working for the Rajasthan government, a small bottle of maple syrup and settled down to staying in his house for the next two days.
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Khati, a father of two teenage boys, is one of the 34,287 (and growing) couchsurfers in India (numbers from www.couchsurfing.org). So strangers from around the world come to his house to stay for a few days as non-paying guests. They socialize in the town and get a slice of rural life experience in India before heading out.
Khati has never been out of the country, but has had international penfriends for almost 25 years. In 2005, a penfriend from Norway met him in Mumbai and introduced him to CouchSurfing—an Internet-based community whose members offer each other their houses for free stay. “I have always been interested in other cultures and I love making friends with people from all over the world,” Khati says. “So CouchSurfing is an amazing chance to do that.”
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In 2005, when Khati joined the CouchSurfing bandwagon, there were 296 couchsurfers in India, a number that has increased by more than 100 times since then, with more than 10,000 Indians joining the community in 2010 alone. It has spread from the big cities and major tourist destinations to 1,054 cities and towns—from Siliguri to Ludhiana, Thane to Madurai.
“It all comes down to access,” says P.R. Srinivas, industry lead of tourism, hospitality and leisure at Deloitte Haskins and Sells, an international business management, auditing and research company. “A decade ago, we did not have this kind of access. With access comes aspirations—you are exposed to other cultures so much more, so you want to try out new things. The kind of people who use the Internet in India are usually more worldly-wise as well, and with social networking growing, CouchSurfing can be seen as an extension of that.”
Khati tries to host people from as many different countries as he can, and he has had couchsurfers from across Europe. “Most people come here to see something of India outside the big cities and tourist destinations,” Khati says. “Otherwise, there is no reason to come to Kekri.”
Cote, his most recent guest, stayed for Diwali. And yes, her room had a couch.
“Ram told me a funny story about that couch,” Cote says. “When he joined CouchSurfing, he didn’t even know what a couch was, until one day, when he was at a store, he heard someone else point it out. He thought as a member of CouchSurfing, he should have one, and so he bought it!”
Cote spent her time eating more sweets and chai than her system could handle, hobnobbing with Khati’s wife and her extended circle of friends, watching the household gear up for Diwali and jumping out of her skin with every loud firecracker. On the eve of Diwali, she joined the family in preparing the altar, poured ghee and sugar over hot coal, and participated in the puja. “It was incredible,” she says, “especially as fireworks are restricted in Canada. With help from Ram’s sons, I lit several firecrackers and learnt to run away quickly and duck.”
Next day, she witnessed a traditional buffalo race on the streets of Kekri, the animals covered in colourful tassels and bells, their horns painted. “Accompanying them were modern tractors decked out in just as many decorations and blaring upbeat music,” she says. “Ram explained that as buffaloes were being replaced by tractors to till the land, people honoured the tractors instead. A neat way to keep tradition alive, though to a somewhat comical effect.”
In the best tradition of couchsurfing, Khati follows no formalities with his guests, who are treated like household members. “We eat on the floor, I might even take them to the market when I’m buying vegetables,” he says.
Next year, Khati plans to make his first foreign trip, travelling through Scandinavia. “It’s not just because couchsurfing makes it affordable, but also because I want to experience the joy of being hosted,” he says.
Surfing the US
CouchSurfing allows members to do more than just host or be hosted. Though the host is required to provide only accommodation, most surfers do a bit more—taking their guest out to favourite eating places, events, inviting them to parties or treating them to home-cooked meals.
Couchsurfers across the world come together in local groups, hold regular meetings and events, and plan trips together. A member can also choose to be a “day host”, where he/she meets travellers to the city to show them around, or just helps them make travel plans over coffee or drinks—the kind of invaluable “insider” help while travelling in a foreign city or country that most people would love to have.
Sachin Khotre, who runs his own production house in Mumbai and directs television commercials, was banking on this when he planned an ambitious and freewheeling trip through the US in 2008. “When I first heard of CouchSurfing in 2006, I thought it was lunacy,” Khotre says. “But I kept meeting more and more people who were part of the group, and it started seeming like a cool idea.”
Easy rider: Sachin Khotre spent six months couchsurfing through the US. Courtesy: Sachin Khotre
In 2007, after finishing a project in Paris, 27-year-old Khotre was desperate to stay on with his own money, but could not afford a hotel. He made an appeal on the CouchSurfing site and was immediately rewarded with three or four replies. The woman who finally hosted Khotre also gave him her extra train pass, Paris maps, fruits and water to carry while travelling. In return, Khotre cooked her an Indian prawn curry.
“So, then I was sold,” he says, “and I really started loving the idea.” The plan for the six-month sojourn through the US was born out of this. Khotre and his friend Sagar Rao went from the east to the west coast, from Mississippi to Washington, danced at a trance party in the middle of the Mojave Desert outside Los Angeles, camped at Big Sur and made a road trip to New Orleans for the Mardi Gras. They couchsurfed everywhere, exploring little-known local hot spots and attending parties and concerts with their hosts. “I just love this spontaneous, one-on-one and once-in-a-lifetime experience that this kind of travelling gives you,” Khotre says. “You get a bit of a butterfly effect before you meet a new host—people can turn out to be very boring or very interesting!”
Mostly, they were exciting. In New York, their host took them “dumpster diving”.
“In a lot of rich neighbourhoods, people just leave the stuff they don’t want on the sidewalk because they don’t have the time to sell it or dispose it properly,” he says. “So this girl I was staying with would scour the streets with a pick-up truck at night. That night, we picked up a bicycle, a dressing cabinet, a printer and a gas stove.”
In Los Angeles, a 65-year-old midwife, a first-generation immigrant from Iran and a couchsurfer, cooked them a large dish of lamb curry. A 19-year-old host in Washington took them through snow to an all-night music fest. The one thing Khotre and Rao chickened out of was an invitation to a nude wine and cheese party.
“The kind of cultural insights and local flavour you can get by travelling like this, you just can’t get anywhere else,” Khotre says. “For that mad six-month trip, I spent just Rs 2 lakh, including airfare.”
Jump into the unknown
Social networks designed around hospitality and travel go as far back as 1949, when American civil rights and anti-war activist Bob Luitweiler founded Servas, an international peace movement based on Gandhian principles, that promoted cultural exchange by encouraging members to stay with each other while travelling. The Servas website (www.servas.org) operates along similar lines as CouchSurfing, except that it also stresses on cultural exchange and the ideals of peace, requires a lengthy and complicated registration process that includes a personal interview and a minimum four-week notice period for the intended host. Servas members also need to renew their membership every year.
“All these little caveats and hurdles are intended to keep something like Servas a little exclusive,” says Srinivas. “The whole exercise is not just about travelling and staying, so you need to be seriously interested in social work and peace work to join Servas.”
Other websites, such as www.globalfreeloaders.com, insist that members must host other members.
“That clause prevented me from joining GlobalFreeloaders even though I heard of them before I found CouchSurfing,” says Khotre. “You need a bit of time to get comfortable with the idea of hosting, and CouchSurfing gives you that space and freedom. Also, I live with my mother in a small flat in Mumbai, so often it is actually impractical for me to host anyone.”
Relying on the kindness of strangers to host you while travelling takes a bit of a leap of faith. It may sound exciting but can be dangerous, putting either party in uncomfortable situations in the best of scenarios, and in the face of serious crime at worst. Yet, despite the approximately 2.4 million people who use the site around the world, from places as far flung as Alaska and Kiribati, the number of negative reports is negligible. A large part of this success comes from the way the site is designed—each member puts up a profile where they share information about themselves, their address is verified through a small online payment facility, other members of the community can vouch for them, and people they have hosted or who have hosted them leave their feedback on the site.
“The website is a closed space where people can rat on you,” says Khotre, “so you would have to be well-behaved if you want to continue using the privileges of the community.”
Srinivas adds: “The in-built safety standards are good because there is a certain amount of self-control built in. ”
But as the movement matures in India, safety will become a bigger concern, says Srinivas. “It’s still quite a new phenomenon. Though on the basis of social networking, you expect a certain guarantee, it’s really a question of how you can make it more secure as the phenomenon grows.”
The personal touch
Doel Sengupta, a single 30-year-old Bangalore-based tourism industry professional, joined CouchSurfing in 2008, and had her first surfing experience with an unknown host in Colombo in 2009.
“At the end of the trip, I was trying to stay for two more days and was trying to postpone my ticket,” Sengupta says. “I called my host for help and he actually booked my ticket with his card. I was also invited to his family get-together.”
Sengupta hosted her first surfer this year, a woman traveller from Canada—“a sensible and responsible surfer, she didn’t expect more than what I could have provided, not even time,” Sengupta says.
So was it a difficult decision to be a single woman couchsurfer? “Nope,” Sengupta says. “Before hosting or surfing, I feel one should read the references of the guest or host, but there have been many instances where my Bangalore couchsurfer friends have hosted totally new people after some email conversations.”
Vijay and Nonita (they did not wish to give their last names), a Delhi-based couple in their mid-30s who became active members of CouchSurfing in 2008, have hosted more than 130 people without any serious problems. “We are careful about the people we host,” Vijay says. “We exchange enough emails with the person who requests a couch before deciding. We usually allow only single women or families or people with whom we share strong interests, and try and make sure that the people who live with us are over 25.”
Footloose: Varun Solanki and Maria Di Fiore, who met through CouchSurfing, are planning to get married.Ankit Agrawal/Mint
This checklist, they believe, ensures the experience does not turn sour. “We’ve had politicians, construction workers, CEOs, artists and photographers from various parts of the world,” Vijay says. “With some people, we were so comfortable that we gave them our house keys.”
Sometimes the leap of faith comes with even richer rewards.
Maria Di Fiore, a 26-year-old English teacher from the US, posted a request on the CouchSurfing website saying she was visiting India and wanted to see an Indian wedding. Varun Solanki, a 28-year-old Delhi-based businessman and couchsurfer who owns a banquet hall, responded. In January 2010, on her first day in India, Di Fiore met Solanki and attended a wedding at his banquet hall. A day later, they were driving down to Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand. From there it was Jaipur, Agra and finally, Goa.
“It was stupid, stupid, stupid,” Di Fiore says. “And I hope I don’t have a daughter like me, but then I started really liking him.”
Now, they are planning their own wedding.
“They are strict about the fact that CouchSurfing is not a dating site,” Solanki says. “But then, they can’t say we are dating any more.”