In our previous post, we shared some of our experience staying overseas with Servas and Couchsurfing hosts. This week, it’s our turn to host.
When Henry David Thoreau wrote that he had “traveled a good deal in Concord”, we don’t think he had his profile listed on Couchsurfing.org. However, we’ve been able to experience some of the world’s wonder simply by offering hospitality and good cheer to wandering strangers.
We started hosting with a listing in the Servas directory, and more recently added a Couchsurfing profile to our visibility. In both cases, we hosted before traveling with these networks, but this is not required. In fact, there is no explicit tie-in between hosting and traveling – save for conscience.
We felt confident offering short-term accommodation to visitors with Servas, knowing that they had supplied references and been interviewed to get their official letter of introduction. As we gained hosting experience and became comfortable with the concept, adding couchsurfers to our guest list was not much of a stretch. In place of references and interviews, Couchsurfing profiles have verification, online reviews, and “vouching”.
Do Couchsurfing hosts need to offer a magnificant guest suite as our recent hosts in Provence did? No, as the name implies, even a couch will do. Servas listings in Europe often indicate that a sleeping sheet or bag is required. Our own offering is a little rustic. We try to make it up by being informed guides and scintillating conversationalists. We ‘d rather our visitors remember our kindness and wit than the ridge down the middle of the fold-out bed.
We’ve found the average age of travelers we’ve hosted to be younger than the hosts we’ve stayed with. This is partly by design: we often choose older hosts. And youth is a time to “seek one’s fortune.” For some of the oldest hosts we’ve met, their traveling days are behind them. Hosting is a way to stay in the game, both by exposure to new people from new cultures, and by sharing past travel experiences with visitors.
We’ve enjoyed all of our hosting experiences over the years with Servas and Couchsurfing. Each story is unique. Our first visitor this year was Christoph, a young man from Germany completing his PhD thesis with a study of the North American distribution of an invasive weed species. He had flown into Montana and was making a large circle tour that included our area. He had chosen our home because we happen to live near a large infestation. Who knew? He explained that he had to pay for accommodation out of his limited research grant. Christoph could only stay one night before driving several hundred miles to the next infestation, but we spent a great evening over a bottle of wine discussing everything from religious discrimination in Europe to crossing international borders with bags of weed seeds.
Maud, a young woman from the French Alps, was traveling between long-term WWOOFing engagements on opposite sides of the country. It was interesting to hear her first impressions of life on an organic farm in the New World. In return, we showed her around the area, and offered her suggestions on where to stay when her mother came to join her. Like most Servas and Couchsurfing visits, Maud’s stay was limited to a couple of days. Servas has a policy of restricting stays to two days barring an unsolicited invitation by the host. Couchsurfing has no official policy but recommends a similar time limit.
Have we had any troubling experiences? Not really. Once we had to exercise our “no” muscle. A few years back, a young visitor from Prague broke several Servas rules when he asked, “Can I borrow the car? Can you help me find a job here? Can I stay longer?” It is helpful to be able to
set clear limits without undue stress. In our case, it wasn’t hard to say, “No, no, and no,” but others might find this challenging. Our experience with this guest left us a little edgy, but with other positive experiences, we soon forgot this. Until, months later, we received his unsolicited apology letter in the post. Traveling is a learning experience for all of us.
Our most memorable hosting experience was non-standard. Anaid, a young Mexican woman studying English on a student visa had been stranded here for several months by a travel snafu. Her mother in Mexico had contacted Servas to make sure her daughter wasn’t left wandering the snowy streets. Our local Servas coordinator contacted hosts with a special request for longer-term back-to-back stays to house the young woman until she could return to Mexico. We chipped in about 10 days, and together with other hosts within a hundred mile radius, Anaid’s accommodation gap was covered.
As with traveling, hosting is about enjoying the unexpected. Anaid’s letter of introduction – written no doubt by her mother – sported a grainy black and white photograph of a young woman with pigtails and a traditional school uniform. However, when we first saw Anaid, she was wearing a backwards baseball cap and carrying a soccer ball – and her beaming smile revealed a tongue stud. No doubt some of this would have been news to her mother … as would the news that Anaid had indeed spent at least one snowy night on the streets of the inner city.
Anaid proved to be a delight. She was helpful and easy-going. She brought us some Mexican artwork, and our family still enjoys her easy recipe for enchiladas that she demonstrated for us one evening. She was quite happy to accompany us on whatever we were up to, like spending an hour watching underwater coaching videos from Cheryl’s swim team. Whenever we were tied up, she’d just pick up her soccer ball and head out, telling us she’d find someone “on the street” to play soccer with. The first time we heard this, we were doubtful. But she always found her game. We suppose the young men in our town also fell under her spell.
A visitor such as Anaid lets us see our hometown in a new light. Naturally, we took her to some of the local attractions we liked to visit. We also discovered that her biggest unfilled dream was to see some of the filming locations for a popular TV series. We looked them up and went on a tour. Snapping pictures of familiar backdrops, she laughed, “I’m going to sell these for a million back in Mexico!”
As we’ve said, visitors are not expected to reciprocate with their hosts. There is no requirement to offer anything other than a helping hand with the chores. Couchsurfers can mark their profiles as “no couch available” or “currently traveling”, and even Servas hosts who are “receiving” are always free to decline individual requests without apology.
Still, most of our recent visitors have offered us accommodation back home and we’ve stayed in loose touch with many of them. One offer in particular, we look forward to accepting before too long. In a mid-size town in the Mexican mountains – “a place of eternal springtime” says she – a young woman named Anaid still lives with her very grateful mother. We’ve promised to look them up when we’re in the neighbourhood.