If you can’t travel the world, bring the world to you.
Seems like the best traveling idea ever; Couchsurfing. It is a website that connects travelers with locals. Basically, you can send a request to a local host asking for a “couch” to stay or just to meet. Thereafter, leave a reference for one another and for the benefit of the community. Awesome, I want to try Couchsurfing!
Six months later in January 2012, three of my polytechnic friends and I booked a 5 days 4 nights trip to Bangkok. And I quickly pitched the idea of Couchsurfing to them. They found it interesting but on the flip side deemed that it could be dangerous and stuff. I managed to find a host who could fit four of us in her place and eventually convinced all of my friends to try it.
Memories of my first Couchsurfing experience as a ‘surfer’ stayed with me vividly. We had a dinner appointment with our host in the city and I remember we were late after getting stuck in the rush hour traffic in Bangkok, leaving our host waiting alone in a restaurant for an hour. Four men who just completed their National Service, getting lost and being so late, we were utterly embarrassed and I seriously thought we put all Singaporean males to shame.
The next morning, we found ourselves sitting alongside a fellow couchsurfer from Switzerland who was also ‘surfing’ in the same house. He was rolling his own hashish cigarette, blasting loud electronic music that we’ve never heard before, grooving and dancing his fingers to a potted plant beside him. Really. It was surreal. And a damn awkward scene at 9am when I hadn’t even brushed my teeth. The best I could do was to nod my head to the beats on the sofa.
Despite being socially awkward and embarrassed, sleeping on a mattress which I’ve no idea how many people had previously slept on, countless of mosquito bites (and the complaint list goes on…), I got an insight of how a local in Bangkok lived and made a few friends. People make the place and that’s how Couchsurfing makes traveling interesting!
I came home and started envisioning myself being a host in Singapore. How can I better the experience of travelers who are going to cross paths with me? How do I convince my parents? We have 7 people and 1 dog living in a 5-room apartment, where will they sleep?
It was not long before I receive my first ever ‘couch request’ from Shamal, a British Indian guy. Determined to make my first hosting experience happen, I accepted him almost immediately. (I will let my brother share the room with this stranger and I’ll take the couch instead) On the night of his late arrival, I took my mum’s Toyota to pick him up at the airport. Although his only profile photo was so small, it wasn’t hard identifying him from the crowd arriving from Hong Kong. I took him to Punggol Nasi Lemak for supper, which he said, did not disappoint. He also shared many things about Singapore; the perks of our nanny state and our political system, he asked me many things about Singapore which I did not have answers to! I later asked him what if I had not picked him up at the airport, he told me he would take the airport shuttle service for $9 to a hotel in the city and then take the 6N nightrider to my house at mid night. I was seriously impressed by the homework he had done. Conversations with him made me realize how little I know about Singapore as a Singaporean and it urged me to understand Singapore better.
After one first interesting couchsurfer, I was inspired and looking forward to the next. Before I know it, I had already hosted over 40 couchsurfers from 23 countries in 2 years. I’ve encountered many differences as well as shared many similar ideals and values with each and every individual. Below, I’m going to share just three couchsurfers who made a deep impression on me.
Jeff, The Juggler
One morning, my American ‘surfer’ Jeff asked me what was the duration of the pedestrian crossing in Singapore. I had no clue about that… He told me he was going to busk in town. I warned him that it is illegal and he will need a license to do so. After I got home from work that night he asked me. “Lester, how much does the guy at 7-Eleven earn in an hour?” I wasn’t sure but I estimated “about 6 dollars.” He smiled and shared that he earned 50 dollars in an hour busking in Orchard. Wow, I didn’t know Singaporeans are that generous. Maybe it was the tourists that gave all that gratuity.
The next day, Jeff told me he had earned 120 dollars busking for two hours. I never knew how much a busker could make and was really impressed by that amount. He told me that he chose a traffic junction in Little India that had a long pedestrian crossing duration, performed juggling to the drivers as audience and went up to them for donations. Jeff told me that he was inspired when he saw people in Thailand selling wares near the junction where the cars are at halt and decided to busk that way.
The night he left, my dad showed me an article on Lianhe Wanbao and asked if that Caucasian juggling on the road was Jeff? It was. Later that week my sister shared with me a video on Stomp of Jeff juggling on the road. While we constantly seek interesting contents to share, Jeff created his own. Left with 800 dollars in his bank, he headed to Australia on a holiday working visa.
Cherwin, The Cyclist
After cycling together for 10 months from Netherlands to South Korea then taking a ferry to Japan, Cherwin and his girlfriend went separate ways. Cherwin flew in to Singapore to start his journey through South East Asia, the Middle East and will continue his journey through Africa and Europe before arriving back home at Rotterdam, Netherlands.
The 23-year-old former Marine Corps arrived at Changi Airport and waited for his checked-in bicycle to come through customs. He asked for the directions to PIE and was warned that he is not allowed to cycle on the expressway. But he cycled anyhow. On the expressway, he was stopped three times by the police and each time he apologized and asked if he should go back or go forward towards his destination. Forward he went.
I invited Cherwin to a friend’s birthday celebration and he later thanked me for that wonderful experience and shared that he hadn’t sat down and talked to so many friends in a long time since he started cycling. Cherwin had merely just a few hours of rest before he woke me up at 3am. He was planning to cycle to Woodlands checkpoint and then head up north to Malaysia before the sun gets directly above his head. His discipline, determination and strength really reflected well on the red Astroboy T-shirt that he was wearing.
Hiroshi, The B-Boy
Having traveled more than 60 countries, Hiroshi insisted that the number of countries doesn’t matter. It’s the friends that you made on the road that count. I see a very mature, sensitive, charming and loving Japanese in front of me. He warmed up to my father, my senile grandmother and everyone else.
Hiroshi asked me if there is a place where dancers in Singapore meet, and I conveniently mentioned *Scape since we were in town. The moment we reached the 3rd level of *Scape, music beats and screeching sounds from the sole of shoes could be heard. I saw many passionate teenagers strutting their dance moves and the youth energy was so intense! High enough to make me feel out of place. Hiroshi stepped forward and did the “hey yo wassup” formalities with the fellow b-boys there while my girlfriend and I stood by the corner trying to make ourselves comfortable. Hiroshi changed into his rugged looking Allen Iverson jersey, revealing some impressive 6 or 8 packs on his abs, raising a few eyebrows from the crowd. I’m sure my girlfriend was containing her excitement too. The 28 year-old went on to do some neat footwork, which then continued with some kicks, drops, hops, spins, flips, freeze! Then, the Head spin! All eyes were on Hiroshi and were cheering for him. I was just proud that he is my friend yo. No one dared to dance after him and were just talking among themselves. Hiroshi went up to them and chatted, soon everyone was practicing some moves that Hiroshi shared and later, all the b-boys gathered for a photo op.
In Hiroshi’s three years of traveling, he took part in several breakdancing competitions around the world, teaming up with fellow travelers. He will be continuing his travels for another two year before returning to Japan. As for now, he would say, just let it be.
For every couchsurfer I invited into my life, I always feel that I’m the one receiving. I have enriched from their stories, their knowledge, their struggles and of course, their happiness whilst traveling. They gave me a whole lot more reasons to travel, affirming my love for traveling and for meeting new people, as said by Christopher McCandless “Happiness is only real when shared.”