The year was 1999. After failing to secure lodging in Iceland, having already booked a flight from Boston to Reykjavik, a 21-year-old computer programmer by the unlikely name of Casey Fenton employed his cyber skills to hack into the University of Iceland’s student database to email 1,500 students, asking them to receive him in their homes. More than 50 students responded, offering to take him in for the duration of his stay in Iceland.
It is then and there that the most ingenious travel trend of the century was conceived, snowballing into the alternative travel movement we now know as couchsurfing. But couchsurfing relies on more than just the generosity, hospitality, and kindness of strangers; the idea rests on the well-oiled machine that is Couchsurfing.com, a social networking platform and the startup Fenton, the original surfer, cofounded in 2004.
But as Fenton was surfing couches and founding his startup, terrorists were hijacking planes and crashing them in skyscrapers, and the developing world was fast becoming the global elite’s sweatshop. Globalization had released itself from its promise of a borderless world, robbing Fenton’s startup of its rightful place in the mainstream. In the West, couchsurfing has certainly passed its heyday – some would even argue couchsurfing is a fad that has now been relegated to a subcultural brand of the shared economy.
Here in Egypt, and in the Middle East and North Africa in general, where a young population – facing border discrimination, travel bans, and economic hardship that leaves little to luxury spending – thirsts for adventure, couchsurfing is met with renewed interest, albeit among a small community.
But subculture rarely, if ever, sheds its less than palatable and downright damning prefix in Egypt. “My friends think I’m crazy for couchsurfing, they’re really weirded out by it. They’re like, ‘why don’t you go stay at a hostel?’” says Nadine*, a young Egyptian woman who recently went couchsurfing in Bulgaria with her partner. “My parents knew I was going with my boyfriend, but I didn’t tell them that I was couchsurfing. I couldn’t just say, ‘oh, I’m going to stay with a bunch of strangers.’ My parents are super paranoid, so they really wouldn’t have been cool with the idea. They’d rather I pay money for a hotel than stay at some random stranger’s house.”
Ahmed*, a 31-year-old Egyptian traveller currently exploring Denmark one couch at a time, was inducted into couchsurfing as a bit of a family affair. “I’d been planning a trip to Turkey for six months. I decided to receive some surfers to get some good references, so when it’s my turn to send homestay requests, people will take me in,” he says. “My wife was very averse to the idea at first, so we decided to receive a woman first, so she’d feel safer. Our first houseguest was a young Chinese woman. She was very nice and kind to us. She and my wife became friends. They would go shopping together, sometimes they even cooked together.”
Most countries don’t accept couchsurfing as a valid proof of accommodation on a visa application, and as result many surfers resort to dummy hotel booking slips and invitation letters.
As most travelers have come to learn, hosting guests while Egyptian and surfing as one are two very different propositions. As is the case with everything else, the all too human urge to move and wander is tainted by racism, prejudice, and other social ills. “When I was going to Georgia, I sent 60 requests to different hosts, and I only heard back from two,” Ahmed recalls. “But I think it depends on where you’re going. For instance, when I was going to Indonesia and Malaysia, hosts were approaching me to stay with them, because we matter to them. In Europe, it’s hard.”
An Egyptian surfer is not only at a disadvantage insofar as his or her potential host’s views. Most countries don’t accept couchsurfing as a valid proof of accommodation on a visa application, and as result many surfers resort to dummy hotel booking slips and invitation letters. At a time when North Africans and Middle Eastern peoples are facing deportations, displacement, and diaspora, Egyptian surfers are seeing these restrictions rigorously enforced. “When I was going to Bulgaria, I had a Bulgarian friend of mine that I’d went to school with send me an invitation letter,” Nadine says. “But still, when I landed there, I was interrogated on how I know this person and why and when. …when you come from the Middle East, people always assume you’re shady and need to know where you’ll be at all times or something, I believe. That’s never the case for my Western friends when they come to Egypt.”
Female surfers from the Middle East have the added burden of contending with rampant gender-based obstacles. “You really need to be careful who you pick. For me, it’s not the verification that counts, it’s the references a host has gotten from previous couchsurfers,” Nadine explains. “If I’m to go couchsurfing solo, I think I’d feel safer staying in a woman’s house or with a family.”
In recent years, couchsurfing has been ascribed the lascivious moniker ‘sexsurfing', which, for all intents and purposes, refers to consensual sexual acts that hosts and surfers engage in as part of the couchsurfing experience. But as the world was reassessing and renegotiating its understanding of consent in the aftermath of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, the cheeky designation took on a whole new meaning. Numerous women have come forward with allegations of sexual assault committed against them by their hosts and accusing the organization of complicity. “A lot of people use it as a dating website; if there’s something to be wary about, it’s that. I get a lot of messages from local men asking me to entertain them, they’re like, ‘oh, I got kicked out of my house,’ or they’ll ask you out for drinks, so you’ll get that a lot,” Nadine cautions. “There’s another site that’s basically people talking about their sexual encounters through couchsurfing, so you go on that website and you think, oh so everyone is doing it! I’m going to find someone on couchsurfing to do this with! And they’ll approach women with that in mind.”
Egyptian millennials, especially women, don’t seem to be backing down, intent on surfing their way across the globe.
Hadeer Maher, a young Egyptian woman who backpacked Asia earlier this year, couchsurfed across India – the world’s most dangerous country for women, according to a recent poll – without incident. “Girls and women are more likely to be sexually harassed or assaulted, but as a woman, I think you always have your survival mode on when you’re traveling,” she says. “It’s all about common sense. You start to get a feel for things the more you travel. You need to ask yourself over and over again, ‘am I comfortable staying with this person?’”
These are the same problems that put a damper on the global travel community’s enthusiasm for couchsurfing. Yet, Egyptian millennials, especially women, don’t seem to be backing down, intent on surfing their way across the globe. “You have to be flexible. When you’re couchsurfing, you could end up sleeping on the floor, literally – that’s what happened to me, I ended up sleeping next to a Russia girl for two days,” Maher says. “You save so much money. The least you’d pay at a hostel is €10, which could feed you two meals, or, if you’re lucky, your host is going to feed you,” Nadine adds.
Aside from the considerable amounts one could save relying on people’s largess, couchsurfing can be a source of companionship, a far more elusive honeypot. “When I came back from Bulgaria, I opened up my home for couchsurfers, and when I couldn't have them stay we would just hang out – there’s a feature on the app that lets you connect with travelers who want to meet for coffee or something,” Nadine explains. “There was this German girl from Leipzig who stayed with me for a month – she was my first couchsurfing guest. We had such a good time together – we’d go to concerts, we’d go out to eat, we’d talk a lot. I really got to make a friend. It was a really cool experience.”
If the resurgence of couchsurfing as an exciting alternative way to travel among young Egyptians is indicative of anything, it is this generation’s complete disregard for society's conventional wisdom and the tried, the tested, and the true.
This openness to the concept of staying in a stranger’s house in a foreign country is dictated by more than just practicality. Recent studies have shown that millennials are two times more likely to experience loneliness in their lifetime than any other generation. “The good thing about couchsurfing is that you meet people who are different, who have different stories to tell about their life experiences and their travels,” Ahmed says. “In Turkey, I stayed with this student who lives in a big house and there were other surfers there. We rented a bus and went on a trip and spent a week together, it was great to meet people you don’t really know and become friends with them.” If the resurgence of couchsurfing as an exciting alternative way to travel among young Egyptians is indicative of anything, it is this generation’s complete disregard for society's conventional wisdom and the tried, the tested, and the true.
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved.