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Thursday, February 25, 2010

The hospitality of strangers

Feb. 25 (Jeju Weekly) It takes a certain type of person to invite complete strangers to stay in your home, so it’s not surprising that those Jeju residents who are members of the couch-surfing community tend to be adventurous types, with personality to spare.

CouchSurfing (www.couch surfing.org) describes itself as, “an international non-profit network that connects travelers with locals in over 230 countries and territories around the world. Since 2004, members have been using our system to come together for cultural exchange, friendship, and learning experiences. Today, over a million people who might otherwise never meet are able to share hospitality and cultural understanding.”

Members can either host others, by offering a place to stay, or surf the couches, spare rooms or even cottages available online. The latest Web site statistics list more than 1.7 million couch surfers in 235 countries.

Sasha Kolchevsky-Shepherd of New Mexico now resides in Aewol and has been a member of the community for a year and a half, with his wife. The couple also has a two-month old daughter, Kaia, who seems quite at ease with strangers.

Kolchevsky-Shepherd’s mission, as stated on the profile that all members post on the Web site, is to, “Spread beauty, Hospitality, cont. from page 1 light and consciousness ... helping people become free.” A reference from a surfer who stayed with him states, “Sasha is the embodiment of positivity.”

“I’ve never actually couch surfed,” Kolchevsky-Shepherd said, “but I’ve been fortunate enough to have some situations to be able to host people on Jeju. And I think that in Korea, in general, that’s not quite so common because a lot of people here are English teachers who have studio flats [apartments] where it’s not really so comfortable. You have to really get along quite well with somebody.”

He has hosted a number of couch surfers on Jeju Island, and he is happy to lend guests his spare motorcycle, in addition to offering a bed.

“I’ve had a few people who I just felt like, from the moment I met them, I just felt they were the oldest friends,” he said. “Just laughing and joking and having such interesting conversations.”

His wife said she enjoys meeting new people, with different experiences than those on the island. “A lot of the people who speak English here are English teachers,” she said. “It’s nice to meet more than that.”

“I’ve never actually gone couch surfing myself,” Kolchevsky-Shepherd said, “but I feel that in a way it almost changes the world in terms of opening up freedom of travel on a low budget. It makes the world so much more accessible.

“I’m thinking of times in the past when I’ve got stuck in a city somewhere and I had nowhere to stay and I didn’t know what to do and no money for a hotel, and I didn’t know where a hostel was. I’d have had a much better time if I’d have known about couch surfing because there’s so much participation in it and there are so many people who are active in it all over the world. It’s really quite amazing.

“It’s like a network that lets people help each other and do favors for each other,” he added. “And how good is that, right?”

▲ Rebekah Lesher, left, preparing to bake bread in a wood-fired cob oven in the yard of her home in Hagwi. Right, Joel Young and Moon Sook Mi playing with their son, Joon. Photos by Tracie Barrett, courtesy of Joel Young

Rebekah Lesher and Phil Hacker have lived in a cottage in Hagwi since 2008 and list their current mission as, “Busy living.”

Lesher’s first couch surfed herself in Ghana, and she described the experience as “an awesome, awesome deal.” “I met up with this girl on CouchSurfing and she said she would host me and I really had no idea what I was getting into. I needed to get visas and do a bunch of stuff and she met me at the airport and took me to her house and helped me do everything. If she hadn’t have helped me, it would have taken me over a week instead of the three days I’d been planning on.”

They have since hosted a few people at their home but have also had “a bunch” of people cancel at the last minute and one girl who simply didn’t show up. Lesher said that sometimes when people don’t pay anything, they don’t think it’s as serious to back out of. “I think that when it’s just, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll be there,’ then there’s no commitment.”

Hacker is less enamored of the service than Lesher, never having used it himself. “I’ve always spent time of people’s couches but I’ve never joined the actual Web site,” he said.

“I’ve met much more interesting people whose couches I have stayed at or who have stayed at my couch. “While it’s still great, because you don’t have to stay at hotels and hostels and what-not, I think it does take away that element of spontaneity.”

English teacher Joel Young and his wife, Moon Sook Mi, live in a rural setting at Ara-dong with their 2-year-old son, Joon. Young lists his mission on his profile as, “keeping my door and my options open.”

In what they describe as “a long story,” the couple first met on a kibbutz in Israel in 1988. They kept in touch, Moon joined Young in the United States, where they married, and they returned to her home island of Jeju about one and a half years ago. He signed up with CouchSurfing while they were in Seattle, just before the move.

The family has glowing references from surfers they have hosted and friends who are also members of the community, many of whom mention their adorable son. They said they have hosted one couple and two individuals.

Young makes it clear on his profile that they are fairly isolated, with only one bus stop close by, and that is only serviced every 90 minutes. “Be prepared for not-instant access and a little tricky to get here,” the advice reads.

Despite that, he has had a lot more inquiries than he expected but sometimes, owing to other commitments, he has had to turn surfers down. He said he would recommend the service to others if it were their “thing.” “I think you just have to be comfortable with strangers in your house,” he said.

Moon said her mother is good with strangers so she has fed their couch surfers several times. “The second one we got, he had a lot of experience with couch surfing so he was ready to make meals for us,” she said.

Young said he does vet their guests carefully, particularly because they have a young son in the house. “When you look at a profile and you see when they joined up and you can tell that they were thinking, ‘I might go to Korea. Here’s couch surfing. Maybe I’ll join up.’ Those are the kind of things I look out for. “You have to have that common sense kind of judgment if you want to get into it.”

As to whether they would couch surf themselves as a family, Young and Moon agreed that it would be more difficult, but they were definitely open to the possibility.

“I would certainly look into it,” Young said. “It would have to feel right if we were going somewhere. If it felt sketchy at all or difficult or ‘How are we getting there?” and they’re not really being helpful or anything like that, then, no!”

2 comments:

  1. Interesting! I was struck by Rebekah 's thoughts on people not taking the site seriously and cancelling on their hosts at the last minute. That makes sense to me, but so far I've only seen the hosts cancel; like my friend Maria was flying in to Chicago this coming Saturday, and her hosts totally bailed. That was seriously uncool.

    Luckily one of her Danish friends had stayed with this American expat in London through the hospitality exchange community Tripping (http://www.tripping.com), and through that site, Maria found a host. Phew!

    Despite my friend's experience connecting with hosts online (or maybe because of it, since someone in the Tripping community stepped in to help), I plan to be an active host and traveler connecting with locals on my travels.

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  2. I'm sure there are instances on both sides of people not taking what they committed to seriously - Rebekah still seemed totally in favor of Couch Surfing
    I must say that I hosted twice after writing this story and tho I enjoyed meeting my surfers, decided it's not really for me - I guess I'm closer to Phil's mindset

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