Rasgullas, mangoes, chips, fries, and a lot of home-cooked food was passed around for the international mix of a group to munch on. The happy lot, casually stretching on multiple mats and the damp grass discussed the evening’s agenda. Planning a potluck and getting a good turnout is rare, but planning a potluck for a surprisingly pleasant evening in Delhi is rarer.
Lodhi Gardens played host to this interesting mix of people who are connected by a common passion relayed through a common network – Couchsurfing.org. The Couchsurfers had much to say about the website, its concept and the wanderlust that drives them to explore the world in such a novel fashion. Not only were they keen on talking about their experiences but they were also keen on talking in different languages. Chattering in alien tongues, they talked about how they have mastered the art of learning new languages. Phil, an NGO worker from the US who hosts in Delhi explained how he escapes spicy food. “I walk into a restaurant and the first thing I say is “Spice nahi chaiye!””.
Often opting for a shared one room accommodation over air-conditioned hotel rooms, the new-age travelers have found one more means of traveling – through people. The adventurous lot grows spiritually with each new humbling experience they encounter while surfing, often enjoying and learning more about the place and its culture from a local’s perspective than a hotel concierge would permit them. Lokesh, a regular couchsurfer in Atlanta talked about how much he had learnt about the world living with people: “I once lived with a lesbian couple. I was skeptical at first but then we got along so well that I ended up over-staying! The experience encouraged me to bunk with a gay man on a later visit.”
Couchsurfing, which is a concept that epitomizes globalization of living spaces, reshapes our notions of travel, friendship and most importantly, trust. So, how does it work? The idea is to find a room, a bed or even a couch in the destination you wish to travel to. You post your travel details on www.couchsurfing.org and update your profile to include as much credible as well as interesting information about yourself and wait for people willing to host in that area to contact you.
The Delhi Couchsurfing group that painted a perfect picture against the ancient tombs and green grass stands to question everything that is understood to be true about the city. At a time when Delhi is under the media lens for safety concerns for women, especially tourists, the international representation of women in the potluck group was heartwarming. Listening in on the debate about safety of women in Delhi, Utsav, a member from Goa said suddenly, “I think it is more important for people to adopt Couchsurfing now than ever.”
The general opinion was that Delhi is just as unsafe as any other city, and even though unpleasant experiences often occur on the streets, not many have had bad Couchsurfing experiences. Claudia from Finland said that although she had more freedom in Europe, India has a value for family life. However, she added, “I wouldn’t recommend India to girls around 18 years of age though. Maybe older?”
Charandeep, a young enthusiastic man who organized the meeting hosts a lot of young women at his house. On being asked about the reservations these young women might have, he answered immediately, “I tell them right off that I live with my parents. Besides, I prefer hosting women because I don’t wish to inconvenience my sister.”
“It isn’t difficult to understand who is genuine on the website. There are review systems in place where you can write positive or negative feedback for a person and it appears on their profile,” he added.
For travelers to place trust in people from Delhi, one wonders if Couchsurfing.org is doing something right that the media is not. The website seems to bring in a sense of hope and positivity in a cynical world; cynical not only towards ‘blacklisted’ cities like Delhi but also a kind of Hitchcock cynicism towards trusting strangers in strange lands.
As the discussions grew more intense, the clouds opened up on Delhi. Intriguing as it may be, the seasoned travelers didn’t move. The only acknowledgement of rain was the appreciation for rainbows and a certain young man exclaiming, “Oh! I’ve never seen rain in Delhi before!”
The surfers may not have had any reservations about sitting through rain, but some of their other concerns did seep into conversation. Santhosh, an adventure-bird who hitchhiked from Berlin to Thailand felt that there is a prejudice towards Indians in the west. “Ethnicity is a problem. A German girl in Berlin would get a cab in ten minutes. A German man might take an hour. I would have to wait six long hours to get one,” he said, rolling his eyes in exasperation. Santhosh’s comments cropped up a debate over how real is prejudice and the verdict was -- to each his (or her) own.
Co-host of the smashing successful potluck, Karan, had an important observation to make about the concept itself. “Couchsurfing is evolving. While the older generations cling on to the cultural exchange angle of it, the new lot considers it a smart cheap option. It won’t be long before we witness a clash in interests.”
Clash or no clash, Couchsurfing is new, young and here to stay. As Couchsurfer Pushkar put it, “You don’t need lonelyplanet anymore!”