Chapter 7 – Creating a Better World, Once Couch At a Time
Ronald is a trampoline instructor of a similar age to ourselves and happy to have strangers stay in his house. He is a CouchSurfing host and amongst hundreds of thousands of people around the world who have their own reasons for inviting people they have never met to stay in their homes. My previous CouchSurfing experiences had been only an elongated stay in Amsterdam with a German Drum and Bass enthusiast who I have since revisited and am friends with to this day, a brief stint in a Parisian apartment with a sedate jazz musician, and the one-time host of a German couple for whom we felt it necessary to remove the A2-sized Hitler card from my bedroom wall which my housemates had creatively collated for my 21st birthday. With the Travelodge undoubtedly the cheapest lodgings we would find in any London location and still at over £30 a night, a host had finally came through for our final three nights in London only the day before our departure from Penzance; so it was that Josh and Luke would be introduced, not without understandable apprehension, to the vision of the CouchSurfing community.
Now whilst I have jumped a variety of fences in my time, scaled innumerable loose-collared drainpipes, slipped through many an un-latched window with my feet up by my ears and my balls crushed on sills having been locked out, I have never had to break into someone else’s house who I have never met before. But technically, as we had been invited, it’s not really breaking in; that is as long as it’s the correct property. It takes me to read the letters on the front room table and associate the vacant look on the goldfish’s face with an anecdote in Ronald’s profile to reassure myself that I’m not going to be subject to the wrath of Neighbourhood Watch; the scornful looks from behind curtains shivering against single-glazed windows that rattle in their chipped, wooden frames, their yellow ‘Neighbourhood Watch’ stickers peeling back from a cobwebbed corner of a cracked pane. They punch ’99…’ into their phones and do their part for society from the comfort of their own front rooms.
It turns out that the key Ronald had left for us on the inside sill of his unlocked, bottom-floor window had been taken by the pair of Danish CouchSurfers who were leaving that day. I am still amazed, and consequently amazed at my own amazement, that so many hosts actually operate the constant accommodation of travellers from all over the world on a day-to-day basis; some use the social medium in the interest of more practical application, such as a chance to practice and learn new languages; others indulge in the ability to explore cultural difference without having to travel themselves; some simply make it their mission to help out in return for the company found in new people and shared experience.
CouchSurfing was formed as a social charity; the facilitation of spaces of cultural exchange, with travellers staying for free in other people’s (often travellers themselves) homes. However, after repeated refusals from the IRS to attain charity status which would allow them to accept tax-deductable donations and grants, in August, 2011, CouchSurfing was forced to change its status to a ‘for-profit’ organisation in order to maintain its financial viability and the mission statement it had held since 2006: to ‘Participate in Creating a Better World, Once Couch At A Time’.
Over the space of three years Ronald had hosted people of over 150 different nationalities. He had lived in Wandsworth all his life, having been brought up by his grandmother in the house she still lives in – and he visits weekly – at the other end of the road. Whilst a student with no intention of paying back neither his University debts nor the overdrafts to banks he felt were too financially unstable to secure return payments, he indulged in current affairs and the opinions of others, developing views on social injustice which always led him back to his doorstep. During our three-night stay with him a quiet French couple and a friendly Dutch duo came and left, we talked, watched a film or two when Ronald returned from work, shared our loot of Weetabix and Tetley’s tea and returned our thanks with a steak dinner.
Ronald had talked quite extensively about the recent changes that had happened with the change of CouchSurfing to a for-profit organisation and his wavering decision whether to stick with the social networking site which had been founded on the principal of non-profit cultural and social exchange. But I was still somewhat surprised recently to find that he had made the decision to delete his profile which recorded his connections with over four hundred different CouchSurfers; over four hundred different encounters with over four hundred different people, four hundred different lives, cultures, religions, beliefs, goals, desires; a matrix of shared experience cultivated in the belief of trust, understanding and mutual respect towards people we have never met. Despite the choice to withdraw his couches from the site, I am confident that Ronald continues his hosting via the numerous other online communities which remain non-profit organisations. I admire his deliberate action and foresight to consider what his actions are supporting on a macro level. As for the micro levels, I am sure he still helps keep kids from London council estates out of trouble for a few hours a week with his trampolining lessons; even if five-year-olds kids are still backhanding their mum’s for not buying sweeties after the session. True story; it’s London Town.
The afternoon of our second night at Ronald’s, full-bellied after Camden’s £4 ‘all-you-can -fit-in-the-tin-tub’ Chinese, we’re hugs and fare thee well’s as Eli boards a train to Brighton for yet another night of youthful debauchery, decadence and hedonistic indulgence.
Oh shit i got mashed last night. Don’t come to Brighton a night before your flight. I ended up at some house party at 5 in the morning doing nos balloons. And going to bed at 7. Nasty barely woke up this morning. But i have made it on to a train so i am on the right way.
And speaking of the right way, Josh, Luke and I are hugging with genuine joy as we recognise the McDonald’s landmark that tells us that after three hours of being lost in Wandsworth, the drama of the N87 night bus has finally drawn to a rape-free close. We follow the directions for ‘Walk-Through’ at the 24 hour establishment (go-ahead nutrition for the go-ahead people) feeling almost indebted to Mr McDonald for the glowing neon ‘M’ which, shame or no shame, marks our sanctuary. It’s not until after a quick survey of our circumstances, however – bumpers to our front, headlamps to our rear, the pervasive stench of stale grease penetrating the pores – that we realise we have been standing in the middle of a drive through full of cars for the past fifteen minutes looking like complete idiots. The illusive ‘Walk-Through’ is found at the other side of the building, and its queues turns a whole corner of fiends clucking for the comfort of a cheeseburger fix. We scrape together what morsels of dignity we’ve left ourselves with and retreat into the darkness of Wandsworth. There’s Weetabix, flapjacks and leftover Indian to be had in consolation.
After those eight hours of drinking at cheap bars with Vash, our farewell at the Northern Line with her cheeks flushed rose from house wines and Jägermeister and the realisation of our notorious navigational skills, there is relief the next evening as we finally board our first flights bound for Bangkok – the cheapest one-way entrance into South East Asia. Having booked his flight later than ourselves, Josh will meet us in Bangkok after his stop-over in Delhi, whereas Luke and I are unbuckling our seatbelts after touching down in Kiev, Ukraine, for an overnight haul. The temperature outside, we are told, is minus two degrees Celsius. Dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, having only the heat and humidity of Bangkok’s bustling streets as our initial concern, we are now shrivelling in anticipation of some extremely unpleasant, frosty bollocks.