Posted by: Tommy | November 7, 2010

Couchsurfing

Tonight is the last night of our first couchsurfing experience and I wanted to share some thoughts.

For those of you who don’t know (and I’m assuming that’s most of you, since couchsurfing is not a very American activity) couchsurfing is a movement, a website and a way of life.  It’s also hands-down the cheapest way to stay anywhere.  Couchsurfing.com is a website that allows members to post the city they live in and whether or not they would be open to traveling strangers sleeping for a night or two on their couch for free.  If you surf the couches of others, you are expected to host surfers in return. But there’s no requirement, no one is checking to make sure everyone is hosting. It’s just the right thing to do.

Couchsurfing isn’t just about staying somewhere for free (though it’s a major plus).  It’s more about meeting local people while you’re traveling, really getting to experience the people and the culture of a foreign place, and seeing things the average tourist doesn’t get to see.  It’s like taking the things we enjoy about hostels a step further.

We signed up for couchsurfing.com when we were in Russia.  We were excited about the concept – we met some surfers in St. Petersburg who had very positive things to say about it.  So we sent out about 25 surfing requests for people all over Israel, matching cities to the dates we thought we’d be there. Of those, 24 told us no.  They were already hosting or were busy or were traveling themselves.  It makes sense – people are busy all over the world.  But then we got our first yes – from Eran Mieri in Jerusalem.  It is Eran’s living room that we are in right now, chilling on his couch, using his internet and eating some chocolate challah.  We’re alone in the apartment – it’s the weekend and Eran is in London and his roommates both left town today.  More on that in a second.

We met up with Eran on Tuesday night. After a bit of difficulty with the cab driver (our fault – we don’t speak Hebrew) we arrived at Eran’s house.  Eran had told us previously that he wanted to watch a soccer game between a Tel Aviv team and a German team, so as soon as we arrived he was ready to go (we made him late).  Anna and I were in the mood for a sports bar (I was in the mood for sports, Anna for bar) so we tagged along.  On the way, Eran answered all the (probably annoying) questions Anna and I had about Jerusalem, about the soccer team (for example, he told us that the soccer teams in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are either Right Wing or Left Wing.  There’s one Right and one Left team in each city and your political views shape who you root for) and about his school (he’s a student, as are most Israelis at 26 – a product of the mandatory military service). The bar had 2 tvs, each showing a different soccer game.  We rooted for the left wing Tel Aviv team and drank Goldstar, the local Israeli beer.  Eran had to be up and at school early the next day and then work through the night, so we made plans to meet up Thursday and then..he just gave us his keys.  This was probably the weirdest thing for me.

Because of a very enjoyable experience, Anna and I have decided to host people when we get a place in Texas.  But I don’t know that I’ll ever feel comfortable handing my keys over to some stranger that I’ve known for 3 hours like Eran did for us.  The next morning, we got up and ate breakfast.  Eran’s roommates were around for awhile and then left, leaving Anna and I alone at the house.  He has 2 roommates, whom we had talked to for a total of 5 minutes each, and they were both comfortable with us having Eran’s keys and being there alone.  Maybe it’s an American thing to naturally distrust strangers.  I don’t know.

We went out and toured Jerusalem for the day, returning after dark to the apartment.  We were there for about 30 minutes when Roi (the male roommate) returned home – with his brother in tow.  Rafi, the brother, was a tall, skinny, bald guy with a huge black beard.  He’s a musician who lives in Barcelona, speaks Hebrew, English, Spanish and French – sometimes all in the same sentence.  He’s also crazy – in the best possible way.  Rafi referred to us as “the couchsurfers” all weekend to anyone who came by the house – and there were at least 7 visitors per day that just seemed to drop by.  None of them were ever surprised to see random strangers living in the loft, nor where they surprised that we were American.  Several of them wanted our opinions on the elections, some wanted us to drink shots with them, but they were all very friendly and welcoming of “the couchsurfers.”

On Thursday night, Rafi, Eran, Anna, myself and a random other friend who’s name I don’t know went to a concert – the Apples.  The Apples are – in my mind- an Israeli cross between a Euro techno band and a New Orleans brass band.  They’ve got 6 guys on stage, playing trumpet, trombone, sax, drums, and bass and then 2 DJs.  It was weird, but it was cool.  And the best part – the Jews can’t dance so Anna and I didn’t look out of place dancing like white people in the back of the concert venue.  We took a break for a while and started talking to the random friend.  It turns out he has been done with his military service for several years, but gets called back every year – the army can call you back for up to 40 days each year – and was leaving on Monday.

One of the most interesting things for me is the concept of forced service for everyone here.  But every time I tried to talk to Israeli’s about it, they seem reluctant.  The usual response is “It’s really not interesting.’  Maybe it was the beer, but Eran’s friend answered all of the questions I had with no hesitation.  Anna and I ended up talking to him until the show ended.  It was a great night – and an experience that we wouldn’t have had if we weren’t couchsurfing and in a position to make friends with a group of local people.

Another experience we miss without local knowledge – Ultimate Frisbee!  A neighbor who came over for dinner on Thursday had a broken wrist.  When I asked her what she’d done – she explained she’d broken it playing frisbee.  Of course, I got excited and before long she was explaining to me where people play frisbee and that there would be several games happening the next day (Friday here is like Saturday in the States).  Anna and I were planning on having a relax day on Friday anyway (Shabat is Friday and Saturday and everything run by Jews closes, so it’s a convenient day for relaxing and an inconvenient day for pretty much everything else) so I decided to check out the frisbee at the park.

I barely missed the first game, played by Hassidic Jews, who wore shorts and t-shirts, and also the white robe with tassels (its a standard part of the Hassidic outfit) during the game.  I got to play in a game later in the day and it was just like a game in the States – lots of yelling (in Hebrew, unless I had the frisbee), people arguing over the rules and having a good time.

After the park, I went back to the apartment where Anna was making red beans and rice (she made guacamole another night, as we wanted to give our hosts a chance to eat foods that aren’t customary in Israel – the guacamole was a hit, the red beans and rice, not so much).  We ate and then Roi and Rafi left for the weekend, Eran and the other roommate were already gone – so Anna and I were left alone again – writing this post and becoming excited for our next couchsurfing experience.  We think we’ve found an Australian who lives in Egypt that we can stay with.

Dinner, with Eran, Rafi and the frisbee neighbor.

If anyone is interested, we have lots of pictures of Israel not shown in the blog on our Flickr page, here.

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Responses

  1. What a fun experience to live and get to know Israelis in such an intimate way. The concert, Frisbee and conversation all sound like you have seen another side of Israel. I am sure you wouldn’t trade them for a plush hotel experience. As the mom of a girl, I worry but I will keep that mostly to myself so as not to mar your experience. I am proud that you are trusting — it is not just your hosts that are trusting. Love you.

  2. I think meeting strangers in that way sounds very interesting, and involves lots of trust! Maybe they will come to Texas to visit-


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