I met Max on Long Street in Cape Town, South Africa. It was July 3rd, just before midnight, when his friends introduced me and my friends to him. As the clock struck twelve, he burst into the American national anthem with a few other drunken guys. “Independence Day,” he explained, then carried on singing.
Noticing the media credentials around his neck, I asked him what he did. “I’m a travel writer,” he answered, and immediately we became friends. In his early 20s, Max was on assignment from Philadelphia, and living a pretty awesome life. He had hitchhiked from Durban to Cape Town and visited 12 cities and towns along the way, all while Couchsurfing.
As a female, the idea of sleeping on the couch of someone I barely knows freaks me out. But as Max explained to me, couchsurfing is not just rocking up at some stranger’s house and crashing on their sofa — it’s a travelling community of like-minded people who get to have an authentic experience in their destination.
So I sat down with Max and asked him a few questions about his couchsurfing experience in South Africa.
What where your preconceived ideas of Africa and South Africa? What surprised you most about the country?
Everything was as I expected it to be. People back home gave me a pretty accurate descriptions of South Africa – and the Internet and YouTube did the rest. The only big surprise was the street service – the guys who try to fix your things and carry your bags on the street.
Why did you choose to come to South Africa?
South Africa seemed like the most accessible inroad to the African continent. With little money in my pocket, and no knowledge of couchsurfing [before getting offered work in South Africa] I thought it would be an easy and safe way to establish a “home base” before flying to other countries. I also know a few people who grew up or live here. Several of my friends studying in the US – including my best friend and his fiancée – are from Durban. I was curious about where they grew up and the living conditions in and around Durban, I knew I need to visit.
It also seemed like everybody [in Philadelphia] was visiting South Africa! I rarely could find a person [in the US] who hadn’t visited Kruger National Park. In the end, I didn’t visit Kruger, but then I wasn’t there for tourist attractions. I also desperately wanted to see a rugby game in South Africa.
Why did you choose couchsurfing and not the traditional hotel/lodge/B&B accommodation options?
I needed to quickly move across South Africa without worrying about reservations, etc. I needed 24-hour access to areas I couldn’t safely visit on my own, like Tembisa township and various areas in the Transkei region. Travelling alone is a lot of fun when, and only when, there is an opportunity to meet new people. This is especially true when visiting a country that is not your own. I also had little money, so I had three choices: 1) spend little to no money on the cheapest, dingiest accommodation I could find; 2) give up some of the interesting activities I had planned so I’d have a mid-range amount for a B&B or hotel; or 3) couchsurf and spend no money (except for helping out with groceries), and stay in beautiful houses across South Africa.
Did you use any other forms of accommodation? Hostels, hotels, etc? If yes, how did your experience differ from that of couch surfing?
Yes, I stayed at the Castle Inn in Cape Town and there was no comparison to couchsurfing. The Castle Inn was one of those cheap, dingy places I mentioned earlier with door locks were broken, bathroom lights were busted and my bed was full of crumbs.
Were you concerned about safety while couchsurfing?
No, not really, I chose people who were verified and rated well on the Couchsurfing website. Couchsurfing works hard to make things safe.
What was your first impression of your couchsurfing hosts?
My first host lived in Muizenberg in Cape Town. In the house lived the mother, her two 20-something-year-old daughters and the husband of one of the daughters. It was a pretty strange set up, but I got used to it. They made me feel at home and introduced me to their friends.
The second host owned a lodge in Lubanzi in the Transkei. They were planting sustainable gardens in the community and working towards supplying the community with clean water. They were hippies — they even had a VW Bug — and had travelled all over the world. Several other couchsurfers joined us from Sweden and Spain.
Did your host go above and beyond to welcome you and make your stay comfortable?
Every time. We shared meals, they took me out to dinner and bars. They took me rock climbing, running and to a comedy show.
Where there any awkward moments between you and your host?
Once, in Lubanzi, I thought I’d be kind and purchase groceries for the house. As it turned out, my concept of “a lot of money” and their concept differed. I bought what I considered a reasonable amount of food, but the hosts thought it was a massive purchase. The hosts seemed visibly aggravated by my overspending, but by that night — once everyone was tucking into a good meal — it all was forgotten.
Describe the homes of your hosts. Was it what you expected it to be?
The house in Muizenberg was three stories, with a loft on the third story and a deck overlooking the ocean. It reminded me of the house I grew up in, so I liked it and was what I expected. In Lubanzi I stayed in a beautiful round houses built by my hosts. There were several bathrooms, a gas stove and a gorgeous view of Lubanzi. The biggest surprise was the rocket showers with no hot water.
Did you actually sleep on a couch? Or something a little more comfortable?
[Laughs] I never slept on a couch. I slept on the floor in a sleeping bag once. Most of the time I was given a bed.
What was the best/coolest thing about couchsurfing?
You get to experience your destination like a tourist and a local.
What is the worst thing about couchsurfing?
You can get stuck with hosts you don’t particularly like.
What are the three must-have items a couchsurfer coming to South Africa needs?
1. A plan in case your hosts can’t spend time with you, which is often the case and should be expected.
2. Manners. Don’t come without them.
3. A personal drugstore. Bring everything you might need to purchase, even if you never get sick.
Would you advise people visiting South Africa to couchsurf?
If you had to personally do it all over again would you couchsurf again? And why?
Yes, because of all reasons above.