Room for friendship

He may only be 27 but for the past seven years, Mr Ganesh App has hosted more than 100 guests, from 30 different countries, in his home. Mr App is part of the Couchsurfing scene and plays host to travellers who are mostly on a budget.

Couchsurfing is a social network website and was founded in 2003 as a non-profit organisation.

It is a platform for members to find accommodation in the countries they visit by staying as a guest at a host's home.

Sometimes, the travellers - or surfers - would be given a spare room to stay in and, other times, they would be given an empty couch or a spare mattress.

The website allows hosts to search for travellers, do background checks and post events for members who live in that country to join.

Mr App, who also goes by the name Segaro or Gapp, has been a Couchsurfing member since 2007.

He moved from Chennai to Shanghai and two years ago he made Singapore his home.

That would mean quite a bit of house hunting but Mr App had always made it a point to check with the landlords if guests are allowed.

Hosting has become a huge part of his life, he tells tabla!

"The best thing about hosting is, it is a positive thing. The idea is built up on the fact that travellers are generally good people. The more you travel the more open-minded you get, the more culture-sensitive you become and so on. When you host, you really feel good about it. You feel that you are in some way helping to prove that there is goodness in the world," said the IT consultant.

Enlightening experience

Agreeing, Mr Rakesh Kumar Devalapally, who hosted his first guest just a little more than a year ago, describes his experience so far as enlightening.

The 27-year-old said: "Best thing about hosting someone is that when you open your doors to strangers, you are opening your mind to new things, new ideas, new thoughts, new ways of life and much more. It makes you a better person, provided you are open to meeting new people and accepting their way of life without judging them."

Mr Devalapally does not live alone and shares his apartment in Singapore with two housemates who were instantly open to the idea of Couchsurfing when he told them about it. To date, Mr Devalapally has hosted about 50 guests. His youngest guest was six and the oldest was 60.

"My guests are singles, couples, men, women, friends and family. I have hosted an Indonesian mother and her six-year-old son for two days, a 60-year-old woman and her 21-year-old daughter from Lithuania for four days, two friends from Germany for over seven days, a married couple from the US and a few others from France, Germany, New Zealand, Australia, Finland, Hungary, England, Spain, Iran, Denmark and Poland," he added.

Couchsurfing is not just about providing a roof over the heads for visitors but also for them to interact, learn and share experiences.

After all, many of these surfers are budget travellers. Throughout his Couchsurfing experience, Mr App has made it a point to spend some quality time with his surfers.

"I usually let my surfers do whatever they want. If they want to explore on their own, they can do it. If they need me for anything I will be there. I am into a lot of sports and so most of my surfers join me," he explained.

A recent surfer from China, Mr Wanqi Lin, ran the Mr25 Ultra marathon with him last year.

"He had never run over 42.195km in his life. Before his visit he had asked me how he could ensure a memorable experience in Singapore. Knowing that he runs marathons, I suggested maybe he should mark his first travel experience with a first overseas run, a first ultra. And if he finished he would have a medal to remind him of his first trip," said Mr App.

The duo finished the race and bagged not only the medals but also bragging rights.

Mr App also organises some unusual activities for his surfers, "if they are up for it".

When he was in Shanghai for work in 2011, Mr App, along with his two surfers, Evgeniya Trifonova from Russia and Ling Wan from China, wore Pac-Man costumes and went around the city during Halloween.

"We made the costumes by ourselves and we did a lot of silly stuff. We are in touch and still chuckle about it," he said.

Mr Devalapally, however, takes on a comparatively conservative approach when hosting his guests. He takes them to his favourite food places and haunts.

"We head down to have laksa at Katong, crabs at Bugis, Indian food along Little India, Mediterranean food in Arab Street and so on. I will also take them to East Coast Park or provide them with advice on where they can go," he said.

Pilot Anubhav Sharma and his wife Rakhi make it a point to spend time with their surfers. The couple hosted their first guest last year.

"We've had 15 guests, mostly pairs at our place in the east of Singapore and they are mainly from Europe," said Mr Sharma.

"Pictionary has been the highlight for our guests. We have had the best time playing the game with a few drinks and when sober, the reviews of our hospitality have been positive, as we glean it from our profile on the Couchsurfing website."

As most of these surfers are budget travellers or backpackers, they tend to stay in Singapore for not more than three to four days and then move on to the next city using Singapore as a base, said the hosts tabla! spoke to. However, in other cities surfers stay for much longer.

"Back in Shanghai I had hosted a Frenchman, Mathieu LeCarpentier, for over 12 days. He had hitchhiked all the way from Paris to Shanghai and didn't have any electronics (not even a watch or mobile phone)," said Mr App.

Marketing consultant Himangi Tewari has hosted only about three guests so far but from what she has heard from friends in India, she reckons that the difference in the length of stay is because many of the surfers are in transit here.

"Singapore is a small city. Three to four days maximum would suffice for most travellers," she said, adding that she and her husband, Joji Phillips, would make it a point to have at least one meal with guests due to their hectic work schedules.

Do background checks

It can be quite daunting to open up your home to strangers from faraway lands. Mr Devalapally, like many hosts, takes steps to ensure his safety.

"When I get a request from anyone who wants to surf my couch, I read the request and look for the magic word they have to use while writing a request to me. This ensures that they have gone through my profile. The second thing I look at is how they write their request. Some people write a request which connects to me at a personal level and they get an instant reply from me, irrespective of whether they had hosted someone before or not and whether they have any friends or not," he explained.

He added that the reference feature on the Couchsurfing website is crucial. This is where hosts and surfers write references based on their encounters on each other's profiles.

Mr Devalapally would immediately reject the potential surfer if there was a negative reference on the surfer's profile.

Safety is a concern for Mrs Sharma, especially since she's a woman.

She scours the profiles of potential surfers before deciding to host them.

"I do my best to go through the profiles of the prospective guests, to have a fair idea of the kind of people I would be dealing with. As a safety measure, I try and make sure that my husband is around when we decide to have guests over. But if I am alone, I prefer to have women surfers."

After a thorough check on their guests, Mrs Tewari would give her guests an extra key to her apartment - a common practice among many hosts. "I give them the keys for practical reasons too as my husband and I sometimes work late. But of course we would lock our valuables away," she said.

Then there are general house rules that guests would have to abide by. These range from no smoking to only vegetarian dishes in the apartment. Hosts have to remember that ultimately it's their homes and their rules, said Mr Sharma.

"A concept like Couchsurfing comes with its risks, issues with incompatibility and the like. However, a little bit of research on the profiles of potential guests goes a long way. If hosts are not comfortable, as a last resort, the guests can be asked to leave. But that generally never happens. The surfers and the hosts do realise what Couchsurfing is all about and what it demands from people in terms of being considerate to others," he explained.

Even then, Mr App still believes that there is "nothing really bad about hosting" and gives some advice to first-time hosts.

"Don't get into it (Couchsurfing) because it is cool. Do some backpacking travel yourself before trying to host people, to know the pains of backpacking. Hosts these days explicitly mention they want gifts from the surfer's country; they need a personalised couch request with a particular phrase in it to prove that the surfer had read through their profiles. If you have backpacked, you would know that half the time you don't have decent Internet access. The idea is to make the surfer's life easy, not complicate it further," said Mr App.


Get a copy of tabla! for more stories.