I considered it a glaring omission from an otherwise comprehensive travel CV that I had never been couch surfing. I’m usually the last one to climb aboard with these sorts of things, happy to leave it to the social media vanguard to try and test it. Let them root out all the serial killers and emotional vampires that prey on the lonely traveller while I stay in hostels.
Yet by the time we had traversed half of Siberia and reached the Russian city of Tomsk a few things became apparent: firstly, that an undeveloped hostel system in Russia meant local contact and interaction, the backpacker’s Holy Grail was illusive as ever. Secondly, our next destination, Perm, did not have any hostels, only hotels that were either highly expensive or in the city’s boon docks.
If you, like my dear father, find yourself saying “oops where did that go?” often while using the computer then a brief explanation of couch surfing is in order. Couch surfing is basically a social media network that allows users to locate locals in a particular foreign city while they are travelling as well as perhaps a place to sleep. The idea is that couch surfers serve as hosts when they get back home, i.e. you are expected to reciprocate the favour for one of the great wandering heard of travellers. You have the right to decline requests to stay on your couch if that tour group of thirty moustachioed Albanian musicians seem a too full on for your little studio apartment.
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Apart from these hard facts it all depends who you ask to what couch surfing is. Consult the official website for instance and it becomes clear they believe they have created the means to realising a utopian future whereby people that have been hitherto kept apart by governments, walls and differences in language will find commonality and friendship together on a couch.
I was not so sure but spurred on by an innate sense of cheapness and necessity I reawakened a profile I had created but never used and found a series of likely candidates willing to give a couple of Aussies a place to lay their heads. The results I returned from the search were very heartening. These all looked like normal people. It suggested I send out five requests which I did. Slowly, I began to believe the hype, sure the Californian hippie communes in the 70s had ended in jealousy, disaster and Charles Manson but just maybe this time technology would facilitate an educated and well-meaning subgroup of strangers to form mutually beneficial relationships based on universal aspects of the human character instead of the almighty dollar.
Then there was a response. It was from a member which I will refer to as AR. Her profile picture is of her hugging a dog with an expression of unrestrained glee on her face. She volunteers at an animal shelter, is a vegan and is concerned about human rights. Perfect. The way I figured it was a nice soft option, someone wholesome that might not necessarily guarantee a trashy night out but would have a solid kernel of humanity in her.
The main issue with showers on the road is that their results are so impermanent. No matter how long or hot they are, no matter if you scrub you flesh to the colour of a newly born piglet, within a matter of minutes being exposured to the summer sun you are stinky and sweaty, the resultant grease mixing with the dust and smog which then decides to have a sit-in until forcibly removed again. And so it was with our trip from Tomsk to Perm, a six hour bus to Novosibirsk, a 30 hour train trip in an unairconditioned carriage with the Russian masses and by the time we pulled in to Perm’s second train station, we all had the wild eyed, oily haired look Charles Manson has in that picture. Sitting on the steps out front in the hot sun, we made the call. A man answered. He said he was one of AR’s friends and that we should catch the bus 1 to Central Market and call him there. We did that. He was coming to pick us up. “This place definitely has a bit more edge to it” Marty said as a weather beaten junkie couple chased each other around a man selling apricots from crates. A babushka walked up and began to serve as mediator in the conflict. “I think he sounds tall.” I said to Marty and a tall man with straggly hair and buck teeth came up and introduced himself as Tim. “Follow me,” he said.
We pursued his lanky, darting figure as it wove through the busy market, in an underpass then back out, round a corner and into a parking lot. Sitting there was a gaunt version of the lady I recognised from a couch surfing profile picture. We said hello and then as if Marty and I were not there, they embraced tenderly and conducted a mumbling conversation in Russian, too low in volume and quick for me to understand. “Ok we have problem,” said Tim. “Today in Perm is big festival, we have eight Russian people staying with us. We live in one room with flatmate, two cats and dog.” This arithmetic was not encouraging.
We followed them into a building, down a flight of stairs and into a tiny windowless shop. The walls were lined with shelves containing items which you would find in any health food shop like dried chickpeas, carob and single origin coffee beans. My gut reaction was twofold — firstly I admired both their enterprising nature in starting a healthfood shop and their adherence to the lofty principles of veganism. Secondly though, was the sense of dread that began to ferment at the prospect of an evening spent discussing mung beans and tofutti in superior tones. As long as they were the fun, happy go lucky brand of hippies we would be ok.
Furthermore the single indigestible fact of couch surfing remained- that these people had offered us their house to stay in and so it was on their terms we would do things. I made nice and offered them a choice of the teas which we had picked up in our travels through China while Tim went out and bought some bread. Then we sat down in a convivial atmosphere. I showed AR my collection of dog videos that I had taken while in Russia and then in the growing silence began to drone on about the pickles in Russia, in a pathetic attempt to find an iota of commonality. After an hour during which the room began to contract, AR whispered to Tim and Tim announced “We have decided to set you free, you will stay at my parent’s house. They are not there and they have hot water and hot water is good. Our friend is there, Alana, and she is sick, so full of drugs”. A wry smile followed this. I remembered that AR had said in her profile she liked the psytrance outfit Infected Mushroom, which I took to be code that they enjoyed the use of mind altering substances.
The door of apartment number 29 was opened by a sweet looking lady in her mid-twenties. She smiled shyly and spoke in whispered tones. “You can have a shower.” She said. Tied to the door by a short leash was a large black dog, maybe a border collie, with the mandatory melancholy eyes. I patted him and went into the living room which was more of a bourgeois salon with its piano and lace covering surfaces and indoor plants. Alana coughed, sickly. “Would you like some tea?” I asked. “would you like a shower?” she asked in what I understood to be less of an offer and more of a request.
That evening Tim and AR came back to the apartment and Tim said “I have something that will make you feel better Alana. There are two of them.” He was smiling cheekily when he said that. He then held out to her two tubs of hummus. Later when we were having soup AR, for the first time since we got there became animated and addressed us directly. “Once we had a friend that went to Israel and brought back two kilograms of…” Hash? No way. “…hummus. We ate them all except for one and it went off”. Clearly I was expecting an edge that was not there.
When I asked if AR would like a shot of vodka, trying to raise the atmosphere above funeral dirge, there was a nervous laugh and the room chilled slightly. “We don’t drink. Drinking is for the workers who go out and they’re like this…”. He then pretend to walk like a zombie.
The following day we visited the museum Perm-36 and after having to hitchhike back, we went to a restaurant near the parent’s house to eat the biggest steak I could find and drink steins of beer. We called them to let them know we were back in town. They said they had moved all our stuff and we had to go to “the circus”. Luckily “the circus” was that single room with no hot water, two cats and a dog place they had mentioned earlier. The only thing that worried me was that they had moved all our stuff. I had made a half-hearted better-to-be-safe-than-sorry attempt at hiding my passport and laptop. Had they found these and brought them across town to “the circus”?
The circus turned out to be less of a big top and more of a small cage. There was a single room with no beds, just a stack of foam mattresses in the corner and a bare floor. It would have been nearly impossible to fit ten people in here without stacking at least a few of them like pancakes. Alana sat in the corner typing on the computer and I wondered exactly what the configuration was. How would that couple continue to function effectively when they had to share a room with Alana? Or conversely how would Alana maintain her sweet demeanour if that couple were functioning effectively? No wonder AR and Tim were so affectionate with one another, their hormones must be zinging around like the light bikes in TRON. I went into the bathroom to have a cold shower and the washing machine had finished a load, emptying the waste water into the bathtub.
When I got back AR and Tim had arrived but there was a complete lack of quality conversation. Marty attempted valiantly to try and get them to play cards and got the same reaction I had received when I’d offered the vodka. “Gambling is the same as alcohol. It’s for the workers.”
The rest of the evening proceeded a little like this: AR and Tim left leaving poor Alana with us. Just after midnight two girls came in with a Russian wearing boardshorts who picked up a didgeridoo from the corner and began to play it loudly. Afterwards, the Russian introduced himself as “the guru” and sat down with the two girls to make a dream catcher. I tried to sleep on a foam mattress and found a pillow which made any skin in contact with it itch like mad.
The next morning Tim left and so did AR without saying goodbye, they explained the night before they needed to get away. I rang them tried to track down my phone charger that they had forgotten to bring from their parent’s house but they told me they couldn’t find it. Alana then left without saying goodbye leaving us with the two girls and the Russian guru sleeping face down in the itch inducing pillow. I wondered if included in the dream catcher’s haul from last night was a face beard of mosquitoes or a poison ivy facial treatment.
K Johnson is blogging regularly for Crikey while on his six-month trip to the countries most tourists never visit — think Azerbaijan, Transnistria, Iran, Armenia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Kurdistan etc. Check out all the past stories and adventures he’s written about for Crikey here. You can read more about him at his blog Red Ink Run.