CouchSurfing in India

Posted by Hana Navratilova • Friday, October 21, 2011 • Category: People and Places
The first time I was in India I wanted to get to know the real India - not just the Lonely Planet-India, so I decided to do CouchSurfing. Occupying somebody else’s living room is not just about saving money. It is about sharing. A complete stranger shares with you his home. You can observe his morning habits, you eat with him, you can discuss every possible topic under the sun... Indians, at least the Indian CouchSurfers, are usually very keen on discussing the differences and similarities of their own and your culture. Hence, I got to know a flight attendant, an elephant rider, a family father, a son of a wealthy family etc. So I could see the differences between the lower, middle and upper social classes. It was an incredible experience!

How to wash an Indian elephant
(c) by Hana Navratilova

For those who don’t know anything about CouchSurfing – it is an internet community for people who love traveling and getting to know other cultures. You, as everybody else, have your own profile where you describe yourself. You can choose what you want to offer – a couch for backpackers or just meeting up for a cup of coffee. You can write references for people you met through CouchSurfing as your hosts or other backpackers and others do the same for you.

In India it is very easy to find hosts (people who offer you their couch) – they are in almost every city. Actually if they see that the last time you logged in was in or close to their city they will immediately send you a message that you should contact them if you need any help. Thus, it is easy to find a host, but it is a bit tricky to find a good one. Also probably 99% of all Indian hosts are male. That is understandable considering the Indian culture.

Women usually don't live alone and independently and even if they did, it would probably be seen as inappropriate to host strangers. Therefore, if you are a female traveller you should always check the references on everyone’s profile, read them carefully and decide according to those. It is also safer to choose hosts still living with their parents or families and exchange a couple of e-mails with them in advance. Yes, some of the men may have ulterior motives – speaking from own experience...

Once you arrived, it is very useful to take some pictures from your home country. Especially in trains you will appreciate this. Indians love to see some photographs from your home and (maybe even more) love to show you their own pictures so that you get to know the whole family, colleagues and friends – I usually lost track of who is who after the second picture. Also be prepared to get famous all over India – everyone is going to take pictures of you. It may give you the feeling of being a superstar but it might be annoying as well. Especially when you want to admire the beauties of historical monument and everyone is buzzing around you with a camera.

Enjoying sogra
(c) by Hana Navratilova

It is almost impossible to be alone in India. You are being constantly asked about your origin, name, age, you can expect to be followed by different touts or rickshaw drivers and begging children. But discovering Indian cities with a local fellow CouchSurfer makes it a lot easier. People still stare at you but they let you be. Walking around with a local is also much more fun and you can enjoy more because you don’t need to think about where you are, how you got there or how you will get away. Your host will give you precious advice about costs of the transport or gift items, he will introduce you to the best street food and give you some secret tips on sightseeing!

For example in Jodhpur my host took me for an amazing bike-ride and we also stopped at a "restaurant" for truck drivers. It looked rather like a big tent, the front side open, in the middle of nowhere, on the side of a big road. Everyone was suspiciously looking at me as I was probably the first white woman, or maybe even the first woman ever, who walked in and ate there. In one corner there was a kitchen coloured like the cook by soot.

We sat cross-legged on this typical bed with a woven base and a wooden board put across it served as a table. We got two big chapattis made of a bit different flour and with a stronger flavour than usual. My host crumbled those, then we added some warm ghee, sugar cane and mixed with different chutneys and pickles, eating with our hands from one plate while the men and their boys were watching TV. Of course there was no bathroom so one of the boys poured water over our hands to wash them right there. It was so authentic and so delicious! Without CouchSurfing I would have never tasted "sogra"!

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