(Note: For some reason I haven’t made a habit of getting pictures of my hosts, so the picture is completely unrelated – it’s me and my friend Ryan at the Humber bridge before cycling over it)
Money makes the world go round, they say. I’ve a lot to say about that in itself but I’ll save it for a rainy day (there have been plenty so far and so I expect more). However, as for me going round the world, money has a similar kind of importance. Travelling has a habit of being expensive, very much so, and no matter how much you work, 6 months of travel is going to be eyewateringly expensive, surely.
So, like an engineer/Top Gear presenter trying to make a 2 tonne car weigh less than a scale model, I set about finding ways to travel on the cheap. For no sensible reason that I can think of it seems bad taste to disclose actual numbers for the trip, but I am living on about the same weekly budget as the cost of a very reasonable uni halls rent. Everything from accommodation to replacement mobile phones (yeap, already had to buy one). The main expense of travel, that being the travelling, has been completely cut down by the fact I’m cycling, I already owned my bike and thus far have spent absolutely no money on maintaining it (bar a spare inner tube that will need replacing for about £5). I also discovered ‘reciprocal hospitality’, a type of accommodation where a lovely, potentially wacky stranger lets you into their home for free. It’s very very cheap, as in it costs nothing, and often dinner and breakfast are included, as well as the shower. Friends are similarly cheap but mine tend to live in the north of England, where I was travelling for all of 3 days, and for nights when the social networks fail me I can camp in my £250 tent with my £50 mat and £50 sleeping bag, as well as a charge for me and the pitch I use, and the promise of unsure weather, no electricity and extortionate WiFi.
So, the strangers are my best bet, but where do they reside, what are those ‘social networks’? The biggest is Couchsurfing, large enough that you can find tens if not hundreds of thousands of registered users in the capital cities. It’s very secure, with three forms of ‘verification’ and a simple but effective reference system, for added protection from both ‘potential creeps’ and from people who are offput by suspicion of ‘potential creeps’. The other network I’m using is called Warmshowers, which I agree could have chosen a better name for itself, but works similarly to Couchsurfing, there are references, and you stay places for free. It’s also geared (pardon moi pour le pun) towards cyclists and cycle tourists, which inspires a little more confidence in both proper treatment of Lunette and having things in common with hosts.
I took to the idea straight away, but through conversations with folk before I left I take it that part of that was down to my desperation, or the fact I would definitely have to depend on such forms of accommodation at-least every now and then, the cheapest B&B’s I could find were a minimum of twice my daily budget. The jokes and warnings were biblical: I would make it probably as far as France before falling victim to somebody’s excessive hospitality. I was warned about a very friendly German named ‘Hans Like Shovels’ who would visit me in my tent by the side of a road in Germany. There is also Google queuing to add to the woe, its first suggested search following typing ‘couchsurfing’ in was “Couchsurfing bad experience”…
But then, one of the mantras of this trip came to my aid: I want to test the boundaries of the ‘stranger’. I’ve often thought the kindest people in the world are those who don’t know you at all, provided you catch them in the right way. My hope is at-least that everyone on Couchsurfing and Warmshowers is human, and beyond that I think it decidedly unkind, as a stranger to them, to see them as anything less than safe, if not sane. It stands true to the logic of these sites: ‘reciprocal hospitality’, a lot of my potential hosts are returning the favour to their own hosts. They have been travelling, they’ve used Couchsurfing, they were hosted, and now they are hosting. Bare in mind, I’m not just staying with a stranger, this stranger is letting a stranger into their home too.
I must have stayed at over 10 people’s houses so far (in Paris right now) and I’ve loved every single night. From Ben, Ruth and Odin in Lincoln to Charles in Chantilly, everyone has been affirmingly welcoming, hugely pleasant and on the whole fantastic fun, no matter what we do. I had a lovely family dinner in a huge, cosy country house Harpley, Norfolk with Clare and co, and two weeks later I was drinking wine like a stranded sailor and discussing the merits of spontaneous tattoos done by your drunken friends with Noemie (with an accent, can’t find it) and her very French friends. These people are anything from eclectic to surprisingly normal, but they are all very friendly, have many a good story to tell, and visibly love people.
That’s the real selling point to me. In a way, couchsurfing and warmshowers are a necessity because I’m not Richard Branson and my Dad doesn’t quite have enough money to fund my own private jet, but to stay somewhere for free and make a friend whilst doing so? That’s preferable to a hotel in my eyes, not just a decent alternative, and it fits one of my travelling aims too – to depend on the kindness of strangers, test how facilitating and hospitable this world can really be. One thing is for sure, and that is that I’m going to need another shirt for signatures very soon, and in the meantime I cannot sing the praises of these networks enough. They are why I can do this.