So it’s all over. On Friday night in Hackney, armed with a bottle of cava, a cake and wearing a dressing gown, I completed the couchvember challenge in the company of my final host Aya and her fellow couchsurfer Daniel.
11 hosts and 30 days earlier, this London odyssey began in Morden. At that time I was a couchsurfing ‘virgin’. If not yet a pro (or a couchsurfing ‘slut’ to continue the metaphor), at least I feel I’m a little more equipped for the challenge next year. It’s also been an amazing insight into a world of hospitality & human goodwill which the majority of people I’ve spoken to in London know nothing about. For this blog, I thought I’d pick out a few highlights from the last few days of couchvember before delving into a statistical review of the month. I thought it raised some interesting conclusions. For those who know me – you’ll appreciate I do love a good stat!
But first, 3 highlights from the last week of couchvember:
1) My sleeping arrangements:
Have been pretty odd. Both of my final two hosts (Brian, the generous one eyed Canadian music therapist and Aya, an energetic female architecture student born on a kibbutz) have gone in for the ‘multiple couchsurfers slumber party style’ approach to hosting. Remember when you used to go round your friend’s when you were small and all curl up and sleep on the floor in their room? Well that was the situation here too. Brian had a surprisingly comfortable floor (nice carpet), whilst Aya had a spare mattress. It actually works really well as a way of getting to know your host and fellow guest.
2) Totally random dinner party
I also was fortunate enough to partake in a particularly bizarre – but brilliant – dinner party on my first night at Aya’s. She was also hosting an American-Israeli guy (Daniel) who had put an ‘emergency request’ on the website a couple of days earlier. Him living in Israel had prompted some idiot to publically respond to his request with the words ‘YOU KNOW WHAT YOU DID IN GAZA’. In turn this had kicked off a particularly heated debate on the CS message board. Aya had rescued Daniel from this mess and agreed to host him and another few people had offered him private words of support and offers of accommodation. To thank these people, Daniel had invited them for dinner. At Aya’s, with Aya acting as chef.
From an outsiders perspective the arrangements for this dinner seemed vague at best. I arrived for the dinner start time of 9pm. Daniel – the co-ordinator – hadn’t actually arrived by then, nor had any of the guests. At this point it was also unclear exactly who had been invited, what time they would be arriving or how many would be coming. About 10pm, 2 random guys appeared at the door – one Bulgarian, one English but whose first language was Yiddish (a High German language of Ashkenazi Jewish origin). ‘Hi we’re here for the dinner’ they exclaimed.
Still no sign of Daniel. So there we were, 4 random people together at a random house in Hackney for a dinner organised by a bloke none of us had met in person and who wasn’t himself actually there. But hey – what the heck. This is couchsurfing and it’s amazing at bringing people together. It was decided that there wasn’t much point in waiting any longer for this mysterious Daniel to arrive so we all tucked into the sumptuous chicken roast which had been prepared (Aya is also a part time chef). As you can probably imagine it actually turned out really well – not awkward at all – and conversation flowed naturally. Daniel did eventually turn up around 11, and just joined in as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Turned out to be a really amusing and interesting bloke. One of the things I’ve learned to love about this couchvember adventure is how the most bizarre of scenarios can yield such consistently good results.
3) New skills
It turned out that Aya had a ridiculous number of unexpected skills. As well as being a regular architecture student she was also a ball juggling, hoola hooping, ‘Gangnam style’ dancing, oyster shucking extraordinaire. I can now attest to having tried all of the above and concluded that I’m totally rubbish at them. Juggling was the particularly annoying one. I’ve always thought I had fairly decent hand eye co-ordination, but keeping 3 balls in perpetual motion is completely beyond me. Being crap at hoola hooping was more expected and I was totally put to shame with my Gangnam style dancing round the dinner table by Daniel. Turned out he’s actually made an amazing spoof video of the hit – renamed ‘Model UN style’. He’s a model United Nations ambassador.
And finally, to mark the first morning of ‘couchcember’, Aya and I had the classic Saturday morning brunch combination of cheese and oysters. I never realised this, but turns out actually getting into an oyster is an unbelievable effort – involving hacking through the shell with a knife and then prizing it open. Easily done for a pro like Aya, but my effort put my fingers in seriously more danger than the oyster inside. I’d have been better off with a large hammer – probably not the most elegant or sophisticated way of opening up the delicacy.
And now onto some stats for the whole of couchvember. Hope you are prepared for this massive display of geekiness…..
In total I stayed with 11 hosts. 8 boys, 3 girls. 10 from couchsurfing, 1 from startup stay. On couchsurfing, I sent 20 direct couch requests to people, got 10 replies and 4 ‘accepts’ from this method. I picked up a further 6 couches through either my ‘open’ or ‘emergency’ couch requests once it was clear that I was struggling on the direct message front. On startupstay I sent 11 messages, got 4 responses and only 1 acceptance.
Initially, I was surprised with how low my conversion rate was via the direct message approach. Half the people didn’t even reply. However, having spoken to a number of my experienced hosts I now realise this is totally normal, and in fact my ‘conversion’ rate wasn’t actually all that bad. It transpires that popular London hosts can get up to 10 requests a day, so hardly surprising that they don’t have chance to reply to everyone. The ‘emergency’ request is an interesting one and is manned by a bunch of incredibly kind couchsurfing veterans who are willing to help out people who find themselves with nowhere to stay at the last minute. I used this option twice and on both occasions got 4 responses – which not only took care of my immediate night’s accommodation but also nights in advance too.
It’s not entirely surprising that I got more ‘couches’ through couchsurfing than startup stay – there are lots more people on CS, it’s been going for much longer and has ‘emergency couch needed’ functionality. SUS is also a very different target market to CS – it’s all about business connections which is what makes it unique. The one person I stayed with from SUS said they wouldn’t host on couchsurfing which I thought was interesting. I think SUS is a fantastic idea with loads of potential, although I was slightly disappointed with the amount of responses I got. Maybe my message wasn’t aimed right (although the responses I did get were all very positive about the idea so perhaps it just isn’t being used as much as CS).
Although many of my hosts have claimed that of the 3.5 million people on the couchsurfing website, there is a 50:50 split between male and female, my experience from running searches in London is that there are far more boys. One of the most common things my female friends have said to me during the month is ‘I wouldn’t do it being a girl’. On the other hand the females I’ve met who have done it all have nothing but positive things to say and haven’t had any inappropriate incidents (although they have got quite a lot of dodgy messages). Everyone has said that girls who do partake find it much easier to find couches and also girls get a lot more requests. Interpret that as you like.
The sleeping arrangements
Of the 11 hosts, 7 had a bed in my own private room. 2 had a blow up mattress, 1 a regular mattress on the floor and one just had floor space. I actually didn’t spend any nights on a ‘couch’. I shared a room with my host on 3 occasions and a room with a fellow surfer once.
It’s somewhat ironic that during ‘couchvember’ I didn’t actually sleep on one couch. ‘Bedsurfing’ would probably have different connotations so probably best the name isn’t changed just yet.
But the myth that you’ll be sleeping on some really uncomfortable couch seems to be untrue (in London at least). However, my experience did seem to lurch from one extreme to the other – private room with bed to on the floor in the same room as my host. Think it may have been somewhat of an anomaly that I missed the ‘in-between’ option of the couch in the lounge.
Of the 11 places I stayed I would say 4 were ‘luxurious’ (i.e. at least 4* hotel standard).
Again the myth that couchsurfing sees you staying in a load of doss holes is totally wrong. All of the places I stayed in were perfectly clean & a ‘decent’ standard of accommodation. 4 were really quite spectacular and I would have paid a serious amount of money to stay there had it been a hotel. The 4 stand outs were the lovely family home of my ‘clothes optional’ friend, the huge Lancaster Gate flat overlooking the park from the ‘Notting Hill’ movie (and next-door to a £1000/night hotel), a beautiful top floor flat in a converted mansion in Clapham and a whole apartment to myself in the houseboat next to Kew Bridge. Hardly ‘roughing’ it
Food & drink
8 of my 11 hosts had meals cooked for me on my arrival. I didn’t ask, they just offered. The other 3 we had meals out together. In total I had 19 meals in restaurants during the course of the month.
I drank alcohol on 26 days. On 18 of those I had more than 4 units (2 pints worth). On 2, I was ‘drunk’
I really wasn’t expected people to cook for me. I would have happily done so for them, but each of my hosts insisted they cooked me a meal.
The amount of times I ate in a restaurant was pretty ridiculous – but given I wasn’t spending much money on anything else I figured that could be my one indulgence. It was also a good way to socialise with my hosts or friends I was meeting during the month.
My alcohol intake was pretty worrying and clearly unsustainable for a prolonged period. Reading through the website ‘patient’ states that men should ‘drink no more than 21 units per week have no more than 4 units in any one day and should have at least 2 alcohol free nights per week.’ O dear – looks like couchsurfing could seriously endanger my liver. Especially as everybody likes to give you a welcome drink or even test out your resilience to ‘Sambuca Monday’.
I met up with existing friends on 13 different days. As well as my 11 hosts, I now have the contact details (Facebook, phone, email) of a further 19 people who were either also staying at the same time as me or were introduced to me on a social occasion by my host. I spent 2 full nights working on Dromomaniacs in the hub.
Continually meeting new people is stimulating but also incredibly tiring. However, meeting 30 new people in your own city in a month who I would now feel comfortable to ring up or go for a drink with is, I think, quite unusual. If I’d have kept that rate up since coming to London in October 2008, I’d now have 780 ‘friends’ in London alone. Not sure I’d be ringing them all for a chat every day, but it’s a lot of people!
There’s also a tension between meeting new people and trying to see you’re existing friends. I didn’t want to completely ignore people I actually know during the month and managed to see existing friends a number of times. This ridiculous social schedule, combined with still working full time, has meant that attention to Dromomaniacs inevitably slipped as I only spent 2 full nights devoted to it. As a result I’ve decided to delay the start of my Bangkok2Birmingham trip by a month, and will now be leaving at the end of Feb.
I spent £773 during couchvember (excluding extraordinary items). On a like for like basis I spent an average of £1920 each month for 2012 thus far. Again this excludes extraordinary items (such as flights or Dromomaniacs spend). Hence I managed to cut expenditure to only 40% of the monthly average.
I think it’s pretty safe to conclude that being able to live for a month in London all in for under £800, stay in 4* quality accommodation, eat 19 meals in restaurants, drink far too much alcohol, meet 30 new people & have enough stories to last for a good many campfires represents a pretty decent return on investment. I can’t statistically quantify how much more I enjoyed ‘couchvember’ than an average month, but it’s safe to say that the average month of normal London living isn’t 250% better.
The final word.
So what the hell am I going to do with all this? And did I actually enjoy it? I’ll be writing one more blog reflecting on the whole experience and then trying to synthesize these experiences for submission to a newspaper & various online publications. The hope is that it will raise the profile of the blog, Dromomaniacs and the charity I’m supporting – Guy’s Trust. Anyone got any thoughts or contacts re. best way to go about this?