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Sunday, December 8, 2013

Couchsurfing in Goa : The House near Toff Toff's

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Disclaimer: This story is being written for two reasons. One, to get more people to know about Couchsurfing in India and hopefully use it for the objectives it stands for, and secondly, to counter an article that has recently created some sort of furore by insisting that Couchsurfing is basically one of the best ways for men to get laid with ‘exotic women’

September ’12: It had been almost a year since I was reading about ‘solo travel’. Being an extrovert I really could not fathom why I would ever enjoy travelling alone. But here I was reading blog after blog where people who had travelled solo had raved about it, spoke of discovering themselves and insisted that the experience changed them. The whole thing fascinated me.

Then, I was introduced to the Couchsurfing website, a forum for travellers, where when you travel to another city you can ask the website members of that city if you can stay with them. It is a fun way to know a new person, see a city through their eyes and know their culture. It gives a slightly less touristy dimension to travelling.

Must try it when I go to Europe, I decided. But what if I don’t enjoy solo travelling or couchsurfing. A month in Europe is certainly not going to be an inexpensive trip.

Goa? You are going to Goa ,alone, for four days? my friend asked me incredulously. And I gave him a wise nod, or maybe a solemn one. Neither worked, he thought I was daft.

I looked up the website for couchsurfers in Goa. And I have no idea why I chose to pause at Karen’s profile. If statistics be brought into play, she had already finished college before I was born. As I scrolled past a few pretty profiles, and came to her pic, she lay neck deep in a marsh, with only her face sticking out from the mud and an impish grin writ large on her face. She had to be fun. I clicked on her page, and the testimonials tumbled one after the other.

I contemplated over the mail I should send. Would I be too bold if I were to suggest that I would want to stay over at her place? According to Couchsurfing etiquette, not at all, but then it was my first time on the forum. Also, I am not used to sending mails to women lying in marshes.
It was a dark, stormy night. Stormy because I hadn’t had any dinner and my stomach was letting out small roars, like a lion cub does, to convey its feelings on the matter. And dark, for my bedroom light had just gone off, and I quote ‘thwack’.

I told her that I would be in Goa for four dates and if she would like it, we could meet up. And having done that, I gulped down the remaining dregs sitting of my tea. It felt like the right gesture at the moment, gulping the dregs. One must always be manly at difficult times like these. Julius Caeser must have done the same when he stood at the river Rubicon and screamed ‘Alea jacta est’!

Come over to my house, and stay here. No problem at all. But I am very busy this week. So don’t mail me, just send an sms the day you leave for Goa” came the reply.

Right.

Ten days later, I was standing at Delhi airport and messaging her that my flight would reach Goa only at 10 pm, that I would not want to inconvenience her in the night, would stay at a hotel and then come over in the morning.

Don’t bother. Just come. I might be out for dinner with a few friends, so I’ll leave the key under the door. You can either relax at the house, or join me and my friends after leaving your bags.”

Was she for real? She was leaving her house keys at the mercy of a rank stranger? What did she know about me except for the stuff she read on my profile? There are people in India who leave their houses to strangers even when they aren’t there themselves? I know I have dimples but still.

Thanks Karen. I think I’ll just stay at your place. That way I can steal your things and leave before you get back

Hahahaha! I’ll be too drunk to notice any disappearance anyway. Alright, see you later tonight!”

All through my time at the airport, and in the flight, I was convinced that there was no Karen whatsoever. That the moment I’d enter the house, four men would jump me, pin me to the ground, tie my beautiful biceps up, and send a crisp ransom note to my family in Kerala. The worrying part was not that. I am not sure if my father would pay to have me back. A friend sent a nice two minute video of Dil Chahta Hai, where a pretty girl called Christine robs Saif Ali Khan off everything, leaving him only in his boxers.

And as I expected, I never saw Karen that night.

Three hours later, when I landed in Goa, an sms flashed in my inbox.

Going off to sleep Delhi boy. You can call up Oksana, my Russian couchsurfer. She will open the door for you.”

The male in me whooped that now there was an Oksana in the picture. Let’s see, would mum be okay about a Russian bride?

An hour later when I reached Baga and messaged Oksana, she said she was with a friend at a bar and I could join them there. So I trooped on, bags in tow, to Baga Beach and sure enough met up with the light eyed Oksana, Kroot – a pretty Estonian, and Atul – a half German half Haryanvi.

I love, that in that small table, in that small beach bar, we were a small United Nations group ourselves. At 330 am, we decided to call it a night and Oksana and I walked back to our house. Just outside the lane, stood a small pub called "Toff Toff's Pub". I liked the name.

Karen was fast asleep when we walked into her house. Her house was lovely though, plastered orange and yellow all over, cushions galore, and lots of pictures. I stopped to stare at a black and white picture taken years back. As a twenty year old, she had been awfully pretty. I was instead greeted by another girl, a lovely black dog that galloped right into my stomach and without as much as a formal introduction, and demanded I tickle her ears. I figured she must be as friendly as Karen, though in all fairness Karen never demanded I tickle her ears.

 Oksana showed me my bed, a comfy mattress with a bright bed sheet and a hundred cushions. As we said goodnight and I lay to sleep, Shinzy (and henceforth we are going to call the doggy by her name) kept her paw on my stomach and looked inquiringly. “My lucky day girl, we seem to have hit it so well that we are even going to sleep together on our first date,” I told her. She lay there besides me for a couple of hours, smelling distinctly doggy-like. Thank heavens for blocked noses.

The next morning I saw Karen. Her entry wasn’t exactly likes the ones we see in the movies, no breeze or flying hair, no lilting music. She came out of her room, bustling with enthusiasm, full of beans ready to take on the world and a new day. When she saw me, she smiled broadly and we hugged, lightly. Within moments she was telling me all, about the website and her experiences with hosting other travellers, about her work with the gully kids, about the cancer that she had had and conquered. A few kids soon came running into the house, and she scolded them just like school teachers always do.

She told me that she was taking out sixty five street kids to a beach where they would learn recycling, and that I could either join them or chill at home. And if I chose the latter, I’d have to let the dog and cat out once every four hours. I replied declaring that she now had sixty six kids who would love to learn how to recycle.

I couldn’t stop smiling . Her level of trust in a rank stranger astounded me. As a country, is India that secure? It also made me wonder if so many of us had actually become cynics. The simplicity of it all made it all complex in my head.

Her bathroom was the loveliest I have ever seen in my life. There were a bunch of sketch pens lying on the sill above the wash basin, and on all the walls, people who had stayed over at Karen’s house had scribbled the most wonderful wishes for her. Full length mirrors on all sides in the bathing area just added to the vibe, not to mention that they made me jump in consternation at the sight of myself when I turned on the shower.

I asked her later how many people she had hosted on Couchsurfing.

200 in seven years.”

Right. “And how many times were you robbed, or had an unpleasant experience?”

Once. A guy stole my laptop. But you know Neeraj, its okay. If in 7 years, I met over a hundred good people and was robbed only once, I think I am going the right way.” I really do not know anyone who can disagree.

Soon we were all carrying large boxes to the bus that would take us all to Benaulim beach, and even while we walked she kept talking. When we were back in the evening, the door was open and there was a new person cooking inside. When I looked puzzled, she laughed and told me that there were over fifteen people in Goa who had a key to her. Later I got to know that her maid would not charge her money, nor would the cook. How could anyone, when she educated their children for free, played with them all day, got them books and toys, and let them run free in her house.

It was staying with Karen, couchsurfing with her, meeting her friends and other couchsurfers, that later pushed me to do the same in Europe. For over a month, I couchsurfed in towns all over Spain, Italy and Croatia and made some fantastic friends. Of course, a number of people meet up, get attracted and might end up as friends, lovers, or more. But that can happen from Facebook, Twitter, school or college too. To call Couchsurfing a a sex or hookup app is probably a very short sighted way of seeing things. It is in my belief a very good way of seeing the world.

 Over the four days that I lived in Goa, I have very fond memories. I remember it for the conversations with Atul, two men sitting on the beach and talking about life as they always had. I remember it for Kroot – the twenty one year old girl who had been travelling solo for over a year and was now urging me to take the plunge and I remember it for Oksana – the crazy photographs we took. I remember it for the kids who drove me mad running to me and showing me all the recycled hats they had made on the beach.

But it is the ease with which Karen let me and a hundred other people enter her house and world is the pleasant puzzle, I am yet to figure out.

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