A couch as a home, and a cultural exchange

AUG 08 –

In April 2014, a Filipino man named Jose undertook a solo trek around Nagarkot, eventually crossing into an obscure village, where he stayed with a local Nepali woman, who trekked with him uphill and downhill in the area. Although they had never previously met, Jose knew he could trust the woman from the references found on her son Prakash Dangal’s profile on CouchSurfing.org.

CouchSurfing International, Inc., headquartered in California, was founded in 2004 and has 9 million users in 120,000 cities across the globe. The site connects users seeking meaningful travel experiences. The premise is predicated on the “idea that people anywhere would want to share their homes with strangers (or, as we like to call them), friends you haven’t met yet.” Participation can range from hosting a traveller in one’s home or meeting up with one for coffee, to simply chatting with a few at a local meeting.

In Nepal, travellers are ubiquitous, but the idea of hosting one—much less for free—is unusual in a country where tourism generates Rs 39.1 billion a year, and where so many Nepalis rely on tourists to generate their income. A 2014 report by the World Travel & Tourism Council stated the number of tourism-related jobs in Nepal this year rose to 1,184,000.

CouchSurfing lists 5,401 members in Kathmandu and 448 in Pokhara. Scrolling through the user database reveals that most Nepali CouchSurfers work in the travel and tourism sectors, either in hospitality services or as tour operators.

For foreigners, the large number of Nepalis in these sectors sometimes arouses suspicion about ulterior financial motives. Although a user may host a traveler for free, there may be a tacit objective to sell them tour services.

But for many Nepali CouchSurfers, it is easy to distinguish commercial interests from CouchSurfing. Romash Shrestha, a CouchSurfer who has hosted several travellers in his Thamel apartment, says he would never push tours on travelers, although he works for a travel agency. “For me, the two are separate things,” he says, and he’s interested in preserving the integrity of the site’s mission.

The same is true for Prakash Dangal, a student of hotel management, who avidly uses the site to meet global denizens interested in the site’s aims of authentic cultural exchange.

Still, a worry persists that Nepal’s CouchSurfing culture is invariably different because the member base is largely involved in Nepal’s tourism industry.

Bikash Palikhey, a CouchSurfing veteran who discovered the site when living in Germany, has seen a difference in the way CouchSurfing operates in Nepal compared to in Europe.

“I think it works best among equals,” Palikhey says. In Nepal, Palikhey says that the income differential between travellers and locals can create expectations that foreigners will contribute financially, perhaps indirectly—such as paying for meals or tours. The potential to exploit the system is also higher when different social expectations underlie behaviours.

“In Kathmandu, I had a German CouchSurfer who told me ‘I chose you because your profile said you had lived in Berlin, so you’d understand the social norms I come from,” he says. “It’s always difficult when you go to a country where a new set of norms informs social exchanges.”

And the site’s lack of monetary compensation is a puzzling element for average Nepalis. “Most Nepalis will expect some money,” Dangal says. When his family first saw foreigners in their home, they turned to him, asking him how much he was charging.

When he said ‘none,’ Dangal’s family were confused, but embraced the road-weary travelers sitting in their home. Dangal’s mom enthusiastically remembers putting “Nepali make-up” on foreign girls and plying guests with her famous daal bhaat. Today, her home is adorned with flags and maps from all over the world.

Indeed, once Nepalis discover CouchSurfing, the greater challenge is disconnecting from the site.  Kshitiz Neupane is a 21-year-old student who’s used the site for the past three years “to meet people and learn new things.”

Thus far, he’s befriended travellers from Japan, Hong Kong, the United States, and Germany. His first guest was a young man from Japan who had worked in restaurants to build up savings for his trip. An average CouchSurfing experience for Neupane involves sightseeing around Swayambhunath and exchanging memories and travel stories.

“Many foreigners want to learn about Nepal,” says Neupane, and he fondly recalls teaching them words like dhanyabaad or namaste.

He notes, however, that foreigners may need to sacrifice certain expectations. “A normal Nepali house can’t provide you the basic facilities that you may expect. You should adjust to a Nepali’s normal life.” He says a willingness to do so makes CouchSurfing a more enriching experience for all.

And he’s always amused by the cultural misconceptions sparked by such visits. “One Western CouchSurfer asked me, ‘Are there many gays in Nepal?’” Neupane remembers. “There are many men holding hands on the streets in Kathmandu and in their countries, it has a different meaning.”

For those wary of opening their doors to strangers, there’s still the possibility of attending a weekly meeting in Thamel. “In CouchSurfing, we meet all kinds. There’s never a filter for who comes in,” Palikhey says. “Of course you meet very cool people, but you have some people who really wouldn’t fit in anywhere else, and that’s one of the great things about the site.”

Source: The Kathmandu Post


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