Two Days in Portugal & Re-Learning How to Couchsurf

Street art in Porto: an elaborate fish painted on a wall. ©KettiWilhelm2020

This is Chapter 2 of a story I started last month about making use of a layover in Porto, Portugal, with a Couchsurfing adventure.

Here’s a quick recap of that post: The idea for this little Portuguese side trip came to me when I was looking for a way home from Italy after the holidays. I found a flight with a layover in Portugal that I could extend into a two-day mini vacation.

As soon as I booked, I started figuring out what to do with those two marvelously free days: No plans, no obligations, not a soul I knew in the city, and no idea where I was going.

That’s when I remembered my glory years of cheap, adventurous travel and how the Couchsurfing community was such a big part of that lifestyle. I hadn’t thought about Couchsurfing for several years, and I wasn’t sure if it was still part of the modern travel world – now that meeting people online is less novel and locals can sell their extra space to travelers, instead of giving it away for free.

Mossy rooftops and fog over the Douro River in Porto, Portugal. ©KettiWilhelm2020
Looking across mossy rooftops toward the Douro River…
Looking down an alley in toward the Church of Santa Clara in the mist. ©KettiWilhelm2020
… and down an alley toward the Santa Clara Church.

Anyway, you can read that first post about Couchsurfing (at the link above) for the details, but now you’re caught up on the start of my Portugal Couchsurfing plans.

Looking for Couchsurfing Hosts in Porto…

In the end… I didn’t end up Couchsurfing on this trip. At least not in the traditional sense of actually sleeping in a stranger’s home. (I’ll admit that putting it that way makes it sound much more fringe than it normally is.)

But it wasn’t for a lack of trying! Six weeks before the trip, I sent out requests to several hosts who seemed like we’d have something in common. (After all, that’s the whole point of Couchsurfing – to meet people you can connect with, make a friend, and hopefully get to know the culture of the place you’re visiting from the perspective of a local.) But the dates just didn’t work for anyone I contacted.

Although maybe it didn’t help that, while researching my first post, I read so many stories of bad CS experiences. From hosts cancelling or being suddenly unreachable on the day of guests’ arrival, to offering naked massages. As I said before, I’ve never had a creepy or negative experience in all the places I’ve Couchsurfed. But maybe reading all those Couchsurfing-gone-wrong stories made my creep-radar even more sensitive than usual.

Colorfully tiled houses in Porto’s central Ribeira Square. I stayed in a reasonably priced guesthouse near here instead of Couchsurfing. ©KettiWilhelm2020
Ribeira Square in Porto’s historic city center and Portugal’s famous colorfully tiled houses.
Multicolored, tiled houses in Porto, Portugal. ©KettiWilhelm2020

This made me wonder if these blog posts were just showing me a dark side of CS that had always been there (and, of course, one that makes a more clickable story than the normal-but-boring experiences), or if Couchsurfing had actually become infiltrated by creeps in the years I was away. Had I just avoided them by being super selective with my hosts? Had the people with the terrible stories chosen hosts with no references?

Maybe it was like googling medical symptoms: If you ask the internet what your rash is, you’ll become convinced it’s fatal. If you try to ask the internet whether Couchsurfing is a good idea, you’ll stop believing in the good of humanity.

…But Not Getting What I’d Bargained For

Then, as my trip approached, offers started to flood in: Several from local Portuguese guys or expats who said they’d be happy to show me around their city and/or host me, but had either few or no references. Untested –pass.

One local with zero references who said “you look pretty cool and very cute to be honest” and asked if I’d like to have a drink. Nope – pass. If you’re looking for a hook up, fine. But there’s a place for that. They invented Tinder for a reason.

One from a guy who said he was working in Porto for work for “a short time” and living in a hotel, but would be happy to share his hotel room with me. No, no, no – pass. Not only did he not have any references, but when I checked my CS messages again after the trip, I found that his was one of two profiles that had been deleted.

I got nine offers like these. A few of them had references, but I just didn’t get the right vibe from them – and I listen to that.

I’m sure some of these people are perfectly nice.

Especially those who weren’t obviously weird in their messages, just didn’t have references. But here’s the thing: I’m not going to be the one to put aside my doubts and find out who’s perfectly nice.

Green and floral Portuguese tiled buildings. ©KettiWilhelm2020
Painted tiles everywhere!
Homes with balconies and blue tiles seen on a two-day layover in Porto, Portugal. ©KettiWilhelm2020

Again, I want to point out that in my previous years using Couchsurfing much more often, I never received such dubious offers. That’s exactly what makes me wonder whether the Couchsurfing community has been infiltrated by the same kind of sleaziness that’s all over the internet, or whether I’ve just always avoided the creeps by being picky about who I stayed with.

How to Make Couchsurfing Safer

When people ask if Couchsurfing is safe, I think the answer is the same as whether it’s safe to travel alone, ride the subway, or leave the house: Bad things happen. If you use good judgement, you can avoid most of them.

There are creepy people on Couchsurfing, just like there are creepy people everywhere online and off. If you’re using Couchsurfing to find a free place to stay… well, first of all, that’s not really the point of Couchsurfing. At least it shouldn’t be the whole point. And secondly, if that’s your top priority, don’t let the promise of free stuff cloud your judgement about who’s offering.

Be picky. Just as your request to stay with someone needs to be personalized (usually by reading the host’s profile and finding a topic you can connect on), you should expect hosting or meet-up offers to be personalized, too. I’m automatically suspicious of one-liner messages that can be copied and sent to anyone.

Trust your gut. That sense of whether a restaurant, a street, or a person is going to be a great idea or a bad one is a good asset to develop while traveling.

Read people’s references and don’t give the benefit of the doubt if they’re lacking. Especially if you’re by yourself.

Houses on a hill, bathed in the light of a January sunset in Porto. ©KettiWilhelm2020
Houses on a hill, bathed in the light of a January sunset in Porto.
Views from a layover in Porto: A hill covered in houses next to the Douro River, bathed in the light of a sunset. ©KettiWilhelm2020

How to Break into Couchsurfing with No References

So from the other perspective: How are new Couchsurfers supposed to accumulate references if no one will host them or even stay with them without references?

The way I did it was by surfing with real-life friends who were already experienced Couchsurfers. First, I made a CS profile (with info about who I am, a few photos, a link to my blog – evidence that I’m a real person with a real interest in getting involved in this community). Then my friends sent out hosting requests including a link to my profile. Once our hosts met me, they left me a reference.

It’s supposed to be a community built on trust, but not blind trust.

Couchsurfing for Socializing

On this quick stop in Porto, I ended up using Couchsurfing in a way I’d never done before. To simply meet people to hang out with. (I know – this is not new. Just new for me.)

One of the unsolicited offers I responded to was from Guilherme, a Brazilian exchange student living in Porto. The first message he sent me was paragraphs long. He said he’d read my blog post about traveling on crutches and thought it was hilarious (flattery totally works) and that, like me, he plays capoeira and is involved with a local group. So he suggested we go to a lesson together while I was in town. In other words, he actually read my profile and proved that he wanted to meet up specifically with me. That’s very different from a one-line “I’d be happy to show you around my city” kind of offer.

He also mentioned his girlfriend, which, to be honest, is reassuring. I’m not some Victorian prude who can’t hang out with single men, but when I meet someone online and I’m trying to figure out if I want to meet them in person, it’s helpful to have an indicator that they’re probably not just looking for travelers to hook up with.

So I ended up meeting up with Guilherme, along with another Brazilian exchange student and a Dutch Couchsurfer. We went to capoeira class together, shared a few meals, and had some excellent conversations about Brazil and travel and life. For me, that’s exactly what Couchsurfing is meant to be.

A group selfie with new Couchsurfing friends I met in Porto, Portugal. ©KettiWilhelm2020
With new Couchsurfing friends after listening to some fado at a café in Porto.
Dom Luis I Bridge seen from Ribeira Square at night. ©KettiWilhelm2020
The view of the Dom Luís I Bridge from Ribeira Square at dusk.

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