Recently, I came across an article in a Facebook group about the growing trend of couch surfing in Afghanistan. You read that right. Adventurous travelers are not only flying to war zones for “fun” but they’re staying with complete strangers while doing it. The article labeled these couch surfers reckless and naive, and I left a comment explaining why I agreed.
One of the couchsurfers, who was mentioned in the article, took offense to my criticism and despite some back and forth, we eventually found a middle ground. My main concern when I read articles like this is whether couchsurfing in impoverished conflict zones in poor taste, not to mention dangerous. Is it really about cultural exchange or is it an ill-advised way to “get more likes”?
Some of you may know I was born in Afghanistan and raised in Germany. I’ve traveled to Afghanistan twice and it certainly can be safe, depending on when you go. Do I think now is the time to have an adventure in a country that’s festering with terrorist groups and about to enter suicide bomber season? No. And if you’re a westerner, it’s even more dangerous. Especially if you’re audacious enough to hang out with Taliban members just so you can go back home and brag to your friends about surviving the experience.
Even if you’re not hobnobbing with terrorists, your presence in the home of well-meaning people can very well put them in danger. It’s why thousands of Afghan translators are migrating to the U.S. every year: Their mere association with westerners has put them in danger long after their jobs ended. The same can happen to locals who host couchsurfers from western countries.
Now that the story is out there, there’s an even greater chance that couchsurfers will find themselves in danger. The article makes reference to the fact that a character reference is required before choosing a host, but that’s something that can easily be manipulated by people with less than honorable intentions.
They’re Richer Than I Am!
Couchsurfers crashing with strangers are not only endangering themselves, they’re being inconsiderate to people who have less than them. These locals are giving them a place to live, feeding them, and taking them sightseeing. Free of charge. What are they getting in return? The company of a stranger. I know our parents told us we’re special little superstars, but I’m of the opinion that hospitality should be repaid. Especially in impoverished countries.
One of the things that bug me about people who travel to impoverished countries for “adventure” is that they often expect accommodations from the locals that they themselves would never make for them. I had to leave a Twitter chat I co-founded because of the incessant “I traveled to Country X and was really bummed that no one invited me to their wedding” tweets. There’s a certain sect of travelers who feel entitled and almost think they’re doing the locals a favor by intruding on their lives this way. Just because someone offers, doesn’t mean you always have to accept. In fact, in some situations, it’s polite not to.
The couchsurfer on Facebook took offense to this, claiming “the guy I stayed with was an engineer and probably richer than I am!” An engineer in Afghanistan earns about $500 a month and is probably saving for an extravagant wedding one day that costs as much as any wedding in the West. The idea that this person is “richer” than a western backpacker who has the luxury to travel to conflict zones for “fun” is absurd, if not delusional. It doesn’t matter how seemingly well-off people in impoverished countries appear. Their middle class is still poorer than ours.
While traveling to conflict zones is all the rage among adventure travelers, it can have serious repercussions for both the traveler and the locals hosting them. There’s a huge world out there to explore and plenty of it isn’t plagued by war or famine. It’s important to be a responsible traveler and that means taking into account our own safety as well as that of the communities we’re visiting. Otherwise, you may find yourself in an extended couchsurfing situation. Safety and timing is everything.
And if you’re getting free room and board while endangering yourself and your host, the least you can do is think about how your “adventures” can benefit them in some way. The couchsurfer in the article did explain that he briefly taught English to local school children, which I applaud.
I’m certainly not knocking couchsurfing altogether and actually think it’s a great concept. But I also think some people couchsurf in impoverished countries for the selfies and interesting cocktail hour stories (i.e. the guy who bragged about couchsurfing with the Taliban). Safety and common sense should trump the need for adventure (or “cultural exchange”). More importantly, their presence can endanger both parties. I’d think about that long and hard before embarking on any unnecessary adventures.
What are your thoughts on couchsurfing in impoverished countries? Especially in conflict zones?