A lot of travel experiences can feel like facsimiles of the adventures of earlier, bolder pioneers. Sure, China’s Great Wall is an impressive feat of engineering no matter what century you’re in, but it feels decidedly less authentic when you’re fleeced at the bottom with a $20 bowl of noodles or you’re offered a luge ride back down. And hostelling, while great for saving a few pennies, can be a jolting reminder of why you’re happy to be done with dorm life.
It would be cynical to say there are no authentic experiences to be found traveling anymore. As I said in one of my first posts on this blog, as much as any trip I’ve ever taken, this one is about meeting people and seeing different cultures through the lenses of the people who live it every day. And therein lies a key to finding authentic experiences on the road.
That’s a big reason I’m so happy we stumbled on couch surfing, and Ireland turned out to be an ideal place to start. It may have been different in a country with people who aren’t as warm and friendly, but I feel like we left Ireland with a handful of friends who we genuinely want to see again at some point and hopefully can host in our home in the future.
Our initial motivation to couch surf was budgetary. All over Ireland, and especially in Dublin, you’re lucky to find a bed at a hostel for less than $30 a night. And couch surfing did save us quite a bit. But staying in homes opened up the country in a way I haven’t experienced since Peace Corps.
Take our first hosts. A couple of bachelors living in a suburb south of Dublin, they figure they’ve had around 70 couch surfers. On our first night, we were two of four surfers staying with them. Our second night, we spent 3-4 hours with them poring over road atlases and Google maps, trying to work out the best 10-day bucket list for seeing the country. Take a drive through Connemara National Park, they said, and see the spectacular land dotted with lakes and wild horses in northwestern Ireland. And they convinced us to stay in Westport and climb the Reek – two awesome tips.
Our second stay was with an English couple in Mallow, about an hour outside of Cork. From the moment we arrived, it felt like we were visiting people we’d known for years. Being far from home, Jennie and Aaron have made their master bedroom into a guest room to accommodate frequent visitors, so Anne-Claire and I were treated to a posh night in what felt like a suite at a bed and breakfast. If that wasn’t enough, they invited us to join them for dinner. Four hours later, we finally headed off to bed, having discussed the subtle and not-so-subtle differences between the Irish and the English and our respective (and sometimes-terrifying experiences) driving on the opposite side of the road, as well as emptying a few bottles of wine.
From there, we spent a few nights in hostels before finding a hilarious couple in Derry, Northern Ireland. Welcomed into their home with a cocktail and dinner, we once again didn’t get to bed until after midnight, after sharing travel stories and catching a glimpse into what it was like to grow up in one of the flashpoint cities for the ‘Troubles.’ More on that in a later post…
As luck would have it, one of our hosts, Colum, works at the Tower Museum in Derry, and accordingly, he brings together his own experiences and a wealth of knowledge of the history that brought about the “Troubles,” leading up to the tenuous peace that exists today. So instead of just passing through Derry as we’d originally planned, we stopped to take in a town with a fascinating and tragic history.
Colum showed us the still-completely walled portion of the city, dating back to the 1600s, and the set of murals memorializing events that took place in the Bogside area of the town. We also dropped into the Tower Museum, and though Colum wasn’t working there that day, all we had to do was mention his name and we were whisked off for a private tour through the brilliant and comprehensive museum with one of the most knowledgeable guides we’d ever met.
I’m not sure if everyone always has such fabulous couch surfing experiences right off the bat, or again, whether our luck has more to do with the country that we were in. At every turn on our trip through Ireland, we met people eager to share a laugh, a drink and a bit (or more) about themselves and their country. Even in Dingle, which felt pretty touristy for the most part, we ended up sitting and talking for several hours with a group of adventure athletes in town for a bike-hike-run-kayak race that had taken place earlier in the day. Conversation comes pretty easily when you share a big booth with gregarious people (and especially when one sits down right next to you and right away says, with a big smile, ‘Where you from?’ A short time later, he said, “It’s a pity yous (sic) are moving on. Otherwise, we’d adopt you.”)
My hunch is that people enjoy opening their homes and countries to visitors more than they’re apt to have the opportunity to nowadays, so couch surfing provides an ideal outlet for that sort of thing. Yes, it does pay to use common sense and keep an eye out for your own safety on both sides of the exchange. And though the couch surfing Web site does put in place certain safeguards, people could take advantage of it for nefarious purposes if they wanted to. But at least at this point, it feels like it’s one of those traveling experiences that has yet to be discovered by the masses. The rule seems to be to keep expectations low, though for us, our hosts in Ireland set the bar pretty high.