It’s dark, but the busy lights from the local shops liven up the crowded street. An intense mix of colors, noises and smells bombard my senses. Our tuk-tuk driver aggressively weaves in and out of traffic, narrowly missing several oncoming scooters, but our conversation doesn’t skip a beat.
No gasps from Lahiru, our Sri Lanken Couchsurfing host (what is “Couchsurfing?” read here), as he switches from speaking to us in English back to Sinhalese with the driver. I cringe and inhale sharply every few seconds, as pedestrians come just inches from our speeding tuk-tuk. The phrase, “Please keep all arms and legs inside the moving vehicle” never rang more true. We make several more turns away from the city center, down side roads and a few small alleyways, dodging potholes as they come. We slow at what appears to be a dead end, and the engine shuts off. Lahiru pays the driver with what looks like monopoly money, and we all emerge next to some railroad tracks. He begins to cross the tracks and, still not quite sure where we are going, I curiously fall in step behind him.
Through the darkness, on the other side of the uneven tracks we reach The Waves, a restaurant situated directly on the beach with a beautiful shoreline view of Colombo, lighting up the sky just a few kilometers north. With lanterns hung from low branches, tables and chairs set in the sand, and a live band playing local music, this is a place to cause romantics to marvel. The eight of us sharing stories, laughing, and filling our glasses with local beer and rum until the wee hours of the morning. With the crescent moon above, the waves crashing on the surf and shadows dancing on our faces, we enjoyed our meals by candlelight. This was paradise, a night to be remembered.
Three days later and 60 kilometers down the coastline, her small three year old body lays limp in my arms. After a day at Bentota beach and no nap, she’s tuckered out. It’s hot, and her short black hair sticks to her sweet face. The dirt road leads us deep into an underdeveloped neighborhood where the inhabitants seem unaccustomed to white faces. Women stop hanging clothes on their lines to watch us pass by; two white women with a brown child they recognize isn’t an everyday affair. Boys pedal their bikes past us and smile with bright white teeth, circling back to say hello.
Goats tear at bags of trash and wild dogs lay motionless by the roadside, unimpressed by our presence. We reach the home of the five children and two wonderful parents that make up our host family here in Aluthgama. Slipping off our shoes outside the door, we enter the house where we are referred to as “Teacher.” I lay the sleeping child in the bed she shares with her four other siblings and proceed to the main room to sit in front of an oscillating fan. One of the smaller children recites her English homework to me, proudly matching the words with the illustrated pictures.
When finished, she excitedly uses my body as a jungle gym. One of the older boys brings us a bowl of sour fruit (Love; pronounced Loh-Vee) and proceeds to eat one, struggling not to make a face – as if to prove he’s tough and doesn’t think it’s sour at all. We play games they have never heard of, like Mother May I and Duck Duck Goose. Then, it’s time for the evening meal and a rug is placed on the floor, along with a large bowl of rice and several dishes of curries. The children finish their plates and one by one scurry off to bed. In the morning, they smile at us in their blue and white school uniforms. Two boys sit on the front step and clean their shoes. We give hugs and see them off as they yell “Bye, Teacha!” and close the gate behind them. The sound of their footsteps grow small, and I know that I’ve been touched, changed. Their little lives leaving a mark on mine.
Then there’s our time spent in Tangalla. After a night of drinking, dancing, and stories of travel, the two of us begin the short walk back with our host to his beachside hotel. It has rained for days and the road is scattered with puddles. The waves reach heights of 10 and 12 feet and come barreling down only meters away from us, crashing against the sea wall. Once we reach our destination, good-nights are said and hugs given… apart from a few advances averted. We close our door behind us and stagger to bed, undressing as we go. I’ve had a great night thus far with the love of my life, and we aren’t planning on stopping now. Suddenly, there’s a knock at the door. We freeze. It’s our host, and he’s asking to come in. Within seconds, our window opens and we frantically grab the bedsheet to conceal ourselves. This guy is going to peer into our window?! We both are floored but couldn’t have guessed what would come next. First one leg, then the other becomes visible as he climbs inside our room. Nothing separating us from him but a mosquito net. “Can I join?” he asks, ever so casually. “No!” we reply. “But I have no experience with this, please, I join?” I am beside myself. “This is so very inappropriate.” I tell him, “Absolutely not okay. We are not in an open relationship. You need to leave now.” He looks confused and stands hovering over our bed, there are some more comments made, but I stand my ground.
After a few more minutes, he begins moving the mosquito net out of his way, “I come in? Please?” My patience for whatever language and culture barrier may be coming into play here is now gone. “NO, you need to go NOW” I reply. “Hug then?” he states, as if this is something that is done here and I am the one throwing him off. “No hugs. You go.” He turns to the door acting puzzled and perhaps a little embarrassed, then pretends to not be able to get the door open. He turns and looks at us, as if he’s expecting a different reply this time, but he’s only met with a firm, “Go” from the both of us. He manages to get the door open and walks out, closing it behind him. We look at each other like WTF just happened!?! The next day is nothing short of forced and awkward, and when we finally throw our packs into the back of a tuk-tuk and head to the bus station, we feel a wave of relief. Our stay could have been so much more than it was… the unpredictability of Couchsurfing is something yet to be figured out.
Our next Couchsurfer (let’s call him “Bob”) had been hired to manage and promote business for his friend’s newly opened hotel near Dambattane and seemed very eager to host his first two Americans. Upon arrival we were excited to see our first wild monkeys. They seemed quite used to people and came rather close as I snapped a few photos. After we settled in a bit, Bob served tea and began telling us about the ayurvedic massage he specializes in. We had read his reviews, and everyone raved about it, saying it was relaxing and therapeutic. He spoke nonstop of it and although he seemed pushy, he also appeared harmless. An hour later, Hillary agrees and the both of us follow him to an upstairs bedroom. I chat with Bob out in the hallway as Hillary closes the door behind her until she’s ready, laying on the bed under a towel. He and I enter the room, where he proceeds to tell us about the oils and how much he will be using, their ingredients and what they are used for. Things get a bit weird as he moves her panties down and spends an uncomfortable amount of time massaging her glutes. “This good? Ok? Yes?” he repeats several times. Things got even more bizarre when he asked her to turn over, and then to stand up only inches from his face and chest while he pulled her in closer and rubbed her shoulders and the back of her neck.
Since I hadn’t previously agreed to a massage, mid-way through I explained how I wouldn’t be needing one, had never had one (which is true), and that they make me uncomfortable. He asked me several times why not and if I was sure. I was very sure. Trying my best to be polite, I assured him that I was content just watching his techniques and learning about the individual oils and how they healed certain ailments. The next day was a bit trying; he seemed offended by my lack of interest in the massage and because of this the rest of our stay was strange and stand-offish.
I’m fortunate enough to say that I’ve visited many countries and have had several exciting experiences. I’ve done things I’ll never forget and spent only a handful of days with people I’ll have life-long bonds with. And when the day was over I returned to my hostel and spent my fair share of time playing drinking games in the common area or swapping life stories at the bar. Hostels offer an easily accessible common ground for those who want to live life, explore, and adventure with other travelers. It’s a wonderful thing and nothing can replace it. But mingling with the locals produces such a different flavor of travel, enriching the experience from the inside out. To know and see first-hand the daily life, struggles, beliefs, and ways of a culture is a gift to be sought out and cherished. A knowledge to be treasured and passed on. These are opportunities so freely given to a couchsurfer. Here you find a network of open-minded and kind hearted people that make available a certain viewpoint not commonly known to foreigners. One that offers an intimate perspective that hostels lack. It’s the flip-side of the coin. The side so often missed. My favorite side.
It only takes one small, exceedingly uncomfortable moment to change the tone of a Couchsurfing experience. With our Window Intruder, we’d had the best night full of laughs and meeting his local friends. Earlier in the day, his family had treated us as valued guests and served us some of the best Sri Lankan food we’d eaten. The CS experience was almost perfect. With the masseuse-in-training, we had enjoyed a day of photographing monkeys surrounding the property, been served amazing banana curry and spiced chicken, and learned a significant amount about ayurvedic healing. But with both hosts, the line of appropriateness was crossed, and there was no turning back. Everything became awkward, and it was pretty much time to go. Our advice to travelers planning to survive solely on Couchsurfing – be prepared to state your boundaries, know what you are/aren’t comfortable participating in, and have a backup plan for each city. Generally hosts are eager to learn about your culture and excited to share their own. It’s a way to have a new friend and tour guide in every place you travel. So don’t let this deter you from having the experience, let it prepare you for having the experience you want.
Have you Couchsurfed? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below!