Saturday, December 6, 2008

Couch surfing, cruising and safety

Couch surfing is getting a lot of attention these days--even here on this blog. The latest entry is a short report about the phenomenon by the CBS affiliate in Dallas.

KOLN-TV in Lincoln, Nebraska, also posted a news report on couch surfing, which included an interview with local police chief Tom Casady. Casady pointed out that couch surfers should take precautions while couch surfing--checking references, for instance. He noted that he did a quick check on some locals offering up their couches and uncovered a sex offender. Casady later went into more detail about the safety aspects of couch surfing in a post on his blog. (Wow, police chiefs have blogs. Who knew?)

Casady provided thoughtful, excellent safety tips that any couch surfer should follow. For instance, he suggested doing a free background check on your host with the local police department, bringing your own sleeping bag (who knows what's living in that couch?) and never travelling alone.

Interestingly for a police chief who is well aware of the dangers of meeting strangers online, he also had this to say:
No need to be paranoid, though. You can't live in a cocoon, and somehow the concept of people hosting travellers in their home is appealing to a guy who was on his own at an early age, and depended on the kindness of others to make his way for several years.
Contrast that with the comments about couch surfing back on the KOLN-TV site. One anonymous poster wrote:
This is one of the dumbest things I have ever heard of!!! Seriously??? These people are just asking for trouble! YIKES!! Rent a motel room - your safety is worth it!!!!!!!!
I found this aspect of the discussion fascinating. Yes, there are undoubtedly risks in couch surfing. And yes, they're a bit different than those that arise if you stay in a hotel. But as the police chief noted, risks can be managed, although never totally eliminated. And trouble can happen anywhere--my husband and I once had $300 stolen from our room in a posh hotel. (We foolishly didn't put the money in the safe.) 

The viewer's reaction--that couch surfing was a stupid idea because it's ripe for abuse by crazies--reminds me of a cruise my husband and I took years ago. One night, when the ship was in port in Puerto Rico until 11pm, we took advantage of the chance to have dinner on shore. We stumbled on a fabulous, well-priced restaurant and had one of the best meals of our lives.

When we reconnected with our assigned table mates at dinner onboard the next night, they were all appalled. How had we known what restaurant to go to? How did we know it was safe? Weren't we afraid to drink the water? Why didn't we just come back to the ship?

The conversation depressed me beyond measure. Everyone should take logical precautions when travelling. We didn't do anything remotely rash: there were two of us, we stayed in a tourist district with lots of people on the streets, we were back on the ship by 10pm. 

But cruise ships--and ours was no exception--are notorious for stoking a culture of fear among passengers. From the moment you step aboard, you're told everything on shore is expensive, dangerous and dirty--unless, of course, you take the cruise ship's organized shore excursions (on which they make much of their profit) and shop at the cruise ship's approved stores (from which they usually receive a healthy kickback). 

As a result, passengers truly believe that the ports they're visiting are scary places. And I hear something of that in the the viewer's response to the Nebraska story. 

People should travel safely, by all means. They should listen to their gut in any situation. If couch surfing is a bit too "out there" for someone, that's totally OK and understandable. But I hope most travellers aren't afraid to reach out and meet people outside that "safe" motel room--even if that reaching out is as simple as striking up a conversation on a bus or in a coffee shop, or eating in a restaurant outside the hotel. Otherwise, why leave home?

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