23 October, 2010

The CS underground

There's a certain soft, low-angle light here in Iceland that photographers prize. CouchSurfing here, though, you may come to see subtle differences in the CS experience in a harsh and unforgiving light. Unlike, say, Turkiye, where the travel is cheap and hosts often seek English-speaking guests with whom to converse, Reykjavik's hosts operate within the oddly charged environment of a tourism-driven economy, and they are not immune to becoming a part of that economy. Living in a popular travel destination that strains backpacker budgets, locals willing to host are often overbooked, and some (ethically or otherwise) use the CS network for economic gain.

When several requests went without reply, i found myself at the modest home of one S, whose name i will omit. With a houseful of children and others, S offered space for one night, before other surfers arrived. The surfing space was shared - the top bunk of the children's downstairs living space, cluttered with toys and a sea of piled clothing. S was positive, energetic, and extended space to those in need; however, she also advertised on her page that a private upstairs room was available at a cost. This action - advertising paid services on a CS page - flies in the face of the community's mission and policies. In her message with directions and phone, S informed me that she had cars available for rent. She also asked a favor: get a carton of Marlboro reds at the duty free, 4,000kr. We'll pay you back. (Several other surfers report the same request, leading one to wonder if S is using visitors to effectively smuggle in cigarettes in for resale.)

When i found sharing the cluttered children's space a bit uncomfortable, i was glad to have another local contact who generously allowed me to use his couch instead. Calling my only other CS option, a fellow in nearby Hafnafjorður, i found him out of town for the week. (New Zealander Josie writes, "I've heard so many similar CS stories from that island.")

Whatever her dealings and motivations, S was nonetheless helpful in connecting me with others in order to pool our resources. I met Devon and Felicia, a sweet young Canadian couple who had paid to use the upstairs room, and over coffee we discussed renting a car together. Since S was away at work, we inquired about a rental car to her partner(?) D, and only after fishing for information did we learn that it would be a two door car with one plastic-covered broken window, no heat, and broken radio. (S later informed my companions by email that there was "a misunderstanding" and this was not the car she intended to rent us.)

In response to a CS group post asking if other travelers want to share resources, another surfer had suggested i check out acr.is for affordable car rentals. ACR is a cottage industry for Reykjavik's CS emergency contact and group moderator James. James seemed a square-dealing, accommodating fellow, though he had no good words about S. "This car," he said, "is registered as a rental car. Hers isn't." He continued to say that others who rented from S have broken down and been left to fend for themselves, or complained that they were manipulated into paying for her upstairs room when there was no place else to stay. Given the unevenness of our experience with S, we could neither confirm or deny these allegations.

James had driven to meet us in the Volvo wagon, advertised as the most expensive of his small fleet. But, informing us that the smaller cars were already taken, he verbally agreed to a discounted rate and dealt generously with us. In a way, we were lucky: the station wagon would save us money on lodging.

Summed up, my Reykjavik CS experience is this: some CS players know, and dislike each other; networks of allegiance and indirect advertising have arisen on the site. It makes perfect sense given the particular economic pressures and empty niches of this tourism-driven place. Those economic pressures and other factors lead to an unreliable and perhaps overexploited CouchSurfing resource; i desperately sought free or inexpensive lodging, turning to the hostel one night and staying awake the night before departure. By the third day, i had my own idea for a cottage industry geared to the CS demographic in high-traffic RVK - prepaid cellphone rentals. Yet even the idea raises questions for me, basic ethical matters about appropriate places and ways to advertise.

With unreliable results even in the off-season, CS in Iceland is perhaps best used as a forum to meet fellow travelers and pool resources. Which leads us, of course, to shared adventures.