I have had incredible Couchsurfing hosts, but this is an account of the other kind.
I posted an announcement of my arrival to Marseilles in Southern France to seek out a friendly, cool host and sorted thru a handful of replies and arranged a stay with a guy that had several polite reviews (as a guest) and a nice repartee. I arrived and took my time wandering the city streets before we arranged to meet at the Burger King in town. He offered to take my backpack while we rode the metro to his place. So far so good.
We arrived at a narrow building and walked down the stairs to the basement apartment. It’s France – property is expensive (hence the Couchsurfing). He led to the end of the corridor with a shared toilet and he opened the door to the right, and it was a single girl’s terror – the kind you scream to the movie screen “NO! DO NOT GO IN THERE!”
He escorted me into a narrow galley apartment. Completely filthy. Grimy dishes, a shower filled with hair and mildew, and the only place to sit was a thin single mattress with long ago laundered and stained sheets that covered half the narrow room. Mind you I am now 5 months into my travels – I was not so green to have high expectations.
When he offered for me to join him on the bed I shoved his pile of smelly clothes and books into the corner and leaned against my backpack on the floor trying to avoid feeling absolutely skived out by the chewed off nails that had been spit around the room. I inquired where his guests usually slept and he pointed to a matching mattress sloping along the wall. My mattress would fit snugly between his bed and the wall.
Repeatedly, I have found myself in unsavory situations and this was no different. To open up the conversation I asked about his recent travels to Amsterdam he had formerly mentioned and he offered to share a slideshow of his recent trip. He scrolled through a series of selfies around town and after about 100 pictures – here came the photos of the Red-Light District. He lingered over images of dildos, sex workers, anal beads and then excused himself to go to the shared bathroom. This is when I really started to panic.
I snatched up my phone, shared my location with a few friends and my mom, booked a dorm in a hostel downtown, took a few pictures for the Couchsurfing admin and furtively packed my daypack. I waited around for 20 minutes for him to return. I told him I had been travelling with a friend for several weeks and needed additional space and opted for a hostel. I thanked him for the trouble and asked if he would like to walk me to my hostel and offered to buy him a beer.
The air between was tense, but he kindly escorted me into the center of town. The conversation was stiff and he finally asked why I chose to leave as it is not the first time this has happened. I would not be doing him any favors if I pampered him with lies so I told him the flat is a bit small and advised him to clean if expecting guests.
I shared my experience with the Couchsurfing admin rather than slamming him with a bad review this is what the admins are for. I finished the evening with a delicious Bouillabaisse, making new and long-lasting friendships in the hostel and praised myself for trusting my gut and standing by my convictions.
If you do not feel safe or comfortable in your environment don’t be shy to speak your mind and leave. It’s simple they are strangers you may not ever see again and you don’t owe them anything.