Tales of a travel addict
COUCHSURFING makes perfect sense to our grandparents’ generation who survived ar scáth a chéile (relying on each other), yet is inexplicable to our parents, the first generation of self-absorbed mé-féiners. It involves staying for free in people’s homes contacted through Couchsurfing.org, a non-profit, travel-oriented social-networking site that has grown to more than 2.4 million members, including 25 in Antarctica in eight years. Its ideology is best summed up by its founders: “Anytime you make yourself vulnerable in any way, you take a risk, and typically life rewards you for that risk.” It offers a way of seeing the world through local eyes, which is exactly the opposite of what travel was about up until this generation.
The television series Ó Tholg Go Tolg (From Couch To Couch) is currently following Bláthnaid Tracey and Laura O’Connell couchsurfing around eastern Europe. In their first week they slept with four Mexican clowns in Stuttgart, last week they were evicted from a squat in Hungary, and in Romania they find they must kill to eat, but it is in the Balkans that their true education begins as their hosts share their experiences of living through the Nato bombing of Kosovo. In turn, the cailíní share their own culture, with sean-nós dancing, amhránaíocht and even a bit of Gaeilge loving, I believe.
Trust is the most profound element of couchsurfing. The girls turn up as complete strangers and are given keys to the house. This is a new way for humans to interact, a resetting of the timeless rules of engagement which is so counter-intuitive that sociologists have begun researching it at Stanford University. Couchsurfing.orgclaims its aim is make the world friendlier and smaller, one couch at a time. There are currently sofas or beds available in 93,000 cities in 207 countries.
TG4 has always believed in the potency of travel, the importance of the “súil eile”, the alternate view one gets from looking beyond one’s own perspective. When the station was first announced in 1996 I was living in an isolated cowshed in the Himalayas going blissfully insane. My brother flew out to rescue me with a simple digital video camera and the programmes we made together were shown when the station began broadcasting nine months later.
This year, the station has two new travel series showing ways to see the world on a minuscule budget.
Ó Tholg go Tolg continues for the next six weeks and in the spring there’s a series about becoming a willing worker on organic farms (Wwoofing). This period of underemployment is an ideal moment to explore the benefits of travel as an education in the university of the world.
Wwoofing is like a 21st century version of the travelling hobo willing to work for a meal. There are affiliated organisations in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe. The US has 1,200 farms and ranches in the scheme and there are 405 farms in Ireland alone. One simply chooses where one wants to go, and in return for between two and four hours’ work one receives free food and lodging. The work can involve anything from weeding, harvesting, chopping wood, fixing fences to branding cattle, sheep-dipping or grape-crushing.
The educational and life-altering potential of Wwoofing is even greater than couchsurfing. One gets to meet people across the world engaged in sustainable food-production and tackling environmental issues. What college programme could possibly give that range of experience or depth of learning? The dinner table becomes a lecture tutorial.
A survey of 1,381 Wwoofers showed that 90 per cent had a positive or very positive experience, with a high majority reporting that their relationship with food had changed as a result.
If we only have one incarnation on this gorgeous planet would you rather spend it dodging lectures in the Buttery or the Belfield bar, or travelling around this great world, farm by farm?