A Korean, a Spaniard, an Englishman and two Tahitians eating Christmas dinner may sound like the start of an exceedingly distasteful joke, but this was the scene at the railway cottage in Clara, Co. Offaly
Couchsurfing ambassador Simon Andrews is used to bizarre sights like this, having had his small 200-year-old home become a revolving door for travellers. In the last six years his battered sofa and tiny “couchsurfing room” has played host to over 400 travellers from around 45 different countries, all free of charge.
“I knew as soon as I saw it (couchsurfing) that it was going to be something I was interested in and was going to be a big part of my life,” he tells me with a warm grin.
London-born and currently retired, Simon has a long list of past occupations which all involve moving from place to place - truck driver, motorcycle courier, and even for a time, U2 tour bus driver. Simon first moved to Ireland on a whim eight years ago to start another new life. He soon discovered couchsurfing and began opening his home up to people from all corners of the globe.
“I’ve had couchsurfers from very remote parts of the earth. From places like Tahiti, Bolivia, the Seychelles islands, Uruguay, small countries in Europe like Estonia. I’m always surprised at where my couchsurfers come from,” he says.
There seems to be no limit to Simon’s hospitality. He’s happy to accommodate voyagers for as long as they please. “The shortest period of time is always one night, six months is the longest period of time anyone has stayed and all times in between,” his soft English accent emanating a rather tranquil vibe.
“Quite a few times people have stayed two months. There’s never a plan to stay that long, but if we’ve got along together and they find that they like being in Clara then I’m quite happy for them to stay. It’s quite nice to have someone stay longer and get to know them better.”
A Japanese girl taking her first foray into the European travelling scene stayed with Simon for six months. “She had a working holiday and was looking for a job,” he recalls. “I took her to a Japanese restaurant and she got a job there. The two days she was meant to stay for turned into a week, a week turned into a month and the month actually turned into six months until she decided to travel again.”
“Now she’s still living in Europe five years later and she’s married to someone she met on couchsurfing in Belgium.”
Out of the 400 people to have become his guests, negative experiences remain rare.
“I’ve never been ripped off or injured or anything like that. I’ve had people who had problems and it was difficult to help them, like sometimes people who had discharged themselves from hospital and decided to go travelling, but they weren’t very well. I’d say less than 1% of my couchsurfing experiences have caused me any difficulty.”
As the day comes to a close, Simon and I walk his most recent guest, a couchsurfer from Rotterdam named Celine Stuyt to the “hitching spot” in Clara. Celine is making her way back to Dublin after spending two days with Simon.
She tells me about how she “was kind of stuck in life” and had just quit her job of ten years as a social worker to go travel and “find new inspiration”.
Simon and I sit on a wall for five or so minutes watching her hitch from a distance. It isn’t long until she’s picked up. We wave her goodbye and she heads off into the unknown, continuing her adventure.
Simon meanders home and immediately begins checking his couchsurfing account, viewing the new requests he has already received and writing Celine's reference.
“It’s a lifestyle for me,” he tells me. “I’ve been doing it for six years now and I plan to continue doing it for as long as I can.”