By: Ellen Pauwels
I owe a lot to Couchsurfing. It sounds stupid when I say it, but Couchsurfing changed my life in a profound way.
I have been a member since 2014. A friend of mine was an active member at that time and he talked with so much passion and enthusiasm about the community that I made a profile. I stayed quiet though. I guess I was not ready yet for the jump. I was in a long term relationship then and he didn’t like meeting new people (and how scary that can be) as much as I did and still do. We broke up in 2016 and after 2 years and a lot of self work, self reflection and a lot of struggles with myself I finally decided to go for it: in 2018 I made my first solo trip.
To get a taste of what CS was, I dipped in one toe first. I took a chance and looked for travellers in my neighbourhood. I asked one girl if she would like to be hosted by me. I didn’t live in a big city, but one hour with train and bus away, so I knew I wasn’t going to be a ‘popular’ option. I didn’t have references at that time, so she took a chance on me too by saying yes, but the experience was so wonderful! We had such deep and interesting conversations and at that moment I was sold on CS. I will be forever grateful to her too, because also because of her I continued my journey on CS.
A few days later I left for my first solo trip through Europe and the goal was to couchsurf through it all. Finding my first host in Budapest was hard… I sent over 30 messages, but also there one host took on the challenge and she made my first visit to Budapest the best I could ever have imagined! Luckily, finding the other hosts was easier and each of them are such amazing people! I have had some rough years in which I doubted the world and mankind, but CS restored my faith in humanity. When I got home, I continued hosting and each of the people I hosted I will remember forever.
But there is more… Sometimes small ripples make big waves. One of my hosts during that Europe trip invited me to visit her in India. During the three days she was hosting me, I had told her that I didn’t like at all my India trip in 2017. She said that I should come if I was ready to give India a new chance.
So in April 2019, I took the plunge and went, out of curiosity, for the challenge and because I wanted to see the country through new, different and more local eyes. The unexpected happened: I lost my heart to Pondicherry (and India). I came home, felt homesick and lost in my own life and own country and rebooked a flight for July about four days later. Now it’s March 2020 and since January 2020 I live in Pondicherry. I have a volunteering visa for one year, but I don’t know how long I will actually stay. Might be shorter, might also be a lot longer. Every option is open. I give up my rental house in Belgium, I put my job on hold, I gave away and threw away more than half of my stuff and I put the rest of the boxes in a friend’s attic. In time maybe these boxes will also disappear, because I don’t miss the stuff in them at all.
That one host gave me a big opportunity when she invited me, but it was also listening to the stories of all those other hosts and surfers that made me realise I am also one of ‘those’ people: I have a restless travellers’ soul. I never saw myself like this and I still don’t, but here I am, living in another country, trying to make it work. A country that couldn’t be more different from the one I have known for 36 years…
I feel free. All the useless stuff I owned is gone. I cried during the move and cleanup, because I had to face more than 10 years worth of junk. But no matter how crazy the past year has been, it was worth it. I am happy to be where I am, literally but also psychologically. I learnt that I can be happy with a lot less and I appreciate now more what I do have. Especially the people in my life… I miss my friends and family in Belgium, but I cherish them more now. Even if I stay only a few months in India instead of long term, I can already feel I will have learnt so much and I am so grateful for this opportunity.
It was Couchsurfing that opened the door. There are some awesome people out there and a lot of them belong to the couchsurfing community. I will continue to meet people here in Pondicherry, because even here, far away from home, my curious travellers’ soul is still alive.