During the latter half of 2008, I feverishly made plans to travel with my friend Lisa and a couple of her friends in India. Lisa was in Namibia finishing up her two+ year commitment with the Peace Corps. She knew she wanted to spend time traveling afterward, and I told her I was on board for a month long stint in India. Keeping in mind that our lines of communication were shaky at best, it was pretty miraculous that the four of us managed to meet in Qatar and take the same plane from there to Delhi.
In addition, we had bridged the thousands of miles between us and the subcontinent to coordinate a couch surf on the outskirts of the city. For those of you who do not know, couchsurfing.org is a website where people can sign up to host travelers or, on the other hand, request a place to stay. It’s a great way to meet a diverse array of people and experience places from a local’s point of view. It’s also not a bad way to save money.
Lisa and her Peace Corps buddies had been bouncing around Africa and had couch surfed on several occasions. They had also played host. So, when Lisa brought it up, I thought, “Sure, why not?” I figured it would be a good idea to “know” somebody when we landed in an unfamiliar country with an unfamiliar language. She coordinated the place to stay, and I printed out all the documents.
Fast forward to December 25, 2008…
Upon arriving in Delhi at 3am, we slowly made our way to the airport’s taxi stand. We were exhausted, jet lagged, completely turned upside down by our surroundings, and on our way to a stranger’s house. If you’ll allow, I’d like to share with you a short excerpt from the travel journal I kept at the time. (Short is relative. I’m guessing by now you’ve figured out I can go on and on.)
In terms of navigation, it was a little ridiculous. [The cab driver] got so turned around and asked about a dozen people where the address was. The fact that it was 6 in the morning in India and we were going to a stranger’s house with no cell phones didn’t help the situation…a little nerve wracking, no? We finally made it, although we relied on the address of the nearby homes to locate it. After tipping the driver (he asked for more…we didn’t concede), we walked through the gate, into the building, and up to what we hoped was the right apartment (there were no numbers). The barking of dogs gave us confidence, and Lisa finally got the nerve and rang the doorbell.
A short young guy answered the door with barely a word, and we stood around awkwardly. He went into the kitchen and started rustling around. And then he was on the phone. This whole while we’re thinking, “What in the world? What should we do?” Finally he shows us a bedroom (no words out of his mouth, mind you) and then sets up 4 glasses and a bottle of wine on the dining room table and tells us to have a seat. After sitting a long while discussing that this guy doesn’t match the couchsurfing profile picture (shady…among everything else), this other guy walks through the door and introduces himself as Upendra (Tripathi). Ding! Thank goodness. Matches the pic. He had gone to the airport to pick us up (miscommunication…).
What was a crazy couple of hours turned into one of the best decisions we could have made. Our host was welcoming and generous. He offered free reign of his home and helped us navigate around the city. I have no doubt in my mind that we may have gotten off on the wrong foot in India if it weren’t for Upendra.
That being said, it was a crazy couple of hours. If it hadn’t resolved when it did, I may have developed an ulcer from the anxiety.
The A.T. is similar in that I’ve heard so much about the sense of community and of the generosity of strangers. I’ll be passing close enough to towns every three to seven days that I’ll be able to walk or procure rides in order to resupply. And while there are unknowns regarding the who, what, where, and how in many of those instances, the A.T. fosters a spirit of community, meaning there are resources and people committed to helping thru-hikers. And with my handy dandy A.T. Guide (see previous post), I’ll have phone numbers to get hold of many of them.
So there are risks, but they are relatively tame on the whole. I mean I don’t think they’re “India couch surfing” risky. Now that I think of it, I don’t even think they’re “eating Indian street food from a cart” risky (but we’ll save that story for another time).