Late last fall we decided we'd like to make a trip to the Gaspé peninsula in Quebec, Canada. The region is commonly called Gaspésie (pronounced Gas-Pay-Zee). Everything we read described it as a beautiful wilderness area on the East Coast where mountains meet the ocean. Not only that, because Quebec is predominantly francophone visiting Quebec feels like going to Europe (I've never been) or some other exotic place. Wanting to "do something different" with our kids and loving natural beauty as we do, we were curious to visit this place and decided to do so directly following a Christmas trip to Nova Scotia. My parents joined us for this adventure but did not couch surf (not for lack of trying, but our family had already booked whatever homes were available by the time they looked for a couch).
Never mind that it's winter. Hey, we live here so you just get used to traveling in the snow. The driving wasn't so much of a problem since we were going to be driving to Nova Scotia and back anyway. Because of accumulated vacation time and mandatory paid leave between Christmas and New Years taking the time off wasn't a big concern either. The biggest obstacle to us going was finances, specifically paying for accommodations & food.
Thank goodness for CouchSurfing. Traveling this way is so cool and even workable for families. And I'd like to share our experience to encourage others to do likewise.
- From what I understand (Damien made all our travel arrangements so I wasn't as intimately involved) CouchSurfing.com is an international non-profit entity that exists to connect travelers with hosts who are willing to accommodate them for free. Basically a social networking site that helps people find free places to stay while traveling.
- To participate you become a member (free), post a profile to the site and go through a verification process. Obviously this doesn't weed out all loonies and scary people, there are small risks involved, but as soon as people start "surfing" or hosting they leave feedback for both guests and hosts that helps build a level of credibility and confidence. You can sign up to host, surf or both.
- A traveler searches in the area they are planning to visit for available "couches". They send a request to potential host(s) and arrangements are made via the CouchSurfing website, personal e-mails and phone calls. There is no standard level of accommodation or length of stay.
- The traveler(s) brings their sleeping bag and is willing to sleep wherever their host puts them up. In exchange they are given free accommodation and often have access to the host's kitchen and other amenities.
Those are the nitty gritty details of how to find and give free accommodation but CouchSurfing is so much more than that. This is how CouchSurfing.com describes their vision (beyond a free place to sleep),"We have a vision of a world where everyone can explore and create meaningful connections with the people and places they encounter." That was certainly what happened in our case and saving money was just the tip of the iceberg of our experience.
When we talked about making this trip we started looking into hostels in the area, as there are many. Gaspésie is a popular tourist destination... in the summer. The hostels we contacted were all closed during the winter. So Damien started looking for couches instead. Of course for a family of five you aren't really looking for a couch but enough floorspace to throw down your sleeping mats and bags. There weren't that many people on CouchSurfing who could accommodate a family our size but we found 2 households who were willing and we made our travel arrangements based on their availability.
The first household was a young single man who put us up in his bedroom (of his small one bedroom apartment) while he slept on the couch. We stayed here for 2 nights. The second willing household was a family who was eager to host us but they lived on a private road that was not guaranteed to be plowed on the day of our estimated arrival. Instead of chancing it we opted to stay at a local auberge (hotel) with a kitchenette. Our last night was a "splurge" at the Super 8 in a city just across the Quebec border into New Brunswick. Chosen mostly for it's indoor pool. Four nights total, 2 absolutely free of charge. We also asked ahead of time if we could use our host's kitchen for cooking supper, further saving costs. We shared 4 meals with our host, 2 breakfasts and 2 suppers. And since he was just one guy we cooked for him and blessed him in exchange for his hospitalitiy.
And now this is where it get's fun.
CouchSurfing, as they say on their website, is not just about finding a free room. It's about meeting and connecting with people in unique places. It's about friendship, breaking down barriers and making this big world a little smaller and friendlier.
Y., our first host, is a young man who has studied some, traveled lots and come back home to Quebec to finish his studies. Because of his travels and world outlook he spoke English and was eager to practice with us. In fact everyone we met in Quebec was able to speak English with us and we did our best (Damien's skills were much better than the rest of us since he spent a year in France after high school) to return the favor speaking French as much as possible. Trying to speak another language and our experiencing our children's eagerness to learn was so much fun!!
Staying with Y. was not without challenges. The day we arrived his kitchen sink backed up, his little icebox freezer defrosted without warning, and his washing machine broke down. We arrived to a somewhat disheveled kitchen but with a very warm and gracious host. Wow, did I ever learn something about hospitality from this young man! But those inconviences were solved and we shared parts of the next day and half with him discovering the area's cultural gems and "places to be". One of which was the local boulangerie, where we joined in the next morning for kid's open jam session. His apartment was our home base for our next day's drive along the very windy and cold (and hauntingly beautiful) St. Lawrence River (the north side of the peninsula).
I could talk on and on about the pleasures of getting to know Y. When we departed he gave us gifts from his meager possessions, expressing the affection he felt for our family. He praised our children (what parent doesn't like that) and said he hadn't met a family like ours. We proved (his words) that it is possible to travel with children and have adventurous experiences, something he hadn't seen in families he knows. We were humbled by his kind assessments and so encouraged that we have something to show for all our years of training and loving our children.
After leaving Y.'s home we drove along the windy St. Lawrence river once again but crossed over the peninsula, through the Parc de la Gaspésie, to the other side by the Baie des Chaleur. (I don't know why I say the St. Lawrence but refer to the Bay in French)
Arriving an hour later than planned we met our second couch surfing contact, I. & D. and their family. These were the hosts that said we could stay the night but the road might not be plowed. When we determined, earlier in the week based on the weather forecast, that the road would be passable they invited us for a mid-day meal at their home. All 7 of us... and we were told to not bring anything. Talk about hospitality!!
I. & D. live in an intentional community of individuals, couples and families. This group of people are building sustainable dwellings, community and livelihoods and are really attempting to live out so many of the values you see advertised in those slick and glossy "simple living" magazines and blogs. Members of their community had also come to meet us and contributed to the potluck feast of homegrown turkey, potatoes, gravy, tourtiÃ¨re, salad, squash and apple crisp. Considering the humble state of our guest's home I marveled at the effort of preparing such a meal.
The whole experience at I. & D.'s house blew us away. Almost literally. The wind never ceased gusting but their kindness, warm wood stove and conversation knocked our socks off. Although the adults spoke fairly decent English their children did not at all. But after "moving around each other" for a couple hours the kids breeched the language barrier... with play. Hide and seek, paper airplanes, lego and drawing.
The family offered us their living/dining area floor space, which is all they had to give as they live in a very small home, to stay if we needed. That would of been tight and as it was we had already booked an auberge with kitchenette which worked great. Everything worked out as it should and we left their place, on the night of the blue moon, our spirits full in our shared experience.
The last 2 nights, as I mentioned above were spent in a hotel with kitchenette and then a regular hotel. And to celebrate New Year's Eve and because we had no place to cook we had our one supper out at this stop.
Special considerations for a family:
CouchSurfing isn't for everyone, though if you're reading this blog you are probably interested in a little adventure. And doing it with a family can be even more tricky. Here are a couple things to consider before you try it out:
- Be willing to plan your travels according to who can host you and where. Y. was the only host we found who responded to our request for sleeping space for a family of 5 so we based our itinerary around that.
- Have great kids, and I'm not joking. Your kids should be fun to be around. Not perfect, none of us are, but well behaved, respectful & inquisitive are a few traits that come to mind. People host on CouchSurfing because they want to meet people. But you need to respect a host's space also. If your kid's can't do that at home don't take them to stay at a stranger's house.
- Judge appropriate ages accordingly. Our kids are 10, 8 & 7. No one cries at night anymore or wakes up repeatedly. I don't know how feasible it is to stay in a small apartment with a stranger with a young child waking and crying every couple hours. If in doubt, ask.
- Family safety comes first. If it doesn't feel right, don't stay. Have a back up, just in case. Don't sleep in separate rooms, you know... common sense stuff.
- Bring along a few comforts from home. Sleeping in a strange situation can be unsettling. We had our familiar sleeping bags, which we use for camping, and those reminded us of our tent and our family togetherness. Kiddos might need blankies or other familiar objects to feel more at ease. I personally like to bring along my mini titanium French Press (same one I use camping) because you just never know if your host drinks coffee.
- Bring a little handmade gift. Of course this is my own opinion but nothing says "thank you for your hospitality" like a bar of soap, jar of jam or brown bag of granola. Something simple for your family to theirs.
Have you ever CouchSurfed? (Officially or unofficially). Please ask any questions you have or share your own experiences in the comments.
I'm reminded of something Y. told us while we visited him. He said he's been doing this for years, last summer alone he had 40 different people stay with him (told you Gaspésie was a tourist destination), mostly Europeans. In all his years of staying with and hosting strangers he's had only one bad experience. He didn't say what it was but he didn't seem too bothered by it. He, like everyone else I've read about, say that CouchSurfing has greatly enriched their lives. I can't wait to do it again.