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Couch Surfers starts a new winning streak

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We just had a great evening last night with John from Wisconsin, our first Couch Surfer in ages. If he took my advice, he should be eating lunch at the Russell Inn right about now.

John is a retired educator who was on his way to Yellowknife, lugging a pair of kayaks on his roof; a buddy from Boston will fly up to join him on some amazing-sounding kayaking.

Over a barbecued dinner and some adult beverages, and cheese that John brought along, we had great conversation about politics, sports, TV and movies, kayaking, all kinds of things, having the neat kind of meeting that CS engenders. Or is supposed to.

We settled down to watch the Blue Bombers on the telly, and John liked his first taste of the CFL so much that he texted his wife at home to tell her where she could watch on cable. Which she did.

This is how Couch Surfers is supposed to work. John and his wife have surfed, they’ve hosted people. They’ve posted an extensive profile and built up references on their CS page from people who themslves are veteran CS and in turn have full profiles and references. John had clearly read our profile, spelled out when he’d come and when he’d leave, and said why he’d like to stay with us in particular.

We joined after so many people were incredibly generous and welcoming to child the elder on his bicycle trip around the U.S. in the 2010-2011 school year.

John was only the eighth surfer(s) we’ve hosted. We’ve had a string of bad luck with people we would like to host, whose dates were when we were away or the kids were home. There’s a physics teacher from Brazil named Hermann who’s coming here in July to talk to U of M about doing his PhD, but it’s while we’re on vacation at the cottage.

Alas.

There are more than 600 CS hosts listed in and around Winnipeg, and few hosts of our advanced vintage. A couple of young women have chosen us because they felt safer with a couple of older people, but I expect we usually lose out to people looking for younger hosts who are more apt to socialize, or at least socialize in a different manner than we would. And, of course, be far less active than us and be much more likely to be home in the evening.

At least it’s been quite a while since we had people ask to stay with us, we accepted, and then never heard from them again. That’s never cool.

The string of requests we received and turned down over the past couple of months shows some of the shortcomings of CS, and the inability of some people to grasp that it is a community of travellers helping each other and enjoying each other’s company, not a way to get free lodging and a free meal on the road.

Our profile says very clearly right at the top that we won’t accept anyone who has joined CS in the last few hours, has no references, and lists virtually no profile. It doesn’t stop them asking. CS advised us to put a codeword deep in our profile and ask people to repeat it in their request, to show they’ve read the profile. That’s been useful advice.

So we turned down a bunch of people who had joined CS within hours and who hadn’t read our profile.

There was a 19-year-old from Germany who said he’d be coming through in a day or so with two travelling buddies, about whom he told us nothing.

A woman from B.C. emailed in the afternoon and said she and her friend were approaching the outskirts of Winnipeg from the west and looking for a place for the night.

A guy from Cote d’Ivoire asked in French if he could stay on a weekend, when we’ll be at the lake, even though his own profile was in English. Nothing about us, nothing about why he was in Winnipeg.

A Korean woman emailed from Toronto, saying she’d arrive in a day or so and didn’t understand yet how CS worked, but someone told her to sign up and try for free accommodation. She offered to scan and send us a copy of her ID papers to cover off having no profile and no references.

The best one was a woman from Croatia, who said that she could barely afford her airfare and couldn’t afford to spend any more. She wanted to stay with us for 33 days. Nary a syllable offered about why she would be in Winnipeg for 33 days, how she was arriving, how she’d get around, whether she expected us to feed her for 33 days, whether she expected us to drive her — some people are quite clear that they hope to find a host who’ll take them around the city, reasonable enough if they’d like to visit the high spots with locals as tour guides with free time, less reasonable if they’re looking for a free taxi.

When I told her why I was turning her down, she replied that she had asked us for help, and I had refused to help a person in need.

Sigh.

Let’s hope we get a few more surfers like John this summer. Couch Surfing is really fun when it works.

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About Nick Martin

Nick Martin is the old bearded guy at the back of the newsroom, the most experienced reporter at the Winnipeg Free Press, having started his career in Ontario in 1971.

He’s been covering education for the Free Press since the spring of 1997, after decades primarily covering municipal politics, including a four-year stint at the Ontario legislature for the London Free Press.

Nick moved to Manitoba in 1988 with his Winnipeg-born wife, who is a professor at the University of Manitoba. They have two kids, both of whom graduated from Grant Park High School: son Chris and daughter Gillian.

Nick has won a national journalism award from the Canadian Association of University Teachers, two Manitoba Human Rights Journalism awards, and the Ontario Reporters Association investigative award.

Nick is a long-distance runner, having finished and survived 18 marathons and 15 half-marathons and 30-kilometre races, and having (barely) survived 10 years as an outdoor and indoor soccer coach.

Nick became a soccer referee in 2007, delighting in his 60s in outrunning 16-year-olds and keeping his distance from obstreperous coaches and parents.

Nick and his wife have discovered a mutual love for kayaking at their Whiteshell cottage, and are both regulars at the Reh-Fit Centre. They hold season tickets to both the Manitoba Theatre Centre and the Warehouse, and as empty nesters, have rediscovered the joys of an active winter vacation.

A native of Jarrow-on-Tyne, England, Nick is a member of the Toon Army as a Newcastle United supporter, and a proud citizen of Leafs Nation.

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