Couch surfing in Sicily
By Richard Strager
“Vai più piano, Eduardo!” I shouted. “Go slower!” How did I end up here, speeding along this narrow Sicilian coastal road under the glare of a scalding August sun, sitting behind this 65-year-old silver-haired Italian gentleman, perched on the back of his classic Moto Guzzi motorcycle which was almost as old as he was?
I’d only met Eduardo for the first time the day before. He had replied to a request I’d placed on the Couch Surfing website looking for accommodations for the couple of nights I was hoping to spend in Catania, Sicily. Couch Surfing, in case you haven’t heard of it, is the easiest, cheapest and coolest way to travel around the world without having to pay for a place to stay. In addition, the site provides travelers with the unique opportunity to get to know local people and perhaps to be shown around by them.
Eduardo, a retired oil refinery inspector, was full of energy and bravado. He had lots of free time on his hands and enjoyed spending it hosting travelers from all over the world and introducing them to his beloved Sicily. When he offered to take me on a tour of the north-eastern coast of Sicily, I accepted without hesitation, in the spirit of adventure. I felt lucky to have my own personal Italian tour guide for the day. I assumed we’d be going by car, so when he handed me a helmet and told me to hop on his motorcycle, I was taken aback. But, he assured me that he’d been riding motorcycles his whole life and it was the best way to see the coast. So I jumped on board behind him and roared out of the city leaving behind the chaotic urban sprawl of Catania and up into the surrounding hills along the coast-hugging cliff roads, heading toward the fashionable resort town of Taormina. Little did I know we’d be covering 75 miles that day over the course of 12 hours. Eduardo had also failed to mention how much he enjoyed weaving in between traffic, riding down the center stripe of two-way roads, and his preference for stopping at red lights only as a last resort.
The website www.couchsurfing.org seeks to create and promote a culture of helping and hosting travelers for free. The ‘couch’ part is a bit misleading. A simple couch is certainly one type of lodging that people might offer, but in my three experiences staying with people in Italy last summer, on each occasion I was given my own room, own bathroom, internet access, and at least one home cooked meal. In exchange, I was only asked to spend some quality time with whoever was hosting me, sharing travel stories and chatting about the world from the sundry to the profound. In my case, I intentionally chose hosts who didn’t seem to speak any English since I much preferred to use my Italian. Most people on the website, however, appear to be bi-, tri- or quadri-lingual, which is not that unusual in Europe. Some hosts, in fact, are very likely angling for a chance to hone their English speaking skills while showing guests around their town or city. There are also those on the website who don’t have a bed or couch to offer, but are eager to meet for a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, or to invite you to a party or cultural event. Others might be able to put you up for a night or two, but not have any free time to spend with you. It really varies from place to place and person to person. While a lot of details are covered in the posted profiles of those seeking to host, flexibility is a must if you want to participate. It’s free to sign up and there is no obligation or even expectation that you offer reciprocity in terms of hosting the people who host you. In addition, each profile also contains personal recommendations from past guests which provide a way to evaluate which hosts might be the most reliable and worthwhile to contact. The hosts also get to rate their guests.
Meanwhile, griping tightly to the back of the motorcycle, I found myself continuously bouncing back and forth somewhere between exhilarated and terrified. I was thoroughly enjoying the breathtaking views and the cooling, buffeting blasts of wind that swirled around me, vibrating my body to the core. I was also cringing at the speed with which we rounded those hairpin turns. At times I’d be gazing in awe at the gorgeous pristine turquoise of the Mediterranean Sea which stretched for mile upon dizzying mile far below us, at other times I’d be seeing my life flashing before my eyes. Yet, at a certain point, I consciously loosened my grip, let go of my fear and relaxed, finally just enjoying the moment. I felt appreciative of this opportunity to discover Sicily from a very unusual perspective, and was ultimately thrilled by this ride of a lifetime.
So strap on your helmet, hold onto your seat, and take a spin around the world for free using the couchsurfing.org website. Set up your profile today and get ready for some guaranteed unpredictable adventures. Do you dare?