I’d never been to Haiti and I’d never tried couchsurfing, but since Haiti was just a $75 bus ride away ($67 if you have the foresight to pay in Pesos), I felt like I had no choice but to try it.
A search for couches in Port Au Prince yielded a few pages of results, with Natacha and Charlene showing up at the top. The site said that they both replied to almost all of the requests, and each offered a couch for up to two weeks. I e-mailed Charlene first because she has a son and I love kids.
Charlene wrote back the same day and said to let her know what dates I wanted to come. I replied back with a weekend and she said she’d be expecting me. It was so easy and painless that I wondered if it would actually work.
I had lingering worries in the back of my mind. Haiti was supposed to be a pretty dangerous place, so if she changed her mind at the last minute, I might be stranded. Besides, we all know that everyone on the internet is a demented weirdo (except for me). How much weirder do you have to be to invite strangers into your home for weeks at a time?
After a long scenic bus ride, I arrived in Haiti. I took a taxi through the unlit streets and arrived in front of a night club, where Charlene’s sister was waiting for me.
“Charlene is at Toastmasters. Come with me.”
I followed her down a narrow concrete alley (everything is concrete in Haiti), through a nondescript doorway, up a winding set of railing-less stairs, and into a small kitchen. As soon as I got in, Olivier, Charlene’s son, ran up to me, jumped, and latched on with a giant hug. Quite a welcome, I thought.
The power was out, as it often is in Haiti, so we sat and talked by the light of a single candle.
An hour later, I learned that it doesn’t much matter who you couchsurf with in Haiti. All of the surfers are best friends, and by signing up with one of them you put yourself at the mercy of a mob of hospitable Haitians determined to show you everything in Haiti. I ate home cooked food in four different houses, never once having to go to a restaurant.
Natacha picked me up to bring me to a club. I was terrified, not of the danger of Haiti, which I’d already begun to suspect was overhyped, but that I might have to dance. I am a terrible dancer.
We wove through the dark streets of Port Au Prince and finally arrived in front of what appeared to be a walled off apartment building. The only indication that it might be something more was a kerosene lamp sitting in the middle of the walkway. We descended into the backyard which held five or six large tables of people, a group of traditional Haitian drummers, and the flicker of kerosene lamps which served equally as functional light and ambiance.
Our table was already stocked with Natacha’s friends, some couchsurfers and some not, whose origins ranged from Haiti to Ghana to Belgium. French was the common language, but enough people spoke English that I was still able to be part of the conversation. When things got too French I would zone out and watch the drummers and the dancers that they attracted.
The next two days flew by. By the time I woke every day Charlene had already made breakfast and had coordinated with Natacha to plan my schedule. In just two days I visited an orphanage in the ghetto which Natacha takes care of, a Montessori school that she started, the landmarks downtown, a rehearsal for the Port Au Prince dance company, and a jazz concert. I quickly realized that I would have had a much different and less authentic experience if I hadn’t couchsurfed.
I went into Haiti knowing no one and left feeling like I have a whole social circle there. They prodded me to stay longer and asked when I would come back.
I used to see couchsurfing as a cheapskate’s alternative to a hotel, but now I realize that it’s a lot more. Couchsurfing offers the unique opportunity to have an instant group of friends in a new place and to really get to see it through the eyes of a local. I like to rent apartments wherever I go, but from now on I’m going to consider couchsurfing for the first few days to make some friends and learn about the city from someone who actually lives there.
To create a profile on Couchsurfing, check out www.couchsurfing.com
Side note: For anyone wanting a good charity to donate to, consider Natacha’s orphanage. I’m always leery of how much of the donated money actually gets to people who need it, and I can tell you that there is no overhead here. When they’re short for the month, Natacha takes money out of her own paycheck to make sure that the kids eat. If this is something you’re interested in, e-mail me at tynan.gadling at weblogsinc dot com and I will put you in touch with her.