Several of you have questioned my past involvement in CouchSurfing. Is it safe? (Yes, if you’re smart about how you use it.) How do you know the people you meet won’t be psycho? (In general, “psychos” don’t join such spirited organizations. If they are indeed psychos, you go elsewhere.) Will they steal my stuff? (Now why on Earth would someone travel 8,000 miles to sleep on your couch and steal your iPod?!) While my participation has waned in recent years, as I’ve started to cover more luxury travel and less budget, I did do a good amount of press for the non-profit at one point. I’d argue till my face is blue that it’s a perfectly noble organization and that people need not be so trepidatious. HA. Here’s where you get to lay a big “told ya so!” on me.*
When I decided to tack a week in New Zealand onto my trip to the Cook Islands, I knew the only way I’d be able to see even a slice of the North Island in such a limited time was by car. Simply put, there aren’t that frequent of bus services in NZ, and when they do run, they take about double the time of driving. Well, I’m not the best of drivers when cruising on the side of the road I’m used to; I wasn’t about to drive on the left side for the first time alone. As I was traveling solo, a method I’m quite used to by now, I decided to look into a travel companion, so I turned to CouchSurfing as I’d (successfully) done so often in the past.
I posted a note on the New Zealand group with my dates and itinerary seeing if anyone wanted to go with me and split the cost of a car and gas (incredibly cheap by American standards, as it turns out; my five days rental including full insurance turned out to be a $82). Forrest** was the first to reply, as did four others subsequently, but in the end, they all bailed. That was probably for the best, as I was given a dingy white Nissan Sunny that barely fit Forrest’s and my luggage.
From the first day, things did not start off well. Forrest was supposed to meet me at the Omega rental center out by Auckland airport at 7:30am. I wanted to do the 10am blackwater rafting experience in the Waitomo Caves, and we had a lot of ground to cover to make it on time. By 7:45, he hadn’t shown up, so I called him. He was walking the five kilometers there, because he had apparently gone to the wrong place and was too cheap to take public transportation (helps to check where you’re going ahead of time; little did I know, this lack of planning would be a trend). So I told him to stay there, I’d come to him. I found him after about five minutes of scouring the Auckland highways, though I should have been able to smell his stench a few miles away (he’s one of these puritans who doesn’t believe in deodorant or regular bathing, it seems). Great, this is going to be a smelly few days; too bad, my nasal passages are clear for the first time in months (thanks, NetiPot!).
Still, this guy had been on the road for four years solid; I thought he’d have some interesting stories to tell, unique light to shed on some places I’d never been. Not so much. Before we were even out of Auckland, I’d heard about at least have a dozen ladies he’d allegedly screwed across the Eastern Hemisphere. “I break hearts; I’ve never had my heart broken.” So glad we’re mature here. He was but 23, and a young 23 at that, but still. I don’t need to hear about your conquests, please and thanks. I’m a Southern lady.
I felt like this guy’s sole purpose of the trip was to annoy and counter me. Pictures are futile; people should visit places themselves if they want to know what Tongariro looks like. (If you read this site often, you know I take a lot of photos.) Americans are vapid and vain and care far too much about their appearance (directed at me when he asked point blank if I’d had braces; yes, because my teeth never grew in after my babies fell out—how was I supposed to eat?!). Isla Fisher is Australian, he insisted, after I had told him she was born in Oman and raised by British parents (guess who was right? take that, hippie!). Careers are for lame people who want to settle. You can see why one might begin to get annoyed. I guess I should have known in the beginning he was going to be this anti-establishment type; when I asked where he was from, he answered: “Nowhere.” Everyone’s from somewhere. Just because I’ve lived in California, New York, Scotland, Arizona, Denmark and Holland in recent years doesn’t mean I would hesitate to answer “Tennessee” when asked that same question. (For the record, he was “from” Ireland and had lived there his entire life up until his backpacking began, though his distaste for the incredibly beautiful country was palpable.)
Our first destination was the Waitomo Caves, an experience I’m glad Auburn suggested (I’ll blog about it when I can find the pictures they gave me; it was truly awesome). I had told Forrest in advance that he didn’t have to join me on any of the acitivites, as I know not everyone—particularly backpackers traversing the planet for four years—isn’t interested in forking over $75 for five hours of adrenaline-inducing fun. I said I would drop him off in town and pick him up when I was done. But no, he wanted to do it. And then proceeded to complain about the price for the rest of the day—“I’m not used to spending so much money on luxury activities”—as if I threatened to throw him in the Waikato if he didn’t do it.
That night, we continued on to Whakapapa Village. Bear in mind, I had sent him the itinerary more than a week in advance so he could arrange his own accommodation, as we had previously discussed. When we arrived in the village, which has—at most—three hotel options, I asked where I was dropping him. “Well, since you’re already paying for a hotel, I figured I’d just stay with you.” Um, NO. So I was stuck with finding this guy a room. In the end, I found a bed in the backpackers wing of the Skotel behind the Chateau. It was $22 a night. He complained. “I’m not used to spending so much money on hotels. I only paid $3 a night for places to stay in Asia.” Um, newsflash: You’re not in Asia anymore. If you like living so frugally, why don’t you go back to Bangladesh where you came from?! It’s a national park, what do you expect? He’s only lucky there was even budget accommodation available.
After he was checked in, we went to the Skotel’s restaurant to eat dinner. He walked in with barefeet, as he doesn’t believe in shoes. The woman rightfully told him he couldn’t come in without shoes. He grumbled, saying how stupid a policy that was and how no one else made him wear shoes. Disrespectful any? I’ve never been in an eating establishment where they permitted you to enter sans footwear, unless it was a beach bar. Before we parted ways that night, I told him: “They have Internet here. You can go arrange your stay in Taupo and Rotorua the next two nights so we don’t have to go through this again.”
The next day was the Tongariro hike. You have no idea how thrilled I was about being on a seven-hour trek with this guy. But then, as he was wont to do, he took off on another trail up to the peak of the volcano, meaning I had to wait around for him for three hours afterward (he had the car keys, I no longer had a hotel room). All I wanted to do was get to Taupo, but again, this dude was putting a crimp in my plans.
He never did pay me for his part of the car. Granted, it wasn’t pricey, but I only assumed the two times I filled up for gas, he’d offer to pay. But no, I guess that’s how mooches get by in life: taking advantage of the kindness of others. My Southern upbringing means I’m horrible about discussing money, so I was too timid to (politely) demand he pay at each gas station. I was just going to ask for half at the end of the trip, but…well, read on.
When we got to Taupo that afternoon, again I asked where to drop him.
“Um, I don’t know. I don’t have anything arranged.”
“I asked you last night to find a place.”
“Well, I didn’t do it.”
“I know. I don’t plan things in advance.”
“Well, your lack of planning inconveniences others.”
“I know. So what?”
At that point, I had had it. I drove to the center of Taupo, found a hostel, dropped him off, and went to my bed and breakfast for the night. He had the nerve to ask if I wanted to come back and have dinner with him. Hell no. I ate with the lovely owners of the Point View Lodge instead, to whom I relayed the story. They were not amused with the Backpacker and suggested I get rid of him first thing in the morning. I felt guilty, but I knew they were right. This was my trip, and he was ruining it. They suggested I tell him I had met them, decided to stay in Taupo as opposed to going to Rotorua, and that they were going to set up a packed itinerary for me. (Technically true—they tried, it just didn’t happen, thanks to my arrival coinciding with “winter” in New Zealand, meaning many of the outdoors operations were scaling down.)
After going on my bungy jump in the morning, I called him, quickly gave the news and said I would drop off the rest of his stuff, before he had time to talk me out of it. You know what his response was? “I thought you said you’d call at 10am. I’ve been waiting around all morning.” (It was 11:15.)(Now we’re getting technical?) I went by the hostel, gave him his other bag and said an awkward good-bye. I could tell he wasn’t pleased, but at that point, I was so beyond the whole situation. I felt like a huge burden had been lifted, and the rest of my trip went swimmingly.
I’ve been waiting for the moment when he leaves some awful review on my CouchSurfing page for ditching him, but it hasn’t happened yet. What would you have done? Would you have lasted longer than me? Taken him the whole way? Been a little bit less passive aggressive and nipped it in the bud from the start?
*Not his real name. He has such a distinguishable monniker and is known by so many on CouchSurfing that if you were a member, you might be acquainted with him. I’m all about airing my dirty laundry on my own blog, but I’ll at least show him the decency of keeping his name off of it. He did, however, remind me of Forrest Gump, during the part of the movie where Forrest ran for three years without shaving his beard or cutting his hair. He was one hairy beast, my roadtripping companion.
**Disclaimer: I am in no way discouraging the use of CouchSurfing. I still think, when used properly, it is a great organization, and this one negative incident in years of positive ones won’t keep me from using it. It will, however, prevent me from ever inviting a complete stranger along for a road trip again….