Sleeping with Strangers in Busan

CouchSurfing provides the perfect antidote to a restless night… another one.

“I’m very sorry” he says, with a deep bow, as the door swings open. “This is all is left.” I look down at my bed for the night – five-feet long, two-feet wide and three-feet deep – and smile. “It’s perfect” I reply, as I unfold my blanket on the tiled floor. “Just knock if you need the toilet.”

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The wind whips around the docks as I take my first weary step onto Korean soil. I am leaving behind the rocky ferry, the sleepless night, and entering Busan with a single thought in mind: getting to my accommodation. I pull a torn-off corner of notepaper from my pocket, a copy of the owner HoJin’s detailed directions, and follow it onto the metro at Jungang-dong, off at Gumyeong, past the cheap hotels and left down the passage… and arrive at the entrance.

I press a tired finger to the buzzer but, before I can release it, the door bursts open to reveal a young, floppy-haired ball of energy with a broad, Cheshire Cat grin. “My England friend!” the man enthuses, thrusting a friendly hand out for me to shake. “Welcome into my home.”

You never quite know what to expect with CouchSurfing. In my half-decade as a member of the world’s leading hospitality exchange – where people offer free accommodation and local knowledge in exchange for good company and cultural insights – I have experienced a wide variety of sleeping arrangements: from beanbags to hammocks to queen-sized beds. But as HoJin leads me into his tiny lounge/kitchen/bedroom and introduces the other four guests already checked in, I suspect this night’s sleep may not be the most comfortable of my life.

I stifle a yawn as I take my place on the floor among the circle of CouchSurfers. James from Melbourne hands me a large bottle of soju rice wine with the promise of rejuvenation, as he begins the tale of his spontaneous overland trip from Tibet – and before I know it I am wide awake.

Over the course of the evening, as Magda and Łukasz outline Busan’s top attractions; as Sojung proudly advocates a visit to her hometown Seoul; as HoJin serves up a colossal pot of spicy kimchi; as we talk, laugh, share and learn, I realise this is what accommodation is all about. I had come here, ignoring all those cheap hotels, to meet new friends, to learn about the city and to enjoy an authentic taste of Korean culture – and I had succeeded. By the time HoJin apologetically leads me into the toilet and points to the bathtub, it no longer matters.

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I am just wriggling my six-foot-five-inch frame into the Korean-sized tub – legs perpendicular, chin folded into my chest, a wafer-thin blanket draped over my midriff – when I hear a gentle, contrite, knock at the door. And I can’t help but smile. Tonight is going to be a very long night… but there’s nowhere I’d rather be.

This hospitality tourism article was written for the community travel publication Everywhere Magazine. You can find an online preview of the article right here.

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