“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.”
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.
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.