On trips to far-away countries and different cultures I often feel a little lost. Advice by friends and guidebooks might help, but what I would actually need is the inside perspective of a local. Just, how to get to them? It’s not like I can just walk into their house, sit down at their kitchen table and ask them what to do in their town or country.. but wait, yes, that’s exactly how to do it. Have you ever heard of CouchSurfing before? If not, better keep reading and listen to Eva Stotz, a German director who just recently did a documentary film about this way of travelling.

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“When a friend first told me about CouchSurfing I knew that this was exactly what I had waited for: a network that allows me not only to contact locals, but also to take part in their private lives”, says Eva Stotz, who then quickly started hosting travellers in her Berlin flat. Soon after she set out for herself and visits five people in five countries – always a camera at hand. Global Home invites us to come with her and explore how different people around the world are, and at the same time how similar.

Her journey takes Eva to Mamatal, a Tuareg in Mali; Casey, a co-founder of CouchSurfing International; Alice, a British ecologist working and living in the West Bank; Michiko, a biologist teaching Tokyo’s youth about nature and environment; and Clara, a Brazilian dancer in Turkey. Each of them she followed for about a month, staying with them as a guest part of the time and documenting their lives as a filmmaker for the rest. “It was a weird hybrid situation to visit them with those two functions. Time was the most crucial aspect of it. It allowed me to get to know my protagonists on a personal level before pointing my camera at them from the outsider position I needed to take as a filmmaker.”

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How exactly does this mysterious online network of travellers called CouchSurfing work? Every member has a profile page filled with information about their life philosophy, their former travels, their interests and their hosting situation. Whether a member hosts others or not, is up to them. Once you decided on your destination or found a person you really want to meet, you can contact them via email and talk about details of your visit. CouchSurfing is a free service and offers a pool of open-minded people interested in cultural exchange and real-life encounters.

So, I just step into a stranger’s apartment and am supposed to feel comfortable with that? Eva has heard this question before and quickly explains, “this way of travelling requires proper preparation. Make sure to complete your own profile and find a host with a complete one as well. Get in touch beforehand and get a feeling of the person to expect. CouchSurfing also offers a verification system, where users can vouch for a each other, and a reference system on everyone’s profile. Other members can leave comments about the time they spent with you. If you carefully collect all this information there shouldn’t be bad surprises waiting for you”.
However, Eva has encountered uncomfortable situations with (especially male) hosts, but what usually helped her was open communication. Even if it costs quite some effort, being open about possible issues helps solving them in no time.

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Two destinations of Global Home caught my eyes more than the others and both raised the question whether travelling in general, and especially alone as a woman was safe at all – CouchSurfing or not. The regions I talk about are Mali in Westafrica and Israel. I asked Eva to tell me more about her visits there.: “I visited Mamatal in the south of Mali, because I was intrigued to get to know a Tuareg , his work as music manager and how traditional heritage and new media come together. I would have loved to meet his nomadic family in the Sahara desert as wel, but it was too dangerous to enter the desert – especially with a camera and the publicity of a film production in my back. A year after shooting the armed conflict in the north of the country broke out. It is hard to believe that Mamatal’s family, the most hospitable and kind people, are now forced to live in refugee camps in Mauretania and Burkina Faso.”

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Visiting protagonist Alice the West Bank wasn’t Eva’s first trip to this conflict-ridden region. With a glowing voice she told me about what she calls her initial trip: “Together with my then boyfriend I hitch-hiked across Israel and Jordan. On our way we met locals, took part in their culture and were even invited to a Bedouin wedding.” But this time it was all different. “We entered Israel without indicating our planned visit in the West Bank, because other journalists and filmmakers had advised us to do so. Although that felt really uncomfortable, we just couldn’t take the risk to be refused entrance or even jeopardize Alice’s ecological project. Being in the West Bank was accompanied by a constant feeling of oppression – with or without camera; witnessing the discrimination, all the restrictions, the check-points; only we as tourists could move around freely; armed people in uniforms everywhere. The utopian element of a borderless world so easily slips the European mind, visiting a place like the West Bank draws back our attention to these issues.” Because of that, visiting these places has been the most formative for Eva.

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Would she recommend CouchSurfing to female solo travellers? Yes, she answered. “Make sure to prepare your trip in time and research your hosts carefully, but definitely go for it. Female solo travellers seem to get access much easier. While men are often met with distrust and scepticism, women will more likely be invited or taken along to something. I think that’s a big advantage. Also, CouchSurfing gives you the possibility to get a direct perspective into another culture; and you will meet people and stay in contact with them for the rest of your life. These connections have true value.”

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Finally, I asked Eva, what she learnt from combining travelling with CouchSurfing – a question that she found a lot of answers to. First of all, she learnt to travel slower. “When I couchsurf, but also when I walked the Way of St. James in Spain I realised that I would rather see less, but take my time to get to know a place. The slower I moved, the more details I would notice on my way.” Some would say, the journey is the reward.

“Staying in other people’s homes also made me think about the common denominator of people who participate in CouchSurfing. I was surprised by the cosy feeling of familiarity and intimacy setting in after spending only one night under the same roof. I think we all share this archaic intuition to deeply connect to a person who gives us security and a place to rest. Sometimes no more is needed.” In Global Home Eva shows how different our cultures are, but also how similar – even Mamatal’s nomadic Tuareg sister in the desert has similar dreams as the filmmaker herself. Aside all the differences there is a common basis.

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For Eva filmmaking and travelling go hand in hand, and while her recent documentary Global Home is still touring festivals and events worldwide, she is already working on her newest film One Million Steps. In May and June 2013 Eva went to Istanbul, interested in how people move and live in a city characterised by both booming modernity and ancient tradition. And then the protests on Taksim Square broke out – it seems like Eva and her camera are always in the right place at the right time!

To keep updated with Eva’s former and future projects take a look at her web page. Global Home has just been released on DVD and is available via Goodmovies.de. If you’re interested in finding out more about CouchSurfing browse through our other articles on the topic here.

All images are either screenshots from the film or from GlobalHome-TheMovie.com; except image #1 via Unity Media and #3 via Rhythm Circus.