Melange Society

The couch connection

Two Israeli ballerinas whom Saravana Raj hosted and took them to Tirumalai Naick Palace along with another CouchSurfer friend Avinash Peters. Photos: Special Arrangement

Two Israeli ballerinas whom Saravana Raj hosted and took them to Tirumalai Naick Palace along with another CouchSurfer friend Avinash Peters. Photos: Special Arrangement   | Photo Credit: mamp21lead1

CouchSurfers link the world to make it a little smaller and friendlier

T. Saravana Raj is a bachelor of engineering who runs a back office support company called E’datic IT support. But it is his passion for travel and photography that has taken him far. In the last four years he has made friends with over 300 people and learnt more about at least three dozen countries. Ask him how? “I am a CouchSurfer,” he declares.

If you can’t go and see the world, bring the world to your home -- is the spirit that drives the online community, called CouchSurfing (CS), of which Saravana Raj is a member. He is one among the 30-odd in Madurai.

“I love to listen to peoples’ experiences and learn from them,” says the city’s most active host.

CouchSurfers are a seven million-strong global network of people spread across 100,000 cities, who host travellers or stay at homes of other members when they themselves are exploring the world on a shoestring budget. While for foreigners it has been an ideal way to travel without getting ripped off in India, the idea is fast catching up here too with an increasing number of Indians travelling both within and outside the country with a new found interest and vigour.

There are close to a 1,000 CouchSurfers within the country and while the bigger metros like Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore have more members, even the tier II or III cities like Madurai, Gaya and Kota have become an important arm in the community that expands every week.

“Madurai has always attracted visitors,” says Saravana Raj, “but experience happens for real when travellers stay with the locals and get an authentic taste of the place.” The experience is something that money can’t buy.

“I love the concept of hosting travellers,” adds the 43-year-old, “because it broadens your views and enriches you about different cultures, ethnicity, beliefs and countries.”

He is of the firm belief that every traveller comes with ideas to your doorstep and even helps you to rediscover your own city. When you open your home to travellers, you learn about a new culture first-hand or practice a language. And CouchSurfers in particular are all simple backpacker wanderlusts who traverse cities, share a meal with strangers, exchange ideas and vibe to create remarkable bonds of friendship.

CouchSurfing works only if you have faith in strangers. Saravana Raj has never had a negative experience of hosting unknown travellers. In fact, he has made lifelong friends who have helped him to polish his skills in photography and initiated him into cinematography. “There is a charm in connecting with strangers who are friendly and curious,” he says, “but there is a way of doing it too.”

On the CS page he clearly cites his own interests and carefully studies the profiles of the travellers. His instinct drives him to accept or decline a traveller’s request. CS runs on pure goodwill and friendship and the CouchSurfers when they meet they end up entertaining themselves, chatting up late, organising events, learning to cook each other’s recipes and much more.

“It’s fun. Without disturbing my work schedule, I take them around the city, talk to them about our history and culture,” says Saravana. And at home, his wife serves traditional and tasty food to the guests, his mother helps the girl travellers tie the sari or put mehndi on their palms while his two sons are constant companions and entertainers.

“Hosting travellers is extremely beneficial for the family as every member learns something new,” he says. There have been occasions when he has been able to invite back some of the CouchSurfers to celebrate diwali or pongal or during the chithrai festival and jallikattu.

“There is no money involved in CouchSurfing,” says Saravanan. “We all invest in our emotions and that leads to everlasting friendships.”

How it works

Anyone who wants to become a CouchSurfer has to sign up on https://www.couchsurfing.org/ with his or her detailed profile. Remain connected with hosts if you are travelling. Feedback and comments count if a traveller is in search of a suitable host.

Travel tweets:

Saravana Raj’s page on CouchSurfing board brims with 126 positive responses from travellers who have come and stayed with him. Most of them say he is an awesome host with a polite, smiling and a friendly family . Many appreciate the food they ate cooked by his wife and mother. Many remember the late night conversations they had with Saravana on history, culture, photography, cinema, food. Some want to return to his household.

Jeanne et Victor from Paris writes:

Raj and his family are really nice, welcoming and simple. Raj offered me my first Rotary experience, it was very interesting and I was proud to be part of it. His conversations are never boring. He knows all the buses and trains and made my stay very simple. Thank you again, Raj, for your help.”

Andrew Dzunya from Ukraine:

“Saravana Raj and his family are really good people! I like his hospitality and his desire to help others. He helped me to cure my cold.”

Leah Fenimore from Tanzania:

“Raj was such a wonderful host. He was incredibly helpful and took us around the city and a nearby village where we had some of the best Indian experiences ever. His family and cute boxer dog are also wonderful to be around. I would highly recommend surfing with Raj if you are in Madurai.”

The Travellers

Saravana Raj has hosted many interesting CouchSurfers, both Indians and foreigners.

From an Indian software engineer from Pune, Vishal Pipraiya, gave up a lucrative job to traverse the Indian streets for indexing vegetarian restaurants to a Chinese yoga instructor and some of the best Japanese cartoonists and photographers.

One special guest for past three years is Jacob Henks OOchappan. A Belgian prison officer he has been visiting India since 1987. He turned into a photographer after his mother asked him why he returns to India every year. He bought a camera to freeze frames of colourful India for his mother and each year he returned with a better camera. He captures beautiful images of the countryside and people and each frame is marked by sharpness and bright colours. On a visit, he roamed the streets of Madurai with cycle rickshaw puller Oochappan, who took him to his house and offered him a meal. While leaving, the rickshaw puller gifted Jacob Henks the most expensive item in his house, a small monkey made of coconut shell. So moved was Henks by his gesture that he adopted Oochappan as his Indian name. He taught Saravana digital photography.

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Printable version | May 21, 2020 7:47:07 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/society/the-couch-connection/article6133980.ece

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