Seeking an “authentic” experience as he backpacked through war-torn Afghanistan, Dutch tourist Ciaran Barr searched the Couchsurfing website for locals to stay with. He found an astonishing number of potential hosts.
Despite the country’s decaying security nearly 2,000 Afghans — the vast majority of them men — have signed up to host guests on the social networking platform, which connects travellers around the world with locals who are willing to put them up for free.
“You feel like you get a more authentic feel for the city so you don't get trapped in tourist hotspots,” Mr. Barr, 24, says in heavily-militarised Kabul, where he spent several nights sleeping on a thin mattress on the floor of his Afghan host’s bedroom. “Not that there are any in Afghanistan,” he adds wryly.
Many take their chances by staying with Afghan strangers they find through the Couchsurfing network, rather than paying for a room in a hotel protected by armed guards and bullet-proof doors.
“Staying with people and dressing to blend in a bit makes it possible to travel in Afghanistan with not too big of a risk,” says Mr. Barr, who — with his dark hair and beard, and dressed in the baggy pyjama-style shalwar kameez favoured by most Afghan men — stands out less than most foreigners.
‘You have to be smart’
Couchsurfing’s concept is like a modern-day version of Afghanistan’s tradition of hospitality, which obliges Afghans to provide food and shelter to strangers. But it is risky. Couchsurfers only have their host’s online profile and references to judge their character.
In a country where kidnappings remain common and foreigners are highly-prized targets, they have no way of knowing if their host is connected to criminals, who may see a chance to get rich by abducting them or giving them up to militants. “You can end up with the Taliban,” says a diplomat in Kabul, who has been involved in negotiations to rescue kidnap victims. “It’s naive and reckless.”
That is what happened to North American couple Caitlan Coleman and Joshua Boyle, who were kidnapped while backpacking in Afghanistan in 2012. They were freed from the Taliban in 2017, along with their three children who were born in captivity.
But Norwegian tourist Jorn Bjorn Augestad, who has couchsurfed in Iraq and the Central African Republic, says in Kabul that government warnings exaggerate the dangers. “They are too careful. You have to be smart about a lot of things, having contact with a local is the best way to stay safe,” says Mr. Augestad, who is on a mission to visit every country in the world, including Syria, before his 30th birthday this year.
He adds: “This is part of the cultural experience, seeing how people live and hearing people's life story and getting an understanding of the country that you are in.”
Knowing the world
For Afghans consumed by wanderlust, hosting a foreigner is a chance to travel vicariously through their experiences, as more and more countries make it all but impossible for Afghan passport holders to obtain a visa. “I can make it easier for them to see the beauty of this country,” says Majidi, who has hosted six guests since signing up to Couchsurfing in 2016.
“It’s a good experience for me — I get more friends and I know the world better.” But his family worry that he is putting himself in danger. “They have advised me many times that this is very risky for you and for them (guests),” Mr. Majidi says.