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Escape ‘in’ your city: 5 lessons from ‘Couchvember’

Ed is quitting his corporate job in 2013 to undertake a trip he’s always dreamed of and start a new business. He spent November escaping ‘in’ rather than ‘from’ the city’.

Here’s a riddle for you. In November, I continued to live and work in corporate London as I have done for the past 2 years. On the surface it seemed like a month of usual corporate excess. I ate out in fancy restaurants on 19 separate occasions. I drank on a worrying 26 nights of the 30. I lived in luxurious accommodation. I partook in all manner of expensive activities such as kayaking the Thames. I did all this and cut my monthly outgoings by 60% to £800 all in.

No, my parents did not buy me a house. Nor did I stay with friends or family. I didn’t have my company pay for anything. I didn’t squat. I didn’t move in with a rich girlfriend (more’s the pity). Nor was I a prolifically successful internet dater or high-class gigolo…So what did I do?

Rather than opt for the traditional facial hair challenge of Movember – I set myself a different challenge for the month. ‘Couchvember’ would see me attempt to ‘couchsurf’ around the city in which I live, working for one of Europe’s biggest companies. Only, instead of staying with existing friends (which would be no challenge at all), I could only stay with strangers using the couchsurfing.org or startupstay.com website.

My reasons were a multiple mix of the practical and the personal. Practically the lease on my Putney flat expired at the end of October, but personally I was intrigued by having a ‘micro adventure’ and escaping ‘in’, rather than ‘from’, my own city. I wanted to see, and meet, London in a way I never had before. Perhaps most importantly though, this month of nomadic madness seemed like the perfect preparation for the challenge that lays ahead of me in 2013.

Early next year, I am leaving behind my corporate job to travel overland from Bangkok (the city where I lived and fell in love with travel as an 18-year-old) to Birmingham (the city of my birth).

My B-to-B challenge via the Silk Road will involve using only local transport and staying with local people for as much of the journey as possible. Courchsurfing.org, with its 3.5 million users, is particularly well established along the route. In the ‘safety’ of the streets of London, I wanted to test how it works and what sort of experiences I could expect before setting off on the adventure.

It was an incredible few weeks. Full of marvellous new experiences and amazing acts of human kindness. ‘Couchvember’ has opened my eyes to a little-known world of hospitality few realise exists. Here are the five main things I take with me from the adventure:

1) Trust in the good of people and get rewarded

Couchsurfing is all about trust. It’s very easy to think of excuses as to why you wouldn’t do it. ‘How do you know people won’t rape you?’ has rather depressingly been the most common question I’ve been asked. In truth, you don’t. But one thing that couchsurfing forces you to do is to place your total trust in humanity, and from my experience in London, it is trust well placed. Despite what seemed like initially quite bizarre interactions with some of my hosts online — one person asked if I was comfortable with their house being a ‘clothes optional’ home — I found all my hosts to be incredibly generous, welcoming and with absolutely no hint of malice. Eight of the 11 people I stayed with insisted on cooking me dinner at least once, I was served drinks upon arrival in people’s homes and everyone really made a huge effort to get to know me. My ‘clothes optional’ host turned out to be a fascinating management consultant with whom I shared a long conversation about attitudes towards naturism. For the record I ‘opted’ to wear clothes.

2) You don’t have to go far to have an adventure

Although it is the call of a long journey that beckons next year, I’ve come to realise this past month that there are just as many adventures to be had in your own city. London calling isn’t just a catchy song – the city has attracted people from all over the world. At different points in the month it was as if I was staying in India, Italy or California. And some of the things my hosts encouraged me do have been amazing ‘adventures’ in the more traditional sense. I stayed on a houseboat only to find myself kayaking on the Thames at midnight. (I now have the rather dubious honour of having swum in that particular river as a result of capsizing). I found amazing and unusual vantage points of London from Harrow on the Hill, to Stave Hill’s ecological park mound; I discovered a Latino world of Monday night clubbing; and I even went on an ‘occupy London’ walking tour of the area in which I currently work.

3) You don’t have to be rich to live like a rich person.

I managed to cut my living expenses by a massive 60% without having to endure a 60% cut in enjoyment levels or living conditions. In fact, it was totally the opposite. Four of my 11 hosts lived in what I would term at least 4*hotel quality accommodation: stays included an apartment to myself in a luxurious houseboat, a swanky banker’s flat next door to a £1,000-a-night hotel, and a converted Clapham mansion. OK, I also spent a couple of nights on the floor or on a blow-up mattress, but I wasn’t exactly consigned to the streets. Having no accommodation expenses meant that I could afford to eat out much more, hence enjoying a rather extravagant 19 dinners in restaurants during the course of the month.

4) Your corporate colleagues are blind

I undertook this challenge while in the penultimate month of my corporate job. This served a few useful purposes. One, it meant that I could still get my free lunch. Two, it provided a central London base to shower between hosts. And three, it gave me excellent storage space —under my desk — for all those bags which would otherwise be lugged around the tube. However, despite the mounting bags under the desk, a few too many shirts and trousers in the communal wardrobe, and on one occasion turning up to work with a slight aroma of the River Thames, my corporate colleagues didn’t seem to notice what I was up to. It felt like being a fun secret agent.

5) Such a challenge is not conducive to giving yourself time to focus on starting a new business

In hindsight, full-time corporate working by day and couchsurfing by night is not an ideal way to devote enough time to starting up a new business on the side. Ultimately I am leaving my corporate job for this reason. For the last few months, after day-job finishes, I have been working into the night to turn the idea into a reality. Couchsurfing is, however, a particularly tiring and time-consuming activity. Organising who your hosts will be is a day-job in itself: not everyone replies and most people say that they won’t reply to a copy-and-paste message. Further, and more importantly, couchsurfing etiquette means that it’s not really acceptable to pitch up at midnight, saying ‘cheers for the couch mate, I’m knackered’ and head off to bed. Hosts like to socialise. This tends to involve some form of alcoholic accompaniment and late nights (including partaking in one hosts ‘Sambuca Monday’ challenge and others wish to go Latino clubbing on a Monday). Doing this for a month is, quite frankly, shattering. As a result I ended up working on my business only two nights during the four weeks.

My conclusion. Is it a sustainable way to live in London? Absolutely not – it’s far too tiring! But would I recommend ‘escaping’ in your own city and seeing it from a totally different perspective? Absolutely!

You can follow Ed’s travels, find out more about the business, read more blogs from ‘couchvember’ and contribute to a fantastic charity- Guy’s Trust at www.bangkok2birmingham.com.