Kaolack, Senegal 2012
I pulled strands of dusty hair out of my eyes, squinting into the sun, my arm hanging out the open window of the sept plus in rural Senegal. The sept plus, French for ‘seven more’, a dilapidated station wagon in which seven people and all their luggage were stuffed, was headed towards Kaolack— a small village in West Africa roughly 90 kilometers north of The Gambia. Kaolack was rumored to have a fantastic market, which I wanted to photograph, and I had planned on spending two nights in the town Couchsurfing. The sept plus had been bumping over the red dirt road for hours, and I was ready to get out.
I had grabbed a taxi at 4 AM that morning, then walked the rest of the way to the Pompiers, the fire station directly across the street from a dirt parking lot which functioned as a bus station. There, I met up with Ephraim, a former colleague, who would negotiate a transfer for me (in French) to Kaolack. Brightly painted vans drove in and out of the lot, the smell of exhaust heavy in the air like fog. I sat on a bench for almost two hours watching the sky slowly turn from black to a pale purple while Ephraim strolled back and forth across the packed dirt lot, talking with various drivers, and, eventually, waving me over to one crusty station wagon. He was sitting behind the driver’s seat, and as quickly as possible, we swapped seats and he stuffed my duffel onto the pile of other luggage perched on the roof of the car. The other Senegalese men and women in the car gave us dirty looks; the seat behind the driver was said to be the safest, and by sitting in it until I got there he had saved me the best spot for the ride.
Hours later, I was dusty and sweaty. My hair was so tangled from the wind and the dirt I quickly braided it to the side, not knowing it would stay there for the next two days. The station wagon pulled into a red dirt lot just outside of a small town.
“Merci,” I called to the driver, as I uncurled my body and grabbed my duffel from the roof of the car.
I grabbed a taxi the rest of the way into town, ignoring the driver’s request to sit in the front seat with him. I would be Couchsurfing that night with Akin, a Nigerian who had been working as a barber in Kaolack for several years. He was going to show me around the market, and seemed like a nice guy from our correspondence a week earlier. As the taxi pulled up into the marketplace, two men walked up to the door as I paid the driver.
“Akin?” I said.
In ten minutes my duffel was inside a small barber shop across the street, and I was on my way down the packed earth street to the market, accompanied by one of my host’s friends.
After spending hours wandering around the sprawling, maze-like marketplace, we walked back to the barber shop, and the three of us continued on to Akin’s house. It was a tiny, concrete building next to a small stream surrounded by deep piles of plastic bags and discarded water bottles. Pigs rooted around through the trash, while groups of kids ran down the street, playing. Akin removed a padlock from a giant metal front gate, and the first thing I noticed when walking inside was the solitary mattress on the floor, and nothing else. The house consisted of one room, completely bare, save the mattress in the corner and two plastic chairs sitting outside. Were I more experienced at the time, I would have asked where I was supposed to sleep. Like an ass, I did not. I threw my duffel down, and took a seat on the floor while Akin went to get cleaned up.
After a few minutes, his friend sat down on the mattress, and motioned for me to join him (which I obviously did not). Right away, without any formalities, he asked me to have sex with him in return for him showing me around the market earlier. When I refused, outraged, he offered to pay me for it. Around this time, Akin came out of the bathroom. When he realized what was going on, he made a laughable excuse for his friend, telling me I had misunderstood, his friend was just showing me the local currency.
At that point, I couldn’t leave. What makes traveling in West Africa exciting is the same thing that makes it dangerous: the lack of infrastructure. I could leave early the next morning and grab a station wagon back to Dakar, but I’d still have to spend the night in Kaolack. I decided to make the best of it.
Akin’s friend left, and the two of us walked around the town for the next few hours, Akin pointing out his old girlfriend’s house and local pubs. When we got back, it was almost dark. The only light in Akin’s house was a solitary red bulb on the ceiling, which cast a creepy red glow over our faces and the sparse concrete interior. Akin pulled in the two plastic chairs from outside, positioning them in one corner of the room. He asked me if I wanted to clean up, and I said yes. I was completely filthy from the sept plus ride earlier that day, and desperately wanted a shower.
He showed me where the bathroom was, a shallow, standing room only water closet, with a slab door featuring holes as big as my head. Since the main room was so dark, the single bulb in the bathroom illuminated the contents of the small room.
“The plumbing is broken,” he told me, and pointed to a bucket on the floor.
Sponge bath it is, I thought to myself, at least the chairs were on the other side of the the main room. All of a sudden, I heard the sound of a plastic chair being moved across the concrete floor, stopping in front of the ‘door’ of the bathroom. I immediately stopped undressing, brushed my teeth, and left the bathroom. Akin sat in one of the plastic chairs across from the doorway, bathed in a red glow. He started talking about travelers he had had sex with, interspersing that with random sexual attributes of girls he had dated.
“Uh huh,” I responded. “So, where am I sleeping again?”
“We can share the bed, if you don’t mind,” he motioned to the mattress.
“No thanks,” I said. “I’ll just sleep on the floor.”
He looked at me for a moment, then got up and grabbed a mosquito net, positioning it over the mattress. I watched him walk across the concrete floor, and padlock the metal front gate shut.
At that point, I had no options. I needed a place to sleep, and that place was here. I quietly pulled my knife out of my backpack, and slipped it into my back pocket. I pulled out my tiny quick-dry travel towel, and spread it across a piece of the concrete floor, as far away from the mattress as I could possibly go, without being too close to the bathroom— where Akin had progressed to stripping down naked, illuminated by the single bulb in the gaping holes of the bathroom door. I pretended to be busy rifling through my duffel. After he walked by (naked) I laid down on the floor, using my duffel as a pillow, gripping my knife in my hand underneath. The one window in the house had only shutters, which were open in the oppressive heat so mosquitoes swarmed inside. I pulled a jacket over my head, tucking my elbows in at my sides, trying to cover every inch of skin and hoping I wouldn’t contract malaria. Akin started to snore, and knowing he was asleep and not quietly creeping across the floor to me, I fell asleep also.
Surprisingly, I slept through the night, and woke up in the morning covered in mosquito bites. My hand was cramped underneath my duffel, where my fingers had been lightly resting on my knife all night. My hair felt like a wig, and grime coated every inch of my skin. I really had to pee, but there was no bathroom I could use. I could hear Akin stirring, and I watched through slitted eyes as he got up and walked across the room, naked.
I waited a few minutes, then noisily got up, folded up my travel towel, and threw everything else in my duffel. I tucked my knife into the waistband of my jeans, and informed him I was leaving immediately.
“I thought we were going to visit a rural village today, outside the town?” he asked defensively, almost angrily, like I was calling last minute to cancel a dinner party I was hosting.
He was wearing oversized blue jeans, and nothing else. The entirety of his ass was hanging out the back as I was talking to him.
“That’s not going to happen,” I said.
He begrudgingly unlocked the padlock at the gate, and without another word, I walked out into the sunrise.
* * *
When I was younger, Couchsurfing was this cool new platform, revolutionizing the way people traveled. I remember hearing my older sister talk about the site in reverence, and how I made it one of my goals to try it out as quickly as possible. I wanted to be one of those travelers who was cool enough to sleep on someone’s couch and be okay with it, someone who threw aside all former conventions of travel, who eschewed expensive hotels and placed importance on people and places rather than staying somewhere all inclusive with a pasta bar.
Now, googling Couchsurfing brings up a myriad of articles on how men can cultivate their CS profile in order to sway women into sleeping with them. One site, in reference to hosting females, states “the only difference is that now you have the luxury and security that your date will stay in your house,” and Business Insider refers to CS as “The Greatest Hook-Up App Ever Devised”— coincidentally both written by men. Another blogger actually wrote a post entitled “How to Bang CouchSurfing Girls—The Complete Guide”. On the flipside, there are just as many female bloggers posting about the horrors of Couchsurfing, including RamblingMandie, who refers to male Couchsurfing hosts as “expecting sex in exchange for a bed”.
I never left a negative reference for Akin in Kaolack, even though obviously, he deserved one. I didn’t want him to retaliate by giving me a negative reference in return, so I just didn’t leave one at all. Instead, I emailed Couchsurfing, and explained the whole incident— which was traumatizing in itself. It took me an hour to put together the email, and I still remember feeling sick about it. Until you sleep on a thin towel on the concrete, in a shanty in the middle of nowhere in West Africa, with a knife in your hand— you don’t understand what it’s like.
Now, I’ve been through situations like these so often I’m used to it, though it’s sad to think of it that way. One night on this past trip, while cycling from Portugal to Georgia, one of my CS host’s friends cornered me at the bar, pressed himself against me, and tried to get me to come home with him. Later that same night, I had to fight my host for a place to sleep, because he was so pushy he kept insisting he sleep with me on the couch. I know I can protect myself, the point is, I shouldn’t have to. And even more so, not every single female traveler is as experienced or crazy as I am. I still wonder sometimes what would have happened that night, or every other night I’ve dealt with a situation like this, if I were a less experienced, less aggressive woman. And I still remember what it felt like sitting in that dark hotel room in Senegal, still filthy from the past two days, writing out this email to Couchsurfing before I even took a shower, thinking I was helping, doing something good, something right by reporting it, only to have them send me what was arguably one of the shortest emails I’ve ever received: CS doesn’t get involved in member to member disputes, and that I could leave a negative reference if I wished.
That was three years ago now, and Couchsurfing still operates under the same flawed design. The Couchsurfing website describes its beginnings as “the idea that people anywhere would want to share their homes with strangers (or, as we like to call them, friends you haven’t met yet).” Fellow travelers ask me all the time, “is Couchsurfing safe?”. Using CS as a single woman traveling alone, it’s stressful, takes a lot of time to root through sketchy users, and even guys with normal profiles can be problematic. I’ve stayed with a lot of nice guys, but I’ve stayed with far more creepers, and it’s almost impossible to tell the difference through profiles. So sure, if you’re a woman who is prepared to tell off hosts (and friends of hosts), fight for your bed at night, and stay with male hosts who commonly use the site as a hook-up app, by all means, Couchsurf. The only other alternative is to surf and host with females only, and I don’t want to live in that kind of world— though I’ve met a lot of other female CSers who do this.
Recently, a CS member started harassing me by sending nasty messages, all because I hadn’t seen an invitation to hang out with him the one night I was in Montpellier, France. It took twelve hours for CS’s Trust and Safety team to respond to my three different messages asking for help in blocking him. It was enough time for the situation to escalate far beyond when I would have blocked the user, if it were possible, and warn other potential travelers about this guy. Twelve hours is also plenty of time to track someone down via their public information, and show up at their doorstep or place of work.
The big question is, how far should Couchsuring go to ensure the safety of its members? The answer is quite simple, not far at all. The problem isn’t in the solo travel, it’s that the desktop and app lack functionality for users, namely women, to protect themselves and leave honest feedback without fear of retribution. AirBNB allows users to see references only after both parties have posted them, allowing for honesty on both ends, and promotes posting references after interactions. CS has no user block function, which allows anyone with an account to message whomever they choose, without any fear of repercussion.* If CS was really concerned for the safety of its members, it would update the site and app to reflect standard user interface functions. By adding incentives for users to post honest reviews, and the ability to block other members, solo female travelers would have a clearer idea of what a host is actually like before she chooses to spend the night in their house.
One might ask why I still Couchsurf, if I know there will be issues. It’s the same reason I’ve slept in cabbage fields and cycled through Albania and shot markets in rural Africa— because I can. All these experiences may have jaded me but they’ve given me a core of steel. The small group of amazing men and women I’ve met compared to all the negative experiences are worth it to me— I’d rather live with the expectation of hope than fear. And if fear is the reality, I’ll deal with that too. There’s still hope for Couchsurfing to go back to its roots and become the site where people anywhere want to share their homes with strangers, for the sole reason of meeting new human beings and learning more about the world we share.
There are no doubt plenty of people out there with thousands of examples of perfectly wonderful, positive Couchsurfing experiences— I have plenty myself. But until CS becomes part of this century, makes safety a priority, and recognizes the potentially dangerous situations it’s putting its female users in— I’d look elsewhere for a place to sleep. Possibly a cabbage field.
*Update: Couchsurfing has updated their reference system to be more like AirBNB’s, and has added a ‘block’ button, which are major improvements for the safety of all CS members— particularly solo female travelers. Read more about it on CS’s website here.