Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Couchsurfing with a family is child's play

"Couchsurfing: not just for students and hippies." This could have been a slogan for my travel-networking experiment last year. One of my main aims was to show people that the concept offers something for everyone. As long as the attitude is right, there is no such thing as being the wrong age, the wrong economic group or the wrong marital status.

I was particularly keen to show that having kids doesn't prevent you from getting involved and, rather than expecting readers to take my word for it, I set about finding someone who could talk from experience. I can't remember how I first came across Leigh - I think it was just from searching the Couchsurfing.com's families group - however we started corresponding via email while she was living in Panama. She shared some stories about couchsurfing with her husband and four-year-old daughter, Lila; and I, in turn, shared these with Guardian readers at the end of one of my columns.

To be honest, I've been sharing them ever since. Every time someone tells me they love the idea of couchsurfing but it's not an option now they have children, I use Leigh's story as an example of why it's never out of the question. I love the way that Leigh - a writer who's originally from New York - uses the site not just to stay with other families, but sometimes to simply find another family to go to the beach with. What a great idea. Mum and Dad get some interesting new company; Lila gets local playmate.

Why am I bringing this story up again now? Last week I clicked on a post on Couchsurfing.com's Buenos Aires forum and found someone was suggesting a meet-up for any writers in town. It was Leigh. She'd moved on from Panama and was spending some time in Argentina, where I'm now based. I wasted no time dropping her a line and we soon arranged to meet for a mid-morning coffee at little place I know in Barrio Norte - Clásica y Moderna. It has a bookshop at the back, a live pianist, and some very strong coffee that had us jabbering for hours.

Leigh turned out to be just as inspiring in the flesh. It was great to hear more about her couchsurfing experiences, such as when they stayed with a single dad in Belgium. "It soon felt like we were visiting family of our own. It was wonderful," she recalls. She also says she gets a very good response rate from hosts because she takes time to select them and gives lots of detail about who they are and what they are looking for. She says that's one difference about couchsurfing with kids: there are lots more questions to ask in advance.

Lila is one luckly girl to be having all these great experiences at such a young age. I also love the way Leigh is encouraging her to document her travels along the way: Lila gets control of the family camera and Leigh posts the pictures on her blog, thefutureisred. You can browse her online gallery, including this self-portrait above, under the heading "What Lila sees".

What another great idea for helping kids get the most out of travelling. I can't wait to see how Lila portrays the family's impending move to Salta in Argentina's far north.