I’ll just start with saying that I debated on writing this… It’s not an experience that I’d like to re-hash & I certainly do not wish for anyone at home to be worried for me, especially those like my Mum. Ultimately though, I ended up deciding that others being aware of the ‘other side’ of CouchSurfing will be worth it in the end. Onto Oslo…
It was about two months until our upcoming trip to Oslo, Norway. Our being my American friend who I met in Dublin & myself. We had booked the trip spur of the moment, much like I do everything & began CouchSurfing that very night. We knew that Oslo happened to be one of the most expensive cities in Europe & so were determined to find accommodation that wouldn't interfere with our budgets. CouchSurfing seemed like the perfect option. In exchange for gifts & cooking a few meals, we would have a place to stay & would be able to see Oslo like a local, my favourite type of travel.
After sending a few requests to members, we soon realized that Oslo was quite a popular city for CouchSurfing & many residents were already swamped. This lead to mistake number one… We accepted a request from someone who invited us. Now, of course, most members are genuine & reply to your open request with honest intentions… Most. So the chatting began. We talked to our host for a few weeks before deciding on our conclusion, that we would stay with him in Oslo & he would take us up to his Dad’s cabin to go cross country skiing. If it seems too good to be true, it most likely is. Just to mention, he did have references (though they all ended up being fake). Nothing on his FaceBook profile alarmed us, he had an average number of friends, he was into adventure sports & he even owned a company who we of course checked out, which was based around selling protection devices (ie. pepper spray & rape alarms… Aka the perfect alibi). We were pretty stoked to meet him & Oslo.
We arrived in Oslo on a Friday morning & made it to his house with the help of his hand drawn maps. Specifically in his instructions, he told us to not ring the flat beside him… It was his brother’s. We thought maybe it was just because he would be sleeping, so thought nothing of it. In my forgetful nature, I rung his brother’s, no surprise there. We were let into the building & upon knocking on his brother’s, we were met with a confused & somewhat concerned face on the other side. Apologies ensued & we stepped into our hosts flat shortly after, thinking nothing of it. Even when our host received a questioning phone call from his brother minutes later, we just assumed we had woken him up & again, apologized. Little did we know that his brother actually had had no idea we were even coming... & knowing his brother's past, had every right to be questioning. In casual conversation we had found out that our host's apartment was paid for by his parent's & he seemed utterly annoyed that the location chosen was beside his brother.
We settled in for maybe 15 minutes before embarking out to Frogner Park (otherwise known as the naked park), which was literally in sight of our host’s place. Everything seemed fine, we had a few laughs & he seemed friendly enough, though slightly awkward. Gut instinct told me something was off, though I didn’t know it at the time… & so I contacted my Norwegian friend living in Oslo to see what he was up to that night. He invited us over & I invited our host to come along. My trusting nature was telling me that although our host might be weird, it could be a cultural difference & I’d give him the benefit of the doubt, but leave the deciphering up to my Norwegian friend. When it became clear later that night that our host was trying to push our bottle of Irish whiskey on us, both my American friend & I stopped drinking. We informed our host that we’d be staying at our friend’s for a few more hours & to leave without us. He seemed okay with this, but then proceeded to continuously text our friend over the next few hours. Did we mention that our friend happened to have two Norwegian cops over for drinks that same night? Thank f!@#, is all I have to say for that.
Immediately after our host left, our Norwegian friend told us he had something to tell us & pulled out his iPhone. He proceeded to pull up article after Norwegian article of news reports involving our host… The jist being that he was charged with taking nude photography of underaged, unwilling girls, with the worst of it involving two victims who ended up hospitalized with knife wounds when they resisted his attempts. All reports stated to immediately contact the police if he even remotely attempted to contact you. Our Norwegian friend had known that the name sounded familiar & this was because of the fact that he had been all over the news just years prior.
Everything added up… We then recalled the nude photograph above his bed who he had stated was just an ‘old friend’... We remembered the security cameras in his living room, each directly & strategically placed to face each couch, where we would be sleeping. At the time of seeing them, we idiotically & naivly assumed they were there because of his vast collection of expensive equipment in the apartment. Did I mention that we could not see the Norwegian articles? Because they did not come up in Irish Google search results. The fact that he was CouchSurfing & preying on foreigners was the smartest thing he ever could’ve tried.
Had to add some humour into this at some point...
At this point we began to, well, freak out. All of our belongings were at his apartment… We now had nowehere to stay for the next four nights. We were in a foreign country, knowing almost no-one, not even speaking the language & with limited funds. Freak out is probably an understatement as to what we were feeling in that moment to be honest. We did settle down though & ended up deciding on the plan to go to his first thing in the morning, with the company of our two new found police men escorts. Needless to stay, we came out of this entire situation unscathed, though with zero sleep & possibly a few tears.
A this point we still have police reports to complete & ended up sleeping at different places literally each night of our trip, not knowing each day if we would even have somewhere to stay that night. Lugging our backpacks made me thankful as hell that I for once in my life packed light for a trip. Yet another lesson to be learned from all of this, am I right?!… Also, I learned to always, always, always have a backup plan, as obvious as this is to most, it wasn't to us. Oh & backup cash. Ridiculously & embarrassingly enough, I left my credit card at home in Dublin because I was determined to stay on budget. Silly, SILLY mistake that I will never make again, even if I thought it was clever at the time. Luckily though, my American friend turned out to be one of the best friends I ever could have made.
Yoga at the Opera House... Much needed de-stressing.
At this end of all of this, I just have to state how very thankful I am. I’m thankful for foreign friends looking out for me, people I’d never even met offering couches, beds & food for us the entire rest of the trip, after having heard what happened. I’m thankful for having the chance to have visited the gorgeous city of Oslo. I’m thankful that we made the very best of the rest of our time, even if we were haggard & stressed for most of the time we had. I’m thankful that my flight home landed safely, because I was f!@#ing dying to land on Irish soil… To be quite graphic, I’m thankful that my friend & I were not assaulted, raped, or hurt. I’m thankful that we learned a ridiculous amount of lessons out of the experience. Lastly, I’m thankful to be alive. It may sound dramatic, but that statement has never rung more true than it did in Oslo. Thinking about what could have happened that weekend if it wasn't for my friend's quick wit makes me sick to my stomach.Now, after saying all of this, I honestly have nothing against CouchSurfing in the slightest. I probably should, but I don’t. I think the concept of giving something to others for nothing in return is brilliant, if flawed in its theory. I will not, however, be CouchSurfing again & I understand that this is completely personal. I would rather go on less trips, spend the money on hostels & sacrifice the chance of seeing cities as locals, if only it means that I will be safe.
My apologies for the long post, but I hope that this will provide some perspective into the other side of CouchSurfing. To disclaim, I’m not in anyway trying to deter anyone from participating, but please, PLEASE be aware of the dangers & take every measure possible to prevent something like this, or worse, from happening to you. Also… More on Oslo to come, the happy though!