I must admit that I knew nothing of the apparently widespread practice of “couchsurfing” before I read Stephan Orth’s quirky, sometime comic, and utterly entertaining travelogue, Behind Putin’s Curtain: Friendships and Misadventures Inside Russia. For the uninitiated, couchsurfing is a global community said to be comprised of more than 14 million members in over 200,000 cities that includes virtually every country on the map. The purpose is to provide free if bare bones lodging for travelers in exchange for forming new friendships and spawning new adventures. The term couchsurfing is an apt one, since frequently the visitor in fact beds down on a couch, although accommodations range from actual beds with sheets and pillowcases to blankets strewn on a kitchen floor—or, as Orth discovers to his amusement, a cot in a bathroom, just across from the toilet! Obviously, if your idea of a good time is a $2000/week Airbnb with a memory foam mattress and a breathtaking view, this is not for you, but if you are scraping together your loose change and want to see the world from the bottom up, couchsurfing offers an unusual alternative that will instantly plug you into the local culture by pairing you up with an authentic member of the community. Of course, authentic does not necessarily translate into typical. More on that later.
Orth, an acclaimed journalist from Germany, is no novice to couchsurfing, but rather a practiced aficionado, who has not only long relied upon it as a travel mechanism but has upped the ante by doing so in distant and out of the ordinary spots like Iran, Saudi Arabia and China, the subjects of his several best-selling books. This time he gives it a go in Russia: from Grozny in the North Caucasus, on to Volgograd and Saint Petersburg, then to Novosibirsk and the Altai Republic in Siberia, and finally Yakutsk and Vladivostok in the Far East. (Full disclosure: I never knew Yakutsk existed other than as a strategic corner of the board in the game of Risk.) All the while Orth proves a keen, non-judgmental observer of peoples and customs who navigates the mundane, the hazardous, and the zany with an enthusiasm instantly contagious to the reader. He’s a fine writer, with a style underscored by impeccable timing, comedic and otherwise, and passages often punctuated with wit and sometime wicked irony. You can imagine him penning the narrative impatiently, eager to work through one paragraph to the next so he can detail another encounter, express another anecdote, or simply mock his circumstances once more, all while wearing a twinkle in his eye and a wry twist to his lips.
Couchsurfing may be routine for the author, but he wisely assumes this is not the case for his audience, so he introduces this fascinating milieu by detailing the process of booking a room. The very first one he describes turns out to be a hilarious online race down various rabbit holes over a sequence of seventy-nine web pages where his utterly eccentric eventual host peppers him with bizarre, even existential observations, and challenges potential guests to fill in various blanks while warning them “that he follows the principle of ‘rational egoism’” and “doesn’t have ten dwarves cleaning up after guests.” [p7] Orth, unintimidated, responds with a wiseass retort and wins the invitation.
Perhaps the most delightful portions of this book are Orth’s profiles of his various hosts, who tend to run the full spectrum of the odd to the peculiar. I say this absent any negative connotation that might otherwise be implied. After all, Einstein and Lincoln were both peculiar fellows. I only mean that the reader, eager to get a taste of local culture, should not mistake Orth’s bunkmates for typical representatives of their respective communities. This makes sense, of course, since regardless of nationality the average person is unlikely to welcome complete strangers into their homes as overnight guests for free. That said, most of his hosts come off as fascinating if unconventional folks you might love to hang out with, at least for a time. And they put as much trust in the author as he puts in them. One couple even briefly leaves Orth to babysit their toddler. Another host turns over the keys of his private dacha and leaves him unattended with his dog.
Of course, the self-deprecating Orth, who seems equally gifted as patient listener and engaging raconteur, could very well be the ideal guest in these circumstances. At the same time, he could also very well be a magnet for the outrageous and the bizarre, as witnessed by the madcap week-long car trip through Siberia he ends up taking with this wild and crazy chick named Nadya that begins when they meet and bond over lamb soup and a spirited debate as to what was the best Queen album, survives a rental car catastrophe on a remote roadway, and winds up with them horseback riding on the steppe. Throughout, with only a single exception, the two disagree about … well … absolutely everything, but still manage to have a good time. If you don’t literally laugh out loud while reading through this long episode, you should be banned for life from using the LOL emoji.
You would think that travel via couchsurfing could very well be dangerous—perhaps less for Orth, who is well over six feet tall and a veteran couchsurfer—but certainly for young, attractive women bedding down in unknown environs. But it turns out that such incidents while not unknown are very, very rare. The couchsurfing community is self-policing: guests and hosts rely on ratings and reviews not unlike those on Airbnb, which tends to minimize if not entirely eliminate creeps and psychos. Still, while 14 million people cannot be wrong, it’s not for everyone. Which leads me to note that the only fault I can find with this outstanding work is its title, Behind Putin’s Curtain, since it has little to do with Putin or the lives led by ordinary Russians: certainly the peeps that Orth runs with are anything but ordinary or typical! I have seen this book published elsewhere simply as Couchsurfing in Russia, which I think suits it far better. Other than that quibble, this is one of the best travel books that I have ever read, and I highly recommend it. And while I might be a little too far along in years to start experimenting with couchsurfing, I admire Orth’s spirit and I’m eager to read more of his adventures going forward.
[Note: the edition of this book that I read was an ARC (Advance Reader’s Copy), as part of an early reviewer’s program.]