By Yong Shu Hoong, culture vulture
I have a secret to share: I have been letting total strangers sleep over at my apartment.
But it's not what you think. In fact, it was done in the name of journalistic research.
While preparing for an overseas trip earlier this year, I read about a website called CouchSurfing in a Frommer's travel guide.
Here is how it works:
Sign up at CouchSurfing.org by creating a profile of yourself, complete with your photo, personal information and interests.
If you are planning to visit, say, London and need a place to stay, you can log onto the website and search for Londonbased members who are willing to let you bunk over at their apartment, either on their sofas or in their guest bedrooms.
You then put in requests to potential hosts who appear interesting to you and see which of them are willing to let you surf their couches.
If you receive and accept an offer from a host, you get to stay in that person's home for free.
The best thing is that the host may pick you up from the airport and give you a personalised tour of his city. It's a splendid way to meet the locals and learn how they live and play.
Likewise, you can also indicate on your profile if you are willing and able to host fellow members who visit your city.
At that time, I thought it was a wonderful idea.
In a post-Sept 11 world, where distrust and intolerance easily prevail among people of differing nationalities and religions, this website offers an alternative platform to tear down walls between cultures.
It was launched in 2004 and currently has 1.1 million members across 231 countries.
Not only is it a boon for shoestring travellers, it also allows an act of kindness to be passed on to others in a 'pay it forward' manner (because the person who is hosted usually ends up hosting someone else in the future).
Thinking that CouchSurfing might be a good topic to write about, I signed up as a member to gain some first-hand experience.
Personally, I am less apprehensive about hosting than being hosted.
Finding comfort in home-ground advantage, I feel it is safer having strangers sleep over at my apartment in Singapore than to risk being hosted by an axe murderer in a faraway land.
While precaution is essential, my fears may be unfounded because I can choose my host by scrutinising comments left by people he has previously hosted.
The reality is that I need some level of luxury beyond a sofa and have reservations about inconveniencing others.
On the other hand, hosting offers the tempting opportunity of doing a noble, altruistic deed with no money or reciprocal favour expected in return.
My first experience as a CouchSurfing host was opening my home to an amiable Canadian woman from Montreal.
Even though she was here for a week, she asked for only two nights in my apartment as she knew I was a novice and wanted to ease me gently into the game.
The second guest was, coincidentally, also a Canadian - a backpacking surferdude who stayed for three nights.
Strumming his guitar, which he carried with him while gallivanting around Asia, he played acoustic renditions of rock tunes such as Neil Young's Rockin' In The Free World in the middle of my living room.
More CouchSurfing requests poured in and I have since hosted another eight travellers-in-need from Germany, Hungary, Britain and the United States.
Some friends who came to know about my 'risky' new hobby wondered why I embarked on it.
Perhaps I was bored and wanted to make new international friends without taking off on a backpacking tour.
But I do also genuinely enjoy helping others and showing them around Singapore.
Fortunately, my guests were considerate and did not create any problems for me. All of them offered good conversation, providing me with new insights into their countries, Singapore and life in general.
And there are many others like me in Singapore.
A search on CouchSurfing yielded about 300 Singapore-based members who are willing to host or meet up for coffee.
The Singapore Group on CouchSurfing is an active online community consisting of locals and expatriates who take turns organising social activities ranging from nature walks to just having pancakes in someone's home.
But the idea of mutual trust and respect should not be taken for granted.
Aside from issues regarding religion, sexuality or opposing viewpoints, the recent spread of the H1N1 virus can also put a damper on CouchSurfing's mission to 'create educational exchanges, raise collective consciousness, spread tolerance and facilitate cultural understanding'.
Some have stopped hosting because of H1N1 concerns. I have stopped, mainly because of fatigue and the need to recharge myself with some 'alone' time.
But will I start hosting again after this column is published? Probably.
Maybe I will even go full-circle by asking for couches in far-flung places and freely accept the generosity of strangers.
Warfare will continue and new diseases will likely surface. But it is a welcome distraction to discover, for a change, what it is like to embrace the world with less suspicion and fear.
Yong Shu Hoong is a poet, freelance writer and Singapore Literature Prize winner.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.
For more The Straits Times stories, click here.