CouchSurfers (Re)Discover Cities

As a new volunteer for Member Communications on the website, I’ve been helping write for their World Wide Events news channel. I did not write this first article, I only helped with the research as my friend Marcelle showed me the ropes. The next one will be completely written by me.

When was the last time you got lost… intentionally?

Urban Exploration Event Ideas
1. Personal Map Exchange. At the next CouchSurfing event, have every member bring a map of the area with their favorite spots marked on it – favorite restaurants, best places for reading a book, etc. – and exchange it with somebody else.

2. Treasure Hunt. Spread “treasures” all over a chosen neighborhood. Then, create a map of the neighborhood and mark where the treasures were hidden. You can post the map online or print copies to hand out.

3. Experimental city walks. Organize a city walk that is either based on an element of chance (such as the results of a dice roll) or on a predetermined set of random rules.

Inspired by Keri Smith’s Guerilla Art Kit(New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2007).

When walking through the city, sometimes we forget to be creative. As locals, we tend to see the same landscape, day after day. As travelers, it’s easy to stick to what’s mentioned in our guidebooks or recommended by a friend. Urban exploration events help us get off those beaten paths and discover unlikely places.

Urban golf in Hamtramck, Michigan, USA.
photo by Heather

This year’s Detroit CouchCrash featured a series of urban exploration events, designed to show CouchSurfers aspects of the city unknown even to most locals. Event activities included a tour of the downtown dumpsters, a game of golf in the streets, and a visit to an abandoned industrial complex.
“The visit to the famous Packard Plant, which manufactured cars until the mid-1950’s, really took people to the unseen part of Detroit and into a world they’d never imagined existed,” says one of the event organizers, Nathan. “I took my group to all the jaw dropping sights of the place, such as the Urban Stonehenge (a place where a floor caved in around a pillar in an almost Druidic fashion).”

Admiring the view at the Packard Plant,
Detroit, USA.
Photo: Jeanette Patrick.

“The experience was awesome,” says Jennifer Larese, who came from Connecticut to participate. “To see the buildings falling apart, nature slowly creeping back in, what people had abandoned, what people had written on the walls. I had not really seen anything like it.”
Another event was a game of golf in the streets of Hamtramck (a city within Detroit’s borders), using tennis balls and improvised sticks. Heather, one of the organizers, thinks this type of activity sparks discoveries and chance encounters. “You can design the course to go into nooks and crannies you wouldn’t have thought to see before. And you’re not just walking quickly through the city, you’re chasing your ball all over the place. You also get to interact with locals, even if only to explain what you’re doing, and why your ball has landed at their feet.” 

CouchSurfers from other cities have also been getting together for urban exploration. At this summer’s New York City CouchCrash, CouchSurfers explored the city by bike. The tour included tourist points, but also unlikely scenic spots. “The objective of the event was to give members a creative way to enjoy the city and see much of it at the same time,” says Bastien, organizer. On the other side of the United States, the Fruitvale Taco Truck Bike Tour attracted dozens of CouchSurfers in Oakland, California. Cyrus, the events organizer, describes it as “a Critical Mass with less aggression and more tacos.”

In Frankfurt, scavenger hunts have given members a reason to wander the streets and visit new places. In one hunt, twelve clues created by Norman were spread throughout the city, leading people to various international bars, flower stands, and even bringing them in and out of a train.

At a scavenger hunt in Frankfurt, Germany.
Photo: Norman

And what could be more unexplored than the underground? The Urban Speleology Group is a discussion forum for CouchSurfers who enjoy visiting places like the Catacombs of Paris, France. One of its members, Titou Solski, says he’s been exploring the Catacombs for two years. “I host as often as i can, and because people know I go there, they ask to stay with me…and things usually work out so that I give tours and host parties.”

What’s a party in the Catacombs like? “A party can be anything,” he says. “In France, a party is often just sitting around a table talking and drinking wine. That happens often in the Catacombs. On the other extreme I was at a party last month with over 500 people, bands, lighting, DJs… you would never guess you were in the Catacombs.” Now that’s a whole new way of thinking about an underground party!

Norman’s tips for organizing scavenger hunts:

1. Schedule your scavenger hunt at least one month in advance. Avoid times when people are likely to be on vacation.

2. Start by creating a list of tasks. Then, think of places where the tasks can be completed.

3. You can either hand out a list of tasks or create a set of clues that will lead people to their next task. I think the second way is more fun.

4. The magic number of tasks or clues for a scavenger hunt is 12.

5. Create a route that includes places of historical and cultural interest. Involve business owners and street vendors to make your scavenger hunt even more amusing.

6. Complete the tasks on your own to measure time and level of difficulty. Make adjustments, if necessary. A scavenger hunt should last no more than 2 and a half hours.

7. Ask for help with distributing clues and greeting members on the day of the event.

8. Assign people who don’t know each other to the same team.

9. End the scavenger hunt in a bar or a restaurant, so that people have a chance to exchange their impressions about their day.


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