Thursday, 28 November 2013

Meet Hermogenes, the host of 620 couch surfers in 547 days.

Hermogenes, 34, surrounded by his two boys Ricardo and Sebastián, and by their friend Alysa.

I arrived in Cusco, Peru around 7 pm, after a 22-hour bus ride.
Exhausted, I didn’t bother to barter the price for the taxi ride. I paid the ten soles requested by the taxi driver, even though my couch surfing host had told me beforehand to pay a maximum of six soles (“For six soles”, the driver told me, “I can drive you to the Plaza de Armas. But then you’ll have to walk ten blocks. It’s up to you.”).
I arrived at the given address, surprised to have the door opened to me by two very young-looking boys. The eldest, who appeared to be about eight years old, interrogated me in Spanish.
-Who are you looking for?
-Hum, Hermogenes?
-OK yes this is the place, please come in. Sorry about the mess, we just moved in a few days ago.

The place wasn’t messy, but it was small. I scanned the single room: one double bed, one bunk bed, one table, two chairs, and a two-feet wide gas stove (although it also contained an oven, the latter was out-of-use because a rat had found refuge there once, and had unfortunately been cooked while the oven was heating up, the eight-year old had confided. So there’s lots of bacteria in there now, he concluded).
Hermogenes's home: a single room with two beds, a table, a gas oven, and a
 non-functional refrigerator
Sebastián was eight years old, and Ricardo was three. Both were clearly used to travelers crashing at their place for a night or two.
“Here is your mattress”, said Sebastián while taking out a thin blue camping mat. “Sorry there are stains on it.  It’s because lots of other people slept on it. My Dad should be coming home soon from work. If you’re thirsty, we have water already boiled”.
Wow, I thought. I can’t wait to meet the man who raised these unusually well-behaved children.

Hermogenes arrived around 8:30 pm. While cooking some dinner, he explained to me their living situation.
“We actually just moved into this place three days ago. We used to live down the street, in a much bigger place. Then, I could host many couch surfers at a time. Three, four, even five.  Here, I can only take one or two”.
I was apparently standing face to the male version of Mother Theresa.
“You see”, he continued, “The rent at the other place was $200 per month. Here, it’s only $50. This way, I can send Sebastián to private school.”.
The cost of sending him to private school is 250 soles ($92) per month. But this expense lags far behind the expenditures for food, at 900 soles ($330) per month.
Sebastián, 8, and Ricardo, 3, enjoy some chocolate-covered peanuts-
rarily figuring on the grovery shopping list

And yet, despite this modest way of living, Hermogenes hosted 620 couch surfers over the last year-and-a-half.
Founded in 2004, the website Couchsurfing provides a platform for its members to either “surf” on couches in the city they are traveling to, or to receive “surfers” in their home for a few nights.  In 2012, the website counted 3.6 million members. One year later, this number had reached 6 million, connecting members in 100 000 different cities worldwide.  A system of references (positive, negative, or neutral) allows members to gauge the reliability of the surfer they will potentially host, or of the host whose couch they may surf on.
With 146 positive references on Hermogenes’s account (not all surfers left references), I had nothing to fear as a single woman surfing at a man’s house.
The only obligation a Couchsurfing host is bound by upon acceptance of a surfer is to provide him or her with a couch to surf on.  Nonetheless, Hermogenes always outdoes this criteria, offering a key to his guests for them to have unlimited access to the house, as well as sharing breakfast, and even sometimes dinner with them.

The motivating force behind his active participation in Couchsurfing is based on the desire to learn about and to build a connection with other people, says Hermogenes: “I do it for the friendships.  For the sake of sharing. I learn many things thanks to my guests: which types of people are most appreciative of what you give them, which ones need more commodities, etc.”.
One of the many plazas in the city of Cusco, where Hermogenes lives.

Hermogenes currently works in the administrative branch of a tourism agency; but this was not always the case, he tells me:  “The kids’mother and I used to own a hotel in the historic center. We both spent over $22 000 to buy and renovate it. I was quite invested in it. I spent sleepless nights driving to the airport at night to attract potential clients to our hotel. When the mother and I separated, I left her the hotel so that she would have a source of revenue. We got back together a year later. I was expecting to resume managing the hotel with her, but she had sold it without telling me. I had to start again at zero. ”.  His facial expression was devoid of any trace of rancor. It only revealed a sense of knowledge that had been gained the hard way.

Hermogenes blows on a small fire in a ceramic bowl, in
preparation for a ceremony of the reading of coca leaves.
Proud of his Inca roots, Hermogenes considers himself a mystic.
Despite this unfortunate experience, Hermogenes still hopes to build another hotel in the future, near the new international airport in Cusco that will be built in the coming years.  

Another dream of his is to one day become the mayor of Chinchero, his home town. “I think I have good chances. I am the only person from my town who has attended a private university.”. 
Ultimately, Hermogenes’s aspirations reach beyond this: “The truth is, I would eventually like to participate in the National Congress of Peru. But all of this is down the road. I have two boys to look after for the next few years.”.

Hermogenes is one of the most inspiring people I have come across in my lifetime.  Through living and interacting with him for the eleven days I was surfing at his place, I gradually gained the belief that anything is possible; and that serious downfalls happen even to the best of us – but with the right attitude, they will always be overcome.