On Couchsurfing, Kidnapping and Back-up Plans

Hello SHABL,

Envision yourself in this situation for just a moment: you are sitting on a bus on your way to a city and country you know little to nothing about. Your only contact there is the girl who accepted your Couchsurfing request the night before. An hour into the ride she sends you an SMS saying she will meet you at the bus station. Then three hours in she sends another one saying she can’t get off work to meet you but her boyfriend will. Then another hour later comes a third message from the same number. This time though it’s her boyfriend that’s writing and saying he actually can’t meet you either but take a cab to this address and he’ll come down and pay for it.

Would you think that was strange? Can two people send messages from the same cell phone number? Would you go even if you thought it a tad suspicious?

If you haven’t guessed by now, this happened to me just a few months ago on my first trip to Chisinau, Moldova and it freaked me out. I had never felt such a strong feeling in my gut that there was something so off about a situation. In fact I had never felt anything like that at all.

By the time I finally got to Chisinau I had already made the decision: there was no way I was going there. But where was I going then? I didn’t know what part of the city I was in, I didn’t have a map, I didn’t have a guidebook.

At this point I hadn’t entirely ruled out staying there but thought if I were to do that then I better be meeting them somewhere in public first, together or at the very least her. So I jumped in a cab (a licensed one) and asked to be taken to any café that had wifi in the city center. The driver kept staring at me on the way so I finally asked him what was up. “What are you doing here and why are you alone?” he said. I politely explained to him that I was there because I was interested in seeing Chisinau, and that this is just how I roll when traveling—alone. “But you better be careful here, this city is FULL of very bad people.” Awesome. If I wasn’t already freaked out about my situation, way to make me, dude.

So he drops me off at a café that he says should have wifi, which it didn’t. Luckily I find out from the people working there that there’s free wifi in the park just across the street. Not in the cafes but in the park—who would have thought? Anyway, I go sit in this park and decide ok, I will send an SMS and say I needed to take care of some business in the center (business like preventing a possible kidnapping), but let’s all meet up at some restaurant or bar when your girlfriend gets off work. “Looks like she is going to be working really late tonight but I will come pick you up wherever you are,” is the response that I got.

Was he serious? This was just getting out of hand and I really didn’t have the patience to wait it out. I was tired, sitting in a park with a suitcase, no hotel or hostel in sight. I was ready to just go to the bus station again and buy the first ticket back to Odessa, but I didn’t. Instead I thought, you know what, I already made it this far and the hell if I am going to let this affect my travel plans. I came to see this place and I am not leaving until I have done so. Within a few minutes I had pulled up the number to the only hostel I could find in Chisinau, and a few minutes after that I was on my way.

I don’t know what would have happened had I waited around a few more hours for this dude to come meet me, but the bottom line is I just did not feel good about it so I didn’t do it. I listened to my instincts because they were screaming at me. Maybe it would have been fine, maybe they were actually a really lovely couple…but I will never know.

The reason I tell this story is because it was a huge wake up call to me. I had been on a roll for a year where I was just bouncing around Europe without a plan. Couchsurfing had changed the way I traveled for the absolute better, but it also started making me incredibly lazy. Lazy to not familiarize myself more with a place where I was going as well as too reliant on my hosts for being the ones to show me around. Big mistake.

This trip to Chisinau was humbling to say the least and made me completely reassess the way in which I travel and Couchsurf. Still not one to carry around guidebooks or large maps, I at least make sure I have an idea of how the city is laid out if I am going to a place where I know I probably won’t find free city maps or tourist guides lying around. Another thing is that now I will also never leave for a trip unless I know I have extra money to carry out a Plan B such as the one I described above (money for cabs, money for emergency accommodation) if necessary. Having a Plan B or back-up plan somewhere in my mind has also become of utmost importance. Specifically, a telephone number or address to a hotel/hostel on hand just in case something doesn’t work out.

Whether it’s your first time alone on the road or you are a seasoned traveler, I think one of the most important things to always remember is go with your gut. It doesn’t matter if it turns out to be right or wrong in the end; it’s what you felt like you needed to do at the time and ultimately will lead you to where you’re supposed to be.

40 Comments

  1. john q public

    March 7, 2012 at 3:51 am

    I think you made the right call, instinct is one of those things where you usually dont listen to it until later on when you realize you should’ve…very interesting piece

    • Larissa

      March 7, 2012 at 8:47 am

      Thanks John. It was a tough call but seriously in the end I think it was the right one, too. My mom would be proud (this is one story I’m going to wait a while to tell her)

      • Yvette

        March 12, 2012 at 8:49 am

        Your mom doesn’t read your blog?

        (No really, crazy story but I’m certain you did the right thing!)

        • Larissa

          March 12, 2012 at 1:12 pm

          She reads my blog from time to time (www.blonde-gypsy.com), but not this one. She’s not that into “technology” or surfing the web…this is a good and bad thing.

          And thanks! The more I hear it did seem crazy, the better I feel about making that decision.

          • Bev

            June 4, 2013 at 2:51 pm

            Larissa, it’s good to know that I am not the only female who will be out there couchsurfing. I have never done it before but this summer I am taking a trip through Europe and thought that would be the way to travel chealy and meet lots of new people. My friends think I am crazy. Just celebrated my 70th birthday and am going to do this while I am still able. Hoefully, this will be my first of many trips.

          • Larissa

            June 13, 2013 at 4:04 am

            You go get em’, girl! As long as you take the time to check out your potential hosts’ profiles and are picky in terms of considering only those you truly feel you would have something in common with, I think you will have success. The best part about Couchsurfing is that it’s grown so much and there are so many different types of people and all ages on the site.

            Best of luck on your travels and cheers to many, many more. Do get in touch if you need any more advice!

  2. Rob

    March 7, 2012 at 4:20 am

    Sounds like the old “bait and switch” and just weird in general, think you made the right call!

    • Larissa

      March 7, 2012 at 8:40 am

      Thanks but now I am thinking this blog post might have been much more interesting had I just gone, at least for Phil.

      • Rob

        March 7, 2012 at 11:24 am

        Yeah, we’re glad you didn’t and who knows, maybe there would be no update. This reminds me of a same same but different story I have for another day.

        • Larissa

          March 7, 2012 at 12:25 pm

          Reminds me of when I asked you to call the police if you didn’t hear from me within 24 hours of going to stay with those gypsies in Romania.

          Stories.for.days.

  3. Loreeix

    March 7, 2012 at 4:47 am

    No, you definitely made the right choice. And I’d never ever recommend couchsurfing in Chisinau, or in other parts of Moldavia, for that matter ;) Besides, I think hotels/motels aren’t expensive at all so it’s really not worth taking the risk.

    • Larissa

      March 7, 2012 at 8:56 am

      I know, accommodation would have been cheap but I guess I was just hoping to make some cool Moldavian friends :) It worked out though, made some Czech and Slovakian friends instead. Wouldn’t have ended up at a cave monastery and definitely wouldn’t have ended up in Transnistria.

  4. PHIL

    March 7, 2012 at 7:51 am

    Hey what happen to … youll never know unless you go mantra !!! I am disapointed to say the least!! Maybe you just missed the best part of your trip…. But who and how did you come in contact with these people… Are they strangers have you spoken to them since >??? … But still glad your ok but dont worrie i would spear head the efforts to raise the funds to free you from any kidnapings.. So dont be afraid to go mingle down in Mexixo near the us border… We got your back son !!

    • Larissa

      March 7, 2012 at 8:39 am

      Hahahaha, how appropriate. My response to Rob was going to be something along those lines..”sorry I didn’t go, so don’t know”. So un-SHABLish of me!

      I got in contact with this girl through Couchsurfing which is like a social networking site for hospitality exchange. I’ve had nothing but amazing experiences before so didn’t think twice, but I don’t know, I had to back down on this one. Now that I know you have my back though I will never do it again. In fact, I will be back in California again next month so may just have to head down to Mexico in order to make up for my lack of adventure in Moldova.

    • Rob

      March 7, 2012 at 11:24 am

      LOL at that entire comment, glad to know you have our or at least Larissa’s back!

  5. Katie

    March 7, 2012 at 11:29 am

    Did you leave any feedback on Couchsurfing about it? You might want to say something or contact them. I don’t blame you for not going with the guy – it all sounded quite fishy!!

    What hostel did you end up at? I stayed at the Retro Moldova Hostel there and they were sooo great!

    • Larissa

      March 7, 2012 at 12:20 pm

      I actually left positive feedback because even though it all seemed fishy, whomever I was communicating with via text was being very nice. It all just sort of ended like “sorry, this isn’t going to work out, but thank you anyway”. I didn’t want to start drama over the unknown since nothing happened in the end.

      Where is Retro Moldova Hostel?? I only found Chisinau Hostel which is right next to Malldova (best name for a shopping mall, ever). Accommodation was pretty good for a hostel, staff was great.

  6. Dana de Brito

    March 7, 2012 at 5:05 pm

    I vote this was a good call. I think a solo-female travellers best tool is her gut! If it seems too fishy – just bail. High Five and glad you’re here to tell this story!

    • Larissa

      March 8, 2012 at 12:49 am

      Yeah, high ten on this one I think. At first I felt a little bit like a jerk bailing in case he was telling the truth and just being a nice guy but then I thought, no, better to feel like a jerk than to risk an awkward or potentially dangerous situation.

  7. Caroline @ Traveling 9 to 5

    March 7, 2012 at 6:53 pm

    We had the same bad feeling in Singapore. We were supposed to stay at a guys’s hostel that he was working on opening. We googled his name and found questionable tweets and wiki page with bad comments. We tried to contact him and found that his profile no longer existed on couchsurfing and we never heard anything back from him. We are glad we didn’t follow the address he gave us. Always go with your gut!

    • Larissa

      March 8, 2012 at 1:02 am

      Sketchy! Glad you didn’t follow the address, too. The lucky thing about my situation was that if I really wanted to, I could have just gotten back on a bus and made the 5 hour trip home (buses are going all the time between Odessa-Chisinau). Couldn’t imagine being thousands of miles away from a “home” and having this happen. Good thing it was Singapore though – it seems like a place full of other accommodation options.

  8. Lindsay

    March 8, 2012 at 9:12 pm

    Lars, you so crazy! I’m glad you didn’t go. I don’t know if I would have been so smart. I wish I could travel with you! PS Have you and Rob met yet?!

    • Larissa

      March 8, 2012 at 11:54 pm

      Who knows where I will be in November…maybe I’ll come visit you when you’re in Turkey – I’ve got “family” in Istanbul now.
      PS No, we haven’t met in person yet

  9. Jamaica My Way

    March 13, 2012 at 2:08 pm

    They ALWAYS say go with your gut. I’ve done some pretty stupid things while traveling too (in hindsight) but they all turned out okay. However if my gut tells me otherwise I have to listen. GREAT story to share though. Sometimes we need those wake-up calls to keep us in check!

  10. Larissa

    March 13, 2012 at 4:59 pm

    Thank you and actually you just reminded me about another good story I shall tell soon. It’s about doing something that seemed stupid at the time and in hindsight, but in the end turned out ok. That will probably come next week!

  11. Marc

    March 13, 2012 at 7:08 pm

    You should not leave a positive feedback if you never see the ppl. The feedback system is the only thing your fellow couchsurfers can decide if the guy/girl is a good place to stay. Or at last i hope you did make it clear that communication was only over the computer. In general CS is safe but there is no way to tell if a particular host is save or not. 2 female friends of mine had very bad experiences in Malaysia and Turkey (got drugged, almost got raped) so as a girl you have to be a bit more careful where you stay. Chose hosts with lots of references and friends will improve your chance of having a good time. But than again a girl i know got mugged in a 5 (!) star hotel in Brussels on a biz trip and not in a shady corner in Moldavia…
    If you ever make it to Stuttgart – surf at my place :-)

    • Larissa

      March 14, 2012 at 2:32 am

      Woah, very scary about your friends! Maybe I shouldn’t have left positive feedback but at the same time, I couldn’t leave negative because it didn’t turn out to be. And maybe it wouldn’t have been which I will always wonder and even feel a little bad about. I like giving people the benefit of the doubt but I just wasn’t in the position to at that point in time.

      5-star hotels can be just as if not more shadier than some dark corners of Eastern Europe, that is for sure. Thanks for the invitation to Stuttgart! I may just take you up on it one of these days :)

      • Amy

        June 12, 2012 at 10:27 pm

        The rule is that you leave no feedback if you have never met them. I got a friend request from a couple that I never met on couchsurfing, who wanted to surf with me but couldn’e because of my roommate, and I told them that after we meet, I will leave them feedback and accept their friend request. They never took me up on my offer to meet for coffee and I never left feedback.

        If I were you, I would contact couchsurfing and say that you have not met these people and would like to delete the feedback. Another couchsurfer could see your positive feedback and use that to discredit their intuition which could possibly cause harm.

        • Larissa

          June 13, 2012 at 8:27 am

          I didn’t realize there was that rule, thanks for the heads up – will look into doing that.

  12. Em

    April 3, 2012 at 7:34 am

    Great post and I hope I will have the same good instincts has something like this ever coming my way. I have read your blog for a while since I started planning my solo year of travelling and now I am starting I will use your knowledge as much as I can. Great tips and interesting contents!!! Hope to get some feedback and tips from you

    • Larissa

      April 24, 2012 at 1:55 pm

      Thanks, Em. Good luck with the planning!

  13. Liz

    April 19, 2012 at 5:43 pm

    Wow- you’re braver than I am! When I learned about couch-surfing, I decided that though it sounds like the best idea ever, I just couldn’t trust that the female I might be contacting was actually female … and safe. I’m glad it has worked out so well for you.

    Good job on following your instincts. And thanks for the reminder to do so, as I get ready for a few months on my own in SE Asia.
    :-) liz

    • Larissa

      April 24, 2012 at 8:47 pm

      I thought the same exact thing when I first learned about it and actually wrote a post a while back on my first ever experience (http://blonde-gypsy.com/2009/12/28/how-couchsurfing-changed-my-life-and-possibly-saved/). I should probably devote an entire series to all the incredible experiences I have had thusfar. Maybe it would convince more people to at least give it a try.

      A solo trip around SE Asia sounds amazing, hope you have a wonderful time!

  14. Kiki

    November 5, 2012 at 12:48 pm

    Oooh, what a creepy story! I remember wanting to go to Moldova in my last year of school with some friends, but my parents were like ‘sorry, no’. Someday!
    I am wondering, did the girl have a lot of references? And I agree with everyone about leaving the reference, if you’ve never met the person face to face, you can still write a reference but you must choose the little computer icon, which says ‘attention: never met in person’, because even though CS website has strong ‘no double accounts’ policies there might still be people writing references for themselves and using someone elses photos.

    • Larissa

      November 10, 2012 at 5:00 am

      No, I think she had like one vague one which is also one of the reasons I didn’t want to risk it. Moldova is fine, there are creepy people everywhere so I wouldn’t let this story sway anyone from wanting to visit. For me it was a wake-up call to be more careful with Couchsurfing and rocking up to unfamiliar places that I know nothing about.

  15. Samantha Martin

    December 3, 2012 at 7:55 am

    Larissa thanks for sharing your story and reflection on how to trust your instincts while traveling, particularly as it relates to staying with strangers. I felt is was so apropos, I added a link to your story on a recent post entitled “Staying with Strangers: Hostels, CouchSurfing, AirBnB, StartUpStay, and More. http://www.thetravelingadvisor.com/2012/12/02/hostels-couchsurfing-airbnb-startupstay/

    • Larissa

      December 12, 2012 at 1:52 am

      You’re welcome and thank you. Looks like an extremely useful post for anyone trying to weigh pros and cons of the various accommodation alternatives.

  16. mina

    December 13, 2012 at 6:55 am

    great post. i only have one story similar to this and i always feel reluctant to tell people about it because it makes me feel stupid for not being prepared/planning more thoroughly. sometimes you just want a little spontaneity though. usually it works out for the best.

    like everyone else said, sounds like it’s probably good that you trusted your gut. better safe than sorry.

    • Larissa

      December 14, 2012 at 2:58 pm

      Thank you! I don’t mind sharing with the world how stupid I can be sometimes :) A lesson was learned and hope it’ll get others to think twice or even three times if ever faced with a similar situation. This definitely hasn’t stopped me from traveling spontaneously, I just always make sure I’ve got a basic Plan B just in case.

  17. Utsav

    May 5, 2013 at 11:37 pm

    Wow. I recently joined Couchsurfing, and luckily haven’t experienced anything like this so far.

    I’ve gone through what the proper Couchsurfing etiquette should be, and the common advice seems to be to combine common sense + Gut feeling. And also to properly research the host, and their profile beforehand.

    Good point about being on your guard, especially in a new city.

    Thanks for the well written and informative post.

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