On the Road: The Story of a Couchsurfing Drifter

Nenad is a 29-year-old self described “couchsurfing drifter” who recently completed a five-month, 25,000km hitchhiking odyssey from his home in Serbia to China. An official Couchsurfing Ambassador, he has hosted 182 guests and has surfed 253 couches on three continents. On his recent trip across Asia, he was detained twice on suspicion of being a terrorist. He is also a really friendly guy. This is his story.

Nenad Stojanovic is a believer in the road. Sitting in a Beiluogu Xiang café with a red Young Pioneer-style scarf wrapped around his neck, he resembles an Eastern European version of Che Guevara. Though weary from his cross-continental hitchhiking trip, he remains upbeat, speaking positively of everyone he encountered, happily recounting their acts of kindness and charity. For five years, he has either been on the road, or hosted others on the road. This cafe is a rest stop on his latest journey from Serbia to China, each one of his journeys being an act on the stage of his wanderlust.

His traveling career was launched when he discovered Couchsurfing.org, which he says, “motivated me to connect with neighbors and neighbors of neighbors.”

The website, a social network geared toward independent travelers, allows members to host other members and be hosted. Nenad has traveled to 42 countries without once paying for a hotel room. He has also allowed nearly 200 traveling guests to stay at his home, free of charge.

At various points in his story, Nenad mentions the unorthodox venues he has “surfed” as casually as if he were describing what he had for breakfast. An Afghan police station. A Chinese expressway toll plaza. A potato truck in Tajikistan. A Turkish furniture store. The home of some Taliban members. One gets the distinct impression that he is navigating a fine line between exhilarating optimism and joyous madness – a latter-day messiah of the highway, intent on uniting humanity through travel and sharing tales of kindness far and wide.

On that recent hitchhiking journey from Serbia to China, he arranged hosts in each town. When no host could be located, he simply improvised. He hitchhiked the entire 25,000km, with the exception of a bus ride through the hazardous Afghan interior.

After arriving in the western Aghanistan city of Herat, he became acquainted with some local members of the Taliban, whom he described as “actually really nice people.” An acquaintance of his who operated a farm on Taliban territory vouched for him, so they were happy to host him and provide advice to ensure his safe passage. Nenad thus joined the paltry ranks of Westerners who have encountered the Taliban without incident.

Life with the Taliban was simple enough. The men would sit and smoke in the living room and then food would just magically appear, prepared by unseen women working in the kitchen. The men explained to him, through the translation of their mutual friend, that they were not terrorists, just people with different political opinions. They did not go into further detail and Nenad did not notice any weapons in their home. They suggested he use a particular bus company that is rarely stopped at the myriad highway checkpoints throughout the country.

“They were friendly and hospitable people,” Nenad says. “Not all Taliban are terrorists. I suppose you never hear anything positive about them, but my experience was. They told me I looked like one of them, which I guess was a compliment.”

Before setting out, he had studied the three main overland routes through Afghanistan. Hitchhiking through the southern and central parts of the country was out of the question, though a bus trip was not much safer, considering the real possibility that he would be kidnapped and held for ransom. Additional hazards included land mines, roadside bombs, and bandits. Nenad did briefly consider hitching a ride on a US consulate helicopter, but was unceremoniously turned away after being informed that they were not a taxi service.

He explained his Afghan survival strategy as follows: “I figured if I looked like a local while traveling through the danger zone, my chances of being killed were only 30 percent,” he says, his voice rising comically. “My hosts told me many people take this road, so I had to disguise myself on this one busy but dangerous road so that I didn’t get kidnapped.”

Nenad’s disguise consisted of a white shalwar kameez (traditional Afghan clothing) and a taqiyah (cap for observant Muslims). The clothing was provided by his Couchsurfing hosts, who also taught him how to pray to Mecca, should the need arise. In case of emergency, PRAY.

With so many ethnic groups in Afghanistan, some locals do indeed resemble those from southern Europe, while others look central Asian. Nenad also sported the long beard that is de rigueur among more traditional Muslim men.

Decked out in Afghan apparel and suitably indoctrinated, there was but one missing piece in his disguise – the local language. His solution was to pretend to be deaf and mute, resorting to hand signals to communicate with any locals he encountered. He also hid his backpack in a large smelly sack, along with his valuables.

Onward he went, a deaf-mute faux-Muslim passenger on the Taliban-recommended bus, headed down one of the most dangerous roads in one of the most dangerous countries in the world. As the bus traveled southwest from Herat to Kandahar, then north to Kabul, Nenad “slept or pretended to sleep. The bus was hot and horrible and the driver drove like a maniac. The scenery was nothing special and there were many destroyed bridges and buildings. We stopped to pray a few times and went through several Taliban and police checkpoints. Eventually I arrived in Kabul and my host couldn’t believe I had actually traveled by land.”

After the hot and torturous overland journey, he likened his weeklong stay in the Afghan capital to a summer vacation. “Kabul feels like a city from the 16th century,” he said. “You smell fruits, vegetables, animal blood, dust, dirt, spices, sweat, and toilets. People walk around like they exist in a fairy tale with these long beards. Animals are being slaughtered in front of you and blood is going everywhere.”

He was later detained at a checkpoint in Kunduz, in the north, near the border with Tajikistan. Because the checkpoint officer thought Nenad looked like a terrorist, he was forced to spend the night at a police station.

Fortunately for him, the station was fairly relaxed. Instead of being put in a cell, Nenad surfed the station couch for the evening. The next day, when he was interrogated, the officers quickly realized he wasn’t a terrorist. Feeling guilty, they offered him plenty of candy and a huge traditional Afghan coat as a present.

His next encounter with the authorities, this time in the capital of neighboring Tajikistan, didn’t go so well. He was approached by a “KGB agent” who planted heroin in his backpack and demanded a hefty bribe, threatening to throw him in prison unless it was paid immediately. Freedom was his for only 80 euros.

While in the Kyrgyz city of Osh, Nenad left his backpack at a cafe for a few hours, which resulted in a bomb scare and local evacuation. Once again, he found himself at a police station being interrogated by the counterterrorism unit, who, to his amusement, found some Afghan postcards featuring guns and bombs in his backpack. After two hours, they let him go.

Nenad waxed enthusiastic about his experience in China, which has involved hitchhiking 10,000km across two dozen provinces. “Drivers are nice and curious. They always insist on buying meals for me,” he remarks. “They never ask for money.”

One of his more memorable China experiences was at an expressway toll plaza near Shanghai. After arriving there at 2am, he asked management if he could spend the night on their couch. They agreed. The following morning, a local journalist came out to interview him and toll gate management asked him to record an English-language welcome message for drivers entering the expressway:

“Dear drivers, welcome to the Beijing-Shanghai Expressway.”

It is only fitting that a hero of the road should be the one to announce the journey to fellow travelers.

Now temporarily settled in a suburb of Hangzhou, Nenad has taken a job teaching English to children. He may just be the only kindergarten teacher in the world who was once suspected of being a terrorist.

Would you like to meet a couchsurfing drifter? Check out Couchsurfing.org.

This article originally appeared on page 50 of the January issue of the Beijinger.

Photo: Nenad Stojanovic

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