“You can sleep here,” she said, flinging open the hallway door to an enormous purple room. A stained mattress laid on the floor, surrounded by a mess of sewing machines, racks of clothes, and costume making supplies. At the other end of the room was a Buddhist shrine. Everything smelled a bit like cat pee.
Somewhat reluctantly, I headed in to put down my backpack. I had to watch where I stepped to avoid the chewed-up bones and half-eaten steak that mined the spotted carpet.
“Sometimes the dog brings his dinner in here to finish it,” she explained.
We had heard about Mary from our last couchsurfing host in Adelaide, and called her the day before. She invited us to stay in her big house just a 30 minute walk from downtown Adelaide. It was a convenient location, and we had good – if not strange – reports about Mary.
James and I exchanged glances before following Mary into the kitchen. I was shocked by another pungent odor, like moldy cheese. Dishes overflowed from the small sink. None of the cupboards seemed to close properly, and every surface was covered in thick grime.
“Now, I won’t apologize for the state of my kitchen. This is a very old house, and there aren’t fancy cupboards to keep everything in. You can help yourself to any food you like. There is nothing in here you can’t have.” Mary opened the fridge.
“Look at all this cream! We have been eating so much cream lately. We find all this food, you see, in the bins behind the supermarkets. The amount of waste is despicable. And I find enough to feed me, my dog, my cat, my eight chickens, and the 200 backpackers who come through here each year,” she boasted.
In the backyard, we waded through a dense forest of barren fruit trees and wilted plants to find the chickens clucking happily, enjoying a large pile of rotting food.
“The couchsurfers built all of this for me,” Mary pointed at the wire fence around the chicken coop. “I actually really enjoy having them.”
A few hours later, when Mary finally stopped telling us all about her diabetes, heart attacks, and chronic pain, James and I were able to escape and go for a walk around the neighborhood. I told James that I didn’t want to stay here long, the place grossed me out, and I felt uncomfortable.
We stayed over a month.
* * *
A jobless 65-year-old hippie living alone in a huge house, Mary really benefits from having couchsurfers. In addition to sharing the ridiculous amount of food she finds, the couchsurfers help her with cleaning, gardening, and taking care of the animals. During our visit we scrubbed down the kitchen, tended the chickens, watered the garden, and walked the dog every day. For most of our time there we slept in our tent in the backyard.
Mary found enough food in the dumpsters near her house to feed 6 to 10 people every day. Before I met her, I was a bit disgusted by eating food that came out of a dumpster. But after I saw what she found, I began to change my mind.
Just around the block from her house is a Woolworth’s, one of Australia’s major grocery stores. Every night the dumpster is overflowing. There are fresh vegetables that are slightly damaged or a bit old, but otherwise perfectly fine for eating. We found tubs of greek yogurt, packets of cheese, and almost always, entire trash bags full of day old bread. Once we found 10 kilos of perfectly fine tomatoes, which we made into soup.
A package of 4 baked beans, one with a small dent, was all thrown away. James found 14 cans of olives, which had all been dumped. One was broken.
On Wednesday night, a certain gourmet food store throws away their expired goods. Mary goes right after closing and finds fancy cheese, cream, caviar, smoked salmon, and other delicacies that are still cold. Most of them are a few days past the expiration date, but are still completely fine.
Every food that we eat from the dumpster is washed carefully and has to pass the smell and taste test. None of Mary’s couchsurfers have ever gotten sick from eating from her fridge.
* * *
At Christmastime, Mary left to visit her auntie, but let 5 couchsurfers, including us, stay at her house over the holiday. We all took turns cooking with the food we found.
While we stayed at Mary’s house, our only expenses were for the local bus to get around town. She was happy to have us, and we gave her some money to help pay for water and electricity bills when we left.
Even though I was a bit apprehensive at first, I’m glad that we spent so much time in Adelaide at Mary’s house. She is such a generous lady. Not many are willing to share their house with complete strangers, let alone invite them to stay unsupervised over Christmas. Even though I was uncomfortable for some of the time, looking back I see that I learned a lot:
The image of the grocery store itself, with its pristine white aisles, carefully packaged and processed goods, and endless bounty of food, masks the reality of a shamefully wasteful system. Buying food at these stores promotes the disposal of massive amounts of food while almost a billion of people around the world starve.
An entire household can be fed just from the waste of one local supermarket.
At first, I was uncomfortable with Mary telling me so much about her health problems. But after a while I began to realize that just by listening to her I was helping her. Social support is probably the most important factor for good mental health. By hosting couchsurfers, Mary manages to obtain support for her disabilities and medical conditions without ever leaving her home. The couchsurfers are great company for her, listening to her wild stories and helping take care of the house.
With couchsurfing, I can casually step into someone’s life and home, and leave with a wider understanding of their lifestyle. It forces me to step out of my comfort zone, socialize and live with complete strangers. Couchsurfing lets me experience different ways of living I otherwise would have never seen.