Stephan Orth, born in 1979, From 2008 to 2016, he worked as an editor in the travel section of SPIEGEL ONLINE before becoming an independent author. Owns five backpacks, four sleeping bags and three tents, but no rolling suitcase. He has written books about his couchsurfing adventures in Iran, Russia and China, all of which were on the SPIEGEL bestseller list for weeks. "Couchsurfing in Saudi Arabia" has just been published.
Translaze: Tell us a bit about yourself. You studied English, Psychology, and Economics in Wuppertal (Germany) and Journalism in Brisbane, Australia. When do you realize that you want to focus in be a journalist?
Stephan Orth: I did some freelance work for some cultural magazines during my studies, but I had to go all the way to Australia to realise that traveling and writing about it might be a great thing to do.
T: Regarding your Couchsurfing books. How came this idea? Do you use Couchsurfing often or is it just for books?
SO: I’ve been using Couchsurfing for more than 15 years, almost on every trip. It felt almost too trivial for me to write about it – but then I realized what a wonderful tool it can be to find stories of interesting people in countries that most westerners consider as unusual travel destinations. I use Couchsurfing as well on my privat trips, but I’m quite disappointed with the commercialization of the site and how it was developed recently.
T: How is the process before you travel to those places to create a book? How do you prepare in advance regarding rules etc?
SO: I normally spend at least three months preparing, reading lots of articles and books, trying to learn the language a little bit. And except for my most recent trip to Saudi Arabia, I had been to those countries at least once before I went there for the book project.
T: How do you choose the countries? Do you have a special interest in those countries or is it more like “Bestsellers places” for a book?
SO: I’m interested in countries that play an important role in world politics, and in countries with autocratic governments. I want to find out: What is everyday life like in those places, how do people deal with living in a dictatorship? My hope is always to surprise the readers, to provide some new perspective on places we should know more about – but of course without “whitewashing” the things that are going terribly wrong in those countries.
T: “Couchsurfing in Saudi Arabien” got release in February 2021 and now too many people are starting finally the holidays post-covid. The country is under new developments, what make Saudi Arabia different?
SO: It’s quite unusual to travel to a quite modern country where you can still feel like being one of the first visitors. Apart from Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia didn’t see many travelers yet. This kind of pioneer feeling and the many conversations with friendly locals were much more interesting for me than the multi-million dollar tourism developments happening there.
T: I like the way you combine photography in your books, we believe that your concept in the video would be amazing. Are you open to make documentaries or vlogs in the future?
SO: Absolutely, I would love to do more videos. I’m just opposed to a kind of vlog storytelling where my face would be in the picture all the time – my stories are always about the people I meet and less about myself.
T: Too many tourists that arrive in Europe (especially from Asia or Arabic countries) claim that is treated badly or even robbed during their trips to Europe. How do you feel like a European when you travel?
SO: As a western European, I feel quite welcome in most places that I visit. It’s important not to just take this for granted, to realise it’s a privilege. Compared to many countries I visited, I’m quite sure my own country feels less hospitable to many of its visitors. It’s a shame. Robbery is another thing though – personally, I don’t feel Europe is especially dangerous on a global scale.
T: How do you think we should improve with the tourist, especially in terms of racism? I have the feeling that depending on which media/newspaper we read (doesn´t matter in which country) we can see the same news but written in a different way which creates more anger in some cultures.
SO: Every moment a tourist and a local person enjoy a conversation, share a meal or any kind of positive activity, racism is not an issue. We just need a lot more of these interactions. Unfortunately, the Covid crisis made it much more difficult to experience these moments, we’re getting stuck in our own bubbles too much. The media and their role in aggravating some conflicts would be the topic of a whole book, but at the same time I’m not a fan of blaming “the media” for problems, there are far too many different actors in this business, some do a great job and some spread propaganda and hatred.
T: Could you share a bit about your next projects?
SO: I’m working on a different kind of travel book right now, it will not be about Couchsurfing, but about a kind of outdoor adventure. It’s not officially announced yet, but soon I will share more about it in my social media channels.