Couchsurfing Part 1: A World of Culture in Your Home
Our first couchsurfer could have taken everything we owned, and our friends simply would have laughed. He was a stranger. We knew him only through what he posted online, a profile that’s as easy to forge as large denomination wampum. His credentials seemed too perfect. 25 years old. Graduated from the top engineering school in Paris. Spoke French, English, Arabic, Moroccan, German, and Spanish fluently. There’s no way this guy was for real.
Man were we wrong.
We first heard of couchsurfing from a friend who had used the social network while traveling through Eastern Europe. In theory, couchsurfing is very simple. A couchsurfer is someone who needs a place to stay while traveling. He or she reaches out through the website to some potential hosts, and hopefully the surfer finds a couch to crash on for an evening or two. That part is easy to understand. What most people can’t fathom is why you’d let a complete stranger into your home while you sleep because that’s insane and haven’t you read about the rise in violent crime and you must be nuts so help me God. And there you have the hard part.
Reda arrived on a Thursday afternoon on a train from New York (for purposes of this story, I’ll only use his first name). My wife picked him up from the train station as I was getting off from work. We all arrived home at around the same time and found out that it was his first time couchsurfing, just as it was our first time hosting. So he was hoping we didn’t kill him in his sleep either.
Immediately he made me suspicious. We offered him a glass of wine to celebrate our mutual milestones, and he turned it down. What sort of plans did he have that he needed to be sober? I treated every word this foreigner muttered with an increasing amount of skepticism. But man were we having a good time. At dinner, we got an insider’s guide to Paris – the sort of stuff they never tell you about in Frommer’s or Lonely Planet. He noticed my tennis rackets and said that if we come to Paris, he knows someone who may be able to get us onto the courts at Roland Garros to play a bit. ROLAND GARROS?! The red clay of the French Open!! (Editor’s note: I have since torn my ACL. Tennis is pretty much out of the question.)
THE COST OF COUCHSURFING
At the end of dinner, he gave us gifts: 2 Eiffel Tower keychains. They were small tokens of appreciation for the bed we were giving him for a night. Couchsurfers are not allowed to offer payment, and hosts are not allowed to accept it. Instead, the cost of couchsurfing is a small gift whose value is its meaning, or perhaps a chore like cooking or cleaning.
As the evening wore on and we went for a walk around Philadelphia at night, I began to see Reda for who he really was. 25 years old. Graduated from the top engineering school in Paris. Spoke French, English, Arabic, Moroccan, German, and Spanish fluently. As advertised. There was nothing to hide. He was open and honest and young and fun.
We spent the entire next day walking around Philly, visiting Old City, Reading Terminal Market, Penn’s Landing and talking lots of tennis. That afternoon, Reda caught his bus back to New York City and, a few days later, his flight to Paris. He had been with us almost exactly 24 hours, but in that short span of time, he opened us up to a new world of travel and experience. Hopefully, we showed him the same.
THE WORLD IN OUR HOME
Couchsurfing is an amazing way to meet new people, make new friends, and see the world in a different way. We have since hosted four other surfers from three other countries. Each experience has been fantastic. Most stayed only one night – one stayed three nights. In exchange for our couch for half a week, that surfer – a young man from the Ghizhou region of China – cooked us authentic Chinese food that was as awesome as he was (although I still love General Tso’s chicken).
If visiting a foreign city or country is a window into that culture, couchsurfing allows you to open a door and invite that culture into your home. It could be food or customs or traditions – whatever it is, the experience is both enriching and authentic.
Couchsurfing certainly isn’t for everyone. I accept that some people will never try it no matter what you tell them. But I think it is something everyone should try at least once – both as a host and as a surfer. It requires a tremendous leap of faith in the person you’re hosting (or vice versa) and in the goodness of humanity. Some people can’t get over that. And it’s not a generational thing. I have friends my age who thought Cassie and I were crazy for hosting a stranger. If you can get over that initial fear though, the reward is fantastic.
Cassie and I now have friends in Paris, China, and Belgium that we can visit – they will show us around their hometowns, just as we showed them around ours.
Reda had left us with much more than a souvenir keychain. He had opened the door to another world of travel – a better, richer way to experience culture, meet new friends, and see the world.
This is part 1 of a 2 part series on couchsurfing. For part 2, click here.