Pick a place to visit this summer, any place in the world, and then imagine making a friend in that city, instantly. Now go onto www.couchsurfing.org, and on the “surf/host” page, select a region in the world, a country, and a city. Finally, click on, “List surfers on next page” and you’ll get a catalog of people’s profiles, each one inviting you to stay in their home.
In a nutshell, this is how Couchsurfing works. Since 2004, this non-profit Internet revolution gears its goals towards enhancing understanding between cultures by connecting travelers in over 230 countries to stay with one another. But when I explain this concept to people, most of them respond with an awkward look of apprehension. “Aren’t you afraid of being killed?” they always ask.
But a Couchsurfer doesn’t have to offer a place to stay; they don’t even have to surf. Coffee dates or public Couchsurfing events are open to anyone signed up for the site. There is a detailed process of verification, references, and vouches that serve to attest the reliability and trustworthiness of each member. Of course there’s always that one traumatic anecdote that happened that one time, and like most things; one bad apple will ruin the bushel. But from my experience, the horror stories are few and far between and I’ve found their current system to be highly effective in ensuring user safety.
In the three years since I first joined the site, I’ve surfed over 15 couches and just had my 9th Couchsurfer from Bangkok staying on my hide-away sofa. While guests aren’t expected to pay anything to their hosts, Couchsurfing isn’t about finding an economically viable way travel, but rather about creating bonds. You “pay” through learning from one another. In many ways, it becomes less about the couch and more about a journey of discovery and transformation.
Take for example my first host in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Pamela Hanson, a self-described Christian Missionary doing aid work in a third world country—the antithesis to how I thought about international aid at the time. However, I found that Pamela understood the complex balance between international involvement and local sustainability. She didn’t impose the “savior” mentality that I had originally assumed and on top of that, she was really changing people’s lives for the better. Who was I to really judge just based on some character traits listed on a profile?
Pamela was the first of many hosts to graciously accept me into their homes, but I found just as much satisfaction in returning the favor when I returned to Seattle. The presumed ethos of couchsurfing is that members are so touched by discovering the universal existence of hospitality that reciprocating the act seems like the only right thing to do. In exchange for sharing with strangers, you benefit by further discovering the world both abroad and at home.
I’ve been lucky enough to host a variety of guests in my humble 1-bedroom apartment. The most famous being harpist/singer Erin Hill who played “The Pretty White Girl” in a Dave Chappelle comedy sketch. Even though I’ve lived in Washington for a good 14 years of my life, Erin was the first to introduce me to Molly Moon Ice Cream; a local ice creamery located about four blocks from my place. I guess sometimes it takes a visitor’s eye to reveal the precious gems in your own city.
In addition to my delayed discovery of Molly Moon, I’ve always managed to learn something unexpected in my travels with couchsurfing. I took my first Tango lesson in Taiwan from a native Taiwanese dance instructor, practiced Wing Chun blocking drills with a visiting French Canadian from Quebec City, and I’ll always remember listening to Ice Cube’s “War and Peace” during a heartfelt discussion about the impact of Pablo Escobar when I stayed with my host in Medellín, Colombia. The beauties of art and the importance of these topics manage to escape the confines of national borders. They expel into the world like they’re meant to.
Today I’m learning with great interest of Pamela’s most recent venture in finding teachers to bring Mandarin Chinese to Honduras due to the language’s speculative global importance. Erin continues performing her electric harp around the country and just starred in her first feature film, “Clear Blue Tuesday”. In fact, most of my hosts and guests have become life-long friends and I can honestly say each and every one of them has changed my life in some positive way. I suppose that is what Couchsurfing is meant to do. It is a stand against the apprehension to difference, a reminder that we can always learn from strangers. It is a declaration that the concept of “trust” still deserves a place in this world.