Couchsurfing.org is a social networking site with over a million users worldwide who open their couches, guest rooms, cots, hammocks, or floors to domestic and international travelers—entirely free of charge. There are participants from here to Delhi, the Congo to Columbia, and Antarctica to Athens. Everyone has a Facebook-like profile, with a wall area where you leave positive, negative, or neutral feedback for your guests or hosts. For most people, it’s a cultural exchange and warm-hearted act of generosity. I myself like being an ambassador of both the US—which, let’s face it, could always use a better rep abroad—and whatever city I happen to be living in. Hospitality is a noble, ancient, and universal human pasttime. A lot of people think it’s odd to host strangers in your house, but I find this kind of sad. I’d hate to live in a world where everyone’s scared of one another.
That’s usually people’s first question: isn’t it dangerous? Not in my experience. The system works pretty well: you can tell a lot about a person from their picture, their profile, their feedback, and especially their communication with you. If someone seems creepy, one can simply ignore them. Matter of fact, the only iffy travel experiences I’ve had are off of Couchsurfing. All but one girl I’ve encountered travel with someone else, or at least a dog. At best, you make friends who you stay in touch with for years, if not life, and I’ve certainly gained a handful of these. At worst, the experience is slightly awkward, and this happens far less than you’d think—usually, hilarity ensues. There are very few negative experiences posted to the site overall, though it seems like one’s experience has to be thoroughly awful to warrant negative feedback. On that note, a curious and consistent quirk of the site is that people go into yearbook-like hyperbole mode when leaving positive feedback.
People ask me how I got started, and I can’t really remember. I started in Brazil, and it was probably just an intriguing way to travel cheap. I needed a way to stretch a $2,000 research grant out over ten weeks and four cities, and the site was my silver bullet. I don’t think I would have made it so long traveling alone otherwise - I honestly think lonliness would have sent me packing. When I returned, on a cross-country photographic road trip, I stayed with various characters, aged from twenty to over sixty, in Maine, Vermont, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Nebraska, and Colorado. Let me tell you: I had an experience that epitomized each place. Like, a “a total Burlington experience.” It’s what happens when people reveal “their” town to you. From there, I started hosting - first in Chicago, with visitors from Ohio, Minneapolis, Buffalo, and Germany (this guy had never eaten a taco or seen skyscrapers). Here, I’ve had folks from Australia, Paris, London, Brooklyn, Arkansas, Virginia, and New Zealand—two petite girls who bought an ancient, enormous Dodge Ram and drove it from New York to Los Angeles.
It does takes a person of a certain constitution to go for it and conquer the mild apprehension that arises when approaching some stranger’s door with bags in tow. Most major US cities have strong local components and hold monthly couchsurfing get-togethers—this being New Orleans, our weapon of choice happens to be potlucks—but I myself have never attended one. There are some people in town far more experienced then me, who have hosted hundreds and stayed with about as many. And New Orleans is, as usual, a bit of a unique case—where I received one hosting request a week in Chicago, I get at least two a day here—small town, lots of tourists. Though I save my house during big events for close friends and family, and have “Sorry folks, booked for Jazzfest and Mardi Gras!” advertised prominently on my profile, I still get a bunch of people asking to stay anyway. All you can do is laugh and ignore them, or if they seem especially nice or desparate, point them in a helpful direction, lest the poor bastards spend three days on Bourbon Street like so many of our visitors.
My local friends say they would go crazy with so many guests, but I tell them that I prefer couchsurfers to roommates, and besides, I get sick of hanging with the same people all the time. As a result of hosting here, I’ve had enough gratis Abitas, po’boys, beignets, muffalettas, and brass bands to last literally a lifetime, and I find it amusing to be comically blasé as a counterpoint to everyone’s inevitable enchantment upon seeing their first second line. And I’m never bored: this week alone, I have people coming from Georgia, Brazil, France, and Oregon. Most couchsurfers seem to be addicted to novel people and experiences, and I’m no exception. Apart from being a haven for (mostly) poor young people who like to travel, it’s a venue in which one can collect stories and friends. I’m also a natural introvert with heavy extrovert tendencies, many of them refined, by necessity, through my experiences via this site. Because of it, I can make people feel at home or endear myself to people practically in my sleep. I’ve ended up enjoying hosting more than surfing and even pride myself as being a sort of winning lottery ticket for those I take in. Here, it’s especially nice to give people a more nuanced and complex picture of a city that’s so often distorted and misrepresented everywhere else.
Finding someone to stay with is, for lack of better words, a personal and ineffable process. When staying with someone, you can search by location, age, include only people who have photos, etc. The best advice I have for tyros is: don’t expect crash pads, write thoughtful requests, and when constructing a profile, fill out everything, and add a lot of pictures. Being mysterious, boring, or shy gets your nowhere. I usually check out thirty or so people who look interesting, narrow it down to about fifteen who look and sound interesting, cut it down to about five or ten who I could imagine staying with, and contact around five people with whom it seems most natural. Then half of those write me back, some saying yes, some saying no or not responding. Hosting, on the other hand, is even foggier - it depends on how busy I am and the group involved. I tend to stay with guys and host coed groups or girls, often simply because it’s hard to say no to, say, two cute French girls with heavy accents, regardless of how busy I happen to be otherwise. That said, this is certainly not some dating site in a sly disguise, though I do know people, even locally, who met their spouses on the site (they were unavailable for comment).
My favorite couchsurfing story happend in the most unassuming of places: Lincoln, Nebraska. Now, this story is in no way emblematic of Couchsurfing in general, but it began with my host, the most energetic twenty-eight year old I’ll ever meet, freestyle walking—jumping on rails and park benches and doing flips off of them—as he showed me his quaint town. I was his first surfer, and he was very excited to be getting his first legitimizing feedback. His first friend emerges practically from the bushes and takes us into his apartment, where the first thing I notice is a coffee table completely covered in large bills. Bell jars of premium-quality contraband were everywhere. We quickly leave and friend three emerges, again practically from the shadows, shrouded in black, covered in unusual piercings and tattooed from head to toe, talking straight off about just having done ayahuasca, an extremely potent Amazonian hallucinogen I’d previously only heard of in anthropological texts and Sting’s autobiography.
These three wily musketeers subsequently took me hopping trains—which is very easy to do in Lincoln—and I was delighted to cross this off my bucket list. All the while, they kept making jokes about cutting out my liver and selling it on the black market. Though all three were warm, kind people, my host had no feedback, and I found this slightly unnerving. So when we returned home and everyone retired, I snuck into the kitchen, stole their biggest steak knife, and stashed it in my messenger bag in case I had to defend my internal organs.
Of course, nothing happened, but it wasn’t until halfway into the Rockies that I remembered I’d never returned the knife to its drawer. I still have it to this day, and plan to eventually send it back to them, without a return address or explanation, from some far-flung location, perhaps wrapped in this very article. But this will probably not happen to you if you try, so give it a shot. The world awaits.