Travel broke: Couch surf with strangers

By June Bunch, Opinions editor

11/18/15

Folks asked if I ever felt afraid a couchsurfer might rob my apartment and kill my flatmates.

“Nah,” I’d say. I always read travelers’ references and got acquainted before cramming guests through my trust-filled doorway.

I’ve let 32 perfect strangers sleep on my couch and nothing horrific ever happened.

“Friends are all are terrified by what I do,” Woody Feffer, an Asheville Couchsurfing host, said.

Yet Feffer said he could recall no instances when guest experiences went aft agley.

For me, the worst thing surfers ever left behind was an empty living room.

Sometimes, they’d show up to crash and then leave, which was less than ideal.

The mediocre ones kept the fridge stocked or left, purposefully or forgetfully, other miscellaneous souvenirs.

At best, they’d leave me and my roommates with an old friend in the making.

Each experience lent its own quirky twist.

“I had dumpster divers once that made me dinner out of a Fresh Market dumpster,” Feffer said.

But why would we let all those random nomads fill our houses with weird stories and questionable food?

Perhaps we ran out of cable shows or thought it’d be good karma.

Either way, my roommates didn’t seem to mind. They thought it was one of those phases, like feeding skeletal stray animals.

It wasn’t.

Using Couchsurfing.com, our apartment connected with dozens of travelers throughout the year, all aiming to skip tourist traps for a native perspective.

“I want some sort of connection. I want to learn something,” Feffer said.

The network, founded in 2003, brought travelers to hosts during times when their wanderlust fantasies could only amount to daydreams.

Later when hosts finally skipped town, they’d find Couchsurfing members who would help them feel like locals in new random towns as well.

Sometimes, you could even switch it up and surf at a previous guests’ couch.

That’s how the network carries on.

Couchsurfers threw their bags down, talked of explorations, snored for a night or two and traveled on.

It was as natural as having friends or family, except more interesting.

And usually, they were better cooks and cultural conversation.

I had a French girl teach me about crepes and the Louvre one week.

Later, a Japanese United Nations member stayed over and informed our home of global policies and anthropology.

My favorite guests were supposed to stay for an emergency night but ended up joining us for a week.

James and Nathan from California spent their first Easter away from the Pacific with my flatmates and at one point shared the living room with yet another couchsurfer, Linlee from New York, whose travel dates overlapped.

For a good four days. our living room racked up with endless backpacks, piled blankets and travel itineraries.

Our apartment was never more alive than those rainy mornings spent jamming with acoustic guitars and coffee between raindrops. We ran out in the storm and danced.

Linlee picked wildflower bouquets while James made gourmet vegan brunches.

James Henrick said Couchsurfing created a place that felt like home, with friends that felt like family.

Linlee said the experience changed her life.

Sometimes it worked out like that. A day’s trip would turn into a week all because each day, there was another reason to linger.

As a host, the first days with guests would often start out the same:

Travelers would predictably get lost, call with dubious GPS coordinates and ask that their hosts play warriors-of-the-compass until they reached town.

I’d give protocol room tours and welcome surfers to my excessive tea collection before sending them on their way.

Every host brought their own signature welcome.

Guests would often insist on cooking a meal and I would steal their recipes for my couchsurfer-secret-recipe book. By now, the pages are stacked with half a globe’s worth of cuisine.

By the last day, the importance of the exchange of trust would settle in.

It would make you believe in humanity, if not just because of specific strangers’ hopefulness.

After leaving, the hosts and guests would eventually get to writing references.

Sometimes, they’d call you something endearing. Or they’d state superlatives, like being the essence of “100 elderly Jewish ladies”, like Andrew Brown, a previous guest, said about me after staying at my home.

Regardless of written reviews, couchsurfing often brought out the best in people.

It seemed to make them brave, able to do the whacky things they’d never try in their own city.

They made condensed and meaningful relationships that lingered far past the actual visit.

The only con I could conjure up was the knowledge these new friends would flee town just after getting to know them.

There was also the occasional misunderstanding that the site seconded as a hook-up spot, which could get annoying to correct.

“It’s a part of a revolutionary movement toward a peer-to-peer commons, and not just in terms of space, but in terms of a lot of things,” said Sonia Marcus, the director of sustainability at UNC Asheville.

Marcus found out about Couchsurfing because of her students, but she wasn’t new to the idea.

“Couchsurfers typically were couch surfing before they ever got involved with Couchsurfing,” she said.

While writing publications about the network’s role in sharing economies, Marcus got in touch with one of the key founders of the network, Casey Fenton. She said she was more involved in Couchsurfing than most.

“I have a million stories of things I’ve done because of Couchsurfing,” Marcus said.

She claimed the network transformed travel experience into a deeper discovery of both places and people.

Marcus said couchsurfers tended to be very educated, culturally-aware people.

“You end up learning so much more from those people about where they live than you would from any random person you’d meet on the street,” Marcus said.

But with that, there would still be a weeding-out process.

You don’t just let anyone into your house, after all. There’s research involved.

When folks look at potential guests, they should first investigate the users’ profile.

If the page isn’t completed, it shows a certain measure of apathy.

Because of the massive growth of Couchsurfing, there has been a diluting of dedicated couchsurfers.

On the positive side of that note, it means the network is growing.

Now, there are millions of members to choose to know.

So, if you take to surfing or hosting, remember a few pointers.

  1. Require minimal references before considering a host/surfer, that way you have a background knowledge of what to expect.
  2. Plan in advance so you can get the most out of time.
    3. Discuss house rules from the beginning to ensure mutual understanding.
  3. Express gratitude.
  4. Be flexible, be open to cracking out of your comfort zone.

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