There’s that word again. I have been in many situations where conversations always lead up to this yearning to travel the world: “I want my own Euro trip,” or “Let’s go to exotic places like Southeast Asia.” I mean why not? You get the opportunity to discover new places, experience new cultures and possibly even make new friends. With travelling, you get that sense of living in the moment, the carpe diem and YOLO sentiment. It can also even be the fact that college students want to do one big hurrah before they get submerged into the seemingly monotonous world of cubicles, 9-5 work shifts and bills – adult life basically.
Travelling is good and all, but it almost always requires the traveler to spend quite an amount of money, especially if it’s a trip abroad. Now, if you’re a college student it is not uncommon for travelling of the luxurious or comfortable kind to be wishful thinking (required fees and dues always get in the way of happiness) unless of course your parents or relatives have the spare money to spend for your trip. But for those who are next to broke, our predecessors have showered us with different ways to fulfill wanderlust, like budget travelling where hostels and small inns replaced 5-star hotels, and where you become your own tour guide rather than paying for a tourist-filled bus ride around city-proper. A more recent way to solve our wanderlust woes is couch surfing – the art of free lodging where you get to sleep on a couch, on a bed, on a floor or, if you get lucky, in a guesthouse of a random stranger or a random family.
I have never heard of couch surfing until my friend, Anara, gave it a go during winter break. She decided to go to California by herself, taking a trip up and down the Pacific Coast. Only problem was Anara doesn’t have family or friends over there to stay with, and paying a hotel for over a week’s vacation was a no go. She was also a bit hesitant to tour the Golden State all alone, believing that she would want to share the experience with someone. Fortunately (in retrospect), a friend told her about Couchsurfing.org, a hospitality-exchange network that pairs travelers looking for a place to crash during their travels with locals willing to accommodate them. It was created by Casey Fenton who came up with the idea when he randomly e-mailed 1500 students from the University of Iceland asking if he could stay with them during his visit. Fenton apparently received more than 50 offers (according to Wikipedia).
Now as a good friend it obviously worried me that she would go to such an extent as to crash at some stranger’s place just to be able to go to California. Why not stay at a hostel?, I asked her. She said the idea of couch surfing was interesting and of course free-of-charge. And plus I get to meet new people, who’ll hopefully take me places over there. It’s going to be fine, she argued. I kept playing devil’s advocate and asked Anara, What if they have a pot business or something and the police raids the place with you there? and What if your host is a creepy old man? She just laughed it off and assured me that she had checked all her requests and apparently all of them got amazing feedback and recommendations from past guests.
But in all seriousness, what if? Things do happen. At the end of the day, I guess I see it as just being aware and cautious. If you are a traveler, make sure you’ve chosen your host carefully, read every comment or recommendation, ask all sorts of questions before shaking their virtual hands, and just be careful when you’re there. And if you are a host, do the same thing: choose your guests wisely, ask questions, and even look at their pictures.
Anara went to California, couch surfed with another guest, who hailed all the way from Russia, at some Italian family’s home. It all went alright and then some – she told me California was an experience, a very different one from all her other travels. She said the host family was hospitable, cooking lots of Italian food for them every day, and that she made new friends. I was more open and more willing to share stories and do things I would have never done with my family or my friends, she said.
Couch surfing is interesting in that it is quite peculiar and unconventional. It’s a rebellious, in your face, no holds barred kind of idea. It’s Craig’s List and more. Truth be told, I quite like the idea – maybe because like I said I’m a free-will loving, carpe diem fulfilling college kid. But when has society become comfortable and open to the idea of letting random strangers in their homes, sleeping in their couches and showering in their bathrooms free-of-charge, except for the occasional “I’ll restock your pantry” and “I’ll clean your house”? I mean yes there is hitchhiking but that only lasts for a couple of hours and hundreds of miles but not for days on end.
I thought about what Anara had said, how she was more open and more willing to share the experience with strangers. It’s a bit counterfactual, isn’t it? In our pretty conforming society, we tend to be reserved when we meet new people, just maintaining a casual conversation and not open up until the 3rd or 4th meeting, or becoming Facebook friends. But I guess there’s some truth to what Anara told me. I’m a journalism kid and I have to interview people all the time, and it amazes me that if I just give the conversation more time, people start to unlock their doors, relax their shoulders and tell me their stories. There’s something so human about how we find an odd sense of comfort and ease in telling our stories to random people and lending an ear to theirs. Maybe this is because it’s one way of assuring ourselves that, apart from our small circles, we are still connected to and part of this larger breathing and living network of 7 billion people. It’s definitely the human experience.
I’ll try couch surfing. But, still, for my safety’s sake, I’ll do it with a friend or two.