The Art of CouchSurfing

Sharing a smile in Switzerland

“A day without a smile is a day wasted” says his sign, in German

Thank you Sarah Perryman for your wonderful questions about this great organization.  People usually think I’m crazy, and I am a little bit. Maybe you’ll get a bit more of a feel for my passion for being a CouchSurfer after reading these answers.

1. How has Couchsurfing evolved over the years? I didn’t hear about CouchSurfing until late in the game. When I joined in 2010 the organization had already had its major breakdown (their database loss in 2006) and the site had been running for 7 years, relationships were established, people were gathering references. Now CouchSurfing claims 6 million members in 100,000 cities, even as far as Columbia, China, North Korea, Syria and Afghanistan, where one might say “extreme Couchsurfing” can be found. By the time I got on board I was welcomed by seasoned travelers who were more than accommodating and helpful along the way, many of whom had ridden the bumpy road that the CouchSurfing website has taken them on. Recently Ambassadors ceased to exist on the site; the local cheerleaders of the site are now just the most prominent Surfers in the area, and still often organize meetups.

I worry that the site may be going down hill, though. I’ve received recent emails to my CouchSurfing inbox about people starting a new and better site elsewhere because they “didn’t like the direction CouchSurfing was going, ” and feel it better supports the “ideals of what couch surfing once was.” Now that the word about this great site is even more out, it seems that it’s just started to change again. The website has been modified a few times over the last year or so and I often hear about people’s anger towards it. Many friends have tried using the phone App to make their traveling easier, and it too, barely works causing more frustration that its worth. Instead of improving with each new update they make, it seems more and more people are becoming annoyed and in turn searching for new ways to travel in the way CouchSurfing has made possible, but through a more reliable site.

CSing Ireland with my brother

CSing Ireland with my brother

2. What’s different about the CS community? “Have you heard about CouchSurfing? … like … the organization, not just the verb,” I always have to clarify. Everyone thinks they have, or they have known someone who has slept on a friend’s couch. This question comes up while discussing how I managed to hitch-hike my way across Ireland, or the time I Couchsurfed across the northern side of Germany, or when answering the age old question, “how did you meet” so and so? I’ve made a lot of lasting friendships through CS.  Couch-surfing is not CouchSurfing, its not a friend’s couch I slept on because I got drunk the night before and couldn’t drive myself home. What people who haven’t used it as a method of travel don’t get, is that its much more than a way of travel too, its more than just a place to stay, its more than just a couch. Its “changing the world one couch at a time” as their website claims. People in the community of CS are beyond caring, opening up their homes or hearts and asking for nothing in return. CS is a way for awesome people to meet other awesome people; it brings together a group of wander-lusting souls who tend to have the same struggles and pains in life tied to gypsy feet. Us travelers can embrace our strange travel urges together, and we understand. We want to change the world, we want to see the world, we want to do our part, and often don’t know how but know that the first step is to reach out and travel! Through travel CSers are spreading their own culture, their own love for people and travel and opening up the minds of all people they meet along the way, welcoming all the same in return.

When I started CouchSurfing in Germany in 2010

When I started CouchSurfing in Germany in 2010

3. How has Couchsurfing changed the way people travel? Seeing the ever increasing fear heightening in the general population, CouchSurfing’s overall positive image and attitude towards opening up travel opportunities between strangers has re-invented the way people travel. Back in the medieval ages travelers could be offered shelter and food for passing through a town. Often the whole town knew when a stranger rode in and he would be welcomed with food and drink. Such an event could never be possible in our far-stretching metropolises, added to the increased widespread fear of the world and strangers. Many people wouldn’t even consider letting a stranger into their home, you say stranger-danger, I say lets have them over for a cup of tea. In order for our current society to get over this fear of the world that is being instilled by the blabbering general news outlets that most people flock to, they are going to have to re-find their faith in people, and learn to trust people again, which of course begins with accepting the notion that people are generally good rather than inherently bad. Once you’ve had enough CouchSurfers come and stay in your home or had a grand CouchSurfing adventure yourself, this notion isn’t hard to agree with. If you are a tourist and not a traveler, CouchSurfing is not for you. 4. What’s your best CS experience? I have a lot of amazing CSing experiences, many of which have grown into life-long friendships. To name one best and most surprising experience though, it would have to be the one spent along the coast in Germany. It wasn’t a very popular area in CouchSurfing because of its remote location; it wasn’t exactly a big city and only small local trains went out to it. We chose to stay there though in our efforts to be closer to the sea. With this host we went out on a limb and stayed with a male host who probably only had three references, and not very much information about himself, but we really wanted to stay on the sea. The only people that ventured out to towns like that were old German tourists with too much money and thus the prices there were outrageous. He said he didn’t understand why he never got CouchSurfing requests.

And not only did he cook us pancakes,  but an elaborate dessert!

And not only did he cook us pancakes, but an elaborate dessert!

He decided to meet us at an ice cream shop near the town and pulled up driving one of my all time favorite cars, I of course was immediately impressed. He hadn’t been put off by the task of hosting two American girls (and the abundance of stereotypes that go with them) and in fact planned for our arrival before we’d arrived, excited to meet us. He had always wanted to make American pancakes and bought the ingredients to do so. With our help, he made us our famous American pancakes, complete with organic real maple syrup, which certainly isn’t a hot commodity in Germany. In a way, he treat us like a cool uncle might, spoiling his nieces that came to visit for the summer. More than that, he owned a building of vacation suites, and lived in the top remodeled room of the building and offered us one of the suites, so of course no CouchSurfing happened during this stay. He took us out to show us the town he had grown up in. He was an optometrist and had traveled all across South American via motorcycle, creating a book about it to tell his story. It was more than a pleasant surprise in the sleep little tourist town, he being content with just having some real travelers around to chat with as opposed to the many stuffy rich tourists in the area. There was a sparkle in his eye as he mentioned his travels and told me that I am still young yet, and have plenty of time to see the wonders of the world and do great things. Oftentimes it is the people with nothing to give who give the most, but in the case of this man, after taking us out with his camera and doing a sea photo shoot along with a full days beach activities, he was certainly a man with plenty to give, and loved to share.

Our CS host was a photographer

The time our CS host was a photographer

5. What’s your worst CS experience? I havn’t had many bad situations through CS. That said, even what I’m going to answer here as a “worst” experience isn’t really that bad, it’s just the one that had me the most on edge. One reason I trust CouchSurfing so easily is my own ability to quickly read a person. I feel an immediate trust or distrust with each person I meet. This moment of judgment is crucial in CouchSurfing because there is a very quick period, usually when your host meets you in a public place after you’ve described yourself as “the dork with the huge neon green backpack” or “the one in the purple shoes,” previously, “the one with the dark brown hair,” to most recently, “the girl with the fohawk hair.” I am easily recognizable, but they often aren’t. So the CouchSurfer and the host have to find either. Then, often as a traveling single female, I have to judge immediately if this person is safe to enter their home with, alone or not. There was one instance where I couldn’t get an immediate judgment on the person who picked me up from the bus station. There are lots of details that I won’t get into as to why I felt odd about the situation, but the host lived over a half an hour outside of the main city (one that didn’t have any public transportation) in a tiny cute cottage. The house’s view was gorgeous, he had some odd collections at home that set my nerves on end, keeping me continuously questioning his motives for using CouchSurfing. Granted, there are plenty of weird people on CS, that’s probably part of why I get along with CSers so well. I’m weird! But there is good weird, and bad weird. He himself hadn’t travelled, but was friends with a person who I had previously CouchSurfed with, who did embody the ideals of CouchSurfing and thus, I figured he was also okay. But this host wasn’t really in it for the sharing of ideas, the mind-opening conversations that so often come along with surfing. He became rather preachy and was begging for sympathy in all of his stories. He had a lot of opinions about a lot of things and my brother (also with me on this trip) and I decided that the poor man was lonely, and had enlisted himself to CouchSurfing as a way of letting the world come to him, because he was lonely. A full understandable motive, but we felt a bit out of place the entire time and were never very comfortable there and ended up high-tailing it out of there as soon as we could.  Regardless, it was because he was in it for the wrong reasons, that it left a very awkward stay and what I guess I could dub my “worst experience.”

CSing Paris!

CSing Paris!

6. How do you impact the Couchsurfers you meet? Many hosts I’ve stayed with in countries other than the United States have told me that they were hesitant to host Americans. This scenario happens time and again and the more I travel, the more positive references I receive which ultimately land me with couches wherever I go. They see my blaring American identity on my page and have to hesitate because of the stereotypical connotations that go along with Americans. Often, apparently young American tourists are loud, messy, and disrespectful, speak no other languages and over-indulge themselves in foreign countries’ delicacies. Yes, many are this way. And this does cross over into the CS world as well, American travelers as with those from other countries, aren’t always good CSers, but the majority is and that is why CSing thrives.

Making new CS friends in Lübeck, Germany

Making new CS friends in Lübeck, Germany

But then I show up, and as I have since the beginning, go out of my way to be polite, respectful. Then my inborn curiosity of other cultures spills over when meeting new people and I enjoy learning about my hosts and their homes and their lives.  Often they notice the enthusiasm that I bring to all the little things I do, while traveling or otherwise. They often enjoy sharing stories about themselves, and I love listening to them, people have great stories to share. To this day, CSers are the most fascinating people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. I have a solid grasp on three languages that always up giving me me brownie points with hosts, and I get the comment, “Wow, I didn’t know Americans could speak more than one language!” jokingly. Yes, we are stereotyped and I pride myself in breaking these stereotypes. I was the first American that one of my hosts had met, and he said that he was so impressed with my compassion and curiosity of other cultures he would have to re-evaluate his impression of Americans. We have to deal with the fact that what most people think about America stems directly from television and Hollywood. Who could blame them? 7. What makes you accept/reject a host/traveler? It is important to me specifically when choosing a host, that there aren’t three pages long of what the CSer can’t do in their house. Some hosts are particularly angry in this area and it says that they have had some bad experience with Surfers in the past and that they will be trying to size me up the entire time. They start off on a stand-offish foot and that sort of relationship is hard work to pull out of. Oftentimes, these sorts of bad situations are remnants on their part as hosts being in CS for the wrong reason causing friction on both sides. If I am staying with a male host while traveling on my own, I won’t stay with any male who has less than 10 references and half of them are from women. As far as accepting travelers goes, I’ve hosted much less than I’ve surfed because my roommates have never been okay with ‘random strangers’ staying on the couch. So to respect their concerns, I’ve only done it under special circumstances. When a surfer sends a request with a list of demands, it probably won’t turn out to be a positive experience. In order to embrace the ideals behind CouchSurfing you must first embrace what it means to be a traveler, and that is to appreciate and welcome new gifts and experiences, embrace new situations and lifestyles and to not expect too much from your potential destinations or hosts. Enjoy the journey, take it as it comes.

With our host on the coast of northern Germany

With our host on the coast of northern Germany

8. What are the dangers of Couchsurfing or areas of it that can be improved upon? I realize that there are bad people in the world. I also realize that good people sometimes do bad things. I may be quite trusting and a little bit crazy, but I do always prepare myself for the worst-case scenario while traveling. Obviously the most dangerous side of CouchSurfing is the fact that you are staying in a stranger’s home, or opening your home to a stranger.  As a female, be at least a little conservative. Keep yourself covered, close the bathroom door when you shower or pee … don’t caress their imagination, fascinate them with your words. Be a good judge of character and pay attention to what sort of intentions people seem to have, and be aware of your surroundings. Also know where hotels or hostels are on the off-chance that you have to leave in the middle of the night in case something does happen, know at least one other CSer in the city. Its good to be aware. Now if you are CouchSurfing in the aforementioned Afghanistan, Syria, Columbia, etc. etc., you are taking on an entirely different beast of world travel and I wish the best of luck to you, you’re an adrenaline junkie who has had a tasted the sweet through the anti-freeze and lived to tell about it. That said, I refuse to let knowing that there are bad people in the world keep me from fully experiencing the world. Bad things can happen, we can’t stop them, but we can help avoid them. There are also bad people just walking down the street. I think the reference system of CS does a brilliant job of helping travelers identify what sort of person they are staying with, and reading these as well as a person’s profile has never led me astray. 9. How do you think Couchsurfing has had an impact on the world? CouchSurfing is the beginning to reopening this trust that has been lost in the world. It seems that CouchSurfing’s popularity increasing helps generosity to became more acceptable again; people were opening up their homes again.  Slowly but surely, through its 6 million travelers, people are re-uniting as humans regardless of their religious beliefs, money status, or otherwise and are realizing how important it is that people band together as human beings if there is going to be a hope for our world in the future. It goes back to the theory that, “One is not born into the world to do everything but to do something” – Henry David Thoreau.  Maybe we can’t change the world by being world travelers, but its start.

CSing across Ireland with Rob

CSing across Ireland with Rob

10. How do you think Couchsurfing has had an impact on you as a person? When I started CouchSurfing I was just getting out of my shy/awkward faze that was leftover from high school and still lingering in college. I was just beginning to learn how to take care of myself, to trust my own instincts in situations, and to develop my ideas about other cultures. It was also a time when I was just learning to speak German and through that, I learned how to learn about other cultures from their side, as opposed to learning about  a culture from my American point of view. Couchsurfing has taught me to be selfless, that that one time I “don’t feel like hosting” or  “don’t feel like going out” when a visitor is in town either keeps me from meeting another epic person that I could become lifelong friends with, or perhaps a life or death situation for the CouchSurfer with nowhere to stay and has to sleep outside. I hand out more change to people on the strange, or grungy travelers with big backpacks that are looking for help. I can count the number of times I’d have been between a rock and a real hard place if my host hadn’t been on time, or had bailed on me at the last minute. In some cases during CouchSurfing you really are holding these people’s lives in your hands, don’t ever forget that. As a woman I learned about poise, about conducting myself as a mature woman in situations with male hosts without flirting, but rather respectfully and understandingly. I’ve met some wonderfully polite men who appreciate a woman’s mind and from that, can more confidently convey myself.

CSing in the straw house, a WWOOFing house in Ireland

CSing in the straw house, a WWOOFing house in Ireland

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