Visit our store!

Cyber Vagabonding Part 2: The Couchsurfing Experience

Print Friendly

Cyber Vagabonding Part 2: The Couchsurfing Experience

Couchsurfing: Another Way to see the World

At TentSurf 2010 in Mexico, couchsurfers gather around a bonfire. Photo by Eric Moll

At TentSurf 2010 in Mexico, couchsurfers gather around a bonfire. This weeklong party on the beach featured people from all over the world, and the United States. Part of the International phenomenon of Couchsurfing.

My guests have just departed. After a round of farewell hugs and wishes for safe travels and good luck, all four of them, three Japanese and one Korean, have climbed into their rental car and driven away. I’m a little worried that they haven’t yet fully adjusted to driving on the right side of the road, but I think they’ll be okay. Though I only met them for the first time three days ago, I’m sad to see them go. The house suddenly feels very quiet, very empty. I don’t quite know what to do with myself. After years of hosting couchsurfers, it’s a familiar feeling, but I’ve never really gotten used to it. Whenever I’ve found myself in their position, parting ways with a host or travel companion and continuing on my way, I’ve felt a certain sadness, but it’s quickly overcome by an ebullient sense of freedom and possibility. The intensely felt duality of those moments is one of the most worthwhile parts of travel, energizing and exhausting at the same time. As a host, however, I am simply left feeling restless. Suddenly hyper-aware of the silence and space of my home, I feel a need to play loud music, to go out somewhere, to throw a big party or get drunk.

It’s not always like this, of course. For one reason or another, sometimes you just don’t connect with the person you’re staying with or hosting. Sometimes someone is just passing through for one night, or you don’t have much free time to get to know them, or you’re simply not passionate about the same things and the conversation never advances beyond small talk. Other times, you meet people with whom you click so thoroughly that you feel like old friends after a day or two, and they end up staying longer than expected.  One woman stayed with me in Tucson for over eight weeks. Since that might sound a little strange, I should make it clear that there was nothing romantic going on. It is true that some people try to use couchsurfing as a dating or hook-up site, but the rest of us have a very negative opinion of them. They’re also pretty easy to spot; if a man lists “female” as his preferred gender for guests, he might be using the site for the wrong reasons. Some solo female travelers prefer to stay only with female hosts, and some female hosts only accept women and couples, but nearly all the female couchsurfers I’ve met don’t have any qualms about staying with men or hosting men.

Anyways, this couchsurfer had been driving westward with her dog and all her belongings and decided to move to Tucson, partly because it’s an interesting place and partly because she ran out of money. She stayed with my roommates and I until she found a job and an apartment. We just added her to the dishes schedule and, in lieu of rent, she would lend us her car to run errands and occasionally order pizza for everyone. This kind of thing is not by any means the norm. I’ve never heard of a similar experience from any other courchsurfers; most people only stay for a few nights.

At this point, you might be asking, “Who are these people that you’re letting into your home? What, exactly, is their deal?” You might expect that all couchsurfers are of the twenty-something bearded backpacker variety, but it turns out that this isn’t true. There might be more people between the ages of twenty and twenty-five than belong to any other age bracket, but there are quite a lot of middle aged and older people as well. I’ve been hosted by college students, young professionals, grandparents, and whole extended families of four generations, living under one roof. Some people even travel with small children.

Economically, couchsurfing is by no means limited to people who can’t afford to stay in a hotel. Accommodations run the gamut from vans, buses, semi-permanent tents, tiny apartments and even unfurnished caves to million-dollar penthouses and estates so large that they might have to be classified as mansions. I have personally stayed in homes which seemed to be worth more than I expect to earn during my entire lifetime. These people weren’t paranoid about their belongings either – some gave me a key and left me alone with their designer furniture and objets d’ art. If it doesn’t make sense to you why someone who could afford a five-star resort might prefer to stay in a stranger’s house, or why someone would allow sweaty foreign backpackers into their stylish, upscale home, then you might still be trying to think of couchsurfing in purely economic terms. Savings are a perk, but the real motivations for participating have nothing to do with money.

In the broadest sense, couchsurfers enjoy meeting interesting people and expanding their horizons. Beyond that, motivations vary widely. As a result, there are many different kind of couchsurfing experiences, with the host usually setting the tone. Some hosts want people to party with, and use the visit as an excuse to invite friends over for drinks and music. Other hosts like to take their guests out on the town, going to clubs, bars, or shows. I know of one couchsurfer, heir to a major league baseball fortune, who hosts as many as seven couchsurfers at once and drives them all over town in his massive SUV, typically at great speed, with tires squealing and the visiting couchsurfers double and triple-checking that their seatbelts are secure. Road safety aside, he is by all accounts an incredibly fun guy to stay with.

Some hosts are more reserved and low key, and prefer to simply hang out and talk. Athletic or outdoorsy hosts often take couchsurfers hiking, rock climbing, sailing, etc. There is something exciting about arriving at a host’s door not knowing whether you’re about to spend a weekend discussing politics and literature or jumping off 10-meter cliffs into the ocean.

Certain hosts place special emphasis on their role as guides and representatives of their city or culture, taking their guests to all the beautiful or culturally significant spots in the area and basically trying to get their guests to love the area as much as they do. Others don’t seem to know much about the place they’re living, perhaps having moved there only recently, and use the visit as an excuse to explore their own city a bit. Still others just prefer to stay at home, and some are simply too busy to spend any time at all with their guests. Even the busy ones usually seem genuinely friendly and welcoming – I have personally had only one experience with people who seemed to be hosting solely out of desire to accumulate positive references and therefore increase their chances of finding a place to stay when they travel. They seemed to view the whole thing as a transaction, and were oddly unwilling to socialize or show generosity beyond what was strictly required of them. There is very explicitly no expectation that a host should feed his guests or vise versa, but usually a great deal of sharing occurs; one person cooks dinner and the other provides drinks, or both people collaborate on a mutli-course meal, or the host and the guest cook separately but at least offer a small sample for tasting, and so on. These hosts and I shared the wine I had brought, and then they cooked a full dinner and ate it in front of me without so much as a “have you eaten?” The whole time I stayed with them, I couldn’t shake the feeling that they didn’t want me to be there. The point here is not to complain or sound bitter, but to emphasize that this was a pretty weird and atypical experience, as far as couchsurfing goes.

As couchsurfing has grown into something of a phenomenon amongst travelers, local couchsurfing communities have formed in cities around the world. Most organize weekly or monthly group outings of some sort, such as a trip to a bar or restaurant, or a scavenger hunt, film festival, potluck, language exchange, hiking trip, or water balloon fight, to name a few. The weekly meet-up in Paris, which is home to the most couchsurfers of any city, typically includes at least sixty people and sometimes over a hundred. Not everyone participates, of course. A city with a hundred active couchsurfers might only have a dozen regulars at the weekly meetings. These super-active people tend to act as a kind of resource for travelers and couchsurfers who are new to the area; they’re the people you can ask about the good restaurants in town, or where to find a cheap apartment to rent, or what areas are best avoided late at night.

There are also larger festivals and international gatherings, which draw crowds of hundreds or thousands of people. In the summer of 2010, I went to Tent-Surf in Puerto Peñasco in Mexico, also known as Rocky Point, which was basically a week-long party on the beach. I met people from all over the world, and people from the United States who had traveled so extensively that they had to fill out all sorts of paperwork and pay a fee to get extra blank pages stapled into their passports. This particular event attracted mostly young people for whom couchsurfing had been at least an option during most of their travels, but there were also several older people who had been traveling and hitchhiking years before anyone even talked about the internet. These people, who tended to have a leathery, gnarled look that comes from years spent outdoors, had a certain old-timer’s pride about them, a kind of “back in my day, you had to befriend strangers before they’d let you stay in their house” attitude. Still, it was clear that couchsurfing had won over even these hardcore lifelong travelers, who would say, only half joking, that they wished it had been around when they were young.

This is Part 2 in a series. Click here to Read Part 1 of Cyber Vagabonding.

Eric Moll is a Contributor to The Free George.

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our new City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

Short URL:

1 Comment for “Cyber Vagabonding Part 2: The Couchsurfing Experience”

  1. Hi! I’m interested in the couch-surfing experience, but don’t know how to do it, or where should I start… Do I need to become a member somewhere? Thanks!

Leave a Reply



Visit our online store!

Watch George TV!

Nothing but the best for your pet at MYNE Kennel!

Highwater by TJ Brearton

Get ready for George Radio!
Advertise with the Free George

Advertise with us!