Couchsurfing: the ultimate form of travel abroad

Ami Tian

Now that I’m back in the United States, there are several suggestions I’d like to make to anyone thinking of studying abroad; however, only one of them really matters, and it’s this: travel. But don’t just travel: couchsurf.

I’ve been talking about it so much recently that everything I say about it seems like a cliche, but it’s true: couchsurfing changed my life.

Couchsurfing.org is a web site that allows travelers to stay with people who live there — for free. The idea is that it’s a cultural exchange, a chance to teach and to learn, a gesture towards the cultivation of a global community.

To be completely honest, I wasn’t very interested in traveling until I discovered couchsurfing. Traveling just seemed like an excuse to spend a lot of money going from one place to another, seeing things that I’d be just as happy to have gone without seeing. Landmarks and monuments don’t make much of an impression on me. I felt, after seeing the Louvre a few years ago, that my life would not have been any different if I’d just stayed home. The only way in which my visit to the Louvre impacted me was that afterward I could say I’d been to the Louvre. Now, after only four years, I don’t remember a thing about my visit.

But traveling isn’t about the sightseeing; it’s about the people. Culture isn’t about the inanimate things, buildings and statues; it’s about what lives and breathes in the city. Experiencing the culture of a place means sharing experiences with the people living there, which is often difficult to do as a tourist.

My first time couchsurfing was in Edinburgh. The coach got into town over two hours late, but my host and his friends met me at the bus stop at three in the morning. I remember watching for them out the bus window, and seeing the three of them waiting at the stop, grinning broadly and waving and jumping around like crazy people. I spent the weekend there, crashing in a sleeping bag on my host’s couch in his living room. I walked around, exploring the city during the day, which was nice. What I’ll really remember, though, is the time in the evenings that I spent with my host and his friends. It was one of the best weekends I’ve ever had. We didn’t do anything especially unusual, but what made the time memorable was the thrill of getting to know strangers, of discovering commonalities and differences, and of developing a sense of camaraderie with people whose lives have never intersected with yours until very recently, and people you may never see again.

I’ve had so many experiences and met so many people through couchsurfing that I wouldn’t have otherwise; I met the grandson of Milwaukee’s last socialist mayor in a Bristol pub, learned (or tried to learn) how to salsa in Paris, witnessed a bar fight in Manchester, took a detour to avoid a pipe bomb on a Belfast city street, and  attended an anarchist feminist Passover Seder in Glasgow.

It’s such a privilege to be invited into someone’s home, into their life, to be able to both observe and participate in their lives, to see how they live and begin to understand what it is to see the world through their eyes. It’s interesting that in an age where technology encourages us to be isolated, or to socialize without face-to-face interaction, couchsurfing not only facilitates face-to-face interaction, but it necessitates trust, which often leads to closeness; you are received by your host as a guest, a friend; the usual barriers are removed, the ones that require some kind of pretext for meeting. It’s often so difficult for strangers to approach one another, to make a connection, especially without a specific reason. Couchsurfing provides that reason, in an age that needs reasons.

Although the web site does have certain safeguards in place to make it easier to determine whether or not a person is trustworthy, such as a reference system that allows users to review their experiences surfing and hosting other members, the project operates under the assumption that people are good and well-intentioned and can be trusted. But  while there is always going to be a certain amount of risk involved in placing immediate trust in strangers, the potential rewards of making that leap of faith are innumerable.

That’s why you should travel, to reap those potential rewards and to share your own life with others; you should travel to take part in that exchange. Without that there is nothing; you might as well have seen the Louvre and forgotten it. You might as well have stayed home. So, travel — but do so for the experience of meeting people, for realizing that each of us has so much to learn from one another. Travel and be safe and smart. But don’t be afraid to couchsurf and trust strangers when given the opportunity: I promise you’ll remember it.