Next week, we’re having dinner with an organic farmer from Australia. Last week, a nurse from the Philippines shared the antics of that country’s infamous ruling family Marcos. Last month, a Russian geology student, nearing the end of the H-1 visa he received just before the Ukraine War erupted, was anxious to avoid what he referred to as, “the situation,” upon returning home. Over the summer, a lovely couple from the Czech Republic offered us a glimpse young people untarnished from ever living under Soviet influence. Another weekend, a Brazilian museum curator marveled us with the beauty of Belo Horizonte, a city of 3 million people which, probably like many Americans, I’d never heard of.
Vinicius implored us to come visit Belo Horizonte, just as Furkun invited us to Istanbul, and Sara wants to tour us around Prague. (Interestingly, Artem did not suggest we visit Ufa, Russia.)
Invitations notwithstanding, I doubt I’ll be visiting any of those places anytime soon, as I have no desire to travel anywhere. One of the last lingering habits of my pandemic existence seems to be an extreme contentment in being at home. Yet I’m curious as ever about the world around me. So, instead of traveling, my housemate and I have opened our doors to couchsurfers, who brings the world to us.
“Couchsurfing” is a term that means offering a traveler a place to crash for a few nights. It’s also a web site (www.couchsurfing.com). It’s also a mindset, a way of being, a demonstration of living outside the norms of individual privacy that infect these United States.
I first learned about couchsurfing back in 2015, when a former hippie I met in Oregon told me I could find places to stay while bicycling throughout the country. She jumpstarted my immersion by providing my first reference. Over the next year I stayed with dozens of couchsurfing hosts all over the country. I did not have any dangerous experiences, though I will admit to several weird ones. Some people offer you a guest suite with a basket of warm muffins in the morning; others eat their dinner right out of the pan and don’t offer you a bite. Gun owners like to show off their racks; Mormons like to show off their children. The key to enjoying couchsurfing is: have no expectations and welcome every host as an adventure.
When I returned home it took a while to convince my housemate that he would enjoy hosting couchsurfers. If you haven’t done it, it can sound a bit odd. Over the next few years, several people I had stayed with across America came to Cambridge; and stayed with us. Finally, my housemate admitted that he liked them all, and agreed to list us as “Accepting Guests” on the couchsurfing website. When the pandemic hit, there were no guests to accept. Gradually, that has changed. We got a trickle of requests, hosted a few nice folks; the trickle became a river; and these days the requests are nearing flood proportion.
Our objective is to host one or two people a month. We always do that, and sometimes more. We could easily host two or three guests a week. So far, our hosting experience mirrors my experience as a guest: no dangerous people, a few oddballs, mostly awesome folks.
Choosing who to accept is a bit of a challenge; a bit of a game. First criteria: instinct. If something seems off, it probably is, and you don’t want to invite your worries into your own home. Second: profile. What has this person said about themselves and their travels to the world? If someone’s profile is mostly blank, I’m not likely to invite them. Third: references. We will not invite anyone to stay with us who does not have references from other hosts. I realize that this is a Catch-22 for people new to couchsurfing, but positive references are the currency of this community. You must be clever to get your first ones, but then they multiply. I have 55 positive references in my profile; some people have hundreds. We don’t require anywhere near that number, but a person needs to have at least a few.
If someone interesting meets those criteria, we are likely to invite them. If it’s a time when we receive many requests, we up the ante and read their ‘ask’ with more interest. Did they customize their request to reflect what’s in my profile? Does their request align with what we offer? Our profile is clear: we accept guest for one or two nights only. We’re not likely to accept anyone seeking a full week unless they make a truly compelling ask.
Aside from only wanting short-term couchsurfers, we offer a great stay. A private guest room. Good access to public transportation. And, we always have our guest join us for dinner at least one night. The point of couchsurfing is not simply to provide lodging for someone travelling on the cheap. It’s to share stories, opinions, learn how other people live.
For two years of my life, I was the traveler who arrived on his bicycle with stories of adventure in the wide world. These days, I’m disinclined to be that person. Instead, I prefer being the host, and hearing about lives all over the world from the comfort of my kitchen.