There’s a Parisian man sleeping on my couch in the other room right now. His name is Adrien and I discovered him through my first experience using Couchsurfing. For those who aren’t familiar with the term (and I had only a vague understanding of what it really was), Couchsurfing is a website designed to connect travellers and provide them with a place to stay for free. It relies on a system of hospitality, trust, and loose reciprocity. The website has plenty of users, divided into hosts (people who open their homes and offer a couch to sleep on or a guest room), and travellers (those who are on the road seeking a place to stay for free). There’s also the opportunity just to meet for coffee or drinks and share information on your city. The most interesting thing about CS though is that it’s more than just a replacement for a hotel. CS provides a fascinating opportunity to really connect with fellow travellers. Why would anyone let someone stay with them for free? Let me explain the merits using Adrien as an example.
With one month to go before my journey to Bali, I’ve decided to open up my tiny 400-square foot home to those coming to Toronto. I’ve lived in downtown Toronto for 4 years and I’ve had a couch that doesn’t get used while I’m sleeping in the other room. So when I signed up for the site, I saw Adrien was looking for a place to stay overnight. He has a profile on the website that explains he’s on a round-the-world journey after he decided to quit his well-paid job back in Paris. As I scan his profile I’m able to see how detailed he made his profile, if he has any photos, and importantly- if he has references. References (the CS peer-review system) are a way of making sure that your guest/host isn’t likely to be a serial killer (which you probably thought when I told you there was a stranger in the other room). Quite the contrary, Adrien is the best kind of guest I can imagine. When I sent him a message, he took a chance by trusting me (since I have no references yet, I’m new to CS until he reviews me as the host). Nonetheless, he showed up with beers and his backpack and settled in as we drank and shared experiences.
As it turns out, just 2 months ago he sold his flat in Paris and all his belongings and began his grand round-the-world trip. He told me about how liberated he felt with each object he sold, and how free he feels being on the road alone now. I pull out a map and he shows me the places he will go, and I show him my itinerary. We talk about his experience in Canada so far: renting cars, eating poutine, camping by the lake, and meeting new people. It’s been his childhood dream to see Canada, and now he’s doing it and meeting locals along the way. If he stayed back in Paris he might have only taken a one-week trip to one major city like Montreal. Instead, he now can move slowly and see more of Canada than I have within a few months. Another benefit to him staying with me is that he gets detailed information that a hotel couldn’t provide (at least not to a budget traveller like him). I show him the neighbourhoods in Toronto to visit, the sites to skip, and the best cafes and restaurants to check out. He gets to learn about Toronto from the perspective of someone who’s lived and learned the city intricately, and all for free.
Just like that, I’ve made a new international connection. I hope to cross paths with him again some day, maybe in Australia, Asia, or back in Paris. I provided him a place to stay, and maybe he’ll reciprocate and provide me the same some day. But the beauty of Couchsurfing is that I don’t feel he has to provide me his home. I just trust that someone else on the vast network will put out the same good vibes and host me some day. Either way, this sole experience of hosting a stranger in my home has already showed me that I need to be more trusting of humanity. The media had warped my mind making me think that everyone was a threat. Yet here’s someone who’s doing what I’m going to be doing in a month, and he has so much to share and teach me. He’s the opposite of a threat. He’s who I’ve been waiting to talk travel with.
“He who does not trust enough, will not be trusted” – Lao Tzu
So, is the loneliest journey the one I’m about to embark upon, or the one I’ve been living in for the past little while? It’s funny how as I tell more and more people about my journey, they question what it will be like to be going at it alone. Some have commented on how I should wait to find someone who might want to join me. Others worried I would feel sad once I left all my friends and family behind (and how I was leaving friends and commitment, running away, being irresponsible for my age, and variations on that). Somehow I feel like the journey ahead will be far more social and inclusive than my life has been recently. It’s not say I haven’t made incredible friends and connections in Toronto, but it’s to say that by working a job that tires me out and feeling like I’m not pursuing some greater passion results in me feeling very isolated and alone. As I found myself complaining to friends and family about my job, I realized just how pathetic it was all starting to sound, mainly since I can’t stand when people complain without taking action. And so I stopped complaining. But I forgot to take action.
I now begin the journey not only of moving to new locations, but of trusting new people. Sure, there will indeed be strange people along the way. But they aren’t the majority. I’d rather trust in the goodness of the majority rather than hide in neutrality because I fear a crude minority.
Would you ever host a stranger in your home? Why or why not?