The Joys and Horrors of Couchsurfing
I love Couchsurfing. I want to say that upfront, since over the course of this post I doubt I’ll come across as its best spokesperson.
For those not in the know, Couchsurfing.org (and other, similar sites) provides a network of hundreds of thousands of people all over the world willing to offer up their futons, pull-outs, patios, tents, lofts, hammocks, yurts, fainting couches, and – if absolutely necessary – waterbeds to weary travelers for free.
Not only have I saved thousands of dollars thanks to Couchsurfing, but I’ve also made lifelong friends and shared experiences I would have missed otherwise. I’ve salsa danced with a Sudanese dental student in Nagoya, Japan, gone waterfall diving with a Peace Corps volunteer on the island of Dominica, and played X-Box with med school students in the Amazon.
But who cares about all that wonder and joy? You guys want to hear the horror stories. While the overwhelming majority of my Couchsurfing encounters have been fantastic, here are three thoroughly unpleasant ones, as well as advice you can glean from my mistakes.
1 – Jacob* – JAPAN
Jacob taught me a valuable lesson – not all Australians are cool. Some valiantly struggle to overcome the handicaps of their sexy accent and penchant for surfing to remind us that no matter your cultural background, you can still be a loser. I remember when, during a tour of his apartment, he proudly showed me his collection of every single “Now That’s What I Call Music!” compilation (and there are dozens). But a free bed is well worth having to listen to a guy explain why Pink is our generation’s Bob Dylan.
This story, however, isn’t about Jacob’s lameness. It’s about my last night at his place, when he asked me to look at something on his computer. I leaned in, and Jacob made his move. He brought his lips to mine and simultaneously threaded his hand down the back of my pants to squeeze my butt cheek. Frankly, I was surprised he had the cojones for such a coordinated attack. After a few seconds of him kissing my closed mouth and kneading my butt, I backed away and explained that I was, sadly, straight.
Jacob stared at me in silence for a moment before eloquently stating, “Oh. Well. Time for bed.” He hurried into his room, slammed the door, and I spent the night on my cot staring at the ceiling. Our breakfast the next morning rated slightly less awkward than when, as a sophomore in college, my dad decided it was now time to “teach me about women.”
TIP #1: Announce your intentions. While there’s really no excuse for someone to make sexual advances toward a guest who’s already at the disadvantage of being in a stranger’s home in a foreign land, it certainly helps to mention that you have a significant other, or that you’re gay or straight, or simply not interested. A select percentage of travelers use Couchsurfing as a hook-up service, so make it clear that’s not you (unless it is, in which case go nuts).
2 – Trevor and Sarah* – CHILE
Sometimes it takes a while for any eccentricities of your Couchsurfing hosts to manifest themselves. And sometimes you knock on the door and two naked people open it. Trevor and Sarah were nudists. I am not. Sure, I might like to lounge around after a hot shower, sun-drying myself on the couch like a beached whale, but who doesn’t? Judging by your blank expressions, I’ll move on.
Trevor and Sarah were consummate hosts, kind and welcoming, and they made it clear that I was under no obligation to disrobe. But in their home, they preferred to keep it au natural. Naked brunch. Naked badminton. Naked gardening (where there’s some sort of joke to be made about peas and carrots). Naked naked mole rat hunting. Needless to say, a lot of my conversation sprang from staring at my feet for long stretches of time – “Are these hardwood floors?”
TIP #2: Read the profile. Couchsurfing profiles are like Yelp pages – they’ve got descriptions, reviews, pictures, even a verification system. Read your potential host’s profile carefully, and you’ll be sure to notice any possible red flags – nudism, cannibalism, libertarianism, etc.
3 – Selene* – JAMAICA
I Couchsurfed with Selene in her apartment in Kingston, Jamaica, spending forty-eight hours in what a brochure described as a “quiet suburb” and I describe as a “nightmare ghetto.” Other travelers had warned me to steer clear of crime-ridden Kingston, and boy were they dead wrong. Sorry, I mean dead. Because central Kingston is scary. I saw a knife fight, had two competing bus drivers play a round of unfriendly tug of war with my body, and heard frequent gunshots.
Every night, Selene would triple lock her front door, test the strength of her barred windows, and then move all of her apartment’s most valuable possessions into the bedroom with its own row of locks. She’d even take the burners off the stove, since they’d be stolen in the past. She told me she used to feel safer when she’d had a friend who was a cop. “Was?” I foolishly asked.
TIP #3: While staying with natives could be immensely rewarding, it’s also a very different experience than staying with the transplants, ex-pats, English teachers, Peace Corps volunteers, and study abroad students who make up much of Couchsurfing’s database. Simply put, stuff can get real. Poverty, crime, strange fruit – the works. Decide in advance whether you’re looking for some of the comforts of home, or a dive (in my case, a belly-flop) into a foreign culture.
Nick von Keller is a writer living in Los Angeles. His work has been featured on Comedy Central, Fark, Funny or Die, Cracked, Mondo Media, Current TV, and Channel 101, among others. A Watson Fellowship recipient, he has also won the LA Comedy Shorts Film Festival Screenwriting Competition, placed as a Finalist in the LA Comedy Fest Screenwriting Competition, and had the highest rated comedy pilot on The Black List as of December 2013. He is not to be trusted.
(*All names changed for privacy purposes.)