It was early afternoon on March 8th of 2016. I stood sweaty on his doorstep after an hour’s walk from Sants, Barcelona’s main train station. With great relief I slid my 20lbs backpack from my shoulder onto the cement sidewalk, pressed the buzzer and waited to hear the click of the door. He was a man I’d never met face-to-face; we’d sent some emails back and forth, a few texts, and now here I was, at his apartment where I would spend the next three nights. He buzzed me in and I made my way to his first floor apartment through an attractive lobby. George* was standing in his doorway, a live replica of his profile picture. He greeted me with a kiss on each cheek before leading me inside. After a brief tour he handed me a set of keys and headed off to his weekly badminton with friends, promising dinner and a jam session for the following evening. There I was, in the heart of Barcelona staying in the apartment of a stranger I had met moments prior, free of charge. During my stay we cooked together, played music, swapped stories and he introduced me to his new Catalan girlfriend. Born and raised in India, George had studied abroad in college and moved to Barcelona for a job working in IT. We bonded over our love of travel and music. By the end of my stay we felt like we had known each other for years. This is Couchsurfing.
I discovered Couchsurfing.com in 2010 while studying in Seville, Spain. My lover and I would take advantage of $20 plane tickets and three-day weekends, jetting off to wherever suited our fancy. We created our own profiles on the site and searched for hosts in the cities we wanted to venture to. When we found someone we liked, we would send them a request with the dates we wanted to visit and a personalized message. The first time we used Couchsurfing we stayed with an anti-squatter in Amsterdam. An anti-squatter is someone who comes to live in a vacant building for dirt-cheap rent while the owner seeks a new, more permanent tenant and avoids squatters taking advantage of Holland law, which, at the time, permitted squatters to take up residence in vacant properties (it became illegal later that year). Our host was a Dutch hippie who told us stories of hitch-hiking across Eastern Europe and partying at music festivals. He took us to a local farmer’s market and cooked us a delicious stew while we smoked a pre-rolled J from the red light district. A whole new form of education had been unearthed for me, and it was one I knew I would hold on to.
Fast forward to Spring of 2016 and there I was, a lone ranger and her backpack, trotting across Europe for three months with three grand to my name. I had bought a one-way ticket to Rome in December and had no plans but to open myself to the world and let it fill me. I admit I felt a tinge of apprehension when I arrived at Rome’s central train station and waited for my first host to pick me up. Two days later with a deeper confidence in humanity I bid Antonio* farewell and went on my merry way, leaving behind a new friend but taking with me an open heart and vegan Italian recipe to-boot. My next host was Mario in San Marino. He took me for a steak dinner and led me around the foggy Old Town high up in the cliffs. In Vienna I stayed with Fred, a German academic working for the United Nations. He took me on a tour of the UN headquarters. We talked politics, went out to dinner and finished the night at his favorite bar where I experienced the most extraordinary classical piano performance of my life.
After a whirlwind of 18 countries, three months, and 20 hosts I was nearly broke and ready to ground myself. I had done what to some people might seem impossible. I had gained a semester of fulltime education in history, politics and gastronomy. I had lived off of an amount of money that in many places would be considered below the poverty line. I was culturally, intellectually and emotionally enriched by the places I had experienced and the locals who had shared with me a glimpse of their intimate lives. Most importantly for me, I had a new global family. Couchsurfing is not for the faint of heart. It is for those who are willing to take risks, step out of their comfort zone and have a little faith in their fellow humans. It is for those who want to live outside the bounds of normalcy and push past their own peripheral reality. Since my trip, I have given back to the Couchsurfing community by hosting fellow-travelers. I even got to re-connect with my host from Reykjavik in my home town of Minneapolis. I took him on my moped all over the city, we went hiking at a local waterfall, visited a gallery party and went dancing by night. Experiencing the city through his eyes, I discovered a deeper love for where I come from. When money is not involved and the main intention is connection, to build a relationship with a total stranger is nothing short of magic. For those in the Couchsurfing community who truly live by its values and preserve its integrity, it is a portal to greatness. With great things come great responsibility, and I believe Couchsurfing is responsible for bringing the world one step closer to peace.
*Names have been changed