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February 23, 2012

Crash course

Couchsurfing can provide both guests and hosts with enriching, unexpected experiences.

You arrive in a strange new city, perhaps in a foreign country with an unfamiliar language. You are short on cash and even shorter on local knowledge. You don’t even have a place to stay.

Then, to your surprise, a total stranger offers you a place to sleep for a night. It’s a risk, of course. You meet a few of the stranger’s friends, who vouch that he is a considerate and friendly host. He even produces a letter, purportedly from another traveler, thanking him for his hospitality. But neither of these things sets your mind at ease completely—the friends could be lying; the letter could be fake. Even so, you take a chance.

This, more or less, is the decision thousands of people make every year, agreeing to be welcomed into the homes of others they know only from their Couchsurfing.com profiles. Thanks to the Internet, we are witnessing one of the more interesting and large-scale social experiments in trust ever conducted. In the last few months, I’ve noticed, an increasing number of those participants are UChicago students.

Couchsurfing is not without its faults. Safety is a constant concern. There have been horrific incidents of people being assaulted or taken advantage of by their hosts. Not all guests treat the homes they stay in respectfully. The admins of the Web site have been criticized for turning the organization into a for-profit venture, which derives all its revenue from a voluntary identity verification process.

Yet, by and large, there is much to love about the Couchsurfing experience. More often than not, the profiles you see are brimming with hosts, guests, fellow travelers, and friends praising someone’s generosity, kindness and joie de vivre. And it is, without a doubt, the cheapest way to find accommodations. Nowhere else do you stand a better chance of finding someone to open their home to you and act as your expert guide in a new locale.

The first time I couchsurfed, last summer, it was out of desperation. A fellow Maroon and I were on a bus to Copenhagen, scheduled to arrive late that night, with no place to stay. I put a plea on the social media site Reddit’s section for Denmark, asking if someone would put us up. I included our Couchsurfing profiles, hoping to prove we would be good guests.

We had no luck that night, but the next morning someone invited us to stay. We spent the next four days in an apartment in a hip, central neighborhood, eating hindbærsnitter, drinking Tuborg, and getting wonderful advice about what to see and do in a city neither of us had been to before. Staying in a hotel or hostel would not have provided nearly the same level of immersion into Danish culture.

Since arriving back in the States, I’ve been looking for ways to repay my karmic debt and pass on the hospitality. I finally got a chance this quarter, by hosting a medical student from Bombay, India. Do you know what it’s like to backpack in the Himalayas? Or about the dramatic landscape of Sikkim, one of India’s smallest and most beautiful states? In just a single morning of conversation, I learned so much about his stomping grounds half a world away and had the exciting chance to share a little about mine here in Chicago, too.

Whether surfing or hosting, what matters is that you come face to face with someone who has a different background, a new perspective—a unique and novel view of the world. Their experiences and knowledge no doubt cover places and people and skills you never even knew you wanted to know more about. At a minimum, you are just putting forth or taking up the offer of a place to sleep. But when approached with an open heart and mind, and with a little bit of luck, it may turn into an encounter much richer than that.

So, I am glad that in the past month I’ve been getting a number of Couchsurfing.com friend requests from other UChicagoans—though I stress it is the journey that matters, and not the Web site, for which there are substitutes. We often complain that Hyde Park is an ivory tower, divorced from real-world experience. Might I suggest letting the drawbridge down? Give someone from across the state, or across the ocean, a place to crash.

The next time you travel, throw out what your parents taught you and talk to, even stay with, strangers. It’s a little bit scary; you have to keep safe. But lower your guard a little, and take the plunge. There’s a whole world out there waiting to make your acquaintance.

David Kaner is a second-year in the College majoring in Law, Letters, and Society.

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