In Praise of CouchSurfing: Part One

September 17, 2010

I am currently typing at 100 words per minute and traveling at 150 kilometers per hour. In contrast to the stationary and focused environment of a coffee-house or cafe, writing while physically in transit seems to perfectly compliment the mental whirlwind that whips through my mind as I peck at the keyboard. After sentences and in between paragraphs, ideas and images of all sizes, shapes, and dates raise their figurative hands in a battle for my attention. Writing while traveling from one destination to another manages to bring this process to life. Look to the left, and I see a fast-moving forest of crooked trees. Glance to the right, and I watch the clouds build over a cornfield. There’s a moving world that accompanies my moving mind which, in turn, allows me to feel synchronized rather than mentally unstable.

For the first time this trip, however, I am writing from the backseat of a car rather than the caboose of a passenger train. The facts of my current surroundings are admittedly sparse, but I will tell you what I know. I am sitting in a silver Kia minivan with a German license plate reading: B-EN 233. It is raining, and a man named Uwe Steckhan is driving me from Berlin to Munich. I didn’t get a long look at Mr. Steckhan, but from the small stretch of glass in the rearview mirror, I can tell that he is wearing black sunglasses and that he likes to smoke Marlboros. As planned, the two of us met fifteen minutes ago outside of a flower shop near the Schlesisches Tor Underground station. We shook hands, exchanged names, and hoped for the best.

In line with my promise to many, I am not hitchhiking. Instead, I am participating in Mitfahrzentrale, a German car-share program that links ordinary folks with the means to end up at the destination of their preference. “And where is that? Dead?” Yes, like any life-valuing human being, this was my first thought upon hearing about this form of grassroots transportation. However, after thoroughly questioning the employee at Berlin’s Tourist Information Office, I accepted the referral to Citynetz Mitfahrzentrale Berlin. “The office,” he said, “may not exist anymore, so you may want to call first.” Ten Euro later, I had myself a reserved seat in the back of a stranger’s car. After another monetary exchange with Mr. Steckhan this morning, Whitney is sleeping soundly beneath a pile of coats, and I am pleased to find that our driver has so far preferred highways to dark allies. Besides, if anything strange were to happen, I am confident that the front seat passenger – a quiet German girl – would promptly trade her politeness for the savage combat skills that she must certainly possess. If not, I can always offer up the 100 Euro that I am otherwise saving by choosing this alternative method of transportation. So, rest easy, I clearly have a foolproof plan.

Be it a result of human survival instincts or the basic enjoyment of spectator sports, most readers will have already labeled the characters of this story in accordance to the traditional binary of prey and predator. As a twenty-four-year-old female and foreigner, even I am quick to identify myself as the former. That said, it was shocking to see the ease with which the tables turned. Minutes after departing, Mr. Steckhan initiated a valiant effort at small talk which included an inquiry about our residence in Berlin. In reply, we stated that we were staying with a woman through CouchSurfing. At this point, I watched our driver’s eyebrows furrow, while the girl in the front seat summarized the CouchSurfing Project in German. Within seconds, his mouth curled into an impressed smile, and the social scale seemed to balance almost immediately. His passengers were legitimate.

CouchSurfing, for those of you that are unfamiliar, is an international non-profit network that connects travelers with local hosts. In the name of cultural exchange and friendship, this organization has been operating as an alternative to the hotel and hostel scene since 2004. Now, over one-million strong, CouchSurfers are working to create “a world where everyone can explore and create meaningful connections with the people and places they encounter.” Equally appealing is the fact that all of this hospitality takes place without monetary exchange. Instead, hosts’ “payment” comes in the form of meeting new people from all over the world without leaving home. “Surfers,” or travelers, are then provided with a cultural experience unmatched by even the edgiest tour book. CouchSurfing is the Reality TV version of traveling, minus the drama and the camera crews.

Like most people who hear about CouchSurfing for the first time, our driver bypassed the cultural exchange portion of the project and became immediately consumed by the bare boned reality of the whole situation: we are staying with complete strangers. Our sleeping bodies, passports, and overall life are in the hands of people we “met” over the internet. This concept is understandably frightening, and even threatening to those who see such actions as counter intuitive to the basic human goal of dying a natural death. It is often assumed that those choosing to open their doors to strangers must be members of the international coalition of underwear sniffing, scab collecting, knife-sharpening degenerates. Similarly, how do CouchSurfers know that they won’t open the door to find not just a bad, but a razor blade-infested, apple?

Unfortunately, the answer is, we don’t. At the end of the day, we really have no idea who we are allowing into our lives. I assume that is exactly what boosted my street credit with Mr. Steckhan. He was left with no other option than to view me as either stupid and strong or crafty as hell – either of which leave me semi-protected in an otherwise vulnerable situation. The reality, however, can be found in none of these claims. Miraculously, CouchSurfing has managed to tap into the rapidly diminishing core of human goodness. It doesn’t take long after browsing CouchSuring profiles to learn that its members are truly interested in creating an honest, trusting, and generous environment. The community is welcoming but determined to uphold camaraderie and safety by adhering to a strict code of fundamental values. Like any other strata of society, CouchSurfing cannot possibly be free of creepers and peepers. But, like democracy in its theoretical form, CouchSurfing functions as a self-checking system that relies on member participation. Stay with a great host? Write them a positive reference. Host a dude that ate all your cereal? Tell the world to hide their Captain Crunch. Members cannot edit their references which allows for honest feedback. Therefore, references, combined with additional security features and a personalized profile create an environment that can be easily navigated via common sense.** If something in your gut doesn’t prevent you from staying with a person whose interests include masturbating and crying, for example, the CourchSurfing website is the least of your troubles. Similar to driving a car or eating a kebab from a Berlin street side stand, the absurd process of being human usually involves some level of risk. I am merely here to tell you that CouchSurfing is one of the many worth taking.

*If given a completely false reference, members can appeal by writing to the organization.

*Members can also choose to have their background checked and location verified for a small fee.  Additionally, members can report suspicious activity which often results in removal of the profile in question.

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