By Jessica Lipsky
Did you know that Istanbul is the second largest city for tango dancing outside of Buenos Aires? Or that in the punk/anarchist neighborhood of Exarchia, Athens, police regularly block off streets with riot buses “just in case”? You could learn these tidbits from a book, but I prefer to go straight to the source: couch surfers.
Ah, couch surfing. You never know what you’ll learn when you show up to stay on someone's spare sofa (or when someone stays on yours). On a recent trip to Mexico, my friend Sarah and I found ourselves slightly stranded with ailing bodies and stinky pits in Merida, the ridiculously humid capital of the Yucatán. But we weren’t worried, we had a network.
I prefer to go straight to the source: couch surfers.
Sarah and I are experienced couch surfers and used the SF-based website Couchsurfing.org – a seven million member-strong hospitality site based on hometown pride, culture exchange, and a love of travel – to find locals to meet, stay, and explore with while we hopped around south of the border. CSers set up a profile and can request to host travelers or surf couches, beds, floors, or hammocks (Yucatecos are ultra-proud of living and dying in their hammocks). Once you've met, members will leave each other references in hopes that other CS folks will surf with or host them in the future – all in the name of learning more about new places in a more authentic way.
A flurry of texts and one or several mezcals
later, a CSer named Mario offered to host us until we headed to another Mexican
peninsula state. The next few days were a whirlwind and more fun than Sarah and
I had anticipated. We saw a Chilean reggae band, watched a quinceañera music video being filmed at an
out-of-the way hacienda, swam in a cenote (a cave-like sinkhole 100 feet deep)
in the backwoods of a pint-size pueblo, danced at a county fair where hundreds
of couples got down to a famous Cuban cumbia
band, and hung out with Mario's fantastic, multicultural friends. We had
such a blast hanging out, practicing Spanish, and feeling like locals that we
missed two buses out of town.
But before you roll your eyes at what sounds like the story of glommers-on partying in Mexico and enjoying good times on someone else's dime, take a step back and survey the scene. Couchsurfing.org brought together two groups of curious, outgoing travelers from different corners of the globe for fun and cultural exchange. Mario generously offered up his home, time, and social circle, while Sarah and I brought Bay Area culture, a willingness to learn, and money for mezcal. The result is a mutually beneficial ecosystem where everyone gains in different ways – a sharing culture.
Couchsurfing was built on the idea that people don't need to exchange money to get along in a radical culture.
Like Burning Man, Couchsurfing was built on the idea that people don't need to
exchange money to get along in a radical culture. To share – your time, your
home, your water, or your fried bologna sandwich to a hungry sparkle pony on
the playa – tags you as generous and attracts like-minded folks who don't want
to have a traditional experience. While letting a stranger stay in your home
takes what some would call a crazy level of trust ("You're not going to
pack my TV in your backpack," our Mexico City host Adrián said assuredly upon
giving us the keys to his apartment), Couchsurfing encourages the karmic energy
that's at the heart of a sharing culture.
Which is why I would take Couchsurfing over Airbnb any day.
I think most travelers want to live like the locals do, and Couchsurfing provides the opportunity to experience something unique and often totally outside what you might construct on your own. At the very least, you'll eat better. While there are definitely personable hosts on Airbnb, the money exchange and assumption that you'll have your own space isn't sharing or exchanging, it's sublimating the system (which is still a good thing). This isn't to say that Airbnb isn't a form of a sharing culture, but the concept behind it brings users together by need and then separates them by desire.
I come from a long lineage of self-proclaimed tour guides and when someone surfs my couch in Oakland, I want to show them what's great about my city. I want to make a connection and show them things they wouldn't normally see if they stayed in a hotel or rented out a home on Airbnb. In short, I want to become closer with strangers and develop a relationship that, hopefully, allows us to connect as we travel. For instance, the lover of my CS host in Madrid introduced me to her best friend in Athens, who amped up my experience in that city by spending the evening with me and introducing me to her groovy friends. You're less likely to get this with Airbnb, where you’re usually replicating a hotel situation. Still, there are exceptions. A good friend and fellow journalist used Airbnb while on assignment at South by Southwest. She made friends with her hosts, who stayed in the house (on the couch), and her stay helped to pay their rent in a weekend.
SF native Alexandra Liss documented her experience surfing around the world in the film One Couch at a Time. In it, you can see the wide range of people who open their homes, hearts, and often their wallets to travelers interested in experiencing culture in a different way. She shows how you can use CS as a way to find yourself, to highlight what makes your city special, or to challenge yourself by entering an unknown situation and making the best of it. Liss shared her own experiences and came out with some super-cool stories. She asked, and I will too, can I stay with you and create some memories?