Hello, Strangers: Couchsurfing in the high desert
Wednesday night a pair of complete strangers knocked on my front door in Marfa. Two young women from Portland came in out of the freezing cold, sat by the fire and chatted for awhile about their travels. Then they went to sleep on the couch before hitting the road again early the next morning.
Sonia and Andrea are two of 2.5 million people registered on Couchsurfing.org, which helps about 200 travelers every hour stay at someone’s house they’ve never met before. As a general rule, no money changes hands. Nothing gets stolen. Nobody dies.
But my mom still flipped out when I mentioned someone was coming to stay with me. “Who?” she inquired, at first casually. “Well, I don’t really know them,” I confessed, “They’re couchsurfers.” Mom was on guard at this point. “Couchwhatters?” she asked, bracing for the worst.
I explained the concept: it’s called a hospitality networking website. At first, couchsurfers exist to one another only via their online profiles. If a surfer wants to travel somewhere cheaply and meet local residents while they’re at it, they send a message to someone who lives in the area, asking for a place to stay or even just a guide about town.
The site connects people in 285 different countries, saves them money and builds relationships. It’s reputable and widely used by people ages 18 to 80. There are over 1,000 registered couchsurfers across Texas, including 14 people in the tri-county area.
Her suspicions confirmed, my mom roared, “OH MY GOD. That is not safe! Don’t do that!” She insisted that I lock the doors, shutter the windows and delete myself from the site immediately.
I tried explaining to her that the strangers in the house aren’t really such strangers. They are couchsurfers. So am I. We have a code. Just be cool, Mom. Surfers gain cred on the site by being nice to other surfers: feeding them, housing them, showing them around, not murdering them, etc.. The more online cred you have, the easier it is to find a free, homey place to stay when you travel. Everybody wins.
According to the mission statement, “At CouchSurfing International, we envision a world where everyone can explore and create meaningful connections with the people and places they encounter. Building meaningful connections across cultures enables us to respond to diversity with curiosity, appreciation and respect. The appreciation of diversity spreads tolerance and creates a global community.”
They have a point. Everything is expensive, hospitality doesn’t have to be. In the early 2000′s Couchsurfing.org was born when founder Casey Fenton randomly decided to buy a cheap plane ticket from Boston to Iceland and then emailed 1,500 university students to ask for free housing. The response was overwhelming and sparked an idea that is now 2.5 million supporters strong. References, vouching and credit card address verifications are in place to ensure that people are who they say they are.
Still, for some reason I wasn’t surprised to learn about a horror story staining Couchsurfing.org’s otherwise reputable history. In 2009 a man raped a woman who contacted him through the website. All the awful details are in the UK’s Daily Mail and give sordid weight to my mom’s paranoiac fears.
But this isn’t an alley. This is my house. Global community aside, my mom has a point: people have been doing bad things to one another since time immemorial. I agree, but is that any reason to lose faith now?
While in Marfa I have hosted 12 people from 4 different countries. They’ve slept in my house, eaten my food, washed my dishes, played the banjo, bored me to pieces and made me laugh. Its given new meaning to the term complete strangers.
Story filed under: Big Bend Blog