During my recent, fabulous four-week road trip from Minnesota to New Jersey and back, and many times since, I had and have been asked what it is like to live with Couchsurfers, the hosts who’d put me up at various points along my route (at various points over the last ten years, actually).
With my being a host, myself, back in Taiwan and in Costa Rica, my former homes away from home, I know what it is like to accommodate strangers–and I of course understand what it is like to be a surfer, having temporarily crashed at others’ places in a variety of countries. Yet this was my first full-scale effort to utilize the hospitality site domestically, being that I had just returned to live in the United States for the first time in 15 years.
Providing a summary of my specific recent experiences in the varied abodes of nine CSing members (instead of explaining it, orally and individually) provides a rather insightful take on such exchanges and on how the system works. My plan isn’t to entice you with a compelling story telling, but rather to simply show how such stays make for a wonderful journey–in and of themselves.
It is my hope that others can further grasp the concept of this site and understand how one may befriend other CSers after just a day or two of “surfing”, as it is known.
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On April 26, 2019, I enthusiastically departed Minnesota for my solo road trip, bound for New Jersey, having already planned stops along the way, with my outward route practically solidified, both in terms of where my exact whereabouts would be on the map (Google maps, that is) and whom I’d be staying with.
It was, however, nowhere near a direct passage from Point A to Point B.
That’s not the point of a road trip.
Having previously arranged five two-night stays with hosts on the CSing platform (not an easy task), the site I’ve been happily participating on and enjoying immensely for a decade now, I knew the journey would be based more on a stopping-to-smell-the-roses approach than merely arriving at my final destination: NJ/NY.
Never did I desire to just fly (pedal to the metal, not airline-wise, though I never wished to fly, either) across half the nation to see family on the Jersey Shore and my old home town in Upstate, New York.
This was to be a different kind of trip.
First, why would two nights at each locale have been my scheduling goal*? Why not rush to the East Coast,, getting there in two or three comfortable-enough-yet-naturally-quick-paced days?
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*The one and only drawback to the system, in my opinion, is that Couchsurfing sets one’s itinerary more in stone than what I, a traveler at heart, had ever been accustomed to (prior to using this site for arranging stays with folks–which began in earnest in Latin America in 2018).
If you’d like to change your pacing or the route on which you’re traveling, that obviously leads to cancellations, which are always tricky to negotiate–and very well may leave hosts in a bind, depending on their flexibility and how they’d planned around your stay.
Being on the road without a plan for accommodation can also lead to issues, on the other hand, as it did when I arrived in Rapid City, SD, in the summer of 2016, for example, where there were overlapping HS state-level sports tournaments, leaving me to sleep in the car as hotels were totally booked out.
Yet, with CSing, once you arrange a slew of hosts in advance, you’re somewhat bound to staying on target, unfortunately limiting capricious changes along the way.
To cancel impacts others–and that’s not cool (though things do come up, as you’ll later see).
Rolling with the punches, as is with life, great advice, is best.
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Well, to understand an “appropriate” length of stay with CSers, at least in my opinion, I would say two nights allows for ample interaction with said hosts, knowing that it isn’t very polite when one arrives late for a one-night stopover and takes off the next morning, early.
We (the collective notion of CSers) aren’t a Motel 6, damn it!
One night, moreover, never seems enough–and it surely begets the sensation that one is just flying through without much intent to actually get to know one’s hosts.
For that reason–and for damn good reason, indeed, there are hosts who emphatically implore you in their profiles to not treat them nor their homes “like a hotel”.
Three nights, on the other hand, could risk being perceived as overstaying one’s welcome–and a bit too leech-like.
However, I’ve met CSers who have talked of guests staying for weeks. Imagine that!
A stranger setting up shop in your bathroom, leaving his or her toothbrush to dance intimately with yours in that chalky-white-stuff-stained cup on the basin?
I, myself, have hosted folks for three nights, gleefully–and though I would have extended nights for my favorite guests (and so far, that includes all of them), I could see how anything more than two or three nights would be overdoing it for some.
It really all depends, but the majority of us members promote quality interaction over cursory transaction.
Although I would have stayed for longer in each city I’d researched for this journey (though that was a minimal amount), especially in hindsight since I’d met so many lovely people, I also had known that I had had a deadline of May 21 to complete my loop (in order to make a doc’s appointment in South Dakota, of all places).
Combined with a desire to see a selection of worthwhile municipalities (and to revisit ones I’d long ago explored) were my hopes to get to know CSers in a variety of locales, which prompted me to ask for two nights for each stopover.
Two nights/days, furthermore, provides the time to get to grasp some intricacies of a locality, especially with observations and tips stemming from a resident host’s perspective, with time, to boot, for socializing with said hosts, whether casually at their home or more actively out on the town.
As you’ll see, my hosts fell along the entire spectrum, in terms of styles, personalities, and involvement.
So when people ask, “How is it to stay in the homes of strangers?”, the upshot is… I always say, “It depends.”
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Resultantly, with no need to rush through any of my planned destinations, I knew I’d have ten days all-in-all on my relatively meandering way to the Jersey Shore, and I was happy to know that I would be introduced to plenty of people–aided entirely by the platform’s members’ hospitality and kindness, generosity and knowledge.
The same would hold true for my return loop on a more southerly tour.
All was in store to meet up with CSers, to get to know places from a variety of said locals’ points of view, to also benefit in my frugality from their cumulative empathetic largesse, and to gain by expanding my horizons as a result of the pending social interactions.
Giddy I was that Friday morning, April 26th, taking off, eastward bound.
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Although the trip, in hindsight, begat so many positive views of both enticing city scenes and breathtaking landscapes, the focus of this piece is simply to expound on the opportunities and experiences with CSing, with the piece void of place descriptions unless specifically related to an outing with my hosts or based on their urgings to visit.
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NIGHTS 1 & 2 IN GREEN BAY, WI:
To say that some CSing hosts are meant to be hosts is an understatement, and that holds true for my first on this trip. The below screenshot reference I had left her, and the one she’d left in return, summarizes why I felt that way.
Upon my arriving in her home, J. explained a bit about the house, the backyard (e.g., how she struggles yearly to avoid the falling tree debris on her porch), etc., and of course about her chocolate lab, an amiable fellow who was ready from the start to befriend me. He was surely eager to greet me once I stepped in the house–and I appreciated his loving enthusiasm, for it made me feel at home.
I suppose the same holds true for J. as well!
First, as was the case for a few subsequent hosts, I’d brought along a bag of Costa Rican coffee, which I’d purchased before leaving the country in January (bringing a token of appreciation is good CSing protocol, though this of course varies from person to person; in fact, while in Costa Rica and Taiwan, as a host, I took my surfers out for a meal on their first nights, introducing them to my favorite local eateries, treating them to local cuisine, which has rarely happened in return).
Yet, regardless, one should surely show up with something in hand. That’s a given.
Well, J. and I jabbered temporarily at ‘home’ before heading out to a local joint, the type of place that provokes recollections of the TV series Cheers, not only because of its size but also because–when we walked in–it felt like everyone knew her name. She even introduced me to a row of gents lined cozily, elbow to elbow, on the far side of the bar, one of the off-duty, personable employees lounging nearby, and the similarly gregarious bartender on duty–with a bit of ensuing good-natured jokes surrounding my Minnesota connection (regarding my Viking’s-related essence being present in their Green Bay Packer territory).
Her connection to the place apparent, J. eagerly explained the background of her acquaintanceship with a few of the patrons, the history of the bar, etc., just before a guy came over to sit nearby.
When he did, for the next hour, I was entertained by their explanations of the city, the bloke’s take on the following-day’s pending Trump visit, and stories about life in general.
Without my host, I never would have found myself in such a place, never to have had such an experience as she provided me. If I had sat alone at the same bar, if I had somehow ventured in unwittingly, the dude most likely wouldn’t have sauntered over to chat about Trump.
Nor would I have learned about the apparent rivalry between Appleton (WI) and GB.
After a good 90 minutes chewing the fat, we leisurely made our way–on foot–to the downtown area along the riverfront, chilly as it was, to find some food, with J. providing more insights, e.g., the redevelopment of the area along the river was ongoing yet somewhat recent, the bar scene is such a frenetic blast during pro sports events, etc.
To get firsthand details of Green Bay, without needing to hire a tour guide, was a blessing, easily proving that when a host caters to his or her surfer in such a way, we visitors benefit on a level that is never permitted when staying in a hotel or hostel, as I wrote about recently, here.
Back at her place around 11pm, I was shown the upstairs guest room where I’d stay, a welcoming, warm vibe apparent from the moment I entered. All was clean, well-kept, cozy, and colorful, the kind of room that a carefully-attuned-to-details grandmother would decorate (with that being said with an utterly positive intent)–and the same can be said for the rest J.’s home, with the living room, dining room and kitchen all being bright, cheery, clean and orderly.
For anyone who might fret about what types of accommodation you’d find, be assured you would approve of a place like J.’s.
On Saturday, since we’d already communicated prior to my arrival that she had some things to do, and that I was flexible in spending time solo, too, I headed off to a café, one which she highly recommended: Kavala. Although not a part of my CSing experiences, per se, I truly enjoyed lounging there for the morning, chatting with a variety of nearby customers, but because I’d made plans with J. at noon, I scurried off to spend the rest of the day with her.
I would have loved to stay longer getting to know said patrons.
Since it will be impossible to provide every detail of the four-week trip in the context of this one-blog entry, suffice it to say that my explorations of NE Wisconsin were enhanced because of the generosity of my first host.
That afternoon, she drove us up to Door County, the narrow peninsula north of Green Bay that extends up into Lake Michigan like an erect pinky (why does using that term feel so peculiar in any other context), with her pointing out a number of highlights, with her explaining annual summer extended weekends she and her family take, with her knowing good eats and local treats on and off the route.
For a few hours, we were thus able to easily get to places she’d already recommended, e.g., a state park where we got to get out to walk along the cliff-lined shore (though frigid it was for this accustomed-to-Latin-American-temps bloke), a quaint tourism-flooded-at-least-in-the-summers village where we stopped for casual coffee in a restored Victorian home, and a trendy winery tasting room (which turned out to be too crowded and too obnoxiously loud).
Instead we settled for a minuscule brewery further up the road for a respite from the road.
There, a brewer whom she just happened to know gave us the lowdown on a local winery tour, some related history, etc., another engaging conversation I most likely wouldn’t have had if I had been without a host.
Later in the evening, we opted for Mexican food, the kind of place a traveler wouldn’t necessarily find on his own (another positive aspect of CSing), the obscure kind not in any guidebooks nor most likely not rated on Trip Advisor.
CSing surfers, undoubtedly, know how to live the life of a local (imagine that!) in an instant, so why not follow their lead?
Finally, on Sunday, the day I was to depart, we’d also made plans, prior, to split the morning in two, with my getting some “me time” in at the previously discovered (and recommended) café–with us having agreed to later head to the most important site in Green Bay for anyone who has any understanding of the nostalgic relevance of the home team’s contributions to and impact on the city: Lambeau Field.
J. was well-informed about its history (we’d also swung by the first locale, City Field, where the Packers had once played), taking the time to also point out the houses across the street from the stadium and how they’ve been marketed as party places, with some older homes being torn down to accommodate larger, Packer-themed ones to be rented out on home game days. Since J. had once met a woman who’d sold off her abode, under pressure, apparently–one that was immediately torn down, her stories seemed more personal than what I could have otherwise found online–if there was such insight to be had virtually.
After lunch at a nearby famous-for-its-brats restaurant (that’s bratwurst, y’all, not some snotty kids), Kroll’s West, I dropped her off, snapped a pic with her chocolate lab in the driveway, and we said our goodbyes (the pooch, too).
As I drove away from her home, her neighborhood, her life, and Green Bay, I eagerly hoped to have similar hosts along my path.
That’s what it’s like to stay with a CSer!
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NIGHTS 3 & 4 IN MADISON, WI:
Although a crow would have incredulously giggled upon discovering the route I took from Green Bay (if focused on my final eastward destination, the Jersey Shore), I drove off from Packer territory in a southwesterly fashion to Madison (more Packer territory), a place I’d only been to for a few hours some twenty-two years prior, wanting to see it on a deeper level this time around (with lingering vestiges of some U of MN undergraduate years’ envy that the UW Badgers were always better than the Gophers in everything ranging from academics to basketball; however, at least, “To hell with their hockey teams!” I’ve long said!).
As I’d recently written about, my travels these last 1.5 years have been somewhat planned along CSing-inspired pathways, instead of planning merely around a sightseeing highlight, wanting to meet a variety of folks from all walks of life and backgrounds–and this trip was no exception. Why not take ten days to get to Jersey if it allowed for a stopping-to-smell-the-gardenias pace and for encountering intermittent-to-consistent hospitality on the way?
With the wonderful advantage of having my upcoming hosts share a digital link to their address in advance, as most do nowadays, I arrived in their neighborhood without a hitch (thanks, Google Maps!), yet I was an hour early, giving me some time to explore nearby residential side streets in my car.
Just as I had felt in J’s area the previous two nights, I realized soon after arrival that CSing permits immediate insight into the lives of the inhabitants within not only the hosts’ homes but also in their neighborhoods, especially in comparison to seeing merely the touristic areas of a destination if one
stays sequesters oneself in a hotel (okay, in truth, I had already known this from my surfing in Latin America the year before).
Yes, one can enter a city, check into a Hard Rock hotel, and then perhaps rent a bike and go venturing into residential areas–but when you’re a surfer, you gain immediate access to local living areas–without potentially being arrested for being in the “wrong” place at the right time.
Odd that an invitation from a stranger can be the difference, isn’t it?
If I had, on the other hand, merely found myself lost in any given neighborhood, the mood of the whole experience would have been slightly different, perhaps invoking a guilty sentiment of feeling out of place or possibly having inquisitive residents ask you what you’re doing.
Instead, I gained instant access to an upper-middle-class section of the city and settled in, feeling comfortable parking out front, approaching the door, and pressing the doorbell as if I were an old friend of my hosts, D&J, a middle-aged academia-inclined couple who’d been living there a number of years. Without the inhibition-reducing pre-connection we’d established via the site, I would have felt like a traveling salesman with nothing to sell (except for the Trader Joe’s bagels and bag of Costa Rican coffee I’d brought along).
After D. greeted me at the door, we chatted openly, standing in their living room, a colorful, warm, eclectic decor on display. Within a few moments, I’d learned that they had recently decided to focus more on an active lifestyle, for they’d taken away their couch, one of those household items that welcomes too much lounging, leaving instead two urbane armchairs to socialize from, which we did soon after–and on the second evening, too.
Conversation with D., just like with J. up in Green Bay, came naturally.
Later in the evening, D.’s partner returned, for she had been out at a writing class at a nearby university, with her explaining a bit about such hobbies and the like.
Another insight into local lives unintentionally and subconsciously were checked off the list.
Ever so kind, the couple invited me to join them for the evening meal, a scrumptiously healthy homemade chicken burrito, with organic veggies, etc., and some kick-ass hot sauce.
As they prepared, rejecting my offers of help, we chatted about everything and anything.
Over dinner, between swiping sweat from my brow, I learned about their two daughters, about their work (both in universities, with her being a PhD-resumed professor; him, a Master-level research staff member, from what I gathered), with my sharing a bit about my travels and life overseas, additionally.
Their willingness to share family history high, I’d learned that their eldest daughter was down in southern Wisconsin, investing herself in her freedom and in a cooperative-living lifestyle, having utilized her Spanish skills as an interpreter (they’d lived in Spain for some time–where J. had been assigned to an amazing career role, which she also expounded on in decent detail). Their youngest had recently moved out for a gap year, too, also relishing her adulthood, they explained, although she would return home at times–not yet fully weened from the apron strings.
Coincidentally enough, said teen did actually come home that very night after damaging her ankle skateboarding earlier in the day, with hopes of getting some TLC from mom and dad.
I was, consequently, happily thrown right into the midst of household happenings.
Because D&J also had a boarder in their spare room, a college student who’d just moved here from Africa, I was given the basement, which I found to be welcoming enough.
Having traveled here and there for my entire life, having even slept on a sidewalk once in Malaysia, having done Army cots in Kosovo and tents while camping, I could sleep ANYWHERE, nor am I ever picky about what types of bedding, pillows, etc., are available.
I found the queen-sized bed downstairs to be ample and cozy–and soon settled in for a restful night after updating friends and family on my whereabouts (easily done with wifi access, as most hosts offer these days, at least as all hosts on this domestic trip did).
Because I had brought some scones and bagels from the Trader Joe’s nearby, in the morning I didn’t feel too guilty for having a bagel before taking off for the day to explore the capitol building in downtown Madison (perhaps 20 years removed from my last visit, I was impressed by the city, having also discovered a groovy, collegiate coffee house to lounge at on a rainy day).
Regarding being solo for part of the day, one must realize that CSing can be anything you make of it, all depending on the dynamic of hosts and guests at any given time. Members can aim to participate fully, taking guests on tours, bringing them out to meet friends, chatting until the wee hours, making room in one’s busy schedule.
Perhaps you hit it off; perhaps you don’t.
Yet there are others who don’t have the time to invest in getting to know a guest, who have to work or attend to family and social needs–but they still offer a place to stay, to lend a helping hand logistically.
The majority of us members, however, endeavor to spend time with the travelers who opt to stay with us, with surfers finding a balance between being completely dependent on said hosts and exercising some independence.
With most things in life, neither extreme on either side of the CSing spectrum is good.
At some point in the afternoon, having gotten a good dose of “me time” and some sightseeing in, I picked up D. at ‘home’ and headed out for a bit of a driving tour on the way to a dive bar, just that kind of neighborhood joint that I would not have readily found on my own, had I stayed in a hotel.
His insights quite varied, D. described some recent flooding to me as we got out near Lake Mendota (or was it Lake Monona), and he then proceeded to point out the university down the way along the shoreline, to explain some canoeing adventures he’d taken, and to talk of pollution issues created by chemical runoff from surrounding farmlands.
Full of a newfound knowledge of Madison, I consistently reflected on how appreciative I was of their help, and with such appreciation my motivation, I offered to buy our burger meals at the bar.
It was the least I could do, it felt.
Back at their place, after I’d taken a solo stroll in a loop around their neighborhood (having dropped him off), I learned of D.’s teenage adventures while studying abroad in Holland, and at some point, he’d also shared some commendable insights into being a mentor to a young lad, sort of like a Big Brothers program role.
Always intrigued by human interest stories, I was all ears, thankful, moreover, that he was willing to share.
After J. had returned later in the evening, the three of us sat in the living room, sans couch, of course, with them listening to some personal details of my divorce court and custody battle woes in Taiwan a few years prior, with one of them even shedding tears towards the end of my monologue (though they had also sincerely prompted a few explanations with heartfelt, empathetic questions).
Such empathy and openness was indeed indicative of a bit of bonding, I felt, at least temporarily so–as is the nature of CSing sometimes.
How the hell, contrarily, could that transpire when a traveler merely rents a room at the Best Western?
The next morning, after another restful night’s sleep in the basement, having grabbed a shower in their upstairs, slightly-warn-around-the-edges bathroom (and that’s okay), after a casual bagel breakfast and a coffee chat, I bid them adieu, driving away from their neighborhood, feeling more as if I were leaving “home” than anything else.
Try finding that vibe at a hotel!
The streak of great hosts, dating back to last year’s numerous stays in Panama, Honduras and El Salvador, was, just as I had hoped, unblemished and intact.
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As I’ve attempted to make clear, hitherto, C-surfing allows for an immediate sense of connection to a hosts’ neighborhood (potential, depending on the dynamic of all players in the equation), permits a quick-to-form connection to said hosts (potential, depending on the dynamic), and gradually promotes an increased bond with the overall CSing community (potential, depending on the dynamic).
The aforementioned potentiality simply depends on you, your host, and the prime circumstances that can (potentially) be created at any given moment… well, or not.
I’d hate to write about all these positives to then have your first CS experiences fail miserably!
It all just depends.
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NIGHTS 5 & 6 IN MILWAUKEE, WI:
Well, with my third hosts, I learned more so than ever that trust is both begotten by such stays and is utterly necessary for them to occur in the first place. That’s because they have small children, which admittedly once was a enormous bone of contention for me and my ex-wife, for I was totally comfortable in wanting to invite CSers to stay with us, yet she never did, quickly dismissing the idea when I first brought it up (and the one or two times I subsequently mentioned it before giving up on the notion altogether).
Yet with D&A in Milwaukee, trust must have been both the foundation of my request and visit and also at the forefront of their thinking when they accepted my request.
Undeniably, it was in their minds, too, when they decided on and later informed me of the sleeping arrangements.
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For a bit of insight, trust within the CS community can stem from four primary sources: 1) ones’ references from hosts, surfers and personal sources, 2) one’s photographs put on display for all to see, 3) what one writes up in his/her profile, and 4) the verification system on the platform, itself, with the site’s authentication of a government ID card, address or phone number (yet rarely do hosts do all of those steps for verification).
And, well, your gut instinct.
From my profile…
It is a flawless system?
However, in order to ensure as much appeasing reassurance from the get go, one should use the aforementioned variables to at least get the gist of someone’s background.
For me, for one, I can at least extrapolate a basic sense of understanding about someone if they have a variety of photographs which show him/her naturally engaged in social activities or with family, or on outings with other CSers, especially compared to one cleavage-revealing selfie only (the kind which would result in me moving on to find someone else, someone with a more-genuine-self display of images). Furthermore, being that this site’s original purpose, i.e., helping travelers, should still somewhat govern its usage, I look for folks who have a variety of travel-related photos, knowing that true travelers are oft kindred spirits.
One selfie snapped in front of Walmart’s deli counter may not suffice in letting me feel a surfer or host is a legit traveler!
And then, although anyone can unfortunately bullshit anything on a digital profile (dating app fabrications come to mind), I still read all profiles in detail in hopes of establishing a better grasp of a guest’s or host’s personality.
I’ve long thought, the more information, the better (though I’d recently had a millennial quip that my profile’s write up was, politely, a bit overkill–and I transferred some of it to my blog, instead).
When someone, on the other hand, merely jots a few facts about herself/himself or themselves (for the rare couple or families) nor mentions anything about the available-to-receive-guests home on a profile, I usually skip their page and move on to the next.
Now, if someone also likes Coldplay or U2, as I do, that does not preclude them from being a psychopath (nor me, I suppose, for that matter), yet my gut still tells me that the greater the detail, the more I can rest assured.
Finally, regarding how a member goes about promoting and attaining greater trust, the reference system has to be the most comforting and assuring in helping to decide if a guest is worthy of interacting with, let alone deserving enough to let them scrub down in your shower, use your favorite fuzzy towel on their bare buttocks, drool on your pillow cases, or sit idly on your commode while reading the morning paper!
One can be more certain of their personal safety (especially when falling asleep in someone’s guest room or on their living room sofa), at least in my opinion, if a host has dozens of references from a variety of members that speak highly of said person.
What references reveal is oft enough for me to accept or request a surfing/hosting arrangement, especially when a member has 50+ write ups, all extolling their hospitality and respect.
The same holds true for surfers.
Sitting down for scrambled eggs with someone who showed up the evening before can be less daunting (or not at all daunting) if you’ve already read some 30, 50, 70 or more references touting the positivities of said member.
The more vetted, the better.
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With that said, regardless of how many smily, social photographs, insightful and exultant references, and detailed self-descriptions a member establishes or includes on his/her profile, trusting them in your heart is the most fundamental aspect of the platform that must be present to proceed with accepting, meeting or hosting someone.
And with D&A in Madison, that fact still rings true a month after being hosted by them.
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So back to my hosts in Milwaukee.
In the afternoon of that particular day I arrived at their home, a modest-yet-welcoming abode in a few-decades-old section of the city, just off a tree-lined, well-traveled thoroughfare.
Having already gotten a little lost while driving around to burn off some extra minutes beforehand–so that I didn’t turn up ahead of my planned ETA, I was happy to have arrived to a really casual, genuine home life environment, with their enthusiastic boys (three and seven years of age) already displaying their more active sides, with mom and dad frenetically juggling chores in the kitchen, communicating about real-life issues that popped up, their trying hard to manage two entertaining kids.
They weren’t there to impress me with a prepped-for-an-Elle-Decor-mag-cover-shoot home or an utterly spotless environment (as some hosts may endeavor to present); instead, I was able to see their lives as they live them, a kid’s backpack placed hastily down after arriving home, school work spread on the table.
This was not J’s well-kept place in Green Bay, and that was ONE-HUNDRED-PERCENT OKAY! With all certainty in saying so, I valued BOTH experiences equally.
They were living “normally” as I stepped in, sitting down at a smallish family table in a smallish kitchen space, observing all as they went about their daily tasks, not skipping a step even with a stranger in their midst.
My gifts, a requisite bag of the world’s best coffee (at least that’s what Ticos explain) and a box of chocolate treats I’d picked up nearby, both helped to break the ice a bit, and from there we sat and conversed, though conversations were a trifle scattered between periodic ‘consultations’ with one boy or the other, with one parent or the other needing to go interrupt their play time or to set the record straight when the lads disagreed on something.
Been there, done that, as a parent, so for me, there was no sweat off my back that I was not attended to hand and foot.
I wouldn’t want to be anyway.
Because D&A had met and were married overseas (been there, done that, too), because they had lived in a third-culture country (i.e., not either of their homelands), as once did I, and because they have a cross-cultural relationship, as had I, I was able to relate to some fairly profound aspects of their existence–even if we all experience such similarities in different ways below the surface.
D., himself, is a teacher, so I was further able to comprehend a bit of his life abroad a bit more than the average guest, knowing what it is like from firsthand experience. His stories of returning to the States to teach after being overseas were, moreover, highly relevant for this bloggin’ bloke.
To share dinner with them (as I did the subsequent evening and for two breakfasts as well) permitted more insights into life in middle-class Milwaukee.
Happy it left me.
After the first night’s meal and after the kids went to bed, D. took me on a driving tour of the city, pointing out places he had lived years before, showing me the downtown area (I was impressed by the relative cleanliness and vibe, for I’d long thought it was a more blue-collar town).
Although we had bad luck in discovering the first two places were closed, even trying the door, enthusiastically-at-first, on one brewery, we settled on a trendy lil’ taproom with a medley of craft options displayed on the wall to choose from, and we then settled into deeper chats, which covered teaching, marriage, my alienated kids, my alienated-father status, etc.
By 10pm we were home, the two older guys that we are, neither apparently accustomed to late outings.
Satisfied I was in my nascent understandings of a new city and fellow CSers.
As a tourist, in different circumstances, you see, I might have chatted with a fellow patron at a Cream City bar that night about the NBA playoffs and the Bucks budding chances, theretofore, for a title run, for example. However, as a CSer, I became acquainted with an entire family and was able to further comprehend life on a local level.
To me, the choice is an easy one.
Where trust came into play, however, wholeheartedly, besides, by default, simply staying in another stranger’s home, was evident when D&A later explained that night that I would be sleeping in the bottom bunk of their seven-year-old son’s room.
Since the three-year old slept with the parents, and since the sofa may have been too noisy, that was my option.
The young lad was already fast-asleep.
Having stayed, theretofore on this trip, in a gorgeously quaint attic room in Green Bay and in an inviting-enough and totally comfortable basement bed in Madison, I had just found myself in a “just-go-with-the-flow, Mike” moment of hospitality, in accepting, flexibly, what a host had to offer.
Knowing that I can sleep anywhere, adaptable as hell, I simply went to sleep, having first tip-toed my way around the room to take out my contact lenses in the dark, having quietly set my backpack up at the foot of the bed, “bunk bed”, that is.
As I tucked myself in without knocking my head on the above framework, listening to a kid snoring slightly, I pondered, “Wow, CSing is truly about trust.”
The next morning required some immediate adapting to the environment (a key component of CSing, as you can now readily see), because I needed to squat ever so carefully in the bath to use the shower head–without a shower curtain present, mindful of not splashing about like a sparrow in a birdbath.
My head held proudly, for having not flooded the bathroom linoleum, I soon after joined the family in their getting-ready-for-the-school-bus, frenetic morning pace and for a bite to eat.
The night before, A. had prepared an appealing-to-the-eye oatmeal-in-milk, with bananas mixed in, concoction, which they served for breakfast–with one even prepared for me. Satiated by the scrumptiousness of the dish, I was pleased to know I was being taken care of.
That’s what it’s like!
Their focus on getting the eldest boy ready and the youngest fed, the adults were, nonetheless, still able to give me tips on what to see and the directions from their home to the Harley Museum (though, much to D’s chagrin, I still relied on my GPS to get me there).
I’d not said anything, but as he explained the route, I had already been mentally lost after he said, “Leave the driveway and turn left”!
Because we’d planned on a balance to our days, i.e., with my getting some ‘me time’ to explore, with talks of my coming back in the mid-afternoon, I was first able to get in a morning coffee (taking their advice to head to the eclectic-vibe of Brady Street, to the artsy, laid-back RoChambo Coffee House) before I set off to check out the newer HD museum (not the factory out of town, but the more modern installation within the city limits).
After salivating over the collection of near countless motorbikes, I then eagerly hit downtown to walk into the impressive, historic central library and then around the surrounding, seemingly recently-rejuvenated area, casually snapping some pics here and there.
I’d learned of those sightseeing options on the previous night’s tour–without having to go to Trip Advisor’s “Nice place”-like reviews, thankfully.
Back at the family’s home by mid-afternoon, I actually found myself “with nothing to do”. I’d been on the go since early in the morning, hitting some touristy sights, so it was a joy to partake in a respite, and what better way to do that than play Legos with a small child!
As a teacher, I was all for it.
His eagerness apparent, their youngest, W., had invited me to join him on a sort of sun porch at the front of the house, where the floor was laden with still-in-the-works creations and seemingly finished projects on display.
What better way to feel at home than child’s play!
He and I then read three picture books together on the living room floor as D., the father, frenetically prepared things in the kitchen.
Happy I was to know they trusted me with such interactions, delighted I was to share my love of reading (as both a teacher and father) with a toddler.
At some point, we decided to take off, the three of us, since Mom and the eldest son were not home yet after school. Having tried to find the other family members at the school to grab a car seat on the way, we opted to go on the relatively famous Lakefront Brewery Tour, enjoying the tastings and the decently-entertaining guide’s goofiness.
To end the evening back at home with a home-cooked, family-oriented meal, sharing more stories of life, with a few laughs at their son’s silliness, was another fine example of the benefits of the Couchsurfing community.
“What is it like to stay with strangers?” people ask.
“Sometimes it’s as if you are with family,” I can confidently reply.
The following rain-soaked, chilly morning, after a second shared breakfast, with D. having already needed to rush off to work early, I bade them farewell, waving goodbye as A. and her two kiddos walked towards the school bus stop.
Being a father, one who has not seen his children in… forever, a momentary discomfort came over me as I drove off, feeling like I would somehow, after a mere two days, miss these Couchsurfing kids.
With minimal effort, those two boys made me feel just as welcomed as their parents had.
That’s what staying with a CSer is like.
* * * * * * * *
Unfortunately, however, with all the kudos I can throw at it, Couchsurfing is not a perfect platform, for human nature isn’t flawless.
[And even more unfortunately, there are far worse stories to be found about the bad eggs who’ve misused and abused the site.]
On that note (on a much lighter note in comparison), for my fourth planned-out-in-advance stop in my itinerary, I had elected Toledo because I’d wanted to see a bit more of small-city life, instead of (originally) aiming for a larger metropolis like Cleveland. I had even decided to surpass Chicago without even an inkling of stopping (I’d been to the Windy City, twice, years ago, and I love it, but for this trip, I preferred aiming for less-hectic, less-congested locales).
My navigating goal was to get deeper into Ohio before coming up for air.
Ever aware of my hopes to stop and smell the roses, not wanting to rush through, I had also accepted this longer six-plus-hours leg of the journey (the longest one-day stretch of the entire four-week trip) as par for the course because I’d not had any luck in finding a CSer anywhere in the range of four hours eastward from Milwaukee.
Welcoming was the idea that after six hours-plus I’d have a house to call home for two meandering days in Toledo.
The pending host, who had accepted my request some two-to-three weeks before, had, however, sent me a foreshadowing message the day prior to my arrival, briefly stating something about her parents being worried about her hosting me (even though she had merited a dozen or so references, previously, from both men and women), yet she’d politely assured me it should not be an issue.
Thus, I drove from Milwaukee to Toledo directly, taking, because of construction on the interstate (i.e., single-lane speeds)–and because of heavy rainfall at times, about six-and-a-half hours.
Before arriving at our planned 6:10pm meeting, since she’d expected to be home from work then, I’d stopped at a grocery store a few blocks away, purchasing bagels and beer as a typical token of appreciation for such a stay.
Perhaps I had foolishly jumped the gun.
Her doubtful vibe apparent when she got out of her car, she stated initially, all too apprehensively, “My parents are so worried about me. My sister and brother have been texting me all day, asking me to cancel.”
“They’re worried about your age,” she added.
Obviously, this was not a good start. I didn’t even bother going back to the hatch of my Mazda to remove my things nor the bagels and beer, the latter of which was still tantalizingly, wastefully cold.
She at least asked me in for a water to talk about the situation, but after two or three sips, standing in her kitchen, having listened to her tentative explanations about not wanting to cancel the day before (when her family apparently first bemoaned her decision to host me), I commented, “Well, to be honest, if you are nervous about what your parents might say or uncomfortable about my staying here because of them, then I would prefer to not stay.”
Why would I have tried to persuade her differently? Any sense of discomfort would have made for an even more peculiar time if she had felt pressured.
Apologetic and seemingly sincere, she even added, “You can leave a negative reference if you’d like to.”
However, I am well aware of the inevitable fact that, in life, shit happens.
The reference system should, indeed, be utilized to report egregious behaviors and to notify other members of a hosts’/guests’ unhealthy or crummy antics, but I didn’t feel that she should be one to be warned about, permanently (members, for good reason, cannot delete negative comments or reviews).
With one totally unfounded negative blemish on my otherwise positive profile, I didn’t feel right to even entertain the notion of leaving her a bad reference.
Shit happens sometimes.
Undoubtedly, however, to drive more than six hours halfway across Illinois and well into Ohio, and into the outskirts of a small city (her home was on the outskirts of Toledo), did put me in a bit of a bind (i.e., leaving me with no accommodation entering into the evening). To have arrived with the hopes of getting out of the car to relax over a cold brew, yet being essentially turned away, left me slightly inconvenienced.
Life is life.
Since I’d, just prior to departing, asked her advice on a place to sit with a beer, I then drove into downtown Toledo, finding the Alley Bar, a nostalgic dive joint with a lively vibe.
Alone at my barstool, I pondered the late Charles Kuralt’s insightful understanding of life on the road: “If the traveler expects the highway to be safe and well-graded, he may as well stay home.”
Or stay at a Motel 6, Charles! (How the hell was I going to drive “home” to stay since I don’t even have a home to begin with!)
After nursing a savory stout for more than an hour, pondering if I could meet someone, I instead drove off to Sandusky, the next stop on the interstate with a selection of hotels, making a beeline for a relatively safe and relatively “well-graded” Motel 6, spending the rest of my evening munching on a woe-is-me-ish-comfort-food quesadilla at an Applebee’s Bar and Grill five miles further on.
Though I enjoyed chatting a trifle with the bartender and even the two ladies at the hotel’s reception desk (about my journey), it was, far and away, a very different experience than my previous expectations of being hosted by a CSer that night.
That’s life on the road.
* * * * * * * *
Honestly, however, dear reader, the night solo in the hotel was actually a pleasing enough recess from the routine. After six nights in a row of FANTASTIC conversations and socializing, swapping stories with the aforementioned hosts in three households, a night alone was, in the end, refreshing.
Alas, I could finally go to sleep in my birthday suit, the norm when life is normal, with no concerns invading my mindset either about nightly flatulence that might be heard by my hosts or even waking up with a potential pup tent that still wouldn’t go away by the time I dashed to the bathroom to shower.
Channel surfing until I nodded off, I was then able to sleep the night away peacefully.
* * * * * * * *
The last-minuted cancellation had not only altered my destination goals (I’d hastily driven the main thoroughfares of Toledo’s downtown before heading out on the highway the night before, never getting a chance to loaf two days away there) but it also required me to reach out to more CSers last minute to find a place for the second night (of the scheduled two-nights previously to have been with Ms Cancellation, no offense).
While seated at the Sandusky Applebee’s the night prior, between moments of people watching (there were but a mere seven or eight patrons the entire 90 minutes I was there) and twiddling my thumbs, I’d jumped online to search for a new host in Cleveland.
Admittedly, my pre-planning stages before commencing the trip took hours, which entails searches (filtering for last-logged-in dates, i.e., those who are active, and also for those with references), reading profiles and references in detail, scanning photos for cluster bombs or sawed-offs in the background of each. Then, in reaching out to someone, I use a skeleton message but change many details, even notating key elements on paper to include when I write them digitally through the platforms system. Those changes, ensuring I do NOT send out canned communications, take time to draft, etc.
So it wasn’t that I just didn’t have a place to crash and a host to get to know in Toledo, I had more legwork to do when I should not have had to.
At least, looking at the bright side, I was going to hopefully get to spend more time in Cleveland than was expected.
I’d planned to stop there for a half day to check out the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but I’d not planned on getting a host.
Thankfully, however, one aspect of the CSing platform that aids travelers in knowing whom to contact is the “Preferences” list on the “My Home” page that members can check off for “Last Minute Requests Okay” (in addition to other notions such as “Pets Okay”, “Smoking Allowed”, “Morning Wood Not Okay”, “Kid Friendly”, etc.).
Surely one of those isn’t on the platform, but perhaps it should be.
Indeed, my request for a Cleveland savior was going to be a last-minute one, yet since I was somewhat in a bind–one created by an out-of-my-hands blunder, I didn’t feel too daunted in reaching out to folks that way, begging for a potentially disruptive change to someone’s evening plans.
If it had been my fault in reaching out to folks so late in the game, I would have perhaps felt more embarrassed or bothersome.
I swallowed my pride and wrote a handful of CSers, bemoaning my losses, licking my wounds openly.
Lo and behold, my having honestly explained the previous host’s cancellation landed me a gracious return offer from a super gracious dude and his girlfriend, both of whom had profiles–though hers revealed less CSing exchanges in total. However, because hers was set to “Accepting Guests” and his was not, I reached out to her with my request, first.
Admittedly, though, because they were considerably younger than my previous three hosts, I felt they might exercise a bit o’ ageism, which I believe is unfortunately occurring on the platform (as do my hosts in Madison, both around my middle-of-middle-aged age).
* * * * * * * *
A topic I allude to in my profile (linked therein to a blog page entry recently–to avoid my typical wordiness), the notion of ageism should NOT be one associated with Couchsurfing, at least in my opinion. Ideally, guests and hosts should be open to hospitality exchange regardless of age, for the concept of lending a hand, altruistically, should be utterly without confines.
Yet it appears to be rearing its ugly head nowadays.
In this assumption my Madison hosts had concurred because they had also noticed that their requests weren’t being answered with mounting frequency over the years. Potentially, there could be other reasons, yet they’re smart enough cookies to be assessing the situation as I do.
Who am I kidding, they’re far more learned and erudite than I am!
For me, this ONE fact is a telltale sign: Although I have reached the 10-year CSing membership mark, I have NEVER ONCE RECEIVED A REQUEST TO STAY AT MY HOME. NEVER.
For a guy with a solid, far-more-than-average 70-plus references? How is that possible? Yet other, younger members have told me that they frequently receive requests.
Not a one.
Rejection may be the name of the game in my life with women, but strangers on a hospitality exchange?
Being that I had “Accepting Guests” marked on my page for around four years in both Taiwan and Costa Rica (which shows up at the top of one’s profile in GREEN), one would estimate at least a few requests per year from travelers.
Moreover, for example, if a member does a search for hosts in a city, filtering results for people most actively or recently involved in the community (by selecting “Last Login Date in the Last Month”), it narrows down the results multifold.
I’d still show up in my former cities, being active myself, logging in relatively regularly–so it isn’t like I’d just disappeared from the community that way.
For example, for Northfield, MN, the availability of hosts dropped from 362 (without any filters) to four when I recently entered that default setting also “With References”.
Thus, if someone were to have looked for hosts in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, or San Jose, Costa Rica (where I’d lived these last few years), setting the search terms specifically for recent logins and for those with references, I surely would have popped up.
And with the amount of positive references I have, far more than the average CSing bloke, one would think members would feel comfortable reaching out.
Zero travelers have, however (though I admit to not being able to host during the first five years on the site because my ex forbade it). Still, for those four-to-five years, one would assume I would have gotten a few folks to have reached out to me.
It makes sense, then, that members filter for hosts according to age, which is possible, though I’ve personally never used it.
Why would I have? A host is a host is a host.
To have received surfers in my home, having hitherto happily hosted about 22 guests, I instead reached out to globetrotters who had posted publicly on the platform (which you can do), having previously received e-mail updates stating, “These surfers are looking for a host in your city.”
That’s the only way I’d received CSers, the only way I was able to legitimately build my profile, by hosting (instead of those folks who have lopsided numbers of hosts’ references versus guests’, rarely having done hosting themselves).
To me, reciprocity is one integral facet of the entire Couchsurfing foundation, regardless of one’s age.
Indeed, it should not matter if a traveler looking to meet up in a foreign city and/or be hosted while traveling internationally (or domestically, for that matter) is 80, 60, 40 or 20.
The focus MUST be reciprocated altruism, I’d like to argue.
Until society changes its mindset, however, I’ll continue to reach out to others in need, for apparently being chopped liver makes for not a great host, in their opinions.
* * * * * * * *
Thankfully, my ephemeral concerns about the younger (than me) couple in Cleveland not putting me up never came to fruition.
They aren’t like that.
NIGHT 7 in Cleveland, OH:
One of the greatest aspects of CSing has to be the opportunity it spurs to learn from others, whether it’s (simplistically or profoundly, superficially or deeply) about someone’s opinions on politics or religion, about lifestyle choices or experiences, or about his or her profession.
Again, as seems to be a repeated theme in my entries about this hospitality platform, this being my third blog post, a hotel stay does not beget such moments; CSing, by default, provides instant acquaintanceship and/or ready-made friendships from the get go.
And whom do we learn from more than most others (and when)? When engaging our friends and acquaintances (unless you’re void of them and focus 100% of your energies on Instagram, Twitter and Snap Chat).
With this leg of my journey, I was enlightened instantly about previously unfamiliar territory and others’ competencies and backgrounds.
Though no ignoramus, I felt like I was in uncharted waters when I got off the boat in Cleveland. That’s because C., the male counterpart of the couple to host me that night, had invited me to meet him at work.
Being a teacher man, a guy who’d hit 50 three months before posting this entry, I’d, theretofore, not been introduced to a co-working space, those frequently modern facilities–oft seemingly set up in gentrified neighborhoods or in restored warehouses–where mostly, I assume, creative millennials do their entrepreneurial thing.
Yet, because C. had invited me to meet him there, I was thrust into a new world, unabashedly so.
After inviting me in, he hastily toured me around, stopping, too, to pour us each a tap beer (not just any ol’ Miller Lite, either) on our way up to the four-story-high roof.
There, on a finished wood platform surrounded by shrubbery, he explained a bit about the ongoing neighborhood renovations, the nightlife and bar scene in plain view, and a bit about the lay of the land (and bodies of water on the horizon). Open and personable, he articulated well his professional, consulting endeavors, shedding light on a walk of life I’d not encountered, hitherto.
Since he’d had to finish up a few things after, I lounged a bit with some social media, trying to blend in to the workspace where a few other solo co-workers were seemingly, astutely engaged in whatever endeavors had brought them there.
Looking around the large, open space, where there were “telephone booths” for more private conferences, sofas and chairs in circular, chat-inspiring sets, and the aforementioned bar (with snacks and fanciful fruit on display–all included in their monthly fees, I had been told), I was satisfied in knowing such personal learning opportunities had come about by actively partaking in the platform.
In so many ways, CSing is about stepping out into unknown territories, a welcome endeavor for anyone flexible and thirsty enough to do so.
Later, because she worked a stone’s throw away, C’s partner S. came by, and we joined her for a 30-minute brisk exploration about the neighborhood. Needing a break from her evening health care shift, she’d swung by to pick us up, on foot.
Both open to dialogue, she and I talked small about our backgrounds (as C. kept pace next to her), sharing some quick insights as a mental health provider and as an overseas teacher, respectively.
Otherwise, the happy couple eagerly pointed out close-at-hand highlights, giving me ideas for the next day’s sightseeing, places like the West Side Farmers Market, the Crop Bistro (located in a former bank whose lobby made for an impressive first sight), and the Great Lakes Brewing Company.
Such first-hand knowledge couldn’t be beat.
The Urban Spoon and Yelp have nothing on such folks!
Because S. needed to work until 1:30am, C. later drove, after dropping my car off near their home, to another revived district, Ohio City, where we first walked to a corner joint called Happy Dog, turning away because there was a cover charge for music.
We, instead, had just wanted, as was recommended as a popular option by my companion, to munch on hotdogs covered with such things as Cheetos or Fruit Loops.
(Yes, check out their website, which I later did to see what I’d missed, or didn’t miss, depending on perspective.)
Disappointingly (well, in reality, with those topping selections more repellent than attraction, I wasn’t too saddened), we continued on foot to Luxe, a candlelit-yet-still-on-the-dark-side, hip eatery, the type of place that immediately begat a feeling I wasn’t dressed well enough, nor was cool enough.
I think I was in a Madras Hilfiger that night when I should have donned… shit, I don’t know any trendy designers and cannot even finish the idea without needing to Google it!
Regardless of any self-conscious awareness that I was on display to all as a frugal traveler, somewhat cognizant that I was dining merely by candlelight with a well-coiffed, affable male stranger, the vibe was soothing, the menu amazing, the pizza and apps utterly satiating.
Welcome to such new opportunities, CSers gain a plethora of insights by being open to their hosts’ suggestions and recommendations, just going with the surfing flow.
This was no exception.
Back in their current stomping grounds, where S. & C. rent an upper floor flat in a large multiple-resident home, we walked several blocks to a from-an-earlier-era pub mostly frequented by young denizens who know the local hideouts, drinking two pints, sharing some stories, with my continually being impressed (if a man can use such a term to describe another bloke twenty years my junior) by C’s varied knowledge base.
Because, in our short time, C. introduced me to a few people (e.g., the gal also on line for a table at Luxe, a theater manager who’d been in our proximity at the latter bar), I started to feel as if I’d just actually relocated to Cleveland, easily able to establish a social circle if that had been true.
At 1:15am, we returned home to meet S., just getting off her shift, and for an hour or so we tiredly chatted about gluten free dieting (of which they both do) and their CSing guests, to date.
That topic always comes up (and perhaps, consequently, someone is telling a story at this very moment about that vagabond Mike who’d accidentally “left the toilet seat up” or had shown signs of distress “when he was attacked by my duplicitous cat”).
Once again, to say that I am always appreciative of any sleeping space, flexible as hell, is an understatement, and sleeping on their sofa, only my second truly eponymous “couch surfing” episode, held true to that notion.
I slept well in the living room–just as I would on a bed, and by 6:50am, an early riser, I let myself out for a walk to the nearby café, open to greet me with its laid back vibe and mellow tunage–some 100 steps from their flat.
After my requisite morning cuppa, I stopped back in to bid adieu to my ephemeral hosts, the truly legit CSers that they are, heading out to see if their recommendations, the Cleveland Museum of Art and the West Side Market, were also legit (later, much appreciating their tip to walk up the stairs above the entranceway for a better view of the place).
Thankfully, Cleveland will long stand as a positive experience in my mental recollections, in large part due to their hospitality (just as Green Bay, Madison, and Milwaukee will because of my respective hosts in each locale).
* * * * * * * *
Unfortunately, as mentioned earlier, CSing, being susceptible to the conceivable imperfections of human nature, isn’t perfect, and for the second time on the trip, adjustments needed to be made to my itinerary at the last minute.
[In explaining these shortcomings, perhaps subconsciously I am hoping to actually scare off naysayers so that the community doesn’t explode to any more than its current size–so that there will always be open options to be hosted and to host.]
This time around challenges occurred because my pending host in Pittsburgh, who had confirmed some three weeks prior, lapsed in her communication–to the point I was worried she’d changed her mind. In fact, up until the day before my scheduled arrival, she hadn’t replied to my follow-up messages, which I’d sent both about ten days and seven days prior, in which I’d asked for her address and an ETA that suited her well.
No word came.
Then, two days in advance, realizing she’d not responded yet, I’d messaged once again, having one of those “Earth-to-__________ moments”.
However, I’d not received confirmation by the night before, with plans to leave the next morning from Cleveland, so I instead wrote to explain I was actually cancelling because I preferred to have more solid plans before proceeding with my journey early in the A.M.
Lamentably, on the morning of my leaving Cleveland, she wrote to say she had “been in the hospital”.
Though the explanation has to be considered legit, if I am to simply trust in the goodness of people, I had seen on her profile a few days before that her “last login” was, in fact, within the timeframe of my previous queries, i.e., if she had been on her profile, which she was, she could have read my messages and simply replied.
Because I’d canceled, even though my message was totally polite and respectful, and because I also had felt some fresh doubts about trust, I decided to not rebook two nights officially (and I always arrange stays officially as one the measure of personal security).
‘Tis what it is, but it left me scrambling to find another host at the eleventh hour, leaving me to consider if I needed to find a hotel instead or to even drive straight through to NJ, where family would be awaiting me, if need be, even if a day or two early.
Thankfully, as I have explained earlier, CSing hosts sometimes list on their profiles if they’ll accept last-minute requests, and that’s what I’d immediately made after finding another Pittsburgh hostess who apparently would.
She accepted, sympathetically and graciously, saving me from being in a budget-minded bind.
* * * * * * * *
Now, this must be said before explaining my fifth host on this journey: Because I believe that the aforementioned ageism is at work on the CSing platform, and because single men have the hardest time in arranging a place to stay (whether with a single female or even with a single male host), I never expected this fifth host to accept, being that she is younger and a woman.
However, K. was cool in accepting my last-minute request, just for one evening, adding that she was sorry to hear that her same-city brethren had not replied soon enough.
* * * * * * * *
NIGHT 8 in Pittsburg, PA:
In the afternoon, having completed my nowhere-near-taxing, mere 120-minute trip from Cleveland, having already checked out the trendy (if a bit over-gentrified) haunts of Butler Street in Lower Lawrenceville, stopping there for a bit of coffee shop lounging and a God’s gift to creation (i.e., a scone), I parked in a designated “let’s-meet-here” neighborhood, wondering what the hell the ubiquitous signs “Mexican War Streets” meant.
Turns out that the Mexican War Streets, a select grid of seemingly endless restored brownstones, worthy of a historical distinction–however odd the name, made for a peaceful stroll mid-afternoon. Walking about aimlessly, weather perfect, I eagerly snapped a number of pics with both my rarely-used Nikon and my increasingly oft-addicting iPhone.
A short while later, meeting K., I discovered she lived, well, in Pittsburgh.
As with meeting all CSing hosts, upon walking into her place, I felt like there was so much to absorb, both in terms of her living arrangement and about her life. And just like my Madison host had immediately engaged in conversations about both, K. and I proceeded to sit down in her eclectic, high-ceilinged living room, chewing the fat about her profession, her two cats, her boyfriend, etc. (whether or not the cat-chat actually preceded stories about her boyfriend, I cannot recall).
However enjoyable, these initial conversations always seems like a crash course in personal histories, hopefully a dialogue which comes in the form of a two-way street, hopefully not stale like in a job interview.
Within twenty minutes, I determined that her cats were horribly troublesome (and that’s from a man who adores cats), for one of them attacked me after initially allowing me to pet its back for a couple of pseudo-tender moments, unfortunately causing me to not trust them again for the next 24 hours.
Not even for a second.
[I went to bed that night hoping the lil’ duplicitous felines weren’t going to lick my chin while I slept, with them readily cognizant of my nearby tasty jugular. My ex-wife had aimed for that; I was hoping these two would just leave it alone.]
Within those first twenty minutes, however, I’d also established that K. was a truly cool human being.
Her outlook on life spirited, her focus on her musical career and artistic endeavors laudable, she is, at least in this man’s opinion, bound for a grand life, one filled with a habitual, talented expression of her persona–coming through in her song-writing, poetry, and musical skills.
After an hour or two, we headed out in my car for dinner, with her having set plans already with her boyfriend, who was to soon be meeting us downtown.
At least she didn’t invite the kitties.
Once again, insight from a CSing host proved valuable, since she’d wanted me to try Emporio, a centrally-located joint that serves up specialty… meatballs?
Because I’d just returned from being abroad for 15 consecutive years, and especially because I’d been suffering some fairly incredulous reverse culture shock, theretofore, my first thought upon hearing her suggestion was, “What will Americans think of next?”
A meatball-focused theme restaurant? Really?
Yes, my query came in a somewhat cynical fashion, yet internally of course (the USA seems to have gone over the top with trendiness)! But I went with the flow because she spoke so highly of it, with her admitting to have brought other guests and visiting family there previously.
On second thought, if one really thinks about it, the damn things are the next step away from being a hamburger! So why not! Right?
With CSing, going with the flow is best, open-minded to all.
Soon after, her affable-yet-a-bit-introverted boyfriend joined us, and for the 90 minutes we were there, I learned a good deal about both their musical careers, their education, their dreams, even.
It is not every day, especially for a relatively introverted bloke, himself, who does not normally maintain a large social circle, that one gets to be introduced to so many walks of life, one aspect of CSing that I still find mesmerizing, ten years on, 70-plus hosting/surfing exchanges later.
It’s as if my journey from Minnesota to Pittsburgh, theretofore, had been an ongoing parents’ career day at school, with my hosts enthusiastically explaining their chosen paths in life to an eager audience.
Curious and keen, I took in their intriguing, frenetically-paced stories, with open ears.
Heretofore in life, I’ve never really known a musician, except just in passing, so to sit with the two of them truly was eye-opening.
Indeed, it was a pleasure for that inquisitiveness factor, just by itself.
Upon returning to K’s pad after a couple of hours out, with my staying clearly away from her moody cats, however adorable they were on the surface, K. and I chatted for another hour or so at her kitchen’s high-top table.
As is often the case, stories about previous hosts and guests, both mine and hers, came up. In fact, I think every time I’ve hosted someone, stayed in a member’s home, given tours, etc., there’s a propensity for CSing stories to take place, both good and bad.
Mesmerized I was by said stories.
Before heading to sleep on an inflatable mattress bed in a spare space (a kind of bedroom-cum-office), I was gratefully informed that she’d take those mini-monsters of hers into her room (in the back of the brownstone flat) for the night.
Thank god! Rest never came so easily.
Being an early riser, with her being a late bird (accustomed to until-the-wee-hours shifts in the “music industry related” job she holds), I awoke, readied myself, and left even before she’d probably hit R.E.M. sleep mode.
Faced with a gorgeously blue sky day, I strolled a bit through the Mexican War Streets, again, easily finding the café she’d recommended a few blocks away, and for about two hours was able to relax, read, and write, getting some necessary ‘me time’.
K. then came by, mid-morning, having read my invitation to buy her a mornin’ brew, and there at that café we shared a few more tales about life, gaining valuable insights, as one always does on CSing, about another human being (if that’s your thing and you promote doing so, even if you’re a relatively reticent bloke like me).
Caffeine-satiated, we strolled to her flat, I grabbed my bags, preferring quick goodbyes, for I was on the road and she leads a busy life–and off I drove, bound for the Jersey Shore.
Some 20-plus years her senior, I departed her neighborhood, utterly pleased that she’d not ageism-shamed me!
Not to beat a dead horse, but that’s what surfing in a stranger’s home is like.
* * * * * * * *
Somewhat mid-trip, of my four-weeks on the road, for a week I stayed with family in NJ, in a hotel for a night for a change of pace (kindly rejecting a high school buddy’s offer to stay in his family home, needing a respite from socializing and just wanting to sleep in my “most comfortable state” once in a while), and then with a really old friend for a couple of nights in Upstate NY (not her age, but how long we’ve known each other).
In terms of geography timing, I’d come to my halfway point.
* * * * * * * *
For my return voyage back to South Dakota, I had had a rough idea on where I’d go (even deciding before departing the Upper Midwest weeks prior), and a few hosts, a month in advance, had already confirmed they’d put me up.
I knew my next CSing stop was going to be Blacksburg, Virginia, which I’d guesstimated was on the way to south-central Tennessee, which I was bound for to stay for two nights (who am I trying to kid: Google Maps told me specifically that it was).
However, I left the NY/NJ area with hopes of not having to do more than 4-5 hours.
Lo and behold, I didn’t, because I’d located, last-minute, a hosting family in Scranton, PA, one able to put me up somewhat late on a Sunday night.
The experience in PA (Pennsylvania), and the subsequent exchanges I’d, moreover, had in Virginia, Illinois and Iowa, provides further insight to the whole concept of CSing, with enough variety stemming from each that I’ll give some further details to follow.
* * * * * * * *
NIGHT #-something in Scranton, PA (and, no, I didn’t see anything related to The Office, the sitcom, somewhat unfortunately):
Sometime late-afternoon on whatever date it was (too lazy at the moment to refer to my calendar), I pulled into a residential area outside of Scranton, enveloped by a momentary yet total sense of being lost (in the overall scheme of how the neighborhood was related to the city and its surroundings, and where I’d arrived to in comparison to the city center).
If it hadn’t been for my GPS getting me right to their doorstep, I would have fretted about my situation, having no clue if the area was legitimately safe or not.
[Actually, I’ve been around the block so many times around the world that I’d only added that sense of foreboding questioning simply because others may feel concerned about going into a stranger’s neighborhood–and for a bit of a different take on it. Not once have I actually been in a CS-related neighborhood that was concerning.]
However, I suppose that one may very well risk arriving at a crack house (Is that still a thing?) if one doesn’t rely on the aforementioned reference and verification system, reading reviews, if you will, on others’ surfing stays, descriptions of homes, etc.
Instead, (sigh of relief) the missus of the house came to the door as I jostled with my bags in my hatchback and soon after walked to their front stoop, perhaps looking like a lost puppy.
Upon entering their home, I met her better half, M., handing him some craft beers I’d picked up (having run out of my Costa Rican coffee), also noticing, simultaneously, a small shadow hiding off behind the stairwell separating the dining room from the living room.
The little girl to whom the shadow belonged never really interacted with me until the next morning, since, as Mom explained, she was feeling sick (and was quite shy, I surmised), yet the vibe this was a family-oriented abode was consistent the whole time, well, for the less-than-24-hours, I was there.
No reading to one energetic kid this time around, but that was fine!
[If I cannot recognize that all kids are different, I don’t think I have a place in education.]
Their understanding and display of hospitality high, the family, soon after I’d arrived, invited me to partake in their evening meal (a baked mac-n-cheese dish with tomato sauce served on the side straight from the sauce pan). ‘Twas a casual gathering over which we exchanged some stories about life in Central America, with the father being from there, himself (with my having lived in Costa Rica and traveling to nearby countries the previous 1.5 years).
Intrigued I always am by stories of cross-cultural romances and bi-cultural families, having been there, done that. By default, I’d made a identifiable connection with them.
In fact, it appeared that the father, M., also knew a man I’d met just six months prior while traveling in Honduras, a friend of a Costa Rican friend of mine.
To sit after supper with total strangers (though somewhat connected via that six-degrees of Kevin Bacon concept), lounging in their living room, sampling the beer I’d brought, having met just an hour or so before, probably seems odd, but that’s what we did (as I’d done with many of my road-trip hosts, theretofore).
Imagine, otherwise, walking into a total stranger’s house in a different context, hoping to have a meal with the residents within the first thirty minutes of arriving, plopping a seat with them on the sofa afterwards!
Surely it isn’t for everyone, which I continually am told when I reveal such stories.
Well, for two-plus hours in their intimately-sized, quaint living room, they were open to divulging engaging stories of how they’d met, of raising two kids for some time in Honduras (their eight-year-old son sat near me on the couch, playing video games), and of returning to the USA after years away, which I myself had just recently done.
Turns out, as a teacher, the mother, S., also knew someone I’d known in academic circles south of the border.
Small world x 2.
Always it is.
Unfortunately, however, because I suffer from Chron’s, the family was also readily introduced to some of my post-meal issues, for the cacophony of sounds emanating from my gut practically drowned out our conversation when they arose.
And they arose with frequency.
C’est la vie, truly, but that’s what CSing entails at times: getting to know your hosts/guests, including their negatives or quirky idiosyncrasies, immediately (whereas my intestinal ailment is NOT something I usually broadcast within the first few hours of meeting someone).
I had no choice but to apologize, prompting a bit of an explanation of my health issues.
We’re all human, eh?
Because it was a school night for the children, because it was a work night as well (not for me, of course, my being on sabbatical), they showed me my sleep space at around 9:30pm, the second floor son’s room, but unlike my Milwaukee hosts, they’d arranged that the boy would sleep with M. in another room.
This child’s room was rather spacious, uncluttered, and contained a large bed with a set of sheets, which is all this rover-on-the-go needs.
As with most hosts, but not all in such a direct, affable fashion*, they welcomed me to use the bathroom for showering in the morning, provided me with a towel, etc., and we briefly talked, too, of the morning routine, since I always ask–as to not interfere with anyone’s getting-ready-for-work schedule, which would surely take precedence over my vagabond-on-the-go, start-of-the-day hygiene needs.
[*Not once has a CSer not allowed me to shower, but some are simply more enlightening about the option, and this simply depends on personality and communication style.]
Closing the kid’s door behind me, I bid them a great night, feeling, too, as if these strangers were no longer just strangers.
They’d welcomed me, a middle-aged guy, into their home, the baked mac-n-cheese an unexpected bonus!
As is routinely the case, it was an eye-and-heart-opening opportunity.
By staying there, I had learned of certain facets of restaurant chain architecture and construction (the father’s line of work) that I’d not known before; I’d equally gained some insights into working as a Spanish-English interpreter for social services and transitioning back into life in the USA, from S, the mom.
Try gaining all that by talking to your pillow the next chance you stay solo at a Super 8.
Because the dad was off to work the next morning early and the young lad had to head to school, it was Mom and Daughter who sat with me momentarily over a cup of Joe, as the little girl eagerly ate her Fruit Loops, with tummy then apparently better–finally breaking out of her shyness.
Too bad I was leaving soon after she finally spoke! Yet cute it was she whispered, “Is he leaving?”, coyly cognizant that I was.
Always with the mindset that two nights is far better than one, I wished it would have been doable, but a month before I’d already made plans for two nights in Virginia (again, a limitation of CSing in not permitting more flexibility nor whimsical choices with scheduling)–and I needed to be on the way to get out of their hair so they could run their errands and get the wee one to pre-school.
Thus, once again, after a quick two hours of checking out Scranton on a Monday morning, stopping by to see the capitol building, getting in some reading time while it drizzled steadily outside, the road called my name, a name that is growing steadily more fond of the CSing world I’ve found myself in, intentionally.
* * * * * * * *
So what is it like staying with a CSing host? A clearer picture may be forming for you, I hope. Yet even more variation awaited me at my next stop, a good five hours down the interstate in Blacksburg, VA.
* * * * * * * *
NIGHTS #-something-plus in Blacksburg, VA:
“Grab yourself a plate, Mike!” enthusiastically implored my next host, D., upon my entering the kitchen, noticing as I did that there were a good 10 people seated at a long dining room table and at a nearby high-top, end-of-the-kitchen-counter, bar-stool-eqeipped seating area.
He had just, seconds before, met me outside after I’d pulled into their short driveway, with my not knowing if I should have parked on the street or not.
[Because I’d lived in Virginia and traveled to this area before, I knew better than to assume that I may have been shot for pulling in to someone’s driveway in the state! Especially with out of state license plates! Truly, these CSers were nothing of the sort!]
“Everyone, this is Mike from Couchsurfing,” he added, allowing me to nod my way around the room, extending my hand to the folks closest.
After daintily selecting some veggies, a sausage, and a couple of sweet potato fries, accepting a beer from D., too, I joined a couple at the counter nook, and we then chatted about my travels, the platform, and life, especially with their showing late-stage pregnancy signs (as one may find that evident without asking), their first.
The bar-stool-balancing bloke, who’d also explained they’d all graduated from Virginia Tech some ten years before, readily shared details about his traveling sales job and how many of the guests were previously or currently involved in Baptist ministry work.
Welcoming they were to this weary traveler; eager they were to learn of my stories from overseas living.
Admittedly, still in a repatriation phase, I delight in people asking deeper questions than “What’s your favorite country so far?”
At the head of the dining table, it turned out, a few feet from my turned back, was C., the other half of the CSing household equation.
Turning to her, at least from halfway across the dining room, I learned that she’d just, literally just, gotten back from a cross-country biking adventure, having cycled from the salty waters of the Pacific (having dipped her tire in the ocean somewhere in Southern California) to the Atlantic Ocean lapping the sands at the beaches of Jacksonville, Florida.
Just that morning they’d driven up from Florida.
Now they were hosting me, hosting a casual dinner party.
Absorbed immediately in her story, I was hopeful she’d share more, which she was willing to do over the course of two days, explaining that she’d done it to raise awareness of a rare medical condition that affects pregnant mothers.
Naturally, I was impressed by such a strong-willed, earnest approach to tackling such issues, though saddened I was to hear how this is not as rare as it first sounded.
Her conversation also turned to the generosity of hosts along the way, not just on the CSing platform but also while using Warm Showers, a site specifically for adventuresome cyclists and those willing to put traveling bicyclists up for a night or two.
Though not a fan of the name (I immediately think of ’45’ for some reason), such a platform further reveals that kindness and generosity are not history.
Happily, I engaged with a few folks before they slowly dwindled down to the last guests gathering in a standing circle in the living room, with many waving to me with a pleasant “Nice to meet you,” as they departed, couple by couple.
Admittedly, I internally entertained thoughts such as, “Why are those involved in the Lord’s work so fucking nice?”
Thankfully, I didn’t ask that outright!
Two vestigial blokes were chatting with D. about power tools and home renovation stories, all as I sat in the cozy corner armchair of their comfortably bright and airy living room, a fly on the wall for the last 10 minutes of the gathering.
As I eavesdropped (there was no choice), I couldn’t help but think, “I’m cool that they’re totally comfortable letting me do my own thing in their home (which was nothing more than sit there), allowing me to listen in or converse if I’d wanted, without feeling pressured to wait on me hand and foot. They really allow guests to just blend in and go with the flow.”
After the house cleared out, I’d noticed one guy had remained, and he had been cleaning up in the kitchen, separately having made his own meal, from what I could gather. Once done, he also came and sat in the living room with me and the two hosts, a married couple some 19-20 years my junior.
Perhaps my ageism issues aren’t that much of an issue!
Turns out, the third resident, who rents a room in their downstairs apartment, was even younger, like he could be my son age. Regardless of age, regardless of backgrounds, regardless of our current place in life, we all sat and chatted for a couple of hours, learning about each other’s histories.
No doubt, the average Joe and Josephine Traveler cannot have such endearing exchanges so consistently as it is with CSing (though, of course, traveling in a tour group and staying at hostels does provide social interaction on a continual basis; it simply isn’t as intimate a setting as is lounging in the living room in someone’s home).
Disclaimer: The term “intimate” should NOT be confused with what some of you may assume. That’s a whole other story, y’all.
The next morning, because I had already communicated with the couple that a good balance to the day would be grand, C. and I took off for a mid-morning tour in my car, with her leading the way in explaining the variety of sights we passed. Being that I had actually partied for a weekend in Blacksburg in 1989, visiting friends who gone to Virginia Tech, years before she was born, I was able to… well, I, pathetically, couldn’t recognize a thing!
VT, its edifices, and the surrounding landscaping, were impressively gorgeous (especially having just come from the frozen tundra of SD/MN/WI two weeks before), yet a teenage-party-induced weekend there three decades before left me with zero recollection.
All I could recall was playing quarters in someone’s dormitory social area.
Later, we stopped for a morning cuppa at a shoulder-to-shoulder-packed, quintessential campus coffee house, sharing stories as we people watched. Eventually, we strolled the village-like environs just off of the campus, stopping here and there, touring a restored-colonial-home-cum-art-gallery, too.
All made for a grand day, and I was appreciative of C’s communicative style and willingness to spend time together, yet I later aimed, too, for some travel planning and ‘me time’ (I think one can see a trend here), heading out to another café to lounge and write, running some errands, etc., until just before the sun first considered stepping behind its habitually employed dressing partition.
The three of us headed out in their car after getting some rest back at ‘home’–where I thoroughly embraced the time with their two amiable, entertaining cat (quickly replacing my nightmarish remembrances and animosity towards my Pittsburgh hosts’ kitties).
Why a middle-aged man recalls Jenny with such fondness two months later, at the time of writing, and why he still pronounces her name in a Forrest Gump-inspired fashion (I just did while typing this), is beyond me.
Their tenant, the young lad who’d stayed up to chat the night before, had said we should stop by his place of employment, so we made a beeline for said restaurant downtown, straddling the campus confines–where another friend of theirs additionally met up with us for a meal.
A decently pleasant place, tasty damn food, and some darn likable folks made for a positive outing.
Thankful I was for my brief two days in Blacksburg and for being able to sample places that came as recommendations straight from the horse’s mouth–with each eatery and café I’d spent time stemming from personal endorsements.
Back at home, the rest of the evening was casual, with a few more stories being told, all of us on our devices of one sort or another, simultaneously.
By 10pm, being a work night and a travel night for me, we said our “goodnights,” and I headed to my room, a carpeted, clean space just off the main hallway down from the master bedroom, an arm’s length from the shared bathroom.
They’d earlier ensured my sheets were fresh, that towels were folded on the shelving in the closet, that my pillow was plumped. No, they didn’t go as far as that to accommodating my needs, but it was a satisfyingly snug enough room that I’d definitely write home about it.
I just have.
For a bit of zoning out, in a half-zombie-like state, I caught a bit of YouTube on my iPhone, satisfied entirely with the time I’d spent in their abode, in their presence, in their town.
Hopefully, thirty years from now, I’ll remember something more about Blacksburg than I currently can recall from three decades prior.
Who knows? It may be that C&D and their unabashed hospitality are what I will recall the most.
Or maybe it will, oddly, be Jenny (using my best Forrest Gump voice as I write it one last time).
* * * * * * * *
A hop, skip, and a jump away from C&D’s home, Chattanooga (and old friends there) next welcomed me for two nights and days, and I was then bound for Bloomington, Illinois (not Indiana as I had almost forgotten when I set my GPS before taking off from Chattanooga early one morning). I’d also stopped in Nashville on the route up into IL, where, for a few hours, I met up with an old HS friend to tour the downtown area.
What a grand adventure and worthwhile itinerary I’d set up!
* * * * * * * *
NIGHTS #-something-plus-two-more in Bloomington, IL:
Within two hours of arriving at my next host’s residence, located in a tranquil, mid-century neighborhood a few minutes from the central area of Bloomington, we were sharing a home cooked meal at her dinning room table, a spectacularly flavorful vegan combination (my first), with the main dish being a garbanzo bean concoction that was something to write home about.
Or to at least blog about some six weeks later.
Willing to share fine conversation, A., a middle-aged woman (i.e., hey, it is my age, too, even though it sounds so cynical using it), one who works in academia, was open to sharing life events, talking about her two adult children, and explaining much about the community.
Go figure! A host who wants to teach something about her town!
Within a few hours, I knew much more about Bloomington (e.g., the headquarters for State Farm Insurance is there) than I’d known prior to my arrival–which was, admittedly, absolutely zilch!
After dinner, since I had brought along a bottle of vino (since A. had stated she wasn’t a big beer fan when I’d messaged a day prior, asking, “Anything I can bring?”), we had a glass of wine, she, and a microbrew, me, out on her front porch, an enclosed respite from the warmish outside temps.
Said porch offered a satisfying-to-the-senses breeze and the worthy-of-an-hour-or-two opportunity to clandestinely spy on the neighbors as they strolled the tree-lined streets out front.
As we shot the breeze (being an ESL teacher by training, I’m wary of using that expression–for it just doesn’t make sense), I tangentially reflected on how important trust is for this community because all too many times women friends have told me, “I couldn’t use the site because I am a single woman.”
Typically, I dismiss such comments by retorting, “Well, you can stay with couples and single female hosts,” yet I also believe that dozens of outstanding references should assure any tentative soul of the values of good ol’ hospitality.
By 11pm, having driven a good stretch of interstate driving earlier that day, I was fighting off the Z-monster (a ridiculous term I’d learned from a drill sergeant in basic training a lifetime ago) and retired for the evening.
My room, up on the second floor, one of the two options A. had given me, rooms where her two children had once lived, overlooked the greenery of the back yard and the detached garage (in day time hours, of course), with open windows allowing for a sleep-inducing freshness.
Indeed, it was a restful sleep, cuddled in the coziness of a quilt that reminded me of my grandmother’s decor–ENTIRELY IN A POSITIVE WAY, A.!
With a shower before 7am, though I’d laid in bed for a good 90 minutes beforehand, as to not wake her accidentally with doors closing too loudly or the tap being turned on too squeakily, I then detected coffee brewing as I descended the stairs to the main floor, with the aroma wafting down the hallway from the back kitchen.
There, we chatted again, with A. describing plenty of sightseeing options for the day.
Yet we started off the morning together, after breakfast (I’d brought an artisan banana loaf from an upscale bakery in Signal Mountain, TN), with a 20-minute walk downtown, where she introduced me to the general layout, pointing out specific favorites (the Coffee Hound café, for example), leading me further to the farmer’s market in the main square.
Surely, a traveler may easily come upon such an event on his or her own (though it is indeed easier being given insights from a CSers), but with an outgoing resident to, moreover, take me around, I was provided with experienced perspective and ample firsthand accounts of happenings (like the informative-yet-quick story of a friend of a friend of hers who works for one of the bakeries and the history of a group of restaurateurs who’ve recently blossomed in Bloomington).
Moreover, with her pointing out the former City Hall turned museum, I may have overlooked it as just being a impressive building. Instead, I jumped at the chance to be shown inside, where we explored a few displays and ventured up to the old library section, where we received a thorough explanation of the room from a volunteer historian.
How else would I have known about the the flooring designs and details of the wall construction of bygone days?
CSing is partly responsible for such a lovely discovery (though I recognize life without CSing can also be so fanciful)!
After our walking tour, we stopped in at the Main Street coffee shop she’d pointed out earlier, one packed to the brim, with the line to order at the counter extending back to the bathrooms.
A good 25 people (just those on line at any given moment) had apparently loved this place as equally as she did.
Within 15 minutes of being seated, thankfully finding a place in such a hustling joint, two of her friends stopped by to chat for a bit. Thus, I was again thrust into, happily so, sharing stories with intimate inhabitants of my chosen CSing destination.
Later, for a few hours mid-afternoon, with advice to do so coming from A., I’d taken off to see some highlights of the quintessential slice of Americana that cuts right through Bloomington (IL, not IN, y’all!): Route 66.
Just out of town, vestiges of the original road still exist (unless, as some tourist traps do, it was a reconstructed segment just to draw the crowds), and as I drove out, taking in the sites for a good 30 minutes in one direction, stopping for an “Ive-been-there, done-that” image capture, thoughts of my grandparents came to mind, wondering if they’d done this stretch at any time during their lifetimes.
Though tacky tourism traps turn me off, nostalgia does have its place in my heart.
Route 66 is both.
After two hours of walking the main thoroughfare of Normal, IL, the university-hosting sister city just north of Bloomington, where a number of bars, boutiques and burger joints line the street, I returned to my host’s home, played with her loving cat on the porch (perhaps the most tender and approachable of all the house pets on this road trip), and unwound a bit.
Why I had to unwind from being on vacation wasn’t clear, yet it was nice to.
A. had also invited me to join her friends for a downtown (Normal) street fair and outdoor music concert–heading there on bicycles, one of which I had to borrow from her friend, one of the gals who’d plopped down to chat at the café that morning.
Unbeknownst to me, theretofore, there is a fantastic paved, wide-like-a-regular-road, bike trail system that extends between the two cities, which we rode for a casual 30 minutes to the festival.
Indeed, as I oft do, I stopped (mentally, not the damn bike) for a moment of reflection, thinking, “Here I am riding along with two ladies who probably never would have talked to me if I had just ridden up alongside them and started babbling, throwing out jokes a bit as I had done. This CSing crap is really the bomb.”
No, I don’t really think in the vernacular like that.
Although this bloke is anti-country-music, by in large, which is what the festival’s genre turned out to be, I still relished the opportunity to chat with A. and her two friends while people watching, getting in some good laughs after hearing a few recent stories of the antics of one.
Eventually, perhaps two hours having passed outside, a stone’s throw from the stage, we ventured into a popular restaurant with a second-floor open-roof seating area, and though the wait staff seemed overwhelmed and preoccupied, we sat and enjoyed a pleasant evening together.
Although I most likely may never see them again, when they said goodbyes, I had felt a slight sense of sincerity in their having said, “Nice to meet you,” and, “Best of luck!”
Undoubtedly, those little, albeit temporary connections (and perhaps at times more profound) are what I want to focus on when friends and family ask, “What’s it like staying with a stranger?”
Now you know.
* * * * * * * *
Although the above-explained experiences were not the end of my complete trip, for I continued up through Iowa on the way back to South Dakota, stopping for an evening and one full night in Cedar Rapids (with a kind host in a gorgeously decorated and furnished suburban home, one who is just starting out with CSing), time constraints currently dictate that I bring this blog entry to a close.
Moreover, about ten days after returning from this four-week trip, I ventured out to explore a bit of the Upper Midwest, staying with four more hosts in their respective towns for two nights each, with each surely providing enough hospitality to write home about. One day, I hope to, for their kindness, generosity, and pleasant homes are deserving of accolades and recognition, even if I allow the aforementioned to remain anonymous here.
The upshot is, I want not only those who have asked what the community is like to know, but I hope to spread the word that platforms such as this (e.g., Hospitality Cub, BeWelcome, Servas) keep me hopeful that the world is still more good than bad, that the humaneness that should be inherent in humanity isn’t dead.
If you’re already a CSer, and you’ve had positive experiences (which I hope is the case for the grand majority of members), please feel free to share my blog entry as an insightful explanation of these (examples of all the) delightful folks who make the community special.
If you’re new or just thinking about joining, do so with open heart, open spirit, trust, and tolerance. Don’t misuse or abuse it. Both rely on and reciprocate in return.
Perhaps one day, one of your guests will be detailing his/her/their time in your home, thankful for all that you’d done.