Having been a proudly legitimate member of the Couchsurfing community for ten years now, I still have to explain to people, especially periodic naysayers, what CSing entails, how it works, and why on Earth I would ever stay in a stranger’s home, especially in a foreign country. A foreign country? Egad!
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- A famous five-star hotel in Fez, or even a two-star for this fashionably frugal fellow.
- Motel off the motorway in Managua (though not the oft questionable “love”-related types found in many a land, thank you very much; been there, done that)?
- An AirBnB room in a family’s home, or an entire AirBnB home run as a commercial-only enterprise, with nary a sighting of any family.
- A home-swap-website-exchange gem discovered in Buenos Aires.
- Pet sitting or housesitting in a temporarily vacated household in Costa Rica.
- Camping in Carlsbad. Glamping in Ghana. Safariing in Swaziland.
- A cheapo university dormitory in summer-saturated Stuttgart.
Today’s solo traveler, regardless of age or status, can pick from quite the list of accommodation options. Without sounding pretentious about my being a forever-on-the-go vagabond, as a self-proclaimed globetrotter (though tentatively making such a claim makes me momentarily queasy), I nowadays, personally, could NOT live without my go-to site in planning a journey (not to mention, in using the site during the journey itself)–and for damn good reasons.
Damn good reason x 10 = Couchsurfing
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Above any other accommodation choice, though it is NOT merely about accommodation, Couchsurfing now reigns supreme in my heart, and with any number of accolades ready to deploy, I stand confidently firm in my belief that the concept of CS’s hospitality exchange is an integral aspect of my traveling life.
In fact, to me, CSing has practically become more important than any famous destination, more meaningful than any sightseeing highlight, or even more special than a journey itself.
Those are bold statements, indeed, aren’t they?
Indeed they are.
For damn good reason(s).
Yet, how does it compare?
Without a doubt, motels and hotels (especially overseas)—whatever their star rating, are coldly confining places, oft void of cultural exchange. Within, a traveler can anonymously spend one’s evening, especially when going solo, woefully surfing channels, with that remote-holding hand effectively extended at the perfect angle to activate the TV’s sensor nestled at the bottom of the idiot box mounted high on the wall on the distant side of the otherwise hollow room.
You’ve all done it, I’m sure.
Sitting alone, a lonesome guest may even call for room service at the Bogotá Best Western, for example, for a late-night sweet tooth satisfaction, perhaps momentarily getting to whisper “gracias” to the Colombian service staff, before he or she shuffles off to the next crusty-eyed patron eagerly awaiting their midnight arepas snack binge.
Perhaps, at such a location, moreover, if one is lucky, a bit of dialogue could be had with the passing cleaning staff in the hallway the next morning, or had with an ephemerally amiable front desk clerk during one’s check out, or perhaps had with the breakfast buffet scrambled-egg scooper standing behind the oil-spattered plexiglass display case.
Quick “holas” with the locals momentarily seem fulfilling, but are they?
Upon returning home or back to the real world, you might even think you’d lucked out to have had such a “cultural” exchange, gloating to your noisy neighbor Neal or your curious cubicle colleague Carla about how pleasant the Colombian people were.
As stated, overall, the hotel experience abroad sequesters the average traveler from the local populace, leaving one feeling as if such a stay were happening back in their home state or somewhere like New York City, instead. Whether you stay at the Best Western in Bogotá or Boise, the end result–regarding cultural awareness and it providing growth or understanding–is about the same if that’s all you’re able to involve yourself in.
Of course, getting out and about into the hotel’s surrounding locales may very well provide cultural insights, proving the above comparisons false, but as far as accommodation selection goes, why segregate oneself to such a degree–wherever you find yourself?
The same usually holds true for camping or glamping, for one is separated from the local populace to varying degrees in such situations (though you very well might have an abrupt encounter with a Chinese-language-familiar tiger in the hills outside HuangShan, or you may exchange a friendly wave with a Kenyan game warden while on safari, greeting him or her with a hearty “Jambo!” as he/she lights the morning fire).
The point is, there’s not much opportunity for cultural swapping if you camp solo or with a partner while traveling abroad, except if a nearby local tenter is available for a marshmallow toasting around the campfire one night.
That’s not to say you won’t meet local folk while hiking the deep forest nor while bathing in an emerald pool at the base of a jungle-enshrouded waterfall, but with camping itself, it may be limiting in terms of sustained, enlightening host-country interactions.
Likewise can be said for AirBnB, which, in my opinion, tends to maintain too much of a focus on profit, even if Mr and Mrs Joe AirBnB might include some shared meals or chats over a glass of wine in order to be more welcoming (more than a hotel stay, of course). Hospitality by said hosts, however, does not always stem from altruistic kindness but rather more often appears out of a need to gain financially.
Getting guests to leave a positive review may, indeed, be their first priority.
Though gaining cultural insights and understanding is certainly more possible at an AirBnB than a hotel, motel, Holiday Inn (a feeble attempt at referencing the Sugar Hill Gang), especially where and when the host actually lives at the home, many arrangements from the site entail the use of a home without a host being present (or with some hosts, if actually present, not intending to socialize).
In 2017, for example, I had stayed at an AirBnB duplex in Quepos, Costa Rica, with the only opportunity to interact with the hosts coming when they stopped in the next day to quickly check in on the Nicaraguan cleaning staff in the downstairs apartment—leaving us with the impression that they were enjoying the forthcoming bank deposit they’d be making from our stay more than our stay, itself.
Their dialogue distracted, they were not much interested in our presence.
With us leaning over the second-floor balcony, with them gazing up from their place on the slopping-away lawn, with our hopes high they’d engage a bit more, we had inquired enthusiastically about the macaws circling above the nearby palms, learning in a seven-minute conversation that they’re frequent visitors (the birds, not the hosts). That was about all the culture we exchanged before they darted off to possibly check their other profitable properties.
In fact, for my sister and her family who were visiting me (I was living in CR), the brief dialogue was one of the most intimate exchanges they’d had with locals during their 10-day stay because we had opted to stay in other insulating AirBnBs and hotels.
Besides getting to know my Tica girlfriend for four days, their true Tico-related experiences were minimal.
On the far end of the spectrum of AirBnB’s hosting options, one never even sees another soul, such as when my family and I had two days in a home in southern Utah in the summer of 2018. Instead, we merely received text messages explaining the house’s security code after we, frustratingly, couldn’t get in. Then, instructions posted on the kitchen wall were all we had to remind us that this was someone’s (second, or third or fourth)
home rental property.
Despite AirBnB having started off as a concept that would break down barriers, allowing one to gain appreciation for a local family’s lifestyle, my few experiences with it have been nothing of the sort.
Thus, with the aforementioned accommodation options relatively void, to varying degrees, of the benefits of cultural exchange, while making my way around the world, I’ll instead look to Couchsurfing, the hospitality-focused website, which I’ve been a member of for the last ten years.
For damn good reason.
You see, the Couchsurfing mindset, and by that I mean the ORIGINAL concept that formed the foundation of the site (at least I have always wholeheartedly wished it were for altruistic reasons), is based on helping other travelers, with its open-minded, flexible hosts helping to support the international (and domestic), wherever you find yourself, traveling community.
Said travelers are often hosts themselves in their home country, and based on that fact, surfers and hosts help to develop a complex web of trustworthy, reciprocated neighborliness that spans the globe.
Indeed, to utilize CSing entails opening your heart, opening your home, and even opening your eyes (perhaps at times even opening your pocket book or wallet*).
[*CSing hosts cannot ask for money, yet in participating in a gift economy, one surely can bring along a present or treat one’s guest to a meal, which I have long done.]
But how could partaking in hosting exchanges as a Couch (as some Latin Americans call the actual surfers) be “more important“, as I earlier declared, than finally experiencing a long-in-your-dreams famous tourist trap or checking off a world-renowned landmark from your fantasy destination checklist?
First, by landing yourself in a stranger’s home for two or three days, or more, socializing, spending time out and about together, you’re bound to change your world view of said host’s country, more often than not in a positive fashion (or, on a domestic level, of said host’s city/state).
My curiosity piqued in the summer of 2018, eager to prove that a certain president’s “shit-hole” comments were erroneously ignorant, I set off to El Salvador, having already established communication and arrangements with a number of members there.
The upshot: Three weeks later, I left El Salvador behind, entirely certain that, although ALL countries have pros and cons and have issues to grapple with, this Central American nation should be on anyone’s travel list (truly on everyone’s list). Such a judgment comes not only because of its lovely terrain and enticing geography, not only because of its off-the-beaten-path appeal, but also, more importantly for this bloke, because the CS community there permitted me insights into how delightfully, positively captivating humanity is, with all of my Salvadoran hosts helping to solidify that simple notion.
Hitherto, that’s all I have had with CSing: positivity in my perception of the peoples that proactively partake in it (even if I’ve heard of a few bad apples), and positive growth in my own viewpoints of a nation after such exchanges.
Compare that all to sequestering yourself in a hotel, where your perception of the nation you’re visiting is based on and still lingers from what’s being expounded upon these days on CNN or BBC. Not much growth on such a level comes from your ephemeral “hola” with cleaning staff, even if you may think later that the people were nice.
Of course, remember, even if you’re primarily holed up in a hotel, you may gain some insights by joining a bicycle-to-brewery tour in Edinburgh or Snap-chatting pics of Angkor Wat to your buddies back home, but by traveling along channels created by CSing, it is different.
For… you guessed it, damn good reason.
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Undeniably not for everyone (even members of my family are startled by the prospect of having a stranger in their home or of meeting someone for a tour or a coffee), CSing, for me, has become an integral aspect of my life, with it having changed the way I travel and… with it having changed travel, itself.
It has turned strangers into great friends and good acquaintances.
By extension, being that travel helps to shape my core identity, CSing has then, consequently, changed my life.
Indeed, in countless, magically myriad ways.
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The increasingly easy ability to share one’s travel experiences with a total stranger because of the opportunities available via the internet has become the norm for me, for, since 2009, I have relied on, and, in fact, I’ve gradually become accustomed to integrating Couchsurfing into every trip.
Not familiar with the site nor the concept?
Well, CSing is a sharing app (having of course started as a website), which has permitted like-minded (and, unfortunately, some not so like-minded**) travelers access to the homes and hearts of hosts around the world.
[**There are those aforementioned bad apples in all walks of life, but like life in general, I would like to think that 99.2% of members are on the site for altruistic reasons.]
Having been both a host and a surfer, heretofore, I can admit that CSing has evolved from a simple supplemental aspect of my travels to a core concept that even guides the planning of my pending peregrinations–and even determines the eventual manifestations of said plans nowadays.
In other words, I have found myself outlining my routes and destination options around CSing opportunities on recent journeys–instead of simply throwing in a surfing opp on a whim to add to the overall experience. To enhance my excursions abroad by meeting locals through the site is no longer enough; I’ve actually put together itineraries based on such possibilities.
Why would one do that? Am I missing out on something by being less spontaneous in just going with the flow abroad, which was more my previous propensity traveling?
Or, conversely, am I gaining something?
Indeed, that is as readily debatable as whether or not chocolate is the best flavor of ice cream.
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Now, how much Couchsurfing mandates modifications to my itineraries is up to me, not to be judged by anyone else, right?
In a nutshell, here’s why and how this process has unfolded and why CSing has largely shaped my most recent trips overseas (and the planning of a domestic one at the time of writing this entry, April, 2019):
When I first started out backpacking, my first trip abroad coming in 1992, I consulted the quintessential guidebooks back in the day: Let’s Go and Lonely Planet (even secretly skimming editions of Frommer’s or Rick Steve’s at bookstores before taking off, to aide in my sightseeing planning, hastily jotting down destination tips, hostel insights and restaurant advice before store employees discovered my peripatetic-pathway-pending-prompted pilfering).
For years, I never left home without a copy of Let’s Go or LP.
Today, however, if the latest edition of Lonely Planet were standing cockily at the end of a dusty ghost town’s Main Street, ready to draw its best weapon against any single CSing host I’ve had, the town’s undertaker would merely need to prepare a book burning instead of a burial. The town crier, too, having collected endless pages of guidebook destination tips blowing along like tumbleweeds, would only be left to extol the virtues of the CSing victor.
Guidebooks simply cannot compare these days.
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Eager and new to overseas travel in ’92, I partially planned my whirlwind introduction to Europe by what world-famous sites there were to visit (nowadays, I’d never travel that fast and furiously through any country, let alone five or six), with my risking being labeled with the more narrow nomenclature “tourist” rather than “traveler,” by doing so (if you can accept the inherit yet dubious difference between those two terms).
With a focus on, at least during the preplanning preparation leg of my first trip, getting to places such as the Eiffel Tower, Kilkenny Castle, a few German Altstadts, and,
ahem egad, even the Heineken brewery tour, I was undeniably determined to check off a few “worthwhile” destinations along the way, based on some not-a-local author’s definition of worthwhile.
However, during my month-plus of exploring the Europass-confined circuit I’d circled out on a foldout map, pre-smart phone era, I actually learned along the way that those sites were secondary in providing any sense of satisfaction (perhaps even tertiary or less).
27 years removed from my first trip to Paris, I recall more readily, and much more fondly, my casually browsing boulangeries, checking titles and VHS box images at video stores, and languidly loafing at local side street grocery stores.
Yes, I’d visited and ascended the Eiffel Tower (nobody should miss the opportunity to gaze upon such incredible views from atop and perhaps… to simply say one has been). My curiosity piqued, I’d, additionally, stepped in to Notre Dame to ogle the stained glass marvels, relishing the sense of satisfaction in knowing many folks only see it in travel mags or textbooks.
However, getting out into the side streets of various arrondissements, immersing myself in the local scene, and slaughtering a few phrases of French (from the back of my Let’s Go guide) remain more vividly clear, to this day, in my mind’s eye.
It was more about the people and, admittedly a bit superficially, the resulting cultural transactions, i.e., those initial exchanges were not deeply educational nor super profound. Yet, somehow, chatting with a store clerk in his broken English (and my worse-than-that French) retains more ‘importance’ to me than having scaled the city’s most famous sky-scraping symbol.
Whatever it was that made me appreciate standing solo in a bakery, chatting with another local customer about what breads to sample, an event more satisfying than being surrounded by thirty tourists trying to snap a photo of the rose windows in Notre Dame, had set the foundation for my future travels.
Couchsurfing, over the last 10 years, has permitted me to continue building on that foundation.
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In the same token, moments spent in Salzburg a week after Paris still stand out (though 27 years have passed), not because of Mozart’s childhood home (one of many apparently) nor because of the postcard-perfect castle overlooking the downtown, but rather as a result of my local host’s hospitality and kindness–eons before virtual hospitality sites were a thing.
This woman, a well-past-middle-aged grandmotherly sort, had stood out to me and my impromptu travel companion from California, whom I’d met on the train, as we eagerly exited the Salzburg station. Though she didn’t speak much English, communication was still doable, enough so that we two travelers both agreed that her friendliness was worth trudging across town, both laden with heavy back packs.
The two days we spent in her house, regardless of it most likely being a commercial transaction for her, were eye opening and warming to the soul.
On the other hand, if we had, upon arrival, made a beeline for a traveler’s hostel, such memories today would not exist as they do today. Most likely, I may instead currently be recollecting something of an international party scene at said locale–or perhaps of having joyously socialized with other on-a-shoestring youth from all over the world.
Granted, those potentialities both would have been, without a doubt, priceless (and I had once thoroughly relished such hostel-inspired moments over the course of my younger traveling years), yet I had felt then, and feel now, that with gaining some insights into the Austrian woman’s home, being introduced to wall-adorning images of her grandkids, seeing how she painstakingly folded her laundry, helping sort silverware in the kitchen, all somehow emerged in my memories as a perk. Although it wasn’t what I would nowadays label as “pure cultural exchange” (i.e., we were still perhaps only $$ in her mind), it was undoubtedly more insightful into the life of a local than what my travel companion and I would have had at a hotel or hostel.
Yet, staying with her was a basic introduction of what my travel mindset would gradually become, thanks to CSing.
The seed was planted early.
The upshot: Some 10-plus years before Couchsurfing appeared on this vagabond’s radar, I had early on seen the value in finding shelter in someone’s abode while venturing far and wide, a place to temporarily call home.
Fast forwarding from 1992 by 15 years, I was on my third year of teaching in Taiwan.
By then, I had already studied abroad in Mexico (living with a host family, fancying all it afforded me), I’d even sold-my-soul as a soldier yet eagerly requested to be stationed in Germany (having developed genuine friendships with Germans “on the economy”, having dated a local), and I had worked in Japan (where I’d gotten to know local colleagues and had also developed a relationship)–all beneficial to gaining insights into the lives of locals.
That year, 2007, a colleague gleefully mentioned in our staff room, or perhaps it was over a coffee, that she had signed up for “some site” called Couchsurfing. Knowing that I had somewhat given my life to satiating the travel bug that had, theretofore, habitually consumed me, she promoted the idea of hosting international guests and utilizing the site, myself, while jumping around Asia.
Despite some trepidations expressed by my future wife (my future ex, for that matter), for she* “never would trust” such a service, I was eager to create a profile. However, with some delays in traveling (e.g., getting married in 2008 and having a baby a year later), I didn’t put to use the site until the northern-hemisphere summer of 2009.
[*To put this gently, she genuinely abhorred the notion of someone staying in our home “since we have children” and, moreover, she couldn’t fathom her man meeting someone of the opposite gender while in another country–even if the purpose of such an opportunity was based on helpful hospitality and getting to know something from a local’s perspective.]
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Out of the gate, the betterment of my overseas explorations, directly due to Couchsurfing, became clear. Soon after creating a profile in 2009, I was off to Myanmar.
There, three members of the community, over the first four days, were all inclined to sharing insights. All were open to opening my eyes, with the first being a Burmese man who had recommended a hole-in-the-wall local’s only establishment, a place I wouldn’t have found without him, especially on the first day in the former capital Yangon.
Imagine having a potential friend, or at least an acquaintance, upon arrival in a place where you know nobody else, a sort of shake-n-bake instant connection.
On the other hand, imagine what it would take to be able to have lunch with a resident soon after arriving, without CSing. Would I just approach someone cold-callingly on the sidewalk and ask them to go grab a bite to eat? Never!
Our chat over some spicy noodle dish allowed me to build awareness of some of the struggles of the population, of issues of the economy, and also of how changes were taking place that left him hopeful. I wouldn’t have gotten such insights if I had not used the site in such a way, reaching out to him in advance (and others) to see if he simply had time to meet in a public place, without any desire at the time to sleep in “some stranger’s home” (admittedly, my ex-wife essentially dictated that I not get that involved with the platform).
The following day, a German expat, who’d been living in Yangon for four years, met for a coffee shop chat for over three hours. Her enthusiasm high, she eagerly expounded on all that was improving, how changes with the government were making her more comfortable in continuing to raise her son there, how foreign investment was taking place. Moreover, she provided valuable tips on what to see, where to go, and what to skip.
Surely, suggestions were based on her biases and opinions, but often times any resident’s reality-mixed-with-perspective-based explanations are more intriguing and entirely more relevant than info gleaned from the caption of a National Geo Traveler online image or a two-sentence summary description in Lonely Planet.
Valuable were her stories, proving once again that CSing exchanges elevate one’s journey to a higher level. For damn good reason, it had already proven itself more favorable than a hotel stay or traveling without.
Yet Myanmar’s CSing community upped the ante even more over the following two days.
That’s because on day three, my travel buddy, another North American teacher, and I met up with a Burmese gal, spending the entire day together, walking the streets, exploring shops, stopping here and there for bites of local delicacies. Together we also relished scrumptious eats at off-the-beaten-path food joints tucked into back alleyways.
Not to beat a dead horse, but without her active participation in the CSing spirit of things, we most likely never would have gained such a grand understanding of the city.
For a good nine hours, she introduced us to life in Yangon, even taking us to an enclosed mall (not generally my thing, but it was actually a great insight into a somewhat unexpectedly high level of consumerism, into people’s shopping habits, etc.).
Later, she purchased a Burmese music CD for each of us, a gift I had kept and used for years.
Although we offered and attempted to pay for all of the aforementioned costs, she refused and treated us to everything, no strings attached.
Day four in Burma continued the same way, with her dedicating another eight to nine hours of her time (i.e., life) to show us around, no questions asked, no gimmicks awaiting. To practice English, to express pride in her homeland, and to treat guests with an open heart all seemed to be her modus operandi.
Those first four days triggered a keen interest in CSing that still has not abated in ten years.
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From 2009 until 2019, traveling (and, as I’d mentioned above, life, to some degree) was partially shaped by CSing. As a frequent traveler and regular host for a stretch of these latter years, my life was and has been influenced by such interactions.
Indeed, “charitable views of men and things”, to borrow from Thoreau, have come about as a result–and I, indeed, gained in understanding more of each destination on a different level, yet there have been other aspects of the platform that have stood out.
With my enjoying further similar tours in Beijing in 2011 and Brunei in 2013 (with my family), and with giving tours, myself, in Taiwan (actively so from 2011-2013), I continued to reap the benefits of altruistic hospitality exchange.
The goodness of people, in a world that doesn’t always exude goodness, is often evident, making these exchanges a conduit of hope and understanding.
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Naturally, in being toured about a city by a local, all was clearly beneficial, for I learned just as much as if I had relied instead on any professional tour guide service, and perhaps more.
Tour operators often dictate that a guide stick to a script, with my understanding that fact based on personal experiences as a tour leader in the past. What pros deliver are oft well-rehearsed factoids, and some will not, nor cannot, deviate from their spiel. Yet a CSer definitely has no such guidelines, especially in a place like China when an agency may have to check themselves and their guides in what they expound on, lest ‘big brother’ get involved.
On the other hand, CSers tend to speak freely on all topics that affect local life.
Knowing that, I also was arguably a different sort of guide (and potentially more valuable than a pro), since visitors to my adopted city in Taiwan were able to hear from a distinctly divergent perspective about life there.
As an outsider, I was able to share knowledge on such issues as how the history between China and Taiwan had shaped tourism development during my years living there. Because I had seen the difference before cross-strait flights were restored and what happened afterwards, I could provide an explanation about the impact that Chinese tourists were having on local life. Yet because that topic is a sensitive one, locals may have been more apprehensive to open up such a dialogue (especially to Chinese CSers, whom I’d guided about on a few occasions).
I also spoke of infrastructure investments the government had implemented, racism and being treated differently, at times, as a foreigner, etc. Sure, a local Taiwanese could potentially be equally treasured in discussing said topics, but in terms of the reciprocity of CS membership, I feel that I was able to offer a return in paying it all, the aforementioned generosity of others, forward.
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After leaving Taiwan, I’d spent a year and a half in Latin America, where I pursued an investment in the community, full throttle, hosting as much as I could (with my guests coming from a variety of global locales), traveling via CSing channels, too.
Reciprocity was my goal. It paid off in so many ways.
For damn good reasons.
During those 18 months, my heart was filled with the joys of sharing, learning about life directly from my hosts in El Salvador, Honduras, Columbia (three countries that routinely make those ridiculously over-exaggerated and truly undeserving lists of places not to go to), and in Panama, too. Learning about their lives, them being teachers, nurses, folks from all walks, opened my mind and heart, broadened my perspective and understanding.
Especially in the light of the countless negative images of those places presented in the media, which we are bombarded with habitually, such exchanges were a refreshing, reinvigorating take on the “real” truth: The goodness of people is alive and well still.
All of my stays were learning opportunities (as were my hosting engagements), and with such learning comes growth, empathy, and compassion.
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A balance of a give-and-take approach is key in this community, and that is what inspired me to become a full-on host in the fall of 2013, finally free to do so since my ex-wife, who was anti-CS-minded, and I had separated. Though, theretofore, touring folks had allowed me to treat them to lunch, permitted me to drive them about (fully free of charge, of course), hosting in my home elevated my spirited investment into helping other like-minded travelers.
Disclaimer: To have provided tours to other members and to have hosted them in my home have both begotten a deeper sense of gratification than having been hosted or toured about, myself.
Reciprocity is key, but it does feel better to give than to receive.
I assume that’s true for most of us who operate on the same two-way street, though there are unfortunately folks who utilize CSing for their own gain, for merely finding a place to stay (not to mention the bad apples that utilize the site for other interests).
Granted, there are limitations at times that may preclude one from hosting actively, but the most valued members of this community surely should be the ones who strike a balance with the give-and-take approach, who return the favor.
Kudos to all who try.
For me, that mindset is undoubtedly a benefit in living both a good life and being an active member of the platform. Sharing with others gives birth to a whole ever-evolving cycle of connectivity, trust, and open-mindedness. Through such interactions, we ideally learn that people are still good, that there are those who exist that would give you the shirt off their backs.
Surely, Couchsurfing is MUCH MORE than just accommodation; it is far and away the best choice in how to travel for this bloke.
We can ALL use more of the spirit that CSing encompasses–on a grander scale. Indeed, the world would be a better place.
For damn good reasons.
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Below is a sampling of references that fellow CSers have left on my profile, with some being from those who have hosted me; others, those who’ve been hosted by me. These references, as well as profile descriptions and even photographs (that show traveling experiences, real connections to others, personality, etc.) all allow a sense of trust to be built.