A tale of hosting traveling strangers, finding personal connection, and the need for people who just get you.
I signed up for Couchsurfing.com as soon as I heard about it. That was 2009, and I was living in Iraq. If you’re not familiar with Couchsurfing, it’s a place to arrange staying with and hosting strangers, for free. Back in 2009 they were an amateurish website, and très cool. Now they’re a more modern-looking but financially struggling app and website. Airbnb (which captured some of their “travel like a local” momentum) and more recently Covid (which crushed most travel) haven’t been easy on them.
From the beginning, I always wanted to use Couchsurfing both for free stays and for hosting strangers. But for years, I never followed through.
So several years ago, when I moved to Washington DC, one of my requirements for apartments was that they have two bedrooms. I wanted friends and family to be able to stay over, but I also wanted to finally make good on my intention to host couchsurfers. Even then it took me a while to follow through, but during a four month period in 2019 (before I became a nomad) I hosted about a dozen people. I had a great time being a host, and guests got a sweet deal, too. My apartment was probably the best free pad for travelers to crash in the city, given my unbeatable downtown location (across the street from all the museums and monuments) and fancy guest digs that included a private room and bathroom, top floor balcony with a view of the Washington Monument, and full access to everything (kitchen with food and booze, travel toiletries for guests, washer/dryer, etc.).
Alas, I haven’t yet used Couchsurfing as a guest. Hopefully that’s still to come!
Travelers came from many different backgrounds and countries, including e.g. a broke Russian college student, a wealthy Brazilian banker, and a young couple who’d just returned to the States after a year overseas doing odd jobs to fund their travel across three continents. I’d love to host again, and only stopped due to moving and not fully settling down since then.
Two hosting experiences stood out as the best—the kind of encounters that make you love life and people (and couchsurfing) a little more afterward. Those were Carolina from NY, and besties Katy and Harriet from the UK. Katy and Harriet were top of the pops because they were totes dopes for me and my girlfriend Meena to hit the town and hang out with. Carolina stood out because she was a one of a kind sort of person—a rare free spirit who thought a little differently than most while simultaneously being well-grounded and driven, along with having a deep well of interesting life experiences and aspirations. And she had an instantly lovable personality despite the often terrifying circumstances of her upbringing. It turned out she grew up with gangbangers in the ghettos of LA, and her memories included having friends gang raped and murdered in drive-bys, and once having to run from her dad when he tried to shoot her. She opened up about this when I shared my experience of growing up in a cult.
So yeah, I guess we both bonded over our backgrounds, but also over the way we understood and respected each other, free of assumptions about the other being damaged, and without risk of being subjected to declarations of our bravery that we wouldn’t believe about ourselves. We also bonded over making our own ways to better things in life, and over speaking about our experiences in ways that avoided victimhood or resentment. She still had family and friends in the same situation she grew up in who didn’t want to leave, and she understood them. I knew how that felt.
A Year Later
Back then, Carolina had requested three nights at my place, but she ended up going home a day early. She’d finished the Foreign Service Officer interview she came to DC to take, and a friend in New York wanted her to come back early so they could attend the Coney Island Mermaid Parade together. A few days later Carolina sent me a photo of their costumes, but that was our last contact until a year later, when I got an email from Couchsurfing encouraging me to message her.
I did, and here’s part of the exchange:
Me: Hi Carolina! Couchsurfing sent me an email saying that it’s been a year since we met, and suggesting I say hi. So that’s what I’m doing. ?
I hope life is good for you, wherever you are. Did you end up moving overseas as a foreign service officer?
Carolina: Steven! Wow, I can’t believe it’s already been a year.
[…] Thanks for checking in! You know, there are times when I am reading or watching something on TV and you totally come to mind. You are truly one of a kind Steven.
Wow, where do I begin with the Foreign Service? Life has been a roller coaster on that end. […]
Do you plan on coming back to the States? Either way, one day we will cross paths again. In the States or somewhere around the world. Until then…
We chatted for a bit before tapering off. But it felt good to know I left an impression on her, too. Maybe one day we’ll indeed cross paths again and pick up where we left off, now as new old friends. Or maybe not.
Thinking back, I’ve often felt similarly about people who grew up in the same cult as me, who lived through the same now-dead culture. Something I’ve repeatedly learned over the years is that everyone has their own difficult or private stories they’re looking to connect over, if you can make it safe to do so. Ex-cult friends often hold a special place for me, since we can find that more easily. We get each other’s in-jokes, we know the same crazy songs and stories, and we understand much of what the other has been through without having to explain anything.
Sometimes you need people like that.