Altruism on the Internet
My time in Spain began inauspiciously. I was naïve enough to have been carrying all of my important belongings in my purse, and my purse was stolen within minutes of arriving at the train station in Valencia. My credit card was gone, my ID was gone. My camera, with two hundred un-uploaded photographs from my time in France, was gone. My passport was gone. Utterly overwhelmed, I almost started crying when I was explaining the situation to Cecile, my hostess. My traveling companion, Sierra, and I met up with Cecile at the café she worked at in a Valencian museum, and Cecile convinced her manager to let her out of work a half-hour early so she could help me find a policeman to figure out how to go about filing a police report.
“Probably you won’t be able to get your purse back, but I think a police report will help when you try to get a new passport, at least. On y va,” she said. She was living in Valencia, but Cecile was a slender French beauty—handy for me, because at the time I spoke no Spanish.
The three of us—Cecile, Sierra, and I—only had to wander around for a few minutes before we found a policeman. He told us what we would have to do to file a police report, and Cecile assured me that she would help me write it (the report had to be in Spanish, of course) when we all got back to her house, a half-hour train ride outside of the city center. We would take it to a police station the next day.
I didn’t know how to begin to thank Cecile and her boyfriend, Juan, after the three of us had sat down that night and they had questioned me, writing out details—where I had been, what I had been doing, any and everything I could remember that had been in my purse—of the theft. Had they been friends or family, their helpfulness, willingness, and kindness would have been completely understandable, if not expected. But Cecile and Juan were barely more than strangers. Sierra had arranged for us to stay at their house through Couchsurfing, a travel accommodation-cum-social networking website, and all we’d known of each other prior to Sierra’s and my arrival in Valencia was whatever information we had gleaned from the other’s Couchsurfing profile.
Granted, my stay at Cecile and Juan’s wasn’t my first Couchsurfing experience, so I had already gotten a chance to experience how beautiful and open Couchsurfing experiences could be. The first night of Sierra’s and my cross-continental voyage was spent in London with Viv, a suitably vivacious young lady who introduced us to the British television and pubs, took us swimming at the Hampstead Heath, salsa dancing, and flea marketing, and allowed us to teach her and her friends how to play King’s cup—all of this in the span of a day and two nights.
Between Viv and Cecile had been two months of Couchsurfing and WWOOFing around France, and all of the Couchsurfing experiences had been fantastic (WWOOFing led us to a weed farm on a mountain with a creepy British ex pat who once thought he was the Messiah… But that was more a fault of my lax vetting process than any inherent flaw with WWOOFing, which is a great organization). Overall, Couchsurfing served as an amazing alternative to hostels throughout my travels in Europe (which continued for many more months, with nary a negative experience). I found myself continually amazed by people’s trust and generosity: the young couple from Aix-en-Provence who allowed us to stay for a week and a half (and then we came back!); the countless home-cooked dinners and personalized city tours; the one Frenchmen in Arles who took my friend and I out for wine and cheese, then left the next day for a scholarly conference and gave us the keys to his apartment. (Thank you, Driss!)
It’s easy to get caught up in the latest news about prostitution on Craigslist or the evils of Facebook privacy-or-lack-thereof, but Couchsurfing has been one of those websites that, like The Faster Times, has helped me to understand that the Internet has a little bit of good in it. The homes I’ve stayed in through Couchsurfing led to me falling in love with a lot of cities and making great friends, but for the most part, whenever I left a given city or town and the couch that came along with it, it was with the knowledge I would most likely never return. That’s why I’ve been intrigued by a trend that seems to be developing, at least concerning the people who have recently been getting in touch with me in Portland, Oregon, looking for a couch to surf. These people have a different purpose: they’re looking to find a new city to live in. It had never occurred to me to use it this way, but Couchsurfing is a great tool if you’re looking to move to a new spot. Consider this: if your ultimate purpose is to move to a city, staying in a house makes immensely more sense than staying at a hostel or in a hotel. With Couchsurfing it’s possible to get a sincere impression of domestic life in a given city, and hopefully your host or hostess will have time to take you to her favorite coffee shops or the coolest bars in the area, maybe even show you something more practical, like the local grocery store or bike repair shop. (Not that I know where my local bicycle repair shop is. I’m a horrible West-coast Portlander; I walk, and I use umbrellas instead of raincoats. I don’t own nearly enough plaid, either. Sorry!)
A few tips if you want to try using Couchsurfing in this manner (or even if you just want to try it out for traveling or tourism purposes): first of all, fill your profile with as much applicable information as possible and, if you can, find a few friends to join Couchsurfing with you so that you guys can vouch for each other. The best reviews are from people you have hosted or stayed with, but a few positive reviews on your profile, no matter who they are from, go a long way towards making you seem like a more viable candidate to be hosted. Secondly, do some research. Figure out where people live within the city, and where that is in relation to the parts of the city you are interested in living in or visiting. Most importantly, communicate with your host. Tell them what you hope to do during your stay. This is especially important if you’re thinking about moving to the city. If it’s really important to you that you learn how the city buses work and that you find out about the best local foods, co-ops, your host should know that so she’s not taken aback and you’re not disappointed when she has no clue—she shops at Trader Joe’s.
If you’re interested in Couchsurfing—just for the heck of it, or because you’re looking to relocate—check out the site. If you’re in love with the city you live in, why not sign up to host Couchsurfers in your city? You can spread your infectious love of your hometown or adopted hometown with people from all over the world, and maybe convert a few people so they’ll decide to come back and stay for good.
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