Photo: Austen Diamond Photography/Visit Salt Lake

How Couchsurfing Changed the Way I Travel

by Andrea Palmer Sep 15, 2017

COUCHSURFING: Two individuals making an agreement to willingly hang out and sleep in the same living space as a stranger who could potentially kill them.

It’s not as scary as it sounds, but it’s just as weird.

I took up Couchsurfing during a trip to Iceland out of pure necessity. Usually, my “go with the flow” travel vibe works for me, but not during Iceland Airwaves, Reykjavik’s largest music festival. There was not a single room to be found in the entire city (I say this like it’s large) for under 300 bucks a night. I am by no means a big baller when it comes to travel; the plane ticket is the most I spend and everything else is on a tight budget. I’m all about the experiences, and, in Reykjavik, I got myself an experience for the low, low price of free.

Toying with the idea of crashing in the bus station for the night, I remembered one of my friends, a real far-out hippie type, telling me about Couchsurfing like it was the greatest thing she had ever done. At the time, I pushed it to the back of mind because I preferred to stick with the relative safety of hostels. But on this frigid, desperate day in November, I reached back into the archives and dusted the memory off. I was with a friend who had never been out of the country, so the fate of her travel happiness or horror rested in my hands. I threw together a brief profile, then fired out requests to potential hosts, t-shirt cannon guy-style.

Out of all the messages I sent, I received only one reply. A German student at the University of Reykjavik offered up space in his tiny dorm room for the night. He was beyond courteous, suggesting that we sleep on the mattress on the floor while he used the box spring. We made plans to meet up with him at his place after he finished his last class of the day. While we had no idea what to expect, we were simply grateful for somewhere to crash that didn’t expose us to the Icelandic elements.

When we finally came face-to-face with Nils, we were relieved at the overall lack of a creeper vibe. He was a tall, thin guy with a kind face and a hilarious laugh. We insisted on taking him out for beers at some of the festival’s venues as a thank you for saving us from the streets. Upon entering the first bar, we were struck by not only the sheer volume of people packed within but the heavy silence that hung in the air. As we sidled up to the bar, we exchanged curious glances.

“What’s going on here?” I said in a low voice, slightly above a whisper.

“Excuse me, can you keep it down?”

Startled, I looked to my right to see a guy with a reddish beard, positioned just beside the beer taps, admonishing me for breaking the steady stream of auditory nothingness. I didn’t know what to say, so I just stared.

“I’m just kidding! We don’t know what’s going on either!” He said with a good-natured smile and a hint of a brogue.

He and his friend, both Irish, joined us for beers and our continued bewilderment until the music started up and the crowd got loose. They joined our group, and after adding another American who was there on business, we had a proper crew. As Nils put it, “more people, more party.”

Our last stop of the night was to see an Icelandic death metal group called HAM. Despite their hard-hitting music, people in the crowd swayed gently, as if they were attending a Bjork concert. So, I did what any self-respecting rocker would: I started a mosh pit. It wasn’t long before the whole place erupted into a melee of wildly thrashing arms and bodies flying around the dance floor. Call it karma, or simply a mosh pit casualty, my glasses were knocked off my face. I was sure that they had met their maker underfoot to the bone-crushing riffs of HAM, so I gave up my search. It wasn’t until the song ended that they were found, unscathed, on the top of the drum set. I like to believe they crowd-surfed their way to the front for a better view.

After this wildly incredible Couchsurfing experience, I went back home to Baltimore determined to pay it forward. Over my hosting years, I’ve had travelers from New Zealand, Belgium, France, Denmark, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and even a good ol’ American from Kentucky. Every visit involved some impromptu bar crawl and look into a slice of Baltimore’s eccentricity. My very first experience with a surfer included all of that, plus a bonus haircut.

On Super Bowl Sunday in 2013, I was in the middle of a boozy brunch at The Garden Restaurant in South Baltimore when I got a text from my incoming Couchsurfer, Ash, a Canadian from the town of Saskatoon. He was on Light Street, bags in hand, so my friend and I paid our check and set off up the block to greet him. He was pleasantly Canadian; smiley, easy-going, and somewhat soft-spoken. My friend, Brian, decided we needed to get him a drink to welcome him to the neighborhood. We slipped into the closest bar where Brian ordered a round of cinnamon whiskey shots. Ash looked a bit uncertain about the path this day was taking, but clinking our glasses together sealed the deal.

I remember one of my friends, a real far-out hippie type, telling me about Couchsurfing like it was the greatest thing she had ever done.

We stopped at my house to throw down his bags in the spare room. Afterward, Ash and I stood in the kitchen, having one more drink before heading to watch the game. Our conversation rolled around from tipsy topic to topic until it settled on the subject of hairstyles. He mentioned he wanted a kind of “hipster fade” as he put it, where there was more hair on top that slowly tapered down to a near-buzzcut. I looked at my beer, then at the dog clippers in the pantry. “I can do that for you.”

I got to work in the half bath and chunks of hair began to float down to the cold, white porcelain below. After about five minutes, I flipped off the clippers and one-eyeballed my work in the mirror. To the sober eye, this haircut was a war crime, an offense punishable by death. But we were on another level.

“This looks…so good.”

He squinted back at his reflection. “It really does.”

A week later, as Ash traveled down the East Coast, I got a text informing me that he had gotten a proper haircut. Fair enough, I thought. My handiwork had a good run.

It wasn’t long before my hosting days took a hiatus. In 2014, I moved to Madrid, Spain to teach English. I shared a flat north of the city center with two people, one of whom was a little uptight, so hosting was an impossibility. On a trip to Italy that spring, a friend reluctantly agreed to let me send out some Couchsurfing requests. Curious as to her disinclination, she began to regale tale after tale of unfortunate experiences; the most horrifying (and strangely hilarious) of them all involved being chased through a neighborhood by her bottle-wielding host. Suffice it to say, for her sake, we stuck to hostels.

The memories I’ve made through these Couchsurfing experiences are some of my favorite ones and remain some of the best stories to tell.

I’ve bopped back and forth between Europe and the US since then, now finding myself in Ireland’s capital city in a ridiculously small and overpriced studio. I’ve considered hosting, as I live alone, but the thought of cramming another human into my living space is enough to send me swinging bottles through the streets. No, for now, I am simply an advocate for a movement that has brought countless new people into my life, many of whom I am still in touch with and call my friends. The memories I’ve made through these Couchsurfing experiences are some of my favorite ones and remain some of the best stories to tell.

So, the next time you find yourself “going with the flow”, consider giving Couchsurfing a try. You might make a new friend. Or even better, you could end up with a pretty rad haircut.

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