Couchsurfing: many Good Samaritans, but also an increasing number of freeloaders

Due to delays on the road on our first major move across states together, Marta and I miscalculated the time zone changes and arrived at a hosts place after midnight when the hosts had to get up for work at 6:30am the next day. All we could see at all of (only one of) the hosts was his letting us in and showing us the bathroom and bed. They were gone for the day by the time we awoke the next morning–they’d opened their home to us complete strangers, and extended to us the trust that allowed us to rest and recover for another long day on the road. From the get-go we made it clear to all our hosts that were making that trip on a clunker, and so one CSer/firefighter who offered to extend to us his hospitality let us know that he has a garage full of tools in case we needed it at all, even though we were scheduled to arrive at his place while he was away for two nights on one of his 48-hr shifts.

Another time, while moving across the country, our car, luggage, and beloved pet cat all had crises at the same time. This caused major delays in our schedule as well as a need for emergency stops. But CSers came through for us when we needed a place for our cat to recover in the middle of the day from severe heat exhaustion. We needed to keep driving because of our deadline, but were still able to get a few hours of R&R at a CSer’s home just so we could keep going. We were behind schedule and so wanted to try to make it to the next town we had CS contacts lined up. Unfortunately we took a wrong fork on the road and regregrettably ended up stringing along our gracious host a little too late into the night until we realized we had to call and notify them that we won’t be able to arrive at all. We understandably caused a major disruption to their working lives–but we still remember their patience and generosity with us, and willingness to accept us even if we were arriving late.

Since then, I’ve thought that CS can be a lot more than just about a budget-friendly place to stay, or this artifical sense of obligation to always make some deep connection or reciprocate with a profound cultural exchange. Ultimately, I think that CS is simply about being a true Samaritan.

Update: At the same time, I’ve come to a very sad realization that the CS community has fundamentally changed, just as the old-timers have been saying for some time. For this reason, many of the nicest and most interesting CS veterans seem no longer active. I’m noticing that the vast majority on the network doesn’t appear to be anything other than people looking to save a buck, with no history of hosting, and no clear sign that they intend to give back now, nor in the future. I get it that if you’re on a long-term journey and you just learned of CS–or you’re young and just getting started in life–you might not have the means or place (… or even maturity) to do so.

I admit that I’ve had my share of misunderstandings and mistakes as a traveling youngin, too. Yet, when I lived at my parent’s house, in student dorms, or cramped rentals where landlords tended to frown upon guests, I still made an effort to host as many travelers as possible. Since then, I’ve also kept “CS hostability” a substantial criteria for choosing where to live.

As a traveler, not only did CS help me save, it also allowed me to experience more places in a way I never could when I travelled around on the hostel circuit. I’ve met great people in the worst of places (including hostels), but I found how they were often sickening gathering places for privileged brats stampeding around the world with little regard for the lives of those who serve them at their destinations, let alone its less financially endowed local population that comprises the vast majority of people on our planet. Yet, all these backpackers seemed to care about was collecting photos, stories, and experiences to outdo their peers in the hostel (or back in their home country)… and maybe do one or two feel-good “volontourism” gigs for good measure. All this while saving a buck. They were no better than the “tourists” they often liked to make fun of, but I couldn’t tell if either were genuinely interested in learning or making connections.

I’d like to keep my home open to help out travelers of all ages, because I believe that world travel can be revolutionary, and I think that we should all strive as much as possible to make travel within reach of people with less means. At best, I believe it can foster mutual understanding and global solidarity for people’s struggles around the world. Even if we don’t click, at least I can help your budget a bit with a place to stay. Yet, I can’t help but feel that many people now mainly join the network to take advantage of other people’s kindness, and are on CS only to travel even more cheaply than those hosteling backpackers I so learned to despise. Many CSers talk about how amazing and mind-opening CS was on their world travel experience, yet they go home unchanged. And they don’t host! I’m not sure how these people are any better than former hippies who go on to become hedge fund managers.

For me, it’s a constant conflict whether to help out as many travelers as possible without discriminating/cherry-picking, or to become a more choosy host.

All of this is not to discount the many amazing, generous hosts who are still out there, or travelers on a genuine mission (sometimes but not always the same person)

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