When we took to the open road that leads from college to anywhere, my friend Kate and I worried about falling into tourism. The hope of every serious traveler is to become entangled in new surroundings, to be a little changed. You read plaques, you visit bazaars, you go to that place where the guidebook says locals drink tea. You hope someone will talk with you. But a new city tends to be all shiny surfaces, difficult to crack.
Our plan was to travel from Istanbul to Bucharest to Budapest, taking trains, and to avoid the tourism trap, we turned to a social networking website, CouchSurfing. CouchSurfing is made up of user profiles (think Facebook), sortable by location, languages spoken, music preferences, gender, age. CouchSurfing is designed to facilitate travel on the real, rather than information, highway by connecting travelers with hosts. No money is exchanged.
The only quid pro quo is to leave a favorable report on a good host’s or guest’s CouchSurfing profile. Comments thus add up, forming a chain of recommendations (or warnings) that come with each profile page. The practice builds reputations within the network and makes hosts and guests permanent parts of each other’s existence within the community. Hosts can have their addresses verified by the site, and there are a handful of other safety features. But the wide-open system depends on generosity and the curiosity of strangers. I enjoy a free couch in Istanbul, soon some itinerant will enjoy my free futon in Brooklyn. It’s a modern gift economy.
It may seem odd to put your life in the hands of a total stranger in a foreign country. My mother certainly thinks so, but long use of Facebook, AIM, MySpace, and LinkedIn has shaped my confidence in Internet interactions. I, like many others, act as if some truth does filter down through the interwebs. I would never hitchhike, but I’ll sleep in a stranger’s living room. Why?
Lewis Hyde, in his wonderful book The Gift, suggests that “gift exchange tends to be an economy of small groups, of extended families, small villages, close-knit communities, brotherhoods, and of course, of tribes.” This makes CouchSurfing remarkable in its expansiveness, a function of—dare I say it?—the Internet Age. Familiarity has been globalized, and trust crystallizes over enormous distances. On Facebook I see abbreviated versions of my friends, but here I used abbreviated portraits of strangers to judge if they might become friends. The transition isn’t so hard.
After a hopeful selection process and after exchanging dozens of messages with denizens of faraway cities, Kate and I began our trip in early August, starting from Istanbul. Kate arrived from San Francisco via an eleven-hour flight and six-hour layover in Germany, looking as if she had been hit by a truck. I arrived equally fatigued from Israel, where I had participated in a Birthright program and been pumped so full of Jewish heritage that I fancied the program was continuing with some “wandering Jew” component.
The young Turkish couple with whom we had arranged to stay that first night opened their door to this sorry, sweaty sight. Their first reaction was to offer us showers, and then to lead us into the dining room where they had prepared dinner, and gathered friends to meet the new guests (hosting was, quite clearly, a way of life for them). Their friend Alper spent a day showing us around. We climbed to a hidden rooftop that showed us the dense, hot city crowding up to the bright shore of the Bosphorus. Alper took a local’s pride in the sweeping vistas, the minaret-studded skyline, but also the details that sweeten and personalize the historic grandeur: a Nargile lounge serving a delicious hazelnut drink, that rooftop. He prevented us from ordering food just as the waiters were about to break their Ramadan fast.
As we explored Istanbul on foot and by public transit, absorbing his judgments, opinions, and colloquial history, we thought a little less about specific landmarks, though those were glorious (the exquisite tiling of the Blue Mosque creates a kind of transcendence as your eyes follow it up the dome) and more about neighborhoods. We could see how the slightly yuppie neighborhood where we stayed connected as easily to the nightlife district in Taksim as it stood distant from the Old City across the Bosphorus. Alper’s way of trekking through the whole city on foot let us glimpse how a resident might see the city as a connected whole, instead of a collection of destination spots.
Because we were living with residents of the city, there was no venturing out into a new world, only to withdraw to a sterile and anonymous hotel room that could be anywhere. We came home to a home. We were still in Istanbul. On one of these sweltering evenings, we arrived home to a birthday party, our hosts and their friends drinking Malibu in the breezy living room and singing folk songs in Turkish. We peered in, were duly welcomed, and eventually the guitar was pressed on Kate, and we were obliged to sing them Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere.”
We had a second host in Istanbul, and this young banker reminded us that CouchSurfing is not typically extravagant: we were there to crash, and that was about it. He did, however, teach us backgammon, a gift that would help us make friends for the rest of the trip. Kate and I bought a cheap board, and we sat in the heat in the park, taking instruction from old men who stopped their strolls to raise an eyebrow at our game and move our pieces.
WHEN OUR transcontinental express dropped us in Bucharest next, we were faced with the former “People’s House” of Nicolae Ceausescu, a hideously metastasized neoclassical nightmare where Bucharest’s historical district once stood. But we learned more about communism’s legacy from our new host, a writer. She shared stories of press suppression since Ceausescu’s fall and her own desperate disappointment in the cynicism of Romania’s young journalists. The crumbling buildings marring the commercial downtown had stories too—here had been a school, here a theater. Within her stories, the buildings felt less like historical markers and more like portentous features of a politics and economy that were failing disastrously, here and now.
Our political inclinations, usually so alive in the United States, but subdued by the strangeness of another country, came out in the form of new questions about the causes for the decrepit old structures. Where did the economy stand now? Who was in power in city government? Were young people leaving or staying in Bucharest? Our host sighed and launched into the tragic tale of postcommunist Romanian politics, a lament that did not end until our departure.
WE WERE more nervous about our host in Budapest—a man of thirty-five, living by himself. He wasn’t very political. He was a computer programmer, and although very nice, certainly not eager to go out at night or play tour guide. We were mystified by the sheer number of people in and out of his apartment—he said he had joined CouchSurfing a month ago and had booked guests for nearly every day. There was a Japanese woman leaving when we arrived, and a French couple would later arrive as we left. Our host turned out to be kind and generous, and he couldn’t cook. We made him dinner one night. He brought out his homemade pálinka—a fruit liquor—and we sat into the evening, drinking and comparing school experiences. During the few days we were in Budapest, while he went to work, we traveled to the old castle in Buda or the communist-era statue garden in the suburbs.
“Get up, drink coffee, work for the state!” read a coffee mug in the gift shop. Soviet kitsch—how delightful! There was a little pizza place called Marxim near the castle, all decorated with military uniforms, serving pizzas whose names referenced various despots and slogans. A little black humor. The glee we would normally have felt in commie coffee cups was tempered by returning home in the evening to a flat belonging to someone intimately familiar with Hungarian communism. Coming back to his place with a kitschy mug would have felt like wearing one of those trendy Che Guevara T-shirts to Bolivia.
On our last day, I pressed our host a bit—why so many people? He had a simple explanation. His girlfriend had moved out a little while ago, and “It’s not good to get up in the morning and no one’s there, and come home at night and no one’s there.”
That candor was almost unnerving. Everywhere we went we had to justify our presence explicitly, not just to a faux-enthusiastic tour guide, but to someone who might treat you like a friend, bare his soul. Over our host’s homemade pálinka or his backgammon set, we had to be honest. Our anxieties about being privileged tourists became part of a dialogue with the people toward whom our guilty feelings were ultimately directed—the longtime residents of the cities we were visiting.
THE EXPERIENCE of the trip, so rich in human interaction, was also in many ways a function of the Internet at its best. The Internet here was a tool to facilitate life and not to provide a shadow in its stead. It offered a widely accessible route around that consumerist orgy, the travel industry. CouchSurfing made us more humane tourists. When we enjoyed hospitality without paying for it, we instinctively tried to pay in other ways—cooking, little gifts, spending time with the host—that of course necessitated a more involved relationship than the exchange of payment for service. Each of the people we stayed with has now become a part of our visible, lasting history. They have left their recommendations on our profile pages, and we have left ours on theirs. Already our hosts’ votes of confidence have brought several fellow CouchSurfers to inquire about my Brooklyn futon.
Sarah Leonard was born in 1988 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She graduated from Columbia University in 2010.