Lying on the floor of a small apartment near the National University of Costa Rica and looking at the starry night sky of San Jose, I simply could not believe what I had experienced in the past five days.
Five days before, I was still lying in the comfortable room I called my “harbor” at Yale, and five days later, I found a new “harbor” in the foreign land of Costa Rica, on the apartment floor of someone, who, at the time still a stranger, has now become a good friend.
For my five-day journey in Costa Rica, I relied on couch surfing: sleeping on the floor of a stranger, going to a pool party hosted by a stranger, jumping in a stranger’s car to see the volcanoes and, eventually, becoming friends with all of those strangers. One word can conclude the experience: fascinating.
My first encounter with couch surfing was six years ago, when I read about a website for it in a Chinese magazine, along with its slogan: Travel like a local. To me, then still heavily relying on agencies and hotels for traveling, the whole idea seemed like a fantasy — Why would people let you sleep on their couch for free? And how could it be safe?
It wasn’t until the spring of 2017 that I re-encountered this concept. When traveling in Cuba, I found that a lot of people were using Couchsurfing.com to find local hosts instead of using Airbnb. I met some local couch surfers in Cuba who invited me and my friends to the best bar in Havana and then advised us where else to visit. They had hosted a number of people through Couchsurfing.com and later even traveled to their guests’ cities and slept on their couches in return.
Intrigued by their stories, I decided to rely on Couchsurfing.com for my summer trip to Costa Rica. Although I initially thought it would sound sketchy to ask random strangers for hosting, I found the procedure extremely similar to that of Airbnb: browsing through a list of hosts in the destination city, checking their profile and reviews, messaging hosts to check for availability — everything except for paying.
After rounds of searching and messaging, I decided to stay with Eduardo, a student in the National University of Costa Rica who offered me a mattress to sleep on the floor of his apartment. When I met him, Eduardo told me that he and his friends in the apartment suite had been hosting couch surfers from all over the world for two years. He showed me on a map the different people whom he’d hosted, and I was amazed by the international horizon that he had, something that I rarely find among my previous encounters with people.
The next day, Eduardo took me on a tour around the city of San Jose. Not only did he know well the touristy spots of in the city, but he also spoke of the city’s development: how it expanded and when landmark architectures were built, things I don’t usually hear about on a regular city tour. Since both of us were students, we spent a lot of time talking about schools, comparing our different education systems and experiences. While he expressed great admiration for my liberal arts education at Yale, I also found that his experience at the National University of Costa Rica, which focuses on exploring students’ interest and developing expertise in one field, was intriguing. That night, when all of his friends came to visit for a weekend party, they took me to a local club, where I got to experience the dance floor and the expertise that Costa Ricans have an salsa dancing.
The next day, when Eduardo went to school, I searched for events on Couchsurfing.com, and found that there was a pool party in the city, with the note, “Bring your favorite food!” The party was located in a nice residential area with a swimming pool, and when I got to the party, there were already people there, chatting and exchanging food. Most of the organizers were local couch surfers, who organize these events regularly, but there were also couch surfers from all over the world.
When I exchanged food with a young Portuguese man, he joked, “I hope you didn’t put poison in this.” I laughed, and responded, “Well, you are too handsome for me to abduct.” We both burst into laughter and ate the food we exchanged.
As I chatted with him, I was informed that he was from the island of Madeira, a small Portuguese territory that is actually closer to eastern Africa. He told me that the island is small enough that every resident knows one other, and that when he was 19, he found the island boring and decided to leave to see the larger world. He’d since been couch surfing on different continents. It had almost never occurred to me before that there were paths other than learning in college.
Through Couchsurfing.com, I was able to meet many other couch surfers over the short five days — I was able to travel with them and hear their stories. In La Fortuna, I jumped in the car of a couch surfer whom I had just met an hour ago: We spent the next two hours driving to a volcano and tried to climb it. In San Jose, I met with a group of couch surfers from France in a pub, and we watched a soccer game together. At the end of my stay in Costa Rica, I felt that I had made enough friends there to claim that it has become a harbor of mine: Somewhere I can always go to and find support as well as friendship at any time.
This is what I learned from couch surfing: If you are willing to put in trust, generosity and friendliness, you will be rewarded with even more. The experience refreshed my impression about traveling — that it’s not just about seeing an exotic culture and world, but also about immersing in it and finding friendships and harbors.