We’ve almost always tossed around the idea of Couchsurfing. We created an account when we first started traveling, but for various reasons, we never made use of it until now. I’m sure most readers already know, but Couchsurfing is, among other things, a platform that connects people offering a free space in their home to sleep, with travelers looking for a place to crash for a night or two.
We’re planning to travel as much as possible while we’re based in Japan, and accommodation costs can add up quickly. Plus, we have a spare bedroom in our semi-permanent home in Takayama. I liked the idea of being able to give back by hosting in additional to surfing, and so overall the timing seemed right for our first Couchsurfing adventure.
For our first surfing experience, we arranged to stay in Kanazawa with a very nice Japanese man. We drove to Kanazawa in the morning, hoping to spend the afternoon sightseeing, stay the night, and then leave early the next day. Our host suggested meeting at a convenience store, explaining that his house was a little difficult to find without help. We saw him from across the parking lot, introduced ourselves….and then there was silence. It was probably a combination of factors that led to this perfect storm of awkwardness:
- Traveling over the past few years has caused Brent and I to be seriously lacking in a stable social network. Sad and embarrassing as it is, we mostly hang out with each other. When we do meet other people, they’re usually travelers. But the typical ice-breaking questions from these interactions, such as “where are you from?”, and “how long are you here for?” didn’t apply to this situation.
- Secondly, my Japanese conversational skills consist of thought-provoking questions, like “is this a watch?” and “did you eat sushi yesterday?” English was our host’s second-language, which in this case, seemed to be making most of our attempts at conversation choppy, and full of confusion.
We tried presenting the bottle of sake that we had brought for him as a thank-you gift. It turned out that he didn’t drink, so this gesture did nothing to smooth over the weirdness between us. When we arrived at his house, we were, in all honesty, eager to get going. Not just because of the horribly uncomfortable drive over, but also because it was early afternoon, and there was a lot that I wanted to see that day.
But then all of the neurotic guilt complexes that we used to experience during our Workaway and HelpX exchanges resurfaced. There’s a lot of emphasis on the Couchsurfing website about lofty concepts like connecting a global community of travelers and fostering a cultural exchange. Reading it had made me overly cautious about not treating his home like a free hostel. I began to wonder if it was rude to just dump our bags, and come back when we wanted to sleep. What did he want out of this hosting experience? Should we hang out with him, and pay attention to him?
We started over-thinking every nuance of behavior, and, as a result, things continued to feel more and more strained and uncomfortable.
The following weekend, we hosted our first surfers. When we picked the couple up at the train station, I immediately saw the same fear in their eyes that had haunted us during our surfing experience. It was their first time surfing too, and I could tell that they felt uncertain about how to show their gratitude, just like we had felt. I was also secretly relieved to find that we obviously weren’t the only surfers out there feeling semi-paranoid about coming across as free-loaders.
If you factor in our numerous Workaway and Helpx exchanges, Brent and I are more than experienced at being un-paying guests, but this was our first foray into the role of host. I realized right away that I didn’t expect anything at all from these surfers. I just felt good about giving our spare room to people who could actually use it. It would be a bonus if we all connected and wanted to hang out together; but if we didn’t hit it off, that was no big deal either. I didn’t expect every surfer to become a friend for life.
Over the weekend that the surfers stayed with us, I also realized that it just generally felt really good to share the local knowledge that we’ve accumulated during the past 2 months in Takayama. We could tell them which sake brewery gives unlimited free samples, where to get cheap sushi, and where to see the best of Takayama’s local markets.
I always seem to crack under the pressure of being a guest in a free exchange. I’m the kind of person who pays a friend back immediately if they loan me even a dollar. I don’t like being indebted to friends, much less to strangers. Once I owe someone, I feel an imbalance in the relationship that I don’t know how to handle. I’m much more comfortable being generous than I am at receiving acts of generosity. As a host, I could relax, be myself and enjoy getting to know our surfers.
So, it turns out that I might be too awkward and guilt-ridden to surf, but I’m not too awkward to host. Maybe I will eventually get over the neurosis that makes it difficult for me to accept free things without believing that there are social strings attached. Then we could try surfing again.
What do you think? Do most Couchsurfing hosts have certain expectations of their surfers?