Article by Gerson Seregni
Try imagining a place where it’s always safe and warm. “Come in” she said,
“I’ll give you shelter from the storm.”
Bob Dylan, “Shelter from the Storm”
I realized a long time ago that life is just a ride, and being a tourist it is not a good way to experience the world—one should experience it as a traveler instead.
Couch Surfer is an online community for people willing to discover the world, its goal to help travelers find ‘shelter’ anywhere in the world. This shelter is not only a comfortable couch, it is a chance to share life experiences with people you have never met before. The Irish poet, Yeats, said that “There are no strangers, only friends you haven’t met yet.” Couch surfing represents this thought exactly.
The couch surfing process goes like so: you choose to go to a new city; you search for a place to stay; you message the person; if he/she replies ‘yes’ then you have a new friend entering your life. I’ve been using CS for a couple of years already and I’ve met many amazing people.
My last experience was during the Moon Festival when I decided to travel to Eastern China. All my friends said not to go because it would be too crowded, but once again, you have to be a traveler, not a tourist. I booked the cheapest train tickets, found some hosts on CS and dashed to the train station.
The first stop was Suzhou, the ‘Chinese Venice’; a clean, amazing, polite city known for its canals, bridges and classical gardens. I traveled with a companion, and our first host was a sweet American couple. They were Mormons, a group of people you hear endlessly about but most people never try to understand what a Mormon is exactly. Out of political and religious context, it was a pleasure meeting these two guys from Idaho. They had a little girl living with them, so basically, we cooked, ate together, spoke about all kinds of topics, toured around the city, prayed, and babysat as well. All in less than 40 hours; that’s like winning Wimbledon with only one set of balls.
The second stop was Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province, known for the West Lake and celebrated by poets and artists since the 9th Century. It was known not only to us, since it seems that at least half of China decided to go there on holiday. Walking around the lake became an ordeal, but, as usual, chaos and harmony in China are forced to walk hand in hand, like Pluto and Persephone did. Different city, different host, and this was a peculiar host: we were put up in a coffee bar. We spent three nights sleeping in a very cozy top floor of a bar, with ten other guests, and everyone had a couch. We drank at night, did breakfast in the morning and walked around the city, and spent a lot of our time with a very funny French couple from Montpellier who now live in Shenzhen. At the end of the trip we promised to host each other in our respective cities in the near future. About the owner of the coffee bar well, he is simply a legend, a real Bob Dylan. Hangzhou is nice, but a bit overrated in my opinion. Nevertheless, a good place to live probably, with many metro lines and friendly people. You can ask for information and they will directly guide you to that place, giving you the strange and distinct feeling of being both a superstar and unintelligent.
The third and final stop was Nanjing, the ancient capital of China during the Ming dynasty, sadly famous for the Japanese invasion of 1937 that claimed three-hundred thousand victims. That massacre is preserved in a memorial hall (侵华日军南京大屠杀遇难同胞纪念馆), where you must go. The memorial exhibits historical records and objects, and uses architecture, sculptures, and videos to illustrate what happened during the Nanjing Massacre. Overall, the city followed the spoor of Eastern China’s other spots: clean, rich and polite. Our host in Nanjing was a nice but weird guy–weird because he was always frowning while he was talking, making him look funny, but at the same time he was the kind of host that you always appreciate. He took us around the city to show us parks, memorials, museums, local restaurants, and gave us a very comfortable bed in a lovely apartment.
With Couchsurfing you meet basically 3 kinds of people: the one who is always worried about you and wants to show you everything, the one that doesn’t really care as he’s already giving you a place to sleep and a key, and the one that only wants to share the experience of life. There is no better or worse; all in all it is a great experience.
Start travelling, start taking risks in life and discover new aspects of your personality that you ignored for years. Couch Surfing is a great way to start.
By Gerson Seregni