Student travelers stay with strangers
Many of us have big dreams of faraway lands for spring break. Many of us feel like those dreams will never be a reality due to our financial status. What if there was a magical network of strangers, willing to house poor college students?
That network, or website, exists. Couchsurfing.com is a community of people from around the world either willing to house strangers at no cost, or surfers looking for a place to bunk. The couch surfers mission statement is: “We create inspiring experiences: cross-cultural encounters that are fun, engaging, and illuminating.”
First time couch surfer Jessica Jasperson’s heart pounded in her chest as she waited for a stranger to pick her up from the Seattle airport.
When considering a vacation destination for fall breather the coffee lover and adventurist thought Seattle would be a perfect fit. The impromptu decision posed a major problem, Jasperson and her sister Carmella Jasperson didn’t have a place to stay.
“I was freaking out because two weeks before our trip we didn’t have anywhere to stay. I was dead set on not paying money for a hotel,” Jessica said.
Thirty year old Eva Gillespie was the solution they were looking for. She even picked up the two sisters from the airport.
Jaspersons’ mother was beside herself. Imagining the worst, tears filled her eyes as she learned the plan of her two 21-year-old daughters.
“My mom said, ‘strangers don’t do that. They don’t just let people stay at their house, and they certainly don’t pick them up from the airport,’” Jessica said.
In a panic, their mother even offered to pay for a hotel room. In an effort to settle her distraught mother, Jessica pulled up Gillespie’s couch surfing profile page and all the positive referrals she had accumulated.
“On the phone when we were driving to Minneapolis, my mom said, ‘Well if nothing bad happens, I’ll have a lot more respect for humanity,’” Jessica said.
Their mother has a reason to restore that faith. Within minutes of meeting, Gillepsie and the Jasperson sisters were engaged in intimate conversation.
“Our personalities matched up a lot. Right when we got into the car we started talking about women’s rights and politics,” Jessica said.
Gillespie’s home is in Shoreline, Wash., a suburb just 15 minutes outside the city. The four-bedroom house is in the perfect location for couch surfers. The bus stop is only a 15 minute walk away.
Though she has never couch surfed, Gillespie has hosted more than 40 surfers. She has housed everyone from French tourists to a band that was passing through.
She keeps in touch with every surfer she’s ever had. The Jasperson sisters have received numerous cards and postcards from Gillespie and communicate via Facebook whenever they can.
On the eve of their departure from Seattle, the Jaspersons didn’t get a chance to see Gillespie. Finding her waiting in the kitchen at 5 a.m. the day of their flight was a delightful surprise.
“She was waiting to say goodbye to us. She was actually filling out postcards while she was waiting for us to leave,” Jessica said.
Jessica said she would definitely couch surf again, preferably in another country. She has had some requests from surfers to stay on her couch, but her already cramped living situation doesn’t allow it. The requests she has received include a Canadian who was biking across the United States and an international student applying for grad school at MSUM.
Jessica would like to host surfers in the future. Hosting surfers can help boost a couch surfing profile and increase credibility. An honest request message to potential hosts will increase chances of being accepted.
“Be sure to tell them you’re not just interested in staying at their home because you want to use it, but you’re interested in staying at their home to meet them and actually learn about their life,” Jessica said.
The Jaspersons learned about Seattle through Gillespie’s stories. Though she didn’t have time to show the Jaspersons around, the cafe she recommended became the sisters go-to breakfast joint.
Visiting Pike’s Place Market was Jessica’s favorite part of the trip. The market is known for its fresh produce, hand-made goods and street musicians.
“It was exactly what I expected of Seattle but it was even better to experience it first hand,” Jessica said.
Her five lattes a day regimen should satisfy Jessica’s coffee craving for now.
“My blood was probably caffeine by the time I left. The coffee was so good,” Jessica said.
Robert McDermott has illegally climbed the pyramids, braved an election riot in Cairo and drank home-made liqueur with locals in Crete, all because of couch surfing. He has visited more than 30 countries and three continents. He started couch surfing in 2010 while living in Paris.
McDermott estimated that he has saved more than $2,000 by using couch surfing. He utilized the website as often as possible.
“Financially, there’s no way I could have traveled as much as I have without couch surfing,” said McDermott, a film studies senior.
McDermott used couch surfing the most while he was visiting Greece and Egypt this past summer. Cairo, a city where almost no one speaks English, and signs and directions are few and far between can be a tourists nightmare.
“There’s no signs. There’s no lanes in the streets. There’s no crosswalks. Nothing. You feel like a fish out of water,” McDermott said.
McDermott’s host spent whole days with him, showing him all the nooks and crannies of the city. Without his host, McDermott would have been limited to typical tourist destinations.
Crete is one of McDermott’s favorite destinations. There, his couch surfing host showed him a different side of Crete night life.
“We went way off the beaten path. There was this little tiny bar, packed wall to wall with locals. They all had instruments out,” McDermott said.
At the bar, McDermott tried Raki, a liquor made only in Crete. McDermott spent the night chatting with locals, singing songs and feasting on pork chops.
“It was this amazing emersion. No tourist would ever find that spot,” McDermott said.
McDermott hosts as well as couch surfs. He has had about a dozen surfers on his own couch. He said he wants to show them the same hospitality he has received.
“Couch surfing is all about paying it forward. The second I got back here I made sure to host as many people as possible,” McDermott said.
When a couch surfer stops in the McDermott residence, they are shown a good time. McDermott usually takes the surfer downtown to enjoy Fargo’s nightlife.
“Usually people are pleasantly surprised by Fargo, they don’t expect much when they come here,” McDermott said.
Couch surfing has even led to collaborations and networking experiences for McDermott. He is going to New Mexico this summer to work on a film with a surfer who stayed with him this summer.
“He actually works in my major. He works for a film production company,” McDermott said. “You never know who you’re gonna meet.”
McDermott said he wants to stress that couch surfing is not dangerous. The system of references is meant to keep surfers and hosts safe.
“For as many times as I have surfed, I have never felt unsafe,” McDermott said.
He said he plans to couch surf and host for as long as he lives.
“It’s this movement. It’s giving back and showing hospitality. Once you are a part of it, you don’t stop,” McDermott said.
As an exchange student, Chu-Yen Pai wanted to see America. Though he enjoys living in Moorhead, it only whet his appetite. When fall breather came around he decided to couch surf his way to Chicago.
“I wanted to see colorful America. That was the purpose of coming here,” said Pai, an accounting junior. His flight to Chicago left from Minneapolis, so Pai decided to explore Minnesota’s capitol for a few days before his departure.
Pai found Ryan Mulso just one week before he left Moorhead. Pai stayed with Mulso for two days. The first night Mulso took Pai out with his friends to a Zombie Pub Crawl.
“We don’t have those kinds of things. It’s one of my best memories during my stay in America,” Pai said.
Pai said he was impressed with Mulso’s hospitality. He left Pai a house key so he could come and go as he pleased.
“It’s not easy for ordinary people to give a key to a stranger,” Pai said.
Pai and his Chicago host, Eric Becker, exchanged stories about their cultures. Pai was grateful for the knowledge Becker had about Taiwan. Becker even asked his opinion on some of Taiwan’s current political issues.
“He knew something about my country. I was pretty happy about that,” Pai said. “I’ve ran into some American people who didn’t know about Taiwan. They confused it with Thailand. They thought it was where people ride elephants and where American rice comes from,” Pai said.
Pai keeps in touch with both his hosts. On his first Thanksgiving, he sent them each a text telling them how thankful he is that he met them.
For the Chinese New Year, he sent each of them a charm. It is meant to bring blessings throughout the whole year.
Pai has used the couch surfing website for more than just a place to stay. On a trip to Hungary during winter vacation, he found a local that acted as an online travel agent.
“He was not able to meet me in person, but he helped me get a cheap hostel where his brother worked,” Pai said.
The online host also helped Pai schedule his trip. He recommended locations and tourist spots for Pai, all without meeting him and without payment.
Pai plans to host others when he returns to Taiwan. He said he will show them the same hospitality.
“You gain something by giving to others. It is a mutual interaction,” Pai said.
Pai always travels alone. He said he doesn’t want to rely on others to help him.
“I may have some difficulty traveling alone, but it improves my skills. I have been able to grow so much,” Pai said.
Being a world traveler, Pai said he hopes he can continue to grow and learn more about the world.
“We need to know more about other cultures. Not by the Discovery Channel, not by a travel guide, and not by a textbook. We need real experiences,” Pai said.
BY SARAH TYRE