May 21, 2017
I woke up last weekend in a complete stranger’s house, in Lisbon, Portugal, of all places. And it was all on purpose.
On my way to London (UK) for a week-long business trip, I took a random, last-minute, 3-day weekend in Lisbon. I decided I was going to be fearless and do something I had never done before to challenge myself: stay with complete strangers in a foreign city.
Couchsurfing is an online community that was recommended to me by a few friends. Initially, the concept sounded both intriguing but creepy. Complete strangers are agreeing to stay with each other while traveling to foreign places, with no exchange of money or fees in return. The concept is novel and unique for sure. It began in 2004 as a side project by a few people who were looking for a place to stay while on a trip to Iceland. It’s now grown into a global community of over 14 million couchsurfers who open their home and share their lives with one another.
After I setup my profile on CS (what couchsurfers refer to the community as) and started to message with a few people about my upcoming trip to Lisbon a few days away, I quickly discovered that CS had very little to do with finding a place to crash while on the road and much more to do about connecting with new and interesting people while traveling.
We all say “I love to travel”, but what do we really mean? I think we often refer to the experience of discovering a different part of the world, seeing architecture and sights, tasting different foods, taking in culture and also just the act of being away from our normal day-to-day. With CS, the “love of travel” extends beyond all of this and includes people who are traveling for the joy of connecting with other people, in potentially meaningful ways. And that was my experience as well.
My first CS host was a kind and generous 25 year old European girl who has lived all over the continent, choosing to not make any specific place home. She met me at the local metro station, we walked by the waterfront and sat down for dinner. Conversation flowed naturally, and I quickly discovered that she was a gentle and open person, with a lifetime of experiences at a relatively young age.
Back at her apartment, her roommate was away for the weekend and she was gracious enough to offer her roommate’s bed (which I was not expecting!). Later that evening, we hung out on her balcony, overlooking the city, seeing people playing soccer (football as they call it) and sharing life stories and getting to know each other. After a peaceful night’s rest, the next morning we shared a meditation (which she appreciated as it had been a while for her) and a discussion about how we respectively manage stress in life which turned into a journaling session (free writing was the specific technique I introduced her to). She took me around Lisbon, enjoying beautiful views of the entire city, and I got to hear what Portugal meant to her beyond buildings and structures. She works in media broadcasting and is developing a documentary on the side, which I was interviewed me for as well.
While messaging several people on CS ahead of my visit, I connected with another host who seemed like a really cool guy. Although he couldn’t host me, as he’s been busy studying for law exams, we decided that we’d still meet up for a coffee while I was there. We met in a popular cafe in the heart of the city. Full of locals, the place was buzzing. He was explaining to me that the Pope had just been in town, the Lisbon football team was playing in the championship game that evening (which they won) and also that evening was the Eurovision Song Contest (which Portugal won for the first time in history). Needless to say, the city was alive and I would not have discovered all of this simply being a tourist.
I learned that he has been part of the CS community for over 8 years now and hosted over 200 guests, and is planning an extended adventure across Europe this year, and plans to connect with the CS community along the way. He had been inspired to go see the world, by meeting so many people from around the world over the years. And he’s the same as me. The diversity of stories, experiences and backgrounds he’s been exposed to is incredible.
And finally, my third CS connection was with a 28-year old local who hosted me for my second night in Lisbon. What peaked my curiosity about him was that he’s been training to be a commercial pilot. Stepping into his house, I could see just how passionate he was about his work. We immediately went into talking about how technology has changed how pilots train, talking about flight simulators, virtual reality, artificial intelligence and fancy gadgets (including this 720 degrees chair that moves literally in all directions).
So the next morning, we decided to go up for a flight. We went to the local flying club where he had been trained, rented a plane for a few hours and went up. It was a tiny 2-seater plan, by far the smallest plane I’ve ever been in in my life (and I’ve been in a lot of planes). Seeing the amount of multitasking that goes on to get a plane off the ground was exciting, and as we climbed, the city faded away in the background and the clear skies and sea dominated the view. I even took control of the “wheel” (stick) to fly the plane myself (another first). We connected how the cockpit of a plan was the best office in the world. Seeing his passion and excitement for what he was doing first-hand was a source of inspiration.
As you can tell, the CS experience is about much more than finding a place to stay. It’s about connecting, and when you let someone into your physical space, you end up sharing meals, stories and experiences. The immediate bond that is formed is something I underestimated. It’s a two-way relationship of trust. A host is inviting a complete stranger not only into their home but into their life, and the couchsurfer is usually in a foreign place without really knowing anyone and no back-up plans.
One of my hosts commented how within 12 hours of hanging out, it felt as though we had known each other for ten years and sometimes even with friends in your life for years, we don’t get past the surface and feel comfortable really letting them in. Learning to place trust in a complete stranger and be trusted in return is an experience I feel grateful for.
This couch surfing experience was part of a bigger experiment that I’m doing this year (which I’ll be sharing more on soon), to build greater empathy and understanding of the various communities I’m a part of.
Learning to live thanks to the generosity and kindness of strangers was wonderful, and seeing first hand the life of others encourages us to start think beyond ourselves. Beyond our own desires, challenges and comforts. The different perspective also helps us realize what we likely take for granted in our lives and feel grateful for what we do have.
Note: maybe you’ll take some inspiration from my couchsurfing experience but don’t blindly follow without doing your own research and diligence. Like any adventure, proceed with caution.