Yikai Wang ’16, from Hangzhou, China, went couchsurfing in California over winter break. Wang’s expedition took him through Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Cambria, Carmel, Monterey, Santa Cruz, San Jose, and San Francisco. He used the program Couchsurfing.org to be matched with volunteer hosts.
Wang’s parents were skeptical when he told them about his plans, but they needn’t have worried. “It’s easier to think about what kind of bad stuff is happening out there, but you don’t think about what kind of good stuff can happen out there,” said Wang. His interactions with his hosts proved that a lot of amazing things can happen when you open yourself up to strangers.
In Santa Barbara, only one host accepted him – and that one person happened to live in a garage unit. His host was a twenty-four-year-old college grad living with her boyfriend, a chef, who majored in anthropology at the University of California Santa Barbara. For the woman, who was at one point living in a car, moving into a garage was a major upgrade. The couple turned off the heater at night to save money. This meant that Wang woke up at 5 AM every morning because the garage was so cold.
But these people were not unhappy. Wang explained, “It’s kind of a general trend that all the hosts don’t really value money all that much… maybe because if they did they wouldn’t let people in.”
During the day, Wang walked a few blocks downtown to a different world. The wealthy parts of Santa Barbara, with fancy restaurants and a shopping district, provided a sharp contrast to the living conditions he shared with his hosts.
Wang continued to rely on the generosity of strangers throughout his trip, and it proved to be abundant. When he left Santa Barbara, a stranger picked him up from the side of the highway. Wang’s host in San Luis Obispo struck me as particularly generous. His host was in a band with three of his roommates. His band was actually really good and their album was “quite impressive,” as Wang put it. “They were all really cool songs… His lyrics made sense to me,” Wang explained.
Wang’s interactions with his host continued through music. As an international student, most of the music Wang listened to was Chinese, and the American music he was familiar with was always poppy, or the “classics.” His host walked him through the decades. His host then spent the next 2 hours playing music for him and educating him on the differences between genres and decades of American music.
In Santa Cruz, Wang met his next host and another fellow couchsurfer. Their day entailed many treats from his host, including lunch, a spa visit and some souvenirs from a local marketplace. His host was an awesome cook, a high school Spanish teacher, Mexican, and a nudist. The first thing he did when he went home was take his clothes off.
At first, Wang and the other couchsurfer were hesitant, and after a few unsure glances towards each other, they found themselves stripping down. Before this, Wang thought, “This is the kind of thing I would never do — getting naked in front of a random stranger.” Soon enough though, his opinion changed: “It wasn’t as awkward as I thought it was going to be. Yes, it was weird at first, but I got used to it by the second day.”
His host grew up in rural Mexico, in a town where most people were naked, especially children. Thus, it is as natural to Wang’s host be naked as wearing clothes is to us; he had no mental barrier to being naked and actually felt closer to what “humans are supposed to be.” Wang affirmed that his host was one of the smartest people he’s met, explaining, “The way he thinks about things is just really interesting to me. He told me a lot of things I had just never thought about before.”
“It’s a different thing taking a class here versus talking to random people. You can’t compare them – you learn totally different things,” Wang said. The whole trip was an exercise in learning through conversations and new experiences, but staying with this specific host, who had such a unique perspective on life and society, and having five hour long conversations sitting naked on a stranger’s couch in the middle of California woods — that’s the kind of education about people and culture that no textbook can ever give you.
Wang’s spontaneous decision to go to California, the mixture of buses and hitchhiking he used to travel between cities, and the unknown hosts all provided the uncertainty that he craved for his trip. “If you’re staying in a hotel, you follow a schedule, which is nice, but this trip was entirely different because I didn’t know what my host and life was going to be like, so I truly had to be open minded. I didn’t have expectations that had to be met. The general impression is that what I loved was 10% the places I visited, and 90% the conversations I had.”
“Those people who register on couch surfer – a lot of them by themselves are interesting people, or people who have stories to tell. All at the very least they have the passion to meet new people.”
Wang started looking into travel options in November. Couchsurfing.org finds people in various cities with whom you can crash. It almost works like an online dating site, matching “couchsurfers” up with hosts, based off references and profile preferences. Wang says the best part about couchsurfing is that “you don’t just sleep on their couch, you develop a good personal relationship. They are local. They know what’s good… they know what’s going on.” Wang swears he will never go to a hotel again after the experience.
The best part? It’s completely free.