Meet The Man Who Has Hosted Over 300 CouchSurfers
With over a million members in 230 different countries, CouchSurfing has become an indispensable tool for travelers since its founding in 2004, allowing travelers from all over the world to host, stay with, or simply meet other travelers.
As of April, 2011, CouchSurfing reports that it has been involved with 1.7 million CouchSurfing stays. Perhaps one of their most active users is John Wright in London, who has hosted over 300 travelers since he signed up almost six years ago. We thought we’d sit down with John and ask him about what it’s like to be a CouchSurfing All-Star, what his craziest hosting experiences were, and how CouchSurfing has changed his view of the world.
The Expeditioner: What do you do and where are you from?
John: I’m a history school teacher. I am originally from Liverpool, but I moved to London 20 years ago.
The Expeditioner: When did you first discover CouchSurfing and what was your first CouchSurfing hosting experience?
John: I was with a group of old University friends and throughout the evening somebody had the idea that we all had to write down 10 places in the world and visit those places in the next 10 years. I had gotten about halfway through the list when I decided I was going to go to Russia. I then found out that it wasn’t as easy to visit as I thought it would be, and that I needed to be invited there by a Russian.
I was reading a local newspaper’s travel section and it mentioned a site called Hospitality Club, so I went online to look at it but didn’t really like it. However, it had a link to CouchSurfing. I liked it and so I joined and made a few requests for a couch in Russia. Within a half an hour someone had already replied saying not only, “Yes, I will host you,” but that they would sort out my invitation to get into Russia. It was an excellent experience of hospitality and quite an eye-opener.
My first guest was a Canadian and within 18 months of joining I was getting 10 requests a day. At one point I went on a mad run where I hosted somebody every single night for six months! I’m glad I’ve gotten that out of my system. Now I host about one person every two weeks.
The Expeditioner: How many people have you hosted and visited?
John: Over the course of five and a half years, I’ve stayed on 18 couches and have hosted what must be at least 300 people.
The Expeditioner: Where in the world have you CouchSurfed?
John: After Russia I CouchSurfed in Amsterdam, Iceland, Bristol, Paris, Marseille, Cannes, Germany, Venice, South America, New York, New Zealand and Brussels. Believe it or not, I also once hosted somebody in my hotel room on Easter Island.
The Expeditioner: The friends with whom you made the millenium pact with, did they start CouchSurfing as well?
John: None of them did. I think it’s this English attitude: “Oh, strangers from the internet! What would happen if someone was weird or stole from you?” The truth is, no one has ever stolen from me. I have hosted weird people but usually it’s been a good weird, but in my opinion that is all part of it.
People are naturally suspicious of each other, but CouchSurfing has completely changed my view of others. On the whole, people aren’t out to get you. I’ve toughened my profile up over the years to avoid people whom I know I wouldn’t get along with. This was after I’d hosted a couple of real freeloaders who expected to eat my food and use my internet as much as they wanted
The Expeditioner: Can you tell me more about that?
John: It was quite funny. The CouchSurfers were actually a French-Canadian couple who didn’t have very much money and didn’t understand the CouchSurfing concept. I realized very quickly that they wanted me to buy everything for them, and when I came home from work they had gone out but left the shower on, the window open and the oven on.
When they returned I confronted them and the girl said to her boyfriend in French: “I told you it would be really boring here. He is a bastard.” They hadn’t read my profile so they didn’t know I understood, and I replied in French: “No, I’m not a bastard. You’re the ones who have been abusing my hospitality.” They were so shocked they left right away.
Having hosted 300 people I would say that 95% of the experiences have been exceptionally positive. The negative 5% were all cases when the communication beforehand could have been better, or if there was something weird on their profile that I didn’t notice.
The Expeditioner: Do you have an example of that?
John: There was a guy from Iceland whose only profile picture was taken five years earlier. It should have clicked that something was wrong. He was the first person who utterly failed to understand my directions to meet me at the train station. When I got there he wasn’t there so I waited and waited and finally went home. Then my phone went off and it was him, furiously asking where I was. I went straight back and it turned out that he was waiting on the platform behind the ticket barrier. He was the biggest person I’d ever seen. He was so big that they had to open the special disabled gates for him. He had an enormous bag that he just handed to me. I was so shocked that I took it and carried it back with us.
The next day I had to go to work, so I gave him my spare key and we left the house together. As soon as I got on my train he went back to the house but didn’t understand how to use the key for the front door. He saw that my neighbor was in so he knocked on her door and she let him in. Then, what I think what happened was, he thought I gave him the wrong key, so he hunted through my desk, found some unrelated keys, locked all the doors on his way out, and ended up locking my neighbor in her house. She couldn’t get to work, called me, and called a locksmith. Meanwhile, he couldn’t get back in the house so he tried to climb in through the window but got stuck because he was so big. The fire department had to be called to get him out. I had to pay for everything and it damaged my relationship with my neighbor so I stopped hosting for six weeks. He left straight away on mutual consent without apologizing.
What I learned from this experience is that there are often cultural clashes. He probably had never been on a train before and wasn’t used to keys — maybe he kept his house unlocked back home. My philosophy when I go CouchSurfing is: “This person has taken me in. Just go with it.” And when I adopt that philosophy, even when I have to do something out of my comfort zone, it works. When you dig in your heels, that’s when it goes wrong. I stayed with a guy in New Zealand whom I had hosted and he had a motorbike. I was terrified but I got on the bike with him and it was great.
The Expeditioner: Any more crazy stories?
John: There was a Hungarian guy who was actually a bit crazy. He arrived with about 20 bags and I jokingly asked, “Are you on the run?” He simply replied, “Yes.”
He wouldn’t drink English tap water and he carried a water purifier with him. He had to be in bed by nine, and since I am a teacher I would be up late doing work. He complained that he couldn’t sleep so I went into my bedroom. He then complained that my bedroom light was keeping him up. I realized he was psychotic because he kept disappearing in the bathroom, laughing hysterically in there and shouting at himself. He also claimed that he could read my mind. In the end I pretended that my brother was coming on very short notice. He left but forgot his shoes. I was scared that he had done it on purpose to come back and check if my brother was actually there, so I left them outside the door and I sat in the dark waiting for him to pick up the shoes.
The Expeditioner: How much has CouchSurfing influenced your relationship with travel?
John: Lots! Whenever I am thinking of going somewhere, I immediately go to the site and see who is available to host or meet me. In Tokyo, I stopped over after a long trip so I didn’t CouchSurf because I thought I might be tired. But once I was there I became bored, so I contacted a couple of people and had dinner with them and ended up having a great time.
The Expeditioner: Has it changed your relationship with your home of London?
John: Yes. I was in a bit of a rut here, but hosting people changed that by forcing me to become a tourist in my own city.
The Expeditioner: Do you find that the CouchSurfing community has changed since you joined?
John: I think it has. I have stuck to my guns with the belief that the core of the site is about meeting people, hosting people, and surfing with people. Everything else is an extra. Maybe London is different to other cities, but a lot of people end up here to work or study and they treat CouchSurfing as a way to meet friends.
In CouchSurfing meetups I have heard people say that they would never host anybody because it is weird. That’s a shame because they are missing out on the most important aspect of the community. I’ve also noticed an increase in comment threads that are very angry, criticizing and making fun of other people, as well as posts making “in-jokes” to show off how well some know each other.
The Expeditioner: What is your advice to CouchSurfing virgins?
John: It is not for everybody. If you travel to find home, don’t leave home. Do it if you want to become part of someone else’s life. And if you are hosting, do it because you want to travel without moving. CouchSurfers can cheer up what might be an otherwise uneventful week. Instead of slumping in front of the T.V. after work or school, you get to meet a stranger and learn about another culture.
The Expeditioner: Finally, can you give us two of your most notable CouchSurfing requests?
John: A guy once wrote: “I need a couch. Reply quickly!” I wrote back: “I do not run a furniture store. Sorry!”
Another time a girl, who had clearly not read my profile (which stated I could only host one or two people at a time), requested that I host her and 14 of her friends! Needless to say, they ended up at a hostel.
By Grashina Gabelmann
About the Author
Features Editor of a London culture magazine: Flamingo Magazine, daughter of a pair of globetrotters and lover of men, gin and New York, Grashina is pursuing the only sensible career for a curious and wordy explorer . . . she’s agitating the gravel and you can read about it at AgitateTheGravel.com.