As the evening concludes, I find myself becoming more at ease. Sure, I think, couchsurfers could be anybody, but at least they seem like nice anybodies.
But I still know next to nothing about the actual practice of couchsurfing, and so, via email, I arrange to meet Villa and Pike at Rancho’s in North Park for a quick bite of Mexican food. As we gather around the table, I learn that both are professionals, not the squirrelly wanderers I imagined — I will admit I thought the average couchsurfing host would appear as haphazard as me. But no, both are smartly but casually dressed and well styled; I almost wish I had bothered to change my pants.
Villa works as a regional account manager at, ironically, a travel dotcom, while Pike does business development for a women’s health-care company. Both have been on the CouchSurfing site for around a year and, between them, have hosted over 100 people.
“When I heard about [the website] CouchSurfing,” Pike says after the waiter takes our order, “I thought, ‘This is the coolest idea!’ I set up a profile with the intent to host people and had no specific plans to travel. A couple months later, I got a message from a young American-Japanese married couple who had just moved to San Diego from Japan and were looking to meet some new people in the area. So the first people I met from CouchSurfing, I wasn’t surfing [with] or hosting. A month later, they moved in and were my roommates for nine months.”
During the couples’ stay, Pike hosted his first couchsurfer, a chef from Cannes, France. He was, Pike reports, “an extremely nice, soft-mannered 38-year-old man” and “cooked us one of the best meals I’ve ever had.” He is coming back to visit Pike and Villa in January.
The food arrives, and over what looks like a delicious enchilada, Villa, who learned about couchsurfing from San Diego’s previous ambassador, Carissa Peck, relates the tale of her first surfer, a German man with an around-the-world ticket and a GMAT study plan.
“He was a young guy from Ulm, Germany. He was supposed to stay for three days, but we got along so well I told him he could stay as long as he needed to — it ended up being a week.” Villa puts down her fork. “He was following the sun, basically, with a one-year, round-the-world ticket, so he was here during our summer and then went to Australia and New Zealand during their summer. He came back to visit again after that and stayed with me [for] I think three months. So, needless to say, we became very good friends. I spent a lot of time with him, talking about his life back home and comparing it to mine, sharing interesting sociocultural facts, learning we had a lot in common — I learned a lot about Germany without ever going — from a primary source in my home thousands of miles away!”
Villa estimates she and Pike host one to two people a week.
“I’ve had four people stay with me at once, and I’ve had ten people stay with me at once. If there’s room on the floor, couchsurfers will sleep wherever — they can rough it — and we don’t mind. The more the merrier is what Daniel and I say! Most [of the surfers] are backpackers that are used to making do with what they have, on a budget, so anything is appreciated. We do what we can to help them out, just like we would like someone to do for us if we were traveling through a new city.”
Another of those I met at the Bamboo Lounge, Lance Trammell, who recently left a job in the auto industry, meets me late one morning at the spacious Cream Cafe on Park Boulevard. Trammell recalls the first time he hosted someone from the site.
“My first couchsurfer was a Spanish girl. She was 21 years old, and I think her parents were a little nervous about what she was doing. So I went and picked her up — Daniel [Pike] came with me — and [she] had met another [woman, from the Netherlands] on the bus who was traveling on her own and had never heard of couchsurfing and was staying in hostels.”
Pike, Trammell relates, offered to host the other woman, who was in her mid-40s. She ended up enjoying herself so much that she joined the site as well. Back in her home country, Trammell says, the woman has started hosting couchsurfers herself.
“I looked at her profile,” he says, “and she’s so booked with people that she’s hosting she’s got [a message up that says,] ‘Please don’t email me about hosting for another three or four months because I don’t have any room.’ We email back and forth, and she says, ‘Thank you, this has been the best experience.’ ”
Trammel heard about the site through Pike, who is an old friend from high school. One of his most memorable surfers was a lucky traveler who, on very little money, made it all the way across the country.
“One of my first couchsurfers — I think he was my fourth — had made it from New York to San Diego on 70 bucks,” he recalls. “He ended up getting a really cheap, eco-friendly bus, and he took it to Chicago. So he went couchsurfing with a guy there, and this guy turned out to be a pilot for an airline and flew him to Denver. And, I think, somewhere in Denver, the story was that he ended up with a stewardess who got him as far as L.A., and then he took a bus or Coaster down to San Diego.”
Colorful characters and experiences of such kismet are not uncommon for couchsurfers, nor are outlandish destinations or plans. Eliot Clingman, who was also at the Bamboo Lounge meeting, has had his share of interesting guests. He and I convene at Cafe Bassam in Banker’s Hill to discuss his couchsurfing experiences. Amidst the antique oak chests and crystal dishware that abound in the cafe’s crowded interior, he tells me of his own surfers.