Strangers With Pillows

I‘m trying out CouchSurfing, a site that essentially links the world’s freeloaders with each other, in the spirit of restoring faith in the goodness of humanity.

It involves opening your home to a stranger and offering him or her free use of your couch for whatever period you allow them.

The surfer gets free lodging while enjoying a new (or revisited) city and the host comes away with a hopefully glowing recommendation from former wards, which will boost your credibility enough to enjoy the similar privilege of slumming it out on couches around the world.

Since it’s self-regulating, you can impose your own rules on said guest to minimize risks. All of this is arranged online. In more than a decade of operations, there’s only been one reported, widely publicized case of a female tourist getting raped by her host.

Since joining just two days ago, I’m already going to host three people at my flat and its battered yet comfy, attractive yet riddled with suspicious stains, cotton-upholstered navy blue couch.

My first ever guest is a Spanish 21-year-old named Xavi (pronounced “Chavi” or “hobby” if you’re in Spain), who is 6″2 and has to curl up into a fetal position to fit into the sofa. He is too nice to complain, though, and I chose him because he was one of the first to send me a request and his trustworthiness has been vouched for by dozens of people.

Within minutes of meeting him late on Sunday, he bowled me over with stories from Europe and Asia, regions he has been exploring with insatiable interest since he was 18.

He also told me about his life in Shanghai, where he teaches the English language to Chinese children and is billed as “Joe from New York” even if he’s really from Barcelona. He’s almost sheepish that he doesn’t know how to play the Spanish guitar, doesn’t play football or dance the salsa.

His most interesting feature, apart from his thick Catalan accent, is his left eye — a transplanted organ after his eye was damaged by a parasite that wormed its way between his contact lens as he was swimming in Taiwan. He tried to show me the numerous scars around the socket, “like a clock,” and mentioned he’d considered prior to the surgery if he should go for a glass eye or a red cyborg laser, like RoboCop.

We went out to Lan Kwai Fong for some fish and chips (“This city is too British,” he says, while gleefully devouring the Tartar sauce) and cheap Stellas, in which I learned he’s not at all a bad guy, is intelligent and easygoing. But to be sure he was honest, I stared into his eyes — so closely matched, the transplanted one is imperceptible — and asked if I could trust him. His answer won him unprecedented access to my flat.

I wasn’t stabbed in my sleep, though he had to wake me up at an ungodly hour this morning, just so he could take his leave and head to the embassy for some paperwork. I thought that was a respectful gesture.

He’s added to the many reasons I need to head to Shanghai, as I now have an open invitation to visit his stately apartment, which he shares with four other people, one of them an American chef-slash-DJ. I hear the parties are raging and there is a plan to grow “hydroponic shit” on their balconies. (I stress the plural.)

Credit goes to my former flatmate, Sandy from New York, for introducing me to the concept. She has surfed couches around the United States and in Southeast Asia, and her experiences have been nothing short of eye-opening (Xavi, no pun intended).

The entire concept has definitely opened my world to the types who backpack through Europe on a rail pass, types with humanitarian missions in remote third-world jungles, types who have double-fisted Bratwurst and beers at Munich’s Oktoberfest, types who think life is too short to be sedentary, types who lose a part of their foot while wading along a coast in Vietnam.

And wandering into this thing, all I really wanted was to have a safety, a place to stay in Beijing for a night should my friend Riley not be able to let me crash at his apartment in Chaoyang.

It’s turned into more of an initiation into a large, seemingly wholesome expatriate cult that perpetually gives me the feeling of standing naked at a bustling airport, getting gently fondled by people I don’t know. It’s the feeling of mild apprehension mixed with the need to trust and be trusted. No doubt, it’s interesting, and I’m increasingly starting to think the world is my mattress.


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