In ancient Greece, citizens felt an obligation to host wandering travelers because the beggar knocking at the door might be a disguised god. In The Odyssey, Telemachus greets a stranger at his door by saying, "Welcome stranger. You shall be entertained as a guest among us. Afterward, when you have tasted dinner, you shall tell us what your need is."
After 2,700 years, Americans have adopted this Homeric ideal of hospitality. The United States is now the "Couch Surfing" capital of the world with nearly 400,000 people opening their homes to random travelers on Couchsurfing.org. This spirit of generosity reflects a newly-discovered openness to strangers in a country where many believe "Good fences makes good neighbors."
Indeed, Jack Kerouc might have an easier time crashing on a couch today than he did while road tripping during the 1950s.
During this past spring break, because I could not afford to travel anywhere by air, I piled into a compact car with four friends to make a 10-day pilgrimage through the southern United States. We made only one vow at the beginning of the journey: "We will not pay for lodging."
In addition to scouring Couchsurfing.org, I typed our destinations (Nashville, Atlanta, Gulf Shores, Mobile, and New Orleans) into Facebook and discovered that a number of my childhood and college friends had moved to those cities. They not only offered me a place to stay, but also an opportunity to rekindle old friendships.
My car companions were members of a national service organization, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC), which provided additional contacts in each of the major cities. Because the JVC encourages its members to live in solidarity with one another, we always felt welcome to sleep on the copious couches of residences that typically housed 6 to 8 volunteers. Despite their Christian purpose, these communities more frequently resembled MTV's Real World than 14th Century monasteries.
Staying in the homes of strangers was not only cheaper than getting a hotel, it was better. Our finest discovery was a beach house with 15 beds, two sea kayaks, and tennis rackets available for our daily use. Instead of hotel mini-fridges that charge exorbitant prices for even the smallest items, we enjoyed massive refrigerators. Instead of the service of a bellhop, we had the company of newfound friends. Instead of isolating ourselves in the touristy part of town, we were immersed in neighborhoods with history and culture. I'll take a home-cooked, crawfish dinner from a life-long Louisiana resident over any dish from Wolfgang Puck.
Beyond the accommodations, our hosts provided us with directions to the best underground hotspots in the cities. They knew the finest parks, coffee shops, historical sites, and bars. Their tips were far more helpful than those offered in a Lonely Planet guidebook. By dwelling in homes, we felt more like residents than visitors to the cities. And each city became associated with the people with whom we stayed, rather than merely the monuments we saw.
At the end of the 10-day Odyssey, I had spent only $210. Despite our tight budget, we had an adventure that rivaled Ulysses' journey. Thank you, American Telemachus, for your hospitality.
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