Photos by Hoi Mun Yee
This story is part of a series. See the rest of them here.
The idea of staying at a stranger’s home for a vacation with no strings attached might sound scary to some, but for the adventurous souls it can open doors to exclusive experiences not available to other travelers.
What is couch-surfing
The economics of couch-surfing is not calculated through money or gifts, but through the exchange of cultural capital and friendship. The mission is cultural exchange, not free lodging or “pay to stay.” The process begins on a free app called CouchSurfing with around 15 million users and 400,000 active “hosts.” The “surfer” is the traveler who sends personalized requests to lodge with hosts who are opening up their homes. Requests are written spiels on why the would-be guest wants to couch-surf with the host. It’s like Airbnb, but without money changing hands.
Surfing in Ames
As an active couch-surfer, I have surfed mainly in Europe, but never in the United States. Ames, Iowa, was my first attempt at doing so. Small towns in the Midwest are often overlooked as travel destinations, but they can exude more Midwestern charm than cities like Chicago or Kansas City. I crashed on the couch of Jonathan Schmidt, a true Midwesterner originally from St. Ansgar, Iowa, which is a town of just over 1,000 people. A recent graduate from Iowa State University, Schmidt is a software engineer living with two of his childhood friends.
“Usually when people think of America, they think of New York, San Francisco or something and in my mind, America is small town Iowa.” — Jonathan Schmidt
Schmidt, like me, had surfed in Europe but had never hosted anyone. He didn’t think anyone would be interested in this part of the United States because of the perceived lack of tourist attractions, so my request came as a complete surprise. My arrival was met with a bottle of cold, refreshing beer and discussions about the flaws in the latest Star Wars movie, which escalated into a discussion on the different practices and morals of Christian denominations. Within hours of my arrival, I felt like part of the gang.
“Usually when people think of America, they think of New York, San Francisco or something and in my mind, America is small town Iowa.” Schmidt said. “If people had a chance to stay in the Midwest–even if it’s not super exciting—if you stay with someone from the Midwest you can make the most of it and learn a lot about that part of America.”
I have always had a spare bedroom to myself when couch-surfing, but for once I was literally couch-surfing. I slept on a couch in the basement, or the “man cave,” equipped with a Playstation 4 and a Nintendo 64. Most of the time I was sharing my space with roommates: plump cats Pumpkin and Chuck. Pumpkin would jump onto me and bump his head against my nose in the night and, on rare occasions, he would fight with Chuck like typical roommates. In between card games and Super Smash Bros sessions, I shared the couch with Pumpkin, who provided me warmth on two cold nights.
A cultural exchange
“I didn’t know how in talking to other people, my lifestyle can be really interesting to them because it’s so different.” — Jonathan Schmidt
During the days, I could feel Schmidt was a little concerned about the lack of places he could take me to in Ames, but I am not the surfer who expects my hosts to take me places. I couch-surf to meet locals or people from different backgrounds. I became fast friends with Schmidt as we exchanged stories of traveling abroad and our views on American politics. From him I got a glimpse into life in St. Ansgar, where life is simple and nobody really leaves. It is a life Schmidt appreciated more as he spoke with fellow couch-surfers.
“I grew up American, never really left Iowa much, so my culture and my life was the only life I knew.” Schmidt said. “I didn’t know how in talking to other people, my lifestyle can be really interesting to them because it’s so different.”
My stay in the house was timely for Schmidt’s housemate, Jacob Bless, as he considered giving couch-surfing a try. Fortunately, I gave a good impression as we bonded over his love of card games and video games. He thinks couch-surfing is a good way for an introvert like him to make new friends.
“I think it makes me more apt to do things that might be awkward with new people and decide to not care if it’s awkward because it’s usually worth it,” Bless says. “ [Hosting is] a good way to show classic Midwestern hospitality.”
Words from an experienced host
“I share my upbringing on a beef cattle ranch, which most of them know nothing about, and just life in general in Nebraska.”- Errol Ray
The “Flyover States” are not the most traditionally tourist-attracting parts of the United States, but trips here can be fulfilling. Errol Ray can testify to that, having hosted over 90 couch-surfers in Omaha. He uses the CouchSurfing app to show travelers the beauty of Nebraska and the Midwest.
“Many people have a woeful lack of knowledge regarding the Midwest, especially states like Nebraska; it’s just a state to get through as quickly as possible.” Ray said. “I share my upbringing on a beef cattle ranch, which most of them know nothing about, and just life in general in Nebraska.”
A friendship creator
Couch-surfing is a medium for people from different corners of the globe to cross paths. Schmidt met one of his best friends in London during a CouchSurfer gathering. He called it one of his most cherished moments as a couch-surfer. For me, crashing at his place for the weekend for no reason other than to get to know him is close to the top of my list. I don’t think any other opportunity would have allowed me, a city-slicker 9,000 miles away from home, to meet an Iowan from a town of 1,000 people.