Couchsurfing With No Baggage

Guest post by Clara Bensen

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My partner Jeff and I like to do this thing where we jump on planes headed overseas with not much more than the clothes on our backs. It’s an experiment of sorts—one that we’ve tested five times, across 16 countries over the past three years—buy a ticket into one country and out of another a few border stops away; show up with no plans and (almost) no stuff; see what happens next.

On the surface, our baggage-less travel experiments are an exercise in extreme minimalism, (and, in a sense, they are a test of how little one needs), but at a deeper level we’re playing with the themes of uncertainty and disorientation, which—as any good traveler knows—the road is more than willing to supply.

We have a few rough guidelines—keep it low budget, stay with locals, avoid itineraries—but the basic goal is to create a state of openness where any path is equally welcome and interesting (barring physical harm and/or active war zones).

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From our very first trip (Istanbul to London via the Balkans) Couchsurfing has featured heavily in our experiments. It’s got all the elements we set out to explore: chance, surprise, spontaneity, goodwill, and wacky connections with strangers. You learn a lot about someone by showing up on their doorstep blurry-eyed and unshaven, in the exact same clothes you’ve been wearing for the last two weeks.

Not surprisingly, the Couchsurfing folks who’ve hosted us on three different continents have been an open-minded lot who totally “get” our quest for the gritty surreal. They’ve helped us out in practical ways, offering showers and washing machines (and even an ex-boyfriend’s old t-shirt to borrow while our lone outfits were in the wash). Even better, the instant friendships almost always lead to the “interesting” element we’re after.

Here are a couple of my most memorable Couchsurfing moments from our trips. (And for the bigger tale, check out my new book, No Baggage (Running Press, January 2016), the tale of how a chance online date turned into the strangest journey of my life.)

1) RUSTAVI METALLURIGICAL PLANT: Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia

Brian and Nino, our Couchsurfing hosts in Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia mentioned a giant, semi-abandoned steel plant on the outskirts of town—one of Stalin’s largest during the Soviet era—that they’d always wanted to visit but had never managed to get inside. It was difficult to get access, but they knew some friends who’d made it in the gate.

Brian contacted the current owners (who still produce steel re-bar in a couple of the 64 factories that cover a crumbling complex the size of three football fields). At first they said no. Then, after a long email exchange, the PR director abruptly changed his mind. (We later found out he’d agreed because Brian had alluded that we were WTO nuclear scientists. Thanks for that, Brian.) Cue a bizarre tour, one that involved vaguely pretending to be a nuclear scientist while skirting around vats of molten steel and peering into desolate Soviet warehouses. We also got a free Rustavi coffee mug. You can see the company PR pics here.

2) THE ROAD TO SARAJEVO: Budapest, Hungary

When Jeff and I surfed with Dorottya in her cozy Budapest flat we hadn’t decided how we were going to make it to our flight out of southern Croatia two days later. Over homemade goulash, Dorottya suggested her preferred mode of travel—hitchhiking. I knew hitchhiking was common in Europe compared to the US, but the idea of a woman hitchhiking alone (and loving it) surprised me. Inspired by our host, Jeff and I decided we would try to hitchhike 550 kilometers to Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina—a plan that proved way too ambitious for a slow Sunday morning.

In the end, we hitched 250 kilometers before a violent summer storm forced us onto a bus. Still, Dorottya would have been proud of our beginner’s attempt. We hitched with a Hungarian ice cream maker, a Croatian language teacher, a tank driver named Igor, and an older guy who we thought was a wine maker until he pulled over, walked us to the edge of a minefield, and plugged his ears, simulating a bomb blast. It was a lost in translation moment—he worked with mines, not ‘wines.’

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3) THE WHOLE SQUID: Tokyo, Japan

It’s common knowledge that U.S. interpretations of international cuisine are often a far cry from what’s actually served in the country of origin (one of the most popular North American past times is finding a way to incorporate cheese into any dish). Still, as someone who regularly frequents U.S. Japanese restaurants, I wasn’t prepared for the wild variety of the Tokyo culinary scene with its curries, pastry shops, and specialty ramen houses. Thankfully Jeff and I had a guide in the form of our host Ryo, who let us surf in his traditional tatami mat apartment.

Ryo began the Tokyo culinary tour at a fish house where he started off easy with grilled shrimp and vegetables before pulling out the big guns: an entire raw squid, raw octopus, and a row of silver smelt fish (eaten whole off the grill). No cheese in sight. The next day, on lunch break, Ryo and a coworker took us to a tiny, 8-seat ramen shop where we performed the ritual of ramen, complete with noisy slurps. We finished out the tour at a tempura restaurant that deep-fried just about everything to a fluffy, golden crisp, including lotus root and—you guessed it—more squid tentacles.

Couchsurfing’s brilliance is that it introduces you to the bizarre and the surreal from the inside, a local’s perspective. You get into the kind of experiences Fodor’s or Lonely Planet, by their very nature, can’t guide you into. They flow naturally out of the moment—no baggage required.

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