Mary Jane and Tom Hom, 31 and 33 –
Take two Thais, a man and a woman. Dress them up '70s style, with square tortoiseshell glasses, bell-bottom trousers, flowered shirts, hot pants. Now add long hair and moves reminiscent of Austin Powers, and you've got the best of the surreal music group S.O.D. (Simple of Detail). They’re Mary Jane and Tom Hom, the only rock-solid couple who aren't a couple at all. They live and work together – and they don't work just anywhere, but in the offices of Penthouse Asia. He's a photographer (specializing in women, mostly nude) and she's the stylist in charge of his sets. A while ago, they also joined forces to create S.O.D., which has grown into a real phenomenon on the national music scene. The first time I saw them was at one of their shows, a blend of concert and cabaret performed for an audience of hundreds of adoring fans, not to mention the cameras of a national TV crew.
I found them more or less by chance. I had stumbled across Tom’s picture on the couchsurfing site and hadn't been able to resist finding out who he was. He and Mary Jane belong to that category of couchsurfers who can't actually host visitors (usually because their homes aren't big enough or because they live with people who don't relish the idea of strangers coming and going), instead offering travelers their time. And what a time we had!
I saw two fantastic concerts, where I felt like I'd either traveled a few decades back in time or ended up on a movie set. One was in a very large venue in front of a shopping mall, while the other was in a small club reserved for diehard fans. Tom and Mary Jane's role in S.O.D. is mostly to sing, but their choreography is coordinated and it's exhilarating to watch them dance. Two guitarists and a drummer make up the other members of the group. Dinner with the whole band after the show was a series of absurd conversations. Neither Tom nor Mary Jane speak much English and so the others attempted to translate for us, the level of hilarity rising with every round of beer.
Tom Hom and Mary Jane are a perfect example of the numerous possibilities that couchsurfing offers. Without it, I'd never have met them or been able to take this photo. Just looking at it always makes me happy.
Michael Sharp, 35 – Homer, Alaska
There are two things you have to know. First, there are waves in Alaska. Second, there are men – extraordinary men – who surf those waves. They do it in below-zero weather, amidst the ice, alone with nature and themselves, testing their own limits, day after day.
Michael is one of those men. He's also a couchsurfer. Born and raised in Denver, in the Colorado mountains, "difficult" is the word he uses when I ask him to describe his life. "My soul is called by wild and remote places, far from the things of man. As a young man, I fell in love with whitewater rivers, sailboats, my wife and the sea. In that order. So we found a boat." In 2006, he, his wife and their dog were living on a boat in Portland when they weighed anchor and set sail, heading north.
They stopped when they reached Homer, Alaska. It's a place of ice and exploration – of both nature and one's soul – where the first question you ask in the morning is, "What's the weather like today?" At these latitudes, it can make all the difference, even if Michael does break out his surfboard even when the thermometer reads well below zero.
He dives in among the floating ice, his long strokes taking him away from the land until there’s nothing around him but icebergs and snow-capped peaks that seem to belong to another universe. He comes back with a frozen beard and full of peace and quiet. "Success lies in the application of knowledge," he explains when asked how he started – which means that he, too, feels the cold and might even be afraid. Nevertheless, as he loves to repeat, "Every day is unique. There will never be another." The confidence it requires to open up your home to a stranger is the same kind of confidence it takes to try something new every day, until you master it.
When I went to visit him, having read his blog about surfing amidst the ice, Michael tried to convince me join him in the water. It was winter and the temperature was 15 F. I didn't have the courage to do it. I've since come to regret that decision a little, especially when I remember something he told me over a beer at the end of the day, when I asked him his idea of happiness. "Variety and a bit of adventure," he answered, "and the opportunity to try something new."
Kenias Hichaaba, 23 – Maun, Botswana
The show starts every day at 3 p.m. That's when Kenias sits down on his threadbare armchair mere inches from the television, his keyboard on his lap. Then, gathering all his concentration, he begins sing and play, accompanying whichever preacher is on the air. There's no risk of missing it, since Emmanuel TV, Nigeria’s religious station, never goes off the air and is always showing a sermon.
The satellite dish he needs to receive it is the only luxury - if we can call it a luxury - in this humble yet dignified two-room house on the outskirts of Maun, Botswana where Kenias, 23 when we met, has lived with his younger brother and his mother since his father died. These tight quarters are built on enthusiasm and an unshakable faith in the Pentecostal doctrine. "I believe strongly in manifestations of the gifts of the Spirit, like healing, speaking in tongues, and the gift of on-going revelation," he tells me from deep in the armchair. Above his head, two plush tigers of unknown origin look down on the scene, while a prayer on the wall invokes protection for the house and all those within it. "I pray and I study a lot. I am certain that one day the gifts will manifest in me," he says. In the interim, he attends the local Bible School and fulfills his duties as head of household, sharing a mattress with his younger brother while his mother sleeps in a bed nearby. All other activities are attended to outside of their home's rickety walls, including personal hygiene. There’s no real bathroom in the house, just a sort of closet in the outside courtyard where they and their neighbors wash using a bucket. Everything is shared, even dinner, prepared by the women, working amidst the children's chatter, using what meager ingredients they have. Kenias has been waiting for his God to grant him a miracle, and perhaps the first of these has already come to pass: his belief in the spirit of community led him to become a couchsurfer and host me for three nights. Not that I was the miracle – rather, the miracle was the chance we each had to get to know a world so very different from our own, an experience that is truly moving.
Mai, 24, and Box, 36 – Bangkok, Thailand
Two hours of conversation in a gay chat room was all it took to convince Mai and Box to meet face to face in a bar in central Bangkok. That meeting was all they needed to decide they wanted to be together. In order to do so, however, they had to overcome a few "technical" difficulties and, most importantly, the fact that they had two very different pasts. Mai (in the white T-shirt) is 24 and he has always known he was homosexual. Box (in the black T-shirt), on the other hand, spent 8 of his 36 years married to the woman who is now his ex-wife. It is with equanimity that he tells me, "My new life began when I admitted that I was gay without being ashamed."
These days, they both work in a shopping mall in the capital. Their home is a truly austere studio apartment which they have transformed into a love nest. "To be happy, I need to see my boyfriend every day," Mai tells me frankly.
There isn't space for much in their single room. There's a bed, which also serves as an ironing board when Mai feels like ironing their T-shirts. There's a television and a nightstand, where their photos are displayed. On the floor is a hotplate, on which they can cook only the simplest of meals, and a full-sized mattress, on which I slept. Well, to tell the truth, not just me. Mai and Box are very hospitable people and, during my long stay (I was with them for 10 days), another couchsurfer arrived, with whom I shared the mattress.
The whole situation, though quite pleasant, didn't allow for much privacy for either guests or hosts. One afternoon, I found myself caught in the midst of a furious lovers’ quarrel. I tried to ignore it, fiddling around on my computer and pretending everything was normal, until Mai started to cry. That's when I decided to give them a little space. Over the course of the following evenings, although we drank quite a few beers together in different bars and clubs around Bangkok, I never discovered the reason for that fight.
Zhang Yue, 22 – Chongqing, China
There were two double beds in the large, unadorned room, but there were three of us. Something didn't add up, but Yue was quick to tell me how things stood. One bed was hers and the other belonged to her roommate. I could either sleep on a mat on the floor or share her own bed.
I'll admit, in the beginning I wasn't sure whether her intentions were pure. Still, after months of couchsurfing my way around the world, I was willing to deal with the risk – better to sleep next to a strange girl than make my bed on the floor yet again.
However, as soon as we started talking, lying there next to each other, it became clear that Yue wasn't thinking any funny thoughts. She was simply as straightforward and pragmatic as her room seemed to indicate.
Yue studies film directing and shares a room with her friend in this student residence in the center of Chongqing, a megalopolis that is considered a driving force for Chinese production (and speaking of driving, the pollution here makes the air nearly unbreathable). The campus is a labyrinthine complex built on multiple levels, with six rooms laid out around a communal kitchen. The rooms are austere but fairly large. The only 'furnishings' in Yue's room are the piles of books stacked against the walls. The bad part about the building was the bathroom. Cleanliness wasn't exactly a priority, so taking a shower required a lot more courage than I’d needed to get into bed with a stranger.
On the morning after our first night together (!), Yue took me for a walk along the river that runs through the city. We came across some large metal letters – the ones on which I would later take her picture. They seemed to spell out her name, Hao Yue. She explained to me that, in Chinese, Yue means "moon" and so the sign read "shining moon". "I feel a lot more like the sun, though," she told me. "It's a shame that here we almost never get to see it."
Ali Hassaan Ali Elarabi, 26 – Cairo, Egypt
The best thing about Ali's house is the welcome. My host is friendly and accommodating. His apartment, however, is not for the squeamish. It consists of three rooms in a neighborhood in the eastern part of Cairo and sanitation is not high on the list of priorities. Ali splits the rent with a friend. There are three bedrooms in the house, one of which doubles as a living room. There, two mattresses on the floor provide hospitality for a large number of couchsurfers. I don't believe many of these are bold enough to dare the kitchen (I, for one, ate every meal out during my stay). The cooking range consists of two encrusted burners which haven't seen a sponge in a very long time.
Hygiene aside, the time I spent with Ali was very pleasant. He is, as he loves to define himself, "a modern Egyptian." He left his parents' home at the age of 18 to move to Cairo, where he worked for a few years in his aunt's pharmacy. Eventually he found a job as a pharmaceutical rep. He earns a percentage and always exceeds his quota. He is understandably proud of this achievement, just as he is of being able to put on a suit and tie every morning.
Ali's is a full life outside of work as well. He organizes meetings and social events for Cairo's couchsurfers, for whom he has become a sort of unofficial leader. He took time off work to show me around during my stay. One day, he took me to see the Old City and, on another, to a gathering of local couchsurfers. They were all men, with the exception of a single woman (who was there with her Polish guest, also female), whose home I would visit, though not stay in, a few days later. We spent the day having a cook-out under the blazing sun, a water-bomb battle and, at the end, a mini soccer match. That's where Ali was finally able to show off his skills on the field, which are formidable, "but not good enough to make me a professional soccer player," he says, "even though that would have been my dream."
Alysha Aggarwal, 29, and Kartikh Perumal, 31 – Mumbai, India
Twice married, never separated, Alysha and Kartikh, the couple who hosted me in Mumbai, are the quintessence of modernity in a country of traditional values and considerable religious divides. To overcome the differences between their respective families, they got married twice in one week. The first ceremony, the Hindu one, was held in Bangalore, where Kartikh’s family lives. "I kept quiet the whole time," Alysha says. "The priest was speaking in a language I didn't even understand. I had to put on three different saris and I don't even know how many times I had to light the incense. Still, it was beautiful, and a lot of fun.”
Alysha has Portuguese ancestry and her family is Catholic and so, five days after their first wedding, they were remarried by a Portuguese Catholic priest, exchanging rings and vows of eternal love.
It is not the double wedding that ensures the success of their marriage, but the quiet, fulfilling and happy life they have together. These traits are reflected in the home where they welcome couchsurfers. They live in a neighborhood in northern Mumbai, where the artists and the stars live, an area which has become a refuge for numerous Bollywood actors. Their home is modern, though the occasional piece of ethnic furniture serves as a reminder of their roots. It consists of two bedrooms, soberly furnished, a living room, a kitchen and bath. Husband and wife are both educated, speak a number of languages and have good jobs. Alysha works for the Disney Channel, while Katikh, whose specialization is marketing, is employed by an Indian multinational. They took me to eat great Indian food and even to Alysha's grandmother's house, where I met the rest of her family – including her sister, a very pretty girl who, for one crazy moment, I imagined I might marry. Kartikh says, "The world is divided into people who are fans of Barcelona, and people who are fans of Real Madrid." That may sound trite, but to those who live on the other side of the planet, knowing about those two soccer teams is proof of a profound knowledge of the world.
Berglind Gunnarsdóttir, 33 – Reykjavik, Iceland
Berglind had no intention of staying home on Saturday night just to wait for me to arrive. She had written me an email arranging to meet in a nightclub instead. I asked how I was supposed to recognize her amid the general chaos and her reply was, "It's easy. I'm all red." She was right. I picked her out the moment I walked in. For Berglind, the color red is a real obsession. She dresses in red from head to toe. Her hair is red and naturally, being an interior architect, she made sure the entire interior of her house was red. Maybe she needs it to contrast the abundance of gray exteriors that dominates her neighborhood but inside, red predominates and envelops. Curtains, sofas, lamps, armchairs and even the objets d’art (a few of which, like the light-up deer, are just a tiny bit kitsch) are red. Even her two cats have reddish fur.
The atmosphere of quiet warmth all this red creates clashes with the disturbing noises that come from the guest room, which becomes a laboratory for Berglind’s boyfriend, Hilmir, when she’s not hosting couchsurfers like me.
Hilmir is a videogame designer and divides his work between his company office, where I visited him one day, and Berglind’s guest room. From behind the door come the sounds of laser swords clashing, spaceships and interstellar shield impacts, plus artillery fire of all sorts – the usual videogame repertoire, at extremely high volume.
The surreal atmosphere created by these noises – which I can guarantee were actually quite funny – is only one of the reasons why I found Berglind and Hilmir such likable and obviously original characters. I spent a lot of time with them and their friends and, one evening at dinner, someone shouted to run outside if we wanted to see the aurora borealis. Run we did, but it was too late. If we'd made it in time, I could have added a new color to my repertoire, but perhaps my stay with Berglind was meant to remain entirely red.
Tavaris Ngalande, 29 - Kalulushi, Zambia
Three hours on a propeller plane, eight hours on a bus with no air conditioning, and one hour in a minivan driven by a nun. Finally, exhausted and slightly dazed from my journey, I found myself entering the red-earth landscape around the village that is home to Saint Joseph’s Mission, a facility for the poor and sick located about 12 miles from Kalulushi, in northern Zambia.
It's not a place that sees a lot of foreign visitors. The village has extremely high percentages of malaria and AIDS victims. It's not a tourist destination but a place for those who want to devote their lives to helping others. Tavaris, my host and the only couchsurfer in this part of Zambia, falls into this category. A doctor, he spends all of his days taking care of children, pregnant women and the sick.
His story is a moving one. He grew up alone with his mother in conditions of extreme poverty. "My most wonderful memory is of when my mother came home with my first pair of shoes. I still don't know how she managed to get them," he tells me. When she finally found a way to send her son to school, he promptly won a government scholarship. He studied until he obtained his medical degree, then practiced around rural Zambia before coming to this mission.
In the austere clinic that he shares with three colleagues, Tavaris spends his days doing what he can with the little he has at his disposal. Equipment and medicine are scarce, but patients abound. I spent hours watching him work, mesmerized by his patience and devotion. Such is his commitment that I chose to photograph him in the modest room where he receives his patients, the place where he spends most of his time.
It is similar to the mission room where I stayed, surrounded by the sisters. I discovered one Italian nun among their number and she and I spent a lot of time together, walking around the village while I tried to understand her life. During the day, while I waited for Tavaris to finish with his patients, I spent my time either with her or playing soccer with the children, with whom I communicated using signs and gestures. In the evenings, when even Tavaris could rest, he and I ate together in the mission refectory. One night they had a party. Priests and nuns danced, arm-in-arm to the rhythm of local music, with a joy that was contagious. It seemed to me proof that happiness is, above all, a condition of the spirit.
Olena Naumovska, 22 – Kyiv, Ukraine
A tree-trunk for a bench, rocks for chairs and boulders for tables. All around, country scenes are painted directly onto the walls, a verdant landscape contained within an apartment's walls. All you have to do is set foot (strictly bare – no shoes allowed) in Olena's Kyiv home to understand the tenets she lives by. Olena, 22 years old, is a committed naturist. "I don't like to wear masks or, when I can avoid it, clothing – especially not in my own home," she tells me.
She and her boyfriend Igor often walk around the apartment – which consists of a living room (where I slept on a yoga mat during my stay), kitchen, bedroom and bathroom – naked. They do it so naturally that I quickly get used to it. They don't ask their couchsurfer guests to do as they do, but only to leave the bathroom door open when showering, in case someone needs to get something. I got used to that pretty quickly, too.
Olena studies philosophy, "since math is too complicated,” and works as a waitress in a pastry shop. She dreams of becoming a writer and, in the meantime, gives out hugs to strangers. She belongs to one of those groups that can be found pretty much all over the world these days and every once in awhile show up on the news. When she has a couple of free hours, she goes down to the square in front of the station with a sign that reads, "Free Hugs," and waits for people who need some affection. "You have no idea how many stop. It seems like there are a lot of people, too many, who aren't getting the love they need.”
Her apartment is always open, both to international guests and local friends. I spent more than one evening there, cooking and listening while they played the guitar.
The menu in Olena's home is strictly nature-friendly. She doesn't drink or smoke and she tries to shop for food only in local markets. "The last song I wrote, the last blouse I made, the last person I smiled at is the thing I’m most proud of," she tells me. She may not have her degree yet, but she's already a bit of a philosopher.
Brenda Fernandez, 33 – Manila, the Philippines
Her name is Brenda, but her friends and colleagues call her Sunshine because of her positive attitude to life – and her life is far from ordinary for a woman from the Philippines.
Happily single ("a fact that makes people here look at you like you're a UFO," she tells me), Brenda works for the most important national television network. She earns a good salary and has fun with her independence, trying out things that are often forbidden to the gentler sex in this part of the world. The latest is her passion for boxing, which has taken her not only to the gym but into the ring, a place normally reserved for men.
Brenda, 33 when I met her, devotes her remaining free time to traveling, which she does often and sometimes alone. Her home, a large apartment on the top floor of a skyscraper in one of Manila's central neighborhoods, holds mementos of her numerous explorations around the world. Photographs of her journeys hang alongside wooden masks from the Pacific atoll where she went diving with the sharks. In the living room, books and hookah pipes speak of her travels through the Arab world, while a sofa beneath the large TV turns into a bed for couchsurfers.
Brenda devotes a lot of her free time to people who come to stay with her. We went out to dinner together in a few different nice restaurants. She took me swimming in her building's private pool and even on an excursion outside of Manila, to a volcanic crater lake.
Brenda-Sunshine loves to chat and talk about herself. The fact that there's no man in her life doesn't worry her. "Love is important, but it's not everything. I'm happy alone, too, and I can do all the things I want to do." Every six months she sets herself a new goal to achieve. How does she do it? What's her secret? "Believe in the power of kindness," she tells me, "and never lose faith in humanity.
Nani Marquarase, 29 – Barara, the Fiji Islands
No one imagines that, having come to the Fiji Islands – a sort of paradise in the popular imagination – they would dream of leaving. Nonetheless, I must confess that was my first reaction upon arriving at the home of Nani and her husband in Babara.
A Westerner would have a hard time calling it a "house." It is a structure made entirely of metal sheeting, transformed by the midday sun into a sort of oven. Inside, it is divided up, like any normal home, into a kitchen, a small bathroom and even a kind of foyer furnished with floral-patterned sofas and an extra mattress for guests. A shame, then, that the temperature inside is even hotter than out, making for a suffocating sensation of heat and lack of air.
The situation being what it was, I never expected to spend such a pleasant time with Nani and her family, which was due to get bigger any day. She and her husband, whose job is to take tourists around to the various little islands, already have two children and were expecting their third when I arrived (I later learned he was born shortly after my departure).
Despite being in her ninth month, and in the face of overall conditions that few Western women would be capable of handling, Nani was a powerhouse of energy, good spirits and cordiality. I soon felt very much at home with her and her family. They showed me around and introduced me to Fiji Island customs, starting with Kava, a root that, according to local legend, has a calming and slightly hallucinogenic effect. It is widely used by the people of Fiji. Nani and her husband prepared it for me one evening, mixing the powder with water in a large basin made from a hollowed-out tree trunk. I observed the process, fascinated, before drinking two large cups of the mixture. I couldn't feel even a trace of its lauded effects. Perhaps they were too mild to overcome my surprise at being there with such generous hosts, despite the daunting circumstances.
Maria Armas, 22 – Nopaltepec, Mexico
Mother and father, their two children, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, grandfather and grandmother. It's a Christmas dinner, Mexican style, and the family belongs to 22-year-old Maria. I arrived as a couchsurfer at her home in Veracruz, on Mexico's east coast. Just a few days later, I was invited to accompany her entire family to their house in Nopaltepec for the holidays.
Needless to say, I was treated as the guest of honor. I found myself persuaded to sing along to sappy ballads by Italian singers I wouldn't listen to back home under pain of death, but Maria's family played the Spanish versions for me, hoping to make me feel more at home. I’ll admit, the tequila her grandfather kept generously refilling my glass with throughout the meal certainly made it easier for me to warm up to the likes of Laura Pausini and Eros Ramazzotti. Christmas dinner was a long meal – I even helped to make it, playing sous-chef while her grandmother prepared the stuffed turkey – and it was followed by a long siesta. Their house in Nopaltepec is one of those old, colonial-style homes you sometimes come across in Central and South America, nestled amongst the family's fields of sugar cane. There was a room for each of the guests, myself included, but I wasn't often alone. I spent a good deal of my time talking with Maria, who loves to think of herself as a rebel. While strolling through the countryside around her home, she explained how difficult it is for her to get along with her parents and how different they are from her. I couldn't quite bring myself to believe her. She is a sweet girl and, despite the differences that arise between all 22-year-olds and their parents, it seemed to me that she and her family had a loving relationship. Maria spent hours straightening her hair and making herself look her best for Christmas dinner with the family – not exactly how you'd expect a rebel to behave.
Natacha Marseille, 29 – Port-au-Prince, Haiti
Natacha's principal occupation is doing good. The form her good deeds take is fitting in her tormented homeland, where she fights a daily battle to give her country's children a future.
Natacha, who was orphaned when she was only a few months old and raised in an institute for foundling children, understands their plight. Her life changed when, at the age of five, she was long-distance adopted by a German family. It was the beginning of a life-long journey made possible by their material and psychological support.
In the beginning it was almost impossible to communicate with her new "family." In order to be able to speak with her German “parents,” Natacha set herself to study English. After just a few years they were having long conversations every day. Her long-distance “father" encouraged her to continue her studies and, eventually, she became a teacher at a Montessori children's school, where she learned the ropes of her profession. A few years later, in love with her work and determined to devote herself entirely to children, Natacha, with the financial backing of her German family, was able to build her own school.
It is in Martissant, an unsavory neighborhood of Port-Au-Prince controlled by gangs, but everyone here knows Natacha and respects her. The terrible 2010 earthquake destroyed part of her school, burying some of the children and teachers beneath the rubble. It was a terrible tragedy but, confident in the support of her German parents, she decided to rebuild. Every day she takes in orphans and gives them a chance. It was with them that she wanted to be photographed for this book.
Her entire life, not just her work, seems to hinge on helping others. Her house is home to an apparently permanent encampment of penniless journalists, determined to tell Haiti's stories but without money for hotels. When I was there, it was in the company of 5 other couchsurfers. Her home is an old villa perched on a hillside in Delmas, with a view over the whole of the city. She shares it with a girlfriend – and all the other people who you can always find camped out on beds and mattresses the two women put down for them, succoring those who have nowhere to go.
Paola Agnelli, 58, and Roberto Galimberti, 63 - Castiglion Fiorentino, Italy
It's been 37 years since I first met Paola and Roberto and over the years we've spent a lot of time together. We've also done quite a bit of putting up with each other, especially when there were four of us sharing one apartment in Castiglion Fiorentino and everyone had different needs. I, for instance, stayed on the phone with my various girlfriends for hours, tinkered on my bass and blasted my music at full volume. Sara was a diligent student and spent hours chatting with her girlfriends, either closeted in her room or in front of the TV. Paola and Roberto, on the other hand, were busy with much more important things. Paola is an elementary school teacher and Roberto is a surveyor – and, incidentally, they’re my parents and Sara is my sister.
We lived under the same roof for 20 years before I decided to stop monopolizing the living room sofa in front of the TV and go my own way, taking with me my bass with its invasive tangle of wires and all the rest of my clutter.
While they must have enjoyed the new-found tidiness, I imagine that my departure was a shock for my parents, at least in the beginning – nearly as shocking as when I suddenly took off to travel the world surfing strangers' couches, in situations that they (and sometimes not even I) would have been able to imagine. And yet, it was thanks to the things they taught me and the strength of our relationship that I found the will and the courage to embark on this adventure.
Then, after a year spent gallivanting about the five continents, staying with practically every sort of person and in every condition imaginable, I came home to spend Christmas in Italy. It was time to couchsurf on my parents' own comfortable sofa – but not before eating a massive quantity of the homemade stuffed cannelloni pasta they always make to welcome me home from my latest journey to some faraway place. To fall asleep on that couch, full to bursting with my mothers' wonderful cooking, had never felt as sweet as it did that Christmas Day.
Buckley Barratt, 32 - American Fork, Utah
When I first arrived at Buckley's house, I didn't know that, in addition to a choice of two sofas to sleep on, I'd also find a friend. Buckley is an unusual sort of person, capable of his own special brand of intensity. He was born into a Mormon family in Utah, but at the age of 23 he decided to break ties with his community and his religion and move in with his girlfriend, who later became his wife.
Buckley is an elementary school teacher, but his passion is music and many of his friends are musicians. We spent a long time with his record collection, sitting and listening to Tom Waits and exchanging artist recommendations.
The house where Buckley lives is spacious, bright and tastefully decorated, without too many frills. Time moves slowly here. In the basement he's built a little rehearsal studio with a few guitars, a bass, some other instruments and, naturally, the sofas for couchsurfers. His dog is a constant presence and an essential part of his life. As he told me recently, "She's always there to keep me company, cheer me up and give me the strength to go on ." Over a beer and a good meal – his home has a large kitchen and Buckley loves to cook – we got to know each other better. He was a big help during my trip and has been on all my visits since.
"We're all the same, so let's treat each other with more respect," he said, when I asked him what message he'd like to send to the world. It's not a coincidence that his heroes are Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln, John Muir and (there had to be at least one musician) Bob Dylan.
The last time I showed up at his home in search of a couch, having completed my trip around the world, I found out that Buckley and his wife had gotten separated after 10 years together. “Trouble brings truth, adversity brings appreciation, and sorrow brings sunlight,” he said with a smile. It's a lesson worth learning.
Bai Yongliang, 28 – Xi’an, China
Bai lives in Xi'an, the Chinese city famous the world over for its Terracotta Army. His little room is a foil for own personal story, as minimal and disorganized as his ambitions are grand and clear. After obtaining a first degree in languages, Bai decided to obtain a second in international communications. His hope is to get a good job that would allow him to travel the world. His family refused to pay for his studies and Bai had to ask a close friend for a loan. He now owes that friend 35,000 RMB, which works out to about 5,600 dollars.
Bai studies hard from Monday to Friday and on Saturdays he gives private English lessons, which earn him about 200 RMB (that's roughly 32 dollars) a week. He uses most of that to pay installments on his debt, and what’s leftover isn’t much at all. That's why he lives in a room in a student residence near the University. It is home to about 20 people, all of whom share a single bathroom.
It goes without saying that the sanitary conditions were not the high point of this couchsurfing experience, and nor was comfort, strictly speaking. Bai's room is so austere you could almost say it was bare. Its only furnishings are a bed, a box containing a few personal items and a backpack spilling clothes out onto the floor. For two nights I slept next to Bai's bed, on a yoga mat covered in layers of blankets. Although it wasn't the most luxurious of sleeping arrangements, I was the fourteenth couchsurfer to use it. Ever since he discovered the existence of the website, Bai has been a very active member. He loves to have guests to practice his English with and from each one he learns a little more about a world he still hasn't seen but longs to explore. "My dream is to have a business partner and to speak French well," he tells me. Then, in case I hadn't understood how important financial success is to him, he adds, "There are always two kinds of people, those who buy and those who sell."
Sabali Meschi, 33 – Les Cayes, Haiti
On the roof of her house in Les Cayes, Sabali and her partner have built an outdoor cinema, or the closest thing you can find to one in these parts. Every week they invite their neighbors to watch a movie, preferably in French. Some they manage to find on the island, although most they download from the Internet. They set up their open-air theater on the roof: a few chairs, wicker loveseats, a couple of hammocks and a white sheet, two meters long, to serve as the projection screen.
This anecdote may be all that's needed to convey their desire to create a real rapport with this place and its people. Sabali is Italian, born in Livorno, Tuscany to an Italian mother and a Beninese father. “In Italy, I was always the black girl. In Africa, I was white. Here in Haiti, I'm just a 'sister'," she told me. It was work that brought her here. She's an agronomist, specialized in tropical crops, and is heading up a program to relaunch Haiti's coffee industry. The country used to be famous the world over for growing and selling coffee, but production has fallen off in the last thirty years. She took me to see where she spends her days, amidst the groves of coffee trees clinging to the mountain slopes, a crop to which she devotes endless time and patience.
She and her partner have explored the most remote corners of Haiti together. They took me on long motorcycle rides through wild landscapes and along muddy, broken roads. More than once I closed my eyes, fervently hoping nothing would happen to us along the way.
They live in a big, single-story house with a vast kitchen and a large central room where most of the household activity takes place. They enjoy cooking and usually have guests around. In the garden surrounding the house there are mango, papaya, banana, tropical almond and other exotic trees whose names I can't recall but whose fruits we ate for breakfast. When Sabali rented the house, it was explained to her that there were also guards who would ensure her home was secure day and night. It seems that, in Haiti, this is more of a necessity than a nicety. It was news to me and I found it a little shocking. My hosts explained that, in order to adapt to a local culture, foreigners sometimes have to behave how the locals expect them to, and that includes having guards. Later, however, I noticed that their guards were unarmed and that their biggest task, it seemed, was to maintain backyard security, watching over chickens, goats, sheep, a horse and a cow.
Jeeva Prataban, 26 – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Three pythons, two cobras, two Mexican iguanas, a coral snake and a black widow share my room in Kuala Lumpur. They hiss and scuttle menacingly an arm's length away, maybe less, pressing against the glass for a better look, as friendly and curious as puppies in a pet shop. As it happens, that’s what their owner, Jeeva, calls them: his "puppies." In fact, the whole family treats them like cuddly pets. Gathered around the television, they make an unusual family portrait. Upon waking in the morning, I find his mother and sister on the loveseat, lavishing attention on the python lying across their laps. Jeeva, meanwhile, relaxes on the sofa, an iguana perched on his arm. I have to take this picture. Who would ever believe me, otherwise?
Jeeva, a 26-year-old chef, lives in a massive apartment block on the outskirts of the city. He enjoys having international guests but, since the second room is his mother and sister’s, his visitors have to share his bed (which explains how he ended up having a Canadian couchsurfer girlfriend for a while).
As courteous as Jeeva was, I barely slept a wink that first night in Kuala Lumpur. Sandwiched between my new friend – and I'm not in the habit of sharing a bed with people I met an hour before bedtime – and the glass tanks full of exotic fauna, complete with a complement of little mice, blissfully ignorant of their fate, can you blame me?
You really can get used to anything, though. By the second morning, the iguana perched on Jeeva's shoulder like a docile cat already seemed less odd (or, at the least, odd in a funny way, like the souped-up scooter Jeeva is using to get around until he can afford to buy a real motorcycle.
One day, when he didn't have a shift at any of the three local restaurants where he works, I hopped on the seat behind him and he took me for a ride outside of the city. We went to see a beautiful waterfall, Jeeva driving like a bat out of hell the whole way. Maybe he was imagining he was escaping that city forever. His dream, after all, is to leave Malaysia and open a restaurant in some other part of the world. What would he take with him? His television, his family and, of course, his pets.
Viviana Candia, 36 - La Paz, Bolivia
Viviana's life is as surprising as the view from her window in La Paz.
The city is extraordinary, crowded into a bowl surrounded by mountains that quite literally take your breath away – as extraordinary as the life that Viviana has managed to make for herself and her daughter Ivi, so different from the lives of other Bolivian women.
The differences begin with the fact that Viviana, who has a degree in anthropology, is a young, single mother. Ivi's father is a Frenchman, a painter who spends long periods in La Paz seeking inspiration. He and Viviana haven't been together for a long time, but he has recognized his daughter, so that when he is in Bolivia he spends a day a week with her. The task of raising Ivi nonetheless falls entirely to Viviana. She doesn't see it as a burden. On the contrary, she'd like to have another child, though she still doesn’t want a man in her life. If Ivi's brother doesn’t come along as a natural result of life's twists and turns, she's even considering adoption.
Like everyone in her family, Viviana works in the tourism industry. She spends a lot of her time with foreigners who come to enjoy La Paz's incomparable panorama, so she has plenty of chances to meet people. What's more, the doors of her home are always open to couchsurfers. She takes in dozens, offering them her guest room while she and little Ivi sleep in the big double bed in the next room, surrounded by clothing, toys and a joyful chaos that only a three-year-old girl can create.
Viviana is full of energy and enthusiasm. I was particularly tired from altitude sickness during my stay in her home, a house perched in the high area of the city, with a sweeping view of La Paz that was well worth photographing. First, she tried to reanimate me by giving me coca leaves to chew, in accordance with local custom. When they had no effect she turned to a stronger remedy, the delicious cuisine of Lake Titicaca. It took us a couple of hours to get there by bus. A stroll through the local markets and some delicious trout fillets played a part in restoring my energy and the view of the lake was one of the most beautiful I've ever seen.
Carla Sgarbi and Mariana Bayle, 26 - Buenos Aires, Argentina
I waited in front of their house for two hours, maybe three. I was just about to leave when Mariana finally showed up to open the door for me on that April afternoon. Her justification was a political demonstration downtown that she couldn't miss, not even for our appointment.
That's how I began my acquaintance with Mariana and Carla, the two couchsurfers who hosted me in Buenos Aires. Their apartment is a perfect reflection of their personalities and political commitment, as well as of their easygoing natures. It consists of three rooms, all full of objects heaped up into mounds of creative clutter. It's cozy, in its own peculiar way. In their tiny bedroom, two bunk beds keep company with just about everything else imaginable, from a marijuana plant proudly displayed on the dresser to a vacuum cleaner stowed beneath a bed. Clothes are strewn about the room along with bottles, bills, boxes full of books and bags full of... well, who knows? Between the two bunk beds is a mattress, where couchsurfers generally sleep. I, however, was lucky enough to have the living room sofa, usually occupied by Mariana's brother, all to myself.
She and Carla are the sort of best friends who have known each other since they were very small. They grew up in the same neighborhood, their parents were friends and they’ve been playing together since they could walk. Back then, one was quite chubby and the other was too thin (although today it's impossible to tell), which worried their respective grandmothers. They are both very active socially and politically. Carla, who has a degree in law, is an activist in the Partido Obrero, a party on the extreme left, while Mariana is getting her degree in political science and hopes to join her friend soon. They are kind and friendly and we had a very good time together during my stay. They showed me around the city, took me to eat the famous Argentine beef and even to dance the tango. Unfortunately, I wouldn't say that I have a talent for dancing.
Carlos Bravo, 34, and Inma Prieto, 35 - Madrid, Spain
Indignados and happy. Carlos and Inma, 34 and 35 respectively when I stayed in their guest room in Madrid, are two of the founders of the Indignados, the movement that sent tremors through Spain's political system in 2011. Back then, his long blog posts were being read by thousands of people and he and Inma were coordinating and organizing all the activities in their neighborhood.
When I arrived at their home in Spain, the protests were over – or temporarily on hold, at least – so we were able to spend a lot of time together. Carlos is a computer engineer and Inma is an English teacher. Before settling in Madrid, they both led very full lives and traveled extensively. They met in a bar one evening, when Inma was showing around a couchsurfer she was hosting at the time. Two months later, she had a new home in which to host her visitors – the one she and Carlos had moved into together.
It's a pleasant apartment in the city center, with large, bright rooms and a guest room with its own private bath, quite a luxury for a couchsurfer. The oddest objects in the house are the World War I-era radio and transmitter parts that Carlos loves to restore. He is passionate about them works with maniacal patience to bring them back to life.
Inma, Carlos and I shared many long conversations and some meals that bordered on feasts. They introduced me to their friends and together we sampled Madrid's tapas and the best of local nightlife. I asked them if, after all the politics and protests, they had a message they wanted to share with the world. It was Inma who replied: "Everyone, please be a little kinder and more aware of our planet. We don't have another one."
Caroline & Ellen Presbury, 24 and 20 – Blue Mountains, Australia
Seeing how many of them are gathered around the table, the first thing that springs to an Italian's mind is that their family could form its own soccer team. Sisters Caroline and Ellen, the Australian couchsurfers I spent a few days with in Katoomba, in Australia's Blue Mountains, have five sisters and two brothers.That makes nine siblings in all, plus their mother, a grandson and, of course, the various boyfriends and husbands. Those numbers give an idea of how big their house is. It is here that they come when the entire family –give or take a member or two – wants to spend a weekend together, the occasional couchsurfer, like me, in tow.
Fortunately, there's room enough for everyone. The wooden house has three floors, the top one with enough bedrooms for all of the groups that form this extended family to have one of their own. I slept down below, on a couch in the ‘basement’, a room with a view that belies its name, looking out onto the garden and the magnificent mountains that are such a popular destination for tourists visiting Australia.
I was invited here by Caroline and Ellen, whom I had met a number of years earlier. They had been traveling around Europe and spent a few pleasant days couchsurfing in my home in Tuscany. We stayed in touch and, once I was in Australia, I decided to call them up and see if we could do something together. That's how I ended up in the middle of this gigantic family reunion, surrounded by brothers, sisters and their menfolk, all gathered around the table or busy filling each other in on recent events in their lives while they waited for breakfast. Some of the most momentous updates came from my personal hosts, who had just moved to Sydney: Caroline to study art and photography and Ellen to study economics.
It was the beginning of a new life and, as Ellen once told me, "What scares me most is the thought of reaching the end of my life and realizing I haven't done the things I wanted to do."
Catalina Jurado, 33 – Bogotá, Colombia
A plate of ravioli was all it took – ravioli to celebrate her first day in her new apartment, which she'd never seen but had gotten the keys to that very day, the day she asked me to come along with her and her parents to use those keys for the first time.
Catalina is a teacher and director of communications in a private school in the north of the city and the last of my couchsurfers. Bogotá was the last stop on my journey and her couch was the last one I would sleep on. At the time, she was sharing a large apartment with a girlfriend while she waited to move into the one she had bought, sight unseen, based on the builder's plans. They gave her the keys the day after I arrived and she invited me to accompany her to open the door for the first time.
Standing by the door were her parents. They hadn't spoken in a long time or seen each other since they'd separated. Catalina was understandably nervous, but also joyful, happy, beaming. I was excited for her as I watched her enter her first, immaculate apartment. It was time for a toast but her father, though he'd brought a bottle of wine, had forgotten a corkscrew. I improvised one using a pair of pliers and a screw borrowed from some workmen on the building site.
Her new home wasn't ready to be lived in and so, after the celebration, my couchsurfer and I went back to her old apartment. There I offered to prepare a special Italian dinner – ravioli with my grandmother's recipe – in honor of the occasion. It was there, over brimming plates and surrounded by scattered flour, that the feeling I'd had for Catalina since we'd stayed up late talking the previous evening, the spark that had grown during the course of that strange day, turned into the beginning of a relationship that was to last for two years.
For the next few days she showed me around Bogotá. She took me to the school downtown where she'd taught until a year before – a job and a place she's so proud of that it's where she asked me to take her picture, surrounded by her former students. We spent the following months as a couple, our relationship ranging from Tuscany to Colombia, and sometimes to other countries as well. My mission to couchsurf across the five continents was over, but my travels around the world were not.
Leticia Massula, 41 - São Paulo, Brazil
From women's emancipation legislation to chopping pounds of onions every morning. It sounds like a curse but it was a choice. Leticia, 41 when I met her in São Paulo, has a law degree and was formerly a "feminist lawyer." For a decade she worked to improve the conditions of women in Brazil, until she was struck down on the road to Damascus, so to speak. In her case, it was the road to the kitchen.
It is a passion she inherited from her grandmother but had never taken seriously until the day when, "I started to really cook and chose not to stop." As proof that cooking is an art both noble and ennobling, Leticia started a recipe blog which is now one of the most widely-read in Brazil. She has also, quite literally, restructured her life around the kitchen.
The kitchen is the piece de resistance of the house where she lives with her husband Marcelo in Vila Madeleina, São Paulo's youngest and most colorful neighborhood. It is an immense room with brightly-colored walls lined with shelves stocked with every kind of jar and bottle imaginable. Vegetables and spices line every surface, the ingredients for the delicious dishes she prepares daily for lucky couchsurfers (the guest room with its blue walls is always open to those seeking hospitality) as well as for the many strangers who sign up on the site and reserve a place for dinner in her parlor. Leticia’s roots lie in Minas Gerais, one of Brazil's many States whose landscapes are splendid and unspoiled, so her quest for new flavors and love for the fruits of the earth also represent a return to her past. She grew up surrounded by nature and lush greenery. Upon arriving in São Paulo, it was quite a shock to discover that jungles could be gray as well as green. In São Paulo, the golden beaches of Brazil that live in the popular imagination have been replaced by an endless expanse of concrete skyscrapers, while the buzz of insects has been exchanged for the noise of the helicopters the rich use to fly above the city's infernal traffic.
Leticia's first impression was of something very much like hell. Now, however, she couldn't live without it. She loves her city and its contradictions, so much so that I chose to photograph her on top of one of its tallest skyscrapers. Nature lives on in her kitchen – and in the luxuriant marijuana plant growing in her bathroom.
Claude Baechtold, 42 - Aigle, Switzerland
Name an object, any object. Whatever it is, there’s one in Claude's house. He'll collect anything and he’s been doing just that for decades. Hundred of boxes of comic books, which he's been accumulating since age 5, and whole pallet-loads of pasta are just two examples. He actually bought a whole ton of pasta once, convinced that prices in Switzerland were going to skyrocket. The pasta expired years ago, but he still eats it and offers it to his couchsurfing guests, me included (and no, I didn't get sick).
Stuffed into boxes and closets or crammed into a basement that's packed from floor to ceiling are books, nails, rolls of film, pieces of leather, statues, record albums, masks, pieces of choreography, paints, old appliances – anything and everything, literally. It’s not only his, either.
His godmother spent 97 years collecting tens of thousands of objects, largely useless.
Claude discovered them when he moved into this house after 15 years of traveling the globe as a photographer and film maker and has cared for them lovingly every since. Claude was 25, when his parents died and Switzerland suddenly seemed terribly empty. To try and fill that emptiness, he began traveling the world, collecting experiences and adventures. He was living in a sunny house among the vineyards of the Rhône Valley when his godmother, whom he describes as "magnificent and very wise,” fell ill. He decided to go back to Switzerland to take care of her – and her collection.
Alongside the worthless treasures she had amassed over the years, Claude began putting the pieces of his own life. He had come to realize, during his years of intense wandering, that “the more chaotic my surroundings, the better I felt”.
That feeling has never changed. “This barn is like an island where I can breathe in the middle of all that suffocating Swiss tidiness”, he tells those who come to visit. They camp out on a sofa in his big house, carving out some room for themselves amongst the odds and ends that cover every surface.
“Sometimes my friends can’t stand all the mess and prefer to leave. As for me, I sit with my cheeky piles of stuff, defending my right to chaos and happiness.”
Oktofani Elisabeth, 24 – Jakarta, Indonesia
Looking out of the only window in the mini-apartment, the impression was of being inside a cement beehive. A stone's throw away, not twenty yards from where I stood, there loomed another gray building, identical to the one I was leaning out of. Beside it rose another, then another and so on like a forest of concrete towers. Not an exciting view, but certainly emblematic of Jakarta's transformation. It has become a megalopolis of skyscrapers, each identical to the next and, inside, myriad tiny living spaces.
Fani, the couchsurfer who welcomed me into her home on a day of torrential rain, fits perfectly into this picture. 24 years old at the time of my visit, with a tiny three-room apartment on the 28th floor of one of these skyscrapers, Fani lives an intense life as a trainee journalist, constantly immersed in the chaos of the city. Although I was sleeping on the sofa in her sitting room, I almost never saw her in the mornings. She sets off for the newsroom before 7 a.m. every day and stays there until after dinnertime, pouring all her energy into her work. At the newspaper, they rely heavily on her enthusiasm to cover the dozens of things that happen every day. These consist mainly of terrorist attacks (fortunately, not all serious) around the city. The things she has seen are probably one reason why Fani has developed an allergy to religion and conversations about faith. She was raised in a strict Catholic family, but now that she is faced every day with the effects of fanaticism, she has become skeptical towards believers of any stripe. "Religion makes human beings lose their humanity. It's harmful," she told me vehemently during the evenings we spent together, visiting various trendy bars and clubs. In fact, the only thing she believes in at the moment, other than work, is fashion. "What do I need to be happy? A pair of shoes," she tells me. If you step into the shoe-strewn chaos of her miniature bedroom, you’ll see that she must be a happy woman, indeed
Ian Usher, 47 – Yukon, Canada
Ian's life is so incredible that they really should make a movie about it. In fact, Disney has already bought the rights. Meanwhile, you can read his story in his autobiographical book, A Life Sold (Wider Vision, November 2010). Believe me, it's a page turner.
Ian is Australian. Once upon a time he lived in Perth with a wife he adored, in a house with every luxury, from a swimming pool to a Jacuzzi. His perfect life fell apart the day he found her in bed with his friend. That's when he decided to sell everything on eBay. This was no simple auction of furnishings and bric-a-brac. Ian put his entire life up for sale: his job, his clothes, his motorcycle and everything else that was part of his past. Then he made a list of 100 things he wanted to do in as many weeks and, with the proceeds of his auction, he pulled up stakes.
"To race a dog-sled in Canada," was his number 25. It could have been just another item on his list, but instead it was the beginning of a new life – the one he was living when I met him. It was the pretty sled-dog trainer, Moe, who persuaded him to come back to Canada at his journey's end. Their relationship would prove stronger than both cold and adversity. In their home in the Yukon, they spend the very long winters without running water. That's because, with temperatures dropping to nearly -60 degrees F, it would freeze in the pipes. The first night I spent in their house, the stove next to my couch went out after a few hours. I woke up, my face frozen, to find it was only 40 degrees outside of my sleeping bag.
Staying with them was an extraordinary experience. Even going to the bathroom was an adventure. You have to use a hole in the ground outside of the house, all the time worrying that a bear might show up (luckily, they only come in summer) or that your legs might freeze. Ian and Moe keep basins of heated water indoors for basic needs but to wash or do laundry they have to go to the nearest service station. We did a lot of things together, including a ride on their dog-sled, one of the most fun things I've ever done in my life. In hindsight, the timing of my visit was perfect because, since my visit, Ian has persuaded Moe to move somewhere warmer. These days they live in Panama. "The world is a lot smaller than I used to think," he told me, "and, most importantly, it's chock-full of possibilities." Their third life might be just around the corner.
Deisy Medel, 28 – Veracruz, Mexico
Deisy is one of those people who became a couchsurfer for love. She was attending a photography workshop in Mexico City when she met a Belgian man. She fell madly in love and so, to find him again, she had no choice but to travel to Europe, asking for hospitality on people's couches along the way. That was two years before I met her.
Now it's others who come asking to stay at her home. She lives in Veracruz, Mexico's largest port city. Her neighborhood has a reputation that's less than savory, but Deisy says she feels perfectly safe. Her apartment, located in a two-story building with bare cement stairs and a lack of nonessential details that borders on the spartan, is definitely minimal. She works as a photographer for a local newspaper and the most important objects in her home, as Deisy repeats, are her cameras.
Nonetheless, I was pleased to find that the guest room was furnished with a good, comfortable bed.
It was in Deisy's company that I had one of the most memorable experiences of my 18 months of couchsurfing. One evening I asked if she could tell me whether there was a local hero I could photograph. At the time, I was working on a parallel project documenting local celebrities. Deisy took me to meet a transsexual who was very well-known in the area, a complete Britney Spears fanatic who had done everything possible to resemble her idol (and done a pretty good job of it, I must admit). The evening ended with the transsexual asking me to take the pictures for her Internet site. She took me to a motel in Veracruz, where I spent the night photographing her in a series of unutterable and very amusing poses. Meanwhile, Deisy took pictures of me taking pictures of the transsexual, making a sort of extremely memorable photo documentary of one of the most entertaining experiences couchsurfing has ever brought me.
Dharmesh Kurian, 18 - Mumbai, India
Couchsurfers come in infinite varieties. There are those with enormous houses and tons of space to share, where every guest is welcome to stay for weeks on end. There are those with tiny apartments, where guests sleep on likewise tiny mattresses or even share beds with their hosts. Then there are couchsurfers like Dharmesh, who live in houses so small, and sometimes so crowded, that they don't have room for anyone but, despite this, want very badly to spend time with people from far off places. So, instead of a couch, they offer their time.
Dharmesh, for instance, invites couchsurfers to join his cricket team, which plays every afternoon. All I had to do when I arrived in Mumbai was respond to the ad that Dharmesh had placed on the couchsurfing site inviting travelers to sign up for a day on the cricket ground with him and his friends and join in the match.
It was plain to all present that it was the first time I'd ever played. I was a complete disaster – not to mention the fact that, between the heat and the humidity, I had zero energy to spare. It didn't matter. My couchsurfer and his friends pretended not to notice my weaknesses, lack of skill or – it goes without saying – total ignorance of the rules of the sport.
Dharmesh made a valiant effort to help me understand the game and feel like part of the team. He tried to explain how to grip the bat and which were the best positions, taught me tricks to help hit the ball right and then run. The truth? I still don't really understand how the game works. Maybe it was the heat or simply that I was out of shape, but for every ten minutes of play I had to take a half hour to rest. Dharmesh and his friends, on the other hand, went on for three hours straight without ever taking a break.
The time spent with them was one of the most authentic experiences I had in India. I learned a lot from it – starting with the fact that I should exercise more often than I do.
Ed Catanduanes, 27 – the Cayman Islands
Ed had seven years. Two of them are already gone, leaving him with five. That is how many there are on the work permit he's been granted by the government of the Cayman Islands. When they're up, he'll have to move somewhere else. In the meantime, he's living life to the fullest.
Ed is from the Philippines, originally. "Coming here was the biggest decision of my life, mostly because everything I knew about this place I'd read on Wikipedia," he admits frankly. In hindsight, his was a well-placed bet. With his degree in biology, he found a job as a laboratory technician in a hospital in the Caymans, with a salary that allows him to do things that otherwise he might never have even begun to imagine.
Every month he not only pays his rent, but manages to put something away for travel – his great passion – and send some of his savings home to his family in the Philippines. Using what he's sent them so far, they've already been able to buy a house.
He's a very funny guy and enjoys being a good host. When I arrived in the Cayman Islands, I had a friend with me. We were only supposed to stay with him for one night but a last-minute change of plans forced me to call and beg him to let us spend two nights on the two sofas in his living room. Not only did he say yes, but he invited us to stay for the entire week. And then we were four: Ed, the two of us and a Filipina friend of his who had come to visit and was staying in the guest room. One night, the two of them came home after a few drinks and woke us up to throw a half-hour-long, completely off-the-cuff party.
Ed's home is just a short walk from the beach and surrounded by a lush garden where iguanas grow and multiply much in the way ants do elsewhere. The important thing is not to startle them. Luckily, though they look frightening, they're harmless. Ed took us to the local clubs in the evening and, to repay the favor, we cooked him some Italian specialties. The highpoint of our trip, however, was when he took us to swim with sting rays. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that filled me with a child's excitement.
César Fernandez Mata, 28 - Lima, Peru
One of his heroes is Bob Dylan and one of his dreams is to throw his things in a backpack and travel around the world. At first glance, however, there is no sign in César of this rebellious and adventuresome spirit.
From the time he was a child, his goal was to study at the Catholic University of Lima, of which his uncle, the person he's closest to in the world, is an alumnus. César grew up with his nose buried in books, which his house is still full of today. He obtained his law degree and now works at an important law firm. He dreams of becoming a minister or having some other important role in government one day.
That's probably why, when he showed me around Lima, he (unlike most couchsurfers, who start with the natural beauty or the best nightclubs) began with the buildings where power resides: the courts, central bank, and halls of government, for starters.
Everything in his home is well-ordered and precise. He has two guest rooms, a kitchen and a living room, modest in its simplicity, where the only touch of humor is provided by a large ceramic dog. The most well-used object is the ultramodern stationary bicycle he pedals on every evening. That is where I photographed him, as a homage to his quiet way of being.
I have to admit that conversation with César was beginning to flag a bit, despite his seemingly boundless cordiality, when another couchsurfer came looking for a place to stay. It was she who finally livened things up a bit, encouraging César to plan a night out involving at least a drink or two. That evening I took advantage of César's large kitchen to make the three of us some risotto. Then, after dinner, our host took us to a very nice bar, where we drank a generous amount of the local spirit, pisco. César's rebellious streak began to show itself and we all had a very good time. Of course, we were still back home before midnight. A few drinks are a fine thing, but in moderation.
Mayu Shimura, 23 - Tokyo, Japan
It all started with a hug. At age 18, when she went to study in England, Mayu had never been hugged. Not that her life up to then had been sad. On the contrary, she has a loving mother, father and younger sister. It's simply that people don't hug each other in Japan and, even if they did, in Tokyo no one has time to stop and embrace a friend. When she was studying in England, however, the Spanish friends she met in English class always greeted her with big hugs. "They made me feel warmth, kindness and happiness," she tells me.
So it was that foreigners, who had always piqued her curiosity with their possibilities of blond or red hair or black skin, suddenly became even more important and interesting. To get to known them better, she became a couchsurfer and began hosting them in the two-story house she shares with her parents and little sister (who recently appeared in a horror film and is becoming quite famous in Japan).
Mayu lives in a neighborhood in North Tokyo. I arrived there a year after my first trip to Japan, which had taken place just a few days after the terrible tsunami that had devastated the country and put paid to my plans at the time. Everything in the house is white, bright and ultramodern, from the big kitchen to the latest-generation television set that dominates the living room, home to the giant couch where they host visiting couchsurfers.
Mayu loves comic books. Her sparsely furnished room is a veritable museum of action figures and stuffed toys inspired by characters from comics and cartoons. Even Mer, her dog, is something of an expert. You might see him walking around the neighborhood dressed as Godzilla or Mickey Mouse.
Hosting foreigners has encouraged Mayu to open herself up to the world. Nowadays she works for an Indian company that exports diamonds to Japan. She uses all her vacation time to travel the globe, getting to know new cultures – and giving out hugs. I was the recipient of a very warm one when I arrived at her home. Mayu's new mission, as I discovered, is to import the custom of hugging to Tokyo.
Daniel Dajusz, 24 – Miami, Florida
Into a single room – and not a very big one – Daniel has managed to fit all of his passions. Never mind that most Americans have a garage full of space to hold their dreams and the equipment they require. In this tiny apartment in South Beach, Miami, very close to the shore, a bicycle – the kind that can carry a surfboard – hangs from the ceiling. When Daniel goes surfing every morning, the room is immediately freed of two of its bulkiest objects. "What single thing do I need to be happy? My surfboard," Daniel tells me. "The first thing I ask myself when I wake up in the morning is whether the waves are big." Even with those two things gone, though, it's still pretty crowded. There's the snowboard, the skateboard ("The world is divided into skaters and police," is his philosophy), the soccer ball and Daniel's camera, "the most important object in the whole house."
As it happens, in addition to being an accomplished sportsman, Daniel is also a student of photography and art direction. I went along with him and some of his friends when then were filming a video clip one evening. Sitting on our beds at night, we talked at length about photography (Daniel had inflated an air mattress for me, and it wasn't too different from a real bed at all). He was extremely accommodating, especially considering that, as I must confess, he hadn't been my first couchsurfing choice in Miami. The couple who had been meant to host me had had a last-minute problem and I had found myself sitting at an Internet point, emailing Daniel in the hope that I wouldn't be left couch-less for the night. He got back to me within half an hour – God bless the smartphone – and it was with a sense of relief that I showed up that evening on the doorstep of his home-cum-amusement park. What he says about himself is as good a description of his personality as any: "What I like most about myself is that I'm happy 95% of the time.”
Eleina Priede, 22 - Kekava, Latvia
The family tree fills almost an entire wall of the large living room. Yellowed photos, clippings and handwritten names cover almost every inch. Names have been added by different hands over the years as the family has expanded. It was Eleina who started the chart, a gift to her grandparents when she was still in school. Now it is the elderly couple who patiently continue her work, noting each new birth and grumbling good-naturedly about their granddaughter's failure to finish what she started.
It has been a while since 22-year-old Eleina last lived in this big house in Kekava where, occasionally, she still hosts couchsurfers. She was 17 when packed up and left the little Latvian village of her ancestors to study photography in London.
Now she divides her time between the two countries, accompanied by one constant companion, the teddy bear she has had since childhood. "It has to be in the same place I am," she says, "otherwise I don't feel at home."
The other thing that makes her feel at home in Latvia is walking through the spacious rooms of her grandparents’ house, where every object is a reminder of the past. She also loves their greenhouses. "I feel more at ease here than anywhere else," she explains. "I love to help my grandparents with their tomatoes and vegetables. It makes me feel close to nature."
Nature is all around us here, and not only in the lush greenhouses behind her family home. Kekava, though only 15 minutes from Riga, is known as the "chicken village," for its hundreds of chicken farms. One evening, Eleina's grandparents roasted a delicious one in my honor. They were exceptionally hospitable, giving me my own room with a private bath on a separate floor from their rooms.
Eleina and I had long talks about life and photography, the career we have in common. "I'm proud of my country's dramatic history," she told me during one of our leisurely sightseeing strolls. "I'm proud to come from a nation that's small and strong."
Elisa Jimenez, 30 – Panama City
It's a far cry from a couch. To end up at least once in a home like Elisa’s is probably every couchsurfer’s dream. I realized as much before I even set foot inside her two-story villa in central Panama City. Parked out front to welcome me were a Porsche, an Audi SUV and a couple of BMW motorcycles, all signs of a level of wealth that – even in a place where dollars and business deals are easy to come by – is far above the ordinary.
Then again, the story of Paula, whose home this is, is equally unusual. Her father is a businessman who has made millions working with Jamaica. It's impossible to ask exactly what kind of business he deals in – my host's discretion on this topic is absolute. Her mother spends her days drinking coffee with girlfriends in the villa's enormous garden and going on intensive shopping expeditions to the city's most luxurious shopping malls, choosing more designer furnishings and paintings to match those that already fill the house. Elisa, on the other hand, studied international relations in Europe. She discovered couchsurfing when she was in Berlin and has been repaying the hospitality she received on the sofas of the Old World ever since by offering all-inclusive stays to visiting couchsurfers.
Although there is no shortage of rooms in the main house – a white-marble villa with gold-plated faucets – Elisa shows me to a private guesthouse. It is an entirely separate building, where her father has installed a library with tens of thousands of books, a gym and a home-theater complete with plush seats acquired directly from a cinema. It was a little like being in a five-star hotel, but Elisa seemed not to give it much weight. "It's attitude that determines your quality of life," she told me. "You can always choose to have a positive outlook."
She certainly does not lack positivity. Although her studies focused on something completely different, she has recently begun to make jewelry using peculiar materials she has shipped to her from all over the world. Her next goal, she told me while we relaxed next to the pool, was to make her creations a part of her father's business. First Jamaica, then the world.
Enas Sherif, 22 – Cairo, Egypt
Female couchsurfers aren’t common in Egypt. Social and religious attitudes in this country are pretty strict about certain things. Nonetheless, Enas is one. She has a degree in computer sciences and a good job. She pays close attention to what is going on in the world — and the world is a place she'd like to know better. One of the most active members of the Cairo couchsurfing community, she participates in all their activities.
That's how I first met her, when I was a guest in the home of Ali, another Egyptian, but a man. Ali took me to a couchsurfers' get-together where Enas and her Polish visitor were the only two women present. My curiosity was piqued, so I decided to go and spend a little time with her. Enas lives in a fairly large house in downtown Cairo, nestled between markets and alleyways deep in the Egyptian capital’s chaotic heart. Inside her home, however, all is quiet and peaceful. Large carpets cover the floors in every room and wide sofas invite you to sit and sip a cup of tea. There's a big table where Enas, her entire family and I gathered to share her grandmother's famous noodle, rice, chickpea and fried onion casserole. Enas hosts female travelers from all over the world. She might spend a pleasant day talking with male couchsurfers like me who are visiting Cairo, but she doesn't invite them to stay.
Before the 2011 revolution, Enas worked for an airline. She was proud of her job but, with the advent of the economic crisis, political instability and the drop in tourism that followed, the company had to downsize. Enas was one of those who lost her position. When I met her, she was working at a shopping mall. It was a way to stay in touch with the world, though not as well as when she was working at the airport. Being there had made her feel closer to the world beyond Cairo. A picture covering the wall above her bed shows a landscape of lakes unlike anything in Egypt, a testament to her dreams of seeing that world.
At the time of our meeting, I asked her what she thought the future held. "A war, here," was her reply. Sadly, she wasn't too wide of the mark.
Erlend Øye, 36 - Bergen, Norway
It doesn't often happen that you get invited into the home of one of your idols, but it can when you couchsurf and open yourself up to new worlds – especially if your idol used to be a couchsurfer, too.
Erlend Øye is the lead singer of the Kings of Convenience and The Whitest Boy Alive, one of my favorite bands. Our paths crossed one evening in a bar in Bergen, while I was staying with another couchsurfer there. I observed Erlend for awhile before asking someone whether that was really him and then, timidly, introducing myself. Finding myself suddenly chatting with one of my heroes was a surprise, but the biggest shock was discovering that he knew my work, too. Erland spends a lot of time in Sicily, an enchanting region in southern Italy. It was there that he had seen my photographs in D, an Italian magazine I was working for at the time. He knew I was traveling around the world couchsurfing, so he invited me to come stay with him and take a picture to surprise my Italian friends. Besides, "My friends read your column, too,” he said. “They’ll have a laugh when they see me there."
Erlend lives in a colorful little wooden house in the center of Bergen. His quiet, pastel-tinted neighborhood looks a little like a Lego village from the outside. It goes almost without saying that the most plentiful thing in his house are the guitars. There are dozens, some in every room. Erlend is a down-to-earth kind of guy and, although his agenda was full when I came to visit, he still found time for me. Over breakfast, served in his living room with its pale wood furnishings, we talked about Sicily and how he had loved to couchsurf until his growing fame began to make it a difficult to stay with strangers. However, he hasn't lost his curiosity, his desire to meet new people and experience the opportunities that come with opening yourself up to others. In fact, he and I have maintained our correspondence via email, keeping each other up to date on the latest news in our lives.
Faisel Nizam, 30 – Dubai, U.A.E.
Faisel, the picture of elegance in his dark, tailor-made suit, roared up to get me in downtown Dubai in his camouflage convertible jeep. Compared to all those men in their white robes, safely sealed behind their sedans’ tinted windows, he looked almost like an alien.
It shouldn't be too surprising, since Faisel, although born in the United Arab Emirates, spent some of his most formative years in the United States. His parents, hoping to make a businessman of him, sent him to Florida when he was 17. "But I hated school," he told me, "and I didn't learn anything in four years at college. Everything I learned came from the wonderful people I met and the experiences I had." Probably a few too many experiences, in fact, because when he was 21, problems with the law led to his deportation from the U.S.
So it was that, to his parents' great disappointment, Faisel ended up as a baggage handler at the Dubai airport. After a couple of years, he began to move up the ladder. Now he trains the airport personnel. "I've changed. I have a lot of faith in the human race now," he told me.
Starting with couchsurfers. When he can't put them up, he still offers them a little of his time, spending a day with them, as he did with me. He may be happier when his visitors are pretty girls – at least, that's the impression I got from clicking through the record of visits on his personal page on the site – but he's equally hospitable when curious photographers come calling. Then again, I did bring him a little luck with the ladies. After I'd had his photo published in a magazine in Italy, an Italian girl got in touch, insisting I put her in contact with him. I don't know exactly what came of that. Maybe he wound up finding a place for her in his apartment filled with comics, which he's been collecting comics since he was six years old. Today he has over three-thousand. "They're my most important possession," he told me.
Dimitri Procofieff, 22 - Geneva, Switzerland
To reach Dimitri's family's home, a sort of sanctuary for the ecologically-aware wayfarer perched high in the mountains above Geneva, travelers must first traverse over 6 miles of dense forest.
It is a very large house, constructed almost entirely of wood and set on the shore of a small lake with a clear view of Mont Blanc. There are no neighbors, no connection with the rest of the world. Everything is zero-environmental-impact, recycled and sustainable. Their energy is produced by wind turbines and solar panels, rainwater is collected and circulated into the house and heat is generated using wood from the nearby forest (but only from trees that are ready to be cut, of course). It's thanks to that wood that I ended up couchsurfing with Dimitri and his family. Every year they organize a get together, three days when friends, acquaintances and couchsurfers recruited from far and near help cut all the wood needed to heat the house through the winter. Think of it as a sort of jamboree, where you work during the day and at night you party with people from just about everywhere.
Dimitri's also a photographer and, because our paths had crossed once before, I knew about his family's summer tradition. So it was that I decided to go and claim one of the numerous mattresses he puts out for visiting couchsurfers. Their home may be simple, but it's very big and Dimitri, his mother and her partner open their door to whoever passes through.
Dimitri's incredible hospitality may be, in part at least, a consequence of his own nomadic history. Born in France in 1989 to a family of Russian origin, he spent his first 15 years moving from one place to another: Paris, Moscow, Tbilisi, Sri Lanka and Belgrade – the place where finally, at the age of fifteen, he started to feel at home. He doesn't have many memories of his early years, apart from the fact that, for some strange reason, his family's kitchens always seemed to catch fire. When his parents went to live in Senegal, he headed to Geneva, which is where he lives today, surrounded by friends and couchsurfers. As he tells me, "The thing I'm most proud of is having maintained real relationships with friends whom, unfortunately, I only rarely see."
Camille Roque, 33 – Marseilles, France
One May morning, the ladder between the loft and the lower floor of Camille's little apartment helped to break my heart. At the least, it filled my head with a few days’ worth of dreams. It was my first day of couchsurfing in Marseilles when I saw her descending that ladder, a graceful figure suspended in midair, and believed I had come to the end of my travels.
It wasn't meant to be. Still, I spent several marvelous days in Camille's company, exploring the city, the surrounding countryside and the local specialties. We tried our hand at cooking some of them ourselves, there in the kitchen of her Provençal-style home near the sea, where she also collects recipes.
Camille is a French globetrotter with a bit of Spanish blood in her veins, born in a little village in the Pyrenees into a family whose Spanish origins are almost lost in time. As a girl she studied in London, then returned to France for a short while before departing again, this time for Brazil. There she found an excellent job in the marketing department of a national television station. She came back to France for love. Her fiancé couldn't live knowing that she was so far away. "It's a shame he left me not long after I came back," she says, a note of irony in her voice.
Camille still misses Brazil (but not her ex). She 'treats' her saudade – a special sort of Brazilians homesickness – by playing percussion in two different samba bands. She even took me to see them perform one night. These days she works in the marketing division of a big cosmetics company and, for the moment at least, she doesn't plan on going anywhere. She's happy in her new home in Marseilles. She has numerous books for company and, among the phrases from them that she has adopted as mottoes, there is one memorable quote from Oscar Wilde: "The only things one never regrets are one's mistakes."
MOCHAN, 44 – Tokyo, Japan
The plane that took me from Manila to Tokyo was empty. There couldn't have been more than ten passengers aboard. Now that I look back on it, it was a miracle there were that many. I arrived in Japan just a few days after the devastating 2011 tsunami. I had planned a trip of about ten days, staying in various parts of the country in the homes of different couchsurfers. On that March 11th, however, the lives of Japan's people had been turned upside down. The couches I should have camped out on had become sanctuaries for relatives fleeing the tsunami's horrific devastation.
Mochan was my salvation. I had sent out a plea for a place to stay, although without any true hope of a reply. Mochan answered, saying he had a couch I was welcome to stay on for a couple of nights.
Post-tsunami Tokyo was nothing like the place that exists in the popular imagination – a city of overwhelming sights and sounds and fastidious precision. At the airport, 95% of flights had been canceled. The few that arrived were , like mine, nearly empty. The metropolis had a spectral feel to it. The buildings were still swaying from aftershocks and the few people on the streets seemed in something like shock themselves.
Mochan, my last-minute couchsurfer, was not one of these. Once I had finished thanking him profusely for his hospitality, I asked whether he was worried or upset like the others. He shrugged. "We're Japanese," he said, “We’re good at rebuilding."
With his uncommonly flamboyant clothing, Mochan seemed out of place among his fellow citizens. I took his picture in the center of Shibuya Square, whose usual dazzling array of neon signs had been almost entirely extinguished to save electricity following the tsunami, making him the brightest element of the scene.
He believes that he derives a lot of his energy from contact with others people, For years, he and a friend managed a bar together. Eventually, he got tired of it and decided to change his routine by getting involved with tourism. Now he ferries visitors from all over the world around the city in his minivan. What he doesn't get paid for, he does for free. In his tiny home in central Tokyo, there is always a store of clean sheets ready for couchsurfers.
Staying with him in the aftermath of the tsunami was a bit surreal but very instructive. During those days especially, when giving in to despair might have seemed the only possible reaction to the tragedy, his determination and positive attitude helped me to see Japan in a new light.
Ferdi Banda, 33 - Tirana, Albania
Of the many things Ferdi taught me, one really stuck in my mind: you don't have to be born somewhere wealthy to understand generosity. During the five days I spent in Tirana, Ferdi treated me with the utmost consideration. He found me excellent lodgings, which he believed more comfortable than his own home. He showed me all around the city, took me to see the most beautiful sites and wouldn't let me pay for a thing.
He was born and raised in Tirana, in a very Catholic family. All his actions and life choices have, in one way or another, followed the teachings of his religion. He told me proudly about how he first served as an altar boy during Mass one day in 1990, after the fall of Communism. Once he'd grown up, he 'enlisted' in the society founded by Padre Monti, an Italian missionary, and has since done a lot of work in the refugee camps in his country. More recently, he began to work for an Italian humanitarian long-distance support organization that was setting up a project at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Tirana.
He is currently manages the office responsible for assisting visiting professors. It was in their lodgings that he hosted me (after having obtained the proper authorization, of course). Basically, instead of the couch in his simple but dignified home, he offered me the luxury of couchsurfing in a place very much like a hotel, with a room and private bath all to myself.
We spent a lot of time together, talking about Albania. “I’ve never thought about leaving. My country is in the hands of the youth now, and we have to stay and build it." He also told me about the best things that have happened for Tirana. One of these was the election of an artist, Edi Rama, as mayor. During his tenure, he covered the city's big gray buildings with colorful original works. Ferdi is so enthusiastic about them that I took his picture on the façade of one of those repainted buildings. Choosing it as a backdrop seemed a proper tribute to a place he loves so much.
Francesco Cachia, 54 – Rabat, Malta
Three rooms, three couches, ten guests. They come and go, in constant flux, every day, every week. They come from all over in search of a couch or simply for the company, staying long enough for a Lucullan feast or a jaunt around the island with new friends. They all come knocking on Uncle Francesco's door – though, as he has no children, nephews or nieces, he's not really an uncle. Maybe that's why he gathers couchsurfers from every corner of the globe at his home in Rabat, making every day a giant reunion of friends from far and wide.
Francesco, born in 1957, is small, rotund and sports a dark little mustache on his friendly face. He works at "Sharma et Nic Cuisines", a restaurant where the food, a mélange of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Indian, proves that some things are improved by blending.
"I like having people around me. I have no children of my own and spending so much time with young travelers keeps me young, too," he explains, standing by a table set for visitors from practically every corner of the globe. Sitting around it on the evening I took this photo there were travelers from France, Brazil, Poland, Malta, Latvia, Germany, Kazakhstan – and me, of course, an Italian. They are this week's guests, the ones staying in Francesco's house. Then there are the globetrotters, who sleep elsewhere because there is literally no space left. Francesco cooks for them as well, once a week and entirely at his own expense, in fulfillment of what he sees as his mission to "try to make other people happy but, most importantly, to succeed in being exactly who I've always wanted to be."
The computer situated in his little study is a great help in achieving this aim. It has allowed him to open himself up to the world, becoming a point of reference in the process. On his own, Francesco has hosted more couchsurfers than anyone else in Malta. Then again, as he says, "If I weren't here, I'd be a missionary." He keeps the postcards his couchsurfers have sent him from their travels or homes around the world. This collection is a small treasure which helps Francesco to remember his visitors, but also to know the world better – and to keep himself feeling young. His greatest fear, he admits to me as he welcomes some new friends, is growing old. Be that as it may, time does seem to lengthen and even come to a halt in a house so full of new faces.
Rob Kossetz, 29, and Marika Strale, 33 – Buggibba, Malta
They fled the city for an island in the Mediterranean. That sentence sums up the story of Rob and Marika – well, if you throw in a case of love at first sight and a highly unlikely cross-continental move executed on four wheels, one-way from Riga to Buggibba.
Marika is the one from Latvia. She met Rob one sweltering summer during a two-week vacation in Malta. Rob is from Germany and had come to the island for a master's program after finishing his degree in communication technologies. "It's quiet and sunny and everyone's nice here. When I realized I could come here,” he told me, “I didn't think twice."
Francesco, that cupid of couchsurfers and another of the protagonists of this book, did the rest. Not only does he host numerous visitors in his own home but, once a week, he also organizes a dinner for all the couchsurfers on the island. It was thanks to him that Rob and Marika met. Something sparked between them and they spent two weeks together – until Marika's vacation ended and she had to go back to Latvia. For a year they stayed in touch, talking and writing using every means that technology put at their disposal, until she made up her mind to move, too. That is how they ended up packing a car and driving it across the whole of Europe. Their endpoint was the little apartment building in Buggibba on whose roof they posed for this photo, surrounded by those same antennas that had helped them to stay in touch during their year apart.
Their home is a small apartment in a building of recent construction, just over a mile from the sea – a sort of love nest. I spent five nights on the couch in their kitchen-cum-living room, their home's center of activity. They took me to see a bit of everything. We rented a car and drove around the island in search of the best beaches and hidden spots.
When I left, we promised to keep in touch, and we have. Not only did I meet up with them in Latvia while they were vacationing there but, a few months later, they even invited me to their wedding. Sadly, I couldn't make it, but not long ago they sent me a photo of their first baby.
Ratu Saverio Selio Ralulu Nasila, 20 – Namaka, Viti Levu, the Fiji Islands
When I arrived at Ratu's home in Namaka, I found not only a couchsurfer but an entire family ready to bend over backwards for their guests. I had already had occasion to learn that hospitality is a typical trait of the Fijian character, regardless of where they live or how they spend their days. Ratu, his siblings and even his grandmother were living proof of this.
Ratu is 20 years old and recently went back to school. For years, he worked in a fresh produce market, breaking his back from dawn to dusk. However, as soon as he'd saved up enough, he enrolled in a design course. His dream is to turn the ideas of Fiji's entrepreneurs into magazine advertisements, using graphic design to help the businesses on the archipelago grow.
Meanwhile, he shares a home with two of his five siblings on the outskirts of the capital of Viti Levu island. Their apartment is large, with a room for each of them and one for guests, with a pleasant garden encircling it. It is a brick building, simple and sparsely furnished, but its inhabitants’ care and kindness lend it warmth.
Ratu, his brother, his sister and I did a lot of fun things together. We went snorkeling in one of the most beautiful seas I have ever seen (in fact, this photo was taken at the end of that day) and we went to see their grandmother, an excellent cook whom I photographed while she was grappling with a giant fish and some coconuts. After dinner one evening I even tried to dispel a myth that hovers around Ratu: he's a real celebrity in the pool hall not far from his house, because apparently it's been two years since anyone has beaten him. I tried but, unsurprisingly, was unable to alter local legend. My challenge notwithstanding, Natu remains the undisputed pool champion of Namaka.
Danai Gourd, 20 – Athens, Greece
Persuading couchsurfers to let me take their photos for this book wasn’t always easy. Some are shy. Others don't think they're photogenic. Some get embarrassed. Danai, however, was as eager to be photographed as she was happy to welcome me into her home. As a girl she studied classical ballet, while in more recent years she has posed for local fashion photographers, so she’s very relaxed in front of the camera.
Actually, Danai is relaxed and confident in pretty much everything she does. She’s the youngest of three sisters from a good Greek family. She studies computer sciences at university and has a lot of friends. When she’s not with them, she loves to take long walks in the archaeological park in Sounio, south of Athens – her hometown and home to some of the most important ruins in Greece. "Stopping to look at the sea and letting the warm light of the sunset wash over me." That’s what makes her happy, she tells me, and she can do it simply by stepping out of the small, private apartment she’s built for herself at the far end of the portico leading to her parents’ house. It consists of a single room and a private bath, so couchsurfers stay in the main house, a villa with a garden, located in an enviable spot by the seashore. The furniture in Danai's room has a vaguely antique look that contrasts sharply with the dozens of neon-bright swimsuits overflowing her drawers and spilling from behind her closet door. For years, Danai's father worked for a company that made swimsuits, which his daughter preserves and shows off as though they were treasures.
I made spaghetti for Danai and two of her friends one night. I was proud of the results but disappointed when it ended up being too spicy for them. They repaid the favor all the same, showing me around the Acropolis in Athens and proudly sharing stories of ancient Greece.
Mahender Nagi, 31 – Mumbai, India
Maybe in a few years it will become a hit and I'll have had the honor of being the one to whom it was dedicated. For the moment, though, Mahender has only sung it for me. Even so, it was pretty amazing. It’s a song about couchsurfing and it was written especially for me by Mahender, the Sikh couchsurfer in whose company I spent two intense days exploring Mumbai. Composer, couchsurfer... the list is endless. Mahender is also a Bollywood actor and producer, a local celebrity and a man who expresses his love for the world through a deep and abundant spirituality.
Not being able to host couchsurfers is upsetting to him, but he still lives with his family, who won't allow it. He makes up for it by devoting a lot of his time to travelers passing through the city. I spent two days with him and in the evenings I felt like I'd been hanging out with a star. Every place we went, someone stopped to say hello, embrace him or exchange a few words. Mahender is very proud of his little bit of fame. He considers himself a representative of the Bollywood export market.
He tells me that his second life began when he quit the advertising agency where he had worked up to 18 hours a day, sometimes not going home at all for days on end. He went back to work with renewed energy at a web TV channel, through which he made a lot of contacts in the local movie business. The next step was to move on to a traditional, national television channel, of which he became the director. After that, he finally took the leap into the world of cinema. He has written and produced his first movie and is currently working on his second. It's no accident that, as soon as we met, he wanted to take me to the cinema where his film had premiered. The truth is that it wasn't a great success, but Mahender doesn't let that discourage him or perhaps it really doesn't bother him at all. "I don't need anything else to be happy. I've already been lucky enough," he explains.
Whether or not he becomes the Indian Brad Pitt, I'm still proud that he wanted to dedicate a song to me. Who else could have done so if not a couchsurfer?
Andreas Backer Heide, 31 - Bergen, Norway
A little wooden cabin in the stern of a sailboat cutting through the Norwegian fjords: this is where Andreas hosted me in Bergen. They were days spent on the water, with the wind on our faces, and hours spent fishing (sadly, without success) in the winter cold of the northern seas. It was couchsurfing out of an adventure story.
Andreas is, after all, the quintessential adventurer, the sort who fears nothing and lives in harmony with nature. Born near the sea in 1980 and active to the core, he has devoted most of his energies to the water. When he was younger, he enlisted in the Norwegian Navy, where he spent two "wonderful years," during which, he says, "I found myself." He then spent a long stint as a biologist at the Institute of Marine Research, a job which allowed him to travel the world and devote a lot of time to his favorite pastimes, sailing and deep sea diving.
His compass always points north and his weather forecast never fails to be icy. When I was his guest, he had just quit his job and was planning a six-month sailing expedition to Greenland with some friends.
Andreas has a house on dry land, too, of course. I spent two nights there before asking him to take me sailing on the fjords – he had told me he had taken other couchsurfers and I simply couldn't resist. Not that I didn't enjoy experiencing his life in Bergen. On the contrary, his apartment is new and comfortable, he is surrounded by friends and he loves to cook. In fact, during my stay we took turns preparing our best fish specialties for each other. Of all the things we did in Bergen, going to bars and clubs with him was the most amusing. Maybe it's because of his physique du rôle, but the ladies do tend to fall at his feet. Indeed, a guy out on the town with Andreas runs a high risk of ending up as a perpetual third wheel. That may be one reason why he chooses to host couchsurfers on his boat, where he can devote more attention to his guests without unexpected female intrusions, pleasant as those might be.
Henry Garza, 26 – Brownsville, Texas
Mexico is there, just over the border. You can see it if you just lean out of either of the two trailers parked side by side on this green spot in Brownsville, sandwiched between a tiny open-air weightlifting set-up and a workhorse of a pickup truck. Over there lies Mexico, over here is Texas – and the American dream. Henry, 26 when this photo was taken, was brought here when he was one year old, carried by his mother and his grandfather, who made the difficult border crossing on foot. His mother remarried, this time to a Texan, and Henry was raised by his grandfather in the same trailer where, today, he's raising his own son. It’s a home that bears the marks of the past: yellowed photos of ancestors on the walls, old-fashioned ceramic souvenirs and the sound of mariachi music. His grandfather, flashing dark glasses and broad smiles at any rare guests who find their way here, plays it all day.
Visitors sleep in the mobile home or in the trailer next to it, which has taken on the role of a storage unit. I have had the chance to sleep in both, having come here twice to listen to Henry's stories. It is in front of the latter that he is confidently posing in this photo. One of Henry's dreams is to open a restaurant, where he would serve the best Parmigiano cheese and fine wines. It would be an Italian restaurant, naturally, like Carino's, where Henry is head waiter. All the employees there are Mexican – apart from Henry, who is, as he proudly reminds me, American, as is his taste in food. In his opinion, the best meal is still a McDonald's hamburger. The best drink, however, is that same tequila his grandfather sips, Henry’s sure of it. The old man rocks slowly in his chair, offering a glass to guests and his grandson alike. It's a family tradition.
Lamine Amadou, 27 – Guediawaye, Senegal
I'd been riding in the taxi for at least an hour as night fell outside window and the buildings of Dakar began to thin. I began to have a creeping sensation that I was traveling through utter nothingness. The taxi driver finally let me out at a gas station in Guediawaye, north of Dakar. I'd only waited a few minutes when my Senegalese couchsurfer Lamine and his brother Karim showed up. We walked for roughly half an hour to reach their village, along an overgrown path hidden amongst vegetation. We were lucky the moon was high, because its light was all that we had to see by. "The electricity gets turned off from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. every day," they explained.
When we finally got to our destination, sometime around two in the morning, I discovered that I wouldn't be sleeping in their house at all.
In theory, my 'house' was the headquarters of the village's cultural association. In practice, it was one room in an empty building. The walls were bare concrete and there was no mattress to be seen, no electricity and not even a drop of water. "If you need some, you can get it at the well at the end of the street," Lamine and his brother told me.
I was clear sleep wouldn’t come easy. I managed to drift off only because I was dead tired, enough that I could forget the bare room and the hard cement floor, barely disguised beneath a makeshift mattress I’d made from the layers of my own clothing. By some miracle, I’d managed to hang my portable mosquito net from the ceiling by my shoelaces.
I have to admit, that time in Senegal was my toughest couchsurfing experience and the one that left the deepest mark. That is despite the kindness of Lamine, with whom I spent the entire next day. It was a pleasant, walking around the village and finally ending up at his house, which is much more like a normal home than the place where he puts up his couchsurfers. Indeed, though his family's house is modest, it is equipped with a few 'Western' comforts. There are beds, a bathroom and even a computer with a USB Internet key, which is how Lamine gets online.
That day I had lunch with his family. His mother served me a noodle and meat soup that she had prepared over a brazier. Everyone was very cordial and friendly. "The best thing about Senegal is the téranga, the hospitality," Lamine told me. That they were hospitable is certainly true. Nonetheless, this was the first place where I'd ever felt that adapting to a different reality was a hardship.
Javier Eduardo Vargas, 34 – Mendoza, Argentina
In the beginning, the earth shook. It was 1984 and the earthquake's devastating force completely destroyed their home in the countryside and everything around it. They had no choice but to leave. "We moved and we built a new home." That is how Javier and his family came to Mendoza, a quiet town in Argentina's wine country. It is here that the entire clan still lives. Once a week, they come together for a meal at his grandmother's sumptuously laden table.
Speaking of tables, it's more or less under one that Javier makes his couchsurfer guests sleep. Nowadays Javier lives alone and his apartment's three messy rooms tell the story of his three great passions: music, photography and travel. In the sitting room, the pictures he's taken around Central and South America enjoy pride of place above a computer that never sleeps. Javier, 34 when I met him, is a web designer with a client list that includes a number of Argentine multinationals. His secret dream – still unrealized, for the moment – is to become a musician. "I have a lot of songs and they get me through the tough times," he says, strumming on one of his two guitars.
Javier is no stranger to tough times. Following the earthquake and his family's forced exodus, he applied himself diligently at school. His efforts won him a scholarship, which led to an engineering degree. "Enjoy life, be happy, don't worry about money problems and don't sweat the small stuff.” That’s the motto he lives by today and he meets the first of its requirements by hosting couchsurfers almost every night. The short ones sleep on the sofa, the others on an inflatable mattress next to it with their heads practically under the table. He also takes his guests with him to dance the tango – another one of his passions. Watching their clumsy efforts as they try not to crush the local ladies' toes may well be part of the fun.
Javier Francisco Martinez Benvenutto, 40 - Montevideo, Uruguay
The image of the bespectacled nerd, all Internet connection and programming language, was quickly banished. Javier taught me that you can be into computers and still be a creative type, live for software without forgetting the arts, music, a love of cooking and all the rest. Couchsurfing at his home was, in other words, an excellent antidote to stereotypes.
Javier, who was 40 when I met him, is a computer engineer for the Uruguayan government, and the creator of the complex system that manages the national pension scheme. While in school, however, he didn't limit himself to studying the computer sciences. He took an unimaginably wide variety of courses, including cooking, literature, the art of the graphic novel, painting and German – and all this while playing with his band nearly every day. Music is his great passion and his dream of being a rock guitarist lives on between algorithms.
Considering his talents, it's not surprising that his home in Montevideo was a very wise investment. Javier told me that he bought it for forty-thousand dollars. Now it's worth at least three times that. It's a pleasant apartment near the sea with a terrace looking out over the ocean and direct access to the roof (where this picture was taken), which is often transformed into a venue for parties and get-togethers among friends. Javier has a sunny disposition and surrounds himself with people and positive influences. His bicycle is his main mode of transport. He trusts couchsurfers enough to immediately give them his house keys. In his guest room, they sleep next to his most precious possessions: his computer, his guitar and his drum kit.
We swapped stories of our lives and adventures during long walks and over meals. “The only world I know is the same age as me and in constant evolution. I try to broaden it by traveling, reading and welcoming people from far away into my home," he told me. From where I stand, his attempt is succeeding.
Johan Smith, 50 – Johannesburg, Rep. of South Africa
Zero, that was its name. With a metal detector at the entrance, a ticket booth, electric-blue walls, deeply-cushioned swings suspended from the ceiling and a dark back room hidden behind a curtain, it looks just like any other gay nightclub in any other corner of the world –the difference being that Johan lives here. He was given the property in Johannesburg, South Africa, by some clients who couldn't pay their bill.
It hasn't changed much since the days when Johannesburg's homosexual population reclined on the seats where Johan now relaxes, as he is doing in this photo I snapped. I took it just as soon I'd arrived, on a Sunday when the sun was filtering windowpanes darkened years ago.
Johan has done only the bare minimum to make the club into a home for himself and Serafina, the woman who helps with the household chores. She irons his shirts behind what was once the bar but is now the kitchen of this strange habitation – surely the most outlandish I've ever stayed in during my travels across the couches of the world. Speaking of couches, Zero had none, only loveseats. These were located in the dark room where, once upon a time, boys sought each other out for fleeting, passionate encounters.
Nowadays couchsurfers spend the night on them instead. Johan is extremely hospitable and opens his doors to numerous visitors. "Guests are what I love most about my apartment," he tells me. It's all part of this new chapter of his life, which began after his marriage ended badly and he quit his job as a computer programmer. He had made a lot of money, but never had a moment to enjoy it. When did his new life begin? "On the day when it first dawned on me that it was my turn."
John Yengee Sun, 25, and Liu Si Tong, 23 – Shenyang, China
Nothing at all, not even a mattress. When I arrived at the home of John and Liu, in Shenyang, their two-floor house was quite literally empty. They had just moved in, bringing with them only a bull's skull – hanging on the pristine wall in defiance of superstition – two caricature-style portraits of themselves and a couple of porn magazines, strewn carelessly across the kitchen counter.
Space was not an issue and neither was privacy, as the entire second-floor loft was reserved for me. I slept facing the window on my makeshift bed, a construction of my own layered T-shirts, looking out over a city where skyscrapers populate the night and the cement seems endless.
It's the reason why John, 25 when I met him, came back to China. When he was seven years old, he and his family left Shenyang for California, where he eventually earned his degree in economics. "I remember, when I was little, there wasn't a single house more than three stories tall in Shenyang. Now there's almost nothing but skyscrapers and shopping malls," he tells me in an English that makes him sound more American than Chinese. Some of the new buildings have gone up thanks to his company. When he first came back to visit his hometown, he saw a golden opportunity waiting for someone who was willing to work hard. "In Shenyang, construction and expansion happen more rapidly than in any other Chinese city. That's why I decided to move back here and dedicate my energies to the construction industry.” Now he has a Chinese business partner with whom he owns a factory that produces bricks and other building materials. "I believe strongly in what I'm doing and I'm certain that I made the right choice. I'm willing to bet that, in a few years' time, we'll be rich," he tells me with enthusiasm. Long before that happens, the house he shares with Liu will probably get a real bed for couchsurfers.
Tom Bursch, 47 – Homer, Alaska
The view from his window describes, better than any words could, why Tom's house is so special. The landscape seems to be the product of the most magnificent imagination, but it is real. You can touch it, walk on it, smell it. It also burns. When I arrived in Homer, Alaska, the temperature was hovering around minus 40 and the sun sent out its pale rays no more than five hours a day – from 10 in the morning until about 3 in the afternoon.
Tom's little house is two stories tall, with spacious, comfortable rooms, and constructed entirely of wood. It looks out over the water – and even that freezes over in numerous points during the very long winters. Beyond the Kachemak Bay you can see snow-capped Alaskan peaks. The snowscape is broken only by the occasional moose or other animal (in summer, when the snow cover melts, that includes brown bears, which sometimes venture into the yard).
It was almost pure chance that brought Tom to this icy corner of paradise, hitchhiking his way up from his home state of Minnesota at the age of 15. "I've always been geographically and culturally curious," he explains. Once here, he began working as a salmon fisherman, and has continued to do so for the last 27 years. His work has brought him much happiness and even a wife, Catie, who is also a fisherman.
They both work six months out of the year – in summer, weather permitting. The rest of the time they spend traveling around the world. Tom has also been studying to become a nurse. "I'd like to fish for six months in summer and work as a nurse the rest of the time, wherever there's a need," he tells me.
He and Catie have two daughters. One lives in Texas and the other in Bosnia. When they come home to visit, the family is happiest when they can all go salmon fishing together for a few days. However, the Bursch family does more than fish for salmon. They also cook it extremely well. At Tom and Catie's, I ate the best baked salmon I've ever had in my life – unforgettable.
Julie Wilson, 30, and Alberto Serafini, 34 – Austin, Texas
He wanted to be a musician. Instead, he ended up (happily) making cappuccinos. When Alberto, born in 1977, met Julie, four years his junior, he was still a philosophy student. In the Tuscan town where he was born and raised he was venerated as one of the most promising drummers on the Italian music scene. Julie, meanwhile, had been catapulted from Texas to Italy for a university course. A few months after they met, Julie found herself with a ring on her finger, scraping out a living teaching English to a bunch of hard-headed Italians.
They were finally able to strike a balance between their two worlds in 2009, when they moved to Austin, Texas, taking with them just a few bags and their faithful cat Rita to bear witness to this latest sea change in their lives. Julie went back to university to get her master's in psychology. Albert abandoned music to spend his days behind the bar of a café in North Austin. He spends his days making cappuccinos with an Italian's artistry – a life much less stressful than the one he led when he was trying to make it as a rock star. Their former life has followed them, transforming their living room into a guest room for visiting friends (Tuscan and otherwise), starting with yours truly. It's also the scene of improvised jazz sessions. Next to the sofa, a drum set and two guitars sit waiting for someone to start playing, just like old times. This habit of sharing both the ordinary and the extraordinary is one of the mainstays of their life together. It extends not only to their friends, but also to the 100 families who live in the complex, with its shared gym, small swimming pool, laundry room and Internet point. It's no accident that Julie has seen fit to adopt as a motto some very apropos words of a musical icon from another era, Vanilla Ice: "Stop, collaborate and listen".
Rebecca Emmons, 28, Victor Oddo, 35, and Sam, 3 - Santiago de Chile, Chile
Enormous, bright rooms with large windows, walls are hung with fine paintings, expensive rugs gracing the floors, a piano and a charming guest room. This is Rebecca and Victor's apartment – or, at least, the apartment they lived in when I met them. It told me one thing for certain about its owners: they are successful architects who love their work. "Our son Sam has spent most of his three years with the babysitter," Rebecca admits freely, wasting no time on sentiment.
Victor is a partner in one of Santiago's most well-known architecture firms and receives invitations to events like the Venice Biennale. Rebecca, originally from Texas, came to his firm almost by chance. In 2006, just after finishing her degree, she set off for a journey through South America to Rio de Janeiro with the man she was seeing at the time. Even before arriving at their destination, the two had begun to argue so much they decided to separate. She decided to head to Santiago de Chile, in search of an architect she admired and had studied in college. It wasn't the architect she'd been hoping to find but Victor who was there to greet her, although she’d soon come to realize he was the man she'd been looking for, after all.
It wasn’t long until they got engaged shortly, she left Texas for good and their son Sam was born.
Despite the fact that neither have much free time to spare (when I asked them what they thought the future held, their instantaneous reply was "Work!"), they were accommodating during my stay. We ate meals together at home and in the fashionable restaurants around their trendy neighborhood. They took me on a trip outside the city, to a place halfway between the Andes and Santiago, a peak with a spectacular view.
We stayed in touch after my stay, so I know that Victor and Rebecca are now separated. Although they are both in new relationships, they maintain a good rapport. Perhaps we could have foreseen it. After all, Rebecca did confess to me that it was her recurring dream “to fall in love with random people."
Lahcen Baaha, 28 - Sidi Benzarne, Morocco
He sets up the laptop computer on the roof, where the USB Internet key, a sort of antenna linking the cube-shaped white cement dwelling to the rest of the world, gets better reception. In 27 years, Lahcen, a Berber, has never been more than about 6 miles from his house, and that while riding a mule. It's the same mule his family uses to go to the market in Sidi Benzarne, the little village in southern Morocco where he lives, about 20 miles from Agadir. They have been here for generations, cultivating the fields, as the corn drying in the courtyard – immortalized in this photo – can attest.
However, thanks to that computer on the roof, Lahcen has become a part of the couchsurfing community, hosting guests he welcomes warmly into his family’s four-room home. The atmosphere is austere. The only decorations are the carpets on which we sit while eating a tajine – the typical local dish. I was generously invited to share in this ritual every evening I spent with them.
"The world is divided into good people and evil people. Be at peace." With this advice, Lahcen reveals his devotion to traditional values. Compared to his relatives, though, Lahcen's life is completely modern. Not only is he a registered couchsurfer (the only one in an area stretching many square miles) but he also works as a guide in Souss-Massa, the nearby, recently established natural park. His days are spent in the company of tourists. He speaks French and a little English and has been learning to imagine the world beyond the confines of a village he has never left. "The tourists who come here tell me there are some beautiful places and that the food is good," he says, summing up his thoughts about Italy, my own homeland. Perhaps that explains why Lahcen's aunt tried to convince me to marry her daughter. The union of Italian pasta and Moroccan tajine might well have borne interesting fruits.
Lina Khoury, 26 - Beirut, Lebanon
"I am always happy,” is how Lina describes herself.
That's hard to believe – unless you've met her. At 26, Lina has already lived at least a couple of lives, while what she does for others has helped to cultivate dozens more. She is almost constantly in motion. In Beirut, a place where living is not always easy, she manages a rehab center, teaches French to children in the Palestinian refugee camps and comes up with art projects for prison inmates. Then, in her free time, she dresses up as a clown and gives shows for the children at the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Chatila. That's where I first met her and where I took her photo, under the amused gaze of one of "her kids," just before she put on her costume.
I don't know where she finds the energy to do it all. In order to find the time, she certainly can't sleep much. Nonetheless, she refuses to give up spending time with her friends from abroad or, for that matter, her couchsurfers. Lina lives in a big house in Old Beirut, in the Ashrafiye neighborhood. Its three bedrooms, large living room, kitchen and bathroom are always full of friends and guests, coming, going or splayed on the living room couches. From there, they can look out of the wide windows and watch neighborhood life unfold, women hanging their laundry out on the rooftops and children chasing cats in the courtyard.
Lina's openness is probably a result of her own life story. When she was 16, her parents – like all Lebanese who can afford to do so – sent her far away from her homeland where, sadly, wars seem to come one on the heels of the other. She was sent to Geneva, Switzerland, to complete her studies. "I felt lonely and out-of-place," she tells me, "too far from the things and the people I love." So it was that she decided to leave school and go to work, later enrolling in a course to become a children's entertainer. Finally, in 2008, she returned home to Lebanon, where she obtained a degree in Educational Sciences, then a master's, and eventually opened her own entertainment business, her goal being to give some happiness to the less fortunate.
"There are two kinds of people," she says, "those who care and those who don't." She dreams of being a government minister one day. If her wish were to come true, she might really bring some hope to her beleaguered country.
Lisa Joy, 33 – Sydney, Australia
The colorful, very high-heeled shoes heaped haphazardly around the bedroom are signs of a personal renaissance. So are the corsets, earrings, swatches of fabric and sewing kit piled on the bed and every other surface in the apartment. Lisa, 33 when I met her, has had a difficult past but her present is radiant.
She grew up in Sydney's poorer suburbs. "We had nothing, but we were happy," she tells me simply. At 23, she married the man she loved. He died just three years later. "He was a special man. We loved each other very much. I still miss him terribly and I don't think it will ever be easy to get over what happened."
Nonetheless, with intelligence and lightheartedness, she is attempting to do so. She started by moving to Newtown, Sydney’s most lively neighborhood, a place full of young people and new chances. This is where she got the idea to try burlesque. She signed up for a class, just for fun, but soon realized she had a true passion for it. Now she performs in a number of clubs around the city, sometimes alone, other times with a few girlfriends. "In the evening, I love to put on a costume and take myself less seriously than I have to when I'm sitting behind my desk at the office," she explains.
I spent four nights on an inflatable mattress stuffed into the kitchen-cum-living room of her three-room home, where the chaos of dresses, jewelry and all the various trappings of her transformation into Miss Burlesque gives a sense of her rediscovered joie de vivre. It is a creative, constructive chaos that has literally helped her to build a new life.
"What makes me proudest is when people tell me that I've inspired them," she told me during the course of our long talks over dinners at Sydney restaurants. After having overcome so much pain, there is only one thing she is afraid of: "Fear itself."
Felipe Andreas Calderon Pascual, 29 – Santiago, Chile
Felipe’s home in Santiago's trendy Lastarria neighborhood is as large as it is sparsely furnished. The living room holds nothing but a red leather sofa, a TV and – for some unknown reason – a supermarket cart. The kitchen's meager contents consist of a little junk food for midnight snacking and a few beer bottles – some empty, some not. The room where Felipe sleeps is just as basic, furnished with a closet, a bed and a mattress, thrown down on the floor next to it when needed. It's for those guests who are too tall to fit on the couch – like me, for instance.
Felipe, who was 29 when I met him, gave an explanation for this austerity that was as straightforward as the contents of his home. "There's nothing to steal in this house because I have no interest in material objects." These days, his life is made up of other things: friends, doing the things he enjoys, love and a rewarding job as sales manager in an Italian fashion house. It was not always like this, however. As a child growing up in Conception, where he was raised by his grandmother, his hyperactivity and his academic successes led him to believe he was better than his peers. "That was a problem when I was a teenager. I felt superior, more intelligent than the others. My friends started avoiding me and I was alone most of the time."
His life took a new turn when he visited New York. "The variety of people that I met there slowly tore down my prejudices and my life began to change." The earthquake that struck Chile in 2010, killing over 500, did the rest. Felipe returned from the United States to help and he ended up staying. He eventually settled in Santiago, in the empty house whose keys he is holding out to me on this warm Chilean autumn morning. He has to leave for work in a moment and he has only known me for about five minutes. In my experience as a couchsurfer, this time sets a new record. Still, there is nothing here steal even if I wanted to. That fact must make it easier to trust a stranger.
Melissa Soro, 27 – Cahuita, Costa Rica
In place of a roof, a sky full of stars. Well, not so much a roof as an enormous window. There is no glass in the upper story of Melissa's large house in Cahuita, a small city on the Caribbean coast. The heat is such that there’s no need for any sort of barrier that would keep the (scant) air that circulates up there from reaching my mattress. The couchsurfers who pass through– and there are always a lot of them, often at the same time – lie down to sleep on their mattresses or in the hammock suspended from the ceiling just as if they were out in the middle of the Central American jungle.
Melissa, 27 years old when I visited, was born and raised in Costa Rica, where she went to school and earned a degree in Sustainable Tourism. Her husband Rick is a biologist from Florida. Every once in a while he travels to Miami and back. When he does, one of his tasks is to replenish the supply of English-language books in the bookshop. Melissa opened it in the tiny downtown of her village by the sea and it has seen a fair amount of success.
The couple also owns a travel agency that organizes tours and excursions to explore the local culture and natural landscapes. "I'm a sociable person with an open mind, without prejudices," Melissa tells me. "I'll host anyone, regardless of their sexual orientation or religion. I don't care if they’re rich or poor, either."
In the big, colorful kitchen on the ground floor of their red house, it's easy to feel truly at home. One day during my stay, I offered to cook a fish dinner with the help of another couchsurfer, Randall, while Melissa took care of the household chores. We labored over the stove while she was busy doing the laundry. It felt a little like being part of a community, each with his own role to play.
Kui Gitonga, 30 – Nairobi, Kenya
Kui and I could have made a game of who'd seen the most countries lately. Surprisingly, despite the fact I'd been traveling around the world for months, she probably would have won. Kui is 30 years old, single, atypical and happy. A flight attendant for a large African airline, she spends much of her time flying from one part of the planet to another. So much, in fact, that for the six days I spent in her home – a large, modern apartment near the airport (of course) – I was alone. She was working the Bangkok route and so, without standing on ceremony, she left me the keys.
This sort of nonchalance is not common among Kenyan women of her age but an ongoing journey of self-awareness has made Kui who she is today. In 2004, she left her husband-to-be just two weeks before the wedding and she’s never looked back. "Society here wants to push you to take the traditional steps: school, marriage, children by age 30. I'm lucky, because thanks to my job as a flight attendant, I've been exposed to the world outside of Kenya. I was attracted by it and now I'm happy."
It's no accident that almost all of her friends are foreigners living in Nairobi for work. I met them on the evening of the day when I arrived in the city. Kui came to pick me up. First she took me to a little restaurant for dinner and then to meet her friends for drinks. The fact that she barely knew me didn't concern her in the least. I saw her friends often over the following days and even spent a couple evenings with them, dancing in nightclubs until the wee hours.
Kui offered me her guest room and the use of, among other things, her DVDs. She's quite proud of her collection, which has a place of honor in her big living room next to the flat-screen TV, quite the rarity in these parts.
Kui is one of those couchsurfers whom I've been able to host in turn. A couple of years ago, one of her flights had a stopover in Rome and I invited her to come and visit me in Tuscany. The two days we spent in the country there nowhere near as cosmopolitan as my stay in Nairobi.
Psam, 24 – Stone Town, Zanzibar, Tanzania
His real name is a secret and Psam won't tell it to me. It reminds him of his past, which is a very painful one. The past happened before he came to live in this colonial building in Stone Town. It was probably beautiful once, but today it has a decadent air. Psam moved here six years before we met. He was 18 at the time and, four years before that, he had lost "the only important person in his life,” as he calls her – his mother.
She died of a stomach ache, following Psam's father, who died when Psam and his six siblings (five boys and a girl) were little.
The name he has adopted for the second part of his life is the acronym of his mother's name: Pili Suleiman Abdallah Mulombo. It is one way he has of keeping her with him. The apartment where Psam lives has two rooms and a bathroom. There are no photographs on his walls, though he jealously preserves one of his mother. It may be the only thing not piled haphazardly on his bed or lost amongst the jumble of clothes, Playstation wires and other objects strewn throughout the apartment's three rooms (which include a bathroom).
It was his aunt who gave him this place to live, when she left to work as a housekeeper in Dubai. Psam makes his living as a guide for the many tourists who come to Zanzibar. It was thanks to one of them that he discovered couchsurfing and began hosting foreigners in his living room, on a mattress incongruously covered with a Tom and Jerry bedspread.
Lying on that mattress one night, I chanced to hear the unmistakable sounds of two people making love. I confess, I listened. They were right in the building's open courtyard, not far from where I lay. Suddenly, the woman cried out in pleasure and, to my surprise, she spoke in Italian. Before I could stop myself, I burst out laughing. Psam never heard a thing. He was sleeping peacefully amidst the clutter in the other room and I never told him about my fit of midnight laughter.
Ryan and Fiona Dhana, 39 and 41 and their 3 children - Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
A private entrance and a room with a bathroom just for me – my arrival at the home of Ray, Fiona and their three very happy children began with that delightful surprise. It was a truly pleasant place to stay.
Not only is their house just a short walk from the magnificent Victoria Falls, it is also large and pleasant, with a lovely garden, a multitude of plants and two guard dogs (well, actually, just one – the smaller of the two is more friendly than fierce).
Ryan and Flora work in the tourism industry. They both come from Harare, originally, and their blood is a mixture of Scotch-Indian and Irish. Their reason for moving near the falls is, "it's the place where you can make the most money from tourism." Ryan is the real businessman. He left Zimbabwe at age 20 to work in finance in London, but moved back suddenly a few years later. Why? He had fallen in love with Fiona, the sister of the bride at his own brother's wedding. Their marriage was the second knot tying their families together. Theirs, however, was the only one of the two marriages to last.
Ryan and Fiona had their three children over a short span of time: Jordan, Ethyn and Amani, 15, 13 and 8 years old, respectively. The three attend a boarding school two hours from their home. It's therefore rare to find the whole family gathered around the table or, for that matter, the children underfoot in the kitchen. When it does happen, it's always a party. I was lucky to be present for one such occasion during the school holidays, so I was able to see for myself.
When I asked Ryan about his strengths, his answer was, "I'm sociable.” That I felt so at home is proof of his social skills.
Skylar Tinaya, 28 - Samut Prakan, Thailand
Skylar's sweet face with its rounded curves once belonged to Alfie – in other words, to the man Skylar was before taking on the appearance of a woman. She told me that herself, just as soon as we had broken the ice after my arrival in Samut Prakan, a little town near the Thai coast about 12 miles south of Bangkok.
Hers is a story of pain and redemption. Skylar is originally from the Philippines. Her father died young and when her mother moved to Dubai to look for work, she was left behind to be raised by her grandmother and an uncle. Back then, she was still Alfie, a boy her grandmother never bothered to care for. Worse by far, Alfie was sexually abused by his uncle from the time he was 11.
Perhaps it was to overcome that trauma that Alfie gradually became Skylar. It was to have his first operation that he first came to Thailand. Although she initially rejected the transformation, Alfie's mother eventually accepted her child's true nature and even paid for Skylar’s breast surgery.
Skylar now has an American boyfriend with whom she's built a serious relationship. The life she lives is untroubled, thanks in part to the financial help he provides.
Her home is a small apartment high in a skyscraper. Looking out of the windows, as Skylar often does during her long phone conversations with her boyfriend, she sees a vista of tall buildings and the crowd milling around the entrance to a shopping mall far below. Skylar's room is full of the trappings of womanhood: dresses draped over the furniture, bottles of perfume, necklaces, make-up and even a golden mask. The rest of the apartment consists of a kitchen and a cozy living room with a parquet floor, home to the black leather couch where I slept and a television and DVD player for lazy evenings in.
From outside, Skylar's life seems quite ordinary, and it will be even more normal once she's had her final breast operation. "You can add things to your body, but you can't take away what God has lent you," was her answer when I asked her whether her transformation into Skylar was 100% complete. In other words, what God lent Alfie at birth is still a part of the woman called Skylar.
Alex the Great, The Band – London, U.K.
(Steven Voges, 21, Hamid Mashali, 24 , and Juan Johansson, 23)
Cigarette butts overflow the ashtrays. The coffee cups are always half full. Wires hang from walls, shelves or else lie where they've fallen. There's a skateboard, some beer cans and a mountain of dirty dishes. There's a computer (or maybe more than one) and, of course, the instruments: guitars, drums and microphones and amp. Oh, and the poster: Johnny Cash, their "patron saint," as the three musicians jump to explain, perpetually flipping the room the bird. This place is their hideout, their lair, and somehow I ended up in it. It is the recording studio and home of Alex the Great, an indie band made up of three musicians who, between them, probably combine every ethnicity in the world in one room. Steven was born in Hong Kong but has since lived in Holland, Coraçao, Washington, Madrid and London. Hamid was born a Columbian, but he studied in Spain before moving to London. Juan is half Brazilian and half Swedish, but he's lived practically everywhere, from Sweden to Australia, by way of Poland, Japan, Spain and now, finally, London.
The three met in Madrid and then reunited in England, joining forces to make music and improvise jam sessions with whatever couchsurfers come to stay in this home-cum-recording studio that occupies two floors in east London. I spent one musical afternoon with them, trying my hand as a drummer and later sitting on the couch listening to them play – the same couch on which I'd later fall into a deep sleep, perhaps with the help of Johnny Cash, that patron saint of rock 'n' roll dreams.
Steven, Hamid and Juan have now recorded their first album. These days they travel around London and the length of England playing their music. "The world is divided into leaders and followers," Hamid tells me, explaining his philosophy of life. Needless to say, Alex the Great hopes to lead the music scene one day.
Edmund Radmacher, 45 and Andrea Dung, 43. Asperschlag, Germany
Edmund and Andrea's story is divided into two acts.
Act 1: They meet in a nightclub in Cologne in 1985. They start seeing each other, then Edmund disappears for twelve years. He spends those years traveling around the world, from Canada to Italy, from Singapore to Botswana.
Act 2: Edmund and Andrea live in a sort of castle in the countryside outside of Cologne, an immense estate surrounded by a moat and a river. It can be reached only by crossing a bridge and, once across, you lose yourself in a maze of rooms, stables and restoration projects.
Obviously, quite a lot happened in between.
In 1997, having returned to Cologne after a dozen years of intense wandering, Edmund stopped by to see Andrea. Incredibly, the spark was still there. Indeed, it was so strong that they got back together and pulled up stakes, this time as a couple. They headed to Botswana armed with a business plan that would eventually end up failing. Unwilling to accept defeat, Edmund and Andrea traveled through Africa for an entire year before deciding to return to Germany, put down roots and have a child, their daughter Emmi.
Edmund is an agronomist and Andrea is a landscape architect. Until recently, they worked together in a design studio in Frankfurt. Now Andrea is the only one still there, since Edmund devotes all his energy to the immense property they’ve bought, which he's restoring on his own, with only two laborers to help him. Work is moving slowly. When I visited, only one of the castle's three wings was habitable. That wing is, understandably, immersed in a feverish and creative chaos. The furnishings are simple, made entirely of wood and almost all built by their owners. Firewood is stacked against the walls, Andrea's drawings and designs lie scattered here and there and a small television and some mattresses are at the disposal of visiting couchsurfers.
Edmund and Andrea are friendly, unconventional and funny. One day, Edmund took me to meet their neighbor, describing it as an experience not to be missed. I can't blame him for saying so. The Fakir, as they call him, lives in another castle and is famous for the S&M parties he throws every two weeks, with guests arriving from as far away as Holland. Looking down at the leather chairs and benches arranged around the room beneath the glass floor, I was almost sorry I wouldn’t be there for the next one.
Tuna Güngör, 22 – Istanbul, Turkey
On the morning I rang her doorbell in Istanbul, Tuna answered with half-closed eyes, mumbling that she'd just gone to bed and needed a few more hours' sleep. She disappeared into her room, leaving me in the sitting room in the company of the cat and some ashtrays in need of emptying, then reappeared at five in the afternoon.
That first meeting was emblematic of the type of person she is: straightforward, direct and so busy that she has to take her sleep where she can get it. Tuna is the daughter of a political activists and busy worker woman. Her father was a director of the communist party, an illegal thing to be at the time. Her parents were not in Turkey when Tuna's mother was pregnant. They actually met abroad for the first time. In that period his father moved first to Russia, then Germany, and finally to Austria, where Tuna was born, in Vienna. She spent only few moths in Austria, but since then, she always went to Austria to spend few months of vacation every year. These experiences influenced her development, played a part in forming her attitude, which is more laid-back than that of most Turkish girls. "Maybe it's because of my eccentric family. I don’t feel 100% Turkish and the way I've chosen to live my life has nothing in common with my girlfriends’ choices."
The numerous couchsurfers she hosts in the untidy apartment she inherited from her grandmother on Istanbul’s Asian side are an example of one such uncommon choice. Tuna has lived alone since she came here to study art and photography at the age of 18. She has two rooms plus the sitting room, floors in a warm parquet and a tiny kitchen where she boils up generous pots of coffee for herself and her foreign guests, whom Tuna loves to show around. One day she promised to show me the best view in Istanbul. “I bring all my couchsurfers to a special place” she told me. I followed her into the center, up and down flights of steps outsiders never see, staircases leading up to the dome-shaped, terracotta roofs that surmount the city. I thought she had been exaggerating, but when she rang her friends' doorbell and took me up onto their roof, I saw she hadn’t. I had to take this photo.
Vanessa Peters, 32 – Dallas, Texas
Vanessa and I were surfing couches together long before I ended up on the one in the foyer of her house in Dallas. She and I were couchsurfing buddies for a long time, traveling the length and breadth of the Southern and Midwestern United States.
Vanessa's a singer and, for a couple of years, I was a member of her band, Vanessa Peters and the Ice Creams on Mondays. With the exception of Vanessa herself, everyone in the group was Italian.
Our friendship began in 2001, when she came to Tuscany at the age of 19 as part of a University of Texas exchange program. That's when she fell in love with Italy and its coffee. For years she divided her life between the States and Tuscany. In fact, she still rents a home in Lucca. When we toured the US, we often depended on the hospitality of couchsurfers. Sometimes the whole band slept in one house and, to repay our hosts, we would improvise concerts that always ended up turning into very long parties.
Nowadays, Vanessa gives back by offering travelers her couch in Dallas. When I knocked on her door during my trip around the world, she was in the process of recording a new album with her husband, who's also a musician. They've built a small recording studio in their home in Dallas (and in the one in Lucca). They develop their albums here before recording them in a professional studio. I hung out with them for a while, doing some strumming of my own while they worked. It was there in her recording studio – her natural habitat – that I decided to take her photo.
There's a 1960s Fiat 500 in Vanessa's garage, identical to the one she had in Italy. She just had to buy one in Texas, too. It was fun driving around the gigantic Dallas highways with her, in her tiny little car, though sometimes I wondered if we were about to be crushed by some enormous SUV. She says her best quality is that she's "a pretty reliable friend." I'll testify to that.
Wako Wondimu, 32 – Addis Abeba, Ethiopia
A life in a room. Roughly one-hundred square feet to cook, eat, sleep, iron, watch television, connect to the world via Internet and store memories of far off places – but not wash, that you do outside. The little bathroom on the landing, whose sanitary conditions are best left unmentioned, is shared by all the inhabitants of the building's four micro-apartments.
The room in question belongs to Wako, a tour guide for a German agency in Addis Abeba. In his home there is no room for a sofa or a spare bed – his possessions barely fit, as it is – so when couchsurfers come, he lends them his bed. During my stay, he slept on the floor, on a mattress sandwiched next to it. I was moved by his hospitality.
For Wako, the lack of space isn't a problem. His room might be small, but he really does have everything he needs. He can surf the Internet using an iMac so old it's almost an objet d'art. With it, he accesses German radio and polishes his language skills. He's very proud of knowing how to speak German as well as English. A map of Germany hangs on his closet, along with a German flag and a poster of the country's national soccer team. In his spare time, Wako plays the guitar that leans against the closet by the television. He loves music and collects CDs, which are stacked on top of the stereo, which, in turn, sits on the same little table that holds the pots and pans for cooking in the kitchenette stuffed into the corner. Vying for space with the rest are notebooks, packages of cookies and everything else that has to sit somewhere, after all.
"I dream of doing something important for humanity," he tells me with a broad smile. The secret of his happiness is "feeling like I'm useful to someone." It's not an accident that his greatest satisfaction is when tourists come back to him a second time or recommend him to their friends. Wako is certainly to be recommended, to tourists and couchsurfers alike. Hospitality is guaranteed.
William Kirtadze, 24 – Tbilisi, Georgia
When I arrived in Tbilisi, William was waiting for me outside of the airport, just as we had agreed. I found him sitting on the hood of his car, a slightly dated but sporty Mazda that he had spray-painted himself, outside and in. The exterior is a decidedly aggressive combination of black and red, but inside it's all green. A car stereo that looks more like a spaceship pumps out high-volume rock music.
Lying quietly on the back seat next to an electric guitar was Chuky, William’s big white Labrador and the most normal thing I'd seen so far.
I'll confess, my first impression of my Georgian friend wasn't a great one, but it didn't take me long to change my opinion. Beneath his “rough" exterior, I discovered a person I had not expected to find.
William was born in Germany, to Georgian parents, and has lived in Tbilisi since 2006. He shares a spartan apartment in a giant concrete building just outside the city center with his best friend and Chuky the dog. To tell the truth, Chuky and I spent some real quality time together, seeing as we shared the sofa-bed every night of my stay. I would fall asleep alone but, in the middle of the night, I'd wake to find him next to me. In the beginning, I tried to persuade him to get down but my efforts were in vain, so eventually I resigned myself. The couch where I slept was in their living room. The largest space in the apartment, it was also equipped with a large television, weights for bodybuilding and a Playstation that was always turned on – a sort of man cave. William is actually a very busy guy. He has a degree in marketing and works for an Israeli pharmaceutical company. In his spare time, he's studying to get a second degree. "I'm proud of the fact that I'm successful, even though I'm still young," he tells me. Perhaps we should credit his philosophy. "There are two kinds of people," he tells me, "those who are slaves of what they believe and those who are free."