Liz and I sifted through the local Chinese produce trying to find the perfect gift for our soon-to-be host. It wasn't long before we were fondling a pomelo, which appeared to be a very large grapefruit.
"This would make for a funny thank-you," I reasoned, ready to make the purchase.
"I think that depends on his personality," Liz retorted. "Remember, we haven't met him yet."
The decision was awkward if not nuanced: how do you choose what to bring to the house of a person you've encountered on the internet but never met, whose home you will sleep in for approximately the next three nights?
Ultimately, we settled on a bottle of wine. We figured that, regardless of the country, alcohol was sure to be a success.
Mere hours later, we found ourselves on Johan's couch telling the story of how we almost showed up at his door with a massive grapefruit. Our first meeting was going exceptionally well; this did not seem like the kind of host who would soon become an unwanted bedfellow, and he turned out to be as genuine and wonderful as he seemed that first night.
We were in Beijing when Liz first suggested that we explore Couchsurfing.com. The site (which we accessed on our iPods while traveling) would allow us to connect with locals and, if we agreed mutually, to stay with them in their native cities. The ensuing experience could range from having a piece of floor to crash on to acquiring a loving companion and tour guide in a new place. Liz had close friends who had experienced the latter and now swore by Couchsurfing. Hosts are reviewed by previous guests on the site so as to create transparency. And there is no money involved on either end, which would suggest that there would be no ulterior motives.
Johan, a Swedish transplant in Shanghai, was our first go. After a series of friendly messages, we agreed to meet in a cafe near Johan's place. Ostensibly, each party would feel the other out and decide if it would be a good idea to continue the meeting, sleeping arrangements included.
It wasn't long before we felt reasonably comfortable with the situation: as Johann stirred his coffee nervously and stumbled through Chinese, it became clear that his motives of wanting to interact with new people from different countries were honorable.
Over the next few days, Johan took us to everything from a family-style Chinese meal to German mulled-wine markets. Together we hopped from craft-beer bars to Mexican dives. As a resident in China with Chinese peers, he knew where to get the best of the "locale" (to date, Shanghai's crepe-like Jian Bing is the best breakfast I've had, ever). As a European, he knew that we missed commodities like butter, beer, and bread, and he lead us to them with a briskness that we well respected.
|Jian Bing on the streets of Shanghai|
As we laughed our way through eateries and, later, sang Peking opera from our bedrooms (Liz and I shared a bedroom that was entirely separate from Johan's), it became clear that this was as good as the Couchsurfing experience could possibly get.
Of course, Johan was a hard find. We sifted through plenty of messages from hosts who wanted to share beds with us or who had too-rigid rules for staying with them.
No doubt, Couchsurfing has plenty of horror stories, as do many internet-initiated meetings. But, if the technology to connect with potential savvy hosts in new cities is available to us, not using it out of fear seems foolish. Liz and I tried to stay alert throughout the stay, and we were ready to leave the situation at the first flavor of something unsavory. As it was, we lucked out.
After Johan, it was hard to find another host who was as wholesome and friendly. For the most part, we sifted a lot, and then, right before departing Shanghai, we ended up back in Johan's spare bedroom, one last time.
As we aproached our second and final stay with Johan, there was no debating in the produce shop. We marched in and purchased the pomelo.