Couchers.org talks to Mindy, a graphic design and blog-writing volunteer based in Los Angeles, about how couch surfing changed her life, her novel, and the Couchers.org “rebellion.”
Mindy: I got stranded in France last year during the pandemic, and at one point over the summer I was checking to see what was up with Couchsurfing™ post-paywall. I’ve met some awesome people and had some amazing experiences using the Hangouts feature while solo traveling, but this time it was a desert, no traveler-types or real couch surfers. Instead, I immediately got barraged by requests and messages from like a dozen thirsty local dudes. You know the type. It was dead.
So I went over to Reddit, which I hadn’t done for a while, saw that someone had mentioned Couchers.org on a Reddit post, and Googled it. As soon as I saw the slogan on the homepage, “Like Couchsurfing™, but better,” I was like,”okay, this is what I’ve been looking for.” All the essays that you guys had written, all the content and articles about the problems with Couchsurfing™ and ways it could be improved, the fundamental flaw in having a for-profit hospitality exchange—everything rang so true to me. It was clear there were intelligent, thoughtful, passionate people on the other side of those essays, and at that point, I knew I wanted to help in any way possible.
I loved Couchsurfing™—it changed my life, and it’s so important to me that its essential spirit doesn’t get lost in the corporate takeover. Before I quit my job two and a half years ago and started traveling around the world, I was hosting so many couch surfers in my LA apartment. At first, I figured I’d be putting out good karma and picking up a few references, but the couch surfers who stayed with me gave me so much. I realized that hosting can be just as or even more rewarding than couch surfing! Through my couch surfers, it was like I was getting to travel in my own hometown, giving recommendations, showing them around, seeing my city fresh through their eyes. I was getting re-energized about Los Angeles, a place I had been living in for going on a decade. And I’m still friends with strangers I hosted in my living room—how crazy is that? It’s a radical exercise in trust and belief that people are good. The good people are great, and it was a game changer.
Mindy: I had traveled solo before that, and I was comfortable talking to strangers. I knew how fun and easy it was to make friends, especially when you’re traveling alone in other parts of the world—and if you meet someone else traveling that way, you feel like “Boom! We have a ton in common already.” But inviting them into my home and showing them around taught me that you don’t have to be traveling to meet excellent people this way. It sounds cliche, but they really are friends you haven’t met.
Mindy: I’m an architect. I’ve lived in Los Angeles for five years through university and have been working professionally for another five—but what I’ve always wanted to do is write a novel. Architecture was getting in the way of writing, so one day I made a judgement call not to wake up 40 years from now and not have done the one thing that I always said was most important to me.
I also wanted to travel and see the world, so I said, “You know what? I’m going to create my own independent study-writers program and just go.” It took a huge leap of faith—it felt like I was throwing myself off a cliff with wings I hadn’t yet tested—but it worked. I haven’t looked back. In traveling, I learned so much about the power of meeting people and seeing places around the world. It changes the way you think. I read the news, and everything is personal to me now: an earthquake in Mexico, a typhoon in Southeast Asia… I’ve been in those places and I’ve met people there, and I care. Facilitating that empathy through travel is not only important, but fun.
Mindy: I’m still working on it, it’s now in the final stages of revision before I start sending it to agents. I’ve been supporting my travels by teaching English online to kids in China, which is how I knew about the pandemic way back in January 2020 before the rest of the world caught on. This global interconnectedness has been a big theme in my life lately.
Mindy: Well, for an architecture degree you spend five years doing graphic design, so I knew I could help out in that respect. Being able to edit, iterate, and all the other things you do for a building—it’s fundamentally the same design process as in so many creative fields. Novel-writing too! So I wanted to help out with graphic design, but I also wanted to get involved with the blog. It’s a little intimidating because it’s a kind of writing I haven’t explored yet—putting your thoughts online for everyone to read—but hey, I’m helping Couchers.org grow, and Couchers.org is helping me grow!
Mindy: It absolutely is a rebellion. I realize that this may sound a bit polemical, but the effect of corporations pushing for profit-at-any-cost on society is playing out in so many different ways— and I believe Couchsurfing™ is just a microcosm of that. I’ve noticed this trajectory with companies, especially online start-ups, that they start off like cute little piglets—super approachable, responsive, user-friendly, great incentives—but at some point the investors,monetization, and profit margins come into play, and suddenly instead of a cute little piglet you’ve got a honking-ugly mother hog. Everything turns away from people and into profit. It’s playing out with Couchsurfing™ right now.
What’s so amazing about Couchers.org is this group of people who are saying, “This is more important than money. We are throwing our talents at this problem and breaking away from the thing that has commodified our couches to make a profit off our freely given hospitality, and rebuilding it for ourselves and our community instead. We need to keep the money out of it.” Our goal is somewhat at odds with capitalism itself, and I really feel like it qualifies as a rebellion. I don’t want to stretch too far—but this could become a case study for people taking back something that they had before it was monetized.
Mindy: When we first started, there were a few potential logos under consideration, but the “Happy Couch” idea really jumped out at me. When I looked at the other logos and home pages of other sites like Couchsurfing™, Trustroots, and BeWelcome, it struck me that all of these sites are about connecting people—and yet none of them really had any characters or faces in their marketing or websites, or their marketing material. The Happy Couch logo really did that for me—it signified that we are putting the “people” back into couch surfing. I really pushed for that concept, I wanted to see it through. I did a bunch of doodles iterating on it, and was excited to see other graphic design volunteers running with it and developing it, too—being part of that team effort was so fun and rewarding. Now we have a super-cool happy couch logo, with the idea to further develop the Happy Couch into a kind of mascot-character for Couchers.org. I think that’s something we can all be proud of.
Mindy: I want to make it easy and achievable for people to travel to another country—especially when they’re traveling solo—and to understand there’s a network of future friends there to welcome you, wanting to share their culture and learn about yours. People are fundamentally the same everywhere: we want friendship and community. Connecting those people is the dream. And I’ve also found there’s an evolution to traveling: when you first arrive in a place, maybe you’re more concerned with sightseeing or taking pictures—surface-level tourist things—but inevitably you want to go deeper, to meet people, to really understand the place you’re in. And what you come to remember most about the places you travel, are the people you meet. You become a part of this worldwide cultural exchange—and when you return home and host your own travelers, that circle is complete.
Written by Emily. Published on 2021/06/04.
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