The pretty ponytailed blond plucked me out of travel purgatory and offered me a place to crash during my one-night layover in Rome. Milena smiled in her photo, as if caught mid-laugh, raising her wine glass in a toast.
I found her on Couchsurfing.org, an Internet community recommended by a friend for travelers and hosts to exchange camaraderie and couches free of charge. Milena's profile skimmed the basics: She had not posted a description of herself, or written anything in the category "One amazing thing I've seen or done." She had no references. But I needed a place, and she was giving it to me. I was in no position to expect much. Based on her photo, she seemed like a kindred spirit, a young traveler who spoke English. I figured I might even walk away with a new international friend, someone who could potentially accompany me on future travels. Plus I didn't want to pay twenty-five Euros to stay in a hostel for a couple hours, especially since my tour of southern Italy would depart at six a.m. the next morning.
Milena instructed me in an email to ride a train from Florence to the Cornelia stop. I caught the last train. A man sitting nearby drew me a picture of a penis going into a vagina, then looked at me expectantly. Welcome to Italy, I thought. The Cornelia stop ended up farther from the Vatican than Milena had led on.
I had been disheartened when Milena emailed two days before I was supposed to show up to tell me she had an unexpected out-of-town emergency. She told me she'd handed hosting duties over to Raul, her roommate. Despite my disappointment, I still felt thankful that she had gone out of her way to help me out.
When I got off at the wrong stop, I had to walk a couple blocks back to where I agreed to meet him. My travel-sized rolling luggage bounced off the sidewalk every couple steps. I was relieved that I would soon get some rest, even if the company had changed. Twenty minutes later, a twenty-three-year-old guy showed up on a moped. He wore a long-sleeve tee that framed his muscular arms but did little to hide his protruding belly. He had small eyes, and a slightly hooked nose. He introduced himself as Raul, and seemed friendly enough.
But I began to worry. I was about to sleep in the same house with a man who was a complete stranger. Maybe this was a really bad idea.
"Hold on to my waist," he said.
I climbed onto the moped and grabbed his shoulders instead.
I had only seen the tourist-y side of Rome. These were the dingy streets of its outskirts.
"I'm sorry you had to pick me up so late."
"Don't worry, I was awake," he answered.
"I should also thank Milena when I get back."
He nodded silently.
"Milena said you are a tour guide?"
"I used to be, but the economy is not so good, so now I am a janitor at the Pantheon."
Sometime during the ride, he moved my hands down to his waist.
When we arrived, I realized Milena's house wasn't really a house but instead a tiny attached apartment cluttered with piles of clothes and magazines. The restroom had a dirty body-length mirror in the shower and a flimsy folding door that didn't close all the way. Boxes were stacked on top of each other. A single king-sized bed took up the rest of the space. The room showed no signs that another person had ever lived there. Even more disturbing, for the home of a couchsurfing host, there was no couch.
I asked where I would sleep, even though I knew what he was going to say.
"There's plenty of room on the bed."
"I'd rather sleep on the floor."
"There's no room on the floor," Raul replied. "It's a big bed."
That's when panic set in. I didn't want to run away and venture out into these dingy outskirts alone in the middle of the night. I should have realized that risking my life wasn't worth saving twenty-five euros. I should have considered the risks of staying with someone I didn't know. I should have handled the situation better, but now, I felt stuck. I didn't know how to leave—so I stayed.
I just have to stay alive for four hours, I thought. Just four hours.
* * *
It was the summer after my third year of college when I signed up to study abroad in England. The location itself wasn't as exotic as I had hoped, but the school was thirty minutes from an airport, which meant easy jet-setting to different European countries every weekend. I had my heart set on Rome. I logged hours in front of my computer scouring sites for discount anything. Every pound mattered.
The prospect of free housing intrigued me, but the ideology of couch surfing is what hooked me: "A world where everyone can explore and create meaningful connections with the people and places they encounter." As I navigated the site, I fell more and more in love with this adventurous idea of experiencing culture through someone who lives it. I might only be in Europe once in my life, and I was tired of being a tourist.
Since it went public in 2004, the Couchsurfing.org community has ballooned to seven million members in 100,000 cities. In 2012, 10.4 million couches were surfed. It all started from one chain email sent by Casey Felton, the site's founder, to 1,500 students on his trip to Iceland asking for a place to stay. He received more than fifty offers, inspiring him to start a more streamlined, accessible avenue for old-fashioned hospitality.
Couchsurfing is an element of the sharing economy, in which owners rent out something they aren't using, such as a spare room or a car, to a stranger and use a review system to garner trust on both sides. I was initially put off by the Couchsurfing.org's unsophisticated graphics (which have since been updated), but the more I clicked through the site, the more overwhelmed I was by positive reviews. Each page was flooded with member testimonials all preaching couchsurfing love.
"El Nino" from the U.S. wrote: Everywhere in the world, I suspected that there were good people separated by mountains, seas, religions, cultures, languages, but united by love. Now I know where to find them.
Sure, there were blunt testimonials, like this one from Nikola Ognjanovic, who wrote: "I fucked on first surfing!" But the numbers convinced me: 2,551,866 users, 2,951,073 friendships created, and 4,072,138 positive experiences. (There are seven million members as of May 2014.)
Everyone has their own style of couchsurfing, but according to Tom "Chino" Nguyen, active member since 2009, accommodation requests should usually be sent a week to two in advance, and each should be individualized to the host. He's been surfing for the past couple of years and evangelizes the couchsurfing message to anyone and everyone: how can u disparage, hate or attack another country if u had a close friend in each?
He has a point. If you don't have the money to travel the world, why not bring the world to you? Like Tom writes on his profile, the more open your mind, the more u see, the more open ur heart, the more u feel, the more people u embrace, the smaller the world becomes.
Still, everyone has to be wary of who they open their hearts to.
In 2009, a twenty-nine-year-old Hong Kong traveler who used Couchsurfing.com claimed to have been raped by her host, who "allegedly subjected the woman…to a degrading and humiliating sex ordeal." She says Abdelali Nachet, thirty-four, asked her to slow dance with him, then pushed her onto a bed after she declined. He allegedly sexually assaulted her twice and she claimed that he later forced her to take a bath in order to remove incriminating evidence. He was found guilty of two counts of rape and one count of sexual assault and is serving a ten-year sentence.
I did not know this story when I ventured into my couchsurfing experience. But when I recently contacted Jennifer Billock, CEO of Couchsurfing International, she had this to say about the rape case: "Our hearts go out to members who are harmed by other members." She said travelers should "take their own safety and comfort seriously and that they take proactive measures to stay safe."
Others have also come forward to complain about couchsurfing assaults. In 2010, Melissa Ulto claimed she was forced to endure her host's attempts to grope and kiss her before leaving to find a hotel. In response, she started an online Change.org petition to demand Couchsurfing.org "end complicity in the sexual assault of its users."
According to the site's safety tips, references are the best protection against possible predators. Before "couching" with someone, the company suggests looking at references, making sure they have many different friends with full profiles so you know the same person didn't make the references. Some members can donate forty dollars to become "verified," a process that proves you live at the location in which you claim to live. Some can also be "vouched" for, which is the highest form of couchsurfing trust. The vouching system started with a core group of trusted members, risking their own reputations to vouch for a person they trust. But these checks are only as good as the person making those judgment calls.
"Above all else, trust your gut," said Billock. "If something seems off, or concerns you, or gives you reason to believe you might not be compatible with another member in question, move on."
Billock encourages members to "get to know each other online before meeting in person." She says: "We suggest members consider meeting first in a public place if that feels safer or more comfortable to them."
* * *
It was two a.m. Raul invited me to watch a movie in the room with him.
I had given in to his pressure to sleep in the bed. I could only think as far as a couple minutes ahead, and I thought if I say something right now, the assault may start right now. I could have left, but he could easily have followed. I could have run and screamed, but the streets were completely empty, and I was afraid nobody would hear. I was paralyzed, with no good options. My instinct now was to keep anything from happening to me.
He climbed in beside me, completely unaware of how still I was. I declined the movie, turning my back to the glaring Western playing on the flat screen on the wall at the foot of the bed. He turned down the volume, so I could sleep.
As I lay on a strange bed, too aware of the narrow gap between me and a man I had met an hour earlier. Every muscle in my body clenched. I kept my back to him hoping he'd get the message: I was not interested in any extracurricular activities.
The still silence made his every slight move feel like a threat.
What is he doing? Is he moving closer? What do I do if he tries to get on top of me? Do I scratch him so at least I get some skin cells under my fingernails for CSI to find? Do I remember the self-defense moves from that women's health magazine my mom made me read? Will I even know how to use them? Will it even matter? He's big. My mom. She'll be crushed…
It was hard to track his geography on the bed with my back turned to him, but I could feel that his tossing and turning had direction. Throughout the course of the night, he was slowly bridging the gap.
I checked the time. 2:46.
My body was tired from lying so still. Why did I trust Milena? Her emails were riddled with grammatical errors, and the profile picture I put all my trust in could have been taken from any Google search for "woman."
"Milena" wasn't a woman. "Milena" was lying next to me on this bed.
Milena's complete lack of references or testimonials for or against her hospitality on her page should have been my first red flag when she accepted my request. I was twenty. Looking back four years later, I kick myself over how naïve I was.
At around four a.m., I felt his warm body too close to mine. I jumped off the bed and walked to the restroom. I caught a glance of him raising his head, watching me go. Crouching in that restroom, realizing I had just dashed from an almost-maybe-not-too-sure-it-was-anything attempted sexual assault, I realized I should leave.
But I didn't. Still paralyzed by fear, I breathed slowly for one long minute before lying back down on the bed, face up. He hadn't done anything so far. This could also just be a horrible misunderstanding. There were definite sexual undertones to his choices, but he had not asked me for sex, hadn't touched me inappropriately, hadn't really done anything at all except be "hospitable." If rolling over was his move, I made it obvious I was not interested and he would have done something by now if he wanted it anyway.
But he didn't. He had already rolled back to his side of the bed.
So I decided to ride it out.
Just a couple more hours.
* * *
Some go searching for this kind of experience. Like Nikola Ognjanovic, who "fucked on first surfing," there is a community of people who use couchsurfing to find like-minded people to hook up with. Many of these hosts and surfers (the majority of whom are men) share anonymous hook up stories on Couchbangs.org, "Because Couch Surfing isn't just for Couch Surfing."
One man from Istanbul shares:
"Logged into Istanbul's CS message board to see a newly arrived French girl asking if anyone wants to hang out, grab a drink, etc. Already, a bunch of guys responded. So I decide to take a different approach. I send her a witty private message telling her that I love French culture. I also told her that I lived in France (a lie) and also put in some French words such as "Salut", "Adieu", etc. We fucked four times and then once in the morning. Thank you couchsurfing."
While demand seems to come from both sides, this hook-up culture makes it easy to blur the line between consent and submission.
"Couchsurfing is not a dating site," Billock says. She points to the friendships, travel companions and married couples who have met through the site, sharing an interest in travel. "It is a site that facilitates human connection across global boundaries for the purpose of shared travel experience and cultural exchange."
Jasslyn Luong, frequent couchsurfer/host and event organizer from Orange County, California, warns, "Everywhere you go, you can always be vulnerable in situations like this. There's no good-looking or bad-looking predator. They look like us, you just don't know who it is." It is all about the experience you are looking for, he says, and "the majority of the time it does good and opens up your world to new friendship."
If Couchsurfing.org detects that you've signed in through a new IP address, the portal shows your profile under the "Nearby Traveler" section and people traveling in the area can message you to hang out. Much of the time, women get a lot more introductions than men. I got introductions from many people—all men—asking if I wanted to hang out while in Italy. Most had references and could just be overtly friendly couchsurfers looking to show a clueless foreigner around. In the end, I had the option of choosing who I saw in real life.
* * *
It was five a.m. and I thought Raul might be asleep. The bed was wide enough that his hemisphere wouldn't be disturbed when I shook mine, so I got up and managed to gather my travel bag together. I would sneak out as quietly as possible.
Or at least I tried to. My luggage wouldn't stay upright and the lock on the door needed finessing. I ended up banging my body against the door.
Raul woke up.
"What time is it?" he asked groggily.
"Around-five-I'm-sorry-I-woke-you-up-I-didn't-want-to-wake-you-up-since-it's-so early-you-can-go-back-to-sleep-thanks-for-letting-me-stay-I-really-appreciate-it," I replied breathlessly.
"I have to open the gate for you," he said.
I was so relieved this didn't turn out to be what I thought it could be, that I initiated an awkward hug. On the way out, he invited me to a party later that night, completely forgetting why I stayed with him in the first place.
"Sure, just text me."
Walking down the cracked pavement on Via Aurelia, I wondered, what just happened? I blamed myself for being naïve and wondered if anyone else had been this stupid and complicit. I was confused with both the situation and how I reacted to it. Why had I been so polite? I convinced myself that if I had acted rashly and negatively toward him, it may have set him off. Besides, like the Greco-Roman tradition of hospitium, having someone under your roof means protecting them. It is sacrilege to kill someone in their own home, even if you are sworn enemies.
Was couchsurfing just about hooking up and dating? It had unavoidable sexual undertones, but I was so trusting that I couldn't believe that something that had connected so many different people in positive ways was a scam to prey on young girls, or to find a quick romantic rendezvous.
In fact, of the many people I interviewed since my encounter, their experiences on Couchsurfing.org have been largely positive.
Alexandra Liss, a San Franciscan-based filmmaker, decided to quit her job at Current TV to follow her dream of making a couchsurfing documentary.
People sent hundreds of emails a day asking if they could help her project, which is now completed. Since it was a self-financed independent project, people from all over the couchsurfing community offered financial backing, creative ideas and production support. She raised $7,984 in about a month, mostly from couchsurfing aficionados.
Even though couchsurfing had its dark side, for Liss it was hard to ignore this cross-cultural sense of fraternity.
After coming back home from Europe, I couldn't help but shake the feeling I had missed the experience I had originally been so excited about.
I decided to try again.
* * *
I sat on a brown leather couch in the company of two couchsurfing hosts I had met a couple hours earlier, Josh Harrington and Noah Carr. Jager, Noah's extroverted German Shepherd-Coyote mix, wrestled with Josh while Noah and I watched. Josh managed to look like a vagrant free spirit, even without the dreadlocks he rocked in his profile picture. They had just recently moved into their shaggy, monochromatic apartment in Costa Mesa. It was a nice change for Josh considering he had been living out of his car a couple months earlier.
I picked Josh for two reasons: fourteen positive reviews from people who say he's "freakin awesome," and he posted pictures of his girlfriend. Still, words on a website don't count as insurance. I made sure to forward his phone number and address to a friend I'd be checking in with the next morning.
After a comfortable get-to-know-you dinner at small Thai place, Josh and Noah stopped by a grocery store to pick up a bottle of wine before heading to the beach. Conversation lulled after exhausting most of our travel stories over dinner. Still, silences were comfortable. I was a lot more relaxed than I thought I'd be. When we got back to the apartment, we watched a movie about rock climbing. Jager rested in Noah's lap, and Josh sat nearby.
The day had been long and I faded fast. Even though they hadn't finished the movie, Josh and Noah retired early so I could get to sleep. I slipped out the next morning without getting a chance to say goodbye.
* * *