The Lad from Leeds

This is my 100th post to I, for one, cannot think of a better way to commemorate the occasion than a post dedicated to my first steps into the world of Couchsurfing. I have decided to dedicate a page to my experiences in the Sofasphere. Here is what I have so far: 


I very clearly remember the day I first checked out (or .com, at the time). It was an unseasonably warm day in late February in Knoxville, and I was trying to iron out the final details of my impending trip to Europe. I had bought the ticket from Chicago to Zurich on an impulse when my girlfriend Valerie, who lived in Chicago, suggested it the previous September. It was supposed to be a romantic trip down through the Balkans together.

Still sounds romantic now, but that trip never happened. We broke up a few months later, and there I was holding a non-refundable ticket. We both arrived in Zurich, but from there we went our separate ways. Instead of a romp through the Balkans, I decided to head east, first through Austria, then up to the Czech Republic, and then back down again through Slovakia and Hungary. Finally, I wanted to head back to the U.K. to catch up with some old friends from my various stints teaching in Asia. There was one girl in particular, Eva, that I was especially keen to see, so I made sure to incorporate a stop in Leeds into my itinerary. But there was a problem: she was living at home and unable to put me up. The cheapest hotel I could find was $200 a night. It was at this moment that she suggested I try couchsurfing.

I had heard about couchsurfing before, but I had never visited the site. With a few strokes of the keys, I was reading the ins and outs of being a member of couchsurfing, and I was instantly hooked. Here was a whole community of like-minded travelers, providing company and a safe place to stay for other wary travelers.

Although could rightly be considered a hospitality site, it is so much more.  The word “community” is key, as the connections that link hosts, surfers, and all members in-between create a global network, built from the local groups up. And it was at one of these local meet-ups of members, that I had my first experience with couchsurfers.

I joined on February 27, 2008, and as luck would have it, the Knoxville group of couchsurfers were meeting that week. When I walked into the Sunspot on “The Strip” in downtown Knoxville, near the University of Tennessee campus, I was nervous. I didn’t know any of these people, and I could hardly remember what anyone looked like from their profile pictures. Should I just start asking around, “Um…couchsurfer? No…?”

The Sunspot seems, on its surface, to be the perfect place to hold couchsurfing events. It is a liberal, vegetarian haven in a part of the country where both of those words are likely to be considered of the “four-letter” variety. Even still, I’ll never forget the look of confusion when I asked the waitress if she had seen any other couchsurfers.

After what seemed like ages–awkward and nervous ages–I found another couchsurfer.

Oh Knoxville, I miss you.

And then another, and another, and so on. Before too long I was several beers into the evening and sharing stories with these strangers as if we had been friends for years. I felt a nearly instantaneous connection with these fellow travelers, despite the fact that I had just joined their strange little organization and I had yet to couchsurf.

Over the next day or so, I was given my first several references, all positive, and that is how my couchsurfing adventures would begin.

When I joined the site, just under 4 years ago as of this writing, there were a mere 700,000 couchsurfers. Now, there are 3.7 million of us.

-January 24, 2012

My First Couch: Leeds, England

When I went back into my journal, I was unpleasantly surprised to find a complete failure to mention anything about my first couchsurfing experience. I think by that juncture of my trip, I had grown a bit weary of writing in my journal. Regardless, I wish I had written about it in retrospect, because it was a fantastic, life-changing event.

If I remember correctly, there were about 100 or so profiles from which to choose, and only a fraction of those were welcoming guests into their homes. Now, when I type Leeds into couchsearch function on the website, over 700 people come up. Andrew was not the first person from the Leeds contingent of couchsurfers that I contacted, but he would be the last.

Yeah, I think I’ll stay with that dude.

The act of searching for an appropriate host can be difficult, even for seasoned pros. Even after you eliminate some couchsurfers who lack friends and/or references, it is difficult to choose a host. My recommendation to couchsurfers looking to attract would-be guests? Either have a fun profile picture, or be attractive. Andrew chose the former; his profile picture at the time was one of him pretending to be a weatherman.

As soon as I heard back from Andrew, I knew I had made an excellent decision. He was a seasoned traveler and couchsurfer; not only had he heard of my humble town of Knoxville, he had been there:

Hi Zach Marx, (I have to say that is one of the coolest
names I have ever heard – lol!)

Nice to make your acquaintance! You are more than
welcome to stay with me on Sat 29 March. We’ll have
fun, I’ll show you the delights of Leeds, some history
and some of our finer drinking establishments!!

So you’re from Knoxville, Tennessee – I have visited
the Smokey Mountains, which is close to there I think.
I went to Gatlinburg and Dollywood – wow – not the most
culturally enlightening trip ever, but still fun!! I
have to say though, the scenery was stunning!!

OK, so if you can get back to me with when exactly
you’ll be expecting to arrive in Leeds and then I’ll
meet you at the bus station. My mobile (cell) number
is: XXXXX XXXXXX – any queries/problems – don’t
hesitate to contact me!


When I moved to Wisconsin, I met one of the couchsurfers that had hosted Andrew on his North American jaunt. The couchsurfing community is quite small sometimes.

I actually pulled into Leeds by train, not bus, but true to his word, Andrew was waiting for me there. For some reason, this simple act stuck with me for a long time, and I always tried to be as accommodating with my incoming guests in the future.  I was not always able to meet couchsurfers at the train station or airport, but when I could, I did. Any experienced traveler will tell you that some of the most tense moments in a trip are on arrival in a new city. With Andrew waiting there in the busy station, I didn’t have to worry about taking the wrong bus, getting lost, or being unable to contact him.

As I said, this was toward the end of my trip. I had been in the U.K. for about a week at this point. I started off in London to visit my friend from Nagasaki, Dan. I then took a flight to Edinburgh, had my train out of Scotland delayed by sheep on the tracks, met my friend Laura in York, and then hung out with her and her crazy friends in Hull. (To my non-British readers: I’ve been told over and over about how horrible Hull is. I enjoyed my stay, but I’m sure that was largely due to the company. It was a fine town from what I saw, and the night we spent out at the club was one of the highlights of the trip.) Only Leeds and one more night in London remained before I hopped back across the pond.

In his e-mail, Andrew had promised to take me to some of the “finer drinking establishments” of Leeds, and he did not disappoint. At the station he declared, “I’m going to take you to a pub that is older than your country.” I was definitely game. After dropping off my backpack at his flat, we headed out to one of these fine, old pubs for a few pints, wherein he explained that British ale was not “warm” (as us Yanks might say), but was in fact “cool.”

Somewhere between the first and last beer I realized what made couchsurfing truly great: it was not the ability to merely crash at a stranger’s place for free, but it was the ability to have a local friend anywhere in the world. It allowed me to shed the tourist label, and become a traveler by going where the locals went, and doing what the locals did. There is nothing inherently wrong with being a tourist, certainly, when I’ve returned from trips I’m always asked about seeing the touristy sights. However, the best memories I’ve had from any trip have been from the company I keep, not from things I’ve seen or done.

The stay with Andrew was a huge success, despite his couch not actually being a couch, but an inflatable mattress (probably for the best). The stay in Leeds ended too quickly, but I still keep in touch with Andrew (to be honest, more than I do with Eva, who I went Leeds to see initially).

His hospitality could not be overstated, and when I returned home I was determined to make my home as welcoming to travelers as his was to me.

-January 29, 2012