Repaying the Debt: Hosting Surfers of My Own

This is the latest installment of my on-going narrative of my experience with Couchsurfing. The full story can be found here

My First Surfers: Knoxville, Tennessee, U.S.A.

Upon returning from backpacking in Europe, and my wonderful experience with Andrew fresh on the brain, I was gung-ho about hosting my own surfers.

The timing was perfect, as well. I arrived in April, or as I like to call it, “The Beginning of Couchsurfing Season.” It has been my experience that I receive a huge boom in couch-requests around that time, then they gradually decrease throughout the summer months before dropping off a cliff in winter.

Unfortunately, I had two factors working against me: 1) I was a new, as of yet unverified, member (couchsurfing sends postcards to people’s homes with a code so they can verify that person X is who they say they are, and lives where they say they live), and 2) I was in Knoxville, which is not the most popular tourist destination.

I had a few false-starts. My first couch-request was by a man who somehow confused Memphis for Knoxville. Geography tends to not be Americans’ strong suit.

My first couchsurfer arrived in the second half of May, and it would be quite the inauspicious start to an otherwise sterling hosting record. She wasn’t a bad guest, but we certainly didn’t get along that well. She was a neo-hippie vegan who absolutely reeked of patchouli. I can’t emphasize the patchouli stench enough, as we could still smell it in the living room for a solid week after she left.

The whole encounter was awkward, as we never really got on, and there was this whole unspoken tension about her unspeakably rude aroma.

Amazingly, this first hosting experience was not enough to permanently dissuade me from hosting again. We would host three pairs of surfers, from three countries, over the following summer months, each better than the last.

A picture from Justin’s profile. The caption reads, “Extended Family.”

My next chance to host was a last-minute, out-of-the-blue opportunity to host a couple of Aussies, Justin and Stephen, who were backpacking around America. They didn’t stay long, but we had a great time showing them around Knoxville.

Since we were living so close to campus, I showed them around the University of Tennessee, and we ended up making our way to the most impressive part of campus: the 100,000+ seat Neyland Stadium. We came across a gate that was wide-open, through which was access to the field. My intrepid Aussie guests suggested we walk out on the field. I was nervous at first, but I followed them in and the sight was amazing. They were impressed, and I was thrilled to be standing on such hallowed ground, especially with the knowledge that this experience only came about because of couchsurfing.

View from Calhoun’s.

Later, my roommate Rhett and I took them to another Knoxville institution, Calhoun’s on the River. After all, how could one go to Tennessee and not have the ribs?  The impressionable waitress was so taken aback by their accents that she brought us all a free round of their fine micro-brewery beer.

Before they left, Justin handed me one of his cards from his horticulturist business back in Australia. The card read, “Cheers, Beers, and Pruning Sheers.”

-February 5, 2012

Our next guests were Casey and Tory, a couple of energetic girls from New York. They were coming to Knoxville as their first stop on a road-trip through Tennessee.

Motorists traveling North-South through Tennessee might consider it a quick state to get through. However, when traveling East-West, there is much more to see and substantial differences in everything from the surrounding geography, to the culture, to the politics between the three main regions. The Tennessee flag has three stars in the center,  each representing the three parts of the state, East, Middle, and West.

Upon crossing into Tennessee through North Carolina, drivers are greeted by the highest peaks in the Eastern United States. The Smoky Mountains lack the height and majesty of the Rockies, but their forested peaks and valleys have long isolated this region–both within the U.S. and the state. East Tennessee was pro-Union and nearly seceded from the rest of the state during the Civil War. Knoxville was the state capital, but as the population shifted west, so did the capital. However, the flagship state university, the University of Tennessee, remains in Knoxville. Many country and bluegrass musicians still call East Tennessee home.

Now, heading west on I-40, the mountains slowly fade away in the rearview mirror as the road rolls up and over the foothills of Middle Tennessee. This is the home of country music and Andrew Jackson. While country music made Nashville famous, artists now come to record from  all over the world; Nashville can rightfully call itself Music City, U.S.A. Nashville, the current state capital, has seen a population boom over the last two decades and has now become the largest metropolitan area.

A few more hours down the road, one will find Memphis. The land here is open and flat, which provided great opportunities for plantation (read: “slave”) owners in Antebellum West Tennessee. Here, Tennessee shares a natural border with Arkansas–the legendary Mississippi river. Memphis claims to have the best barbecue ribs in America, and I for one would not argue. West Tennessee also has its own musical traditions, with blues and R&B.  But perhaps the biggest contribution came to rock, when a  previously unheard-of musician from Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis Presley, decided to go to Memphis to cut a record.

Clearly, I’m an advocate of giving a road-trip through Tennessee a try. Casey and Tory agreed. As their first stop, we were at a bit of a loss as to how to entertain them. I mean, how do you entertain guests from New York? As luck would have it, UT was hosting the final qualifiers for the U.S. Olympic Diving Team, just prior to their departure for the Beijing Games.

Let no one accuse UT Athletics of being broke.

We took the ladies to the brand-spanking-new swimming and diving complex on campus and watched these world-class athletes battle it out for the right to represent the U.S. in Beijing in about a month. Watching a diving competition at that level was incredible. I have no clue how the judges managed to choose winners. If anything, I just felt bad for the ones who didn’t make it, because they had all achieved a talent far beyond what I could comprehend.

This was Casey and Tory’s first time surfing, and they gave me a glowing reference after their stay:

Zach was incredibly welcoming and a great host. This was our first couchsurfing experience, and our first time in the south, and Zach gave us a great intro to both. Between the walking tour and the Olympic synchronized diving competition (!)… I mean, I can’t imagine what we would have done in Knoxville without Zach and his roommates!

After only three times hosting I had already repaid the debt bestowed on me by Andrew. However, I still had two more guests to host before my days in Knoxville came to an end.

-February 6, 2012

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