The sun was climbing up through the great chrome canyons of Kuala Lumpur. The shadows cast by skyscrapers split the road ahead and the morning air was honey-thick. I leaned forward in the passenger seat of my driver’s blue Proton and kneaded my fingers into the back of my neck. My previous night’s sleep had been split between the upholstered seat of a city bus, an Air Asia flight, and a queen-sized mattress shared with two other backpackers. It hadn’t been discomfort that woke me early however, but anticipation. It had been a year and a half since I’d last seen Jason, exiting a burger bar on a muggy June night in Din Daeng.
When my Uber pulled up outside the Bangsar apartment, I could see him through the lobby door in a singlet. Jason’s rust-blond hair was cropped close around the ears and his arms were twice as thick as they’d been in Thailand. He looked healthy despite the shadow of last night’s hangover.
“Let me get you a coffee.” He pivoted us toward the café in the building lounge. I reminded him of the last time I tried to buy him a drink. “You don’t owe me shit,” he’d said as I reached for my wallet at an Au Bon Pain, but accepted nonetheless. An hour after that inaugural meet-up, we were in the back of a cab, heading out of town for an impulse surf trip. From there on out, Jason became one of the reasons I scheduled an 8-hour layover whenever I crossed through Bangkok.
Jason and I almost hadn’t met, despite the fact that when I threw together my Couchsurfing profile in January 2013—a few weeks before landing in Bangkok—he was one of the first to reach out.
Appreciated it, I wrote, but since it’s my first time visiting I’d prefer to stay with someone Thai. Let’s still meet up!
Jason grew up on the other side of Canada. Despite 12-years of French Immersion schooling, I found his lightning fast Northern Ontario accent impossible to follow when we switched languages to create some element of privacy in Bangkok’s streets of 6 million. He’d held a short residency in the city a few years earlier as part of his undergraduate degree. Two years later, he moved back to the Kingdom to work remotely. Jason frequented co-working spaces and start-up incubators. Everyone he introduced me to was “doing cool shit.” It was Jason's infatuation with sales that would eventually lead him to Kuala Lumpur, where he’d incubate an entrepreneurial department within an already successful ‘learning experience and publishing’ company.
We sipped out pitchy imported espressos and dusted off our old friendship as the pink sky turned to blue.
More than just about any other factor, I’ve found hospitality to be a reliant peephole into the underpinnings of another culture. Independent travel is in many ways a misnomer; it’s when you’re alone in a foreign country that you’re forced to rely on others most.
“Which turn-off leads to Shwsandaw Pagoda?”
“Can you wake me when the bus reaches Göreme?”
From Giovanni Francesco Gemmelli Careri’s 1693 circumnavigation of the globe (the biographical account of which became the source material of “Around the World in Eighty Days”) to my own less-trajectoried trips, the most meaningful moments are often facilitated by the generosity of others.
In Thailand, the Buddhist history of the country bleeds into many aspects of its modern culture. Even in the naval-gazing metropolis of Bangkok, I was offered more places to stay than any other city I’ve visited to date. Staggering modernization over the last two decades has done relatively little to erode the karmic ladder governs day to day interactions. One evening, my wallet slipped out of my back pocket in a taxi. The driver circled back ten minutes later, keys, cards, and cash intact.
Hinduism goes one step further. Atithi Devo Bhava—my host, Sujit, recited to me when we met on the cool brick staircase of Kathmandu’s Trailokya Mohan Narayan Temple. An English translation: the guest is God. Continue West, and you’ll encounter the Pashtun principle of melmastia which requires a profound respect be shown to strangers regardless of their race, religion, tribal affiliation of economic status. Reciprocity is never expected (although naturally one’s kinsmen are bound by the same philosophy.) I haven’t spent enough time in Europe to draw conclusions, but as soon as you reach the other side of the Atlantic, this devout sense of collectivism sputters off.
In part, this is a by-product of our upbringing. Canada, like the United States, was colonized on the backs of strong, independent men (and women, although history being what it is, credit is hardly ever given where credit is due.) These rugged lonesome pioneers were attractive heroes at a time when the European concept of Statism was running stale. Old-world refugees were allured by the promise of fortune that scaled in accordance to one’s individual effort. And so, even before the first New-World colony of Jamestown was founded in 1607, the seeds were sewn for a new type of citizen—the self-reliant individual. Bold and brash, lonely and autonomous. These American folk heroes span from Benjamin Franklin to Steve Jobs.
Although the swelling density of North American cities has somewhat diluted this sense of individualism, much of it is still remains entrenched in our culture. We fetishize founders, not start-ups. Even our team sports honour MVPs. From lemonade stands to Jay Z, some great things have come out of our obsessions with the me-first hustle. But one of them is not our ability to grant or accept a favour.
The first reaction I always get when I retell stories from my time Asia: “Why would a stranger let you stay with them for free?”
The night before I met with Jason, I’d spent a week in Kuala Krai. Landlocked in a hilly corner of Northern Kelantan, the city had just recovered from January’s punishing rains. The Lebir and Galas rivers were swollen and thrashing. As we drove into town we passed through an intersection where two of the four possible exits had been swallowed by mud.
The back seat of my host Yi Siang’s sedan was a cherry red-eruption of paper lanterns.
“My grandmother’s house is still filled with water,” he said as we approached the twinkling city. “She’ll stay with us at my father’s.”
It was 12:05 a.m.
I’d been put in touch with Yi Siang through a mutual friend, an American named Ladan I’d spent a few days with in Bangkok the previous year. This was two months after Jason had left Thailand and we were both crashing with a teaching agent we’d worked for at some point between jobs.
We swapped stories about our respective trips through Africa. Ladan one-upped my images of fiery, Ugandan sunsets with a late-night walk through skeletal Mogadishu, Celine Dion blaring out of the pane-less windows of shops.
“How was Somalia?” I asked
“Weird. But the people were super nice.”
Yi Siang had hosted over 300 surfers—including Ladan—at his apartment in Kuala Lumpur. Occasionally he brought them to his hometown—400 kilometres north-east—where he helped care for his father who, years earlier, had been rendered mute by a stroke. Both houses had a guest bed built in exactly for this purpose. As we snuck into the dark one-story building, just past 1:00 a.m., I noticed pictures of previous guests lining the front hall.
One month later I’d learn that they’d all donated money to repurchase the appliances Yi Siang’s grandparents lost in the flood.
I’ve slept in the house of 21 strangers to date. Some of these were formally arranged through sites like Couchsurfing; others simply through people I’ve hit it off with on the road. This is far less than most die-hards, but it’s enough to have noticed a trend. Most my hosts have been young, less affluent, and—not surprising considering the gender roles throughout South Asia and East Africa—male. And although I’d like to say I’ve been able to return the favour this hasn’t always been the case.
First, there was the trouble of not having a home itself. After a year of nomadism, I moved back in with my parents who, willing to open their doors to friends I’d met previously, thought the idea of strangers sharing our roof seemed too high risk. My next rental, in Melbourne, Australia, strictly didn’t allow it—although the landlady had no qualms about using the spare room as an AirBnB. Yi Siang came to visit. I hosted one friend from the Philippines, one from Seattle, and another from New York. But whenever it came to showing new face around my city, our interaction would begin with coffee and end with a beer and good night.
I sympathize with those who wish to keep their home lives private. Property is an investment (which is one reason why I don’t own any!) And home can be an introvert’s solace in an ever-more cacophonous world. But what I find most interesting is how quickly these barriers erode. Couchsurfing was founded in 2003 as a non-profit built to recreate a trip taken by founder, Casey Fenton in 1999, during which he received over 50 offers of hospitality around Iceland. In 2011 the company was liquidated and remerged as a for-profit C cooperation, although its source of revenue still seems murky at best. That same year, collaborative consumption—the philosophy behind today’s much buzzed sharing economy—was named one of TIME Magazine’s 10 ideas that will change the world. AirBnB emerged. As did Uber. A concept influenced by the Cuban Paladar was beginning to take root in cities like Kuala Lumpur toward the end of my visit. It’s now possible to book into a stranger houses around dinner time to share a home cooked meal.
For the amount of disruption it’s caused, the sharing economy is far from revolutionary. Leasing out a spare bed or trading a lift or a meal for something else of value is an act of old as civilization itself. What’s remarkable about the trend is what it took to reach a global tipping point—a polished user-interface and an straight forward recipe for income, announced at a time when the global economy was in slump.
In essence, us Westerners have the capacity to become far more willing to open our doors to strangers than we thought—as long as they have a pretty profile picture and there’s the formal exchange of cash.
I’m not anti-business and am a user of many of these platforms. I believe there’s tremendous value in exploring alternative methods of doing business—especially one that fosters both interaction and entrepreneurship. As a soon-to-be graduate student, constantly arriving in new cities where I have limited connections, how could I not be excited by the dismantling of industries where gatekeepers once reigned supreme?
What worries me however, is the erosion of selflessness. Of financial contracts displacing the possibility for other exchanges like friendship, humility, and trust. Kindness is contagious, but it’s also a muscle that needs to be trained. It’s by being the benefactor of so much generosity during my early travels that I learned the value of opening my doors to others. Every couch I’ve curled up on, every mattress I’ve strained to share has come with a lesson. I’d hate to see that trivialized by a listing of $50 per night.
We exited Jason’s yoga studio and slouched into two sun-bleached plastic chairs tucked into an alleyway. My neck muscles had finally loosened up and we fingered chicken-rice into our mouths between sips of icy sugarcane juice to fight-off the high-noon heat.
“Do you still host?” I asked.
“That was a different chapter in my life.” Jason now lived with his girlfriend. “But I’ve met some great people doing it,” he added. “We stay in touch.” I’d written Jason a few times in the years between our first meeting in Bangkok and our reunion in KL and never once had he refused to be a local contact for one of my friends.
“What does settling down in Australia look like to you?” he asked. I was due to touch-down Tullamarine in just over a week.
“I’m moving cold, but apparently it’s the most livable city in the world,” I said. “I’m staying with a friend while I sort my stuff out. Find a place, try to build some habits. This morning’s yoga class was amazing!”
“I’ve got something that might help you.” He pulled out his computer. “E-mail?” He keyed me into the registrar for one of his company’s training programs.
“Thanks. But I really can’t afford to subscribe to things before I know what the cost of living in Australia’s going to look like.”
“Don’t worry about it. If you find value here, just pay it forward when you're settled in and have the time.”
We leap-frogged to the air-conditioning hotel patio nearby. I bought the coffees and this time Jason didn’t say a thing.
My buddy Jason's "done a lot of cool shit" himself since we were last in the same country. Here are a few of his recent trainings for Mindvalley Insights.
This is me on Couchsurfing. Although I'm currently not able guests, I'm more than happy to invite you out to something fun, give you some tips or show you around.