Couchsurfing in Ulsan

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(Crab cake. A present from a couchsurfer.)

The idea of couchsurfing, of sleeping on a local’s couch while traveling, has always fascinated me. There’s the free accommodation, but there’s also the opportunity to meet new people who live normal, everyday lives in the area you’re exploring. It’s a double edged sword: meet strangers who could restore your faith in humanity through their generosity, kindness and general joie de vivre… or possibly get axe-murdered in your sleep. Something to think about.

I don’t remember exactly when I opened my couchsurfing account. I know it was years ago, around the time I was toying with maybe doing a US road trip. I shelved the road trip for another day and the couchsurfing account went with it.

I booked my flight for Kyoto a few months ago with an eye on keeping costs down. With Japan being notoriously expensive, but with a good reputation for public safety, I thought it’d be the ideal place to test drive couchsurfing. With some help from my friend Miles (a Couchsurfing Ambassador), I eased my way into interacting with the community.

I’ll tell you about my couchsurfing adventures in Kyoto later. This is for my interactions with the community while still at home, in my humble one-room apartment in the middle of nowhere, Donggu, Ulsan, South Korea. While I was flicking out couchsurfing requests in Kyoto, I decided to post my couch and open myself up as a couchsurfing host.

When I first saw my couch (a comfy present my predecessor left behind), it crossed my mind that it was a prime opportunity to dive into the couchsurfing community. But I didn’t think anyone would want to come out to middle of nowhere, Donggu, Ulsan, South Korea. Better to go to Busan, or at least couchsurf nearer to Ulsan’s downtown, where all the action was. With a month left in my apartment, I threw that thought away and opened up. I was surprised to receive three couchsurfing requests.

Of those three, I approved one and played host to a Chinese student from the Seoul area for a weekend. I fretted about my apartment’s state and blankets, but it proved to be no big deal. She was sweet and brought me crab bread from the town she was living in. We talked about couchsurfing experiences in China– in fact, she said she couchsurfed around China using a China-only website. (Yet another reason to learn Chinese!) We spoke mainly in Korean, with some secondary support from English– I’m still surprised I can handle that sort of interaction.

I imagine the experience from her eyes must’ve been quite odd: a glimpse into the English-speaking ex-pat life. It’s so easy to feel the smallness of one’s life when you’re walking through it day in and day out. I shared my life and got in touch with its value, as I introduced my weird slice of Ulsan to this stranger.

The other surprise from opening myself up to the couchsurfing community were the random travelers who weren’t looking for a place to stay. They messaged me simply looking for people to meet with. I met with one such traveler for lunch on Monday. She was a Korean lady just driving around the country. I wanted to go to my favorite pizza restaurant in the city and here was the perfect lunch companion to bring along.

She was amazing. Her English was flawless, and she had lived in Beijing and Tokyo. We talked about her previous work for UNICEF and her dreams of becoming a diplomat– a lovely coincidence since I’ve had the same aspiration myself. We talked about North Korea.

She wanted to see the beach and I wanted to walk through Daewangam Park (대왕암공원), and with the weather hinting warmly at spring, it all perfectly came together. We talked for hours.

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(The view from Daewangam Park)

I’m on a mission this year to meet my people. And while I believe that everyone is my people, and that we all have things to share and learn from each other, I seek most of all those adventurous, open, kind-hearted spirits that I myself strive to be. Participating in the couchsurfing community, so far, has let me connect with an abundance of these spirits. I eagerly look forward to Kyoto.

As an epilogue, my conversations at Daewangam Park inspired me to wake up early the next morning to watch the sunrise at the park and meditate. For some reason or other, I didn’t see a sunrise (fog?) but I was still treated to amazing views of the ocean and the rock that gives the park its name. Legend has it that a queen was buried at the park and is now a dragon who protects Korea. Since I was born in the year of the dragon, I felt fortified by visiting this rock.

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(Of course there was a cat bench to meditate on. OF COURSE.)

I found a cat bench to meditate on, and I spent twenty minutes wrestling with my thoughts and listening to birds and the ocean. I am still struggling in my meditation; I likely have a mental block that I can’t keep my mind empty for twenty full minutes. Nevertheless, I found within myself a renewed commitment to give myself ample opportunity for daily laughter and treat myself like the Very Important Person I was. I am committed to treating myself like I matter, that I make a difference, and that I am worthwhile.

Thanks couchsurfing.

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