Just three days before our international departure (less than an hour before our going away party was due to begin), we heard from Leonardo that he wouldn’t be able to host us at his apartment in Santiago. He had a last-minute business trip come up. We had never met Leonardo, but he had dozens of positive reviews on Couchsuring.com, where we had arranged roughly a month in advance to stay with him for our first two nights in Chile.
For those unfamiliar with Couchsurfing, it is a social network where people search for other hosts to stay with (on their couches or maybe even a spare bedroom) or to meet up with in a new city for a local experience. The site is free to use (although you can pay $20 to get your account verified). If you’re still having trouble grasping the concept, it can be compared to a “free Airbnb,” although many couchsurfers frown upon that correlation. The idea behind CS is to foster communities, build relationships, and for all members who are hosted to host others (how it works – you crash on someone’s couch, you let someone crash on your couch, what comes around goes around).
So there we were, three days before our trip, without a place to stay in a foreign country we had never been to. As a new member of the Couchsurfing community, you don’t have much Couchsurfing cred, which makes it harder to find a place to stay (like the “you can’t get a job without experience and you can’t get experience without a job,” catch-22 scenario). I found out about the site only about a month before our trip, which didn’t give us much time to host others – plus we were already living back at my family home in the suburbs (saving money to travel), which wasn’t a sought-out couch surfer destination.
I paid the $20 to get my account verified to make my account more legit, and extensively filled out my profile, answering the questions in detail, adding several pictures, trying to add as many of my existing Facebook friends as possible (which out of the 40 with accounts, only five had been recently active – three were friends who live outside of the U.S. and only one actually still lived in the states). I had secured two personal reviews from friends, but obviously couldn’t have been vouched for yet as a guest or host.
Without having much luck in last minute responses in Santiago, a couple days before our trip we opted for the security of an Airbnb or hostel, and ended up booking a hostel in the city center. Our first Couchsurfing experience would be in Valparaiso, that was accepted by Rodrigo* a couple weeks earlier.
Once in Santiago, we messaged Rodrigo to let him know around what time we would arrive and ensure that were still able to crash on his couch. His response (in Spanish) stated that he had an unexpected guest so his place might be a little crowded the first night, if we would rather come a day later we would have more space, but we were still welcome to come as originally planned as long as we didn’t mind. Hoping I had properly translated the message (double checking in an online translator), I told him we didn’t mind and would still come as planned. He had a handful of positive reviews from guests with fun experiences at his place and who doesn’t like free fun?
We got off the bus in Valparaiso, excited that our first bus in South America was spacious and had free Wifi (a luxury we haven’t seen again on our trip). It was a warm day (mid-70’s), but thankfully cooler than it had been in Santiago (low 90’s) and our packs were heavy, carrying a full load with overstuffed messenger bags in front of our bodies. A woman at Information at the bus station informed us which way to go to reach our destination (about a 10-minute walk) and we were off on the streets of Valparaiso.
I was a little apprehensive, what if we didn’t find the place? What if we couldn’t get in? What if Rodrigo wasn’t there? Matt verbalized my apprehensions, but I shrugged them off, remaining outwardly optimistic. I told him it would work out, and I had an odd sense of certainty that it would, despite any doubts. If it didn’t – we could find somewhere with Wifi and book a hostel or Airbnb, or walk into a hostel that we ran into to see if they had availability. Valparaiso is big enough of a destination that we had options, although none lined up.
After walking for 10 minutes, which seems much longer with heavy loads and sun on our backs, the number of the building didn’t seem to exist on the street. The numbers went from 1776 to 1770, completely skipping 1772. The doubts popped up again. Shit. Matt was not pleased, I could sense an “I told you so” on the tip of his tongue.
One building away from where our destination was supposed to be was a military building, so I stopped to ask a man in uniform if he could help (in Spanish). He said the building should be just a few down, but I did my best to explain that number didn’t exist, he came out of his post and peered down the street, confirming I was on the right street, but also confused by the missing number – he suggested to maybe just go down a little further? As we continued down the street, the numbers shrunk further from our destination address, as I feared.
Maybe I had written the number down wrong? I pulled out my phone, where I had jotted the address in my notes – I wrote 1722. I am notoriously dyslexic with numbers (self-diagnosed). Even without Wifi, I was hoping I could still pull up the Couchsurfing message from my email with Rodrigo’s message, sharing his address. Accessing the email, my suspicion was correct. 1722, not 1772. We backtracked a few buildings, and thankfully 1722 existed and actually looked to be a residential building. My spirits were raised! This would work out!
I looked at the buzzer to see if there were any names alongside numbers. Nope. The door was wide open, so we let ourselves in a narrow hall leading to stairs.
“How are we supposed to know what apartment he lives in?” Matt asked.
“Good question – guess we’ll find out,” I replied. At the top of the first flight of stairs, a sign in Spanish read “hospedajes,” what I thought indicated rooms for rent, the large photo advertisement ripped in places. It reminded me of a seedy motel advertisement.
The building was older, slightly run down. I was relieved that it was daytime, although there weren’t many traces of daylight in the first level of the dark building, apart from the heat of the halls.
Luckily a man and woman were entering an apartment, so I asked the woman if she knew where Rodrigo lived in the building. She seemed confused (unsure if it was by my Spanish or the presence of Matt and me with our lives on our backs, sweating in the hallway) and I told her he was a student who lived with three other guys (so I thought from what I’d seen on his profile). Then she appeared to know Rodrigo. She told me he lived upstairs and was explaining which floor (in Spanish), this was the first floor – he lives on the third floor – to go up one and then another and he lives up there – facing the front.
I wasn’t certain if I correctly translated her Spanish, so I asked her to repeat it to make sure. While she repeated her instructions, my mind flashed back to a colorful Spanish textbook page from high school (or was it junior high?) that displayed a drawing of a home with vocabulary, including the names of each floor of the home. I remembered thinking in school it was odd that the first floor wasn’t actually called the first floor, but the second floor was the first (primero – where we were standing now). I couldn’t remember the word for the ground level in Spanish. I hoped I had understood enough to get us to the right floor and door.
My hope was lifted that at least we were in the right place! We went up two more flights of stairs, our backs drenched in sweat under our packs. The lights flickered on above us as we reached each floor, triggered by our movement. I knocked loudly on the door to no answer. We waited. I knocked again, still no answer. Shit.
What if he wasn’t home? It was the middle of the day after all, and he was supposed to be a student, what if he was in class? And I wasn’t even sure that this was the right apartment. Matt gave a voice to my doubts as he sat on the stairs, although I tried my best to remain positive – this was my responsibility.
“We should have had a backup plan,” Matt said exasperatingly.
“Yes, we should have, but we don’t,” I replied and talked through our options “We’ll have to find somewhere with Wifi and look for a hostel to stay in.”
But even so, I felt that we were so close and was I dreading leaving the building (despite it’s condition). We had already walked this far, what if what was available was in the opposite direction?
Before declaring defeat, I knocked on the other apartment door on the floor, facing away from the street. Shortly after, a guy about my age answered with another guy behind him. “Rodrigo?” I exclaimed in excitement. No, he was not Rodrigo. He didn’t appear to know Rodrigo. As I began asking, the other apartment door swung open to a girl in her twenties, wrapped in a towel with wet blonde hair.
We moved back over to her front door, and as I asked if Rodrigo lived there, she looked confused – she asked if I spoke English (our Spanish conversation was broken at best) and I was relieved to find that she spoke English too. She told me the apartment wasn’t hers so I wondered why she was showering there, was she the other guest? Was she sleeping with Rodrigo? Or someone else?
She explained she was renting the room from a man who lived on the first floor, she couldn’t remember if his name was Rodrigo, but it might have been. She shared that the man on the first floor owned the building and could probably help us find where Rodrigo lived if he wasn’t in fact Rodrigo. She wished us luck and off we went back down to the first floor of apartments.
I wondered if Rodrigo was the building owner and if he just used Couchsurfing to rent his rooms or put people in open apartments, but this didn’t sound like what I remembered from his profile. I joked with Matt, trying to keep the mood light, “At this rate we’re going to meet everyone in the building…And at least this is good practice for my Spanish.”
After we knocked on the door (adjacent to the apartment where we first talked to the woman) another woman (maybe in her forties) answered, again not Rodrigo. She asked me more about who he was and how we knew him, I tried my best to translate Couchsurfing in Spanish (failing) and she asked if it was an internet site so I replied yes. I tried to explain more about Rodrigo and his roommates and something seemed to ring a bell. She told us he lived on the top floor (one higher than the floor we were just on – I must have incorrectly translated the floor count from the first woman). Granted I don’t think my Spanish book had a house that had this many floors, so the miscommunication couldn’t entirely have been my fault. We made our way back up two flights of stairs, and then one more, to the fourth floor of the building.
I knocked on the door we thought was his to no answer, and then the other apartment building just for good measure, we had already met nearly everyone in the building – why not one more? Windows in the hallway between apartments on the upper floors opened to a courtyard where clothes lines hung (reminding me of apartment buildings in Spain where I’d studied in college). I could see through the hall window into the kitchen windows of the back apartment, an older woman was staring at us through her apartment window. She was not Rodrigo and she clearly was not going to answer her door.
We worried again that after all this, Rodrigo might not be home. Even after sending his a Whatsapp message earlier that day, we had never heard actually back from him when we told him our plans for arrival. We both wondered how we had already lucked out that everyone we tried had been at home on a weekday, in the middle of the day. Perhaps because it was summer and lunch time in Chile (coming home for lunch, whether from work or school, was very common from my experience studying in Spain).
We began to weigh our options when the door opened. “Rodrigo?” I asked.
“Si!” It was Rodrigo. He looked like he did in his pictures, although his hair was held in a small ponytail that hadn’t been visible in his photos. And it’s still always different to see someone in person.
We greeted with a kiss on the cheek (something I hadn’t done since Spain, realizing there were more similarities between the two countries than just the language, long lunches, and apartment layout). A girl stood behind him with dark roots and bleached hair, buzzed on one side (which we would later recognize to be a popular style in South America, almost expected for girls with tattoos). We also greeted with a kiss cheek to cheek.
Matt later recounted to me how odd it was be greeted this way by a stranger, his first experience of this cultural exchange. I couldn’t help but crack a smile at his discomfort, telling him he would have to get used to it, and happy to hear about how was already being exposed and adapting to new cultures.
The apartment was artsy and cool (but not temperature wise, it was as warm as the hallway). Past the sitting room and another open room with a table, were two windows facing open to the road we entered from. Craning your head to the left, you could see Plaza Victoria, and to the right, where we came from, a large Chilean flag a few buildings down, swaying softly in the gentle breeze.
A few flies circled around the room. An elevated mattress against the wall across from the table, with a large trekking backpack from another couchsurfer leaned up against it. We all exchanged conversations in Spanish, feeling like I could understand most of what Rodrigo was saying, but still getting tongue tied stringing my sentences together in Spanish.
We didn’t have a key, we would send him or the Argentinian girl (who we found out was the other couchsurfer) a WhatsApp message when we arrived back at the apartment. We spent the day exploring Valparaiso without an itinerary, losing ourselves in the artful alleyways and staircases, my nose behind my camera at every colorful corner (check out our photo diary here).
On our descent from the hills back to the apartment, we literally ran into the other couchsurfer coming up the street. Valparaiso isn’t that small of a city, we thought it was so bizarre to happen upon each other – small world. She invited us to see a show of some sort, but we opted to continue on our journey, as we were starting to get hungry.
Back at the apartment after dinner, as the day faded away into night, the front door of the building was locked. We saw the windows were open with lights on, so we hoped someone was home. We sent a WhatsApp message to Tomas with no response, but luckily after a few minutes we messaged the other couchsurfer and she was quick to buzz us in.
Rodrigo and his friend arrived shortly after with beers, which they shared, and we all enjoyed conversations and practiced our Spanish (and their English) while listening to music. Rodrigo was growing green plants under his window that are legal back home in Washington (we found out they weren’t legal in Chile, but it seemed to be common to grow them there anyway) and everyone was intrigued to know more about how it was regulated and grown back home. They were very interested to see pictures from home and hear stories.
That night in the apartment is the kind of night I had left home for. Three Chilean guys, an Argentinean girl and an American couple, sharing stories, learning about how others live, learning more language than we ever could in a classroom, warm, full, content with good company. Again, I couldn’t help but smile, this time a full-on grin. I’ll admit that even after we got into to the apartment I felt a little off and worried about the stay, but all earlier apprehensions had vanished by the evening. We were in the company of new friends. What traveling is all about, what Couchsurfing is all about.
The next night Rodrigo’s roommate took Matt and I out to a beach party in Concón, which in itself could warrant its own post. It was an amazing night with a crazy drive along the ocean, dancing on the beach that turned into dancing up in the DJ booth on top of a big trailer, topped off with the most delicious sandwich (arguably one of the best of the trip) from one of the food trucks at the party. An unforgettable experience brought to us by Couchsurfing.
*Name has been changed