the nothing whatever...

Couch Surfing Diaries Part One

It became apparent to me that the next chapter of my life was going to be remarkably different to the previous when I began planning how I was going to be living for the next month. There was always a less than conscious level of accountability that existed before. I wouldn't say it held me back from what I wanted to do because it didn't, but decisions were a much more complex internal dialogue than they are now.

I was sitting at my desk one day about a month ago scrolling aimlessly through my junk emails to fill in time, nursing my self pity like it were the only thing I had left and wondering what I was going to do about the fading vision I had for my pathetic little life, when my focus drifted onto a reminder from “couchsurfing.com”. I had always seen it as a concept that was brilliant in its simplicity, not just because it was an elegant way of undercutting the hotel industry (which is often the greatest expense on a trip overseas), but also because it had the ability to connect you with people on a level you would not get if you were staying at a place that isolated you from the day-to-day livelihood of its hosts. When you stay on these couches, you don't just adopt a bed for a few nights, you try to assimilate in an effort to be as least obtrusive as possible. You adopt a lifestyle.

So I began the internal dialogue - “Should I do this? Am I too old to be living on people's couches? What if I don't get along with the hosts?” - and the usual myriad of voices suggesting reasons as to why it might be irresponsible or dangerous or unpleasant, the usual voices of compromise and of unselfishness, they were no longer there. The only thing that I heard scream back at me was “...for fuck's sake, do it you miserable bastard! You are already out of your comfort zone, now it is time to push the envelope!”.

This is how I ended up staying with CSH-1* and his 9 other housemates in Isla Vista near Santa Barbara, a beach-side suburb that has a laid back surfy vibe, a backdrop of sandy mountains, and who's residents are mostly students studying at the university nearby. If it sounds familiar, perhaps you may have read about the massacre that occurred last year in this cruisy little suburb. It still astounds me that such tragedies are just a commonly accepted events in America and that anybody can morally justify the position that guns belong in the hands of any “free” American citizen. As if to illustrate my point, on the second night of my stay in this harmless little town, two people were shot literally about a block from where I am staying (if you want you can read about the details here). You could say I am experiencing a small snapshot of what it is like to live as an American.

On a lighter topic, CSH-1 himself is a character that Hollywood actors would fight each other tooth-and-nail for the opportunity to play, as they would know that it would not be their acting ability that would win them the Oscar, but rather the substance and complexity and depth of the character. He has the ability to be the rudest man alive, and in the very next sentence pay you a compliment that would seem as though he has known you his entire life. He either loves you or he despises you. He is intimidating, yet the reason why he is intimidating is because you know he is completely transparent and is liable to do or say however he feels at any given moment, so in the same way his transparency makes him harmless and lovable. He is big. He is black. He is gay. He is a Christian. He is a Republican. And before you begin to wonder about whether he is unnerved by any of these apparent societal contradictions, let me ease your worry and tell you that he does not give a fuck.

Couchsurfing.com relies upon a review based system. As I did not have any reviews to my name as a “surfer”, before I rocked up on their doorstep with my bags and my person it was required that I have a short conversation with CSH-1 over Skype, just so that he could get an insight into my personality type and make an assessment as to whether it would gel with himself and the rest of the house. All of this is understandable enough, I am a stranger walking straight into the crux of their home. But, even though I had nothing to hide, if I were to be honest, I would say I was quite nervous. Although CSH-1 had pretty much all positive reviews as a “host”, he was not the type to lie about himself, and after reading his profile a picture was painted in my mind of a smart, super-intense, super-divisive individual that was confident enough to shake you with the extremes of his own nature in order to get an idea of what yours might be. I already had an inkling that our conversation might be somewhat of a test, almost like a job interview but without any boundaries. And, suspicions were almost immediately confirmed.

“Hi CSH-1. How is it going?”

“Not good.”

“Oh, I am sorry to hear that. Is everything OK or...?”

“We have just had a really bad brunch this morning, and I really don't feel like this conversation right now.”

“Oh, OK. Well I can call back at a later time if you like.”

“No, it's fine. Ummm...so, some questions...let's see. If you could eliminate one race off the planet, which would it be?”

Bang! There was no way I was able to study for this test.

So, I arrive at Santa Barbara airport completely and utterly exhausted having had 2 hours sleep the night before and a 4 hour flight delay, with CSH-1 having generously arranged to pick me up at the airport. I was standing at the baggage desk with the rest of the passengers on board flight UA6468 waiting for the United Airlines staff to locate our misplaced baggage (or in my case, misplaced life), when over the top of the high pitched accusations of some drawling cowgirl came a deep, rich fog of melody, reverberating around the stone auditorium that was the airport baggage claim.

“...and I-I-I-I-E-I-I-I-E-I-I-I will always looooooove youuuuuuuuu...”

My ride was here.

See, CSH-1 loves to sing. And when I say sing, I don't mean a small content hum to oneself. His singing is representative of his personality. I mean really sing, openly sing, project that voice so that the bleachers can feel it deep within their chest. Over the past few days I have heard heartfelt ballads echo through the local shopping center, I have heard the passion of Whitney Houston and Donna Summer and other divas sung with an earthy baritone while lunch is being conjured up in the kitchen. And why not do it, the man can! I mentioned to him that he has a voice that reminds me of James Blake, and he was quick to tell me that even though he hadn't listened to a lot of James Blake, he definitely couldn't hear what I heard. Just my untrained ears I guess.

Although a Republican, interestingly enough, CSH-1 describes the way the household runs as leaning towards an idealist socialist agenda, where everybody puts in and there is plenty for everyone. Granted I have only been here for a short period of time and am still adjusting to the regiments of the household, it seems to be working. In the beginning I felt slightly uncomfortable walking to the fridge and grabbing whatever food I felt like, but after realizing that it is not just the eating and the drinking but also the cleaning and the cooking and the general housework being proactively participated in, I am slowly coming around to it. Although, I will say, as is usually true with socialist movements there tends to be an unspoken underlying level of fascism involved. Fascism is probably a bit too extreme a word, but it isn't hard to tell that CSH-1 is the benevolent dictator of this socialist experiment, and that it is his mood that will generally determine that of the rest of the house. I think it is just a symptom of his powerful, unfiltered personality.

I have to admit that even though this method of running a household is an very inclusive way of doing it, in the beginning there was an undeniable distancing that I was feeling as a couch-surfer in a house full of rent payers. It may have been self-induced, me deliberately attempting to segregate myself to avoid interfering in a dynamic I am not permanently a part of. It may just be a result of this house having so many couch-surfers coasting through the place (there have been two others that have been and gone since I arrived) and it requires a sense of detachment on their part, a deliberate indifference to your existence. It may genuinely be an unbridgeable age gap (the average age of the house is well below my own), me at times not being able to decipher nor keep up with the language beneath the language. It may even be a result of the perceived coolness that seems to underpin the student way of life, requiring all those subscribing to the coolness to remain firmly embedded within their social clique or risk being castaways, floating on the sea of “uncoolness” (a warm sea, if you will). Regardless of what it is, it has meant that I have been spending quite a bit of time on my own, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

I purchased a quiver of surfboards from Channel Islands Surfboards, a 6'6” rejected custom board that is essentially brand new and cost me $400, and another 6'3” as a backup, which has already come in handy seeing as I ripped the fin out of my 6'6” this morning. I have been surfing as much as I can, and am finding that after about 40 minutes or so I am no longer thinking about anything except reading the swell, so it seems to be having its desired effect.

The weather turned yesterday, a squall hitting just as I went to go for a run. I went anyway, running down to the beach and alongside the cracked cliffs that hem in the flat-lying Isla Vista, spotting a pier in the distance that I nominated as my destination. Sideways rain belting into my face, the pier slowly became clearer and clearer until it was eventually a reality, and I arced around to its base and ran across its shit-covered planks, shooing away the gulls and the pigeons and the pelicans until I reached its end. There was a plaque describing the types of ocean life you are likely to find around the greater Santa Barbara area, and after I had slapped it with my hand in a ritualistic “I have made it” kind of way, the first thing I read was that often the Grey Whale be seen feeding through these parts. No sooner had I finished reading that when 20 metres from where I stood at the end of the pier the gaping mouth of a Grey Whale breached the water with an almighty gush of spray.

“Holy fuck!”

I looked around to see if there was anybody else watching, but no, it was just me and the whale braving the stinging sleet. I watched it breach a few more times as it swam off into the distance. Then, I turned, and ran back, all the while thinking about but unable to put my finger on why being alone in that moment made it all the more beautiful.

But, all in all I guess I am gradually starting to feel better about things. Without want to go into too much detail, the American obsession with spirits has ensured that there were much drunken antics to be had over the course of the week, which has helped a bit. As you are dealing with spirits, things have the tendency to escalate quite quickly, until you find yourself drinking a concoction of 65% Whiskey, 25% Beer, 10% Orange Juice at 4am on a Tuesday while playing a drinking game to The Office. The approach to drunkenness is similar to the approach to sleep in this house, and is unlike anything I have ever come across. It is like an affliction, something that could inevitably occur at any time of day and in any location. You want to sleep, you sleep. Be it on a chair, in a bed, on a couch, on the floor. You want to get drunk, you drink. As hard as you possibly can. Then, you are acknowledged to be out of action until you wake/sober up again, be it in the morning or at 10pm at night. It is of no consequence. As is usually the case, the drinking definitely helped smooth out some of the initial hesitations I was feeling with the other housemates, so again I have to be thankful that I am quite good at it.

I am now on the Amtrak on my way to San Clemente, excited about the next place, but also slightly sad I left when I did. I began to get the feeling the people were just getting comfortable with my existence in the house, with one of the guys commenting that “I bring a really great presence to the house”, which actually flattered me quite deeply.

But one can't mooch forever, at least not off the same people, that would make it too obvious. And so I move on down to CSH-2, the home-brewer and beer lover. I have a feeling we are going to have a lot to talk about.

* CSH = Couch Surfing Host