They were kind and offered to put me up for the weekend. I did not know them, and they were trusting that this stranger in the house would be alright. That is the principle of Couchsurfing. People generously open their homes to strangers passing through to spend a night. I was coming back to Princeton for another Hakomi weekend, and the place I had stayed previously was not available. I put my name out with my plans for my weekend of education, and I got several offers from strangers to host my stay. Each one was kind, generous, and unique. However, one was on the bus route I used to get to the Yoga Center where the training was taking place, and I was intrigued. A family of four from the French Alps staying in Princeton for a couple of years, and their house was 50 meters from my bus stop. At the end of the weekend with them, my life had been forever changed.
I joined Couchsurfing in 2011 after hearing about it on a podcast, This Week In Tech. It had a similar ethos to other sharing applications, but something about it grabbed me. I am a naturally curious person, and I have traveled a lot in this world, and consistently I have been amazed at the kindness of strangers in all parts of the globe. This seemed like a way to bring more of that kindness into the world, and that seems like a very good thing.
My interaction and reliance on strangers goes back to my travel to Ghana. In 1988, I was headed to Ghana to work with Operations Crossroads Africa. I had graduated from Austin College, had been accepted to medical school, and had deferred that for a year or two as I wanted to get some graduate school experience. I heard about this group during my last year in school, applied, and was accepted to a team going to Ghana. We would be working with VOLU, one of the oldest volunteer work groups in Africa, working in two different villages, doing construction work. It would be the entire summer, and I was excited. However, I did not know a soul on the trip, and in those days prior to the internet, I communicated mostly via letter to the organizers and to the two leads for our group. I found myself, freshly graduated from College, boarding a plane in Dallas Texas for the east coast to meet someone I did not know, in an airport I did not know, to go to a country I did not know, to work for the summer. The number of things I did not know hit me as I boarded the plane for Baltimore, and I wondered exactly what I had gotten myself into. This trip opened my eyes about life, the world, and the kindness of strangers.
In 2003, I went back to Ghana to teach at a medical conference. I was arriving early, and the medical student I had been emailing kindly offered to pick me up at the airport. She had not met me, and in fact though that Gil was short for Gillian and expected me to be a woman. The porter she had asked to hold a sign for me in the luggage area was surprised when I walked up, and he smiled telling me I was not the sex he was expecting. Ama was a surprised as he, but quickly recovered, and made me a guest in her house with her parents, showing me once again the kindness of strangers in this world.
With these and many other moments of kindness in my memory, I signed up for Couchsurfing and offered our house to anyone who needed a place to stay. Given our location, the number of surfers that I expected was low, and it was not until 2017 that we had our first guests, and since then we have enjoyed hosting many travelers wondering through West Prince. It is a bit of a step back in time, before the arrival of modernity, when travelers would look for lodging wherever they could find it. It is the kind of travel that was common when the Camino de Santiago was being travelled by Christian Pilgrims in the Middle Ages. Along the way, there were places for the pilgrims to rest as they walked toward Santiago de Compostela, and in that time, travelers often would find themselves welcome in houses and pubs, sometimes for money, and other times for news and stories of the outside world.
Our guests bring with them a view of the world that I otherwise would not have. They bring news of what life is like for them, and they give me a glimpse into other ways life might be. From the young man hitchhiking and volunteering his way around the world, to others who are simply trying to see all of Canada prior to returning home. Each one has left an imprint upon my life, they have shown me something about myself that I did not previously know. They have shown me a point of view that I would not have had, they have demonstrated another way to live this life, and have given me the courage to step beyond my self-imposed comfort zones.
So, I found myself in the winter of 2016 looking for a place to stay in Princeton, and I posted my travel plans onto the site. This lovely family offered me a place to sleep, and the opportunity to get to know them. In return for their kindness, I had the chance to meet and fall deeply in love with this family from France who have become very dear friends. This one-off hosting became a regular stay as I came back, again and again, to their house to stay with them, getting to know them a little better each time. Their children teaching me very deep lessons about kindness and love that I might not have learned if I had not stayed. This chance encounter with strangers has become an extension of my family, and I have become an extension of theirs. It was an act of bravery to put my name and plans out into the world, and an act of bravery for them to offer me space in their home, and over these last two years, we have all been richly rewarded for stepping beyond our comfort zone, for trusting the goodness of others, and for bravely welcoming strangers into our lives. I imagine how wonderful it might be, if we all did this just a little bit more as we went throughout our days and look forward to the next weary travelers who cross our path and change our life.
If any of resonates for you, and you happen to be curious, and wish to know more, do not hesitate to drop me a line. If you would like to know more about my work, or to work with me, feel free to contact me. I post regularly to Instagram (@gilgrimes), Twitter (gilgrimes) , Medium and Facebook (gilgrimes) about whatever arises. And if you would like to stay in touch sign up for my newsletter (probably once or twice a month at most).