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How couchsurfing changed the way I travel

Maram Khalif, in Jerusalem at the Dome of Rock.

courtesy of Maram Khalif

Dispatches is a new series of first-person stories from the road. Readers can share their experiences, from the sublime to the strange.

Travelling around the world was always one of my dreams but, like most people, I was convinced I could not afford it.

Finally, I decided to follow my heart even if I had to sleep on kitchen floors – I ended up sleeping on other people's couches.

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When I decided to take the plunge and book a trip to Europe, I Googled for ideas on the cheapest place to stay in Amsterdam. I stumbled upon Couchsurfing.com – a community-based website for free accommodations. At first, I was naturally skeptical and thought this was a gimmick. Why would any sane person let a stranger stay in her house free? There were some safeguards put in place – the site offered references from past guests and hosts – but the biggest safeguard, the website stated, was yourself. There were thousands of people like me who were looking for a place to stay free, to make a friend in a foreign land, or to exchange cultural and other ideas. The more I read about it, the more this premise resonated with me.

My first experience was in Amsterdam where a criminal lawyer with good references from past guests agreed to host me for a few days. But by the time I was sitting on Amsterdam Central Station's entrance steps, it dawned on me that I might be going home with a person who could be a serial killer. What was I doing? I'd have to follow my instincts. Then a tall man with blue dreadlocks who spoke very fast English arrived. He seemed like a nice guy, and there was not one peep from my gut.

That night, I slept on a blow-up mattress beside his bed in his tiny bachelor apartment. I did not sleep well, but over the next couple of nights, I slept like a baby. I went to dinner with my host's friends and ended up hanging out with eclectic and amazing people, people I would not have otherwise met during my short stay in Amsterdam.

I moved on to Paris. Here, my gracious host put me in a room all to myself in her bi-level apartment in the 14th district. Her artist friends took turns hanging out with me: A writer took me around Luxembourg Gardens; a musician took me to a local jam session; another friend, a tour guide, took me to the bargain boutiques.

At one point in Jerusalem, I had house keys of three people who were hosting me in different cities. Even though I kept meeting people for the first time, they were – incredibly – trusting me with their homes.

There were times that I decided to pass on a host – it could have been the tone of an e-mail or some other unexplainable feeling. But in a million years, I did not think couchsurfing would change my perception of strangers and the true meaning of generosity. Staying in someone's house has allowed me to trust my intuition and never question it.

Twelve years and 21 countries later, it's still true.

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Send in your first-person story from the road to travel@globeandmail.com.

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