A trip to Iceland

Published on 4/1/2010

The girl I chose as my host in Iceland may not have been Björk, but she was a singer, and quite the socialite in Reykjavik. She’d opened for the Fugees when they were there in concert and had appeared on the cover of a gossip magazine. You might think this was why I chose her over someone else, but it was actually the fact that she didn’t look Icelandic that I found intriguing. She had dark hair and looked like she could possibly have been from South America. “Wow,” I thought, ‘it would really interesting to get the perspective of a foreign person living in Iceland.”

Johanna picked me up from the airport and took me to her parent’s house. The whole time we were in the car together I could sense there was something unusual about her but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, so I kept quiet. Her home was classically Icelandic, set on the coast with beautiful views of the Atlantic. It could be argued that even her family looked classically Icelandic, and with his white beard and knitted hat her father looked like a happy fisherman. They looked so different from Johanna that I wondered if she was adopted. In the car ride from the airport she had talked a lot about wanting to visit Cuba. I thought maybe that’s where she had been adopted from as a child and wanted to go back and visit.

On the wall in the living room there was a picture of a beautiful, blond-haired, blue-eyed woman winning some kind of pageant. Johanna explained that it was her sister winning the Miss Iceland contest. I couldn’t keep it in any longer. I had to ask why she looked so different from her family. She laughed and told me that in Iceland everyone looks so similar that as a performer she needed a way to distinguish herself. She’d plucked her eyebrows into a thin arch and dyed both them and her hair jet-black. After looking at her closely I saw that underneath the hair and the deep tan there was a blue-eyed woman who looked just like her sister. I couldn’t believe that hair dye and a tan could change the way you look so dramatically!

Most of Johanna’s friends were socialites too and they took me out bar-hopping nearly every night. It seemed that part of the fun for them was to “see and be seen.” It was a time of year when the sun never really set so we would stay out until 4am each morning and then crash on someone’s couch or in their garage. It was my first true CouchSurfing experience with people I didn’t already know.

In addition to the Icelandic nightlife I saw hot-springs and volcanoes, but one of the most rewarding things was being able to give Johanna and her friends a very American experience. Near the city of Reykjavik was an American air base with a fast-food restaurant called Wendy’s that apparently served the best burgers around. Wendy’s is a well-known chain in the US but since I’ve been vegetarian all my life, I had no way of knowing if that were true. Johanna and her friends assumed that because I was American I would automatically be allowed onto the base even though they were not. I knew my nationality probably wouldn’t give me any privileges at all, but we decided to try.

They really wanted to try those burgers though, so when one day there was a helicopter show on the airbase, we hatched a plan. We rode up to the side gate, our car packed full. In as relaxed a manner as I could manage, I told the guard that we were there to see the air show. He told us we would have to use another gate around the corner. That wouldn’t work because that entrance and the airshow were separated off from the the rest of the base. If we went through that gate we wouldn’t be able to get to Wendy’s. I was frozen. We’d come this far, I didn’t want to disappoint my new friends by just turning around and going home. After staring blankly at the guard for a few seconds, I asked, to the shock of everyone in the car, “Uhhh, how about we just go to Wendy’s instead?” To our relief, he laughed. “OK,” he said, “just don’t let anyone know I let you in.” In my mind it was a funny thing to want to do, go to a fast-food restaurant, but I was happy because, in a weird kind of way, it was like I was showing my hosts a little of my own country.

As I sat on the plane preparing to fly back to the US, I remember thinking that this was one of the best experiences of my life. I thought to myself “I need to travel like this, every time.”

The Icelandic students had proven me right. My idea for a website that connected travelers with people who were willing, eager even, to host them, was going to work. The important lesson though was that this had worked because both my potential hosts and I had made an effort to describe ourselves before meeting in person. We talked about ourselves in such detail that when Johanna and I eventually met we weren’t like strangers at all. We had not only established trust, but we had established that we found each other interesting enough to bother meeting.

The website needed to do the same. It needed to go beyond the basics of name, age and occupation. It needed to ask people questions that probed deeply enough to discover what was really interesting about them. The site needed to be a social network that helped people share who they really were with people hundreds of miles away.

This trip inspired the questions that you see asked on each profile on the website today. Which of them do you find most useful in choosing who you would most like to host or surf with? Are there any other questions you think we should ask; any other information you would like to see?