Wednesday, April 16, 2014

James and the Giant Couch

This is the story of the first time I ever "officially" couch-surfed... and a case for why everyone should give it a try. Before I jump straight into this entertaining saga, I must give copious credit to my friend's Jackie and Chad for opening my eyes to the possibilities of Couchsurfing. They have Couchsurfed all over the world, and had amazing experiences - living proof this system works! They are gurus of travel, adventure, eco-friendly lifestyles, and awesomeness. Thanks guys!

Click here - explore the world
The genius idea of Couchsurfing involves people from all over the world, allowing others from all over the world to crash ("surf") on their couch, for free! This allows you to meet new people, get a local's perspective on the place you are visiting, and save money. It's all facilitated through a well-engineered website and kind humans everywhere. If you are already sold and don't care to read further, consider checking out this simple, common-sense list of Do's and Dont's for your first CS experience. 

Alright, so the story begins with me visiting the Couchsurfing website and setting up a profile, so that other people in the CS community could learn a bit more about who I am. Using this amazing online resource is what makes this CS experience "official" - I was going to stay on someone's couch that I'd never met before, unlike just crashing at a buddy's place. (But not too different, as luck would have it).

Let the Couch surfing begin! 
My destination was Savannah, GA. I've heard great things about the city, I knew that it was legal to walk around with open containers of alcohol, and I've never been. Don't need any more reasons! Plus I was on my way back home from FL and this seemed like the perfect place to stop. So, I used the website to sort through CSers in Savannah and started viewing their profiles. Not everyone on CS is able to host people, and even those who do have a couch open for surfers aren't always available when you'd like to be there. So it is very important to do your research, make sure the person seems like someone you would be interested in meeting - and of course confirm that they have a couch available. 

I'm scrolling down the list of CS profiles when I stumble upon James. First thing I notice is his profile picture.
I haven't even met this guy yet, and he's already got me laughing. 

So, I decide to send James a personalized message requesting that I stay a night on his couch. I knew James was going to be a great guy to stay with because on his profile he has almost a hundred references with people saying things like "James is one of those people you never forget...." or "James definitely set the bar high for my first couchsurfing experience... can't wait to visit again" - You get the idea. I also sent a message to two other CSers in Savannah, but neither of them got back to me in time. One replied later and told me he was actually CSing in FL at the time, but he appreciated the fact that I actually took the time to write a personalized request... some people just say "Hey can I stay on your couch?" and that doesn't appeal to him. Seems like common sense! 

Sure enough, the next day after I message James he sends a quick short note back - 
"No problem! What time will you be arriving? here's my # if you'd rather contact me there." 
So I tell James I'll be coming from Brunswick, GA that day after spending the night in a treehouse hostel (It's even more awesome than what you are picturing) and don't have major plans - I could show up anytime. 

He says anytime is fine, and gives me his address - I'm all set. So I head to James' house on Friday evening, and even before arriving I am floored by Savannah's beauty. If you've never been - GO! If you have, you already know what I'm talking bout. Huge live oak trees draped with large clumps of Spanish moss lined the roads, forming a peaceful green tunnel over the streets. Not to mention Azaleas were in bloom everywhere. 
Savannah is beautiful!
So I get to James' place and he comes out to meet me, and quickly offers to help me with my bags. Even after I insist I'm fine - he takes one of my bags to lighten my load. I feel like I'm visiting an old friend already. When we step inside the first thing I notice is the art on the walls. Savannah is famous for SCAD - the Savannah College of Art and Design, and as I would find out, James has many friends that have gone there. Everything from a floor to ceiling portrait of Tupac to disjointed pieces of mirror covering an entire wall, it all catches my eye. In time, I would learn the story behind many of them. I'm also eyeing the big black leather couch in the room, thinking "not bad!"

Then, James shows me to a room next to the living room, and says, "You can stay here. It's my son's bedroom but he's out of town." Woah! Talk about an unexpected upgrade. "Are you sure? I don't mind sleeping on the couch and definitely don't want to intrude." James in his own kind way softly chuckles and convinces me this is fine, and I'm realizing how lucky I am to have met this guy.

The "couch" James let me stay on
As I get to know him, I thank him constantly for allowing me to stay here - especially since I am new to couchsurfing and didn't have a reference on my profile yet.

"I'm happy to give anyone a chance," he says "after all you have to start somewhere right?" Very true. If only more people were like that. He does mention that he is wary of people that don't upload photos though, "I mean how hard can it be?" haha. 

As we're getting to know one another, James asks, "Do you like Popcorn?" "Um, Yeah" "Cool, do you want some?" "Sure!" So James whips up a bowl of popcorn and we enjoy it together while he tells about how he got into couchsurfing. Apparently in the past he has worked as a model for students at SCAD, and got paid fairly well serving as a subject for their paintings. However, when summer came around and all the students left he was struggling to find work as a model. So one of his friends suggests he look for work in NYC, which seems like a good idea - but then he soon realizes New York has a ridiculously high cost of living and there's no way he could afford rent there. Then his friend suggests couchsurfing. 

James looks into it, and is floored by the fact that he was able to find couchsurfers everywhere. 
"Tanzania, couchsurfers there! My hometown, couchsurfers there! New Zealand, couchsurfers there! New York, couchsurfers there!" As a testament to the awesomeness of the system, James manages to arrange places to stay for the entire time he plans to spend in NYC, a couple nights here and a couple nights there, etc. Then, just as he is preparing to head up there - another one of James' friends who is "kinda rich" calls him up. 
"James, I hear you are going to NY! I have a house there and I need someone to look after it, could you stay there?" Pays to have friends! So James ends up staying at her place the entire time instead of Couchsurfing. But after being so impressed with how kind people had been, he wants to return the favor and opens his home in Savannah to CSers. Many couchsurfers and stories later, James and I cross paths. 

He asks about my plans and goals here in Savannah and I tell him I have a clean slate - I just want to explore. He suggests we go walk around downtown while it's still light out and I'm all for it. We first walked through Forsyth Park and I was surrounded by happy people, ornate fountains, old monuments, and green everywhere. Soccer games, kids playing, dogs, frisbee - this is what a park should be! My camera decided to malfunction when I was uploading photos, so I borrowed this one so that you'd get the idea.
Photo of Forsyth Park from Savannah Law School website
While walking through the park, James tells me about something that I find even cooler than all of Savannah's southern charm. He calls it "Echo-land" and it is essentially a specific spot in Savannah where there is an X on the ground surrounded by a diamond. If you stand directly on the X with your back to the Savannah river, you can speak in a normal voice and hear your words echo back to you - directly into your ear. It's crazy! When I first did it, the immediate echo caught me off guard... it's like hearing what you say through headphones, almost. So cool! Only you can hear the echo, everyone else just hears you saying "Hello... Woah!" The really cool part is, not many people know about this... as in almost no one. In fact there were bunches of tourists just walking right by as James and I goofed off on the X while they probably thought we were tripping on acid or something. They had no idea what they were missing out on. If it wasn't for couchsurfing, I would never have known about this awesome spot. Funnily enough, James himself didn't even know about it until a couch surfer told him! WIN! 

Aerial view of Echo-land
I could stop here, and you should already be thinking about how you need to join the CS community... but the story gets even better.

After goofing around at echo-land for quite a while, we started walking back towards James' car and noticed the sky was turning gray. Picking up the pace to avoid the threat of rain, James asked how long I planned to stay. I told him I didn't have plans, was just passing through on my way back home and thought I'd spend some time checking this place out. He replies, "Cool, well you're welcome to stay until Monday if you'd like." 

I think about for a second, "Awesome, well I really appreciate it! I may stay another night then if that's cool - I'm pretty tired now, but tomorrow I'd be up for exploring more and possibly going out to a couple bars in the evening." Totally cool he says, and we agree that plan sounds more appealing than attempting to dodge the rain while walking around town. After all, part of the fun is being able to take your beer from bar to bar!

James told me that one of the reasons he likes couchsurfing is that it causes him to go out and explore his own city. We're all guilty of saying we'll go to that museum or park just down the street... another day. While walking around, random people stop to say hi to James and he introduces me to them, "this is my couchsurfer, Brad." "Another one?" I laugh and shake hands with them, some of them being ex-surfers themselves that fell in love with Savannah and never left. 

James obviously knows many people around, and Savannah has a small town vibe that supports that sort of atmosphere. No one is afraid to stop their jogging to say hi and catch up for a bit, and everyone waves at each other. It was really neat to walk around and experience Southern hospitality at its finest, and in a way that people who lived there a hundred years ago couldn't have imagined. That is one thing I really enjoy about the South, people definitely don't mind slowing life down a bit to chat. 

We go back to his place and he shows me some magic tricks with cards that cause both of us to laugh excessively, I can't really explain - you had to be there. He also tells me about some neat games that he has invented, one was called Back Alley - and it is similar to spades except that you can play with more than 4 people, and the number of cards you are dealt is different each hand. 

His other game invention is even more brilliant. You are probably familiar with the game Bananagrams, where players take lettered tiles from a sack shaped like a Banana and try to make their own crossword grid with the letters they have. There are no turns, you just try to use all the letters you have as fast as possible. Well, James didn't invent Bananagrams, but he did invent a life-sized version that he calls Savannagrams! It's the same game, but played with massive tiles that are made out of a similar sort of material that you would find in an old clipboard. The tiles fit perfectly inside old plastic milk crates. 

Savannagrams with James
James takes the milk crates down to the park, or sometimes the beach, and gets random people to play with him! I'm terrible at Bananagrams, but it's still fun and I told him I'd love to play on Saturday (the picture is proof that I did). So we called it an early night on Friday, and rested up for a big day tomorrow. 

Life with James kept getting better. I woke up and did some overdue internet surfing (life without a smartphone) while relaxing. After a bit, James came in and said, "Hey Brad, I made you breakfast." Wow! I was treated to a meal of homecooked grits and eggs. I'm not usually a grits fan, but I couldn't turn down a homemade meal. And I'm glad I didn't, they were cheesy and so delicious. While eating James told me about a friend of his that makes ... get ready for this, ...Mandolins out of armadillos! WhAt? 

Yup. He asked if I wanted to meet him. Hell yeah! So after breakfast we went over to his house. This guy's name is Wolf, apparently. More on that in a bit. We knock on his door, but then hear a guy from the side of the house yell, "I'm in the back!" We walk over to meet Wolf, who is in the middle of making cornhole sets. He puts down his measuring tape to shake my hand and invites both of us in for a beer. Wolf is a middle-aged tan guy with a salt and pepper buzz cut, and he's full of life. He plays intense ultimate frisbee every week.

James tells Wolf that I am interested in seeing his armadillos. He perks up and shows me into the living room. As I snap a photo, Wolf tells me that he got the idea from the traditional Latin American instrument called a Charango, used in the 18th century. Gnarly. 
He hands me the instrument and it's actually pretty heavy. Apparently he gets his Armadillos from the side of the road, where they are occasionally hit by cars as they graze. A lot of people don't realize that there is actually a sizeable population of Armadillos in the southeast. They can essentially be equated to groundhogs, except slightly slower and stupider. 

After oogling over his instruments, and being shown other Armadillo shells that Wolf has cleaned to use for future projects - we return to the kitchen. James suggests that we take some tequila shots. Wolf says "Ahh you guys go ahead, I'm fine." "Aww c'mon," says James - "It's Saturday!" Good point. 

"Alright, Alright," Wolf replies, meanwhile James grabs a couple lime wedges and a salt shaker. I've just seen an Armadillo mandolin, so I'm pretty much up for anything at this point.  Wolf takes the salt from James, and then barks, "Hey, You wanna see a manshot?! Here, I'll show you guys a MANshot."

Good advice
I never could have imagined what happened next. Wolf takes the salt shaker and dumps a little salt on his left hand, between his thumb and index finger. That part was normal. Then he leans down, puts his nose over the salt, and plugs one nostril with his right hand as he SNORTS up the salt!! Woah dude. That had to hurt. James and I start hesitantly laughing and asking what the hell he is doing, as he yells, "ARRGH! Hold on, I'm not done yet!"

Then he grabs his lime wedge, tilts his head back and holds his eyelids open with one hand while he uses his other hand to squeeze out the lime juice, directly into his eye. Yeesh. Now cock-eyed, bent over, and exhaling heavily - he reaches for the tequila and downs the shot. James and I just stare at him stunned for a second and then burst out laughing. This dude is crazy.

James expresses it perfectly, "Well I guess we'll be women today, cuz we're not taking a man-shot!" HA! Lots more laughing ensues as James and I take our tequila shots the traditional way and watch Wolf complain about how badly his eye burns. After the dust (or lime juice) settles we take a seat outside to relax a bit with a bowl of popcorn. (Popular snack around here)

Wolf asks me about where I'm coming from, and I tell him I've been working for a professor at FSU who is studying Chorus Frogs so I was just on my way home to VA from Tallahassee. "Oh cool!" He says, "I was in the Circus at FSU! That's where I got my name, when I was there I grew out all my hair and people called me 'The Wolf.'" Since I had just come from there, I knew exactly what he was talking about. As it turns out, FSU is one of the only colleges in the U.S. that has a legitimate Circus program on their campus. They've got a huge big-top tent that is actually a permanent fixture, and while we were driving around down there I definitely noticed it. So I tell Wolf, "Oh yeah! I saw the circus tent while I was down there, that's pretty crazy that you were in it!" Then I think back to the MANshot incident and things are starting to click. I think to myself that I've definitely got to tell some people about this.

The Circus Tent at FSU - photo from FSU Flying Circus website
Now James starts laughing and says, "Man it's crazy that you have actually been there... cuz for years Wolf has been telling us that he was in the Circus and none of us believed it! We figured there was no way there's actually a circus on a college campus! hahaha" Meanwhile, Wolf seems very happy to finally have someone legitimatize his story.

After a bit more chatting and popcorn, we head out to the front yard to play cornhole so that Wolf could remind me how terrible I am. I made a fool of myself, but had a great time nonetheless. After a short time, James gets a call from his friend Jared who needs help building a wooden stand for his art class (Jared's an art teacher). So we roll out in James' silver convertible Sebring to help move some wood around. For all you Office fans out there, I definitely felt like Jim for a bit while riding as a passenger in this car. It was the perfect day for a ride with top down.
Bottoms up, tops down! 
The rest of the day was a bit of blur, with lots of stand-building, Savannagrams, and beer. Good times indeed. That evening we went out and I think my camera was even more tipsy than me! Here's the only shot I recovered from the evening.
Green is good
On Sunday we leisurely woke up and I spent the morning soaking up some sun and reading in the park by James' house, while he caught up on some work. James currently works as an area manager for a number of different U-Haul branches. After a while, I came back to the house and James asked if I wanted to go back downtown. I said sure, and then on the way we noticed how nice of a day it was... so James suggested going to the beach instead. Sounds good! On the way, he was kind enough to treat me to lunch. Such a generous dude! The beach was fun, and since the weather was warming up and it was the weekend... there were a fair amount of people there. We people-watched for a while and James told me some of his jokes. On the way home he told me a joke that lasted over 20 minutes - the delivery was more amusing than the punchline, but I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Life's a beach! Photo cred:
At last, it was time for me to say goodbye. I gave James a big hug and thanked him so much for opening his home to me and showing me what life in Savannah was all about. I promised to visit again, and I look forward to doing so. The couchsurfing motto is, "You have friends all over the world, you just haven't met them yet." Well, now I've met my friend(s) in Savannah, and I can't wait to see 'em again. Thanks James!!


  1. Dude sounds like a blast! I'm glad you had such a great intro to couchsurfing! Great to hear the ridiculous story! Keep on couchsurfing :D

  2. Great story man, glad you had a blast in Savannah. I was thinking of signing up for Couchsurfer and this story made me go ahead. Appreciate the story and the advice. Enjoy couchsurfing all.