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Last night, I met a Chinese magician, bid farewell to a couple off to India, and talked to a man named Moon.  Just another happy hour with the local CouchSurfing crowd.  CouchSurfing is a “wordwide network for making connections between travelers and the local communities they visit.”  An online profile allows you to search for a place to crash while you’re on travel and it also allows you to invite people to crash at your place while they’re on travel.  If you can’t do much traveling or hosting, the weekly gatherings are a cheap, friendly, and local way to meet new people from all over the world.

I began going to CouchSurfing events last summer when I attended a party hosted by a man named Murat, one of the local couchsurfers.  His group of friends invited me to one of the weekly happy hours and before too long I had a profile on the website and became a regular at their events.  The local CS organizers arrange for us to meet at a different bar each month, which introduces us to a variety of places we might not otherwise visit, and it gives area businesses much needed revenue.

Most exciting of all is meeting lots of interesting people.  While I have not traveled to a CS host or hosted a CS traveler myself — my profile reads “drinks or coffee” only — I have met some great people:  a young man named Leendert (pronounced Leonard) from South Africa who dropped by D.C. on his way to work for Youtube in California; Etienne Fleury, a man of Indian descent born and raised in Toulouse, France; and Andrea Montesdeoca, a law student at GW who moved here temporarily from Mexico City.  These are just some of the internationals I’ve met, which says nothing of the great local friends I have found who regularly have parties, movie nights, and outdoor activities (usually hiking, so I don’t go).

In a recent article titled “Why More Americans Don’t Travel Abroad,” Natalie Avon suggests many reasons only 30% of 308 million-plus Americans don’t have passports.  Avon cites our sense of having everything here, including cultural pockets we call Chinatown or Little Italy.  She says we can be skeptical or ignorant of the world because “foreign countries generally don’t make it into the media for doing good things, just for natural disasters or bad news.”  She adds that we have a work, work, work culture that doesn’t encourage a gap year for travel.  Finally, she says we are convinced that traveling abroad is expensive.  To convince us otherwise, she cites the Office of Travel and Tourism Industries’ findings:  “The 30.3 million Americans who traveled overseas for vacation in 2009 spent an average of $2,708 each — including airfare, lodging and other expenditures.”

Avon leaves out any mention of the American class divide though.  How many of the 70% of Americans that do not have a passport can actually afford nearly $3,000 on travel?  She also notes it’s easier to travel from the east coast to Europe than it is to travel from the east coast to the rest of the country, which is true, but again, how many more people live in the rest of the country?

She does close with a rallying final point about diplomacy.  Bruce Bommarito, executive vice president and chief operating officer for the U.S. Travel Association says, “One of the true benefits of travel to foreign countries is it’s probably the greatest form of diplomacy….  Strange ideas go away and you realize that we’re all similar, just with different cultures.”

I agree with Bommarito.  Whatever the reasons for not traveling abroad, we must face the fact that we are increasingly a global society (almost said “global community” but that sounds too kumbaya).  If you can’t afford to travel or don’t have the time but still want to meet great people from all over the world and practice your diplomacy and cultural literacy skills, join CouchSurfing.  You don’t need a profile at once.  Just come to one of the weekly happy hours and meet people who are open to meeting you.  This month we get together on Wednesdays at 6 p.m. on the second floor of the 51st State Tavern in Foggy Bottom.  Who knows?  After a few get-togethers, you just might make a CS profile for yourself, too.

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