One of my favorite websites is Couchsurfing. This website allows you to connect with locals abroad and get a place to stay, a friend to show you around, and local information. I remember I used it when I was first traveling and stayed at this lovely home in Athens. I’ve grown to love it even more since they have a “who’s nearby” feature on their app, which I heavily used in France last year.
Celinne, on the other hand, created – and used – her own personal social network. She traveled the world only staying with friends and friends of friends. She reached out on the web and found strangers willing to open their home to her. Not only did this help her lower her travel costs, it allowed her to meet wonderful, fascinating, and kind-hearted people. To me, travel is about the human connections we make – and she found a way to make some great ones. Here’s her sharing her story, what inspired her to do this, and what she learned along the way.
Nomadic Matt: Tell us about yourself. Who are you? What drives you?
Celinne Da Costa: My love story with travel dates as far back as I can remember: I was born in the heart of Rome, Italy, to an immigrant Brazilian mother and a German-raised Italian father. Since leaving Italy, I’ve gone from living in the quintessential suburbia neighborhoods that American dreams are made of, to frenziedly exploring Philadelphia while balancing my studies at University of Pennsylvania, to adventuring my way through every nook and cranny of New York City. Last year, I left behind my corporate advertising job in the city to design my dream life from scratch. I began with a journey around the world, in which I harnessed the power of human connection and kindness to stay with 70+ strangers in 17 countries across four continents.
Eighteen months later, I’m still traveling full-time and writing a book about my experience circumnavigating the globe by couchsurfing through my social network.
What fuels your passion for travel?
Travel accelerates my personal growth and challenges me to become the best version of myself. There are so many beautiful places in the world, but after a while, they begin to blend into one another. What truly makes travel valuable is the lessons it can teach you, if you are willing to be present and pay attention to your environment.
Travel has helped me develop the humility and goodwill to learn from people that I meet along the way. It has pushed me to understand my insignificance on this planet, yet still take actions that will positively impact others. Most importantly, it has challenged me to open my heart to others and live in the moment. Ultimately, travel is not a matter of what I see, but who I become along the way. I don’t need to see the entire world. I just want to feel it run through my veins.
Tell us about this long adventure you were just on. How did you think of it? How long did it last? Where did you go? What did you do?
I didn’t want to just quit my corporate 9-5 job on a whim and travel the world without a plan. I wanted to make travel into a lifestyle, not a sabbatical, so I decided to design a project that would 1. incorporate my main passions (travel, writing, and making connections with interesting humans) and 2. create opportunities for a lifestyle change once I was done. I challenged myself to design my dream life, attempt to live it out for six months and re-evaluate once I got there.
That’s where the idea of my social experiment came from: I circumnavigated the globe by couchsurfing through my network. I wanted to reincorporate real human connection back into my life. I never used the Couchsurfing website since everyone who hosted me was connected to me somehow (friends, friends of friends, people I met on the road).
I ended up being on the road for nine months for this project, and having 73 hosts in 17 countries across 4 continents: I passed through Europe, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Oceania, and the US.
How did you actually find hosts to host you? How far ahead did you know where you were going to sleep?
There were no websites involved! Only sheer human connection. All the interactions were initiated by me and were enabled by my phone (texting, voice notes, calling) and social media (mostly Instagram and Facebook).
I reached out to everyone I knew telling them about my project and asking whether they knew someone they could connect me with. I kept moving from one connection to the next until I found someone willing to host me. As my project grew and people started finding out about it, hosts started to reach out to me through Instagram.
I only had a one-way ticket to Italy (where I’m originally from) booked – everything else was on a whim. I had a general trajectory of where I was going, and I would add or subtract places depending on my hosting situation. There were places I wanted to visit no matter what, so there were often times when I was down to the wire and didn’t find a host until super last minute. Other times, I had hosts lined up months ahead. It always worked out – I was only left without a host once, in Dubrovnik, Croatia. I ended up renting a cheap room last minute, but luckily, I did make some local friends on that trip so I’ll have a place to stay if I return!
What was the furthest connection with a host that you stayed with? How did that happen?
My furthest connection was seven degrees in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It was: my mom’s friend’s girlfriend’s client’s client’s co-worker’s friend. It was crazy how it happened. I kept struggling to find a place, and each person would pass me along to someone else they knew until eventually, someone was available and willing to host. This happened several times during my travels – I also had plenty of five- and six-degree connections. I was taken aback by how dedicated people were to finding me a place to stay.
Did you ever meet someone on the road and stay with them? Or did you strictly stay with friends of friends?
Yes, all the time! There was never a point when I had all my hosts lined up – I usually had my next couple of destinations planned, and everything else up in the air. I was constantly meeting and befriending travelers on the road, and upon hearing about my project, a vast majority would offer to host me without me even asking.
For example, I met an older gentleman for all of 30 minutes as I was leaving a meditation retreat in Nepal (which, funny enough, was also part of my project: my Kathmandu’s cousin worked so I was his guest). Despite knowing me so briefly, he offered to host me in Tasmania. I ended up visiting his and his wife’s farm (located in the middle of nowhere) six months later with another host, and it was amazing. Four complete strangers ended up spending an entire evening sharing stories about our travels and philosophies on life over a feast of freshly caught crayfish and vegetables picked from their garden.
Tell us a few host stories that completely surprised you when you were on the road.
If there is anything I learned from meeting hundreds of people during my travels, it’s that there is so much more than we could ever fathom going on below the surface of a human being. It is our nature to categorize things. With people, it tends to be by culture, race, geography, religion, etc. If you make an active effort to put these categories aside, sit down with locals, and demonstrate some basic interest in their lives and stories, you’ll find that each person is their own universe. In fact, the most incredible nuggets of wisdom I’ve gotten came from people who didn’t even realize their own brilliance.
One of my favorite encounters was with Maung, an older gentleman that I met who was a hotel manager in Myanmar. After some conversation, I found out he smuggled cows to Thailand for a living when he was younger, and was a commander in the guerilla fighting movement against the oppressive regime alongside a monk who later became famous for his humanitarian efforts towards orphaned children. What a story!
Then, there is Adam, the Italian-American host I fell head-over-heels in love with (spoiler: we broke up). We grew up less than an hour away from each other in the US yet I found him while he was living in Australia.
Lastly, I’ll never forget asking my host Anna in Bali whether she knew of a spiritual healer and her telling me that she lived with one. That week, I spent most of my evenings sitting on their porch in an Ubud village, discussing the meaning of love and happiness as they proceeded to school me on life with their wise Balinese philosophy.
What challenges did you have couchsurfing around the world? How did you deal with them?
I could never predict the comfort or location convenience of my accommodation, so I really had to learn to go with the flow and not set any expectations. I’ve stayed in penthouses with my own private room, bathroom, and maid, and I’ve also stayed in cots on the floor of a village with a hole for a toilet. It’s funny because some of my most “uncomfortable” hosting accommodations ended up being my richest and best experiences, and vice versa.
Also, “reading” my hosts was a challenge. Their reasons for hosting me were so different: some wanted to pay it forward, others wanted to actively show me their city and pick my brain, others were only offering a place to stay but didn’t necessarily want to socialize. I had to sharpen my people skills so I could stay respectful and intuitive to people’s boundaries (or lack thereof).
What are your tips for people who are inspired by your story and want to do this on their own? What are some great resources you suggest to use?
Identify what you are passionate about, and try to build your travels around what works for you. My project was successful because I tapped into my strengths and passions. If you’d like to create a project around your travels, I suggest you customize it around your preferences: if you are an introvert and hate talking to people, for example, spending hours a day chatting with people and asking them to host you may not be the best idea. Make your journey fun by catering to what you realistically feel comfortable and happy doing, and make sure you do some planning ahead of time.
My best resource was fellow travelers who had also done round-the-world trips. When I was thinking about doing this trip, I reached out to full-time travelers on Instagram, asked friends if they knew people who went on long travel trips, and did a lot of “blog surfing.” I had so many Skype calls with strangers who had just finished round-the-world trips before I left for my own. Talking through my doubts, fears, and confusions – and being reassured that I would be okay – made me so much more comfortable with leaving.
Specifically, my trip was inspired by one of my mentors Leon Logothetis, who is the author of book (and now TV show) The Kindness Diaries. He traveled the world on a yellow motorbike relying on people to offer him gas, food, or shelter, to prove to himself and to others that humanity was kind. Other books I also read that prepared me for the trip were Vagabonding by Rolf Potts, The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton, and A New Earth: Awakening To Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle.
How do you make your money last on the road? What are some of your best tips?
My top tips for people trying to make it work financially on the road:
- Know your weaknesses, and plan for them. I’m terrible at numbers and never budgeted before, but I knew I would have to if I wanted to make this work financially. I created an excel sheet and for the past 18 months, have been documenting and categorizing every single expense so I can track where I need to cut down if necessary. I also knew I’d go crazy if I didn’t occasionally treat myself to something I liked but wasn’t necessary, so I gave myself a monthly “frivolous stuff” allowance.
- Always remember that you can barter or negotiate. Traveling and negotiating on the road taught me that currency is not only monetary – it is social as well. I did not have abundant funds, but I did have a skillset: I am a brand strategist by trade, as well as a writer, social media influencer, and content creator. When negotiating with dollars didn’t get me anywhere, I would offer my services in exchange for goods or services of similar perceived value. In many areas of the world, people respond favorably to a favor-exchange. If marketing isn’t your skillset, that’s totally ok too! I’ve seen people barter all kinds of skills for experiences of places to stay: for example, exchanging farm work or teaching English for room and board, helping a small business with coding a website in exchange for free tours, etc. The possibilities are endless!
- Embrace the minimalist lifestyle. When I’m on the road, I live a very minimalist lifestyle. I only travel with a carry-on to keep my belongings to a minimum, I hardly buy souvenirs or clothes, I walk or take public transportation whenever possible, and I buy most of my food at the grocery store. I normally don’t pay for culture and history-related activities or tours; I email places ahead of time, tell them about my project and that I’m a writer (in addition to having my own social media following, I also write for some major publications… both which I achieved by creating this social experiment). Since I stay with locals, I don’t pay for accommodation, which helps tremendously.
Were your family and friends supportive of your traveling adventure?
Surprisingly, yes. I was originally nervous to tell my family and friends about my plan to quit my job to travel around the world by sleeping in random people’s homes – I really expected them to try to talk me out of it. Although a handful of them did, the vast majority had a response along the lines of “Yes! You need to do this!”
I was overwhelmed by the support, how much they believed in me, and how they supported me along the way, emotionally as well as by connecting me to potential hosts. I couldn’t have made it without them!
What’s on your bucket list?
Oof, am I allowed to say every country in the world? If had to narrow down to five places that I’m itching to see, they are: Peru, Bolvia, Antarctica, Japan, and the Philippines. Now I just need to find hosts there!
Do you have any advice for people that feel like Couchsurfing is something dangerous that they could never do?
Yes! The first rule is probably the hardest to internalize: you have to trust people. We live in a world that is constantly inundating us with news of what terrible humans we are, but that is not the case at all. I found all over the world that most people are good, and want to help. I have enough stories about people who went out of their way in kindness for me to fill a book (and that’s why I’m writing one!).
Of course, there are exceptions, and that’s where my second piece of advice comes in: trust your intuition. Western society particularly values mind over heart, and that’s something I learned to question during my time in Southeast Asia. It’s important to use rationality and logic when moving through life, but there is something about intuition that just cannot be quantified. Listen to what your gut tells you – if something is off, remove yourself from the situation, no questions asked.
Overall, I’ve surfed over 100 couches in the past couple of years and I’ve only had one bad experience which I quickly removed myself from before it escalated. Statistically, that’s a 1% weirdo rate. Believe that people are good, and that’s the world that will manifest for you!
Celinne Da Costa left behind her corporate advertising job in the city to design her dream life from scratch. She began with a journey around the world, in which she harnessed the power of human connection and kindness to stay with 70+ strangers in 17 countries across four continents. Follow her journey at Celinne Da Costa as well as Instagram and Facebook or pick up her book of short stories, The Art of Being Human.
Become the Next Success Story
One of my favorite parts about this job is hearing people’s travel stories. They inspire me, but more importantly, they also inspire you. I travel a certain way but there are many ways to fund your trips and travel the world. I hope these stories show you that there is more than one way to travel and that it is within your grasp to reach your travel goals. Here are more examples of people who overcame obstacles and made their travel dreams a reality