Growing up my mother always told me not to talk to strangers, but I've never been a big fan of rules to begin with. My ability - and potential vulnerability - to instill trust upon first impressions are to her dismay but as it goes strangers are only friends you haven't met yet. That's one reason, if nothing else, I felt dangerously at ease as my train pulled into the Merrylands station to meet Antoine, a man I knew nothing about beyond the brevity of information I skimmed on his couchsurfing profile.
"Is that you, Simone? Look left…no look right…do you see me?" said an unfamiliar voice from the other end of the phone as I descended from the platform.
Regardless of my limited knowledge I recognized Antoine immediately, dressed in the same khaki cargo pants, black windbreaker, and worn-out hiking boots from his picture. His sturdy shoulders, machismo demeanor, and tent built atop the four-runner perfectly emulated his personal description: a self-sufficient outdoors adventurer who leads camping trips throughout New South Wales. His chosen travel companions being strangers for his stable friends can't keep up with such a lifestyle. I had received a generic email the week before asking if I wanted to join on one such excursion and without debate I agreed blind-eyed.
Two other female surfers waited at his warehouse for my arrival, equally unknowing to our upcoming trip. Unfamiliarity of faces aside, everyone was excited to exchange expensive lattes and busy streets for sleeping bags and unbeaten trails in the Blue Mountains. The Blue Mountains are what Yosemite is to California: a National Park playground of canyons and rivers, sandstone plateaus and thickets of trees that extend for miles upon miles. I quickly learned these forests are Antoine's favorite place to explore, our excursion one of 150 trips in the span of a year for him. The area so vast he claims to not have seen everything the World Heritage Site has to offer. For that reason he uses couchsurfing, the world's largest travel network to meet and host International travelers, to invite eclectic personalities to discover unfamiliar sights, drawn to the idea of helping people find treasure at the end of the map.
At first glance our differences were readily apparent. Introductions as we journeyed outside of the metropolis solidified our diversity ran deeper than surface level. I rode shot-gun with Antoine, 38, Lebanese, doubling as his scribe in angry texts to an American who delayed our trip to watch the Superbowl and curious writer asking more questions than reciprocated. When did you first get involved with couch surfing? Why not make this lifestyle a for-profit type of trip? Who are the people that have changed your cultural perceptions along the way? Sometimes my journalist habits precede me, but it didn't take such questioning to see his overpowering personality and distaste for people who change his plan. Liz, 45, Dutch and Andrea, 33, Colombian sat in back with the canned food and sleeping bags as we, four perfect strangers, ventured into the wild.
We arrived late to our first campsite, a hill perched amidst a wave of mountain ranges filled with wild kangaroos. The grassy plains were deserted, quiet and seclude, for us to talk late into the night about relationships, the stars, energies and spirits - topics that intrigue travelers rather than suits. Liz told stories of her telepathic communication with ghosts. Andrea shared stories about scuba diving the Great Barrier Reef. Antoine spoke louder than everyone else and I, Simone, 22, American strived to contribute a certain level of maturity that better suited the decade gaps while remaining true to my youthful self.
The following days' adventures left nothing to be desired as Antoine catered to our outdoor interests and physical capabilities. While I experienced euphoria from the fresh air of the outback and new terrain I couldn't help but wonder if these routinely visited viewpoints for us less experienced campers ever felt mundane. Collectively as a group of women we followed as Antoine led, but to nowhere in particular that would give a new understanding for the landscape. He simply loves to share the beauty of Australia with people curious to discover it, and hopefully learn something in the process.
"When I meet people, they always teach me something, even if they're just telling me a few sentences about the city or country they grew up in. I test myself, push my limits, and when I meet disagreeable people I see what type of personalities I can handle. I can teach others about survival skills and show them the beautiful things I've seen in this country. It's a learning exchange. I have doctors who come out here on these trips with me and tell me I'm lucky I don't know the difference between Sunday, Saturday, or Tuesday. That's why I do this…my home is where my tent is."
Such reflections are the backbone of the couchsurfing community. The not-for-profit experience is a way to build friendships across the globe and learn from shared knowledge of people, destinations, cultural differences. The foundation is built upon a mutual karma exchange for notorious vagabonds.
But after three days venture and two nights sleep underneath the chilly Australian sky we rode back toward the buzzing city in undisputed silence, for we had exhausted the bleak end of hopeful conversations. Liz seemed annoyed, Antoine looked unfulfilled, Andrea talked with sass, and I yearned for a heavy-caffinated latte from a cafe on a busy street. In the end we were still essentially four strangers, with four very different personalities, interests and comfort zones. We exchanged information but from last impressions Antoine likely ripped Andrea's up while Liz buried them away in her memory to resurface later during a premonition. I filed the business cards and emails away in my rolodex of weird encounters of people I'll probably never see again - but I guess that's what happens when you agree to go couchsurf camping with a group of perfect strangers.