My Perfect Adventure: Sebastien Le Tuan

The CouchSurfing co-founder takes us to Easter Island as well as Tetiaroa, where he had one of his most memorable CouchSurfing experiences (blacktip reef sharks were part of the picture), and shares some advice for first-time international travelers

    Photo: Courtesy of CouchSurfing

Sebastien Le Tuan.

It’s the people that make a place, as the saying goes—and Sebastien Le Tuan has taken it heart. Le Tuan, who was born in France and moved to California with his family when he was 10, traveled to Spain in his teens and stayed with a local Catalan family while he was there. The family treated him like one of their own, like part of the family, and he never forgot it. Their hospitality helped shape his travel style in the coming years and, perhaps in some ways, a new travel movement.

Le Tuan is one of the co-founders of CouchSurfing, a site that helps travelers meet locals when they go to a new destination. Before a trip, travelers looking for a place to stay can search CouchSurfing’s global network for people who live in cities they’re planning to visit. Through a messaging system, they can request to “couch surf”—or sleep for free at a local person’s apartment or home while they’re in town. If they already have a hotel booked, they can also message locals to simply meet up for coffee or take a quick tour of the sights. The arrangement is useful for globetrotters on a budget, but it’s about more than saving money: The interaction is meant to be a cultural exchange, and couchsurfers, as they’re called, are encouraged to connect meaningfully with the people they meet and to give something back, perhaps taking their hosts to dinner or leaving a personal gift in exchange for the hospitality.

Le Tuan, 37, helped create CouchSurfing in 2002 with the original founder, Casey Fenton, and two other co-founders, Dan Hoffer and Leonardo da Silveira. Since then, the network has grown to include more than five million members in every country and more than 97,000 cities. Today, Le Tuan continues his regular career as a software product designer and lives in San Jose, California, though he travels often and does what he can to keep the CouchSurfing spirit alive. In this interview, he takes us to Easter Island, where lessons can be learned, as well as Tetiaroa, where he had one of his most memorable CouchSurfing experiences (blacktip reef sharks were part of the picture), and he shares some advice for first-time international travelers.

Describe your perfect day, from dawn 'til dusk. Where would you be, who would you meet, and what would you do?
I’m in a place I find beautiful, where the air is fresh, the sun is shining, the landscape is colorful, and sounds of nature are plentiful. I start my day with the sound of birds chirping, telling me to do a big long stretch in my bed and shake my body to get the blood flowing. I sit up, stand, and go outside to the morning air with my mat, for either five minutes of warm-up and then five minutes of stretching, or the Five Tibetan Rites. After that, I go and fix myself a nice breakfast of fruits, nuts, a smoothie with rice or almond milk, some eggs, and a big glass of water with some coconut water and pineapple juice mixed in.

Then I take a look at my to-do list for the day (which I prepared the night before), make any last-minute changes, and get on it. One thing I strive for is balance, and though I know it's not realistic to always be balanced (in fact, sometimes you do need to focus more on one thing at the expense of another), if I can have a balanced day, those are the days I enjoy most.

During the day I'd work on a project that I feel passionate about—something, perhaps, that satisfies my need for creative expression. For lunch I enjoy a picnic with friends and loved ones, followed by a one-hour relaxing siesta (the Spanish have it right) before getting back to productivity. Come 4 p.m. it's fitness time. I do something to keep my body fit, but in a fun way: maybe a 20-minute swim in a lake, or perhaps I combine being active with learning a new skill, like slacklining (which is on my to-do list), while meeting new and interesting people with amazing and inspiring stories to tell (CouchSurfing is absolutely the best for that).

By evening I'm relaxing with loved ones and friends, old and new, enjoying a tasty dinner while watching a colorful sunset over the horizon. I take a look at my to-do list and everything is already checked off. Maybe I'll veg out tonight, or maybe.... That is a perfect day.

If you could travel somewhere you've never been, where would you go and why?
Easter Island, off the coast of Chile. There are many documentaries that you can watch about what might have happened there. It's a special place to me because it's a micro-scale hint of what can happen when humans get wrapped up in pride and greed—and destroy their environment in the process. I'd like to go there, meditate, and touch the Moai (stone heads), which are a constant reminder of why humans working together with nature, not against it, is the way to a better world.

Where is the best place you've ever visited? What made it so special?
Incidentally, it was (relatively) not very far from Easter Island. It was in French Polynesia, on the island of Tetiaroa. I was CouchSurfing at the time. My host had taken me for the weekend to this special island, then owned by the famous actor Marlon Brando, and those two days comprised one of my favorite adventures ever.

Saturday I decided to go snorkeling on my own, with one of those underwater disposable cameras you buy at the local grocery store. The water in the lagoon was warm and crystal clear, and I let myself drift along, enjoying the colorful sea life and occasionally looking up to see where I was in relation to the beach. I noticed something about 12 feet away: It was one of those blacktip reef sharks, but it was big, about six feet long. It wasn't coming toward me, but still, that got my heartbeat up a notch. Then another movement caught my eye: There went a second one, just a bit smaller. I quickly did a 360 visual check to make sure nothing else was around, and then decided it was time to head for the beach. Of course, I had to try and take some photos of the sharks, and somehow managed to do so, though I was definitely not going to go for the perfect shot.

If you could have lunch with any adventurer, explorer, or athlete, who would it be and why?
Adventurer/explorer: Jean-Luc Picard. Who wouldn't want to go where no man has gone before without him? I would feel safe.

Athlete: Mike Tyson. How he is turning his life around from a destructive, negative force to an inspiring, humanizing, positive force is truly inspiring.

What's something you can't travel without? And why do you need it?
Probably my Salomon Techamphibian shoes. They fit well with jeans, and I can use them as slippers, on the beach, in the river, and even during my sprint distance triathlons.

When you arrive at a new destination, what's usually first on your agenda?
Eat and sleep.

What motivates you to keep traveling?
Discovering special places, usually remote and hidden. Making friends and hanging out with local CouchSurfers is how I usually start these adventures.

As a child, what was your dream job? If you gave up that dream, when and why did your plans change, and do you have any regrets?
My dream job was either to play music or to design products and make them easy to use. As luck would have it, midway through my career I got to combine music and product design for a while, designing digital audio software applications for a few years. That was a blast because I was an end-user of those applications, and it's always great fun when you design a product that you want to use yourself.

When and how did you first venture into your field of work?
It was via my father, who was an engineering director at Apple back in the '90s. He often brought home new Macs and had new creative software to try out. I remember making seamless audio loops with SoundEdit from my favorite songs, and using them to make remixes. After an internship, during which I produced a 20-second animated teaser using the company's Web animation tool, I realized I loved creating stuff on the computer, and I got into graphic design and Web design just for fun. Thanks to some excellent mentoring and coaching, eventually I established a career in software user experience design.

In 2001 [CouchSurfing co-founder] Casey Fenton and I took a trip to Maui together, and it was during this trip that Casey first shared with me this idea that had been brewing in his head for years now about a website which could connect people all over the world in a meaningful way—opening up the world and making it more accessible by connecting would-be travelers with local hosts worldwide. I immediately saw the potential CouchSurfing had for making the world a better place, by bringing different cultures together within a context of openness and generosity. With no hesitation, I accepted Casey's offer to join the project as a co-founder, and the rest is history.

What's one piece of advice you would give to someone going abroad for the first time?
One word: CouchSurfing. It's like already having a friend there who has your back.

My advice to a first-time couchsurfer is seek to truly understand. The people you meet along your travels, your hosts, the locals, and the cultures you encounter.... Don't be afraid to ask questions, and return the favor to your hosts or locals who help you in some way. Take them out to eat or give a simple gift—be creative. Creating meaningful connections all over the world will go a long way. And, of course, don't forget to have a blast. After all, CouchSurfing is also about creating inspiring experiences that you will one day tell your grandkids about, on your rocking chair.

Have you ever had any role models or mentors? Describe the most influential and what he or she taught you.
My father and mother have been the most influential people in my life. Each have shown me very different qualities that I sometimes have a hard time putting together, so I will instead describe the mentor/coach who I alluded to above. He's the one who hired me as a young product designer at Adobe, and eventually helped build the foundation of what now is a massive user experience and research team in that company. One of the biggest lessons I learned from him was simply to have fun in a stressful situation, or, in other words, to make a stressful situation fun (unless, of course, that would be inappropriate). It's amazing how powerful that technique is—give it a try sometime.

Do you have a life philosophy?
Many. It's on my CouchSurfing profile: Learn from the past, live in the present, hope for the future. It's about improvement, not perfection. Keep learning new things. Strive for balance. You have the power to choose a positive attitude and believe in yourself. No pain, no gain. Just do it, now!

Have you ever run into a problem or experienced a near accident that made you think twice about your travel style?
Knock on wood.

If you had to choose a different career, what would it be and why?
Interior designer. I like design aesthetics but also utility/practicality. The spaces I would design would be highly functional and experiential to all senses. I love playing around with light effects, and mixing in temperature, smells, touch, and sound would make it such an amazing experience.

Name three things you still want to cross off your life bucket list.
Pay my respects to Bruce Lee (and his son) at his grave this year on July 20, his 70th birthday.

Have lunch/dinner with Sixto Rodriguez. (I highly recommend watching the movie Searching for Sugar Man.)

Swim with dolphins.

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