The Internet's answer to "Can I crash at your place?" CouchSurfing is revolutionizing how the world interacts and rewriting the rules of travel.
–by Benjamin Bombard
One friend says couchsurfing.com is for bums. A prominent male acquaintance says it's for freeloaders. couchsurfing.com's nearly 150,000 users believe the site helps unite the world-its cultures, locations, and its travelers-in trust, tolerance, consciousness, and understanding.
Couchsurfing.com is not your run-of-the-mill social networking website. It helps you sleep on people's couches. Sites like Facebook.com, Tribe.net and MySpace.com serve mainly as a means to maintain connections with one's circle of friends and keep them informed of the crucial events in one's life (actual quote from a random MySpace.com blog: "Every few days I would buy a bag of Hot Cheetos…"), fostering online community. Couchsurfing.com seeks to physically connect people, to put travel-weary butts in otherwise unoccupied couches. Providing travelers a resource to help them find cheap, friendly accommodations, and hopefully an informed and friendly personal guide to a new place or culture, CouchSurfing is revolutionizing how the world interacts via the Internet and rewriting the rules of travel.
Almost a year ago, I created my couchsurfing.com profile and made my own couch available to potential surfers. When I finally had a destination and the money saved up to reach it, I put some serious miles on my personal pedometer and went out to surf some couches myself.
Losing my couchsurfing virginity
Last September I traveled to West Africa via NYC and Paris, laying over in both locations for a day or more.
FACT: I cannot afford either of these places.
Using couchsurfing.com's "CouchSearch" utility-the White Pages of the couchsurfing community-I found and contacted Tim Tolka in NYC. The CouchSearch allows one to choose from a number of potential hosts, that number ultimately dependent on how remote your destination is. At the time of writing, there were 300-plus potentially available couches within 10 miles of NYC. There were four couches in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
It took one simple email exchange to finalize surfing Tim's couch.
In late September, I was standing in Union Square, baffled, surrounded by a squad of rollerblading 30-something's, all wearing matching white shirts, red sweatpants, neon-green helmets and hand, knee, and elbow pads. Along with a growing crowd, we were watching a break-dance troupe perform coordinated head-spins and various other acrobatic maneuvers when Tim found me. We quickly became friends. Tim showed me some really selfless hospitality: he had even blown off a hot-date with a 32-year-old Puerto Rican so he could show me around.
This was all as I had imagined the couchsurfing experience to be. Before setting out from Salt Lake, I had described couchsurfing to my inquisitive family and friends as essentially like having a friend wherever you went. An acquaintance who would enthusiastically welcome you into their culture and home, and it turns out that's exactly what it is.
Tim and I had only ever communicated in a sum total of two emails, and we had little in common besides our love for travel, but we are both open and trusting people, which, as we shall discuss later, turn out to be the most important characteristics of the couchsurfing community.
How safe can this be?
How safe is couchsurfing? What about potentially hostile, dangerous or malintentioned hosts or surfers? According to couchsurfing.com, "CouchSurfing has implemented several precautionary [safety] measures for the benefit of its surfers, hosts, and community. Every user is linked to the other users he or she knows in the system through a network of references and friend links." Benign though it may sound, this is really CS's best safety measure. It functions basically on the same feedback system used by eBay, which seems to work well-enough for major, frequent, and global exchange of goods and currency.
Had Tim proven to be a less than savory character, I could have gone onto the website and posted a negative opinion of him on his profile, thus alerting others. This kind of feedback is highly encouraged by The Collective, a group of constantly rotating volunteers who manage the website from a globally inconstant location (currently New Zealand). Peer review has proven to be a reliable safety valve, for the most part.
Of course, some bad apples slip through the cracks. When that happens, the only option available to The Collective and the CS community is complete exposure.
Recently, a user known as REDXKING was accused by CSers of writing fraudulent checks for thousands of dollars and stealing credit cards. So a mass email was sent to all 150,000 members containing the user's name, his photo, his email address, and his aliases. His profile was disabled, and every effort will be made to prohibit him creating a new profile. That same email emphasizes CS's safety measures:
"Our referencing system is the most important security measure, which I would like to reiterate to our members: If you have a negative experience with another member of this site, it is your duty to leave an honest factual reference. Your reference could help to protect another member. Safety on couchsurfing is the responsibility of all of our members, not just a few!" (Emphasis theirs)
Meanwhile, back In NYC…
My backpack was killing me, so Tim and I went back to his place in Queens and then out into the city. I have never been to NYC and Tim proved to be an exceedingly friendly, knowledgeable, and willing host, introducing me to the city as no guidebook ever could. Together we explored more of Manhattan in one night than I possibly could have through the lens of a Lonely Planet or Fodor's.
While such books are largely necessary for a traveler without ties to a location, they become wholly optional for the CSer. A guidebook could never be as dialed into a city or culture as a local.
With Tim as my guide we ended up in a Texas-themed bar crowded by white-collar suit-&-tie types where a lady dressed in black leather chaps and wielding a bull-whip danced on the bar to "La Cucaracha" then poured vodka all over the bar, took a swig herself and proceeded to blow fire and set the bar ablaze. We got a ride with a porn-star cabbie, visited a poetry bar where I talked with a 50-something Aussie punk lady obsessed with Andy Warhol, met up with one of Tim's friends who revealed her engagement to an Israeli man, and ate pizza slices at two in the morning while we talked with a trio of Japanese musicians who had traveled to NYC to start a band.
Suffice to say it was a rich experience and I slept like the dead at the end of the night on Tim's full-size couch.
So this is Paris?
I arrived in Paris after a restless flight across the pond. FYI: Flight attendants on Air India have a tendency to physically wrest you from sleep (or else employ other passengers to do so) to offer you free booze and really delicious Indian food, which sounds cool, but at three in the morning over the central Atlantic you might not be all that interested in a tall glass of Johnny Walker; I don't know, maybe it's just me.
A quick ride on the Réseau Express Régional-the rapid-transit train that connects Charles de Gaulle International Airport with the Île-de-France region of which Paris is a part-dropped me off at Le Forum des Halles in Paris's 1st arrondissement. All of this might be as familiar to you as it was to me at the time, which is to say not at all!
I had no idea where I actually was in Paris until I found the house of Julien de Casabianca, my host there, and his fellow artists on a corner on Rue St. Martin. Nobody was home so I put my bag down and waited in front of the door, feeling really out of sorts because I had only studied French for two months before setting out to explore Francophone West Africa.
I was soon approached by a friendly German who spoke perfect English. I explained my lack of geographic orientation and he told me that I was only a block from the Louvre; that I was in the heart of one of Paris's oldest and most popular districts.
Hotel rooms in the 1st arrondissement run from roughly $150 into the unadvertised if-you-have-to-ask-you-can't-afford-it range. There are only a few hostels in the area, and they will all cost you US$50 and up. Thanks to couchsurfing.com, I would be staying here for free!
Julien's housemate Sophie arrived about an hour later. She let me in, showed me my room, and told me that Julien was busy working but that I should meet him at 8 p.m. at La Fontaine, a café on Rue de le Grange-Aux-Belle at the Colonel-Fabien stop on the Metro subway system. I explored the Champs-Elysées, walked in and out of the Louvre, and then jumped on the Metro at 5:00 to make sure I knew where I would be meeting my CouchSurfing host.
Julien and I did not connect at La Fontaine that evening. Instead, I sat outside the packed bar and talked with Damien, a circus performer who was more than happy to help me muddle through my limited French comprehension.
I returned to Julien's place in Les Halles and found my bed on the second floor of his apartment, in a studio space that was occupied and used (throughout the night) by a number of artists. As I learned from another of Julien's roommates, Héloïse-a somewhat surly and moody but altogether charming girl who kind of fit my personal prefab mold of a Parisian-the house I was staying in was an artist's squat-house provided at no-cost to Paris's more creatively talented.
Luckily for me, most Parisians speak better English than many Americans do (which made me feel like I fit the typical prefab mold most of the world has of Americans as insular and unwilling to learn another language or culture, but hey, I was doing my best). Héloïse squatted at the edge of my bed and smoked maybe five cigarettes during our hour-long discussion about travel and art and people's preconceived notions of Americans and Parisians.
The following morning Julien and I finally met. As kind of a rule of CouchSurfing etiquette, a CouchSurfer treats his host to a drink or does the dishes or polishes the silver or something. Julien and I went down to the café next door and had the opportunity to finally get to know each other.
As it turned out, Julien had been at La Fontaine the previous evening, but because the place was so packed, and neither of us had any idea who we were looking for, we missed each other. He told me that La Fontaine was Paris's first jazz bar and really important to a lot of people, and that, for reasons I couldn't quite intuit, it had just seen its last jazz performance. I had unwittingly witnessed history in Paris thanks entirely to CouchSurfing.
CouchSurfing is a great way to build one's interpersonal skills. If you have a shell, you'll need to come out of it to get the most out of the experience. If you're at all interested in sports and traveling abroad, I recommend learning about football, "soccer" to Americans. If you do so, you will almost automatically be able to generate conversation.
Sports aside, there's something about the brief time a CouchSurfer has with their host that makes everything you say doubly important. Because you'll only know this person for maybe a day or even a single evening, and because they're opening their door and their home for you and extending you a terrifically generous amount of trust and kindness, you want to be as genuine and real with them as you can, as a way of showing them that you appreciate their efforts. Sincerity, gratitude, and your honest interest in your host or CouchSurfer is worth much more than a beer or a cup of coffee.
CouchSurfing vs. the hotel industry
While not typically as cushy as any number of chain-hotel accommodations (there are always exceptions), the perks inherent in couchsurfing are manifold and are in many ways more valuable than simple comfort.
Couchsurfing isn't only valuable as a way to meet people and create memories; it's also a valuable alternative. Let's be honest: the majority of hotels that anyone on a limited budget can afford suck.
Staying in a hotel is an exercise in confinement to a familiar and antiseptic environment. They are designed to passively entertain, with little or no active stimulation. They are lonely, innocuous and unoffending. They are characterized by blandness, drabness, uniformity, and lack of individualized attention.
Hostels are little better. One often shares a room with others, the noise-level can be unsuitable for getting adequate rest, and they are difficult to find and in short supply.
Give me accommodations in the homes of friendly, outgoing, generous, intriguing strangers who will welcome me and my dog; give me a sleeping bag on the floor; give me genuinely friendly faces in the morning and a bowl of cereal and genuine house coffee; and give the continental breakfast to the guy in room 33.
Not your typical surfers
I hope you're not getting the impression that CouchSurfing.com is a social-networking site for ascetics. There are cushy couches out there. One such "couch" belongs to Peter and Thi-ly (pronounced TEE-lee) Hayes on the east side of Salt Lake.
As you can plainly see, to call the accommodations provided by the Hayes family a "couch" would be like calling the sun a "light bulb." The tranquility of the bedroom is enhanced by the view of a mountain-fed stream from the large window over the bed.
According to Peter, "Accommodations are primo!"
He, Thi-ly and their son Lucas invited me to their gorgeous home to talk about couchsurfing. In true couchsurfing spirit, they also fed me dinner and introduced me to their pet ferret Ding-a-ling, named after Chuck Berry's only U.S. number-one single.
It was Thi-ly who first suggested that the family provide their downstairs bed to travelers. She self-identifies as the family's CouchSurfing liaison.
"I read about [couchsurfing] in a local paper a year ago, and I created my profile soon after," she told me.
When Thi-ly first mentioned couchsurfing to Peter, the idea raised some red flags for him.
"I was leery at first because of stories you hear," he says. "But every experience we've had has violated that initial trepidation. It reminds us that people can be friendly and nice. We grow up in a paranoid world. You can't try anything new, because you're so worried about what could happen."
The Hayeses have hosted five CSers in the year that they have been part of the couchsurfing community. Their guests have run the demographic gamut, from a recently widowed 60-year-old attorney out on the road to rediscover her life, to Adam Schofield, the legendary couchsurfer who is on a mission to couchsurf the world and write a book about doing it. For the Hayeses, couchsurfing reflects the trust we have for one another.
Peter has come to embrace couchsurfing, but he wants to keep things in perspective. "There could be predators," he says. "To say that something couldn't go wrong is irresponsible. Just don't be stupid. If you sense something is odd, trust yourself. We have no reservations about denying someone who wants to couchsurf with us if they look sketchy," says Peter.
The big question: Can I trust you?
All of this is a circuitous way of addressing one serious flaw in American social relations: "stranger danger." I'm unsure exactly when this term entered our popular lexicon, but its basic premise is that people you don't know want to harm you and you'd best avoid them. This dangerously loaded term is directed at America's youth but ends up permeating pretty much every age demographic.
I ran into an 18-year-old guy while couchsurfing in Indianapolis who said he liked the idea of couchsurfing but would only ever couchsurf outside of the United States because people here are dangerous psychos. I don't want to get into all of the logical trapdoors of this guy's impaired reasoning, so let's just say this: He was talking to one of those potential psychos-me. I left him unharmed.
Embracing couchsurfing makes a statement about one's value of community. Communities only exist through a web of trust expressed through tacitly understood and adhered to agreements. Take, for example, one of the simplest, most historically common communities: two platonic, heterosexual friends. There are so many trust agreements here that to list them would bore us both, so let's list one: You do not kill a friend. Pretty elementary. If you and a potential friend can't reach an agreement on that one, I recommend discontinuing relations posthaste.
Agreeing to a couchsurfing exchange is an amazing expression of trust in other people. It expresses our belief in humanity and the kindness and generosity of strangers.
"Trust is something we need to get back to," says Thi-ly. "Everyone we've met has been an intellect. [Couchsurfers] are not superficial or flashy. They're liberal, open-minded, activists, Burning Man-ers; very Bohemian. They're adventurous and they're not a threat. CSers are not out there to get you."
But so, let's face it: someone with less than golden intentions will, in the end, take advantage of the admittedly utopian altruism of CouchSurfing. Bad things happen, and maybe one prerequisite for joining the CouchSurfing community is a pair of roseate glasses. It is unfortunate but inevitable that some misfortune will befall a couchsurfer or a host. The questions this eventuality poses are crucial to the future of CouchSurfing.
What will happen to CouchSurfing and its values when this bad thing happens? Perhaps the community will dissolve and return to its hostel and hotel beds. In every aspect of life, we know that bad things can and do happen. I say that allowing fear to limit our experience of the world -its cultures and peoples, its wildlife and landscapes, its winds and tastes and smells and textures, its smiles and frowns, it beauties – to what the Internet or magazines or television or radio shows or hotels can provide would be a crucial mistake.
So put on those rose-colored glasses and serve yourself a tiny slice of utopia. Let's open ourselves to the possibilities contained in trust.
Benjamin Bombard is a geographicaly inconstant writer, currently living in Salt Lake City. His next couchsurfing destination is, in fact, Mongolia.