Published by The Skinny
Steve Clarkson is the latest to nestle up on someone else's settee.
“The best way to find yourself,” said Gandhi, “is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Arranging to stay with someone you've met on the internet, who is willing to host you and others in their town or city, anywhere in the world, makes a similar point. The travelling facility Couchsurfing.com, also known as 'The Couchsurfing Project', will be celebrating its official 5th birthday in January, and I, as one of its 725,000 members, will be celebrating.
I'll begin with the image of my girlfriend and I, weary-legged and bleary-eyed, emerging from Bremen train station at 5.36am. We'd spent the night travelling back from Berlin, a journey usually accomplished in under three hours by day, but with a wait of four hours in Hamburg station by night. Being quite the budget traveller, I'd insisted upon the latter to avoid paying another night's accommodation. Catching half an hour’s sleep among the homeless in the station McDonalds, we couldn’t wait to find the flat of our Couchsurfing host, a girl named Isis, which wasn’t far from Bremen station.
“Just call me at 6am and I'll open my door,” Isis had assured us, her words comfortably echoing as we staggered through the empty streets. My girlfriend and I discussed what we were about to undertake and the fragility of the situation – in how many different ways could this go wrong? Despite being active travellers, we were complete virgins to the community and the practise of Couchsurfing. We were tired and needed to sleep, but we didn't know whether or not to feel daunted or excited.
I took reassurance in some of Couchsurfing.com's own statistics: 99.7% of surfers have reported 'Positive' experiences, with around half of these experiences resulting in permanent friendships. A few of my friends were also about to experience it for the first time themselves, in Estonia, Russia, Argentina and Peru. So, it was a blend of my friends' willingness to do it themselves, the encouraging statistics and my own curiosity and principles that inspired us to take this leap of faith ourselves.
We arrived at Isis' flat just after six, and she greeted us with an exhausted embrace. “I'm getting ready for work,” she told us, leading us upstairs. “You need coffee?” She showed us round her flat, and into “our room” – not a dingy cellar with an old mattress and a couple of dirty airline blankets thrown on the floor, which had entered the darker side of my imagination – a well-kept, clean, three-person apartment in the shade of a local park, with a marvellous home cinema.
“My flatmate is sleeping, but she is excited to meet you,” Isis enthused, “and I told my friends you were coming, they want to go out with us tonight for a drink and meet you too!” Her hospitality seemed both surreal and normal at the same time, and all I could do was keep thanking her, before she prepared our couch and we sank into it without any grace.
As the birds sang outside, I began evaluating the different forms of accommodation available when it comes to travelling – each owed their own merits, as well as perils. One choice is to take night buses or trains – something which would save money, but an option not always comfortable, possible, or safe. Then there's the comfort of hotels, the most expensive option and entirely anonymous, giving you all the comforts of your own home and delivering you nothing of real cultural value or experience. Hostels can be fun and sociable for meeting other travellers, but they don't take you much further towards really understanding a location and its natives – perhaps they just add a few more pages to your Lonely Planet guide or a few new Facebook friends when you get home.
It were these frustrations that led a web consultant from New Hampshire to provide the world with a fundamentally different way of travelling itself. “I decided to take a weekend trip to Iceland one May,” Couchsurfing founder Casey Fenton writes on the website. “I'd gotten a web-special from Boston to Iceland on Monday and would fly on the Friday. Only one problem though. What would I do when I got there? Stick it out in a hotel? A hostel?” He managed to get hold of the University of Iceland's student directory and promptly emailed 1,500 of its students, telling them of his trip to their country, and asking them for a place to crash.
“Within 24 hours I had between 50 and 100 saying 'Yeah, come stay with me!' So I stopped with [a girl named] Yoa and her friends. They showed me 'their' Iceland. Great stories, great fun, and amazing friends were discovered on that weekend in May. When I was on the plane back to Boston, I thought to myself, 'That's how I want to travel, every time.'”
Casey was clearly not alone, as now 725,000 couchsurfers represent 48,000 towns and cities in 231 different countries around the world – not just Europe and the United States, but spread over all continents. Even in the earth's most unpopulated areas there are couches available, cluttered among far eastern Russia, Saharan Africa and, incredibly, the North and South Poles.
So when Isis returned from work that evening, I decided to grill her on her experiences as a Couchsurfing host. “You are the first ones to stay here,” she told us, to our surprise. After all, there were 700 couches available in Bremen alone, so to stumble upon another first-timer was a coincidence – but it also showed just how fast Couchsurfing.com is growing, with an average of 1,100 new members registering to offer their couches every single day.
“I joined the site about a month ago,” Isis continued, “you are the first, then a couple from St Petersburg arrive next week.” She then explained how one of the reasons she registered herself as a host on Couchsurfing.com was to improve her language areas. “My grandparents live in Moscow, so I'm able to speak some Russian but I'd like to know more, also English is always important to know.” On their profiles, most users add which languages they speak and to which level (Beginner, Intermediate, or Expert). However, Isis won't always approve requests from those who speak languages she'd like to learn.
“I've already turned two people down. A 45-year-old guy from England sent me an email requesting to stay on my couch – but from his profile I could tell from his age and his personality that it wouldn't have been very comfortable having him stay here.”
Inevitably, browsing through the profiles of other couchsurfers, as a host or as a surfer, can be a dark and unpredictable affair. As with most social networking sites, you can find seedy-looking, bare-chested, middle-aged men with taglines such as “I have the ability to synthesise some compounds and I can separate drugs from bile, plasma and urine” going unpoliced, but the site does offer some safeguards, which are taken seriously.
Before negotiating a stay with some stranger you can view references other members have left on their page, and there is also a 'vouch' system, similar to eBay's or Amazon's. Hosts can also prove their whereabouts by receiving mail from the site admin which earns them a higher 'Verification level', and last known log-in locations are posted for all to see, making them more attractive hosts to the couchsurfing newbie.
Similarly, surfers are encouraged to describe themselves in depth on their profile page in order to make it easier for their potential hosts to find out what sort of person they are. “When you emailed me requesting to stay here I could see from your profile that we would get on fine,” Isis told us, sipping from her glass of wine as we await her friends.
It was ten o'clock before Isis' friends arrived, and we were warmly greeted with a bottle of Becks and a handshake. They took us out instantly to one of the city's Irish bars, and before long we were downing pitchers of beer as if we were in a student union with our flatmates back home. Isis and her friends explained Bremen's bar and club scene and offered us advice as where to go and where not to go – as well as describing its thriving industries, its student life, its local habits and lifestyles, popular films and the German arts scene – and of course, we were more than happy to correspond with their eagerness to understand the British, too.
After a truly exhilirating night, we bid our new friends guten nicht, and went to bed, disappointed that we were getting our flight home in the morning. We'd traded in the familiarity of seeing the world through tourist maps and Google for a far richer experience – understanding the world through its people.
Growing up in a world far more likely to place safety before adventure, I used to believe that the well-documented 'Golden Age' of travelling – thumbing lifts around whole continents and finding places to sleep in generous strangers' homes, personified by Kerouac and glamourised by his sixties children – was only something to read or reminisce about, and had been confined to the dustbin of culture. Concluding from a thoroughly enlightening stay with Isis, it is making its resurgence.