“Don’t,” says my stepmother. “I wouldn’t do that, if I were you.”
Her voice is tinny through the speakers of my cell phone.
“Why not?” I ask.
She pauses, considering.
“The whole thing just sounds…dangerous,” she says. “I mean, staying in strangers’ houses? They could be anyone.”
I shrug, forgetting for the moment that she can’t see me.
“I don’t know,” I tell her. “I’ll think about it.”
The first time I heard the term “couchsurfing” was, I believe, sometime in college. I had just asked a temporarily homeless friend where he was staying during his brief un-residence, and he looked at me with a grin. “Oh,” he said, “I’m surfing couches.”
I have since found that couchsurfing goes far beyond the need for a place to lay one’s head when in a jam. A near-literal term, couchsurfing has become an international phenomenon in which travelers, often in lieu of more traditional lodging, opt to stay on the couches of people they may never have laid eyes on. Even when in countries foreign to them and where they do not know the native language, couchsurfers stay with strangers.
Off the phone, I replay the conversation with my stepmother in my head. Dangerous. Could be anyone. I can feel my forehead wrinkling. Is this, I wonder, such a good idea?
It looks good on paper, I reason, and the whole thing started out well enough. According to the “Founders” page of the official couchsurfing site, CouchSurfing.org, then-26-year-old Casey Fenton had grabbed a cheapo one-way ticket from Boston to Iceland. With no place to stay, Fenton turned to the computer, emailing strangers in Iceland — most were from the university there — to see if he could finagle a spot to crash. The response was, by Fenton’s report, overwhelming (he received something like 50 emails), and a few years and several journeys later, the site was born, complete with slogan: “Participate in Creating a Better World, One Couch at a Time.”
The site itself is user-friendly. “Search for a couch now!” a pull-down menu beckons; it informs visitors that the United States has 116,868 couches currently available. On the right-hand side of the page, visitors are told who is online and from what country. At the upper-left-hand corner is a small picture of a crowd of, one assumes, smiling CouchSurfing.org members, an inflatable sofa cast aloft above them.
In California, a menu titled “Couchsearch” informs us that San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco have the most “hosts” (people who let couchsurfers into their homes), each with 1000-plus. Click on “populate map with surfers” (a term that is used on the site to mean both couchsurfers and hosts), and little virtual map-pins appear; mouse over these, and individual boxes pop up, complete with name and picture. Virtual dossiers, there are thousands of these profiles, each with a snapshot; smiling faces peer out, some in front of elaborate land- and cityscapes, trophies of their travels.
Evening falls quickly, and soon I am due at the Bamboo Lounge. It is here that I will be introduced to my first couchsurfers, contacted through the site’s media coordinator.
I arrive at the bar early and am directed by the bartender to a back room. He pops a sign on a side table. “CouchSurfing Project,” it reads, emblazoned with the site’s red surfboard logo.
As I wait, I wonder how the bartender pegged me for a couchsurfer. Was it my tousled hair? My flip-flops? Hooded sweatshirt? Are these things associated with the typical surfer, or was it simply that I was just moments ago roaming the bar looking lost? As a movie — which looks to be Chinese crossed with Bollywood — plays silently to my left, I wonder who, exactly, is going to show up.
The first to arrive is Lance Trammell, 27, a jovial fellow with a wide smile. He has, he tells me as he sips on his Coke, hosted over 30 surfers in his seven months on the site. He also organizes bocce-ball games for locals. San Diego, he claims, is one of the more active surfer communities.
Not long after Trammell, in comes Lilia Villa, 24, a San Diego CouchSurfing “ambassador,” which means she’s one of the go-to people within the couchsurfing community. Her status has been approved by the site’s administrators; she has met the proper requirements. These include a four-month-or-more membership to the site and three fellow-member “vouches.” Vouches are a security measure put in place to let potential surfers know that members are (a) who they say they are and (b) that they are safe to interact with.
Villa has been a member for just over a year. She has over 100 couchsurfing friends on her profile. Many have left comments on her page, which boasts an overwhelming number — I lost count at 60 — of positive notes from fellow hosts and surfers alike.
Right behind her is Daniel Pike, 27, another CouchSurfing ambassador and Villa’s roommate. He, too, has a long list of positive references on his profile, which also details the couch in their home that he and Villa offer. “I have one comfy couch that can have the pillows off and one person on the pillows on the floor and one on the actual couch,” he describes, in the “couch information” section. “I also have one double-size air mattress. There’s plenty of room in my living room for up to four people, but everybody will be staying in the same room.”
The event soon moves to the main room of the bar, where surfers have gathered to eat and drink and chat. Hands are shaken, hugs exchanged, and laughter rings out against the backdrop of lounge music that plays lightly over an unseen sound system.
It is not unusual for couchsurfers to meet like this; Trammell is right, there are tons of activities around the country, as evidenced by the site’s “Events” page. Hosts, I’m told, often bring their surfers with them to wine-tastings and baseball games and, in the case of the Bamboo Lounge, get-together “Tipsy Tuesdays.”