“One of the guys was Italian,” says Clingman, who is a financial analyst, over a decaf cappuccino. “He had bought a car, and he was going to drive basically from the North Pole all the way to Tierra del Fuego. He was one of the more hard-core travelers. I also had a German couple, and they were taking off a few months from work, and they actually had a car and were more well off than typical. Sometimes it was just somebody who needed to come by from L.A. for a few days. So it’s really all different types.”
Clingman, like most couchsurfers, is an avid traveler, though most often he chooses conventional lodgings when he is away from home. As I sip my white chai from its huge, homey mug, he rattles off a list of the countries he’s been to: England, France, Egypt, Spain, Morocco, Jordan, Syria, Turkey. He’s visited at least 25 countries, he estimates, even living for a time in places such as Saudi Arabia.
“A lot of people,” he says, “they think of going on vacation as sitting on the beach for ten days. And anyone who belongs to CouchSurfing, that’s not their idea of vacation.”
I raise my eyebrows, thinking of my own meager forays into international exploration. For someone who (a) has a studio apartment that barely accommodates one and (b) has been out of the United States only thrice, the couchsurfing concept — and experience — is hard for me to fully grasp.
While at Rancho’s, I asked Villa and Pike to elaborate what they perceive the essence of couchsurfing to be.
“There are sort of three aspects, or ways one can participate in couchsurfing,” Pike explained. “There’s the hosting side of it, which is what initially attracted me. Then there’s obviously the other end, the traveling aspect. On both sides you get a cultural exchange that money can’t buy. The third aspect is the community aspect, where people in a city gather and hang out with each other and any couchsurfers that might be in town. A lot more people use CouchSurfing for traveling or hosting than for meeting people in their own town. But there are some people who dedicate more of their time to organizing events and keeping the local community going. Really, the whole thing is about one thing: meeting people from around the world who are similar only in their open-mindedness and desire to experience different types of people and cultures.”
This seems to be the overall theme of couchsurfing: getting to see something or meet someone outside of your normal sphere.
One of the first traveling surfers I speak with, a woman named Kerri Thiede, has had just that experience. We meet at Cream, where Thiede arrives wearing a shirt bearing the word “Munichen.”
On a trip to Greece, she agreed to meet a fellow couchsurfer in a small town she’d never heard of.
“She told me about these cliffs that they had [built] monasteries on. I’d never heard of it, and I asked my Greek friend and he’d never even heard of it. So I flew into Athens, took a train out there, stayed for two nights, and I got to see these monasteries. And they were beautiful. I went there and they had skirts lined up outside the doors, because all women had to wear skirts. It’s some Orthodox Greek thing. [So] I’ve gotten to participate in a lot of cultural things from [couchsurfing].”
A 33-year-old traveling nurse, Thiede now resides in Orange County. She has been surfing off and on in San Diego for the past few weeks and appears to be, at least in my eyes, a CouchSurfing veteran. She has been on the site since March 2006 and estimates she has surfed 50 times and hosted 50 people. Her job, which allows her to take contracts all over the United States as a neonatal nurse, is the perfect fit for her surfing lifestyle.
In addition to surfing, Thiede hosts wherever she is currently living. She is accustomed to receiving small gifts from her surfers. One stands out in her memory.
“A girl from Finland brought me Finnish vodka and camping shot glasses, little tin shot glasses that come in a tiny little leather pouch,” she says, smiling. “And this stuff called Turkish Pepper. It’s this licorice-tasting spicy candy. She brought them to me and she said, ‘OK, what you’ve got to do is you crunch up the peppers, put them in the vodka, and leave them overnight.’ She said it was a Finnish tradition and that ‘there are two things you need to know about Finland. One, that it’s cold, and two, that when it’s warm outside, we like to do everything we can outside, so we go camp a lot. Hence the camping shot glasses. But, since it’s so cold, we drink a lot.’ So that’s why the vodka. I had some couchsurfers over at my house so they could experience it. They all loved it.”
Though Thiede and many others have been lucky in their travels, some have had less than desirable experiences.
“Anna” asked that her real name and home country not be used. We meet at another CouchSurfing event but arrange to speak via computer, as she is hurrying home. Now living in Los Angeles, Anna has surfed both in the United States and abroad.
“I’ve had some strange experiences,” she says. We are talking via the Internet telephone application Skype. “I think, as a girl, you can always get creepy guys. They might hit on you or something. You have to look at people’s profiles before you contact them. Just use common sense.”
Even though she considers herself to be a good judge of character, Anna has run into some problems while surfing, especially with males.
“I guess they come on to you, they start flirting with you,” she says. “You’re not supposed to do that to a couchsurfer that’s a guest in your house, you know? They [say,] ‘Oh, can I kiss you?’ blah, blah, blah. You’re not supposed to do that. And I know some other girls who couchsurfed with some guy, and he said, ‘Oh, you don’t have to sleep on the couch, you can sleep in my bed, that’s okay.’ You’re not supposed to sleep in their beds. They act like ‘Oh, you’re in my house, now you can be my wife.’ ”