“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.”
As the evening concludes, I find myself becoming more at ease. Sure, I think, couchsurfers could be anybody, but at least they seem like nice anybodies.
But I still know next to nothing about the actual practice of couchsurfing, and so, via email, I arrange to meet Villa and Pike at Rancho’s in North Park for a quick bite of Mexican food. As we gather around the table, I learn that both are professionals, not the squirrelly wanderers I imagined — I will admit I thought the average couchsurfing host would appear as haphazard as me. But no, both are smartly but casually dressed and well styled; I almost wish I had bothered to change my pants.
Villa works as a regional account manager at, ironically, a travel dotcom, while Pike does business development for a women’s health-care company. Both have been on the CouchSurfing site for around a year and, between them, have hosted over 100 people.
“When I heard about [the website] CouchSurfing,” Pike says after the waiter takes our order, “I thought, ‘This is the coolest idea!’ I set up a profile with the intent to host people and had no specific plans to travel. A couple months later, I got a message from a young American-Japanese married couple who had just moved to San Diego from Japan and were looking to meet some new people in the area. So the first people I met from CouchSurfing, I wasn’t surfing [with] or hosting. A month later, they moved in and were my roommates for nine months.”
During the couples’ stay, Pike hosted his first couchsurfer, a chef from Cannes, France. He was, Pike reports, “an extremely nice, soft-mannered 38-year-old man” and “cooked us one of the best meals I’ve ever had.” He is coming back to visit Pike and Villa in January.
The food arrives, and over what looks like a delicious enchilada, Villa, who learned about couchsurfing from San Diego’s previous ambassador, Carissa Peck, relates the tale of her first surfer, a German man with an around-the-world ticket and a GMAT study plan.
“He was a young guy from Ulm, Germany. He was supposed to stay for three days, but we got along so well I told him he could stay as long as he needed to — it ended up being a week.” Villa puts down her fork. “He was following the sun, basically, with a one-year, round-the-world ticket, so he was here during our summer and then went to Australia and New Zealand during their summer. He came back to visit again after that and stayed with me [for] I think three months. So, needless to say, we became very good friends. I spent a lot of time with him, talking about his life back home and comparing it to mine, sharing interesting sociocultural facts, learning we had a lot in common — I learned a lot about Germany without ever going — from a primary source in my home thousands of miles away!”
Villa estimates she and Pike host one to two people a week.
“I’ve had four people stay with me at once, and I’ve had ten people stay with me at once. If there’s room on the floor, couchsurfers will sleep wherever — they can rough it — and we don’t mind. The more the merrier is what Daniel and I say! Most [of the surfers] are backpackers that are used to making do with what they have, on a budget, so anything is appreciated. We do what we can to help them out, just like we would like someone to do for us if we were traveling through a new city.”
Another of those I met at the Bamboo Lounge, Lance Trammell, who recently left a job in the auto industry, meets me late one morning at the spacious Cream Cafe on Park Boulevard. Trammell recalls the first time he hosted someone from the site.
“My first couchsurfer was a Spanish girl. She was 21 years old, and I think her parents were a little nervous about what she was doing. So I went and picked her up — Daniel [Pike] came with me — and [she] had met another [woman, from the Netherlands] on the bus who was traveling on her own and had never heard of couchsurfing and was staying in hostels.”
Pike, Trammell relates, offered to host the other woman, who was in her mid-40s. She ended up enjoying herself so much that she joined the site as well. Back in her home country, Trammell says, the woman has started hosting couchsurfers herself.
“I looked at her profile,” he says, “and she’s so booked with people that she’s hosting she’s got [a message up that says,] ‘Please don’t email me about hosting for another three or four months because I don’t have any room.’ We email back and forth, and she says, ‘Thank you, this has been the best experience.’ ”
Trammel heard about the site through Pike, who is an old friend from high school. One of his most memorable surfers was a lucky traveler who, on very little money, made it all the way across the country.
“One of my first couchsurfers — I think he was my fourth — had made it from New York to San Diego on 70 bucks,” he recalls. “He ended up getting a really cheap, eco-friendly bus, and he took it to Chicago. So he went couchsurfing with a guy there, and this guy turned out to be a pilot for an airline and flew him to Denver. And, I think, somewhere in Denver, the story was that he ended up with a stewardess who got him as far as L.A., and then he took a bus or Coaster down to San Diego.”
Colorful characters and experiences of such kismet are not uncommon for couchsurfers, nor are outlandish destinations or plans. Eliot Clingman, who was also at the Bamboo Lounge meeting, has had his share of interesting guests. He and I convene at Cafe Bassam in Banker’s Hill to discuss his couchsurfing experiences. Amidst the antique oak chests and crystal dishware that abound in the cafe’s crowded interior, he tells me of his own surfers.
“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.’ ”
Still, she surfs to this day because she likes it and finds that she meets more interesting people than she would otherwise. She does, however, understand the risks and offers a piece of advice.
“I’d say it’s safer to surf with a girl if you’re [traveling] alone. If you’re with your friends, no problem. Guys, if they have a few drinks, start to come on to you. You won’t be comfortable in a house with somebody who’s acting like that.”
Female surfers definitely face more risks than their male counterparts, but by staying smart, many manage to stay safe. Barbora, a 26-year-old Czech surfer I speak with at another Bamboo Lounge meeting, also cites common sense as part of the skill set that surfers must hone.
“I’ve been living in Prague myself without any of my friends or family,” she says. “So I don’t know. I think if you are a good person, what you give you get. I’ve been to many places and traveled a lot, and I know that people can be mean or bad, but if you are conscious, if you know the people a little bit, if you meet many people…If I don’t feel comfortable, I won’t stay with them. And usually I am meeting the person first, so I am staying with someone I’ve already met.”
Bad couchsurfing experiences don’t have to be dangerous or sleazy, necessarily. Eliot Clingman told me he once hosted a surfer who was couch-hopping not for traveling but for another reason entirely.
“He was clean and didn’t overstay his welcome at my flat,” Clingman says. “However, he ended up having emotional and financial problems that I would have preferred not to be exposed to.… He was leaving his family but didn’t have financial resources and was basically homeless. The upshot is to always take note of the references and other information in the member profile on the site.” He pauses. “But there haven’t been any disasters so far,” he concludes.
There have been other incidents. Villa recalls a Russian man she hosted, an individual with less than ideal views on race.
“There were some cultural differences [between us],” she says tactfully. “He made some comments during his stay that were racist, and we pointed them out to him. He didn’t correct them, so when it came time for him to leave… He had asked for three days, and when the three days were up, he wanted to stay longer, and I told him that I couldn’t [do it] but that I could drop him off at a hostel.”
After his visit concluded, Villa left a negative reference on his profile, citing his poor behavior. In retaliation, the man issued a nasty reply.
“There are certain guidelines for when you write a negative reference on the site, and he wasn’t very objective,” Villa remembers. “Instead of saying that we had cultural differences and addressing what I had told him, he decided to write a reference insulting me. What I wrote was completely objective. Eventually, he got kicked off the site.”
After the reference/counter-reference exchange, Villa reported the man to CouchSurfing’s safety and security team, a group of trained volunteers who monitor communications on the site.
With all the people who have come through her home while surfing, it is surprising to me that Villa has had only the one negative experience. Pike helpfully clears this up, referring to the CouchSurfing site’s extensive referencing system.
“In terms of problems that could happen, I like to equate it to eBay: there are always going to be issues that come up, but 99.9 percent of the time people are having great experiences. The site is set up in such a way as to weed out people who are there to abuse the system. If they’re repeatedly making people uncomfortable, or obviously freeloading, they will get negative references, and they won’t get hosted. That’s the beautiful thing about how it works.”
“And they can’t delete [the negative feedback],” Villa adds. “Which is the most important thing.”
Surprisingly, no people I spoke with have had any major disasters in their time as hosts. Many have their own sets of rules, which help eliminate problems before they start.
Villa lists hers. “No smoking cigarettes inside the house. Also, if they’re going to bring someone over, they need to ask first. I don’t want to get home [to find] random people I don’t know. Some people give their couchsurfers keys to their house, while others simply say, ‘This is the time I get home, this is the time the house will be locked.’ It’s whatever you want to make of it — your house, your rules, your hospitality. While surfing someone’s home, I respect the house rules — I expect the same in my home.”
At Cream, Thiede breaks it down for me.
“Everybody’s different,” she says. “I came down here the other night, and the first guy I stayed with, his profile said that you have to leave when he leaves. But other people, they leave you keys to their place. I think it’s more that they look at your profile, and if they see that you’ve been doing it a long time, they maybe know that they can trust you. I’ve given keys to people. I’ve let them stay at my place when I wasn’t even there.”
Other than the few encounters previously mentioned, this group of San Diego hosts — and surfers — has had, overall, positive experiences.
But no matter what, Pike says, people will be skeptical.
“A lot of people think, and rightly so, that [couchsurfing] is completely crazy.” He laughs. “You’re letting strangers in your house and going off to bed. You don’t know what they’re stealing or breaking or whatever. But as I began to meet people and get comfortable with the site, that fear very quickly went away.”
I wonder about this. Driving home from meeting with Pike and Villa, I entertain the notion of couchsurfing — or hosting — myself, quickly dismissing both, my apartment being too small, my time and funds too limited for travel. And then there is my stepmother’s caution. I sigh, pulling into my driveway, then snap out of it. It’s couchsurfing, I remind myself, recalling all the stories I’ve been told of people traveling the world, meeting, bonding.
I wince, thinking of my parents’ potential heartache.
But now I know more.
Author’s note: Since conducting these interviews, I have joined CouchSurfing.org in order to meet and converse with people from Latvia, my father’s home country. Sometime in the near future, I hope to visit some of them there.
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Yes, I've slept on a few couches in my time.
Never had to, but it looks like fun.
I've had friends freeload on me.
I've vowed to never offer up my couch.
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