Waveless Surfing

CouchSurfing.org, a new online community, is changing the way people travel and connect with each other, one couch at a time.

Jul 30, 2009

Dressed in a mask and wig on the eve of Carnivale, Venice’s version of Mardi Gras, I introduced myself to a few similarly costumed Spanish students. As our legs hung from the side of a canal bridge, we shared stories about our families, friends and travels. When I asked where they were staying while in Venice, I received a response I was not prepared for.

In broken English, my new friends explained that they were “couch surfing” at a local Venetian apartment. They had found their generous host on a website called CouchSurfing.org, and after contacting him, he agreed to open up one of his extra rooms for these students to stay free of charge. It sounded unusual, not to mention unsafe, but after some extensive research, I tried it out myself as I traveled through Amsterdam, Hamburg and Zurich. Three safe couch surfing experiences later, I can attest to the cultural, financial and social value this style of travel naturally assumes.

Tales From a Couch

Couch surfers are travelers who forgo hotels and hostels in favor of a generous resident’s couch or spare bed. Although the practice has been around for decades, the website CouchSurfing.org makes this style of traveling available to a global community. There are now over one million members on CouchSurfing.org, representing over two hundred and thirty countries and over sixty thousand cities. According to the site’s mission statement, CouchSurfing “seeks to internationally network people and places, create educational exchanges, raise collective consciousness, spread tolerance and facilitate cultural understanding.”

The website operates with a profile-based networking system similar to Facebook. Surfers leave references for one another and after a surfer stays with a host, both parties are expected to leave feedback on each other’s profile.

“These responses allow the members of this community to feel a sense of security,” says Kelly Doering, a Madison resident and CouchSurfing member.

Filling out a CouchSurfing profile takes extra effort, but is considered a courtesy in the online community. The more a host knows about a surfer through their profile, the safer they feel inviting that person into their home. Dan Perry, thirty-one, is a local CouchSurfing member and says he has rejected as many as two-thirds of the requests he receives from travelers looking to surf in Madison. His primary reason for rejecting a surfer is because they have not fully filled out their profile.

For those who get the chance to surf with Perry, a customized tour of Madison awaits. Perry’s usual routine includes “walking down State Street, seeing live music at Terrace, hanging out at a park, crawling from bar to bar and seeing the Capitol.”

Perry enjoys showing his city to fellow surfers because, “we’re not just staring at the Capitol, we’re talking about our experiences and sharing the company of new friends.”
It was through a new friend that Perry first heard about couch surfing. He was in Cuzco, Peru, when he met a woman who claimed she had never paid for a place to stay before the hostel where they met. Soon after, Perry was surfing couches throughout South America. Although he saved money, Perry says his interests in surfing were more than financial.

“It wasn’t about getting a free couch,” Perry says. “It was about making a new friend for a weekend, while seeing a city and experiencing culture through the eyes of a local.”

Since hosts don’t benefit financially from the arrangement, Perry said their mindset was similar to his own: “they just wanted to meet people, share stories and enjoy the company of someone from a completely foreign culture.”

CouchSurfing.org currently claims to have an average age of twenty-seven, and while most surfers are between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four, there are also members well into their seventies and eighties. People like Doering, forty-five, represent the couch surfer well removed from the college age and life style. Doering usually travels alone and has surfed couches in Mexico, Turkey, India and New York City and recently hosted his first guest. Doering still manages to find surfers within his age range but says, “It does seem to get more difficult, the further away you get from your twenties because your focus in life changes.” Regardless of the extra effort required for someone his age, Doering insists “it’s a great alternative way to travel.”

In a time when our economy is down and the American image needs a bit of an ego boost, CouchSurfing.org serves as a small but important solution to these problems.

“With couch surfing, you can learn about anyone’s culture, but you can also provide a positive experience for your host so that they look favorably on you and your culture,” Doering says. “Today, this is really important for Americans. The more people get to know each other, the less likely we are to demonize those we do not understand.”

 Drew Goldblatt is an editorial intern with Madison Magazine.

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