Andrew Lee/the Gauntlet

Surfing the world

A traveller’s experience with couchsurfing

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The first time I met Duncan Stokes face to face was when he showed up at my front door yesterday. A couple of days from now, he will catch a flight to Los Angeles to buy a motorbike and then ride down to Machu Picchu, in Peru. One word comes to mind when I think of Stokes — spontaneous. Stokes came to Calgary because he was bored and wanted to live in Canada for a while. He quickly discovered he wasn’t well suited to the weather.

I met Stokes through the website couchsurfing.org. He says I should describe him as lanky with a goatee. But, I will add, unlike the stereotypical Brit, he can’t hold his liquor. And after a few glasses of wine, he is more than willing to indulge me in some of his numerous travelling experiences. He has been on some extensive adventures: he travelled by train from Moscow to Beijing, drove across every state on mainland United States, scootered around southeast Asia and cycled from the top of Scotland to the bottom of England.

The previous week, couple Mathias Raynaud and Anne Laure, from the lonely island of St. Pierre, a self-governing island off the Newfoundland coast with ties to France, stayed on that same couch along with their energetic dog. We (dog excluded) shared a few beers at Calgary’s Couchsurfing meet-up — which takes place the first Monday of every month at the Hop ‘n’ Brew pub downtown. This November’s shindig was more alive than usual, with more than 40 Couchsurfers shuttering in from the cold to make friends and share their travel stories.

Over the past few months I have opened my doors to eight different Couchsurfers from all over the world with exciting adventures to tell. And as great as it is to host, the best part is the surfing. Last month, in October, during a three-week road trip to the United States, I was warmly welcomed into the homes of three different hosts. I spent the other nights at a friend’s place, even slept in my car and only had to pay for two nights in a hostel.

During my 10-month self-proclaimed leave from work, from July 2012 to May 2013, I backpacked through Europe, surfed 33 different couches and met some really amazing individuals.

I met Yulia Harchevnikova from Moscow: she hitchhiked over 25,000 km across Europe and is fluent in four different languages, studying to learn five more. I stayed with her for four days.

I met Marc Macaspac, a man who has done it all. We teamed up during the epic tomato fight in Spain called La Tomatina then, several months later, I stayed with him for three days in Prague, Czech Republic. He was a video engineer for the Rolling Stones, climbed the ranks of the U.S. Army and is now teaching English in Prague.
I came across the most risky of travellers in Budapest, my favourite city in Europe. My host, Gabor Csonka, is a Couchsurfing and travel legend, having hitchhiked to some very remote and dangerous areas in the world including Pakistan and Siberia. When I arrived at his place, he was hosting four separate groups of travellers simultaneously.

Amongst this excitement I met other adventurous people including Nicolas Genna, who was a philosophy and English teacher back home in Nice, France. Genna was on an epic pilgrimage of self-discovery. He was travelling around the world without money, relying on the kindness and generosity of strangers. He plans to write a book about the human connection and offered multitudes of inspiration, wisdom and travel advice such as how to best hitchhike across Pakistan to get to India.

These are only a few of the many people I met through Couchsurfing and they shaped my travels and greatly enriched my experience. We still keep in touch and I will potentially visit them again one day.

Couchsurfing is more than a free hotel for travellers — it is a community for people with a passion for travelling. It is now extremely popular amongst backpackers and vagabonds alike, but its start was a bit tumultuous. The seed for couchsurfing.org was planted in 1999, when American Casey Fenton emailed 1,500 students at his future travel destination, Iceland, asking for accommodation, and received 50 replies. Upon his return to the U.S., he began work on the website, eventually making it publicly available in 2003 from San Francisco. In 2006, during its rise to fame, a major database failure forced Fenton to shut down the website. During this time, community members rose up to the challenge, forming collectives to work together and revive the website. Today the community has 5.5 million members in 207 countries.

There are naturally many questions about how it works. Is it safe to use? The website has a rating system similar to most shopping websites. Much like rating your favourite books or electronics, Couchsurfers can rate each other with either a “positive” or “negative” rating including a short review of their experience. Negative incidents have been reported such as people stealing from their hosts or making inappropriate sexual advances. Negative experiences can also result from misunderstandings between host and surfer, or unexpected events such as emergencies or last minute cancellations.

The website tries to prevent unfortunate incidents from happening by ensuring the legitimacy of people on the site. Hosts must verify their address by replying to a postcard with a verification code on it. It also uses a vouching system, where the most trusted Couchsurfers of the community give gold stars to users they deem trustworthy. If a Couchsurfer gets enough vouches, he or she can start doling out their own gold stars, and that is how the system of reliability grows.

There is a forum on Couchsurfing called Funny Negative References where contributors post the most outrageous references from other profiles. This is done to protect and prevent other Couchsurfers from having a bad experience. Negative references on the website can prevent such people from hosting and surfing again.

Fortunately, I have never had a bad encounter with Couchsurfing. Two difficult experiences included the time my host’s cat in St. Petersburg peed on my jeans and when my host in Glasgow played videogames late into the night on the couch I needed to sleep on. Another experience that comes to mind was when I stayed in a squat in Brussels with no hot water, old reused mattresses with no sheets and a dirty kitchen covered with dumpster-dived food, taken over by fruit flies. While most would call this disgusting and uncomfortable, I thought it was an interesting experience worth trying once!

I should now take the time and effort to clear up a big misconception about Couchsurfing: it is not a dating website. But it can be.

While it certainly is not first and foremost a dating website, it is a community where like-minded individuals can meet and, if the feeling is right, hook up. I have two friends in Calgary who met through Couchsurfing and are now married.

To be honest, when I first signed up for Couchsurfing, I exhibited a slight bias towards the opposite sex. Since then, I have evolved to become a true community member with the intention to meet, bring together and provide sleeping arrangements to travelers at my own discretion.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I have heard of absolutely terrible things happening to other Couchsurfers. If you are a woman, be very careful surfing in conservative Muslim countries, where men are often culturally restrained and ready to let loose through Couchsurfing. This can even happen in Italy and some Eastern European countries (sorry to the good ones if I offend you. This is of course a blanket statement. I repeat, just a blanket statement).

If you are considering Couchsurfing, just follow these tips and no harm will come your way. First, do not rely on it as your sole source of accommodation. If you, do you may choose poor hosts and eventually have a negative incident. Have a backup plan such as a hostel or even consider tenting — I only Couchsurfed one third of the time during my stint in Europe.

Pay it forward. If you plan on traveling in the future, start hosting now. People who stay at your place will more than likely return the favour. Only trust people who can offer references — at least five to be on the safe side. Fill out your own profile and carefully scrutinize each profile you come across. Good profiles are long and carefully written. If you are surfing, take your time to send a detailed and well written request. Write to your host so they feel they can trust you and can get to know you better.

Conversely, you will know Couchsurfing is not for you if you have trust issues or are uncomfortable meeting people through this thing called the Internet. If you don’t have the time or flexibility to plan around others, don’t plan to host someone because they will expect you to show them around. Most locals don’t live in the central hub of the city and therefore, most hosts live away from hotels, hostels and tourist attractions. If you have a lot of money and like to spend it, you’ll probably prefer something more comfortable and secure and Couchsurfing may not be for you.

Couchsurfing is not for everyone, and using it properly takes a lot of time and effort, but the rewards are worth it. I feel that it’s the adventurous way to travel, and the best way to gain familiarity with many new cultures and places. If you are a student with huge loans to pay off, this is the best way to see the world in an affordable way.

Besides hosting and surfing, each city has a message board where people can organize get-togethers or post exciting local events such as language exchanges, festivals, music, theatre, photowalks, hikes, bars and clubbing and more. In new cities, I often post to find someone to meet up with for the day, wander the streets with and explore the cafes and bars. In Calgary, I have hosted board game nights, posted events such as film festivals and even used the Couchsurfing website to find a roommate.

Couchsurfing is a constantly evolving website and community, and has steadily grown as backpacking becomes more common. Unfortunately, it has experienced a few setbacks from the community-oriented model it once was. Couchsurfing recently became a for-profit corporation and now allows companies to advertise on its website. With more money to attract media coverage, these recent changes have resulted in an influx of people who do not necessarily endorse the values of Couchsurfing — membership grew by 2 million in the past year alone. Thrusting Couchsurfing into mainstream tourism may be good for business, but it is not the best way to maintain a healthy community based on trust and friendship.

Despite all this, it’s still a strong and vibrant community and one that I am proud to be a part of. I am a Couchsurfer for life because I seek genuine experiences and cultures in new cities, which can be best achieved through a local guide. I make myself vulnerable in order to seek help from and instantly connect with others. I always host, remembering what it was like when I was travelling desperate for a roof and a flat, soft surface to sleep on. I like to make friends from across the globe and lastly, though not least, I can save money by not having to pay for accommodation.

Couchsurfing provides a unique avenue to visit different places, form life-long bonds and immerse yourself in an entirely different culture.