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Globetrotting: one couch at a time

By Candice Bautista

Section: Arts, Top Stories

September 2, 2011

Sometime in the middle of July I came to a realization: I don’t really know anyone at home anymore. It was my first summer home from college and, after meeting up with friends and revisiting the different parts of New York that I had missed, I found myself home with nothing to do and no one to hang out with. I tried a bunch of different ways of meeting people, ranging from websites like meetup.com (the average age of its users was way too old for my taste) to just hanging out in Union Square. Then I stumbled upon CouchSurfing.org.

Founded in 2004, CouchSurfing.org is a website that is half hospitality exchange, half social networking. Here’s the idea: When you’re traveling, you can look up potential hosts in the area for accommodations and have someone awaiting your arrival. Although some may look at it as a way to find free board, there’s more to it than that; after all, hostels are cheap enough. Instead, it’s a way to meet new people in new places—even in places where you’ve been living for your entire life. These native residents can show you around and lead you to the sights that may not be in travel books. CouchSurfing, in essence, immediately gives you a personal connection to a city.

The site’s founder, Casey Fenton, conceived the idea for it after booking an inexpensive trip to Iceland from Boston. Fenton randomly sent e-mails to 1,500 students at the University of Iceland asking if he could stay with them. After he received more than 50 positive responses, the idea for CouchSurfing.org was sparked. Fewer than 10 years later, the website has grown to more than three million members in 246 countries and territories. The average age of its membership is 28, with 20 percent in the United States. Nearly 74 percent of registered CouchSurfers speak English, which is astounding when you consider that there are members from Barcelona to Antarctica.

Searching for a possible “couch”—which can vary from literal couches to furnished guestrooms—is easy once you’ve registered, as the site lets you search by parameters including age, location, gender and number of guests. Once you submit a “CouchRequest” with details about your stay, the host can choose to accept or deny it. Even if the user doesn’t have a couch available, they can indicate their preference for a “coffee and a drink,” essentially an invitation to just hang out.

This open-endedness is part of the site’s social networking aspect. It encourages you to meet visitors, as well as CouchSurfers living in the same town. Networking also provides a security fail-safe, as it allows users to prove they’re not dangerous or malicious. Making a detailed profile, becoming verified by the site and having references can allay the fears of new users. These profiles not only tell the world about you but they can also hint at the compatibility between CouchSurfer and host, whether through a shared interest in rock climbing or a shared language. The profile becomes a sort of first glance at the person that you’ll potentially meet.

I became interested in the website instantly. As a slightly crazed fan of the British show “Skins,” I imagined using the site to spend next summer in England moving from couch to couch, meeting people from all over the world. This soon branched out to the idea of one day becoming one of those people without a true home—someone who, when asked where they live, would respond simply with “the world.” To live out any fraction of this dream, however, I would have to network on the site and prove myself trustworthy. The idea of networking sickened me, as I’ve deactivated my Facebook after becoming nauseated every time I glimpsed at my mini-feed. CouchSurfing, however, merely employs networking as a means of facilitating face-to-face contact. I accepted this and made my profile, wondering who would look at the profile of someone listed as living in Fresh Meadows and Waltham.

After making my profile, I messaged four people in the New York City area asking if they wanted to hang out. After a “maybe” and two “sorry I’m busy”s, I got a “yes” from a nice-looking guy named Stephen who listed his occupation as “homeostasis.” We exchanged numbers and soon I met the guy with whom I spent the rest of my summer. As a typical awkward Brandeisian, my conversations with him were bumpy at first, but we quickly fell into a good friendship. Stephen told me about studying abroad in Argentina and I told him about my dreams of being English. After walking up and down Manhattan—something that became a tradition for us—and getting soaked in the rain, we made plans to see each other again at a free They Might Be Giants concert at the Williamsburg Waterfront.

Suddenly, I wasn’t bored anymore. Now I felt the thrill of hanging out with someone new and the adventurousness that comes with feeling lost. Stephen and I have now known each other for a little more than a month, but we so far have already walked more than 1,000 blocks searching for a cookie shop in Manhattan, going through thrift stores in Brooklyn and finding a certain bubble tea shop in Queens. Although this friendship would not have happened without CouchSurfing, we still wanted a true CouchSurfing experience: being lost in a place we didn’t know and staying there with someone new. We were searching for an adventure, for another step into the unknown.

I quickly found a way to get to Chicago within two days for less than 30 bucks, but I wasn’t quite ready for a more than 20-hour commute. Instead, I suggested to Stephen that we book a similarly dirt-cheap trip to Providence. He agreed and, after sending a few CouchRequests, we had Andrew as a willing host. We also had other connections: Stephen’s stepsister attends Brown, while I knew a certain Halee Brown ’13 from Brandeis. Together, we knew two and a half people in Providence—in other words, it was an adventure waiting to happen.

After disembarking in Providence, Stephen and I found ourselves completely elated. We were in a new place! We were going to be CouchSurfing! Although Andrew had to work most of the day, he promised to give us a walking tour of Providence and accompany us to dinner. He also gave us his address so we could drop off our things beforehand.

Soon Stephen and I found Andrew’s house and let ourselves in with the keys he dutifully left in the mailbox, our hearts beating rapidly. Andrew’s house was amazing and did not seem to belong to a 20-year-old college student. After setting down our bags, we snooped around a little. What we found—or, rather, didn’t find—frightened us: Andrew’s house was almost completely empty. He had six books on a shelf, two pictures and a kitchen stocked only with a lonely box of oatmeal. Petrified, Stephen and I scurried to Brown to meet his stepsister, Morgan. We spent the day hypothesizing, debating whether Andrew would be the murdering or stealing type.

Andrew turned out to be a sane and very cool dude—he had just been in the process of moving out. Stephen and I exchanged looks of relief before Andrew led us on a three-hour walking tour of Providence. He guided us in a very charming way that soon became the night’s in-joke: “We’re gonna bang a left here,” “We’re gonna high-tail this all the way to the capitol building,” stopping just short of “Let’s caress this right over here.”

Being a New Yorker, I am almost guaranteed to be unimpressed with everything I see, but Providence was amazing—a quaint city miraculously without tourists. Andrew showed us the Providence River, bringing us to a spot that made us feel like we were sitting right on top of the water. We wandered through scary bus tunnels, jumped over “no trespassing” signs and tried to “break in” to the local arts center. To top it off, after a delicious and wholly satisfying dinner at a gyro place on Thayer Street, Andrew brought us to the hotel where he works in order to show us the most amazing view I have ever seen—one that I would never have discovered without meeting him.

The next day, Halee graciously brought us to Newport, which had both taffy and wonderful views of the ocean. Soon after, we were on a MegaBus back to New York, our first successful CouchSurfing experience behind us.

If the trip to Providence is indicative of how other CouchSurfing experiences will turn out, then let me say it’s amazing. It forced Stephen and me to be more adventurous, to go new places and to meet new people. We also realized how important people truly are to our experiences. Even though traveling itself is impressive, the people with whom we spend our time meeting and interacting are the components that make trips memorable. Visiting CouchSurfing.org is realizing all the different places that you have yet to travel, all the people you are waiting to meet—and knowing they are all one CouchRequest away.

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