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Infectious benevolence: couchsurfing

My friend Sarah and I, both recent graduates, stand on the doorstep of an absurdly chic bungalow in a quiet suburb bordering on Beverly Hills and ring on the doorbell. No one answers. We are 2 months into a world trip of a lifetime and it’s taken us three days to get here from Fiji. Presently, we look more like homeless people than backpackers; our rucksacs bulging with filthy clothes, tourist tat and a large collection of Carnival costumes salvaged from the Sambadrome in Rio, including a hat the size of a small child.

Stumped, we check our phone and find a message from a man we’ve never met, who knows nothing about us, and who we found through an internet profile, telling us to look under the lemon for the key and to make ourselves at home. Bemused, we look around to find a key strategically placed under a lemon in a plant pot on the immaculately manicured front lawn. We let ourselves into a stunningly decorated living room the likes of which Bang and Olufsen would have been proud, dump our mud-encrusted backpacks and enjoy a hot shower in the cavernous, faux-rock bathroom and are forced to pinch ourselves as we sit in front of the largest wide-screen TV we’ve seen for a while. Surely there’s a catch. This was how we were introduced to the concept of Couchsurfing.

To say we weren’t sceptical at first would be a lie; in fact, much like the vast majority of people who are unfamiliar with the idea we thought it was too good to be true. Sitting in yet another grimy Argentinean hostel packed with English-speaking twenty-something travellers, all with their laptops out staring at Facebook, Sarah and I felt slightly disillusioned with our ‘gap year’ experience. After all, we’d slaved for months in utterly tedious jobs in order to be able to travel the world, and, 4 weeks in, we had yet to meet a single Argentinian. Now you may be thinking that we were just another pair of spoilt madams, too accustomed to their creature comforts to fully embrace the backpacker lifestyle and slum it without whinging, but nothing could be further from the truth. We couldn’t wait to get stuck in to the role of intrepid travellers, to discover the country for ourselves, to meet locals and to experience some of the most fascinatingly different cultures that we’d heard so much about. But as the days went by, no amount of marching through the impressive city of Buenos Aires, marvelling at the spectacular views in the vineyards of Mendoza or watching condors in Cordoba could brighten the disappointing realisation that we could just as well have been in Disneyland for all the Argentian culture we were experiencing. At the end of every day we still sat in our jungle-themed hostel, with the token bamboo lined walls and the menu of Euro-friendly foods and discussed iPhone apps and You-tube videos.

We overheard a young German couple lamenting about just this, and they recommended Couchsurfing as an excellent way of meeting likeminded locals, discovering a place from their point of view and ultimately getting a totally different flavour of the country than the one tasted by so many Lonely Planet- worshipping travellers. For Free.

I looked at Sarah and could see etched on her face a mix of the same general feelings as were probably on mine; amazement, excitement and a massive dollop of scepticism. But with the lure of free accommodation we found ourselves, like 1.8 million other Couchsurfing members before us, on the ‘CS’website. This functioned not unlike the various other social networking websites spawned by the Web 2.0 revolution; users have a profile including photos and general information, their interests, location and hosting preferences. Most importantly, potential Couchsurfers have the opportunity to see the references left by previous guests before deciding if they are comfortable with a particular host.

The deeper we dug, the more we began to understand that we’d stumbled across a truly altruistic network of people who adhered enthusiastically to the CS mantra: ‘Participating in a better world, one couch at a time’. Members constantly reiterate the need for hosts and Couchsurfers to share experiences for the mutual benefit of both parties, almost jealously guarding their community against poisonous, freeloading influences. Our requests to ‘surf’ always received replies, often lengthy and almost always offering us accommodation for however long we wished. In all honesty, we were ready to meet a bunch of raving hippies eating organic tofu and discussing how unifying experiences could help us rid the world of pain and suffering.

We could not have been more mistaken. Our LA host Bob, it turns out, is a successful camera man and bemoans Jennifer Love Hewitt’s wooden acting on the pilot he’s filming. After citing cycling, Italian renaissance painters and Mumford and Sons’ music as some of the interests we both shared he wasted no time in giving us the tailored, local’s only version of LA by driving us to the Getty museum for a Da Vinci exhibition, giving us a bike each to cycle down Venice beach and watch the stunning sunset at the best beachside bar before whisking us off to a local haunt where his friends are performing at a folk night and treating us to the delights of LA nightlife. Arriving back in the small hours of the morning I remark casually that nothing would make me happier than to watch a real America baseball game and catch a rogue ball as it sails into sea of fans sporting big foam hands and giant hotdogs. The very next day, Bob has managed to hunt down executive club seats through a friend of a friend and I’m sitting, smiling ear to ear, holding aloft the ball I have just caught.

All the while I was wondering how this phenomenon had passed under my personal travelling radar for so long. The short answer is that the Couchsurfing project, in its fully fledged form, has only been around since 2004. The founding father, California based Casey Fenton, conceived of the idea whilst planning a trip to Iceland in 1999; rather than book a hotel he wrote to 1500 students at the university of Rekijavic and ended up with 50 hosts to choose from. However, the idea of a worldwide hospitality exchange network is nothing new; indeed, following WWII, a programme called Servas was founded in an effort to spread peace and understanding between individuals of different nations. Soon followed other hospitality networks for hitchhikers and speakers of Esperanto, but each community had  cumbersome forms, registration processes and membership fees to fullfill so that only the most determined travellers were likely to benefit from generosity of their contemporaries.

While the accessibility of the CSproject is an attractive feature to many, it may also be a deterrent for others. Security is obviously a major concern for the members this organisation both to ensure the safety of Couchsurfers and hosts alike but also to preserve the all-important image of the CS project. Members are invited to verify their location and identity for a small fee so that potential surfers can feel safe in the knowledge that a third party has checked the host in question.

But not everyone was as keen as we were on the idea of sleeping with strangers. Sitting in a swanky bar fingering delicate sushi and having been introduced as ‘friends from abroad’ we watched one of our American hosts telling his friends what a shame it was that locals never got to meet a single one of the thousands of visitors from across the globe, a veritable goldmine of cultures and ideas, who cross the border on a daily basis. This pronouncement was met with fervent nodding and murmurs of agreement. He went on to suggest that, given the opportunity, surely most people would relish the opportunity to share their home and experiences of American life with a visitor and learn from them in return? More nodding.

It was only when he admitted that we were such visitors, not friends from abroad but total strangers, that nodding was replaced with confused whispers, wide-eyed stares and even the odd chair scraping slowly away from said total strangers. The reality of meeting fascinating people from all walks of life at the cost exposing one’s life, one’s home and worldly possessions to potential thieves and serial killers seemed a little too much for them to digest.

From that point on we had no trouble understanding why our hosts insisted that our Couchsurfing status was kept strictly under wraps when socialising with friends and relatives. I felt privileged to have met those wonderful people who were willing to take that risk, with the resulting friendships being all the more satisfying for the unconditional openness and kindness that made them possible, and I could help feeling a little sad that these same people were shamed into pretending that they were as suspicious and guarded as their peers.

I began wondering at what point we’d all collectively lost faith in humanity to the point where a kind offer of a simple bed is met with downright scepticism. It took some serious rationalising to come to the conclusion that I wouldn’t dream of stealing or being disrespectful of someone’s home, so why should anyone else by different?

Could I really be the only person in the world with a working moral compass? Clearly not, as the Couchsurfing project proudly proclaims, of the 5 million Couchsurfing experiences is has mediated, 99.75% were reported as being positive. And I would put mine firmly amongst them.

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