Monday, October 5, 2009

Welcome to the World of CouchSurfing

Recently, my housemate and I hosted our first couch surfer. Mark, 23, was from Houston, Texas, and was in the process of hitch-hiking from Melbourne to Darwin. He contacted me via my CouchSurfing profile, seeking to stay with us in Adelaide for a few days. My housemate and I said, Yes, and in due course, Mark arrived and spent several days with us.

As this was our first couch surfing experience, we were a little apprehensive about how things would pan out. However, our ‘apprehensions’ were entirely unnecessary. I spent three days playing host to Mark, showing him around the local area where we visited Fisherman’s Wharf, a Maritime Museum, and embarked on a dolphin cruise, as well as a quick tour of the city centre.

For his part, Mark was a quiet, respectful, and pleasant young man, who found time to cook us dinner and share some of his travel experiences with us.

For those readers who are yet to discover the concept of CouchSurfing (to use its official ‘brand’ name), let me quote extensively from the CouchSurfing website.

CouchSurfing is an international non-profit network that connects travellers with locals in over 230 countries and territories around the world. Since 2004, members have been using our system to come together for cultural exchange, friendship, and learning experiences. Today, over a million people who might otherwise never meet are able to share hospitality and cultural understanding.

Our mission as an organization is to create inspiring experiences: cross-cultural encounters that are fun, engaging, and illuminating. These experiences take many forms. CouchSurfing's initial focus was on hosting and 'surfing' (staying with a local as a guest in their home). Alongside these core experiences, we now also facilitate a growing array of activities and events.

We have a vision of a world where everyone can explore and create meaningful connections with the people and places they encounter. Each CouchSurfing experience shared by our members brings us closer to that vision.

So how does CouchSurfing work? Like many social networking sites, you sign in and create a profile for yourself. This profile includes your interests, philosophy, a personal description of yourself, and most importantly, space to describe your ‘couch’ information, that is, the type of accommodations you are able to offer a visitor – or couch surfer. Some hosts have a spare bedroom available, while others literally offer no more than a couch or mattress on the floor.

The length of stay is always negotiated in advance via direct contact with the person requesting the couch. Generally, anywhere from one to three nights seems to be the average length of stay, but this is entirely up to the host.

Also the number of visitors you choose to host is up to you and detailed on your profile page. Again, generally, most hosts can accommodate one or two visitors at any one time, but others may have facilities to offer space for more.

No money changes hands during the couch surfing visit. You host, or you are hosted without cost. Since visitors are guests in your home, it is not part of the CouchSurfing philosophy to see money exchanged for accommodations.

By the way, you can use your CouchSurfing profile page to spell out your own hosting conditions to potential visitors. For example, if you are vegetarian, a smoker/non-smoker, have pets, party hard or like to go to bed early, etc. All these can be made clear to surfers before they ask to stay with you, thereby eliminating the potential for a less than ideal hosting experience.

Part of my own profile reads: There are currently two people in the house - a 61 year old male (that's me) and my niece who is in her late 30s. We are both non-smokers, try to eat sensibly, drink moderately, and like to get a good night's sleep… I should point out that none of the residents are 'party animals' anymore, so if you want to rage late into the night, you might consider other couches elsewhere with more energetic hosts. We tend to be in bed by midnight - most nights.

I figure that anyone reading that, who still wants to stay with my niece and myself is probably looking for a reasonably quiet host to stay with, rather than a host who wants to stay up drinking, and partying late into the night.

Members can also add comments/references to the profiles of their visitors, and visitors can inturn add comments/references to the profiles of their hosts, thus providing feedback for other potential travellers/hosts.

When I myself travel next year, I hope to use the CouchSurfing website to put me in touch with fellow members around the world, which will enhance the whole travel experience I am engaged on. Given that the CouchSurfing community now numbers over 1.4 million members in over 65,000 cities, and speaks 1,270 unique languages, I think it is fair to say that travelling need never be same again.

We will be hosting a German traveller during November, so I expect to return to the topic of CouchSurfing more than once on this blog. In the meantime, why not head on over to the CouchSurfing website to learn more. If you like what you see, become a member yourself, and join this amazing world-wide community of travellers, hosts, and supporters.

I’ll leave the last word to a CouchSurfing member going under the name I Wanna Go To Tahiti who writes:

"CouchSurfing is just amazing. I joined this community a couple of years ago. Since then, I've had incredible experiences with all the people I've hosted, met at the gatherings, and whose couch I've surfed, from France to Vietnam. In everyday life, it can be hard to find deeply motivated, nonconformist, cultured people with high goals in life: really interesting people. But CouchSurfing is just full of these individuals. It's a conglomerate of well-intentioned people, of good karma, and you just have to jump in to enjoy it. The CouchSurfing project definitely changed my life. And it has changed many people's lives. Through this process, connecting people from elsewhere, bringing them together, I believe the world is also going to change. Perhaps we don't see it now. But in the future, we will." ~ IWANNAGOTOTAHITI (Spain)

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