CouchSurfing.com: Finding Friendship and Hospitality Around the World
Most of us have heard of Myspace.com, Facebook.com, or a myriad of other social network sites. The first of these sites (SixDegrees.com) was launched back in 1997, but now they are becoming increasingly acceptable to use.
Case in point: recently a friend revealed that they met their current girlfriend using the dating site Match.com. Three years ago, they undoubtedly would have received a few contorted looks immediately followed by questions about how desperate they were. But this internet suspicion and belittling has since dwindled.
In today’s social climate, virtual encounters are more trusted and popular via increasingly well-honed homepages geared for easy navigation. This creates more legitimate opportunities to meet other individuals that earlier could have only happened by pure chance.
More specifically, sites such as CouchSurfing.com promote meeting face to face, making experiences together, or helping one another. This is not an online environment that people tinker on for endless hours to chat or kill time, but one which members use to learn from others and transform themselves into flesh and blood friends or acquaintances. And I just experienced this myself.
This is a free-membership website helping travelers of the world connect with each other. Members post a profile displaying a brief introduction of themselves, some basic personal information, their geographical location, and whether they are willing to host others in their homes (or shacks if it be).
The site is carefully organized, displaying how active each member is in responding to emails, their past experiences with other members, and friends made via CouchSurfing.com who "vouch" for their character and trustworthiness.
It is very easy to be suspicious of people met solely on the internet, for me at least, but on this .com my fears are substantially reduced. Past visitors can comment on their stay, the member’s personality, and what type of friend they now are considered to be - from an acquaintance to a best friend.
Members can participate in any of three ways: 1) to host travelers in their homes 2) to mingle with other members who live in the same geographical area or 3) to travel around sleeping on others’ couches.
I have hosted four foreign travelers and each experience was positive and without any hassles. It felt great to give a traveler a free place to crash, and also advice on where to go in my hometown (and at times showing them myself around town).
Each experience warranted a "giving back" sensation to a world that has already welcomed me in my past travels. As a wanderer, I know the value of having accommodation waiting in a country I'm visiting that it is free (!), and, more importantly, the value of getting to know locals so easily.
Meeting Fellow Locals
About two months ago I was contacted by another "couchsurfer" (as the members of the community call themselves) in my area of Long Beach, California. This couchsurfer leads a group of local members who meet up at various times each week for dinner, concerts, house parties, learning pilates from a fellow member, and more.
I attended a CS (Couchsurfing) meeting at their house and met 15 other members ranging in ages from 18 to 45. All had an openness to them, allowing for an inviting atmosphere.
The immediate bond was apparent as all were there talking, eating, drinking, learning about one another and past experiences, and relaxing together in a welcoming environment.
Time to Surf
Last week arrived the true test: a five-day visit to Mexico City, Mexico. Hosting and meeting other couchsurfers had been fantastic, and at the same time very relaxed, because I didn’t have to count on anyone else. I was in my house or my hometown and for that had no reason to be dubious of situations.
Now the other side of the coin was to show heads or tails. A month before leaving for Mexico I contacted ten couchsurfers in Mexico City asking if we could meet for coffee or if I could stay at their place.
Out of those ten attempts, five emailed back and three offered me a home to sleep in. Two weeks before arriving in a city in which I had heard was quite dangerous, I had already made five couchsurfing friends – talk about a soothing feeling.
I made the final couchsurfer host decision when accommodation for all five nights of my trip was offered.
During the month prior to takeoff this couchsurfer and I emailed back and forth; by the time I arrived at the Juarez International Airport in Mexico City, I knew the city’s metro map, how to get to my new couchsurfing friend’s apartment (paying $0.20 versus $20), the areas of the city that I wanted to explore the most, and I had improved my Spanish two-fold thru their detailed emails.
This individual clearly went over and beyond any expectations for helping out a fellow traveler.
Wednesday night at 6:30 PM my flight landed in Mexico City - check. For three hours prior, my airline-seat-neighbor had been warning me of the dangers of Mexico City. When I told her I was taking the metro, her eyes opened wide along with a few words of warning.
Unsettling as it was, I trusted my couchsurfing friend would not have entered me into any extraordinarily dangerous setting. OK, so maybe I trust people a bit too easily, but I also pride myself on having a good sense of others’ characters and after a month of emailing my decision had been made in my couchsurfer’s favor.
Some Uneasy Moments
I took three lines on the metro to reach the neighborhood in the south of the city while meeting a few nice locals along the way with no incidents at all – check.
I stood at their doorstep earlier than planned, hence knew that I had 30 minutes to kill. What does a gringo wearing two backpacks do in a new part of town that he has heard is ridden with crime? Hide, or at least look like he is not lost – check.
The 30 minutes of waiting turned to 45 and my mind began slowly mulling; then the hour mark hit. What was I thinking to trust someone via the internet in a foreign land? Why didn’t I check hostel locations or have a backup plan with other couchsurfers should something go wrong?
I tried making a few calls to find a hostel, but my telephone card wasn’t working properly and I had no money on me to buy another.
It was almost dark, and I wasn’t as comfortable on the streets any longer. I started speaking with a man who ran the bakery on the street, he didn’t know how to use the telephone card either, and I was about to have to make a decision.
I casually looked left and then saw the glorious smile from my couchsurfing friend approaching. They had been caught up at work, apologized profusely, and off we went up to the apartment before running to a Lucha Libre [masked wrestling] match to meet their waiting friends. The surfing mission then slid along effortlessly.
Cuban Dominoes and Fried Grasshoppers
The anxiety that rushed through me in waiting helplessly (or so it could be construed for a story) for my CS friend was nothing compared to the extremity of emotion I felt the following five days.
I was introduced to a Mexico City that only residents know. I learned how to play Cuban dominoes. I ate and drank at some of the favorite restaurants and local venues of the town.
I consumed fried grasshoppers in a tasty taco. I learned to sip tequila rather than shoot it down quickly. I was talked into going to a beach for the weekend where we feasted with the locals for 15 dollars a day.
Ultimately, a group of Mexican friends had completely accepted me as one of their own.
CouchSurfing.com allowed me to step into the real culture of Mexico City, and to a small hidden beach town on the Pacific.
It didn’t take me months of travel and chance encounters to meet these wonderful people, but merely a few minutes searching a website and sending out a few short emails.
I now have real (read: not virtual) friendships in Mexico City, and I look forward to returning their kindness in the future.
It was truly a blessed experience and I thank my new friends, along with the deftly designed CouchSurfing.com. If you are looking to find a true glimpse of a town and meet locals, there is no better way to do it than with CouchSurfing.com.
Other Examples of Social Networking Sites for Travel:
Dominic Degrazier is a freelance writer and photographer. Growing up in Southern California, he then moved east to Texas for university, and kept on moving east to London, Copenhagen, and San Sebastian after graduation. Hooked on the world, he then lived in Australia for a year, and travelled through parts of South America for another year. Visit his blog Moving Montevideo.
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