Couchsurfing is not an extreme sport involving household furniture. Nor does it involve waves or even necessarily sofas for that matter. In fact it’s an online community of hospitable folk who are prepared to open their homes, hearts and lives to fellow backpackers. This summer, from July 2nd to 5th, Barcelona will be welcoming an international gathering of Couchsurfers. Hostel owners and Lonely Planet writers needn’t get too excited though; Couchsurfing is all about throwing the guide book in the bin and staying for free with the locals.
American Casey Fenton came up with the idea of the Couchsurfing Project in 2003 after a crazy weekend in Iceland. Bored of sterile hotels, grotty hostels and lonely nights out, Fenton hit on the genius idea of spamming 1500 Icelandic students, asking if anyone would be prepared to put him up. Several responded, all of them keen to show him ‘their’ Reykjavik. He swore never again to be a tourist and thus, Couchsurfing was born.
From tiny acorns, mighty oaks grow. In March of this year, parties were held across the world, from Oslo to Islamabad, to celebrate Couchsurfing’s one millionth member. However, not all of those million people registered on the site are active hosts. Although some members have accommodated literally hundreds of travellers, other nomads simply hop from couch to couch and still more join simply to meet new international friends, offering to act as a city guide or drinking partner to travellers. There is never any obligation to host.
A non-profit organisation, members are asked to fill out a profile of themselves, describing themselves and their sofa or spare room if they have one. Back-packers then search for hosts with couches in the area they’re planning to visit and send out requests. If the host likes the sound of their potential guest, messages are exchanged and hopefully a pleasant cultural exchange ensues. Members are then encouraged to leave references for each other, be they positive, negative or neutral.
One of the most frequently asked questions about the project, especially by women, is if it’s safe. As Joris Vleminckx, a veteran Couchsurfer from Belgium, explained, a person’s references are one of the many safeguards in place to protect both travellers and hosts. “It’s essential to read a person’s profile and references carefully. If they have received lots of positive comments and have lots of Couchsurfing friends, you can be 99 percent sure of having a good experience”. Surfers can also check to see if the person has been verified and vouched for by other members and double-check references. The project’s website is a good source of useful tips on safe surfing too.
Of course, with over a million members, anything could happen, and for many, that’s the beauty of it all. Couchsurfers can find themselves beating paths well off the tourist trail, eating local delicacies in family homes, or having it large with a whole new circle of friends. Others meet the love of their life, find themselves grappling with xenophobic Venetian wrestlers or stumble into town on the day of a local couch-surfing meeting and meet scores of fellow travellers at once.
Ruben Tapia from Esplugues del Llobregat has been involved with the project since 2005. He’s one of the organisers of the July event and a Barcelona City Ambassador. One of his most treasured memories is of hosting a girl from Russia who had never seen the sea before. “It was fantastic to see her face light up when she saw the Mediterranean for the first time” he said. For him, hosting is all about giving surfers an authentic experience, steering them away from tourist traps, cooking local food and showing them the ‘real’ Barcelona.
For anyone thinking of hosting, there are no minimum requirements, other than perhaps an open mind and a generous spirit. Be it a tiny interior flat in the city centre or a luxurious masia in the hills, the important thing is to be honest. Surfers appreciate knowing exactly where they’ll be sleeping, whether they’ll be sharing with chain smokers or pet owners and if they are going to be turfed out early when the host goes to work.
Experienced Couchsurfers are keen to point out that the project shouldn’t be just seen as a free alternative to hostelling. In fact, few things invoke their wrath more than the idea that someone is free-loading and not interested in getting to know the people or places that they are visiting.
Franciso Carmona, a country ambassador for Chile, sums up the feelings of many. “It’s about showing people that the world isn’t as bad, intolerant or untrusting as everyone thinks” he said. “When surfers contact me, I have the sensation that they are friends. I might not have met them yet, but they’re still friends.”
Barcelona’s big July gathering starts with a welcome party on Thursday 2nd, followed by city tours, beach games, picnics and drinks planned for the weekend. How much sleeping on couches gets done remains to be seen.
To join the Couchsurfing project or for more information, go to: http://www.couchsurfing.org. If you get involved, you might just find that the whole world starts to feel like home.