Surfing the World Wide Couch
NEIL MEDEL’S Manhattan domicile is certainly homey, but it is by no means spacious. Just 7 feet by 10 feet, with its one window overlooking St. Marks Place, it is a living room in miniature, a mere haiku of a place. Mr. Medel, who is 33 and works for an importing company, sleeps on a loft platform that he shares with 40 pairs of blue jeans that rise in untidy stacks, and blue plastic tubs stuffed with other belongings.
Nonetheless, the Philippine-born Mr. Medel is an eager and generous host at least three days out of seven to like-minded visitors from Los Angeles, Texas, Sweden, Germany and points beyond. Mr. Medel is a couch surfer, as are his guests; he and they find one another through the Couch Surfing Project, at couchsurfing.com, a three-year-old global community built on a MySpace/Facebook model of personal profiles connected through a network of “friends.” According to statistics on the site, it has well over 300,000 members from more than 31,000 towns and cities around the world.
The group’s philosophy is also its method, which might be summed up this way: I will offer you my couch free, along with the company of my friends and a tour of my favorite spots in my city. In return, you will give of yourself, and not just slink into my home at 3 a.m. after you’ve done your own tour of my city. In this way, we will be friends, if only for a day or two.
Or, as its mission statement proclaims: “Participate in creating a better world, one couch at a time.”
Couch surfing takes an ancient notion of hospitality and tucks it into a thoroughly modern paradigm, the social networking Web site. But, as its members say sternly, it is not a site for dating, or for freeloaders.
“It’s a lifestyle and a commitment,” Mr. Medel said. He and his fellow New York hosts meet at least one night a week at a bar in Union Square, new surfers in tow. They throw birthday parties for one another and mount what they call invasions of other cities, as 30 or so New York surfers did last summer in Boston, strewing themselves on the couches of 30 or so Bostonians for three days.
Inevitably, there have been couch surfing romances, marriages and even babies, said Sherry Huckabee, 41, a couch surfer from Charlotte, N.C., who is now living in Romania since falling in love with her host, Hans Hedrich, last summer, ending a two-year surf of Europe. Now Ms. Huckabee and Mr. Hedrich, 36, who runs a charitable foundation devoted to sustainable tourism, are hosts to 20 young surfers at a time: Mr. Hedrich, Ms. Huckabee said proudly, has an open-couch policy.
A Kerouac mind-set inspired Ms. Huckabee to write a novel about her couch surfing experiences. Three years ago she was a lawyer in Charlotte, divorced for some years and facing an empty nest, as her children had left home. “It was a huge reconsideration of self,” she said. “Who was I if not wife, mother, etc.? I wanted to find a sense of carrying my home with me, and to do that I needed to let go of the sense that there was a home somewhere waiting for me.”
She gave away most of her belongings and set off on what was to be a three-month tour of Italy. That’s where she discovered couch surfing.
What kept her surfing were the sorts of details that delight a writer’s eye: the Algerian host in Paris who slept with a poster of Monica Bellucci above his bed so he could imagine falling asleep in her arms each night; a Bulgarian family’s grim Soviet-era concrete housing, which, when you opened the door, was like a tropical island, painted in bright greens and blues; the northern European woman who had not worked in three years and had not cleaned her bathroom in that time, either, it seemed, yet who nonetheless borrowed a bottle of wine from a neighbor to welcome Ms. Huckabee.
Back home in Charlotte, Ms. Huckabee said, “if you don’t have a guest bedroom, you don’t have company.” She added: “Even your family stays in a hotel. Even for dinner, there is this sense you have to go through this process: get out the vacuum cleaner, wash the sheets. In Europe there’s the couch and that’s it. There’s no dusting. It’s more of a view into other people’s worlds, instead of this idealized thing where everything is clean and tidied up.”
She did, however, surf on some pretty grimy couches, she said.
In an age of cheap airfares and porous borders, where nearly every corner of the earth, from Bulgaria to Bhutan, is open for tourism, the home is the final frontier, the last authentic experience. Instead of being in some sanitized hotel in Hanoi, said Erik Torkells, editor of Budget Travel magazine, “if I couch surf I could be on some cool ex-pat’s or local’s sofa.” He added: “I’ve already leapfrogged barriers. It would take weeks under ordinary circumstances to get in someone’s home.”
With regard to “the whole MySpace thing,” he added: “This is a generation that’s all about talking to strangers. And why stop there? Why not crash at their place?”
Then Mr. Torkells, 38, asked plaintively: “This is for the young, right? I don’t even want to sleep on my sister’s couch.”
Just before noon one day last week, Marisol Montoya, a 25-year-old filmmaker from Los Angeles, was rolling up her red silk pajamas and tucking them next to the red fuzzy slippers in her suitcase. She had spent two nights on Mr. Medel’s tiny couch, which was no trial, she said, because she had been dancing hard most nights and liked to elevate her feet by hanging them over the arms.
Mr. Medel was her second host; she had arranged for three different couches, she said, because she wanted to see three different New York neighborhoods. “It’s like a cultural study,” she said. On her first night at Mr. Medel’s he took her to a rooftop dinner party at Connie Hum’s. Ms. Hum, who is 26 and works for a management consulting firm, is a New York couch surfing host who lives high above Times Square; after dinner Ms. Hum taught Ms. Montoya how to belly dance.
“When you couch surf,” Ms. Marisol said, “you go straight to the goods.”
Like Servas, the so-called hospitality network that has promoted peace through home stays since World War II, the Couch Surfing Project aims “to bring people together and create intercultural understanding,” said Daniel Hoffer, one of its founders.
Or, as Mark Credland, an electrical engineer living in Toronto whose job requires extensive travel in the United States, explained: “I used to try to meet people in bars and would always end up getting stuck talking to the drunk in the corner.” Couch surfing yields better conversations, he said. (He had tried another travelers’ social networking site called wayn.com, he said, “but I got lots of e-mails from Russian girls wanting to marry me.”)
Mr. Hoffer, 29, who received an undergraduate degree in philosophy from Harvard and an M.B.A. from Columbia, started his first dot-com when he was 15 and now develops new business for Symantec. His main couch surfing co-founder, Casey Larkin Fenton, a 29-year-old programmer and former political consultant, is also a dot-com veteran, schooled in interconnectivity and social values.
Couch surfing was Mr. Fenton’s idea, the seeds of which were planted on a trip to Iceland six years ago. He harvested 1,500 names and e-mail addresses from the University of Iceland’s student directory and sent each a come-on: “Hey, Bjorn, I’m coming to Iceland.” In 24 hours he had 100 invitations.
“I knew it was how I wanted to travel,” Mr. Fenton said. He has been surfing on and off since 2005, and was surfing Mr. Hoffer’s couch, a long black leather one discovered on craigslist.com, last week. “But I didn’t know if other people would. I thought, I’ll take a chance and see if there are other people like me. And, wow, do they exist.”
Membership, he pointed out, has tripled each year. Each week this month more than 5,000 members have been signing on. Mr. Fenton is working on gaining 501(c)(3) status for the Couch Surfing Project, the holy grail of nonprofits, as he put it, which would make it tax exempt. (The Couch Surfing Project is not a moneymaking venture, though it charges members who would like to be “verified” with an address check. In the United States that service costs $25. As for why the site might qualify as a charity, Mr. Hoffer said, “We have a benevolent mission that we think is better served by a nonprofit corporate structure.”)
“We’ve all worked very hard at our other jobs and we’ve paid the bills,” Mr. Fenton said. “Up till now the site has functioned passively. We want to understand how to do it more efficiently. It’s complex, and its demographics are literally all over the map.”
He said the process of surfing was like the lottery. “Anything can happen: the glamour and the appeal are the stories you hear, the coming of age stories, the travel stories,” he said. Hosts get to travel without leaving home, through the surfers in their living rooms. “Who are they and what makes them that way?” Mr. Fenton continued, “and who are you? Because you get to compare and contrast yourself with these other selves every day in your own living room.”
For constant surfers, the couch becomes a new sort of home, redefining, in many ways, their own ideas about what a home really is.
Jennifer Metz, an American-born artist and teacher of philosophy living in the Netherlands, spent a year housesitting in 24 homes in six countries after a divorce in 2001. After buying an apartment in Rotterdam in 2004, she quickly sublet it, and reprised her year of “urban camping” in a 55-week housesitting tour of 30 homes that she packaged as an art project, with pictures and a blog (urbancamp.blogspot.com). What was compelling to her about both these sojourns was the experience of being welcomed into the intimate spaces of others and trusted with their belongings, of learning to feel at home anywhere. She is now an intermittent couch surfer, having discovered that community last year.
A state of near ceaseless traveling puts the couch surfer in a transnational zone, an idea dear to Pico Iyer, the travel writer and novelist who has been chewing over notions of home and nomadism for 25 years. Mr. Iyer sees the surfers exemplifying a new form of globalism, “one not defined by the plutocrats as meaning foreign goods,” he said, but by the “road” — or couch — where people meet outside the boundaries or categories of their passports or religions.
“Home for folks like the couch surfers has less and less to do with a piece of soil and more to do with the friends and values they carry,” Mr. Iyer said. “I think the beauty of the present century is that more and more folks are defining their home inwardly.”
Couch surfing, he said, “has consecrated the floating planetary home.”
Mark Ellingham, the founder of the Rough Guide travel guides, noted, too, that what couch surfing seems to diminish is the idea of the foreign country as a commodity to be sampled and purchased. “It sounds more empathetic than the old hippie-backpacker thing of seeing what you can get out of a place and moving on,” he said. “It reminds me of when everyone was hitchhiking, a practice that stopped in the 1990s either because of fear or a new affluence, or both. Hitchhikers were very committed, too. It’s a new idea but an old ethos.”
Jim Stone, who turned 30 last week, has been surfing nonstop for three and a half years. He was the 99th person to join the Couch Surfing Project, and for many members, their first guest. He had been working in the tax appraiser’s office in Denton, Tex., he said, “and I was alarmed that two years went by so quickly and I hadn’t done anything significant.”
Surfing is hard on romance, he said, but a boon to sleep. “I used to think I was an insomniac,” he said. “Now I find in new places I sleep like a baby.”
Mr. Stone’s traveling companions are a red blow-up couch named Lucy (for “that other famous redhead,” he said), a Winnie the Pooh costume he likes to hitchhike in, a pair of stretch leopard pants that he wears to the Burning Man festival each year and another in gold that he can do a split in, and dress-work clothes neatly pressed and stored in a Ziploc bag in his pack.
He worked odd jobs around the globe for the last four years to finance his travels. Since July, however, he has been working full-time for the Couch Surfing Project, as one of its three paid employees, operating from his laptop, wherever he and it may be. Does that mean he is settling down?
“I like this traveling road show of my friends,” he said, describing what are known in couch surfing circles as collectives, in which 100 or so volunteers, mostly experts in programming, surf a city for a few months while tinkering with the Web site. A collective for Thailand is planned for next year. “My mom is real happy,” he did admit, “especially now that I have a real job.”