When a couch is more than a couch

Couch surfing is no sport for the lazy. A global site that matches travelers with free places to stay makes for satisfying stays, real and virtual.
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Couch surfing is no sport for the lazy. A global site that matches travelers with free places to stay makes for satisfying stays, real and virtual.

Couchsurfing.com is both goad and aid for the adventurous traveler. This worldwide project hooks up roamers in search of a crash pad with folks who dig the idea of drifting off to sleep knowing there is a happy, snoring stranger under the same roof.

Since its launch three years ago, the not-for-profit CouchSurfing has grown its free hospitality service with a mission statement a bit more meaningful than We'll Leave the Light On:

"CouchSurfing seeks to internationally network people and places, create educational exchanges, raise collective consciousness, spread tolerance, and facilitate cultural understanding."

The founder is Casey Fenton, whose bio depicts a travel-crazy computer-wrangler with a certain charisma. He and like-minded surfers run the project (funded by donations) through a site that makes for great escapism whether or not you've got the wanderlust DNA.

The stats are particularly fun to read. (Perfect to bookmark in your browser's Procrastination Tools folder.) More than 350,000 surfers are registered, with the US leading the pack.

Most Couchsurfing members are male and under 24, although a few dozen hardy souls between 80 and 89 have put their presumably grey heads down on some new pillows lately. There are 3,000-plus users in Oregon and Washington, and the attractions of easily accessible mountains, water, indy arts, surf-and-let-surf attitudes make Portland and Seattle hot choices.

The autobiographical blurbs are little screenplays waiting to happen: Rock climbers, bureaucrats, teachers, bankers, soldiers, shy bookworms–you name it, they're out there waiting to drink out of your coffee mugs, or dying for you to come visit for a drink, a day, a week, an interlude "to be determined once we know each other better." They all believe travel and meeting new people leads to good stuff, and they define that in ways that are, literally, all over the map: Peace, yoga partners, cross-cultural education, free lodging, a chance to show off their collection of salt-n-pepper shakers from every US state capitol.

A roaming friend told me about it. For context: Michael is a 20-something writer, legal temp and a New Yorker. (Translation: High tolerance for rejection, smart, hard to shock.) He said:

I had initially been under the impression that couch-surfing was a simple swap, a couch or guest bed in exchange for future considerations. What I didn't expect was that I would be treated as a guest. It's a huge distinction. Instead of feeling like my hosts were just paying their dues by putting me up for the night (or seven), people treated me like a good friend making a happily anticipated visit.

Registration is required to chat, search entries and get the full Couchsurfing vibe. Users agree to basic civilized rules (no spamming each other; remember that this is not a dating site) and vouch for the couches and people, helping to weed out the psycho element. A user need not offer a couch in order to surf one--a deal that seems particularly fair-minded. Despite the no-dating warning, some people surely use it for its hook-up potential, but probably not any more often than other travelers who meet along the way in hotels, restaurants, steam baths, historic houses of worship, train stations and so on. During his six or seven surfs in the past year, Michael's found a few kindred spirits with whom he swaps email, but mostly it has been generous hosting, a grateful guest, and back on the road again. He's a believer:

It's terrific. The way I have been treated, I'll be happy to pass it on...when I get a couch.  

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