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I don’t consider myself a “hippie.” I’m not a fan of going extended periods of time without bathing and I’m not interested in “free love,” however you define that in the twenty-first century. I’m afraid of most things that live outdoors and I don’t want to boycott McDonald’s because then where will the cheeseburgers come from? I do, however, like recycling, bicycles and most of all, traveling – and that’s where Couchsurfing comes in.
Couchurfing.org takes a simple and time-honored custom, having a friend crash on your couch, and extrapolates it for maximum effect, connecting people with spare rooms, couches or floor space to cost-conscious travelers looking for a culturally immersive experience. I first heard about it from a young couple when I was living and teaching in China. Despite their apparent normalness (and the boyfriend’s winning smile), I was initially skeptical – it had that “free love” air around it. Meeting complete strangers online and asking if I could please spend the night with them? No, thank you.
Fast forward a month and I’d created a Couchsurfing profile, motivated mainly by the desire to save money on the road – I’m in my early twenties and budget travel can’t ever be too “budget.” Signing up for the site is free, although users have the option to “verify” their profile and make it a more reliable resource for potential hosts. You can do this by making a donation of twenty-five dollars, or having a postcard sent to your home address. I drew up a thorough profile with lots of information about who I am and what I like. Being detailed is the simplest way to boost your chances of having one of your host requests, dubbed a “couch request” on the site, accepted. It’s also important if you’re a potential host who’d like to set a few ground rules for visitors or clarify something about the way you live, such as “I don’t sleep. Ever.”
You can state your orientation in your profile or simply assume that it’ll be obvious from your interests or groups you’ve joined. Users also leave each other references, and it’s easy to see at a glance whether or not a member has mostly positive or negative referrals from hosts and travelers. Membership isn’t necessary to browse potential hosts, but you must join to make a couch request. Aside from stipulations a particular host might make, the site has its own rules and regulations regarding conduct, as well as guidelines for new members learning the site etiquette.
My first Couchsurfing experience was with a fellow twenty-something guy living in Beijing. He lived in one of the hutongs, a traditional Chinese architectural-style home – great for a traveler looking to experience an aspect of the “real” China (despite the fact that he lived there with other foreigners). I didn’t introduce myself as a homosexual, but we got along well – my only regret is that I only had time to stay with him for one night. My second experience was in Shanghai. The night I arrived in the city my host and his previous couch surfer and I went out for drinks. The conversation took a turn for bumpy territory when they started to laugh about a Chinese guy they’d met the night before, who my host exclaimed to be the gayest person he’d ever seen. “Well, I’m actually gay,” I slipped into the conversation with a laugh. There was only a moment’s hesitation before my host continued with his story, talking about the Chinese guy’s sexuality as more of an abstract thing and then casually asking me, “So you’re gay?” The next night we had a conversation about sexuality and the night after that, we went out dancing.
Finding an LGBT-friendly host is relatively easy, a fact I discussed with one of my hosts, also gay. Most people join the site because they want to expand their horizons and meet people from all walks of life. You don’t find too many profiles listing the types of person someone is not interested in hosting. The project aims to bring people together and break down borders – saving money is simply an added benefit. It’s easy to find someone who shares your background or someone with whom you have nothing in common – whatever you’d prefer. Beyond that, it’s always nice to have a host with whom to share your travels with, or at least guide you on your way. There are also plenty of queer-dedicated groups, most bring together gays in different cities or countries, but some are centered around shared interests like hiking or cycling. When I arrived in Switzerland I posted a comment in one such forum asking if there were any other gays my age in the area, to which a few guys responded and suggested get-togethers. I found a place to stay in Zürich that way and made a new Facebook friend or two.
If you don’t need a place to stay and can’t host anyone you can still be a part of the Couchsurfing project, either by setting your profile status to “meet for coffee or a drink,” or by joining local groups and connecting with like-minded individuals for Couchsurfing-related activities.
Whenever I mention using the site to friends I’m always met with the same skepticism, “What if you accidentally stay with an axe murderer? Or worse, a Ke$ha fan?” But I’ve found that people don’t join the site because they harbor weird vendettas against mankind, rather because they’re interested in getting to know its constituents a little better. And now that I’ve seen what we have to offer, so am I.
Sean Santiago is a freelance writer, photographer and designer currently based in Europe. A graduate of James Madison University, Sean just finished a yearlong self-termed “growth period” in China, where he taught English and served as a freelance style editor for Redstar magazine. To follow along on his misadventures around the world and for daily musings on people, places and things, visit his blog, The S.S. Santiago.