Photo by Patricia Esteve
Room on the couch
If life is a journey, it’s generally a pretty slow one. Experience is acquired gradually, relationships are slowly built, and daily life is decidedly stable. Most people, therefore, will never find themselves staring at a blank customs card in an airport, wondering what to put under ‘address’. But the number of people eschewing a fairly static existence for a nomadic one—if only for a given time—is steadily growing. A couple of relatively new phenomena have abetted this trend: cheap flights and couchsurfing.com.
The brainchild of 29-year-old Casey Fenton from the US (who says he has driven 20 times across his home country), couchsurfing.com is a phenomenon of internet-based social networking along the lines of MySpace or Facebook, but with an express purpose: to link up travellers with local residents and foster a cultural exchange. Ultimately, couch surfing allows hosts to meet a lot of interesting people, and allows travellers to glimpse local life from the inside, thereby offering a far more profound experience than that offered by guidebook travel.
The three-year-old project has been particularly successful in Barcelona. Nearly half of the programme’s 2,500 Spanish participants live here, including Nick Musgrave, an English banker-turned-artist who moved to Barcelona almost two years ago. “I never intended to host,” he told Metropolitan, looking at least 10 years younger than his 40-odd years. “I had just bought a motorcycle with the idea of making trips around Spain and France, but I hadn’t thought about where I would stay beyond imagining myself in some hotel.
“Then a friend of mine from Costa Rica introduced me to the website. We set up my profile together, kind of as a lark, but almost immediately I started receiving emails from people looking for a place to stay. It seemed interesting, so I thought, why not? My first experience was fantastic so I kept it up.”
The process is simple: once an online profile has been created, a prospective couch surfer searches for hosts by area or availability, then sends him or her messages requesting accommodation, or maybe just a cup of coffee. If the potential host agrees to the request, plans are solidified and suddenly a solo traveller has a familiar face or even a place to stay in a totally foreign city. But a brief once-over of a virtual profile is hardly a face-to-face interview; how safe is a project that aims to make temporary roommates
“Everyone has been fantastic,” said Nick Musgrave, who estimated that he has hosted upwards of 18 people in his sprawling Gothic-quarter apartment since moving here. “There’s something in the way the on-line profiles are organised that makes it extremely easy to form an accurate opinion of a person’s character. The photos that people choose to post, the way they describe themselves and the way they communicate their request are all extremely telling. By the time someone walks through my door, I know exactly what to expect.”
Musgrave is himself a seasoned traveller, and speaks of his experiences with palpable warmth. “When I was at school we got around by hitchhiking. It was slow, but incredibly interesting. I see couch surfing as the contemporary equivalent—it’s about travellers helping each other out on the road. And it’s the philosophy behind it that I love: here are humans reaching out to each other, and just helping each other in a very human way. It sounds lofty, but in a way this project reaffirms the positive qualities of humanity.”
All that, plus a free place to crash. Couch surfing might make globetrotters of us all.
Other budget travel websites:
Accommodation, eating, drinking, sights and general information.
A flexible couch network designed for independent travellers travelling on the Iberian peninsula during the summer months.
Lists accommodation by price, style and location.
A social networking website to keep travellers connected.
Lists accommodation, travel deals, flights, basic city information, maps and attractions