Students 'couchsurf' to explore 'real' culture
Issue date: 7/17/09 Section: News
Now, there's a new movement and people are taking the road less traveled. As the concept of online social-networking, such as Facebook, becomes more of a dominant factor in our lives, hospitality exchange sites are gaining popularity.
The Couchsurfing Project enables people to be immersed in a culture with the help of a local while traveling. Couchsurfing.org is the brain child of Casey Fenton. The idea is simple: I will offer you my couch, show you around my city in exchange for your advice (or couch) if I wish to visit your city.
Couchsurfing developed when Fenton bought a ticket to Iceland but had no place to stay. According to the Web site, he decided to spam over 1,500 Icelandic students in Reykjavik asking them if he could crash on one of their couches, and fortunately several people replied, each who offered to show him "their" Reykjavik.
Launched in 2003, Couchsurfing seeks to internationally network people and places, create educational exchanges, raise collective consciousness, spread tolerance, and facilitate cultural understanding. It has over 1.2 million members representing 232 countries, according to statistics on the site. And, the positive feedback percentage is 99.8 of all (over 2.3 million) member experiences.
"You learn a lot about other people's cultures. … You get a mix of different perspective on things," Eyal Rojstaczer, mechanical engineering major and recent graduate, said.
Rojstaczer has been couch surfing now for approximately two years and has hosted over 100 people from many places such as Brazil, Australia, Kyrgyzstan and Japan. But, even before he started to officially become involved in the Couchsurfing Project, he would meet tourists at the Philadelphia Art Museum and show them around Philly.
"[It] gets people out of the touristy spots and see it from a local's perspective," he said.
According to Rojstaczer, one way of traveling is seeing everything you can and not knowing the city, the people or the culture - you've just seen some important monuments.
"[People will] take a picture of the Eiffel Tower and leave Paris … and maybe see one museum. And, then they'll go to Belgium and have a beer, take a couple pictures," he said.
After spending nine days couch surfing in Barcelona, Spain, Rojstaczer said he felt like he was at home - he could walk around, knew where the good restaurants were and even had his own pub crawl of his favorite places.
When Rojstaczer couch surfed in Mexico City with a family, he experienced many traditional things, went to a concert with local bands, and even got the chance to participate in the nine-day celebration of La Posada, which begins Christmas festivities December 16.
As with anything involving making contact with people you meet online, there is always concern for safety. Couchsurfing has taken this into consideration and have their own system of safety features, according to the Web site.
Verification is the first step. When getting verified, members make a donation online which also confirms their name and physical location. Viewing and making references allows members to publicly share information about good or bad experiences with the individual. Friends on the member's list are people they actually know. Vouching, a very serious form of showing trust in people you actually know, can only be done by members who have been vouched for thrice. And of course, the best you can do to keep yourself safe is to use your best judgment by reading profiles and references.
Justin Bradley, psychology major and recent graduate, couch surfed only once and ended up leaving the residence due to dubious circumstances. Bradley and his friends decided to couch surf in Odessa, Ukraine only to discover that the picture of the girl in the profile turned out to be an old woman. It may seem awkward telling your host that you won't be staying, but if you don't feel comfortable in a certain situation, it's best to leave.
According to Rojstaczer, sometimes you'll get requests for guests whose profiles may give you a weird-gut feeling, and that's when you just cannot accept.
Although couch surfing is so people can be immersed in a different culture and be able to network and make friends, an added benefit to this method of traveling is free housing which allows you to travel for a longer period. But, free housing shouldn't be the only motivation to take part in this.
"People that send us a message saying, 'Hey, it'd be great not to pay for a hotel. Can we stay at your place?' You say no. That's not what it's about. I'm going to travel for the next six, seven months and if I had to pay for a hostel for every single night, I would not be traveling for six or seven months," Rojstaczer said.
Also, you don't always sleep on a couch or at an individual's house that is your age. Rojstaczer and his friends couch surfed at a middle-aged man's house in Ecuador in which they had the second floor all to themselves. The host, who provided them with three meals a day, was also part of a traditional Andean dance team and Rojstaczer and his friends got to see them practice.
Now, if the concept of staying in somebody's house you have never met before is a bit too much for you, you can always just meet with locals and get their guidance that way. Bradley hasn't couch surfed after his first incident, but when he does travel he meets and stays with locals.
"[When in Darjeeling, India], my goal all day was just to get invited in to someone's house … It always worked every single time," Bradley said.
According to Rojstaczer, even when traveling with a local you will still see the touristy spots, but it's more about getting to know the city for what it is instead of just the picture, and meeting many cool people.