Couch Surfing

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On a recent night in a Moscow cafe, a Yaroslavl student, a Turkish engineer, a Romanian IT technician, a Filipino diplomat, a Moscow secretary and her New Zealander guest were talking about everything from the proper way to say "I love you" in Turkish to traffic in Moscow, the upcoming elections and the best bars in the city.

"Isn't this great," said Chelik Karakash, the Turkish engineer. "Around this small table people are talking in Russian, English, Turkish and even Azeri.

"It's really nice to be multicultural," he added.

Karakash, like the others around the table, is a "couchsurfer" in the parlance of The Couch Surfing Project.

CouchSurfing, as it is commonly known, is a social hospitality website launched in 2003. Couchsurfers are people who have profiles on this site and stay on each others couches when they are traveling the world -- all for free.

The idea has caught on. A map of the world on the organization's website is covered in red dots representing couches around the globe. The only un-spotted spots are either orange or brown, representing deserts and mountain ranges, the green of the Artic, Siberia and the dense jungles and pampas of South America and the dark orange of Greenland and the Antarctic -- in short there are couches everywhere there are people. (There even seem to be two spots in Antarctica -- but then, you have to get there first...)

According to the site, there are more than 360,000 "surfers" representing 224 countries.

Although the organization states that it "seeks to internationally network people and places, create educational exchanges, raise collective consciousness, spread tolerance, and facilitate cultural understanding," many people just use it as a cost-effective way to see the world.

Karakash joined when he was a university student in Istanbul. "I was looking for a cheap way to travel," he said.

But he has become more philosophical about his experiences since using the site.

"Everyone can have prejudices and when you're with these people [that he has met through the site] you can learn if you're right or wrong," said Karakash.

Other surfers are just as earnest.


Tanya Kirey / For MT
A pair of tired-out but happy couch surfers relax on a foldout sofa while another makes a phone call at hostess and fellow-surfer Tanya Kirey's house in Kiev, Ukraine.
Roderico Atienza, a Filipino diplomat and Couchsurfing member, said it was "the closest to real you can travel," since a couchsurfer can go to Riga, Dubrovnik, Tucson, Santiago, Kuala Lumpur or Tehran and stay with locals who know their city and can give a visitor an inside look.

Atienza could be described as a super surfer, having hosted scores of guests from more than 50 countries since he joined in 2005. The shortest surf he has hosted has been a Kazakh girl dropping off her bags in the morning and picking them up before her flight that night. The longest was recently still in progress at seven weeks. He has also stayed on dozens of couches around the world, including one in a Palestinian refugee camp.

However, some surfers are more reticent.

"Six days -- sorry but ill hate u after ))," reads the Couch Information cell on Moscow secretary Lidia Krinova's profile, on the subject of how long she is willing to host couchsurfing guests.

Krinova, a member for a little more than a year, was hosting her first guest, Sarah George, a New Zealander working in Switzerland and visiting Moscow on vacation.

"Services in Moscow are not good, so I'm ready to help people," said Krinova.

"Also, it's a good way to learn about your own city," she said.

Mostly, though, surfers occupy a middle ground, occasionally hosting and occasionally surfing.

There are no hard and fast rules on hosting and surfing. Members are free to post that they have no couch but are willing to meet for coffee or a drink or just show a visitor around. The website is also loaded with pictures of hosts making dinner for guests and guests making dinner for hosts -- as well as parties and bars.

The registration takes just a few minutes and then members are encouraged to fill out as completely as possible various categories of information that other members can see, such as location, travels, languages, photos, couch, donations.

When a host in Moscow offered George, the New Zealander, a couch before her arrival, she wrote that she would be "very apprehensive" about staying with him since he had no photo, no profile and no references.

Members can pay a $14 verification fee by credit card, but there is some dispute over whether this actually makes couchsurfing safer. Though nothing is 100 percent, relying on positive reviews is a standard method. In this diffuse Internet network of travelers, word of mouth that you are a good host or a good guest travels fast.

Atienza has had more than 11,000 people look at his profile on the site.

Sometimes people use the site to simply meet others in their own city who have similar interests, such as travel.

Moscow has almost 500 members and St. Petersburg has a little over 400. Altogether Russia has more than 1,300 members.

"The world is small and it keeps getting smaller," said another Moscow couchsurfer, Maria Oleneva.

Contacts

www.couchsurfing.com

Other hospitality sites include:

www.hospitalityclub.org
www.crashatmine.org/wiki/Main_Page
www.bewelcome.org
www.opencouchsurfing.org

John Wendle has been couch surfing since August.