The surfing couch potato
- ONLINE EXCLUSIVE -
Story by Elyse Tan
As four roommates prepare dinner, the roar of a motorcycle engine approaches.
A complete stranger soaked from the rain bursts into the back door and pulls off his helmet as he sets down an overnight bag.
“Hey guys, what can I do to help?” he asks.
Within five minutes, Western junior Erica Reed and her roommates deliberate whether they can trust this stranger in their home in their York district that has been furnished with an array of second-hand couches for couchsurfers to choose from.
Arriving from Alaska, this stranger is prepared to spend the next few nights on a worn, denim blue couch in an unfamiliar place with people he has never met before.
This isn’t anything out of the ordinary for Erica Reed, couch surfer and hostess.
Four years ago Reed began CouchSurfing after high school when she traveled Ireland. She got to know places beyond tourist attractions with the help of locals she contacted through the CouchSurfing site, she says.
A non-profit website designed to connect people all over the world, CouchSurfing has helped travelers find compatible hosts to stay with and experience a culture in a whole different way.
CouchSurfing.org, “the world’s largest traveling community,” is comprised of more than 3 million profiles of potential hosts and surfers in over 238 countries and territories.
In the last month, Reed and her roommates have hosted five CouchSurfers, she says.
Their four couches have been well-traveled by surfers from Denmark, Canada, England, France and all over the United States..
“Guests are like a bunch of friends with really great stories passing through on your couch,” Reed says.
But like with most things in life, there are risks, she says. There isn’t any solid trust with the stranger you’re meeting as a surfer or host..
Filtering through CouchSurfers as they send requests, Reed has had a few strange experiences. One incident included a 60-year-old man who wanted to stay in their home, take pictures and have a good time. With the click of a deny button, those situations were easily resolved.
All the CouchSurfers have been incredibly sweet, Reed says.
Some people, however, are not so lucky, like 22-year-old Western senior, Laura Kirk.Despite her amazing experiences CouchSurfing in Chile and Brazil, her first time hosting didn’t run so smoothly.
Kirk and her roommates hosted A 26-year-old CouchSurfer who admitted to abusing the CouchSurfing site after attending a party in Bellingham. He was creepy and attempted to get into their rooms, she says. He was asked to leave and Kirk followed up with a negative reference, she says.
CouchSurfing users can see any profile including general information, pictures, interests, education and references. “Nothing’s private,” Erica Reed says.
Negative and positive feedback is imperative in the selection process for Couchsurfers and hosts.
By checking references, Western student 20-year-old Ashley Hogrebe avoided what could’ve been a bad experience. After a man had offered her a ride from Paris to Barcelona, she reviewed his profile where she found 100 positive references and 60 negative, Hogrebe says.
“If you’re a girl, do not get in a car with him,” she read.
Hogrebe instantly turned him down.
The reference thing is a really smart move on CouchSurfing part, she says.
Otherwise, the main risk is that awkward moment where you just don’t connect with a host or CouchSurfer you’ve just met, Erica Reed says.
After her experiences CouchSurfing with friends and independently, Reed feels an instant bond with others through the network who share an open mind and since of adventure that comes along with CouchSurfing, Reed says.
“I love traveling like that– waking up and not knowing where we’re going to be that night,” Reed says.
23-year-old Western alumni Brandon Fralic from Turkey to Istanbul, not knowing the people he was staying with or who was going to get him there.
With a thumb out, skipping pebbles are left behind as vehicles zoom by Fralic and his friend.
Over the course of ten days, supplied with cardboard and sharpies, Fralic traveled over 700 miles while hitchhiking and CouchSurfing.
Fralic never knows who is going to offer him a ride, he says.
Although former hitchhiker Dennis Ansell solicited free rides all over the states for 18 years, he won’t even pick up a hitchhiker anymore. “I was a crazy hitchhiking fool,” he says.
At 65, Dennis Ansell has finally settled in one place with his family and believes that the times have changed for traveling independently. “Now it’s a different story, you can’t trust anyone anymore,” Ansell says.
Contrary to Ansell’s beliefs, members of the CouchSurfing community including Reed, Hogrebe, Fralic, and Kirk continue to take that risk of trusting strangers.
CouchSurfing is the best way to travel, Reed says.
At this point, it’s not about saving money, it’s about the people you meet, she says.
Laura Kirk had nothing but good things to say about her hosts in Chile and Brazil as she CouchSurfed after studying abroad.
With mattresses sprawled out in the living room and rooms devoted for CouchSurfers, Ashley Hogrebe had an amazing time with two French chefs that were hosting eight other CouchSurfers from all different parts of the world.
Just a few months ago, 20-year-old Taryn Aldridge embarked on her first independent traveling escapade where she couch surfed in New Zealand from Christchurch to Whangarei.
Around the time of her birthday, Aldridge learned to surf and was thrown an elaborate birthday party by her hosts and fellow CouchSurfers from Germany, France and London after little time knowing them.
“Staying in a house with complete strangers anywhere can be a lot more nerve- racking than you may think, even if you’re an outgoing person,” Aldridge says.
Erica Reed admits that traveling as a woman can be more daunting.
It was New Year’s Eve and Hogrebe found herself sleeping on the streets of London after fleeing from a bad encounter. Two CouchSurfing hosts had ran out of space and knew a friend, a man with no association to the CouchSurfing site but had a place to stay. After spending time at the man’s house, Hogrebe and her friend were startled when they found their host doing lines of cocaine. When he attempted to barge into their roomsthey fled.
Although it was a horrible experience, Hogrebe looks forward to CouchSurfing again.
If I can handle traveling independently, I can handle Western, I can handle anything, Hogrebe says.
After Reed’s three years as a part of the CouchSurfing community, she has established a great set of friends and regularly receives letters from former CouchSurfers and hosts who will always have a place for her to stay.
“Always remember the CouchSurfing philosophy to teach, learn, share,” Brandon Fralic says.