In 1999, Casey Fenton snapped-up a bargain price plane ticket from Boston to Iceland. Realising he had a shoestring budget and nowhere to stay, he spontaneously emailed 1500 Icelandic students, asking if anyone would be willing to let him sleep on a couch for a night or two. Their response was overwhelming, and Casey spent a week visiting Reykjavik, making new friends and seeing a side of the city off the regular tourist trail. On the way home, he realised that this idea could be applied to anyone, anywhere, and that it offered people a chance to make genuine connections on a global scale.
More than 10 years later and ‘CouchSurfing’ – the project’s eventual name – has become an international community of more than 2.8 million members, spread across 246 countries. The idea remains simple – people who have a spare couch, airbed or room, list themselves on the website and travellers browse the spare couches, requesting a few nights accommodation. No money changes hands, and host and surfers are often strangers.
The safety of the hosts and surfers is paramount to the project, and there are various levels of verification that ensure connections are made in the true spirit of the project. For example, new members can make a small (voluntary) donation to the project, and the organisers then send a postcard to the members stated address – verifying the location of the couch. There is also a friend system similar to facebook, where users can add each other. This allows members to build up a reputation on the site, further assuring their trustworthiness. Hosts and surfers can also leave reviews of each other’s surfing experience. Negative reviews are moderated by the organisers, and disingenuous members are easily spotted and dealt with. Beyond the users, there are several levels of administrators and ‘city ambassadors’, who organise the site and community wide activities.
The Rio de Janeiro CouchSurfing community is very active, and amongst the top 40 CouchSurfing cities in the world, with Paris, London and Berlin taking the top spots. City ambassadors organise a weekly meetings on Copacabana beach every Thursday, close to Posto 5. The number of attendees at these meetings varies, with lots of travellers during the summer, and less in the winter. Recent meetings have been attended by over 150 people. This highly international crowd gives members a chance to meet other travellers, or possibly make face to face contact before offering a couch.
The experience that CouchSurfing provides is much more personal than a hotel or a hostel, as hosts will often take the time to show their city to the surfer. The hosts can also take the surfers out to socialise with their friends, which is likely to be a much more authentic experience than hanging out at the normal tourist traps. For hosts, it is possible to build up a network of friends and fellow travellers, who are likely to payback the hospitality they received with an offer of hosting in their home town. There is also the simple pleasure of helping travellers as well, of course.
So, for anyone with a spare couch, and a willingness to show travellers around Rio, CouchSurfing offers a great way to meet people and to learn about other cultures. For anyone with an adventure on the horizon, CouchSurfing could be a great way to make new friends, save money and experience a city through the eyes of a local. Membership is free and open to all. More details can be found on the couch surfing website (www.couchsurfing.org).