Couch surfer still riding the travel wave
Updated: 2011-09-18 07:20
By Mike Peters (China Daily)
My most recent houseguest, a bodybuilder from Turkey, had the pleasure of being yanked down the front steps of my apartment building when we took my neighbors' petite but energetic French bulldogs out for a neighborhood stroll.
Other friends in transit have danced with me on the table of a favorite Xinjiang restaurant in Beijing, hauled 50-pound halibuts from the ocean floor off the Alaskan coast, and roamed Prague to find a cafe where Cold War spies once hung out and sipped plum brandy.
Such are the joys of membership in Couchsurfing.com, a social website for travelers. We are often backpackers (or late-blooming fiftyish wannabe bohemians), eager to see the world and walk in the footsteps of locals.
In my busiest summer as a host, there was at least one "surfer" under my roof for 31 out of 33 days, and one night there were five new friends camped out on my living room floor. That month in Anchorage made morning showers and breakfast a bit like an army drill, but it's part of couch surfing's often weird charm.
There are groups for people with special interests, from period instrument collectors to travelers with families. Many city groups (including some active ones in China's biggest cities) host weekly or monthly gatherings in a local bar or restaurant that attract a lively mix of locals and happy wanderers.
Couchsurfing.com got started a few years back when a handful of members broke away from a similar online community that they thought was getting too commercial. Tour operators were on the site as "members", they say, and they weren't keen on having sales reps trolling their collegial group of like-minded travelers.
Since then, the site has grown to 3 million members, and any organization that big will have a few members who don't share the mission of the founders. After a Couchsurfing.com host in the UK was convicted last year for sexually assaulting a Hong Kong woman, the site's moderators posted bigger and stronger safety warnings on the site's home page, pointing out that members need to exercise caution and judgment before spending the night with a stranger.
Personally, I've found the extensive profiles to be a very good hedge against such problems. People who are looking for a one-night stand won't have much luck unless they at least drop a salacious hint. Traveling through a social network only works if you connect with people who want the same thing you do.
So it's easy, say, to go clubbing with a musical local or tour a museum with an academic insider. I've shared amazing meals with couch surfers in Esfahan, Iran. I've combed Turkey for old pomegranate growers and young calligraphers. And I once had three grinning young Russian army officers show up at my door in Beijing eager to kick my butt. That was a humorous lesson that my profile's opening words, "Will wrestle for beer", could be taken a little too literally.
For me, the world of couch surfing is less demanding than hosting a paying guest. (I always provide clean towels and sheets, but it's worth asking before you show up at someone's home linen-less.)
You can chill out with your guests or give them a few pointers and turn them loose on the town. It's a grand way to make friends, and I can't wait to meet (almost) all of them again somewhere down the trail.
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