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Destination: Couch

By Nio Mark Sablan
Philippine Daily Inquirer

Last updated 18:48:00 08/15/2008

MANILA, Philippines?Nope, couch-surfing isn?t a new and crazy extreme sport that makes use of your sofa as a surfboard. It is a term that simply means finding free accommodations. Couch-surfing is very popular among travelers all over the world that the subculture has spawned a website dedicated to the activity and its fans.

CouchSurfing (http://www.couchsurfing.com) is a worldwide online network for travelers who not only like meeting fellow trekkers, but are also on the lookout for tour guides, tips and a place to crash, of course. Its mission is to ?internationally network people and places, create educational exchanges, raise collective consciousness, spread tolerance and facilitate cultural understanding.?

The idea for the site started when founder Casey Fenton got himself a cheap ticket to Iceland to spend a long weekend there. One problem though: he didn?t have a place to stay and he didn?t want to do the tourist-y thing by staying at an overpriced, boring hotel. He came up with a brilliant idea: spam the inboxes of 1,500 Icelandic students, asking if he could crash on their couch. He actually got a lot of replies from some students, all of them eager to show Casey their own Reykjavik. After a fabulous weekend, Casey vowed never to be trapped in a hotel ever again?and the CouchSurfing Project was born.

The site was launched in beta in Jan. 1, 2003. Now, CouchSurfing has a network of 666,507 members (from 231 countries) that is continuously growing.

Just like Friendster

Just like any networking site, CouchSurfing lets you create your own profile containing the usual details: background info, hobbies, favorites. There are also travel-related info that you need to provide such as where you?ve lived, where you?ve visited and where you want to go in the near future. Apart from pictures from your travels, you can also put up a photo of your house so potential couch-surfers can have an idea of how your place looks like.

While others are content making their network bigger by joining discussion groups and meeting people from all over the world there and then adding them as contacts, there are those who use the site to help them in their actual trips.

To illustrate, let?s say that you want to go backpacking in Scandinavia, starting with a trip to Stockholm, and then to Oslo and on to Copenhagen. What you can do is join the respective groups on CouchSurfing, post an e-mail inquiring about suggested activities, destinations and accommodations and let the replies guide you in making an itinerary, preparing your budget and making sure that your trip will be the best.

Safety

But isn?t staying over at a stranger?s house not exactly the wisest thing to do when traveling alone to a new place?

Well, CouchSurfing has a lot of precautionary measures to take care of its surfers and hosts.

For starters, the network of references and friend links is helpful in determining how someone is connected to other people you might know. Aside from this, the site also features testimonials from fellow couch-surfers who have hosted them, crashed their couch or even just met. This part is very helpful because these testimonials can attest to just how good (or bad) the person is when it comes to hosting or playing tour guide.

CouchSurfing also has its own vouching and verification systems. All these help other users in determining if you?re trustworthy or not, basing on the number and the quality of people you know and how you have participated in the system.

Friendships formed

The community may not have millions of members but the group is steadily growing. In fact, the members are very close to one another that they have common acquaintances, they get in touch even after hosting one another, and even go visit each other after their initial meet-ups.

So close are some members of the community that bonds and friendships have been formed over time.

Recently, there was a Danish couch-surfer who passed away in Manila due to complications that arose from acute respiratory distress syndrome. He had made some good friends in the region, one of them a Filipino who plans to go meet the Dane?s parents so he can personally extend his condolences.

Very interested in making friends from all over the world and curious about other cultures, I myself created a profile in CouchSurfing and while I haven?t had the chance to host members or even just chat with others, I?ve checked out the profiles of interesting members and I can?t wait to exchange stories with them.

I know someone, on the other hand, who has been a member of the site for a little over a year now. Apart from going to field trips with groups, he has also toured and hosted a hodgepodge of interesting personalities: a German student, a Dutch government employee and an Australian who just quit his job to see the world. Interestingly, he has also found a significant other through the site.

Don?t think though that CouchSurfing is a place for romantic hook-ups because it?s certainly not that. Cyberspace is overflowing with hook-up sites and in a sea of networking sites that exist ?just because,? CouchSurfing seems to be a really great destination.

E-mail the author at ninomarksablan@yahoo.com

     


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