Casey Fenton was traveling in Iceland in 1999 and decided he wanted to connect with locals. He sent a mass email to the student body at the University of Reykjavik, describing himself while asking for a place to stay.
He was amazed at the number of offers he got.
Inspired, he teamed up with some friends and built couchsurfing.org, a basic website designed to help connect a global community hungry for a human-centered approach to travel.
Today, that community has grown to over four million users in 86,000 cities, providing travelers with local hosts and encouraging a globalist mentality in the city of Seattle and around the world.
I joined the service 2007 so I could have a free place to stay when I travelled instead of paying for hostels.
But I quickly discovered it wasn’t only about receiving free accommodation. It was about sharing stories, tasting amazing food and drink and being shown to secret local places. It was about laughing and smiling, making new friends and sharing each others ideas and philosophies of life. In short, it was about building bridges across cultures and bringing the world a little closer together.
The first “surfer” I hosted was a recently graduated doctor from Sweden. Soon after, I hosted a professor from Scotland and then a 24-year-old Californian girl who got her kicks climbing big rocks like the face of half dome in Yosemite. As I continued to meet and discover fascinating people, I became a much more active participant in the network.
I met a French guy named Jeremy who had been hitchhiking around the world for 3 years, boats, cars, camels and all. I hosted an Australian girl who had sailed across the Atlantic. Recently I hosted an Israeli who had been backpacking for a few years including long camping stints in Patagonia, New Zealand and Nepal. His adventurous spirit and mine clicked and we spontaneously went to Olympic National park for a weekend of camping and exploring.
Couchsurfing provides great interactions in hosting and surfing, but the network has expanded to include thousands of regional and interest groups created by the members.
With a little over 8,000 members, the Seattle group is one of the most active. There are events almost everyday, from beach camping and hikes, to potlucks and pottery lessons. There’s also a coffee shop meet up every Sunday afternoon and a happy hour every Thursday.
“It’s shown me Seattle through the eyes of travelers in a way being born and raised here would have been impossible,” Allen Wright, a Seattle Couchsurfer since 2008, said via email. “Over half of my friends are from the Seattle couchsurfing group.”
Seattle has a reputation in the global couchsurfing community. Posts abound of people testifying that they came to Seattle with an open itinerary for their west coast trips and extended their Seattle portion after meeting Seattle couchsurfers.
But the Seattle group has changed local Seattleites’ lives as well as well.
“CSers in Seattle have easily stolen my heart, and have made an indelible imprint on my soul. They are a relaxed and inviting breed that foster meaningful connections,” Klaire Ruckert, the local Seattle couchsurfing ambassador and moderator of the group, said via email. “Being part of this community has introduced me to strong lifelong friendships that are fueling my travel bug.”
Joining couchsurfing is a fairly easy process, similar to building a facebook profile page. A new couchsurfer writes a little information about themselves saying what they are about, puts up a couple of photos up and tries to build their credibility by attending events, hosting or surfing. Other users provide positive, neutral and negative references based on their interactions. It’s also possible to officially “vouch” for someone, but in order to do so, you must be vouched for three times.
As you might expect, there are some negative rumors about the service. There’s a misperception that to join couchsurfing, you’re obligated to host and that their address is disclosed.
There is also the notion that couchsurfing is a bunch of stalkers and devious individuals, which is, in my experience, simply false. Of the millions of positive interactions, there has only been one high profile case of abuse.
“I’ve hosted a few hundred at least, and have never had a problem past a broken item or two,” Ruekert says ”but if I don’t feel okay about someone, I just tell them I’m unavailable to host them.”
It is entirely up to the individual how they want to participate, whether they host, surf, or just meet up at events.
In a world that encourages us to be fearful and guarded, couchsurfing brings a rejuvenating reminder that people on this planet are generally nicer than we make them to be, and that very beautiful friendships can be made with a little faith.
Shawn Saleme is a traveler, anthropologist and blogger. He writes for Visual News while seeking adventures and building community. He lives on his sailboat in Seattle. Connect with him via Facebook or Twitter.