CARS HOMES JOBS

CouchSurfing offers travelers a bed, instant friends

Sunday, August 5, 2012
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Justin Doubrava of Schenectady, second from right, stayed in Portugal with these college students from Estonia, who treated him to “a great barbecue.”
Justin Doubrava of Schenectady, second from right, stayed in Portugal with these college students from Estonia, who treated him to “a great barbecue.”

— Mike Welch and Loralynne Krobetzky are hospitable people, willing to open up their home to complete strangers.

The Schenectady couple has hosted a half dozen travelers — a man from Thailand walking the length of the Erie Canal, two men traveling from Boston’s Fenway Park to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown and a man from the Netherlands singing at The Moon & River Cafe in the Stockade — none of whom they’d ever met before. Next week a female motorcyclist they’ve only communicated with online will stay for a night.

Welch and Krobetzky are part of a worldwide network that connects travelers with hosts who are willing to offer them a free place to stay.

They belong to a website called CouchSurfing.org, where people can post profiles outlining their interests and life experience, and connect with other members to inquire about lodging. The general expectation is that hosts will provide more than just a place to crash, and that travelers will socialize with their hosts. This interaction is critical: Couch surfers consider themselves part of a “hospitality exchange” that makes the world a smaller and friendlier place.

“My favorite thing about couch surfing is that I find myself being more openly social,” Welch said. “I’m much more receptive to other people. Couch surfing opens you up to the idea that you could meet someone on the street and they could be an amazing person.”

The people you meet on CouchSurfing.org “open up in a way you wouldn’t ordinarily,” perhaps because the connections are so fleeting, Welch said. “You find out a lot about people.”

Some might consider this a risky brand of hospitality, but members interviewed for this article said they’d never had any problems. Welch said they spend time with their visitors, sometimes going out for a drink, often just hanging around their apartment and talking.

connections

Founded in 2003, CouchSurfing International Inc. is based in San Francisco.

“At CouchSurfing, we envision a world where everyone can explore and create meaningful connections with the people and places they encounter,” the company’s mission statement explains. “Building meaningful connections across cultures enables us to respond to differences with curiosity, appreciation and respect. The appreciation of diversity spreads tolerance and creates a global community.”

Worldwide, CouchSurfing.org has approximately 4.6 million members in 207 countries.

In the Capital Region, the majority of members are based in Albany, Schenectady, Troy and Saratoga Springs, but a search of the website reveals members in smaller communities such as Schoharie and Round Lake.

The average couch surfer is 28, according to CouchSurfing.org.

In a New Yorker magazine piece on CouchSurfing.org, the writer Patricia Marx outlined some of the reservations people might have about signing up and using the site: “I do not find the concept of consorting with unknown persons appealing. (Is it for people who have no friends? How do you know the sheets are clean? What is it with people always wanting to get together? What happened to ‘Never talk to strangers’?)”

Marx also writes humorously about how she selected her hosts when she traveled, saying that she winnowed out “those whose narratives included the words ‘party,’ ‘vegan,’ and ‘free spirit,’ and the phrases ‘I believe in the journey,’ ‘Never stop learning, never stop loving,’ and ‘Burning Man.’ ”

Albany resident Paul Bissember, 26, serves as a local moderator for CouchSurfing, which entails providing information and answering questions about the organization.

Bissember, who is finishing up a job at Siena College’s Office of International Programs and moving to Berkeley, Calif., for a master’s program in Latin American studies, said he learned about CouchSurfing from a friend while teaching English in southern Spain.

“I thought, ‘That sounds pretty wild,’ ” the Cobleskill native recalled.

One of Bissember’s first CouchSurfing trips was to Montreal; he and his twin brother stayed with a group of students sharing a flat. “Instead of staying in a hotel and going to the bar next door, we went to bars we never would have found otherwise,” he said. “We learned about a free bike program.” His other CouchSurfing destinations include New York City, Portland, Maine, and Mexico.

These days, Bissember is doing a lot of hosting.

“I used to stay in a lot of places, so now I’m trying to host people,” he said. “I’m trying to pay it back. … Both hosting and traveling are really rewarding. I’ve talked to people who say it’s a cheap way to travel, but that’s not the reason I do it, and not why most people do it. It’s a great way to meet local people. I learn so much more traveling with CouchSurfing.”

grassroots view

Schenectady resident Justin Doubrava, 25, joined CouchSurfing about a year and a half ago. He used the site while traveling through Europe, staying with four different people. His first host, in Madrid, was interested in learning English. In return for Doubrava’s company, he showed him unusual sights, such as the largest flag in Spain. In Portugal, he stayed with college students from Estonia who treated him to “a great barbecue.” In Germany, he had two separate hosts: a woman from Berlin who gave him a tour of the city, and a woman in Cologne who greeted him with a beer when he got off the train.

“She said, ‘There’s no open container law here, so here’s your first beer,’ ” Doubrava recalled.

Doubrava has hosted four times. His visitors include two Germans who had recently graduated from high school and were nearing the end of a worldwide trip. “I showed them around the area,” he said. “We played board games and watched movies — nothing too spectacular.”

Unlike most of the other people interviewed for this article, Albany resident Dave Oehl said he mainly uses CouchSurfing.org to travel inexpensively. “I’ve hosted people that I’ve met for five minutes, and I’ve been hosted by people that I’ve met for five or 10 minutes,” he said. “If I’m around, I try to hang out and play games and take them on a tour. One guy I hosted from New York was here for a Scrabble tournament that lasted a long time. He was a nice guy.”

“I think a lot of people come to have a personal identification with the website, that they identify themselves as a couch surfer,” Oehl said. “I view it as a website for traveling. I do not consider myself part of an Internet community.”

Oehl, a 35-year-old deliverer of groceries and flowers, said that he has long been active in Quaker and anarchist communities, which have “a pretty long tradition of traveling and hospitality,” and that the concept of the site was easy for him to understand as a result.

works both ways

Welch, 31, and Krobetzky, 34, have used CouchSurfing.org both as travelers and hosts.

Their first experience was in 2009 in San Francisco. They were mainly interested in the cheap accommodations promised by the website, but their host — “a really cool guy,” Welch said — sold them on using CouchSurfing.org to promote “international diplomacy.” He also took them to the sorts of places they never would have found on their own as tourists.

“You learn more about where you are,” said Krobetzky, who teaches at Mildred Elley College and tutors. And you do things you might not do without a local to guide you. On their San Francisco trip, Krobetzky and Welch swam in the rooftop pool of their host — an unexpected treat.

Last month Welch and Krobetzky stayed with a woman in Vermont. They were on their way to a four-day family reunion, and wanted to explore the small city of Brattleboro and get a hot shower before heading into the woods. They’d met their host last summer, en route to the same event, but this year she was also hosting a student at the nearby New England Center for Circus Arts.

After that trip, Welch and Krobetzky decided to host, unsure whether travelers would be interested in staying in Schenectady. “We put our couch up, and we’ve had a pretty steady stream of people coming,” said Welch, who tutors and cooks at Moon & River.

Connections made through CouchSurfing tend to be short term.

“You’re not making lifelong friends,” Welch said. He said that everyone they’d met through the site was “pretty cool,” with one exception: a traveler who wasn’t creepy or untrustworthy, according to Welch, but simply socially awkward — staying too long and displaying little interest in interacting with Welch and Krobetzky. “[The traveler] was the only person who’s made me feel like we were a hotel, like he was not interested in us at all,” Welch said.

CouchSurfing.org has several safety features. Members can write references, indicating whether they had a positive or negative experience with a host. The organization has a vouching system, which allows members to vouch for the trustworthiness of other members; members must be vouched for three times, by people they know in the “real world,” to attain vouched status. Another system, known as verification, allows members to confirm their identities with a secure payment.

“It’s a cool group of people,” Bissember said. “One reason I’m still involved in it is that there’s a real sense of community.”

 
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