CouchSurfin’ Safari

The CouchSurfing Project is a site connecting young travelers around the world. In an uncharacteristically adventurous move, Kevin Nguyen sleeps on a stranger’s couch in Barcelona.

With over 300,000 members in 31,000 different locations throughout the world, the Couch Surfing Project is a successful social experiment, at least in terms of participation. The concept is simple: set up a profile and offer your couch up for other travelers for free. In theory, it’s a great way to meet people while globe-trotting on a budget, but even the most reckless backpacker will ask the obvious questions. Does it work? Is it safe?

If my own experience is any indication, I can enthusiastically answer “yes” to both questions.

Honestly, I would’ve never tried couchsurfing had it not been for my own negligence. Trying to a book a hostel in Barcelona a week in advance was an inevitably unsuccessful venture. came as a suggestion from a friend of a friend. At first, I, cautionary in nature, found the concept somewhat disconcerting, but the idea of sleeping on a stranger’s sofa was more comforting than facing a foreign city without shelter.

The site is somewhat disorganized and clumsy in design, although it’s fairly simple to create a profile. CouchSurfers affords you all of the usual social-networking features — space to describe yourself, the ability to upload a few pictures, et cetera — but I realized that this was different from arranging a Facebook or MySpace profile. As a surfer, you request permission to stay on someone’s couch. Desperate for a place to stay in Barcelona, I was literally trying to sell myself. It felt like typing up a resumé, pitching my personality traits rather than my marketable skills.

I eventually settled on an unoffending photograph of me and my travel buddy Joe in front of the Viennese Parliament building and a cheesy Miles Davis quote pulled straight from my high school yearbook page.

Glancing at a few other profiles, I noticed that fellow surfers often described themselves as even-tempered and laid-back. That made sense, since I doubted the high-strung of society would offer free board to people they had never met. I characterized Joe and me as “easygoing and polite.”

Still, a few profiles were a little dubious, and some were downright creepy. In particular was a former water polo player, whose picture featured him shirtless at the beach. He hosted females exclusively.

I match perfectly with girls and enjoy knowing more and more of them, discovering the complexity of such amazing and lovely creatures. Check my pics!!!!

He also boasted that he could “host up to 3 girls at the same time, any GIRL from any country, any age.”

Luckily, the creepier profiles were a small minority in the search results.

Browsing through potential couches felt kind of like car shopping if you could judge each model on its color and stereo rather than price. I imagined this is what internet dating services felt like.

Most hosts were willing to accommodate only a single person at once. Luckily, Barcelona offered over 1,200 members, and after some twenty minutes of looking, I had sent out four messages to different profiles. In particular, I had my eye on a fellow named Patrice, who lived conveniently near the França Station where we would arrive from Paris.

Within a few hours, I received a response from Patrice.

I should admit that I am not an experienced traveller, nor a spontaneous one. (For my two-week railway trek across Europe, I typed up a day-by-day itinerary. On-the-fly modifications to the schedule felt like betrayal.) Correspondence with Patrice through CouchSurfing’s message system became somewhat troubling. His English was, at times, difficult, and he neglected to provide an address or phone number until the day before our arrival.

After our uncomfortable twelve-hour-long sleeper train from France, we showed up at Patrice’s apartment at 9:00 a.m. We tried the buzzer a couple times, but it wasn’t until the third attempt that we heard a faint mumbling on the other end of the intercom. The door unlocked and we headed upstairs.

A man, probably in his early thirties–who would later introduce himself as James–let us into the apartment.

“I didn’t sleep much last night, so I’m trying to catch up,” he said, pointing us to the bathroom with a series of drowsy hand motions.

The apartment, though spacious — 100-square-meters with a kitchen, living area, at least three bedrooms, and an attractive terrace — was intimidatingly messy. Joe and I left our stuff on a futon. James and another person (later identified as Joel) were sleeping on the couches. We showered quickly and went off to explore the city.

Returning later that day, it became clear that the apartment was inhabited by people working in the computer science field. There were computer parts scattered about, programming books stacked on the shelves, and desktops running Linux. We met one of Patrice’s two roommates, Christophe, a quiet thirtysomething Parisian who spent most of his time pouring over lines of code and skateboarding. Joel, the other roommate, also French, was a web developer who enjoyed rollerblading and cooking.

Joel offered us generous sleeping accommodations, including his own bed, and a spare set of keys to the apartment. I was surprised with the amount of trust we were given.

Joe and I didn’t meet Patrice until our second day. Recovering from our “authentic” Barcelona party experience (apparently staying out until 7:00 a.m. is par for the course), we laid around the apartment lazily for most of the day. Despite standing at well over six feet tall, Patrice’s mannerism were shy, almost meek. He seemed a little frazzled and embarrassed that he wasn’t around to greet us, but offered to take us out to dinner.

As indicated by his written messages, Pat’s English was rough around the edges, though comprehendible. We struck up a conversation about music. He liked soul, electronica, and Tears for Fears. (The three of us broke into “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” on the metro.)

We asked Patrice about James. According to Patrice, James hailed from Lafayette, an island off the coast of France, and had been in the apartment for a little over a week.

“I like James. He is very quiet and never asks for anything and offers to clean up the apartment. So Joel and Christophe and I say, ‘That is a good guy. Keep him.’” Patrice paused for a moment. “The first day he stayed I saw him eating food out of the garbage outside. That was kind of bizarre.”

I asked Patrice how many other surfers he’d had, to which he replied, “maybe six or seven.”

I wondered how many of them ate trash.

Patrice had been living in his the apartment for only a couple months. He found out about Couchsurfing from a friend, and after crashing on a few couches in Norway, he decided to offer up his own.

“It’s a good way to make connections with people everywhere.”

After dinner, Patrice brought us to a couple clubs. As we walked home, he promised to take us to more hip locations in Barcelona if we ever returned.

“Next time, come stay for seven days. Or fifteen.”

His generosity seemed boundless.

The next day when Joe and I discovered that the night train we planned to take to Madrid had been cancelled, Patrice had no objection to offering us another night. If we had overstayed our welcome, neither Patrice nor his roommates showed a sign of it.

For those that share a youthful optimism and an eagerness to meet a diverse community of travelers, I encourage you to set up a CouchSurfing profile. It’s a far more personal experience than hostel culture, one that captures the true spirit of internationalism.

Just look out for anyone willing to host three girls at the same time.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.