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CT Investigation: NY Times Puff Piece Prompts A Closer Look at CouchSurfing.Com

Friday, April 24th, 2009

To CouchSurf, or not to CouchSurf?

That is the almighty question of Contrarian Travel, circa April 2009.

Is CouchSurfing.com — the Facebook of adventure travel — a cheap, easy way of eluding mass tourism?

Does it live up to its lofty mission — connecting travelers with natives of local communities? Does it effectively eliminate the need for Hostels?
If you read the New York Times’ “Three Cushions, A Million Guests.” on April 8th — a short piece in the Travel section’s Frugal Traveler column, in honor of the announcement that CouchSurfing.com has 1 million members — you’re probably pretty excited. Maybe even sleepless.

CouchSurfing sounds like the Contrarian Traveller’s panacea. Free accomodations, encounters with friendly locals with cultural knowledge, a community of travel addicts.
Gross, the NYT’s longtime Frugal Traveler columnist — ordinarily a reliable source of cheap travel tips — desribes the social networking tool glowingly. No Couchsurfer he’s talked with has ever felt unsafe. He’s used it in Montenegro, Kyrgyzstan, Bucharest and Indiana. He says the CouchSurfers are rarely stereotypical backpackers. Then he adds a few gushing sentences about a Couchsurfing party he attended in Queen — frisbees flying, brotherhood abounding, quality people (Gross notes that at least four doctors are present at the Couchsurfing pizza/frisbee party). Sounds great. (ALSO; hook up potential. Gross notes that one guy met his girlfriend couchsurfing)
Given the importance of Couchsurfing.com to our lifeblood — cheap travel to untouristed places — we felt that CT readers deserved a closer look at what CouchSurfing is really like…

In Pt. 1 of “CouchSurfing Confidential,” CT editor Rob Jordan describes why he’s no longer hosting CSers at his Miami Beach pad.. We urge you to read — and share — Rob’s
piece “

How I Traveled the World Without Leaving My Couch and Got Tired of It.

By Rob Jordan

Gary was my first.

A friendly, bespectacled, ruddy and somewhat diminutive Irish guy living in Munich, Gary was my first couchsurfer. Actually, he was the second, but the first – a girl from Los Angeles – basically just wanted a place to sleep during a party weekend with gal pals.

High on the idealism and international social promise inherent in the idea, I had

recently signed up on coucshurfing.com, the million-member online community in which one party provides gratis accommodations while the other party ostensibly provides foreign charm and cultural literacy. My Ikea leather couch and Japanese-ish futon were now fair game. In exchange, I hoped for a dose of foreign-ness, exotic home-cooked meals and, perhaps, gifts like wine or chocolates or mild narcotics.

When you describe your apartment’s location as “a small island between South Beach and downtown Miami,” you should expect a regular UN of crash pad seekers. Gary was the first to get through my intense screening process. I looked at his profile photo (friendly-enough-looking) and gauged his level of interest in seeing Miami (high).

After an amusing evening of traipsing around South Beach, chatting about lederhosen and whatnot, we ended up at a gay bar with outdoor seating on Ocean Drive. Gary was interested in what local homosexuals were up to, so I had offered the field trip. I was happy enough with my free cup of Maker’s Mark, courtesy of my neighbor, the bartender, but Gary was disappointed. The place was deserted, and we had missed the weekly drag revue. All that was left was a little curbside drama: a stout queen barking at a cab driver as s/he squeezed her rear end into the taxi’s backseat.

After Gary left a positive review on my couchsurfing.com profile page, the requests came thick and heavy.

“I have always dreamt about South Beach and the cocodriles!” an Italian girl wrote. A Brazilian guy said he would be “deadly grateful” for a place to stay. A Mexican guy wanted to stay at my place before boarding the “ferry service to go to Cuba.” Could I send a cool Miami postcard to someone’s friend in Poland? “Please excuse me if I say something odd,” warned an artist from New Zealand.

They wrote from Indonesia, Hong Kong and Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, France, Denmark, Lithuania, Slovenia and Croatia and Serbia, Turkey, South Africa, Mexico, Costa Rica, Peru, Brazil, Ecuador and Orlando. They had screen names like Honey, Jackooo, Toon, Icewater and, my favorite honest freeloader moniker, “White Collar Nomad.” Most of them seemed to be college-age, likely well-off kids looking for adventure on the cheap.

Choosing who to accept and who to nix became a significant occupation. While others wasted their time with email spam, I was busy checking my coucshurfing.com inbox, perusing profiles and replying to requests. Hits and misses ensued

Megan, the shaved-headed anarchist Catholic charity worker from Cleveland, was a bit peeved by Miami’s general hedonism and lack of vegetarian offerings.

Robin, the lanky, suave French fashion model, was happy to go kayaking, hang out with tipsy journalists at a house party and smoke American cigarettes while criticizing American society.

James, the amateur photographer from Canada, took care of himself and his antique camera. For whatever reason, I trusted him so quickly that I let him stay in my apartment while I left town for a few days. I came home to a thoroughly cleaned bathroom and a stocked refrigerator.

I went drinking with Sebastian, the dreadlocked mellow white dude from Aruba, had stomach-churning Cuban food with Yan Ke, the demure Chinese teacher and accepted shipment of sailboard parts for Bas, the extremely tall Dutch guy my cat harassed as he slept.

The French couple was the beginning of the end. They were 20-somethings with a taste for Patchouli oil and loose-fitting clothes. It started badly when they called me around midnight to say their plane had been delayed and they wouldn’t be at my place for another hour or so. Upon arrival, they had no problem finishing the food I had on hand, using my computer while I tried to squeeze past them into the kitchen and cutting their hair (him) in my bathroom, leaving a dusting of clippings in my sink and on the floor. They seemed surprised when I declined an invitation to go out for drinks.

Then there was the well-traveled writer whose profile looked interesting. He turned out to be a 60-something drifter with pneumonia. He sipped beer and smoked cigarettes on my deck while looking miserable and hacking up untold mounds of phlegm. I dropped him off at a laundromat the next morning.

By the time, Bing, an IT consultant from North Carolina by way of Shanghai, showed up, I was done. The effort of hosting seemed like more than it was worth. My generosity had run its course, my international curiosity – as far as couchsurfing went – dried up.

Now, instead of “couch definitely available,” my couchsurfing profile offers “coffee or a drink.” No takers yet.

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