Bryhanna Greenough hitches a ride on a surfing couch.
My decision to live in People’s Republic of China for a year was sparked, in part, when I discovered a copy of Lonely Planet in a used bookstore.
Glossy photos of glorious imperial palaces and thousand year old gardens, entire towns devoted to making teapots, vendors serving up street food and the romance of winding mountain passes all captured my imagination.
In 2002 I went to teach English at a university on the eastern seaboard of China. When summer holidays and the sweltering summer heat came, I hopped on a train across the country to a more temperate and touristy region in the south west, Yunnan province.
Then a funny thing happened. Even after spending six months in the country, once I started relying heavily on my guide book I became fixed into some sort of Lonely Planet tourist circuit. I kept bumping into the same travelers over and over again at the recommended trendy hostels, acclaimed cheap restaurants, and “must-see” sites. Sometimes we’d find each other in truly desolate spots, like at a rather disappointing hot springs located an entire eight hours off the beaten track.
After a stint satisfying my desire for Western-style, oven-baked pizza, and trolling English bookstores, I said good bye to the Lonely Planet China. And it was the best thing that could have happened to my trip.
I became more flexible and was forced to break out of my shell and meet more Chinese people. My patchy Mandarin improved in leaps and bounds.
People are hungry for authentic experiences in the places where they travel. Many want to high-tail it from the tourist traps and live like locals.
An innovative online community is trying to fill this role. Fueled by the desire to bring about more meaningful travel experiences, couchsurfing.com, a free system, is connecting world travelers with local hosts.
The site is loaded with individual profiles of willing hosts and travelers seeking a place to crash. Profiles outline age, gender, occupation, languages, and include personality tidbits like favourite books, life philosophy and photos.
In China alone there are over 2,100 couches available. There are even couches in Greenland.
Hosts are not expected to be tour guides, rather, it’s an informal arrangement where a host simply makes a little bit of room in his/her home for a traveler to stay.
My friend has used the site to find places to stay in San Francisco, New York, Tampa and even Dawson City while collaborating with various film festivals. She would simply send a message to a potential couch owner to try to hook up a place to stay.
First, she says, she meets for coffee with the host, and that way both she and her host have the chance to back out if it seems at all sketchy. A personal vouching system with references—like eBay’s user feedback—is in place to increase security and trust.
So far, she says her experiences have been very positive. Couchsurfing is her preferred mode of travel.
The database at couchsurfing.com holds roughly 200,000 contacts with willing couches in 216 countries, including Canada.
Unlike a B & B, no money changes hands. Couch surfing is a way to save money when you’re on the road, for sure, but it’s also a way to live like a local. Surely, depending on who you stay with, the experience of each place will be quite different.
Jonathan Adams, one of The Scope’s writers is hitting the road for the summer and will be using couchsurfing.com along the way.
“I think I’ve got couches lined up in Fredericton, Quebec, Winnipeg, and Saskatoon,” he says via e-mail. “It’s a start anyway. I’m catching the ferry later this week.”
Here on the Avalon, 21 couches are on offer to travelers. There are 36 Newfie couchsurfing members, some of which are traveling and doing some surfing themselves.
Why would people offer their couch to a stranger? To meet new people, possibly practice languages, and know that you’re helping someone live their dream of traveling to the region you call home.
The site’s motto is “Creating a better world, one couch at a time.”
Illustration by Kira Sheppard.