<10 minutes to read - an advert for and some of my experiences within Couchsurfing.
Couchsurfing has just reached a huge milestone. There are now a million members of this website and the numbers are still growing fast. Here's where they are:
I thought I'd take the chance to write a few words about this site, which has brought an amazing wealth of knowledge, opportunities and friendship for me from, and in, fantastic places around the world.
The purpose of couchsurfing is simple:
It is a platform by which those traveling to new places may find people there who are willing to share their space and/or their time with strangers, in order to bring local knowledge to outsiders and make both traveling and living in that place a richer experience.
There are no overall constraints on this in terms of time, reasons for traveling, or how much you would like to put into the system. Each person may apply their own constraints as to how often or the sort of people they would like to host, if any.
The way it works is also simple: You sign up and create a profile page with as few or as many details about yourself as you would like to share. With this system, the more information you give, the better, as trust is an important part of the way it all runs smoothly.
When you would like to travel somewhere, you search for people in that location through the site. You may search for people who have a spare place for you to stay, or simply those willing to go for a drink or show you around their city. You can search by language, interest, location, and more.
In Santiago de Compostela there are just over 200 people registered to the site, 100 of these are offering their couches (or spare beds, or simply floor-space).
You then write to whoever you want, telling them about your plans and what you are looking for, whether it be a place to sleep or simply some information about what's going on in their part of the world. On receiving such an e-mail you can then look on the senders profile and find out a little about the person who would like to come into your life, if only for a short time. My profile can be found here (I should probably think about changing the photo, but it seems to intrigue people, so it's stayed up for now).
The crucial point is that you will not only read what they have written, but also the references from every other person who they have met through the site - these references are what makes Couchsurfing sustainable. It's a network of referral and trust. This is not going to work 100% of the time, but then you make an informed choice every time you step outside the house. The references on the site make the informed choice that much more reliable, (Note that the positive feedback is 99.8%).
You may then simply write back and say you're too busy, or give any excuse you want, or you may agree, and offer them what they are requesting. Typically you'll then exchange a couple more e-mails to arrange the timing and where to meet and then make sure everything is on course a couple of days before their arrival.
So far in Santiago I've hosted more than 65 people, from around the world and from all walks of life imaginable. I've met lawyers, chefs, scientists, photographers, film makers, linguists and psychologists, bikers, goths and life-long travelers, Japanese, Korean, Estonian, Guatamalan and Brazilian, and so many more. Each person comes into your life for a few days, but the link that you build up, be it only over a few brief evenings, is truly amazing. Sometimes I may only get to spend half an hour chatting with the people, as I'm careful not to let this take preference over my research, but if I have a spare weekend, we can regularly spend days walking around the city, cooking together, or simply hanging out in a cafe.
For a vague idea, this is the map of the nationalities of surfers I've hosted in the last couple of years:
However, it's not about the number of countries, nor the nationalities, but the diversity of people you meet through this site. Here in Santiago a large proportion of the people I know, I have met through couchsurfing during the meetups which happen regularly (organised through one of the thousands of groups on the site).
I should note also at this point that hardened couchsurfers tend to become a little religious about the whole thing, and it can become rather cultlike in the devotion which members pay to it. However, I know that letting strangers into your house is not for everybody and I've met a fair few people who've been horrified by the idea. Fair enough, it takes all sorts.
I haven't surfed as much as I've hosted, though I've stayed with people in Korea, Japan, China, Portugal, France and Spain with this system, and every time seen so much more than would have been possible had I booked into a local hostel and wondered around on my own for a few days.
In Korea at the weekends while I was there last summer I had an immediate group of friends that I could explore the city with, and I'm still in contact with several of them on a regular basis. Going to Paris I ended up in a flat in the centre of the city, in the house of a designer and in Tokyo I met more locals in the two days I was couchsurfing than I did in the three weeks before that, staying in a hotel.
Anyway, I simply wanted to spread the word. If you have questions about the system then feel free to ask me, or simply go to the FAQ or Wiki and see if the answers you are looking for are there. It's not for everyone, but it's a great way to meet people from around the world and make traveling a much richer experience.