Great sofas of the world

It's the sofa network: CouchSurfing gets you free lodging and access to locals way beyond any guided tour.

Posted: June 26, 2011

MOSCOW - It's 5 a.m., and I've just landed at Domodedovo Airport - 12 hours late. I speak seven words of Russian (yes, no, thank you, bus station, borscht), and my grasp of the Cyrillic alphabet renders me as illiterate as a toddler.

I find some free WiFi, hop on Skype, and place a call to my only lifeline in Russia. Despite the absurdly early hour, my host, Lusi, tells me to take the train to Belorussky Station, and she'll be waiting.

When I arrive, Lusi, whom I have only seen in photos, is on the platform, bundled up in a parka, scarf, hat, and gloves, as any Russian would be in winter. But she's smiling, as few Russians do.

Lusi and I connected through CouchSurfing.org, and for the next four days, I will stay with this total stranger - except for our few Internet exchanges - and her roommates for free.

No, I wouldn't be just another confused tourist, superficially exploring the Red Labyrinth. I am determined to stay with locals, learn from locals, and live like locals.

I first heard about CouchSurfing.org from a girl I met at a hostel in Ljubljana, Slovenia, in 2007. She had used the social networking website to have an authentic travel experience, but her host only wanted a one-night stand.

I was disappointed that such an innovative idea - linking travelers with local hosts who put them up for free (usually, as the name suggests, on spare couches) - functioned better in theory than in practice.

But the following summer, my friend Evan trekked and CouchSurfed across Europe for three months on a very tight budget - so tight that he refused to pay $2 for a fish sandwich in Istanbul, preferring to eat my leftovers. Since hosteling during high season can be quite costly, CouchSurfing was Evan's only choice, and it worked amazingly well for him.

A few months after Evan returned to the States, he hosted some CouchSurfing French guys at his home in San Francisco.

My faith in humanity was restored.

Available since 2004, the website has made many improvements over the years that help keep travelers and hosts safe. Members leave "references" for one another and vouch for those they have met in person. A verification system requires users to prove their home address, which helps ensure a traveler doesn't show up to a nonexistent couch.

There have been 3.2 million successful CouchSurfing matches since the project started, marred by a few unfortunate incidents. In 2009, a 29-year-old woman from Hong Kong was raped by her CouchSurfing host in Leeds, England; the man was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

My method of filtering out jerks is to carefully read each potential host's references.

It's January, and I'm about to head off to Europe and the old Eastern Bloc on a research trip for my master's dissertation. My budget extremely tight, and my research depends on my gauging the political and economic climate along the way. The best way to manage my budget and interests is to CouchSurf.

I land in Istanbul and take a bus 21/2 hours east to Edirne, Turkey, an old Ottoman capital that is, surprisingly, more European than most of Europe. Waiting for me is Diamando, 34, an ecclesiastical lawyer turned teacher, with a local CouchSurfer named Ali.

Diamando lives in Orestiada, Greece, a small border city, where I will research illegal immigrants getting into the European Union. The three of us talk politics and life for hours over a meal of ciger (fried chopped liver) and vegetables. Despite much friction in Greek/Turkish relations, this pair show me that CouchSurfing diplomacy conquers all.

I spend the next five days as Diamando's first CouchSurfer - Orestiada isn't exactly hopping with tourists. Diamando accompanies me on interviews at the police station. She takes me to an authentic Greek mountain restaurant for an evening filled with more music, dancing, and heaps of meat than you can imagine, getting us home at 3 in the morning.

And the next morning, we rise at 5 to search for illegal immigrants. Those who make it across the border from Turkey wait in nearby villages, hoping to get caught so they can claim asylum in the European Union.

After I interview and photograph migrants, Diamando drives me to an immigrant detention center about 45 minutes away, where we talk to a prison guard (she translates for me) and find out there will be a huge release of migrants the following morning.

I realize Diamando has become my de facto fixer, and I don't even have to pay a dime for her services because we have become friends.

Villagers befriend me, too, force-feeding me feta, ouzo, and red wine.

"If you sleep for two hours after drinking and wake up without a headache, you know it's good wine," an old villager says. The proprietor and patrons won't take my money.

When my work is done, Diamando takes me to amazing ancient ruins near the Bulgarian border, a place few visitors see. I am exhilarated.

Two months later in Russia, Lusi is picking me up at the train station.

The sun never rises in smoggy Moscow. Minutes after my arrival, my host is leading me down into the Metro with its murals depicting Stalin's workers.

We get off the Metro at the Filevsky Park stop and trudge through piles of snow and lakes of slush, past endless rows of dark block apartment buildings. In one of them, we climb seven dingy flights of stairs to Lusi's apartment - a sharp contrast with neon blue, green, and yellow walls, original art hanging everywhere, and eight chirping birds in three cages in the kitchen.

Lusi and her roommates, Natasha and Marina, prepare a breakfast of blinis with salmon - amazing. They give me a bar of homemade soap, and I take a much-needed shower. Since Lusi must leave for work, she gives me her bed to sleep in.

When I wake up a few hours later, Natasha and Marina have a plan to show me around. Moscow is a daunting labyrinth to explore on your own, so having two expert bilingual guides is a welcome relief.

We head to the Pushkin gallery, where my hosts buy my ticket, saving me $7, since Russians pay one-third of what foreigners are charged. Then, off to the Kremlin and an array of Orthodox churches. But more than these sights, I am interested in learning about the experiences, lives, and dreams of my new friends.

The next three days are whirlwind exploration and endless conversation. When I see the faces of Moscow on the Metro or in the supermarket, the place seems dismal. But in the cafes, restaurants, bars, and art galleries where my hosts hang out, and in their apartment, I see another Moscow.

The young women take me to Petrovich, a members-only club frequented by people of all ages, where there's always a band playing and delicious food set among intentionally kitschy Soviet memorabilia. Soon, bolstered by vodka (accompanied by herring), I am sweatily dancing to Russian folk music, the rapid tempo rocking the room. I am living in a young, hip, West-leaning Moscow - a Moscow that the typical tourist would never know, that I am privy to because of my brilliant hosts.

As I board the night train to St. Petersburg, I nearly shed a tear while hugging Lusi, knowing it will be a long time before I see her and her roommates again. They have friends who have been thrown in jail for attending antigovernment protests. I want to bring my hosts to the West, where these yoga-practicing, vegetarian, art-loving progressives can flourish.

I am now a full-blown CouchSurfing convert. My sporadic stays at hotels and hostels during my journey - necessary when I couldn't find a CouchSurfing host or I visited a place on a whim - paled in comparison to living with and learning from locals. Even if I were flush with money, I would continue to CouchSurf, knowing a five-star hotel or private villa would never be able to match the experiences.

Though my CouchSurfing adventures have all been abroad, I'll look for hosts when I venture to Louisville or Anchorage or Honolulu - any place in America where I've never been and don't know a soul.

After all, I can't beat the price or the new friends.


Who Is Behind CouchSurfing?

CouchSurfing is an international nonprofit network that connects travelers with locals in more than 230 countries and territories. It is funded by members' donations, some of which pay for identity checks.

Members need not host a visitor to arrange a stay.

For more information, go to www.couchsurfing.org.

Other networks

GlobalFreeloaders.com

An Australian hospitality network.

Hospitalityclub.org

Free club supported by volunteers.

Stay4Free.com

For exchanging a house and vacation home and finding and offering a place to stay.

SOURCE: CouchSurfing.org


Who CouchSurfs?

United States . . . 590,358

Germany . . . 267,644

France . . . 246,004

Canada . . . 125,528

England . . . 113,417

Italy . . . 85,496

Spain . . . 84,604

Brazil . . . 78,021

Australia . . . 77,543

China . . . 61,326

SOURCE: CouchSurfing.org

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