Surf's Up 

Travelers coast around the globe, one couch at a time

In today's economy, those who lack wealth depend on luck and cunning to get affordable airfare. Thus, when Casey Fenton stumbled across a screaming deal, he didn't think twice before booking a flight to Iceland. Having purchased spontaneously, he arrived without an agenda or accommodations. So, he did what anyone would do in such a pinch, he hacked into the University of Iceland's student directory and spammed over 1,500 undergraduates, pleading for a couch on which to crash.

OK ... so his method was a bit taboo, but the response was unbelievable. His inbox flooded with all manner of offers. The tremendous adventure he had hopping from couch to couch inspired him to initiate a travel revolution. Putting his computer science background to use in a slightly more conventional way, he created couchsurfing.com. He never anticipated that his site­—a cross between MySpace and Travelocity, on which couch-owners the world over offer their accommodations free of charge and solicit the same from others—would have caught on so quickly or extensively. After a mere five years of existence, it has attracted over a half-million subscribers from 230 countries (and the continent of Antarctica). The number is steadily climbing as new travelers log on daily and catch the wave. It now takes a legion of international volunteers to sustain the non-profit organization and keep the site updated and running.

Of the nearly 575,000 couches available for surfing, 150 of them are in the greater Boise area. Local couches have slept scores of visitors from all walks of life and all sorts of origins. Roommates and local surfing enthusiasts, Jill Goffin and Abby Kinas, host five or six travelers a month. Together, the two head the Boise couch surfing chapter, which meets up every few weeks to share a meal and their travel tales.

Although Goffin has been a couch surfer for only three months, she is a huge advocate not only of the site, but of the ideals for which it stands. Over coffee, she explained how surfing changed her life. Bored at work one day, she happened upon Fenton's site, built a profile and before long, had a girl from Kalamazoo, Mich., requesting her sofa. Kinas, the Kalamazoo surfer, arrived on Goffin's couch several days later, fell in love with Boise, became fast friends with Goffin, and decided to stay. Since then, the two have shared a surfer-friendly house that has welcomed travelers ranging from Portland-bound vegan conservationists to Hungarian Christian missionaries. While a full-time student at Boise State, Goffin's living room is her real classroom, and her most pertinent lessons come from opening her door, heart and mind to those passing through town.

While couchsurfing.com serves the practical function of making global travel possible, its ambitions are more profound. According to the site, the organization's mission is to "raise collective consciousness, spread tolerance, and facilitate cultural understanding." They want to change not only "the way we travel, but how we relate to the world."

Unlike other Web-based social networks, it is all about real, human connections. While people "meet" online, the Web is just a means to eventual face-to-face conversations. Goffin explained, "In our world, there is so much distrust, and [surfing] has really broadened my views." She asserted proudly that her experiences have taught her "it is still possible to trust strangers."

While respectful of the organization's timely mission statement, optimistic outlook and inspiring ideals, I wasn't quite ready to jump on the bandwagon and swing open my front door. As much as I wanted to believe in it, it just didn't seem safe. Goffin admitted that today, it's a radical idea to trust that people are good, but she explained that despite the organization's relaxed spirit, the site takes many security precautions. There are identity verification and peer vouching systems in place, and surfers are asked to review their host/guest in online forums so that future surfers have as much info as possible before booking their couch. Surprisingly, unfortunate incidents are very few and far between. Considering the breadth and quantity of surfers and the number of years the site's been active, it is remarkable that only 2 percent of travelers have had anything negative to say about their couch surfing experience. Of course, surfers are self-selecting. Goffin explained, it's not for everyone, "you have to have a very open mind and you need to be ready to experience people" because "you never know who you're going to get." Although, the majority of surfers are Europeans between the ages of 19 and 24, a quick skim of online profiles clarifies that there is no "typical" couch surfer.

To encourage in-person communication between surfers who might never exchange couches, Goffin and Kinas decided a month ago to coordinate get-togethers for participants in the Boise area. Their first meeting at Flying Pie drew 20 enthusiasts, and last week's meeting at Donnie Mac's attracted a comparable crowd. They look forward to doing more, and hope the group will continue to grow. Intrigued? If you want to join the travel revolution, it's simple, just log on to couchsurfing.com and build your profile. You can learn more about local events and get in touch with Goffin and Kinas by checking out the Boise chapter under the group's list on the site.

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