Four years ago, Orlando native Swami Nanda – better known as just Swami – was sent fishtailing through three lanes of oncoming traffic on I-4, barely escaping a collision with a semitrailer. The incident ended when he plowed into a pickup truck and slammed his head against his window. The experience changed his life.
“I had this accident and after I thought about it, I decided to put my energies elsewhere,” Nanda says. He was working in the 3-D graphics and animation industry but felt that a big change was coming his way. He now views the crash as a second chance at life, an opportunity to embrace new experiences. Last year Nanda, 50, traveled around Japan, and for the first time he tried the CouchSurfing project (CouchSurfing.org), an online community of travelers and hosts around the world that share their couches or spare bedrooms for free, like a cultural exchange.
The CouchSurfing project was launched in 2003 by an Alaskan computer programmer, Casey Fenton, and now has 2.3 million members worldwide who connect with each other online, according to the website’s own statistics.
A woman named Kyoko in the city of Yakohama hosted Nanda’s first couch-surfing experience. They met outside her apartment and she showed him around, and then left him the key to her place while she went to visit her boyfriend in Tokyo. Nanda stayed for several days, at one point sharing Kyoko’s small space with seven other couch surfers.
“It was really an amazing way to start off my experience in Japan,” Nanda says. For him, it’s not just about saving $50 a night at a hotel. It’s about not missing out on the opportunity to learn how to cook up takoyaki (fried octopus) with a fellow couch surfer who has been making the dish all of her life.
When he returned to Orlando, Nanda wanted to provide others with the same hospitality he received in Japan. Some couch surfers are drawn to Orlando for its theme parks, others are here for conferences, the beaches and the weather, or just for the hell of it. Nanda particularly enjoys hosting international travelers and has welcomed 30 people into his home so far this year from countries including Russia, Chile, China, New Zealand, Ireland, Spain and Argentina.
For Nanda, sharing with couch surfers isn’t just about giving travelers a place to rest their heads, he also likes to act as a local guide, showing them coffee shops, drum circles, alligators and space-shuttle launches. Nanda’s mission is to show his guests that there’s more to Orlando than tourist attractions.
“We send them away with a better viewpoint of what is going on here. … A lot of people, they end up leaving surprised because Orlando has such a tourist face,” Nanda says. In return, he hopes to learn more about the life of his guests and their cultures.
When introducing couch surfing to newcomers, veterans invariably face two reactions: Sounds like a good way to save money! But is it safe?
Jason “HappyJ” Murray, 40, an active couch-surfing host in the Orlando area, shies away from the idea that CouchSurfing.org is just a cheap way to find shelter while traveling. As a host, he receives, and often rejects, requests that seem to have only service in mind.
“Can you imagine reading a personal ad on Match.com [an online dating service] that said, ‘I really want to go out on a date, I just need to date someone,’” Murray says, comparing this to impersonal couch-surfing requests he’s received that just ask for a place to sleep. He wants to feel that there’s a possibility of some connection between himself and the person he’s hosting, with the understanding that not all surfers, and not all hosts, share his vision of couch surfing.
“I’m not couch surfing’s sole representative. There is nothing wrong with saying, ‘I want to save some money, can I stay on your couch?’ It’s not my place to judge it,” Murray says.
When it comes to the question of safety, the answer involves a deeper explanation of how the CouchSurfing community works. Fenton and a small group of paid staff, along with a large number of volunteers, head the nonprofit. The website is set up much like Facebook; users have profiles that display their interests, travels and couch availability. To help keep the community safe, several layers of review and security are also available.
New members can become “verified” by making a $25 donation to CouchSurfing.org, which then sends a postcard back to the user’s address. The donation goes toward running the website and, because it requires a credit card payment, it attaches the user’s real name to their profile activity, though that information is not shared publicly. The postcard contains a code that, when entered into a user’s profile on CouchSurfing.org, verifies his or her home location.
After members finish a surf with another member, they can leave reviews on one another’s profiles detailing the experience. Murray, an active couch-surfing host in the Orlando area, notes that the reviews can help determine whether someone is trustworthy. If someone contacts “HappyJ” looking for a place to stay, he’ll check reviews of that person by other couch surfers, and then check the reviews of the reviewers. This helps to prevent the possibility of someone creating profiles and faking a bunch of reviews.
For even more security, there is a system of “vouching” on the site; this is where people who have been vouched for three times can vouch for other couch surfers who they find particularly trustworthy. But Murray is quick to point out that none of these features provide absolute certainty. “It’s not a substitute for common sense. If it feels wrong, then don’t do it,” he says.
Spend a few minutes with a Google search for “couch surfing horror stories” and it’ll bring up one major incident well known throughout the CouchSurfing world. In 2009, a woman from China was raped in England while staying with a man who was later sentenced to 10 years in jail. Compared to the number of good experiences, Murray says that there are relatively few negative stories.
“I don’t want to in any way minimize what happened to that girl. But if you look at the number of people who’ve done this, statistically it’s much safer than other forms of travel,” Murray says.
The CouchSurfing project’s main objective is to supply travelers and hosts with an online meeting place to book real-time adventures, which often have the side effect of intercultural exchanges. The website can also help hosts organize events with other couch surfers in their community. About a year ago, Murray started a local, monthly couch-surfing event called Orlando Foodie for surfers who want to try out new cuisine and swap travel stories at locally owned restaurants. Murray organizes each meeting through the Orlando group on CouchSurfing.org, which is open to anyone to join.
Nanda, who often attends the gatherings, recommends the Foodie dinners to people who’d like to ease into couch surfing. “The Orlando group is a good way to get involved, meet people and build up references of your own.”