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Surfing, learning, loving the world

Posted: November 13, 2011 - 12:00am
Lauren Brooks and Ben Lyman, frequent hosts through CouchSurfing, share a moment amid the mayhem at one of their weekly music nights. Locals and nomads alike are welcome to pick up an instrument and share in the fun.  John Hutchins
John Hutchins
Lauren Brooks and Ben Lyman, frequent hosts through CouchSurfing, share a moment amid the mayhem at one of their weekly music nights. Locals and nomads alike are welcome to pick up an instrument and share in the fun.

Every summer, Juneau sees hundreds of thousands of tourists, many pouring off cruise ships, only to depart later in the day. For those who travel to Juneau independently, there are hotels and a hostel, but for some travelers — there is couch surfing. And for Juneau travelers, who spend hundreds to thousands of dollars just to leave the state, the same option exists.

Couch surfing — www.couchsurfing.org or CS — is a worldwide community of travelers who have slept on strange couches and allowed strangers to sleep on their own couches; for some, it is about saving money but for most, it is about connecting with likeminded people who want to share experiences with people from around the world.

Likeminded, in this case, isn’t about politics or religion, but about learning and sharing. Thomas Curtain, who grew up in Juneau and considers it his home base, spends months out of the year traveling and has loved meeting people from around the world. He describes the people as “outgoing, friendly, with a desire to meet new people and learn new things.” These travelers, he explained, are genuinely compassionate and desire to make new connections.

Many might find the concept strange or worry about the dangers of couch surfing, but the community is designed in such a way that it is easy to know a safe situation from an unsafe situation. Members of the site couchsurfing.org create profiles with photos and information about themselves and their available couches and are encouraged to provide references and ratings for friends and people they have interacted with through the site. If a host or surfer posts a negative rating, a complaint is attached and the community essentially vets itself. All ratings and references are visible. A number of Juneau residents participate in couch surfing and have had almost exclusively positive experiences.

Keith Crocker, who has been hosting and traveling with CS for a few years now, recalled that a former companion of his had a negative experience with CS in France. He accompanied her to the location before leaving, to find that the host had some lofty and inappropriate expectations. As it turns out, his companion hadn’t bothered reading the profile, which contained negative feedback. Crocker suggested that if one reads profiles thoroughly and communicates with people with insufficient information, it’s easy to know if a host or traveler is going to be safe and friendly.

Curtain’s fiancé, Madeline Snow, offered her perspective on surfing as a female, acknowledging that she is more cautious.

“Look for comments and references,” she said, “if there are none, they would be at the bottom of the list.” She also adds, “This is an instance in which generalizations might be OK.”

Curtain and Snow met on her home turf: Australia. Curtain had been traveling, surfing his way through the area and was on his way to a music festival in the desert, still miles from where the bus dropped him and his travel companions. Friends of Snow picked them up on the way to the festival and, long story short, they met, they fell in love and they couch surf together these days.

More than being inexpensive, surfing allows visitors to different locales to experience a community more fully. By staying in a home and spending time with the locals, visitors can learn more about how people live. Hosts also reap the benefits of meeting interesting people and learning about the surfer’s culture. One of the categories on the CS profile is “teach, learn, share” and prompts CS community members to list what they can teach or share with others, and what they enjoy learning from others. It is not uncommon for hosts and surfers to spend time together, recreate together and prepare meals together, which makes couch surfing a much different experience than staying in hotel, where a “do not disturb” sign is often the peak of interaction.

Says Crocker of hosting surfers, “They get a much different view of the city than if they were just funneled into the tourist thing. When I take them to the glacier, they save money, but they also get a different perspective.” He also commented that he takes the time to do things with his guests he hasn’t done in years.

Crocker also considers CS a great way for his son, Kai, to learn about the world. He recalls overhearing Kai having conversations with guests from around the world, asking questions about what kind of wildlife they have, if there are mountains there, and, in general, what their lives are like in a foreign country. Crocker notes that his son can experience what the world is about, gain a broader understanding of the world, and actually interact with the world outside.

CS community members may also interact within their home communities; the Juneau group has hosted a handful of events in the past year with the aim of bringing local members together to share experiences. Curtain spent months interning at the CS headquarters in San Francisco after attending some events and volunteering during the organization’s move. There are frequent meet-ups and Curtain and Snow both said they enjoyed meeting people. Crocker has attended CS-hosted holiday parties in Warsaw, Poland and Riga, Latvia.

The CS site is also a way for people to find travel companions, hiking partners or sometimes just someone to share a cup of coffee and conversation with. Many travelers will come through Juneau and interact with various hosts for different reasons, staying on different couches, having coffee, or hiking trails. Jutta Stallman, a German citizen who spent 42 days traveling in Alaska, spent almost two weeks in Southeast Alaska, with Juneau as her base. She traveled with her hosts to Gustavus and Glacier Bay National Park during the Fourth of July weekend, where they camped and hiked. Stallman has traveled extensively and has lived out of a backpack for months at a time. She used the CS forums to find rides between different locations within Alaska and British Columbia when possible.

Ben Lyman and Lauren Brooks are also active in the CS community, mostly hosting. The two hosted separately until moving in together, and now their home is a CS hotspot. They host surfers frequently and during certain times of they year, they host weekly music nights for friends and guests to collaborate and share food and music. Both enjoy travel, meeting new people and sharing experiences, so CS is a natural fit.

Curtain pointed out that CS might not be for everyone and other community members seem to agree. There were attempts at describing the typical couch surfer, though community members are many and varied, so it might be easier to explain how a person might not be a good fit for couch surfing. If one is very private or closed off, the sharing and caring might be a bit of a turn-off. If one is after a plush bed and room service, sleeping bags on a couch and cooking with one’s host might not be the right atmosphere. If one has no desire to turn a stranger into a friend or to learn about the differences and similarities between diverse cultures, a hotel might be the best bet. Most are welcome in the CS community, which has been growing astronomically over the past few years.

Couchsurfing.org has become the go-to site for connecting travelers because of its effectiveness at providing safe interactions and encouraging community. The community consists of more than 3.3 million members from 250 countries, more than 83,000 cities, and speaks 358 languages. More than 1 million members are currently open to hosting surfers, with 25 of the 67 members located in Juneau open to hosting and 21 listed as traveling. To get involved with CS in Juneau, visit the website and set up a profile, get started hosting, surfing, or just interacting with other locals who love to travel and learn.

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