There are tourists, there are travelers, and then there are couch surfers. They can come from any country, riding their wanderlust from border to border, looking for new places and people. The difference is that instead of dwelling in hotels and hostels, they lay their heads on the couches of complete strangers.
“Wherever I go, I try to live the way the locals live,” said Adam Schofield, a disc jockey from Manchester, England, who’s presently trying to couch-surf the planet. “Some people think it’s crazy to sleep in a stranger’s home, but I learn so much.”
Costa Rica was the eighth country Schofield visited on his journey working his way down from the United States toward South America. Aside from sleeping on a park bench one night, Schofield, 28, has spent the last three months on couches in the homes of area residents.
The basic rules of couch surfing are simple: there’s a couch, and someone sleeps on it for free. From there, it’s up to the surfer and host to make it an enjoyable stay.
Schofield said he cooks dinner for his hosts, while they might teach him a thing or two about local culture.
He said that while hotels can offer more luxury, they can also be lonely, and nothing beats learning your way around a place from someone who’s been there a lifetime. Schofield, who is writing a book about his adventures and keeps a blog on www.couchsurfingtheworld.com, said he’s never had to pick up a guidebook to find the best places around town because his hosts – whom he meets and arranges his stay with online – are so informative.
And what’s a safer place to meet a stranger than on the Internet? This traveling hobby has turned into a booming online community of couch surfers and hosts alike, thanks to the CouchSurfing Project (www.couchsurfing.com), launched in early 2004. Today, more than 250,000 couch surfers are registered on the Web site, with couches hosted in more than 200 countries.
A number of methods are used to ensure safety in the couch-surfer community, including expulsion from the site if you try to use it as a dating service. Hosts and surfers rate each other much like buyers and sellers on eBay for others to see, and hosts have the right to refuse any surfer they may find undesirable.
Cyril Graze, who lives in the western San José district of Pavas, is the city ambassador for San José for the CouchSurfing Project and was Schofield’s host before he moved on to Panama on July 25. Graze said it took a “huge leap of faith” to start letting strangers into his home when he joined the community in January, but added that life is now more interesting, thanks to his guests.
“Everyone who has come was radically different from each other person,” Graze said. More than 251 couches are registered for surfing in Costa Rica on the CouchSurfing Project Web site. Users list whether their couch is currently available as well as information about themselves, from what languages they speak to their philosophies on life.
Sometimes couch-surfing parties are put on for surfers in concentrated areas, to have a good time and strengthen the idea of a couch-surfer community. Schofield and Graze helped organized one that had more than 50 couch surfers in attendance at Lubnan, a Lebanese restaurant on Paseo Colón in San José.
Schofield says the key to being a good couch surfer is having respect for the people you stay with and showing curiosity for every place you go. You can make a lot of friends with manners and honesty, he said.
“It’s a family,” he said about the couch-surfing community. “That’s the consensus from everyone I’ve met.”
Schofield said he hasn’t yet had any bad experiences at the homes he’s visited. The first couch is always the hardest, according to a couch-surfer saying, but now, when Schofield leaves a person’s home, he said he faces a bigger challenge.
“The problem is trying to say goodbye to these people,” he said.