Couchsurfing is a practice of moving from one friend's house to another, sleeping in whatever spare space is available, floor or couch, generally staying a few days before moving on to the next house. Visiting a foreign country, you go to live with a stranger instead of an expensive hotel. And you can find this stranger through social networks of individuals, generally travelers, who offer or seek accommodation without monetary exchange.
Couchsurfing becomes popular among hospitable Ukrainians as well. For example, during Euro-2012 Kyiv residents hosted many foreign football fans free of charge. Many Ukrainians are ready to host guests for New Year holidays as well. ForUm has decided to study all pros and cons of the 'free couch' movement.
The CouchSurfing project was conceived by Casey Fenton in 1999. According to Fenton's account, the idea arose after finding an inexpensive flight from Boston to Iceland. Fenton randomly e-mailed 1,500 students from the University of Iceland asking if he could stay. He ultimately received more than 50 offers of accommodation. On the return flight to Boston, he began to develop the ideas that would underpin the CouchSurfing project.
CouchSurfing.com website now unites billions of people around the world. Moreover, there are other similar 'hospitality networks', some of which are aimed for certain kinds of travelers, like bicyclists or Esperanto language practitioners.
How and why
CouchSurfing project is free to register. Members have the option of providing information and pictures of themselves and of the accommodation they offer, if any. More information provided by a member, and other members, improves the chances that someone will find the member trustworthy enough to be their host or guest. Security is often measured in the reference established by networking. Volunteers may verify names and mailing addresses. Members looking for accommodation can search for hosts using several parameters such as age, location, gender and activity level.
Homestays are consensual between the host and guest, and the duration, nature, and terms of the guest's stay are generally worked out in advance. No monetary exchange takes place except sometimes for compensation of incurred expenses (e.g. food). It is common practice for guests to seek non-monetary means to show their appreciation, such as bringing a gift, cooking a meal or teaching a skill.
CouchSurfing provides editable travel guides and forums where members may seek travel partners or advice. CouchSurfing's main focus is "social networking" and members organize activities such as camping trips, bar crawls, meetings, and sporting events.
There are three methods designed to increase security and trust, which are all visible on member profiles for potential hosts and surfers:
1. Personal references, which hosts and surfers have the option to leave after having used the service. It is also possible to leave neutral or negative references if it is deemed appropriate.
2. An optional credit card verification system, allowing members to "lock in" their name and mailing address by making a credit card payment and entering a code that CouchSurfing mails to an address of their choice. The verification program is the principal source of revenue for CouchSurfing. In an effort to increase economic fairness, the verification fee is based on a sliding scale, taking into account the Purchasing Power Parity and Human Development Index of the country of registration.
3. A personal vouching system, whereby a member that had been vouched for three times — originally starting with the founders of the site — might in turn vouch for any number of other members he knew or had met through CouchSurfing, and trusts.
The movement also has so-called ambassadors - members who wish to volunteer for various tasks on the site and help spread the word about CouchSurfing in general. Ambassadors must in theory be role-models and actively promote the "CouchSurfing spirit" among members and to the public and comply with a specific code of conduct. In addition to promoting use of the site, they greet new members, help with questions and perform other administrative tasks, all on a volunteer basis.
ForUm talked to an active member of CS movement in Ukraine, ambassador Maryna Palamarchuk, to learn more about the movement.
"The guiding principle of CouchSurfing is "to create inspiring experiences" - we envision a world where everyone can explore and create meaningful connections with the people and places they encounter. Building meaningful connections across cultures enables us to respond to diversity with curiosity, appreciation and respect. The appreciation of diversity spreads tolerance and creates a global community.' In fact, there is no formal hierarchy and any member can step forward with an initiative. We are all volunteers. I am, for example, a CS team member and welcome all new participants registered in Kyiv.
The number of users among Ukrainians constantly grows (there are about three thousand people only in Kyiv), more and more people come for meetings and travel and we receive more and more positive feedbacks," Maryna told us.
She also explained that there is a special group of moderators, whose task is to trace and react on any incident in the CS community. Suspicious members or those who receive negative comments get warned and then dismissed from the community.
To be more credible ForUm asked the very members of the CS community to learn about pros and cons first hand.
Artem Rusakov, Russian traveler, blogger, author of several tour guides. As a couchsurfer he has already visited Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, Spain, Andorra, Italy, Morocco, Turkey, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Mongolia, Iran and almost all post-Soviet countries.
"For over ten years I've been travelling around Russia hitch-hiking. At the beginning, I was looking for some familiars to stay for a night or two. Sometimes I found people to stay with through various blogs and forums. But one time in Kazan I met two Germans who told me about hospitalityclub website. I started to use this resource and then I learned about couchsurfing. My first guest was a guy from Colombia, who studied in Belgorod and came to Moscow on business. Since then I've realized that couchsurfing is a great opportunity to make new friends and learn new cultures. Moreover, it is a good opportunity to practice foreign languages.
I've never had bad experience being a couchsurfer, maximum a boring person with who I did not talk much. I've never had inadequate people I had to kick out. Sometimes there were cases, when my host did not show up for a meeting at my arrival day and I had to look for a different host. But it was not a problem, as I always have a plan B. In such cases, it does not mean that this person ignored you. Most probably, he wrote down the phone number incorrectly or had some unexpected problem.
Don't be afraid to try couchsurfing. People like you live everywhere. I would recommend to start with travelling to see what and how, and then to start hosting guests yourself."
Evgeniy Netkachev, Polish archeologist. As a couchsurfer he has already visited Russia, Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Serbia.
"Couchsurfing is so interesting. It is an opportunity to meet new friends and to learn new things. However, once I had an incident, when my host, a man, decided that I was a gay and hit on me. I invented an excuse and had to go to sleep early. He understood and behaved adequately. In fact, he was a great host, kind and interesting; we just misunderstood each other at some point.
My advice to those who want to start couchsurfing - be open and trust people and everything will be ok."
Oleksandr Morokhovets, tester. As a couchsurfer, he has visited India for several times.
"When you live in a hotel, you do not communicate with locals closely. But when you live in a hosting family, you learn the new culture inside out.
Among negative moments of couchsurfing I can point out attempts to seek easy sex. Once I went to India with my girlfriend. In fact, she was the one to talk to the potential host and arrange all the details. When we arrived, the man was very surprised to see me. As it turned out later, he expected more than just nights lodging. But it all depends on a girl, nobody will rape her. We stayed at this man's place anyway and I cannot say anything bad about him.
My advice is to read attentively the feedbacks about hosts. If they are positive, don't worry and go. For girls I would recommend to stay with families, not lonely men."
Opinion of psychologist
Having learned the opinions of couchsurfers, we asked psychologist Valentyna Yefimova about how to avoid negative moments being a CS member.
"Development of couchsurfing in Ukraine is a positive trend as it broadens the mind and teaches to look at things from different perspective. However, to be a good host, one must have proper conditions, nice house with free space and a possibility to provide proper nutrition. Hosts and guests must be from the same social groups. Before inviting someone, you should learn about living standards of your guest, so that he does not have a cultural shock after visiting your place. It is easy to do with pictures of your street, house, interior... The same concerns Ukrainians going to Asia or India. Before going you must know where you go and what conditions you will live in.
A young girl should realize that if she goes to stay at a single man's place, he would probably expect sex. Adult people must agree on their relations before the arrival in order to avoid any incidents. Arranging the details, a girl must clearly specify that sex is not on the agenda and behave respectively.
In fact, learn about your host as much as possible before coming there. Talk to him in private chats or e-mails about his activities, plans, surrounding... Feedbacks or verification methods provided by the website might be flawed. Moreover, do not forget to leave full information about your destination point to your relatives."
By the way, Valentyna Yefimova believes that the development of couchsurfing on the post-Soviet pace is a subconscious anxiety for the times when we lived in shared communal apartment with absolute strangers and did well anyway. In fact, the house front door of a soviet man was literally open for everyone. People started to 'close doors' in 90ies, the times of financial and education cleavage.
The American idea of a world without prejudice and racism has arrived right on time. It does not take long to choke with loneliness being locked in a city apartment with all goods and chattels. And it is definitely better to open our minds and doors for the whole world around us, especially if it costs you only one couch.
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