A pot of chili simmers in the kitchen of Bruce Weiner’s west Tucson home while laughter rolls from the dining room. An earthy couple in their 20s and two snowbirds in their 60s sit across the table from one another discussing the craziest places they’ve slept.
Joan Felice, 60, once slept on a platform on the back of an RV attached to a garage. She and her husband had never met the younger couple before today, nor had they met the 49-year-old Bruce before they arrived. It was an interest in traveling – specifically couch surfing – that brought the unlikely couples together on this late February evening.
“People who have the couch-surfing spirit are the ones who are interested in meeting other people,” says Joan’s husband, Tom. “I like couch-surfing because you meet people with different ideas. You meet people who have a whole different way of looking at something than you do.”
The two couples contacted Weiner through the Web site www.CouchSurfing.com. They will stay with him for a week while they visit Tucson. Joan and Tom Felice are stopping through Tucson on their way to the warmer climate of Mexico. The younger couple, Meadow Erskine and Dan York, came to Tucson for the gem show. The four of them are among the hundreds that Weiner has hosted during his two years living in Tucson.
CouchSurfing.com is a free Web site that allows members to set up a profile where they can upload photos, list interests, describe the type of people they enjoy, and so on. Once members have created a profile, they can type the name of any city in the world and receive a listing of members who live in that area and who have made their couch, futon, bed, backyard or hardwood floor available for surfers.
In turn, the new members can then make their respective sleeping space available for surfers coming through their city.
CouchSurfing.com was started in 2004 by Casey Fenton as a nonprofit organization to promote cultural exchange and to “create a better world one couch at a time,” says Dan Hoffman, one of the original founders of the organization.
Almost every couch surfer will say that he or she heard about the site from a friend. Those friends apparently have told lots of others as well because the 5-year-old organization exceeded 1 million members March 12, with more than 300 of them living in Tucson.
This landmark stands as a testament to the integrity and quality of the Web site, says Crystal Murphy, a couch surfer herself and one of the organization’s four U.S. global ambassadors in the U.S.
“To this day we are extremely grass roots in our organization and over 70 percent of members say they heard about couch surfing from a friend,” says Murphy, whose couch in Birmingham, Ala., is often occupied by weary wanderers. “The fact that this has traveled word of mouth from the first 15 members to now almost a million is phenomenal,” she said in an interview March 9.
Since a friend told Tom and Joan about couch surfing in 2008 they have now surfed more than 35 times within the U.S. and Canada. They say couch surfing is the only way to travel. That doesn’t mean they didn’t have reservations in the beginning.
“I was actually very skeptical,” Joan says. “I was like, ‘Yeah, right. We’re going to go and someone is going to just say ‘Hi, come on in.’ And they did! And it was amazing!”
Joan says her mind was also put at ease by the wide array of security measures couch surfing has implemented on the site.
Any time someone hosts a member or has been hosted, the participating members exchange “references” documenting the experience they had with the surfer or host. These references are made public for potential surfers and hosts to view.
The Web site also has an optional verification system in which a member can make a $20 credit transaction that allows the site to confirm the name and address of the member. The money is distributed back into the organization.
Tom and Joan now stay with couch surfing hosts for every migration south and hail it as the most successful Web site on the Internet.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if Casey Fenton gets a Nobel Prize someday,” Tom says seriously.
However, even with their advocacy, Tom and Joan admit they are not the primary demographic of couch-surfing. In fact, they say the “novelty” of their age gives them an edge when requesting couches.
“I think once in a while people are just bored and they think, ‘Let’s get those old geezers over and see what they’re about,’ ” Joan says.
Tom jumps in on the impersonation.
“Yeah, then I can tell my dad he should get out more,” Tom says to a roar of laughter from Weiner and the younger couple.
Weiner’s other guests, the younger couple at the table, better fit the normal demographic. York is not yet a member but decided to join Erskine on her trip to Tucson. In just his few days of couch surfing York has come to be an avid fan.
“I’ve been a traveler for a while and I’ve always had to resort to tents and campsites, which is cool, but finding out about this is even cooler,” he says. “It’s a great way to meet people and find out about an area rather than just looking through tourist pamphlets.”
Erskine has been a member of CouchSurfing.com since 2007 and has used the site many times. Her greatest couch-surfing memory was a family dinner she had while staying with a host in Toluca, Mexico.
“It was a big dinner and they had different Mexican dishes and different courses and since we didn’t speak a lot of Spanish it was a lot of fun because they were teaching us slang words and things that were less by the book.”
Cultural exchanges like this are the reason couch surfing was created says Murphy, the couch-surfing global ambassador.
“Couch surfing’s biggest mission is to break down social and cultural barriers and to show that there is more to the world than you know,” she explains.
This mission, Murphy says, will endure as long as couch surfing continues. She also says that according to creator Fenton, no matter how many people jump on the couch surfing wave or how popular it becomes, it will still remain a nonprofit.
“Fenton has stated that couch surfing will never be for profit,” Murphy says. “There will never be advertisements on the site and he will never sell couch surfing out.”
CouchSurfing is currently working on being categorized as a nonprofit educational organization in order to receive government grants. The organization also will be launching a parallel site called “CouchSurfing Cares,” which will use couch-surfing hosts to temporarily house refugees displaced by natural disasters.
Such altruistic sentiments and the intercultural connections that couchsurfing promotes are what make the Web site the best site on the Internet and perhaps the greatest organization in the world, according to Tucson’s oldest member of couch surfing, Patricia Edwards, 72.
“If anything is going to promote world peace it’s couch surfing,” Edwards says.