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Couch surfing in Eagle County

Sarah Mausolf
Vail CO, Colorado
Special to the DailyAndy Wright (left) poses with Hernan Calliari from Argentina, a friend he met through www.couchsurfing.com. The friends are pictured in San Francisco, where they met up to watch a soccer game.
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EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” As I pull into an unfamiliar apartment complex at 11 p.m., I wonder if this experiment is a horrible idea.

I’m two hours from home in a Denver suburb, and I’m about to barge into a strange man’s apartment.

I type a code into a box at the entrance and a black, iron gate inches open. Driving slowly through the parking lot, which is deserted except for empty cars, I search for building B.

Spotting my destination, I park my Rav4 and reach into the back seat for my pillow and the duffel bag packed with my least weird pajamas.

It’s time to couch surf.

Global network

Couch-surfing always struck me as a type of misfortune that happened to stoners when they forgot to pay their rent.

Yet a whole network of people do it for fun.

Couchsurfing.com is a Web site with nearly half a million members who log on to find couches to crash or offer their sofas to traveling strangers.

Like the “Lonely Planet” guidebooks in their early days, the couch-surfing culture flashes a middle finger at the idea that travel belongs to the rich. Heading to Antarctica? A firefighter there lets travelers sleep in his room. Destined for Abu Dhabi? An engineer there pimps out his couch.

I first heard about http://www.couchsurfing.com from a friend who had been keeping the story idea secret for weeks. He didn’t want me rushing out to try it.

“Couchsurfing.com,” he scoffed. “What, rape.com didn’t have a nice ring to it?”

A couch consultation

Before I embark on a sofa-surfing mission, I consult with a local who belongs to the Web site.

Joe Farkas is a 23-year-old with a blue button-down shirt, jeans and tousled brown hair.

We meet up at his Timber Ridge apartment in West Vail, where a trio of roommates giggle on the couch. Farkas’ sofa hasn’t seen any action since he moved to Vail six months ago.

But he did some hosting in Santa Barbara, Calif, where he lived before Vail. A guy from Malaysia contacted him through couchsurfing.com and wound up sleeping on his sofa for a week. Farkas also hosted a German man for a night.

“I sort of prefer the exotic guest, I guess you would say,” Farkas said. “It’s a good way to get a little culture in your everyday life.”

Both experiences were positive for Farkas (he talked Zen Buddhism with the Malaysian and played volleyball with the German), so when I tell him about my safety concerns, he just shrugs.

“As with any traveling or hanging out with people you don’t know, you have to be able to instill some kind of trust in them if you’re going to crash on their couch,” he said.

Couchsurfing.com has several safety precautions, including references couch surfers leave on each other’s profiles. Users can make a $25 donation with a credit card, allowing site administrators to verify their names. A green lock appears on user’ profiles when they verify their adddresses through the mail.

Drinking the Kool-aide

To search for hosts on couchsurfing.com, I have to create a profile. I upload a harmless-looking photo of myself and fill out a few details including my home town, education and occupation.

Since I’m on a tight deadline, I write to just about everyone nearby who has a couch. Pretty soon, I get an e-mail from an Andy Wright who lives in Centennial, a suburb of Denver.

“Yes my couch is available,” he writes. “I would enjoy being interviewed or whatever you have going on.”

He leaves a phone number and attaches directions to his apartment. Hmm. I click on Andy’s profile and take a hard look at his picture. Am I dealing with a rapist here?

Grinning and posed with a bunch of architect drawings, Wright appears pretty harmless. I consider his stats: age: 27; occupation: “architect/designer/dreamer; grew up in: Wayne, Nebraska ” and then the clincher: education: “masters degree.” Call it snobbery, but I had a hard time picturing a scholar going postal on me. Plus, he had glowing references.

“I’ve always had a good time around Andy,” one guest wrote. “He makes for good conversation, keeps an open, considerate mind, and always sees the humor in things. Note: has a very affectionate dog-you WILL get humped!”

I was willing to take my chances.

Moment of truth

Nervous, I climb the stairs to Andy’s third floor apartment, where he is waiting for me outside. He puts me at ease with a nice greeting and leads me into his living room, where a TV casts a soft glow.

We settle onto a pair of navy, corduroy couches and make small talk for a while. Andy explains that he’s in a celebratory mood because his team just finished a big project at the architecture firm. His friendly dog sniffs my leg but refrains from humping it. This is what I was fretting about?

Andy tells me he’s hosted four surfers so far, including a dreadlocked dude he suspected was homeless.

On the whole, though, couch-surfers tend to be young professionals, Andy explains. “It’s kind of an educated, coffee shop, outgoing business crowd,” he said.

Andy’s hospitality impresses me. He stocked the living room with blankets and his roommate even left a clean towel in the bathroom, in case I want to shower. At one point, he offers water with special ice cubes.

Before he hits the sack, Andy offers me a piece of advice: beef up my profile. He had been wary of me until he googled my name and found articles with my byline. Couch surfers put a lot of stock in references, he said.

“If somebody thinks you’re a freak or think you’re scary, you’re kind of s.o.l. because you’re not going to have anyone else spend time with you,” he said.

Andy types up a glowing reference for my profile and heads to bed, leaving me alone with the couch.

I change into my pajamas in the bathroom, trying not to disturb the snoring roommate on the other side of the door, and fall into a fitful sleep on the couch.

At dawn, I bolted from the premises.

‘The real juice’

In theory, Couch surfing is the edgy alternative to strapping on a fanny pack and canvassing tourist traps.

The Couchsurfing Project is the brainchild of a group of friends who worked together at an American dotcom. Couchsurfing.com solidified in 2004, after founder Casey Fenton bought a cheap ticket to Iceland. Instead of booking a hotel, he e-mailed more than 1,500 Icelandic students and asked them if he could crash on one of their couches.

Today, the site is part of burgeoning hospitality network including http://www.hospitalityclub.org and http://www.stay4free.com.

To reap the benefits of couchsurfing, though, it takes a rather open-minded personality.

As East Vail Jenna Wazny puts it, “It has to be someone who is willing to go with the flow and not expect anything,”

A 29-year-old bartender, she sampled couch-surfing during a trip to South America this past fall. Armed with yoga mats, she and a group of friends bedded down with several foreign hosts, including a girl in Bolivia who took them bowling. A family they stayed with in Brazil insisted on cooking their meals.

For the free spirit, couch surfing can provide a more authentic experience than holing up in a hotel. Hosts took Wazny to local hangouts and taught her phrases in their languages. “You get the real experience, the real juice,” she said.

Check out: http://www.couchsurfing.com

High Life Writer Sarah Mausolf can be reached at 748-2938 or smausolf@vaildaily.com.


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