IMAGE: Kim Scafaro
The couch has something of an unfortunate reputation. Associated with slackers, gamers and potatoes everywhere, the couch is, for all of its cushioning and utilitarian value, maligned. Enter CouchSurfing International, a nonprofit bent on connecting travelers across the globe with a forum for people who want to offer up their couches for free, and those who want to crash on them. Not since Kenan and Kel graced Saturday Night Nickelodeon's Big Orange Couch has the sofa looked this cool.
And Portland is racking up major davenport cred. With 5,790 members, it's the sixth most active U.S. city on the CS site and 23rd most active in the world, beating out cities like Austin, Dublin and Amsterdam.
"Portland is just the best city in the country," says CS member Ashley Daul. "Sometimes, I say in the world." Daul, 23, and her partner, David Rupar, 23, moved here from Wisconsin two years ago; after joining CS in January 2008, they have become two of the city's most dynamic members, hosting upward of 20 people for free a week. Why are Daul and Rupar hoarding two couches, two featherbeds, a set of bunk beds, an air mattress and innumerable pillows and blankets in their 550-square-foot downtown apartment? They say it's all for the love of the city and the site.
CouchSurfing.org is like Facebook for cheap travelers—a networking website that allows members to create a profile, post photos, message and "friend" other members, and join groups. What makes CS stand out is the focus of the networking. Members fall into two categories: travelers requesting to stay with inhabitants of the place they will be visiting (known as "surfers"), and "hosts" accepting members' requests to open up their homes to perfect strangers. The security measures range from the option to leave public references to a multilevel verification process. "I always say it's as safe as they could possibly make something like that," says Daul. Founded in California and launched in 2003, the site—funded entirely through donations—now has more than a million members, easily the largest of what are known as hospitality exchange networks, such as Hospitality Club or WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms).
What's so special about the proverbial heart of Portland? Daul and Rupar were drawn here by the city's reputation for being eco-friendly, bike-friendly, veggie-friendly, etcetera-friendly—a reputation they attest draws the majority of their surfers as well. Rupar and Daul fit the mold perfectly: Their unflaggingly friendly air is supported by the fact that they have hosted a staggering 241 surfers in just over a year. Rupar, who says he works 60 to 70 hours a week as a nursing assistant, says, "A vast majority of Ashley's time is spent on CouchSurfing," to which Daul interrupts, laughing, "All of my free time is spent on CouchSurfing."
In addition to CS mastery, Daul works as a custodian for Portland Public Schools. If the two do manage to get a day off together, they take advantage of it, but, as Rupar explains, "A lot of the time when we do stuff together we are also doing stuff with surfers." This month the couple leaves for a two-month-long trip to Europe—their first CS experience in which they'll be the surfers.
If you ask another Portland CS all-star, Benjamin Balzer, 32, this level of commitment tends to be the rule rather than the exception. He estimates that more than 300 people came to last year's annual Portland CS barbecue, including a Turkish woman, two circus performers from Central Europe and a host of Seattleites. Among this sundry congregation, "Everybody helped out; they all pulled their weight, which is unusual," Balzer says. "I used to be a Boy Scout, and it was never that good, though they talk like it should be. [CS] is an entirely different beast than other social circles I've run in before." It's a circle he's now enjoyed for six years and counting, after finding a CS card at a hostel computer, stranded and broke in Frankfurt.
For the past two years, Balzer has hosted with his partner, Holly (they were married in June), and her three children. (Though the average member's age is 27, a quarter of all of users are over 30; many users have children.) The children help to break the ice with surfers, Balzer says. "They set the bar—the kids are fearless. They're role models for us to lose our inhibitions." Considering that, typically, the biggest CS risk is hosting or surfing with someone you may not click with (out of hundreds of surfers, Balzer recalls only a few "uncomfortable Napoleon Dynamite moments"), having children around is nothing if not advantageous.
Whether you host religiously or sparingly, the point of CouchSurfing, and the possibility it presents, is to see and relate to the world in a way never before so streamlined and structured. "I saw parts of Frankfurt that are apparently really unusual," Balzer says of the city that in its reputation for dullness has earned the nickname "Bankfurt." "It was really neat to see that this is what my life could have been like had I been born in Frankfurt, or stayed in Frankfurt."
For Börjesgård, that feeling is exactly what made her and Runeson's trip to Portland worthwhile. "[Portland]'s green—it reminds me a lot of Sweden, the part we are from," she says. "We're driving around, and there are wildflowers along the road. I think the climate is very close to what we have in the south part of Sweden, and after 4 1/2 months of traveling, it kind of feels like coming home."
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