By Jasmina Nogo
Carrboro Commons Staff Writer
A mutual love for travel and an immense trust in the kindness of strangers are what connect people from all over the world and bring them crashing on each other’s couches.
Even Carrboro has a spot on the globe for CouchSurfing enthusiasts.
CouchSurfing is an international non-profit organization that connects travelers through a members-only interactive Web site. It provides travelers free places to stay and personal tour guides to show them parts of the community that tour books often miss.
“I don’t understand why we have to know people in order to trust them” said Leilani Trowell, a senior nursing major at UNC. She has lived in Carrboro for three years and began CouchSurfing more than a year ago.
Trowell had eight CouchSurfers stay with her in the last year, three of whom came all the way from the Netherlands.
According to the official Web site, www.couchsurfing.com, there are 230 participating countries and more than 770,000 CouchSurfers across the world.
Thirty-year-old New Hampshire native Casey Fenton founded CouchSurfing.com in 2003 as a network run and administered solely by members and volunteers, according to the Web site.
“Trust is the key to the CouchSurfing mission. You have to believe that people are good and that you can trust them,” said Zeke Krautwurst, a senior anthropology major at UNC.
Krautwurst signed on to the network more than a year ago and has hosted several CouchSurfers at his house in Carrboro.
According to the Web site, the CouchSurfing mission “seeks to internationally network people and places, create educational exchanges, raise collective consciousness, spread tolerance, and facilitate cultural understanding.”
“Traveling can be an isolating experience. You don’t really get the feel of a city until you befriend people,” Trowell said. She said she relies on CouchSurfing to connect her to locals, who she often befriends and keeps in touch with.
“It’s sort of like Facebook. You don’t talk to them all the time, but you keep up with them through the Internet,” Trowell said.
“Couchsurfing gives you a way to gain a look into a town outside of everything that can be sold to you,” Krautwurst said.
“It’s a way to see a place through the culture instead of through consumerism,” he said.
When Trowell signed up to host CouchSurfers, she said she wondered why anybody would come to Carrboro. Through CouchSurfing she realized that Carrboro has a reputation among travelers.
“People all over the country have heard of Carrboro. It’s known for its radical culture,” she said. Many of the people who have stayed with her have considered themselves radicals, she said.
“A lot of people seem to come here for that. Carrboro is on the FBI’s list of activist radical towns,” Trowell said.
“People that share certain views gravitate toward people that share those same views. It’s a solidarity,” Trowell said.
Krautwurst said he too has noticed a common trend in the kind of people who use CouchSurfing, but that it’s not at all exclusive to radical culture.
“I can see how a lot of anarchists would network through this system because it’s all about people relying solely on people,” Krautwurst said.
Logan Halley-Winsett, a senior film major at UNC, says visitors choose their hosts based on their profile. A radical profile would attract a radical CouchSurfer, he said.
“I think generally the idea of CouchSurfing is pretty anarchic. They give this service to you and expect you to return the favor, and it’s completely independent of the government,” he said.
“But we don’t talk much about politics,” he said of his CouchSurfers. It isn’t about that, he said.
Halley-Winsett says it’s the music scene that draws his CouchSurfers to Carrboro.
“The kind of people who would be on CouchSurfing would be interested in the music scene, so Carrboro is a logical destination,” he said.
Since Cat’s Cradle is nationally known, many people come to this area to see shows and they usually need a place to stay, he said.
A CouchSurfer from Poland stayed on Halley-Winsett’s couch last year when he came to Carrboro to see Wolf Parade, an indie band from Montreal.
“There’s also a pretty good bar scene here,” he said. Another big part of the Carrboro experience for his CouchSurfers are the local bars, he said.
“There’s a general atmosphere in Carrboro that’s pretty inviting and down-to-earth.” Visitors feel welcome in this town, he said.
“You won’t be discriminated against here. You can look kind of sketchy and it’s okay in Carrboro.”
Trowell says she too makes an effort to show her CouchSurfers around Carrboro.
“I take them to do all of the fun social things,” she said. Weaver Street Market is a good place to get to know each other over a meal, she said.
“People really like Loco Pops too,” Trowell said.
Farm parties are a unique cultural experience of this area, she said. She likes to take her visitors to the surrounding farms.
“People often do nice things in return. They’ll buy you a case of beer or something like that,” Krautwurst said.
One CouchSurfer cleaned his entire kitchen before he even woke up. The whole idea is a give and take, he said.
Halley-Winsett says he has never felt unsafe while CouchSurfing or hosting visitors.
“People choose hosts based on their profile, so like-minded people are likely to come to you,” he said.
“When you have a network like this people are going to find out ways to exploit it,” he said. But the Web site makes it easy to avoid people like this, he said.
“You can tell with most people. Look at their profile and their references and if they’re verified you can usually trust them,” he said.
“CouchSurfing sends out mass e-mails if something bad happens and they keep track of sketchy people,” Trowell said.
She said she has only received one message over the last year from CouchSurfing.com warning against a member who was stealing money from his hosts.
“They circulated his picture and gave out his e-mail address, so nobody would ever take him again,” she said.
Halley-Winsett got hooked on his first CouchSurfing trip and has trusted his hosts and tenants ever since. He visited Montreal and stayed with a man from Reunion Island, a little French province off the coast of Madagascar. The hospitality and kindness he encountered through this experience inspired him to continue CouchSurfing.
Halley-Winsett spent the past summer traveling across Europe for 85 days, relying mostly on CouchSurfing.
“For only 18 out of the 84 nights, we didn’t CouchSurf,” he said.
Trowell’s favorite CouchSurfing experience was in San Francisco where she connected with her hosts and the city so much that she’s thinking about moving there after she graduates in May.
An idea to establish a network of free room and board for travelers has turned into an international network that connects people globally through mutual ideas and interests.
“Like-minded people are all over the world,” Halley-Winsett said.