It's 1 a.m., and I'm in Hong Kong for the first time, sitting in a bar in the Lan Kwai Fong district. I'm waiting for two girls I met on the Internet to show up and take me to their apartment, so my friend Harry and I can stay there for free for a few nights. Having been on flights for the past 24 hours, I am worn out and nervous when they don't arrive on time.
But my faith is restored when I hear a thick Chinese accent asking, "Are you Cody?" Even though Jess and Jin are as much strangers to me as anyone else in the bar, I trust them. It seems as natural as being set up by a mutual friend, and, in a sense, that is exactly what is happening.
Facilitating the interaction is CouchSurfing.com, a travel-oriented social-networking site that was started in 2004 and has grown to more than 2.4 million members, including 25 in Antarctica. The nonprofit site, which aims to connect travelers, or "surfers," with hosts willing to offer a free place to stay, has some similarities to Facebook in that it includes user profiles, photos and friend requests. But it also incorporates a familiar eBay feature: feedback. After every CouchSurfing interaction, the people involved leave references about each other positive, neutral or negative. As on eBay, a negative reference can be the end of someone's ability to participate. But of the more than 6 million experiences CouchSurfing has facilitated, the company says 99.83% of them have been positive.
"We believe that people are fundamentally good, and our service is designed around that premise," says CouchSurfing chairman and co-founder Daniel Hoffer. "Anytime you make yourself vulnerable in any way, you take a risk, and typically life rewards you for that risk."
I first learned about the site last fall from my mom's friend, a middle-aged divorcée in Greenwich, Conn., who was planning on hosting travelers in her home to add a little excitement to life after her oldest son went to college. She recommended I use it for an upcoming trip to Europe.
That's how I became one of the millions of surfers who search hosts' profiles and send requests typically as much as a week or as little as a day before arriving in the hosts' city to sleep on those people's couches or on their floor or in a spare bedroom. A search took me to Gildas, a 32-year-old freelance writer in the 16th arrondissement of Paris who came with 56 positive references.
I, on the other hand, had no CouchSurfing references, so I had my address and identity verified, two security services CouchSurfing offers for a $25 fee. (Gildas had had his address and identity verified as well.) I also posted a dozen photos on my profile and wrote Gildas a long note about why I would appreciate staying at his place. Luckily, he accepted and hosted me for two nights in which he shared wine, cheese and wisdom from eight months of couch surfing around the world. (Best advice I got from him: keep airline pillows. They're comfortable and compact.)
Even with a solid profile, however, CouchSurfing requests are not always accepted, as my friend and I learned about seven hours before arriving at the bar in Hong Kong. During our layover in Tokyo, I found out via e-mail that the requests I had submitted that morning to two potential hosts had both been politely declined. One host, a South African banker, had relatives visiting, and the other, an Indian oil trader, was in Macau for the weekend.
So, I quickly joined the forum "Last Minute Couch Requests: Hong Kong" (all major cities have last-minute groups like this one) and posted a message, which Jess saw. She got in touch with her friend Jin, who had room in her apartment to accommodate two guests. Jess sent us an e-mail, which we received after landing in Hong Kong, offering directions to a meeting place and a phone number. I did a quick check on my BlackBerry; Jess is a student, my age (21), who had couch-surfed across Europe and has all-positive references. Harry and I could have dug through Jess's list of friends to read up on Jin, but instead we trusted that Jess would not lead us astray.
After the girls get to the bar, the four of us go to a rooftop bar, then a club, and finally head back to Jin's apartment. Jin is a year older than Jess and works in Dolce & Gabbana's corporate offices. Over the next three days, the girls take us to restaurants, markets, clubs and beaches. They teach us how to use the public-transportation system and give us directions to popular tourist destinations.
To outsiders like, say, my parents, it may be hard to understand why Jin would agree to have two strangers stay at her place, or why we are even trying to couch-surf when hostels are cheap and plentiful in this part of the world. It is because couch surfing isn't just a means of accommodation; it is an entirely new way to travel. You get to see the world through local residents, not hotel concierges or guidebooks. You get to step outside your comfort zones. But what is most profound about the whole experience is the trust that naturally exists. Jin, for instance, gives us a key to her place upon arrival, a common CouchSurfing custom that helps explain why sociologists at Stanford University are now studying the site and its ability to efficiently create trust.
While cultural enrichment and adventure are almost a CouchSurfing guarantee, comfort is not. Jin's guest mattress is not quite a quarter of an inch thick, the shower is too complicated for Harry or me to figure out, and the apartment is an eighth-floor walk-up. But it's a tradeoff surfers like me are happy to make.