Surf’s up!

International travelers are looking for a few good couches

Photo By Teresita Giacaman

For more information, visit

What if you could bring a little bit of world culture into your house in exchange for your couch? It’s possible and more common than you might think.

An intense Reno summer sun baked the balcony of a house on North Sierra Street. A giant pile of clothes caked with clay and playa dust decorated the doorway. Near this spontaneous sculpture, footprints surrounded a towel that used to be white, the house’s improvised doormat. The partially open door revealed the chaos inside: a couple of sleeping bags, clothes, cameras, a red cape, Merlin’s hat, socks, a Mac and two backpacks covered in tags, which showed that they’d traveled in the cargo holds of many airplanes, but where were they from?

I entered Juan Miranda’s house. He’s an Argentinian, possessor of a master’s in literature, a poet, and my good friend. We were supposed to go to the supermarket before heading to a barbecue. A blond girl came out of the bathroom drying her hair. Her face was red from sunburn.

I smiled and said “hi” to her, thinking that the girl was my friend’s latest conquest.

She greeted me back and started putting lotion on her feet.

“Where’s Juan?” I asked.

“He went out with Moni.”

Moni? I thought, another girl? It must have been a great party.

The blonde lay down on the couch, hugged a pillow and went to sleep, so I left the house. She needed her privacy, right?

Outside, Miranda had just arrived, with his eyelashes white and hair stiff from all the dust. Behind him was Moni Habib, a guy whose curly hair I later discovered was black. Juan saw me, and the first thing he said was, “Ché, next year you’re going to Burning Man with me!” I thought he had met these people at the party, but no, it was much more than that: Moni and the girl on the couch were Canadians who had met up to come to Burning Man. They contacted Miranda, who was participating in a program called CouchSurfing (CS).

Everybody’s learnin’ how

From left, CouchSurfers Moni Habib and Juan Miranda.

photo by Teresita Giacaman

The main idea of CS is that members offer their couches to people who contact them through the website: In exchange, they can sleep for free on other people’s couches in any part of the country or world, all the while gaining memorable experiences.

In 2003, founder Casey Fenton used his background in computer science to create a website that has been in operation since 2004 as an international non-profit network with users in 230 countries and territories around the world. The United States is one of the top 10 in popularity, with nearly 600,000 participating surfers, 915 of whom live in Reno.

“We make the world a better place by opening our homes, our hearts, and our lives. … CouchSurfing wants to change not only the way we travel, but how we relate to the world!” is how the site’s administrators define The Big Picture.

On the surface, it seems pretty cool, but there are inevitable questions: If I want to stay at someone else’s house, do I have to take someone into mine? What if I end up staying on some crazy person’s couch? How safe is all of this?

There are answers under the link “CS Basics.” First, participants don’t need to host anyone to be able to stay in another place, or they can just host. As for safety, there are many eBay-style reviews and testimonies from participants. If someone behaves poorly, they earn bad references.

“Think about when you meet someone at a hostel or on a train,” the website’s FAQ states. “What information do you have? Just your own first impressions. Through CouchSurfing, it’s more like meeting a friend of a friend. You have the chance to read all about other member’s experiences with that person, whether positive or negative.”

Clearly, there is no guarantee of a problem-free experience—there are always risks—but at least with the CS system, members must verify their identity through credit card donations to the site.

I signed up and searched until I found Miranda’s page. He has 13 friends and a bunch of good references. Adam S., for example, wrote, “When I got to Juan’s house, it felt like it was my house. He always made sure another CSer and I were comfortable and enjoying ourselves, and he was always fun to be around. A very cool guy and what CS is all about!”

As Miranda’s friend, I also got a taste of a few of these experiences. Once, a Colombian guitarist-surfer ended up jamming with Juan at an open-mic in a bar downtown. But by far, the best experience was with the Canadians after Burning Man.

Miranda, Habib and I piled into the cab of the truck and left for the barbecue. Little by little, I was becoming a Burner, not only because the truck was a cloud of dust, but because I was captivated by their descriptions of the “unforgettable experience” and the “good vibes.”

When we got to the barbecue—half South Americans, half North Americans dining together—we started chatting. It turned out that Habib was a photographer. As we looked at the Burning Man pictures, I discovered that it was a lot more of a production than I imagined. Later, they broke out the guitar and djembé, and we played music until it was time to leave our friends’ barbecue to buy new shoes, as Habib had declared his shoes dead. We each ended up buying a pair and taking pictures in the parking lot to remember this moment of camaraderie among Americans—Americans in the largest sense of the word.

During the evening, to finish their great journey that had somehow also become mine, we got together at my house with other Burner-Surfers. We shared a dinner and a little bit about our lives. I realized that many people around the world know about Burning Man, and those who have heard about CouchSurfing have found an irresistible combination: a free local house and a great party.

A few days ago, I was on Skype looking for news from Juan. He’s gone to Argentina to visit his family in Mendoza and later to hitchhike to Iguazu Falls near Brazil. He’ll experience for the first time what it’s like to stay on some of the couches of the 41,154 surfers in Argentina. As for me, I hope not to miss Burning Man this year, and, if my roommate is all right with it, I’ll take in a Surfer of my own.

It’s plainly not a decision that can be made by one person. Those who live with roommates who are a little more private had better ask if they’re open to the idea—otherwise your roommate may send you to sleep on your own couch.