- By Johanna Salinas
Can I book a reservation on your couch?
Guam’s growing couch-surfing community hosts backpackers from all over the world
For many travelers today, vacationing is more than just falling into tourist traps, rather it also a means to immerse in new cultures. So instead of relaxing in posh hotels, a subgroup of travelers known as “couch surfers” is opting for a more genuine experience by crashing in a stranger’s home — for free.
For adventurous travelers, couch surfing beats the bed-and-breakfast accommodation Unlike the airBnB industry, couch-surfing does not involve commercial transactions. The network is guided by its own rules — mutual respect, reciprocity and reputation.
Last year, Guam artist Amber Word glided into couch surfing with an open mind. “My boyfriend and I went on a land sailing adventure in Mongolia in a vessel that we built with plywood, car wheels and a dingy sail,” she said. “While our little land boat ended up being our home for the majority of the trip, the first few weeks we spent seeking out materials and building the vessel, we stayed with a couchsurfing.com host. Not only did we have our own little home away from home, but we shared meals, stories and a passion for gemstones!”
Called the “gift economy,” couch surfing is growing global culture. The networking is accessible via couchsurfing.com and available, where members can use the service to arrange homestays and offer free lodging. Members set up an online identity, and after leaving comments on their experiences with other members, develop a reputation. Hosts and guests are rated based on one’s experience.
Since its launch in 2003, couch surfing has become an international phenomenon. The site has attracted 1.9 million registered couch surfers from around the world, and it has facilitated more than 2 million successful surf or host experiences. Couches are offered in 230 countries and 73,339 cities—including Guam. Most of the couch-surfers are young adventurous budget travelers.
Word initially signed up for couchsurfing.com as a host, hoping to share her space with different wanderers. She was introduced to couch surfing was while living in the hills of Northern Thailand. “I opened an art gallery/cultural center/tea shop with the intention of bridging the gap between travelers and the local Thai community,” she said. “Because our building had extra space upstairs, we decided to offer a place to sleep on Couchsurfing.com. We met amazing people along the way and always loved the opportunity to introduce our couch surfers to the hidden gems of Chiang Rai. It always made my heart soar when these new friendships bloomed into jam sessions and deep conversations.”
Amber Word, second from left, couch surfing in Mongolia
Guam artist, Julius Sotomayor, has been more of a host than a guest. He recently opened his home in Dededo to travelers from the Philippines, L.A and Portugal, with home remains in touch. “I don't see any pattern in guests in terms of their place of origin, but I always tell them that my place is small, there isn't much, no overhead shower, and that I live with two dogs,” he said.
As an adventure-seeker himself, Sotomayor is thrilled to meet likeminded people through couchsurfing.com. “We are very similar in thinking and disposition. They are low maintenance, respectful, flexible and always able to make the best out of any situation,” he said.
Sotomayor’s first guest was a young father from the Philippines, who likes taking photographs. “I had to drop him at K-Mart on my way to work at around 6 a.m., his 10 a.m. flight. He explored that area and eventually walked to the airport which he admitted was quite far,” he said.
Sotomayor’s second experience as a host was with a couple from Los Angeles who decided to pack their things and move to Guam.
“The female was part Chamorro and the male was Caucasian,” he said. “For the past several years, they told me, they were living in a van, moving from one place to another, just working and traveling. They needed a place to stay for a few days as they slowly transitioned and they were able to get their own place and their own car in the next two to three days.”
While couch surfing is just becoming more mainstream in recent years, it is not exactly a new trend. Dr. Don Rubinstein, an anthropologist at the University of Guam, signed up for couchsurfing.com in 2008 after reading a Time magazine article on alternative traveling. “The idea appealed to me because I’d spent a year hitch-hiking around Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East after college, relying on locals for rides and accommodation,” Rubinstein said. “During the first few years I hosted several visitors a year. The visitors were mostly young Americans, but they were very internationally well-traveled.”
As he hosted his couch surfers, Rubinstein also shared his home with two Yapese college students. “That made the hosting easier,” Rubinstein said. “The students could help out showing the visitors around Guam, and it was a good chance for them to expand their social world.”
As a lover of stories, Rubinstein was intrigued by the hard life of 26-year-old ex-Marine turned couch surfer. “Tyrone had been shot up in the first battle of Fallujah in March 2004. He was an intense and unfulfilled young man, angry with himself for having enlisted and angry with his government for causing massive suffering and casualties on both sides, based on the fictitious premise of weapons of mass destruction,”
Rubinstein said. “Tyrone was traveling via free, space-available MAC flights around the world, with no particular itinerary or schedule or destination. He was on a vision quest, trying to see as much of the world as he could, compensating for the months he’d been immobilized in a hospital room, and hoping to decide along the way what he wanted to do with his life, which he’d nearly lost in Fallujah.”
Rubinstein and Tyrone did one Guam boonie stomp together, and the guest reciprocated by cooking “a killer Cajun gumbo meal for us at home, a skill he’d learned from his grandmother.”
CHamoru film maker Steven Lefever surfed couches as a way of survival when he was a young adult. “I became a part of couch surfing culture because I needed a place to stay while trying to be an actor in Los Angeles after I graduated from college. I hopped around to three or four different places for about a year before I felt it wasn't sustainable enough to be living like that,” Lefever said.
As a small-island boy, Lefever appreciated the freedom to explore what couch surfing offered.” Santa Monica was nice. It was close to the beach,” he said. “Lots of fun things happening over there. Seeing different corners of Los Angeles made me appreciate the city more.”
With his inafamaolek roots, offering hospitality comes naturally to Lefever. “Last time I hosted guests were my two college buddies Taylor Harris and Ian Randolph when they came from L.A. to Tokyo to shoot our movie ‘Give Me Beauty’,” Lefever said. “I literally finished my teaching job, moved from Gunma to Tokyo, and there they were in my empty new apartment. My first month living in Tokyo we dedicated it entirely to shooting the film.”
Taylor and Ian, who had never met before sharing space at Lefever’s home, remain very close friends today.
Couch surfing allows travelers to better engage with communities. It brings people and stories closer together. “Energy exchange can come in many forms. I am currently without an opportunity to host guests as I've stepped into the role of a professional couch surfer,” Word said. “In a world that seems ever-more isolated, bringing value to community over things, is a discussion worth having. Couchsurfing allows you to explore what it means to find value in what you bring to the table and to hold yourself accountable for sharing your gifts with the world. And for now, that's a start.”