June 10, 2011 2:08:00 PM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
Stephanie Holcombe is a "yes" woman -- and proud of it. "Yes" to exploring. "Yes" to learning. "Yes" to new experiences. Her worn passport is evidence enough. From England to Australia, Canada to Haiti, the 32-year-old nurse from Columbus has embraced a self-described gypsy lifestyle that has been transforming. Along the way, she's experienced some truly intriguing places and people, thanks, in part, to CouchSurfing -- an international hospitality network connecting travelers and potential hosts.
The nonprofit program is more than a site, more than free lodging. It's an experiment in creating a real life global community from a virtual community. It's a conduit for knowing the larger world and some of the people we share it with, a concept that appeals to the spirit of a passionate traveler like Holcombe.
"I really like to be open to new opportunities," she says, sipping iced tea on the wooden deck of her parents' home on a sultry Tuesday. She's been back in Columbus since January, happy to be reunited with her black Lab, Buster, who sits close by, daydreaming, tongue lolling every time Stephanie rubs his head.
"To enter into people's lives on some authentic level is special," she says of the experiences she's had staying with hosts. "People are at their best when they're in their own element; you see the culture you wouldn't otherwise see."
The CouchSurfing program went public in 2004. It was first conceived by co-founder Casey Fenton in 1999. After finding a cheap flight from Boston, Mass., to Iceland, Fenton randomly emailed 1,500 students from the University of Iceland asking if they'd be willing to let him stay with them. He ultimately received more than 50 offers.
On the return flight to Boston, he began to develop the idea that would eventually emerge as CouchSurfing. Now, the site has more than 2.8 million users, representing 246 countries and territories and 79,960 cities around the world. The program is sustained by members' donations.
"It was created to help the founders meet some of the world's most interesting people. We're thrilled it's helped members do the same," Fenton told "BootsnAll," an online travel guide.
"CouchSurfing has never been about money, and using the site is free to all members," he's also stated. "Its all about helping to reach our vision of a better world."
How it works
Free to register, members have the option of providing information and pictures of themselves and of the sleeping accommodations they offer, if any. Members looking for accommodation can search for hosts using several parameters, such as age, location, gender and activity level.
Homestays are consensual between host and guest. Duration and other details are worked out in advance. No monetary exchange takes place except for compensation of agreed incurred expenses, such as food.
Several verification and vouching mechanisms are in place for obvious safety reasons. A powerful tool is the feedback system, where hosts and guests enter information after a stay and build a history of positive (or negative) feedback.
As a tightknit community, CouchSurfers help protect themselves and each other by educating themselves and sharing information.
"You have a full profile's worth of information about people's interests and perspectives. You can see who their friends are and how they know them. And you have the ability to correspond with them as much as you want before you meet them," reads couchsurfing.org The network goes to lengths to provide members with what they need to make informed decisions.
"Obviously, you have to be smart about it," adds Holcombe, whose wanderlust found its first real outlet in a move to England to pursue a master's degree after graduation from the University of Alabama in 2002.
"Western Europe is so easy to travel in; it's a great place to start," she enthuses.
And for her, it was only the start. Back in the U.S., Holcombe worked as a nurse at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle, then became a traveling nurse in California.
She lived in Melbourne, Australia, studying at the University of Melbourne on a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship ("Melbourne is far and away the best city I've ever lived in. Everything about it makes sense."). She's also lived in Portland, Ore. ("So progressive, green and fresh"), worked on an organic farm, returned to Australia, putting her skills to work in an aboriginal community. Holcombe also participated in the Semester at Sea program, a study abroad voyage she strongly endorses.
"Everywhere I went, the kindness of strangers sustained me; it's what propels you as you travel," she says with conviction.
That kindness isn't found only in exotic locales. CouchSurfing facilitates those connections at home, too.
While touring the U.S. with their band, Come On Go With Us, Chase McGill, Chris Hurt and Dustin Hedrick of Columbus used CouchSurfing frequently.
Out of about 300 shows for more than a year, the group only stayed in hotels "a handful of times," said McGill Wednesday by phone from Nashville, Tenn., where he currently works with the William Morris Endeavor Entertainment Agency, and continues writing and performing. Many of the group's home stays were with CouchSurfing members.
"It was really good for us; there are a lot of fun stories from it," he said. "We met a lot of different people and a lot of great people, too."
Being from the Deep South, it was inevitable the guys would end up as quasi-ambassadors for the region.
"We tried to be really polite," recalled Hurt, who is pursuing his music career in the Los Angeles area. "People definitely have that perception of Southern hospitality and that sort of thing. Some of the things people left on feedback said 'they're truly Southern gentlemen.'"
Is it for you?
Aside from the logistical benefits of economically moving around the country, as the band needed to do, CouchSurfing hopes to foster a cross-cultural global community.
Co-founder Fenton describes committed CouchSurfers as "passionate adventurers, people who want to see far off lands from a local's perspective. People who want to make genuine connections and/or friends for life. People who are curious about the world around them and don't always care to be on a pre-packaged tour."
"I would definitely say it's molded for an accepting personality ... for people who understand that if you're traveling in different regions, you're going to have different groups of friends, and they're not all going to be just like you," offered McGill.
Paying it forward
Of course, being a CouchSurfing guest is only half of the equation. Holcombe and her parents recently had the opportunity to actually host a member in their home for about a week.
"Stephanie Jane is always saying that after all the people throughout the world that have opened up their homes for her, this is what we can do to pay back -- that it's 'good karma'," chuckled Brenda Holcombe, Stephanie's mother. "It worked out really great."
From Stephanie's perspective, "It says so much to be able to say, 'You can stay at my home' to someone ... there's a simplicity, it's paying it forward."
The Holcombe's guest, who was in town during Pilgrimage, was "keen on knowing the South." She and Stephanie explored Columbus, and even took in the Juke Joint Festival in Clarksdale.
Training them up
There is a huge difference between a tourist and a traveler, Holcombe states. "I truly feel there's a common language of travelers; there's an art to being a traveler." And what she's discovered is that the world is full of people "who are of good heart, who truly want to help."
She's hoping younger relatives will benefit from the confidence that comes with travel.
"I've told them that my graduation gift from high school is that I want to take them on their fist international trip," she shares. "There are so many lessons ingrained in th
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.