Couch trips remind us we're not so far apart

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 September, 2007, 12:00am


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We live in a world increasingly riven by ethnic conflict, religious strife, economic disputes and naked power politics. The globe sometimes appears less a global village than a worldwide battlefield. So it is nice to be reminded every now and then that we all belong to the same species and live and travel on the same planet.

Couch surfing may sound like a comic routine or a silly water sport but its spirit, in its naivety and simplicity, brings to mind the ethos of the 1960s with its flower children and their hopes and dreams of universal peace and brotherhood.

First and foremost, it is a cheap and - so far - safe way to travel overseas without having to pay hotel bills. People sign up on specialised websites for their free services to join a worldwide community with tens of thousands of 'friends' who open their homes to each other around the world to stay for a few nights.

Hosts and guests are required to make time together to become acquainted and become friends, if only for a few days. Participants are rated and profiled by other members on the internet to determine their eligibility and safety (Safety, certainly, should be a prime concern). Hong Kong has hundreds of members.

For decades, before the advent of the internet, some professional groups such as meteorologists and mathematicians had similar informal conventions which required them to open their homes to colleagues from other parts of the world. The world's most famous travelling mathematician was Paul Erdos, who never owned a house and, with a suitcase that contained his worldly possessions, travelled the world to meet fellow mathematicians and live in their homes.

The free couch-surfing service, however, has no trade or professional barriers. Everyone can join. It appeals to people's wanderlust and hospitality. It encourages people to overcome their innate distrust of strangers from different countries, cultures and religions. This way of touring the world will not appeal to everyone, but it does celebrate our common humanity. Judging from its popularity and expanding membership, it appeals to the better parts of our nature.