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couch surfing USA.

MY new friend says it all: "Texas is famous for two things - cowboys and beef. Oh and if we can make it fat, we will!" I'm sitting in Hula Hut with two hunks of beef.

One is a rather fit bloke, the other a state-sized TexMex burger, with fries.

There's a glorious sunset in process over Lake Austin, and we're sipping Mexican Margaritas, each with its own mini-cocktail shaker for refills. This, combined with the jetlag of an 11-hour flight ,means everything is feeling rather groovy.

There's only one problem. I'm about to go home with 'fit bloke'.

We've talked via the internet but really I've only known him since he picked me up at the airport 30 minutes ago.

You see, Austin is not only the 'Live Music Capital of the World' but it's one of the capitals of Couchsurfing - a phenomenon whereby a local host offers to put you up for free.

There are 10,000 Couchsurfers in Austin alone, making it the eighth most couch-friendly city in the USA.

Since I was there to attend South By South-West (SXSW) - Austin's worldrenowned music, film and interactive festival - and it was going to cost me a fair penny, I needed to cut costs.

Aside from the weird factor of staying with a random stranger, Couchsurfing sounded perfect.

It works a little like eBay, except you surf for local hosts instead of Ikea bookcases.

Each host's profile has eBay-style feedback from previous visitors as well as three levels of verified membership.

As a solo female, I decided to pick the person with the most good reviews and the highest level of verification.

That was Davey Kay, a 28 year-old Californian anti-litter campaigner and Couchsurfing veteran, whose listed interests were 'travelling the world, having fun, Star Wars, pirates, heavy metal, cycling, and meeting new people'. He kindly agrees to put me up for two days before a five-piece band moves into his home for the SXSW music festival.

We head for his home in the North Austin 'burbs. I'm half-expecting a Silence of the Lambs setting, but Davey's home is large, clean and welcoming.

I'm given my own room, bed and TV.

Better still, I have a host who's going to give me a chauffeured tour of the city.

The next day, though, Davey's darker side starts to appear.

As we head out onto the freeway, he slots in a CD of his favourite grindcore band, Dying Fetus, and screams along to a song whose lyrics aren't fit to print.

Hmm... Then at Austin's second highest peak, Mount Bonnell, he swings in to park with a dramatic 180 Dukes of Hazzard-style handbrake turn.

Eek... My knuckles are white but Davey just giggles like a naughty teenager. The next 48 hours are an induction into my host's weird, rawkin' world.

Hangout And this is essentially what surfing on someone's couch is all about - cultural exchange on a local level.

Everywhere we go, we are accompanied by the roar of incomprehensible metal turned up to 11.

To the Spider House, a quirky caf and writers' hangout with an eclectic garden full of bathtub fountains, and garage sale items draped in fairy lights.

To the Harry Ransom Center to view the world's oldest photograph taken in 1826, on pewter plate over an eighthour exposure.

To the Belmont, a retro 1950s Palm Springs lounge bar that serves up Frank Sinatra and Belmontini cocktails of pomegranate, vodka and champagne.

To the State Capitol Building, the largest in the US, with portraits of its most famous son, George Bush, hanging in the impressive dome lobby. Then it's back to the ranch, where Davey shows me his own crazy sights - including a wall of certificates showing his training as a helicopter pilot, and a pirate shrine complete with flashing red skull and crossbones.

OK, so Davey is a bit weird. But that's OK because so is Austin. In fact, it trades on it. The city's other slogan is 'Keep Austin weird'.

"It's like the non-Texan Texas," says Austin fanatic Beth, who I meet at Ranch 616, a fusion restaurant that also serves up the legendary 'Fire In The Hole' cocktail - vodka and japaleno chillis served with a Lone Star beer chaser.

"Austin is in the same category as Seattle or Portland - it's a hip, cool place to go. The average age here is 33, there are a lot of single people and it's a university city."

Like the 1.5 million bats that live under Congress Avenue Bridge, Austin comes alive at night.

The Downtown area is small and divided into entertainment districts - from the bars and clubs of Sixth St and Red River, to the vintage shops and hip eateries of South of Congress, to the upscale Warehouse District, where I'm downing my Fire In The Hole.

But twice a year the city swells to bursting with people travelling from all over the US to partake in its two biggest festivals: SXSW in March and Austin City Limits this weekend.

The vibrant live music scene springs out of its long musical heritage.

Austin is home to Willie Nelson, gave a start to Janis Joplin and Stevie Ray Vaughn, and is the transit lounge for UK stars, such as Amy Winehouse and Duffy, to enter the US market.

Thanks to the weird and wonderful world of Couchsurfing and my hardrocking host, for me the city of music will always conjure up something a little more deafening on the ears.

Pictures by FIONA CULLINAN .

factfile For further information on. Couchsurfing, visit For details of Austin's sights and sounds, visit

Other places visited include Spider. House Caf (; The Belmont (www.thebelmontaustin.

com); Ranch 616 (www.; Harry Ransom Center ( and Texas State Capitol (

You can fly to Austin from Birming-. ham with carriers including KLM. Best deals last week were around pounds 450 return through


You've tried Facebook and Twitter. Now you can add the personal touch. FIONA CULLINAN goes couchsurfing in the live music capital of the USA. SURFING BUDDY: Fiona Cullinan with new friend Davey Kay, above and left
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Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:Oct 4, 2009
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