Cape Town - Sometimes the allure of distant lands and exotic sunsets fades when loneliness sets in while travelling through a foreign land where nobody speaks your language.
And it’s not easy to make local friends when staying at a hotel or hostel. You go from your “compound for foreigners” to visit local sights where you gawk at the architecture and later enjoy local cuisine. You’re likely to leave the country without making connections with the local people or understand them a bit better.
But a network like CouchSurfing can help you connect to locals. It is a global social network for travellers, offering hosts who open their doors at no cost but the opportunity for cultural exchange.
I signed up for CouchSurfing while travelling in Italy this year. Meeting interesting locals to see a city through their eyes sounded perfect. Unfortunately, the early encounters weren’t that great.
The next stop on my itinerary was Istanbul and I had sent out requests to meet locals. The results were mind-blowing. When I was hospitalised in Istanbul, one CouchSurfer visited me and brought biscuits, juice, fruits, chocolates and tea. I had found a friend.
CouchSurfing members hold regular meetings in Istanbul and I went to some of those. I met locals and foreigners who all hungered to travel. We shared stories and talked about our lives. When I told some CouchSurfers that I’d quit my day job because I wanted to travel more he replied: “He’s one of us.”
Istanbul’s CouchSurfers welcomed me into their homes, told me all their CouchSurfing stories – and showed me their couches.
Osman Erkut, ship’s engineer:
I joined CouchSurfing five years ago when I travelled by train for three weeks to Italy, France, Spain, Belgium, Holland and Germany. When I returned to Istanbul. I started to host people. I’ve had more than 50 guests.
You need courage to stay with foreigners and also to host them. I check their profile, friends and references. You must check their hobbies. If you have nothing in common then you won’t enjoy yourself.
It’s also about your sixth sense. If I see that I can trust my guests, I give them my house keys.
I don’t live in a tourist area. The neighbours have got used to foreign people visiting me, and try to connect with them and give them gifts.
Mustafa Celik, electronics engineer:
I joined CouchSurfing in 2008 after my flatmate recommended it. I’ve never been a guest but my flatmate and I’ve hosted more than 70 people. I talk to our guests about things that happen in their country I’ve seen on the news, and they explain it to me.
Most CouchSurfers know about the country they visit – they are not regular tourists and they usually travel alone.
When I host someone, I give a lot of myself. I sometimes teach people how to cook some Turkish food. I also like to learn how to cook different foods.
My flatmate and I also have CouchSurfing parties at our flat. Travellers, people from different countries and students join our parties after they see the event on the CouchSurfing website. For some people our party is their first CouchSurfing event.
Ali Kismet, part-time maths teacher:
I’ve been part of CouchSurfing for almost two years, and I’ve hosted more than 200 people. I’ve learned how different people find ways to be happier. Everybody looks for happiness. Some find it through travel, cooking or meeting new people. The best thing about CouchSurfing is that it gives one an opportunity to learn from others.
I live alone in a three-bedroomed flat but I’m never home alone. There were times when I hosted eight people at a time. I hosted parties at my place and people stayed over. There have been some CouchSurfers that I didn’t get along with – our minds didn’t match. But I almost always have good experiences.
I met so many CouchSurfers who live happily with a little amount of money.
Ebru ünlür, law student:
I was taking English lessons and somebody told me about the CouchSurfing website. I wanted to improve my English so I joined. Since then I have hosted people and showed Istanbul to CouchSurfers.
I live with my family of six, so our guests get to stay with a traditional Turkish family.
Before meeting anyone, I always check their profiles to make sure that it’s not fake. I talked to my friends who hosted people and they told me not to worry. They said that I could check from the profile if the person has good references.
I once hosted four people at the same time so there were 10 people at my home. A girl from Poland stayed at my house for a month. She was a cool person. My family accepted her as a daughter.
I quit hosting because I have to study, but I still meet people and show them around.
Since returning to Cape Town, I’ve connected with the local CouchSurfing community to extend the hospitality experienced in Turkey.
For more details: www.couchsurfing.org - Weekend Argus