CouchSurfing in Istanbul

Written by Yazeed Kamaldien

Sometimes the allure of distant lands and exotic sunsets fade away when loneliness sets in while one travels through a foreign land where nobody speaks your language.

It is also not always easy to befriend locals when one stays 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 that country without making connections with the people who live there or understand them a bit better.

Independent travellers with an adventurous streak have over the last few years turned to websites like CouchSurfing though to connect with locals.

CouchSurfing is a global social network for travellers. It has hosts who open their doors to travellers at no cost but the opportunity for cultural exchange.

I signed up for CouchSurfing only this year while travelling in Italy. I was staying with friends in Rome and they encouraged me to sign up. Meeting interesting locals to see a city through their eyes sounded like the perfect way to get acquainted with some place new. Unfortunately, those early days didn’t turn out that great.

One host asked me to pay for staying at his place while another told me after my arrival that she had to travel to another town. I was left stranded but fortunately found a hostel. Even funnier was a third host – a total stranger – who wrote to me: “You can stay at my place but you would have to sleep on the left side of my double bed”.

The next stop on my travel itinerary was Istanbul and I had sent out requests to meet locals. I had a place to stay but wanted to know from Istanbul’s citizens what was happening in their city. The results were mostly mind-blowing.

When I was briefly hospitalised in Istanbul one CouchSurfer brought me some biscuits, juice, fruits, chocolates and tea. I had found a friend.

CouchSurfing members also hold regular meetings in Istanbul and I went to some of those. I met locals and foreigners who all had a hunger for travel. We shared stories of travel and talked about our lives. When I told some CouchSurfers that I quit my day job because I wanted to be free to travel more he replied: “He’s one of us”. I felt right at home.

Soon I wanted to know from Istanbul’s CouchSurfers about their experiences. They welcomed me into their homes, told me all about their CouchSurfing days and showed me their couches.

Osman Erkut, ship engineer:

Osman Erkut. Photo by Yazeed Kamaldien

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 must have 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 also have to respect my flat mate and ask him if it’s possible to host someone.

I don’t live in a tourist area and I’ve lived here for three years. People in my area are local families. The neighbours got used to foreign people visiting me. They try to connect with them and give them gifts.

I advised my friends to join CouchSurfing because they’re travelling too. It’s a good way to connect with local people and to know their city.

Mustafa Celik, electronics engineer:

Mustafa Celik. Photo by Yazeed Kamaldien

I joined CouchSurfing in 2008 after my flat mate recommended it. I’ve never been a guest but with my flat mate we’ve hosted more than 70 people. I talk to our guests about things that I saw in the news about their country. They explain what happened.

Most CouchSurfers have knowledge about the country that they go to. They are not regular tourists and they usually travel alone.

I’ve had no problems with guests but sometimes when you host hitchhikers, who travel long distances, they smell a little bit bad. But I don’t tell them anything.

When I host someone I give so much of myself. I give my time and we do activities together. I can teach people how to cook some Turkish food. I know how to make a really good salad. I also like to learn how to cook different foods.

My flat mate and I also have CouchSurfing parties at our flat. There have been more than 150 people at our parties. 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. Then they join other events too.

Ali Kismet, part-time Maths teacher:

CouchSurfer Ali Kismet. Photo by Yazeed Kamaldien

I’ve been part of CouchSurfing for almost two years. I have hosted more than 200 people and I 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-bedroom flat but I’m never home alone. There were times when I hosted eight people at the same time. I hosted parties at my place and people stayed over. People were sleeping on the floor and even in the bathtub.

There have been some CouchSurfers that I didn’t get along with. Our minds didn’t match. We couldn’t find things to talk about. I didn’t like them that much.

I feel that people should speak when they have something funny or interesting to say. Some people talked too much with no interesting thing to say. But I almost always have had good experiences.

I was working at a bank for six-and-a-half years and quit my job last January. Then I travelled for three months around Europe to think about what I wanted to do. I met so many CouchSurfers who live happily with a little amount of money.

I now teach kids Maths part-time. That makes me happy. If I stayed at the bank for another six years I would not have to work for the rest of my life. But that is a lot of years. I earn one-tenth of what I earned in the bank but I am happier.

Ebru Unlu, law student:

Ebru Unlu. Photo by Yazeed Kamaldien

I was taking English lessons and somebody told me about the CouchSurfing website in October 2010. 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. We are six in the family. My family is traditional. So people get to see 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 ten 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. We became like sisters.

I quit hosting because I have to study but I still meet people and show them around. I met around 200 people in Istanbul because I also go to the Couchsurfing meetings.

I like CouchSurfing because you get to know about places where you have not been before. I didn’t have any bad experiences.

Since returning to Cape Town in August, I’ve connected with the local CouchSurfing community to extend the hospitality experienced in Turkey. This concept, like most others, depends on people to perpetuate its value.

I’ve met CouchSurfers from America, Belgium, Germany and Nigeria. Travellers often pass through Cape Town and want to meet locals to enjoy the city from an insider’s perspective. It’s time to return the kindness afforded me while on the road elsewhere.

This article was published in the Weekend Argus regional newspaper in Cape Town, Western Cape, on September 1 2012.

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About Yazeed Kamaldien

Self-employed journalist and photographer from South Africa.

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