Tuesday, August 17, 2010


Written by a friend of mine in the spring of 2010.

If this fine world that we live in is the ocean than my couch is the surfboard. I have been a host on couchsurfing.com since November 2009. In the six months since I joined the online community I have hosted travelers on five different occasions. Every opportunity that I have had to be a host I have taken, and each has been a positive, unique experience.

I had briefly heard about the practice of couch surfing before I moved to Romania, but I had only heard about it. It wasn’t until after I was settled in at site when another volunteer reminded me about it, acting as a host. That evening I read about it and made a profile with hopes of getting a free place to stay and an interesting cross-cultural experience with a host in Belgrade. Well I did have an interesting experience in Belgrade but my couch surfing host fell through. Five months after Belgrade I realized that I have yet to actually “surf a couch” and instead I have been using the site to host travelers from around Europe.

My first guest was an attractive, laidback, adventurous girl from Amsterdam. Originally she had just contacted me for information about snowboarding my area and I didn’t have a whole lot of information to give her. I couldn’t believe that she was going to come to Petrosani and try to get to the mountains without knowing how to speak any Romanian. I decided to open up my small one-room apartment and let her stay with me for a few days. It was a fun few days of showing her my town, snowboarding and hiking with her, and holding long late-night conversations. She ended up leaving me with delicious Dutch cookies, an invitation to stay at her place in Amsterdam, and a new outlook on hosting couch surfers. My profile status changed from “Coffee and a Drink” to “Open Couch”.

My next couch surfers were a couple who were planning on riding there bicycles from France to China and then to India. They arrived in Petrosani before I did on a Sunday, when I was traveling back to Petrosani with a fellow volunteer. I helped them lift their heavy bikes up into my kitchen and then they made us some delicious curry. The four of us stayed up chatting late that evening. The fellow volunteer and I were very interested in their bike-riding adventure, but they were also curious as to why we were living in Romania and what we thought about our new home. Now I can track their progress as they ride their bikes across the continent.

The other people that I have hosted include two really cool German guys riding their motorcycles to Greece, a cute Hungarian couple riding there bicycles to the Himalayas, and a very fun and informative Romanian couple from Sibiu who knew more about my town than I did.

Acting as a host for strangers has obvious risks. How do I know that these people won’t rob me, or even worse, kill me? I don’t, but the couch surfing community offers some checks to help you reassure that you’re not letting serial killers into your home. The first safety measure that I look for before hosting someone is the reference section of their profile. In there references I can read about the types of experiences that other hosts or surfers have had with them. After I am finished hosting someone I usually write them a reference somewhat specific to their stay with me. Other safety measures include vouching and verification. If a person is vouched for it means that someone else trusts them enough to stand by their actions. If a person has verification it means that they have first, donated money to the community, and secondly, officially verified their identity.

So far couch surfing has given me some pretty genuine experiences with people from all over Europe. I have learned about them, heard their stories and adventures, and even told my own. I would suggest hosting couch surfers to anyone willing to give up a little bit of space and some time for an interesting and very short term cross-cultural experience.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Turkey, Round 2

One of the many benefits of this Peace Corps experience is that I am getting the chance to travel to places that I wouldn't otherwise visit. When I learned that I was going to be serving in Romania I was excited about a number of things. I immediately googled Romania to learn what I could. I was excited for the culture, my job of teaching English, learning the language, meeting the people, and of course, being able to travel to all of those western European places that we learn about in history class, from fellow travelers, and from movies like Eurotrip. Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, London, Madrid, Vienna, Rome..... There are so many, too many places to see. For that reason I never would have imagined re-visiting a place. I have only limited time and funds while I am here to take advantage of Romania's somewhat central location. Turkey had that kind of impression on me. Leaving Istanbul the first time I swore that I would return. I continued to chat with the friends that I made while I was there and before long we had our next visit scheduled.
The trip began with a totally different perspective of Istanbul. The first time we stayed in the center of Sultanahmit, the historical tourist district. This last time, still in Istanbul, we stayed in D's flat, a 30 min highway drive into the Asian side of the city. Istanbul is huge. By staying on the Asian side and commuting to the European side we got a chance to really see how big the city is. For those first couple of days our hostesses, Z and D, showed us around the city, taking us to parks, on ferries, a palace, some nice drives, and some great restaurants. Then came the road trip.

D had a couple of weeks of vacation and of course, she wanted to get to a beach to do some sea-side relaxing. We got started early in the morning and watched the sunrise while eating a toast(grilled cheese sandwich) from the second deck of a ferry crossing the sea of Maramura. Our first of 2 major stops was a beach outside of a city called Avylik located on the Aegean Sea. The two days spent near Avylik included a lot of relaxing on a beach covered with Turkish families, swimming/floating in the salty waters, a neat little sea-side tourist town with delicious fish, and an incredible sun setting over islands. We took the advice of a nice Turkish man who had been living in Orlando, FL for 6 years. "Go to Marmaris, there are more international tourists there and more young people there." Off to Marmaris we went.

The road to Marmaris was incredible. We stopped at a small family owned restaurant on the side of the highway. The little boys were the servers, the big brother the bar man, and the parents were the cooks. The food was so good and the atmosphere was nice, outside, very green, with ducks running around the tables. There was a section of the road that must have gone through some kind of national park. The landscape was uninhabitable with large rocks covering every piece of land available.

Marmaris is a large tourist town and a national park situated on the Mediterranean Sea with more English people in the summer months than Turks. We filled up our schedule with activities as soon as we were settled into our hotel, a stones throw from the sea-side. The activities included a boat cruise around the area, scuba, and a jeep cruise around the area. These activities not only allowed us the chance to see Marmaris and all that it had to offer, but it also allowed us to meet a lot of cool people, both tourists and locals. Probably my favorite part of our time there was when D took us to a small village at the very end of this little road. The village had only a couple of residences, a hotel, and a nice beach. As I swam in the water beyond the dock I watched the sun slowly descend behind the jagged mountain peaks that abruptly rise out of the sea.

The long drive back started in the late morning and ended in the late evening. At one point I questioned whether we would make it all the way back to Istanbul in a single day. We finally made it after a long wait in traffic leading to the ferry and a not so long ferry ride. The following day D took us to our bus station to catch a bus that had left 30 min before we arrived at the station. The internet site of the bus company told us that the bus leaves at 5 but the man that we woke up at the station told us 3. One more night in Istanbul and D was happy to host us that night. We went bowling and returned to her place to watch a movie. After the full day in the car we had a day of rest before another full day/night of taking a bus back to Romania.
I can't say whether Turkey, Round 2 was better or worse than Round 1. Both trips were spent with incredible people, in an incredible place, eating incredible food. Even though I can't decided which I liked more, they were two totally different experiences. Big group v. small group. Istanbul Europe v. Istanbul Asia, city v. beach, winter v. summer. Two trips to Turkey was enough to firmly establish itself in my memories and in my heart. I left Turkey this time thinking that I probably will not return during my Peace Corps service in Romania. There are too many other, close-by places to see. I'm certain that sometime in the more distant future I will find myself in Turkey yet again.