Stories from Bakuvians who've embraced the risky practice of letting foreigners stay in their homes
To travel abroad without spending money on a hotel, to live with someone who has the same interests as you and who you’re meeting for the first time in your life – that’s couchsurfing, a new trend in tourism.
The couchsurfing network has been around since as early as 2003. However, in our region couchsurfing only became popular around five years ago.
The main idea is that you offer up your apartment to users who are registered on the couchsurfing network, indicating what is and isn’t allowed (for example, you don’t take in guests with children, animals or those who smoke). You write on which days you can accommodate guests, or just indicate that you do not take in any guests for the time being. Likewise, when travelling abroad, you can search for a couchsurfer in advance, and just like that find accommodation that will be absolutely free of charge.
It’s particularly popular in Baku, since there are almost no cheap hotels and hostels here. It is also quite common because individual tourism is becoming more and more ‘fashionable’ worldwide. It is starting to replace the ‘conveyor’ buses and tourists who drive around in their cars on landmark routes.
Couchsurfing.com especially focuses on member safety. There is a special system for verifying one’s identity, address and the reliability of members, so that hosting guests, and searching for free accommodation, doesn’t become a dangerous adventure.
Why do people choose couchsurfing? It’s clear why those travelling abroad do it, but what about those who provide accommodation?
“I thought it would be a good opportunity to practice my English language skills and just meet people from remote countries that I may never be able to visit myself,” says Aysel.
In addition, Baku couchsurfers arrange parties. In the past they were held every week, but now they have become rarer.
“A lot of interesting things happen when young people from different countries come with the intention of having a good time,” says Aysel. “For example, one time I met a group of Italian couchsurfers at a party. Then, we became friends and spent our free time together for almost the whole summer: we went to the seaside, hung out at each other’s houses, organized themed parties. Someone would invite everyone for pizza, or, when someone was going to leave, everyone would come to say farewell to him/her. Some arrived in Baku for an internship and lived here for a few months, others came here as tourists for a week; and thanks to couchsurfing, we all found each other and were able to make connections with each other.”
“A couchsurfer has to part with traditional beliefs about foreigners and often end up surprised. I remember meeting a Dutchman once who had travelled in 40 countries, but when asked about his favorite music, he answered DDT and Leningrad [Russian cult rock bands -ed],” says Aysel.
The clichés about us are also being broken.
“You can hear almost the same remarks from each and every visitor: they point to the inconsistency of our country’s stereotypes with the real picture; they were surprised at how poorly some layers of the population live, especially given the means and resources available in the country. What all of them liked was our cuisine and the abundance of fruit. And also the close distances between cities and the possibility to go to the countryside or to a nearby town, spending a minimum amount of time and money.”
“I like having guests, I like to learn about new people, I like communication,” says Alexandra. “I have a rather large, 4-bedroom apartment and all the rooms there are occupied by my family members. Once, a female guest shared my bedroom. There is a vacant bedroom here from time to time and one of my acquaintances, who was left without a place to stay during the night, would come here every once in a while. I have gotten used to it.”
Couchsurfing is always interesting. “I recall one of my guests, a guy from St Petersburg, who had a lot of mistrust for people and he was unwilling to leave his personal stuff at a table, for example in a café. He was afraid it might be stolen. Maybe I was just always lucky, but it seems to me that things are not stolen from café tables here.
“He took his backpack along with him to the WC, and that was really funny, whereas I put my cell phone on the table and left it unattended. Then we returned to the table, and I showed him my phone, lying in the same place where I’d left it.
“What the guy from St Petersburg liked least of all was the local driving style. As for everything else, he was delighted with everything – the prices and/or the quality of some stuff like cheap T-shirts or shoelaces bought in the underpass, some sneakers from the same underpass or an inexpensive sports bag to pack all unnecessary things in.
“We certainly had an unbelievable tour. Although I failed to cram in everything I planned, it seems to me that he is still dreaming about the food I managed to stuff him with, especially the dairy products and definitely the sweets, shekerbura and baklava. He was excited about the cheap communication, internet and transport.
“It was also very touching when at one point, as we were strolling around the Shelale park area at night, we passed by some guys who were arguing loudly with each other, and he went between me and those guys. I’d always thought that such attentiveness was not characteristic of cold-hearted foreigners, no matter where they are from.”
A couchsurfer may even get stressed out by the difference in communication styles. “I was very embarrassed by the hugs and kisses I received every time we met and parted,” says Alexandra. “For him it was just a usual display of affection upon meeting a friend, whereas for me it was: ‘Oh my god, this is embarrasing’.”
His main motive was to minimize the costs of traveling. Meanwhile, Murad started taking in visitors himself.
“My first guests were two men from Germany and a woman from Austria. They were all traveling around on their bikes. We met on the main boulevard, and we had to get to my house somehow. So I asked my brother to take me by car and the three of them followed us on their bikes. It was so interesting to see the surprised faces of other drivers, police officers and ordinary pedestrians. When we got into the yard, they immediately intrigued the local children.”
In Murad’s case, the advantages that the tourists highlighted during their visit to Azerbaijan were as follows: the sea, the fruit, the people and the music. The disadvantages: the prices, the police, road traffic and formal style of clothing.
Jamil has hosted about 100 couchsurfers over the course of six years. As is often the case, tourists visit the places where the locals themselves never go:
“It was interesting to meet different people, to show them around my native city and explore it again myself. With my couchsurfing companions I went for the first time to the mud volcanoes and visited Lahij and Khinaliq. From American journalists I learned about the tank graveyard and Lenin’s bust located near Sangachal village. There were also travelers from England, Australia, and a young lady from Lithuania,” he says. “We left the car at a nearby petrol station and went into an industrial zone through a hole in the fence. And then the guy from the USA was trying to explain to the guards in broken Russian that we were looking for Lenin’s head. We did not see Lenin there as he was taken to a warehouse. But he was there. As for the tank graveyard, after having risked being bitten by dogs, we found it eventually.
“The guests liked the emotions, openness and hospitality of the people, as well as the fresh fruit and vegetables just a stone’s throw from my home.
“What they didn’t like was the lack of inexpensive hostels and the problems with getting visas. Also, that people ‘stare’ at them. There was one time when my couchsurfer was taken to the national security ministry because he had walked around the area with his camera and had taken a photo of their building. He told them what he was doing and even gave them my phone number.”