By Lupita Peimbert.
(Travel) – It was still dark when I arrived at one of Istanbul’s airports at 4am via Turkish Airlines. As a member of Couchsurfing, I had arranged my stay at Altay’s home in the Asian side of Istanbul. For those who may not be familiar with Couchsurfing, this is a community for travelers who in groups or Solo wish to stay at other people’s homes for free; one of the purposes is to get to know a place and its people as a local, the other is to save money by not having to pay for hotels and other housing accommodations. And as you are a traveler at times, at other times you also are a host, and on both occasions so far I had only had wonderful experiences. People had stayed at my quaint little apartment in Oakland’s Lake Merritt area several times.
Istanbul was a dream coming true. Previously known as Constantinople, the city is remarkable not only for its place in history or his famous mosques and temples but for the legends and tales about sultans, their palaces, and harems. I was excited but I was also nervous, hoping to be received and hosted in a friendly way. Truth is, Couchsurfing only requires hosts to provide a safe, clean place to stay and shower, nothing else. People, however, do it their own way, often offering a lot more than expected, as if you were an old friend or relative coming to town; romance and adventures happen sometimes; and so friendships.
I had never met Altay before, other than our online correspondence on Couchsurfing. Although we had gone through the usual process of verifying identity, checking compatibility and even looking at safety issues for both, hosts and travelers, there is always the element of liking or disliking someone, and you won’t know that until you meet in person. -I am putting aside the worries of some of my family members and friends who find it unfathomable to stay at the house of a total stranger in a city far away. LOL. Trying to be a gracious guest, I brought food goodies, hoping to make dinner A la Mexicana or A la Californiana one night during my stay.
Altay went to pick me up at the airport that early, even though I had not asked for, and that was my first pleasant surprise. The moment we said hello, I felt comfortable as if we had known each other for a long time. Somehow I knew it was going to be a very special experience. We were around the same age, both in our 40s. He was divorced, and he was handsome; a doctor living with his son; his ex-wife lived next door, and that worked very well for Atlas who then was 10 years old.
As soon as we got home I said I was ready to wander around Istanbul alone. I had my list of places to visit: Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar, at the very least. I also wanted to walk around certain neighborhoods as always and see life like a local. Altay wanted to take me out for breakfast and show me around, and so we went first to the Asian side of Istanbul where he lived, and we had conversations about our lives: careers, family, relationships.
Being the Solo traveler that I was, I asked how to get to the European side soon. Altay wanted to make sure I was safe, and I felt protected. He took me to the Ferry and there I was, excited to see the skyline, noting the mosques and other magnificent building across the Bosphorus. I did that every day. I took the Ferry, amazed at how intriguing and beautiful Istanbul was, spending the day here and there, eating out, and coming back early in the evening, knowing that someone would be waiting for me upon my arrival.
Altay and I also wanted to hang out and talk, and so one afternoon we went out to the Galata Tower and its surrounding district. We had Turkish coffee, ate dinner, had a few drinks, and walked around until late at night. We had an amazing time while learning about two very different cultures: Life in Turkey, and life in the United States, and about life in Mexico, the country I was born in.
When you are single and meet other single people, there is always the possibility that you may fall in love or that you may have a very nice, adventurous time together. It didn’t happen this time; instead, we felt this friendship, this camaraderie that made it so comfortable for both, and so peaceful, and so relieving to talk deeply about our lives. One night after coming back home we sat on his terrace, smoked, drank and talked until early next morning. We took turns speaking and learning different points of view and the different ways men and women see love, sex, and relationships.
Every day staying at Altay’s, I felt at home. His down-to-earth demeanor was comforting. Altay would find it amusing that I could not believe they didn’t eat eggs or bagels for breakfast, and I found the bathrooms in Istanbul kind of funny, the toilette up as in an altar and so I had to jump up there every time I needed it to use it, feeling like a queen while taking care of sacred needs. There are differences in every culture, no doubt, but at the end, we share common grounds.
Altay’s son Atlas was well-mannered, friendly, and very sweet. He was trying to practice his English with me, and I was happy about our interactions. As he was living in two houses, his mom’s and Altay’s, this boy made sure to be around and come to the airport the day I left, and say a heartfelt goodbye.
A few days before my trip to Istanbul, we were total strangers. A few days interacting, we had become friends. This was in 2011. Years later in early 2016 I saw on Facebook that Altay got married, and I felt very happy for them. We immediately communicated and he told me that he had mentioned about our friendship to his bride. We hope to meet again someday soon. Even if we never see each other again, we are friends at a distance, and we care.
Content and photos by Lupita Peimbert @Lupitanews. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.