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Why is Couchsurfing amazing?

Guess what?

It’s been more than a month since we left home. And the amount of money we have spent on accommodation is zero! Yes, zero. And what we have experienced and learnt about the local people, culture, cuisine and traditions is immense!

Can you imagine a way in which we can live with locals in their homes? Sleep in their place, exchange our culture, experience their cuisine, give them a taste of our own cuisine and live with them like their friends?

Well, that’s exactly what Couchsurfing offers us!

The world is smaller than you think!
The world is smaller than you think!

It’s a great project and we are so indebted to it.

So, what is this couchsurfing(CS) all about??

The couch surfing concept involves members signing up on what is essentially a hospitality exchange site ( https://www.couchsurfing.org ) and by process of interview and elimination, finding free accommodation on a stranger’s couch or spare room while traveling.

Our first couch in Safura’s house in Tehran, Iran 🙂 These couches are extensible and can be turned into comfortable beds while sleeping! 🙂

Couchsurfing.com – the social website that makes connecting travelers with places to crash easier — now has more than three million members in 246 countries around the world!

It’s a boon for budget travelers like us! It also allows us to get an up close and personal look at different cultures, families, and households, seeing how they really live, far from the madding crowd of high tourist traffic and tours.

Want to know how it works? The website gives you a detailed picture of the whole concept. You can find it here – https://www.couchsurfing.org/n/how-it-works

We have met great people so far through Couchsurfing and we are sure we will continue doing so! We have made some friends for life and are sure of meeting them again, maybe in India, at our home or maybe somewhere else in the world. For we have come to realize that the whole world is one single family.

Our amazing hosts in Iran - Safura (our first host in Tehran), Ali Salamat & Ali Salimian(Isfahan) and Elyar (Shiraz)
Our amazing hosts in Iran – Safura (our first host in Tehran), Ali Salamat & Ali Salimian(Isfahan) and Elyar (Shiraz)

 

Our hosts in Turkey :) Fatin & Reme(Van), Sirin(Batman), Hasan(Mardin)
Our hosts in Turkey 🙂 Fatin & Reme(Van), Sirin(Batman), Hasan(Mardin)

 

Hamdi - Our best friend in Istanbul :)
Hamdi – Our best friend in Istanbul 🙂

 

Our hosts in Eastern Europe(so far) - Kostadin and his grandma(Plovdiv, Bulgaria), Slavi, Maria, Petya and Yanev(Sofia, Bulgaria), Nina & Mihai(Brasov, Romania), Betty and Andras(Budapest, Hungary)
Our hosts in Eastern Europe so far (from L to R) – Kostadin and his grandma(Plovdiv, Bulgaria), Slavi, Maria, Petya and Yanev(Sofia, Bulgaria), Betty and Andras(Budapest, Hungary) and Nina & Mihai(Brasov, Romania)

Not only did we stay with the locals but we also met their friends and family and had lots of great conversations and fun! For instance, luckily for us it was the New Year (Nowruz) time in Iran and people were free and in a good spirit 🙂 We went on picnics (Sizdahbedar) in Iran with some families and had really great times.

We had a great time with our host - Mohsen Parsa and his big family in Ahvaz, Iran.
We had a great time with our host – Mohsen Parsa and his big family in Ahvaz, Iran.

We also went to events organised by the local couchsurfers.  For instance, the day we arrived in Isfahan, our host Ali took us to a hike and breakfast event in Mount Sofeh where we got to meet lot of CSers. We later met them for a coffee and even went on a bike ride with one of them.

We went to a CS hike and breakfast meet up the Mount Sofeh in Isfahan, Iran
We went to a CS hike and breakfast meet up the Mount Sofeh in Isfahan, Iran

We also met an interesting person by name Pedram in Tehran through CS. He is very passionate about history and heritage of Iran and took us on a walking tour to some very interesting places. We had a great time with him and would recommend him to everybody who visits Tehran!

Walking tour with Pedram in the Golestan Palace, Tehran, Iran. By the way that's the dressing style of the Qajar dynasty ;)
Walking tour with Pedram in the Golestan Palace, Tehran, Iran. By the way, that’s the dressing style of the Qajar dynasty 😉

Sometimes the host maybe having several guests at the same time. It’s again a nice opportunity to meet other travelers from far and wide and exchange travel stories with each other! The same happened in Plovdiv, Bulgaria in our host Kostadin’s home. We met this very friendly Taiwanese-Japanese couple and a cyclist Evan from Serbia!

We met so many travelers in our host's places - Azar, Mohsen and Ali (Shiraz), Herman, Povalina and Peter (Uchisar, Kapadokya), Shiling, Susumu and Evan(Plovdiv)
We met so many travelers in our host’s places – Azar, Mohsen and Ali (Shiraz), Herman, Povalina and Peter (Uchisar, Kapadokya), Shiling, Susumu and Evan(Plovdiv)

We have had a first hand experience of the local cuisine at all places. Many a times our hosts have cooked delicious meals for us. We in turn have cooked Indian food for many of our hosts 🙂 Palak dal, lemon rice, baingan ka bartha, mushroom masala, wheat flour dosa and tomato chutney are pretty famous outside of India now you see 😉

Our hosts have thoroughly enjoyed the Indian cuisine :)
Our hosts have thoroughly enjoyed the Indian cuisine 🙂

We also had some very interesting experiences with some hosts!

Our host, Sefik, took us to his school where he teaches religious ethics to children. We had a fun time with the kids :)
Our host, Sefik, took us to his school where he teaches religious ethics to children. We had a fun time with the kids 🙂
Sefik also took us to the most famous radio station in Batman where we were live for an hour talking about India!
Sefik also took us to the most famous radio station in Batman where we were live for an hour talking about India!

Who knows? Without those insider tips on what to see and what not to do, and that really money-saving advice on sights and activities, we would have gotten lost in the horde of tourists.

And the feeling of coming back to a home, and not a hotel/hostel after a weary day of traveling is something money can’t buy!

Have you ever tried Couchsurfing while traveling?  What do you think of the idea? If you haven’t tried we sincerely recommend you to go for it!

15 things we learnt from our one month of travel

So it’s been one month into our backpacking trip. We are loving it so far!

We think traveling is great. It has expanded our minds with new experiences. We have learnt a few lessons on the road and would love to share them with you.

  1. Strangers are nice and helpful. If anyone tells you otherwise, ignore them.

  2. Feeling comfortable about  meeting and speaking to new people is an essential skill.

    A group of cheerful teachers we bumped into in Mardin, Turkey.
    A group of cheerful teachers we bumped into in Mardin, Turkey.
  3. Saying bye to your newly made awesome friends is not easy. We never thought it can be that difficult to part ways with someone you have only met for a couple of hours!

  4. You will slowly learn to deal with the fear of unfamiliar – new place, people, food and language. None of these will bother you after some time.

    Sign board in Bulgaria :)
    Sign board in Bulgaria. Decoding Cyrillic alphabet can be fun! 🙂
  5. Don’t hesitate to ask questions and for help.  Ask the locals, it is their turf. This can save you a lot of time and effort.

  6. Learn to say ‘no’. That $50 meal in an expensive restaurant is not going to enrich your experience any better than a delicious local snack in the same area. (of course, there are exceptions)

  7. Learning some words/phrases in the local language always helps. Showing that you have taken that extra effort to learn their language will let the other person go that extra mile for you.

  8. Swiss knife is amazing. Just buy it! Has helped us in a variety of situations from cutting fruits to removing glass splinters stuck in our hand.

  9. Google translate offline version can really save your day! Imagine booking last minute tickets in a remote place in Iran and having to deal with somebody who knows only Farsi! Google can handle it for you, offline.

    There you go!
    There you go!
  10. It is really not that difficult to live out of a 11 kg  bag.

  11. You don’t have to be rich to travel. We have spent ZERO money on our accommodation until now!

  12. You can be a vegetarian and still have a nice time 🙂 You need to know where to eat and what to eat. Refer to #5.

    Our favourite snack in Turkey - Çiğ Köfte
    Our favourite snack in Turkey – Çiğ Köfte
  13. Indians are expected to know how to dance! 

  14. Walking for 5-6 kms everyday  with a big bag on you is not so tough.

  15. Hitch-hiking can be fun and is good for your wallet. Deciding to do it is a door to amazing experiences.

    We hitch-hiked to Persepolis with this friendly Iranian family :)
    We hitch-hiked to Persepolis with this friendly Iranian family 🙂

[100 Strangers Project] Strangers #6, #7 and #8

Strangers #6 & #7

The pretty damsels by the lake

After the mind-blowing bike ride from Leh to Pangong we checked into a cozy homestay by the lake, refreshed ourselves and went for a stroll along the lake. It’s definitely one of the most beautiful places in India. I’ve never seen a more peaceful and heavenly lake!
I left VJ with some of our new found friends and started walking by the lake all by myself, enjoying the peace and solitude. I was suddenly brought back from the trance by a pleasant voice asking me if I could take a picture of her by the lake. The photographer in me woke up with a startle! And for the next couple of minutes I took some of her portrait shots with the beautiful backdrop!
We chatted for a while, most of the time talking about the pristine beauty of the place! I found her to be a cheerful and happy person who wants to live her life to the fullest. A budding fashion designer, she is a free-spirited person.

Mallika from Chandigarh
Mallika from Chandigarh

Meet Mallika from Chandigarh whom I met while walking along Pangong.

The blissful walk along the lake continued after bidding Mallika a goodbye. I saw three kids immersed in a stone skipping game. I was reminded of 3 idiots 😉
Suddenly my attention was caught by a young lady who was sitting by the lake on a rock with a diary in her hand on which she was occasionally writing something. She looked like a poetess from the modern period and had a calm and serene expression on her face. I couldn’t resist talking to her though I didn’t want to disturb her work. She responded with a sweet smile. It turned out that she was indeed writing a poem about the surreal place in front of us! Writing was her hobby and it was mostly for her own self. When I told her about the 100 strangers project she got excited and readily agreed to be one of my strangers!

Saachi from Chandigarh
Saachi from Chandigarh

Meet Saachi Dhillon, a marketer by profession and a budding writer from Chandigarh.

Stranger #8

The lady who made the most delicious thukpa

The last pit-stop for the day arrived and we stumbled out of our cab. It was at an altitude of whopping 4500 metres(~15,280 feet)! We had arrived at Pang, the world’s highest transit camp.
At such an altitude and very low oxygen levels, walking for even a few metres can be a herculean task! Such is altitude sickness!
Needless to say, our bodies were tired and minds numb with mountain sickness but we were also constantly mesmerised by the surreal landscape. Being suckers for a good cup of chai (tea) we decided to enter a small, dingy hotel by the road. It was named after its owner. After having an amazing cup of chai and relaxing on the beds provided we decided to order a thukpa. It’s a Tibetan noodle soup, inspired from China. After about ten minutes, the owner of the hotel herself came out with a bowl of steaming hot thukpa in her hands. And it was one of the most delicious soups we have had till now! The taste still lingers in our mouths 🙂
The lady seemed to be satisfied looking at us enjoying her simple dish. We thanked her immensely for rejuvenating our taste buds!
After a short conversation with her, I realised what a hard-working lady she was! She was originally from a village near Leh called Choglamsar which is around 100 kms from Pang. She travels to Pang during the summers to set up her hotel for the travellers. With an ever-smiling face she serves the tired and wasted travellers! She has a son who studies in Delhi and is proud of him. She says life in the mountains is not easy. Still, people have found a way to live in these harsh surroundings.

Sonam Pangri from Pang
Sonam Pangri from Pang

Meet Sonam Pangri who runs a small and cozy hotel in Pang.

And this is VJ enjoying the thukpa!

VJ enjoying thukpa - definitely not a stranger! ;)
VJ enjoying thukpa – definitely not a stranger! 😉

Find more posts on 100 strangers project here.

[100 strangers project] Strangers #4 and #5

Stranger #4

The ever-smiling nurse from Italy

I was entering our home-stay after a blissful walk along the Pangong lake when a loud and cheerful voice greeted me saying she knew who I was and that she was happy to meet me! I was taken aback. I’d neither seen this smiling stranger before, nor was I a world-famous personality! Perplexed as I was, I greeted her back and tried not to sound thoroughly surprised and asked her how she knew me. For a while she kept me waiting and then she revealed that it was VJ who had met her earlier and told her about me! She knew that I was a doctor. And for the next couple of hours we chatted endlessly. She told me of the health-care system back at her place in Italy and that she was a nurse in a psychiatric care unit. It’s indeed a challenging job!
She was traveling across India with her husband.
What surprised me even more was the facts she revealed about her husband. He was an avid cyclist and had cycled across north India extensively. He was actually cycling from Manali to Leh right then and was expected to join her soon!
The following morning we bid adieu to her and the beautiful Pangong!

4
Franca from Italy.

Meet Franca, the cheerful and bold nurse from Italy.

Stranger #5

The horseman from Beas nala

It was our first pit stop en route Manali to Leh. We got out of our cab and were mesmerised by the beautiful landscape around us. Beas (Read as Byas) nala is the place before Rohtang pass where the river Beas flows in the form of a stream and forms a gorge. We were busy having a yummy bread omlette by the river when this man approached us with a hesitant but innocent smile and a horse bridle in his hand. He asked us if we wanted a horse ride around the place. I’m generally not an animal friendly person and wasn’t keen on the ride. He lingered around us for sometime and I started making a conversation with him.
He was born and raised in the same place(Beas nala) and has never stepped out of it all his life! I was astonished to realize that some people end up never leaving their home all their life and grow up to being more and more comfortable and losing the sense of exploration. But again it’s the circumstances which dictate these things most often. And of course, people are different. During the conversation I realised that he was a contented and simple man who earns his living by offering joyful horse-rides to tourists in Beas nala.

5_2
Life here is simple and quiet….but very tough!
5_1
Kabal Ram

Meet Kabal Ram whom we met during that epic journey of Manali-Leh!

Find more posts on 100 strangers project here.

[100 strangers project] Strangers #2 and #3

Stranger #2

The hard-working farmer

It is truly said that once in your life you need a lawyer, a doctor, a policeman or a priest but everyday, three times a day, you need a farmer.

VJ was speeding up, trying to reach home to catch some guests. We were scurrying through the countryside wishing we had more time to soak up the beauty of nature. We came to a stretch of road on either sides of which were lush green farms. We just couldn’t resist anymore! All of us started pleading VJ to stop and he eventually gave up. We finally got out of the car and began to walk into the green paddy fields. I remembered reading somewhere that green, which is nature’s colour, is restful, soothing, cheerful, and health-giving. And a simple walk in and around the farm made us realize the true meaning of it.

I noticed some women working in the field, picking the paddy stalks and giggling to themselves looking at us city-dwellers make such a big deal of their daily work place! The chatter-box that I am, I slowly began talking to one of the women. She was thrilled at this impromptu interview! Being made to work in the fields right from her childhood she has never known any other life. She has married off her daughters to farmers as well and is now actually helping the daughter in her farm.

I was full of admiration for her and all other farmers who are the real heroes in our society. Being a farmer is not an easy task. At the end of the day what is left is a tired and painful body but a high spirit that keeps them going. After all, our food on the table comes from them!

2_kanakamma

Meet Kanakamma from Noolukunta village near Chittoor, Andhra Pradesh. A cheerful and talkative farmer I met during my visit to VJ’s hometown.

Stranger #3
The host with never say die spirit

It was one hell of a journey from Leh to Pangong! We thanked our lucky stars to have made it in one piece! All credit goes to VJ whose confidence made us embark on that epic bike ride from Leh to Pangong. We reached the long, narrow, enchanted lake (Tibetan meaning for Pangong Tso) by early evening. We were totally exhausted, shivering with cold and were badly in need of a place to rest our weary heads. A quick search of the available options made us choose a small dingy home-stay run by a Ladakhi woman right in front of the lake.

She looked old and weary but had a spark of determination in her eyes. It is well-known that only the toughest survive in the harsh & testing climate of Ladakh. She was a living example of this fact. Single-handedly she arranged for our bed and blankets, made piping hot chai and egg maggi which we devoured in no time.

Dinner consisted of freshly made rotis, rice and black dal which we all ate in her tiny kitchen trying to understand her routine from whatever little Hindi she knew. After all the hospitality and warmth all that she charged us was Rs. 200 per person including food! It was impossible not to admire her sweet and simple nature and her never say die attitude.

Our friendly Ladakhi host Sonam with our co-traveller Yash.
Our friendly Ladakhi host Sonam with our co-traveller Yash.

Meet Sonam from Spangmik village near Pangong Tso who shared her simple abode with us and made our trip more memorable.

Find more posts on 100 strangers project on my blog here.

100 Strangers Project

I was introduced to this project a few months ago by Neelima’s blog on the same topic. Since then I’ve been wanting to start my own and so here I am.

Being bitten by photography bug recently, I’ve been experimenting with various genres of this art and I’ve come to realise that I really enjoy capturing portraits. I also like meeting new people. Most of my bus/train journeys are never a bore as I try and strike a conversation with the fellow passengers soon enough. I must say I’ve met very interesting people.

So, What is this 100 Strangers Project?

The project is a challenge to take hundred photographs of at least hundred people you don’t know. Approach a person or group of people and ask for permission to take a photo of them. And more importantly, get to know your subjects. Who are they? What is their life like? Tell their story.

Taking portraits of hundred people may seem to be easy as there are thousands of strangers on the street. However, it’s not just about the photos. Every portrait has to have a short story with it. Be it about the stranger or the whole encounter. A story has to be there. So it’s not that easy, eh?

I think it’s going to be fun! It might even expand my everyday living experience. Moreover, who knows I might even make a couple of new friends in the process!

So, here I start a series on my encounters with 100 strangers!

Stranger #1: The lady from the house of the tiger god!

Stranger 1

The cute little fingers were trying to grab my phone. I started changing wallpapers on it and she was all smiles to watch the colours change with the swipe of a finger. Sometimes it’s just that one pure innocent smile that takes your heart away! After playing with me for a while her sleepy eyelids started drooping and she drifted into a peaceful sleep.

“Where are you travelling to?”, the most common question asked during bus journeys was exchanged. Hulidevaramane was her reply and Sigandur was mine.

She had a sweet smile on her face throughout. During the course of conversation that followed, she told me a lot about her life. Originally from a town, she now stays in a remote village which doesn’t even have direct access to a bus. The last five kilometres to the village has to be on foot. Helping her husband with farming, she also milks the cows everyday to extract around thirty litres of milk!

I was filled with respect for her and other similar women in our rural communities who have great physical endurance and stamina which most of us – urban dwellers don’t seem to possess.

Meet Ranjitha and her baby Rakshitha from Hulidevaramane, a remote village in Sagar taluk of Shimoga district. I met her on my way to a lovely village called Sigandur which is surrounded by the Sharavathi backwaters.

As I chatted with her I suddenly felt that she has to be the first stranger of my project! I didn’t have my DSLR but somehow I wanted her to be my first stranger. I immediately took her permission to take a picture of both of them which she readily gave. But since it was a moving bus and I only had a mobile phone, the photo quality is not that great. Nevertheless, I’m just so happy to kick start my project!

[Update] Find more posts on 100 strangers project here.