December 21, 2008

Deluged by Devin Difficulties: Part II
Devin, Bulgaria

Previously: Part One

Canceled Christmas in Plovdiv

Stella, the CouchSurfing city ambassador for Plovdiv, is actually a really neat half-Lebanese half-Bulgarian girl working as an on-site architect for building construction. She's the one that was holding the Christmas party that brought us down to Plovdiv ten days ago (with our hosts from Kazanlăk). She loves Aidric, has got herself a gorgeous flat, great personality, and an even better conversational rapport with us.

During our time in Plovdiv we returned once more to spend an evening out at her place—happily helping to finish off the leftovers from the party. It was at this juncture that she suggested the idea of spending Christmas with her (something that we'd actually started thinking ourselves before she mentioned it).

The idea of spending Christmas at her place only helped make the decision to scrap travel to Greece all that easier.

I sent an e-mail off to her the night before we left Plovdiv (the 14th), telling her that we'd been looking for a special someone or place to share Aidric's first Christmas with, and that we were both in agreement that we'd very much enjoy that person to be her.

Stella got back to us the next day, but with an answer of 'maybe', because she was now thinking about jumping out of town, depending on her work schedule (promising to let us know as soon as she got it worked out one way or the other).

Tatiana finally wrote her a note on the 18th asking what was up, to which Stella replied on the 19th that she was not going to be able to host us, as she was indeed leaving town. Stella added, "I am really sorry for keeping you waiting, but I was really hesitating how to spend my vacation."


Frantically Searching for Hosts

Now, I should add to the story that we've been up against a bit of a wall here. Our silent host has been scheduled to leave town on the morning of the 22nd (tomorrow), meaning we really needed to hammer out a place to live for Christmas week ASAP.

Even though retreating all the way back to Kazanlăk was probably an option, I really wanted to avoid such things and go ahead and get us on into Istanbul. One last big push and we'd be in a single city for a good three weeks before Tatiana and Aidric left my side for the Americas.

Knowing full well from past CouchSurfing experience that I needed a minimum of three days to organize a new host, and that we needed something settled by the 21st, I started contacting potential new hosts back on the 18th. (But such things were more difficult than they should've been, as the power was out for most of the day on both the 18th and 19th, limiting research time).

Istanbul's got hundreds upon hundreds of people with CS profiles to sift though, and as the days got closer to our own personal D-Day (today, the 21st), the number of hosts we started contacting increased desperately: from less than a dozen or so on the 18th, to a total nearing 50 by the time the 20th had come to an end.

CouchSurfing's couch request input form

It was in the midst of all this that I discovered an awesome feature of CouchSurfing that I hadn't ever really utilized. Available to people who've donated to the site (or have been 'vouched' for), there's an option for the system to remember the information you've filled out in the Couch Request submission form.

Now, while this may not seem like a big deal, I quickly discovered some awesome underlying functionality: when it populates the fields for a subsequent request on a different profile, it will automatically replace the name of the person and the city with the current profile you're writing to. This is terribly useful for people like me who try to personalize their inquiries to people by using their city and first name a few times within the message.

Speaking of the 'Request a Couch' feature, this was also the first time I'd ever really used it. In CS, you've got the option of sending a 'note' to someone (just a little e-mail), or using the more formal method for requesting a couch. I was initially turned off by the fields you had to fill in and the formal overtones of its use, but soon discovered that those fields were in fact all optional, and that the system wouldn't include the headers of the omitted fields in the e-mails sent.

Couch requests replied to

Using the official couch request function also impacts this little percentage at the top of people's profile pages, which some hosts take very seriously. When you don't reply to a person who makes an inquiry with the request feature it takes away from your percentage. I've found that I'm getting significantly better response rates from people, but seemingly only from those people who would've said 'no' by never responding to my message. Well, a 'no' is better than a message in limbo.

Frantically Searching for Hosts: Neşe's Invitation

At one point I finally delved into the CouchSurfing threaded message forum and placed a request for help in the 'Istanbul Urgent Couch Request' group. Some popular cities have such groups, though I never thought I'd be in a position to send a blind request out for a couch before.

With no positive replies by this evening, things were looking pretty grim (despite the joy of a beautiful snowfall outside). Tatiana was feeling queasy from the stress.

Then, at about 10:30 tonight, I hear a cry of happiness erupt from the bedroom. We'd gotten a positive response:

I think I can host you. I am Neşe. I live in Üsküdar, on the Asian side of Istanbul.

I swear, it looked like Tatiana was going to go do a barefooted cartwheel in the snow she was so happy.


We checked out Neşe's profile, which didn't turn up in our own searches because her availability was set to 'traveling at the moment'.

She was in her late-30's, appeared to be rather religious (always wore a headscarf or hat in all her photos), didn't talk much about her living space for surfers, and seemed to have nice references from her guests.

We had not contacted Neşe. She was responding to my post on the urgent couch request group, to which she subscribes.

Tatiana quickly wrote back to her, and managed to get her on MSN Messenger so that we could chat about our arrival tomorrow.

Over the course of the conversation we got her mobile number and established a meeting place and time. She kept stressing how she normally hosts women only, but had recently started letting couples there. She also said that she wouldn't tolerate a man walking around the apartment half naked (topless?), and that we could stay there for a maximum of two nights.

Phew! OK! Fine! Whatever! We'll take it! Thank you!

…anything to keep me from having to hunt down a hostel charging holiday prices, with a baby in tow, in the rain, after a dozen hours of travel.


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