Friday, 1 February 2013
Day 271 – An awkward evening and a confusing wake-up call. (Serbia)
We have now used Couch Surfing quite a few times on this trip, and so far our experiences have been nothing but glowing. When choosing to meet with someone and dedicate our time in a city to being with a host whom we have never met before, it is of course a risk, but it has always been completely worth it and we have met some truly fantastic people through Couch Surfing. Every now and then though, statistically I guess you’re bound to stumble across a dud, and this is the tale of ours...
For anyone who isn’t familiar with the layout of Couch Surfing, you can either search for hosts or guests. So we enter our planned destinations in “travel plans” and then search for hosts in those places. However in the mean time sometimes people in those places search for guests and if they see our open request and they like the sound of us, they can send us a message offering us their hospitality. And for Belgrade this is what happened to us: we were sent a very exuberant request to stay with a fellow by the name of Alexander.
The plans were put in place and when it came time to meet him we made our way to his house and parked outside the door to his very centrally located apartment block. As planned we pressed the buzzer that coincided with his name and when there was no answer, sent him an sms to say we were waiting outside. We waited a while but the door wasn’t opened for us. He rang us on the mobile phone, but having already explained to him that phone calls weren’t an option because we were using an overseas sim card and it would cost a million dollars for both parties, we sent him another sms to explain this yet again. While we were milling around on his doorstep someone else entered the building, so we followed behind and with no idea which floor to go to began walking up the stairs. The numbers weren’t clear and his name wasn’t on any door so we tried sending him another sms. Again he called, and again we smsed. Warning bells started ringing, but we persisted.
Eventually we received an sms with directions as to which door to knock on and we found that the guy in the orange jacket who we’d exchanged niceties with as we passed each other on the stairs was our host’s friend, but hadn’t thought that maybe these four lost looking foreigners were the ones looking for the apartment he was on his way to. Anyway we were let in, offered a cup of tea and introduced to Alexander and his orange jacketed friend. On the couch sat a very familiar looking girl, who also seemed to recognise us, and after a few moments of that awkward “I’m sure I know you from somewhere but I have not a clue where, and I can see you recognise me too but also have no idea from where, and now we’ve exchanged this look for too long to just pretend that we don’t know each other” we realised that we had stayed at the same hostel in Tashkent, Uzbekistan many months ago. She had been looking to get a Turkmen visa and had asked us about our experience at the embassy in Tashkent. We’d given her all the advice we could, but really we had a very easy time and told her so. We’d then left Tashkent with our Turkmen visas and she’d gone off to the Turkmen Embassy, and as it turns out she’d had a much harder time. What a small world that after meeting at a hostel in Tashkent, we would then bump into each other at a Couch Surfer’s in Belgrade, Serbia! This was in fact the last night of her travels and she left shortly after we arrived to catch a train back to her home in Germany. Perhaps her speedy exit should have been then next warning sign, but again we dismissed it.
We found a secure car parking space – not an easy feat in Belgrade as it turns out as they’re all by the hour and mostly with a low clearance – and headed out to a spot that Alexander had lined up where we would get really good local food for cheap prices. We met up with another Couch Surfer, an Italian man who was staying in a hostel and was just meeting Alexander for the evening, and caught a bus right to the edge of town. After walking along the river front for a while we came to a casino entrance; the usual wide drive-way, flashy foyer and waistcoated butlers. This wasn’t exactly what we’d been expecting. We were asked for our passports which of course we didn’t have as we don’t usually carry them around town with us and hadn’t been instructed that we’d need them, but apparently we couldn’t enter without them. Alexander seemed to be going on without us though, so we wondered if we were just going to be waiting out the front while he did his own thing inside the casino. After a bit of to and fro we discovered that they would allow us into the restaurant, but not the casino. Well that’s fine – we were only there to eat anyway.
A shiny steel lift (a far cry from the wood venire Soviet affairs we’ve become accustomed to) took us to the trendy casino restaurant where we were seated in state of the art stools and handed minimalist menus. We really weren’t quite sure what was going on as this was far from the cheap meal of local food we had been promised and the Italian guy was clearly quite uncomfortable. We all ordered the cheapest item on the menu, skipped drinks and struggled to make conversation. Alexander wasn’t interested and the Italian guy was growing visibly more irate as the minutes passed. During out attempts at tense conversation he cut us off, and quite emotionally directed his frustration at Alexander, asking him why he would invite him to this place. “You’ve read my profile, yes? What made you think I would want to come here? I don’t mind the money, but I don’t want to be giving it to a big company of casinos. You sent me the request, not I to you, why did you do this if you were going to bring me here?” With no attempt at any sort of response or defence, Alexander ignored his guests and in tense silence we strenuously continued our unsatisfying and overpriced meals.
In an endeavour to save the evening, at least for ourselves if not for the Italian guy, we responded to Alexander’s question of what we should do after dinner with a suggestion of heading back into town and getting a drink somewhere. Maybe he was just having a bad day; maybe something was going on that we didn’t know about; all we could do was make an effort to rectify this disastrous evening. On the walk back to the bus, the bus ride itself and then the walk from the bus stop at the other end, we chatted with the Italian guy and discovered that actually we got on pretty well with him; it was just ever so unfortunate the way in which we had met.
Alexander stopped at a small fruit and veg market on the way home and when we asked him if he was buying something he responded with “I thought you guys said you wanted to buy some fruit”. “No, we said we wanted to get a drink somewhere and sit down for a chat.” Next thing we knew we were at his front door, and when we said “So, we’re not going to go to a bar or anything?” he directed us to a convenience store around the corner where he thought they might sell beer. Not exactly the point of the exercise. He went straight upstairs while we bade farewell to our new Italian friend and had a quick discussion as to whether to stay with this guy or just move to a hostel in the morning. As we knew he had no plans the following day we decided not to make any decisions right then, but sleep on it and see what happened in the morning. Maybe we were completely over-reacting, maybe in the morning it would be all fine. When we knocked on his door five minutes after he left us outside though, and he opened the door and retreated suddenly without even so much as a moment of eye-contact, we realised we would probably be leaving the following morning.
As it happened though this wasn’t our decision to make. At about 7am he began ringing us again on the phone that he knows we can’t receive calls on. Again we sent an sms asking how we could help him, confused because we knew there was no reason for him not to be in the adjoining bedroom. Ten minutes after the phone calls a knock came on the door and when we called out “come in” expecting Alexander, we were shocked to find someone we had never met before.
He seemed to be asking us to leave, but quite inconclusively, and unable to get a clear picture of what exactly was going on, it didn’t get easier when he just left the room. After another ten minutes or so we realised he wasn’t coming back so I decided to go and try and find out what the story was. So I knocked on the door that I supposed to be this bloke’s room and asked what was going on. Apparently Alexander had told this guy (his roommate who we didn’t know existed) that he was going on a business trip (which we knew didn’t exist as he has no business and specifically had no plans that day) and that we should leave. He tried to call Alexander while I was standing there, but of course now he wouldn’t answer his phone. The most frustrating thing being that we were fairly certain he was just in his bedroom next door.
In the end I gathered that Alexander regularly invites Couch Surfers to stay in the tiny flat (two small bedrooms, a kitchenette in the hallway, a bathroom/laundry and a living room big enough literally for four people to lie on the floor side by side) that they share with no regard whatsoever for his poor roommate. On top of this it is apparently quite a common occurrence for Alexander to demand his Couch Surfers vacate earlier than planned, using his housemate as the middle man. So our new friend, whilst bonding over our bafflement of Alexander’s ways, had to wait for us to pack up all of our bedding and belongings several hours earlier than we had planned to wake up, before he could get on with his own plans for the day.
Needless to say we found ourselves a hostel that morning, which happened to be where our Italian friend was also staying. Usually Couch Surfing brings opportunities to explore the city and meet people that you’d never otherwise be able to, but in this case the hostel provided us with all of that and Couch Surfing provided us with nothing more than an awkward evening, a confusing wake-up call and our first negative Couch Surfing story.