I quite often preach that the best way to use Couchsurfing is to stay with a local of the city or town that one is currently visiting. Preferably someone that was born, raised and now lives in the city. For it is these people that are best experienced to teach you about the life there. From how it is to grow up as a child in the environment, to what it’s like to pay the bills in a working life, it’s these people and these people alone that can give you the full experience.
But lately I’ve been doubting whether I hold this opinion any longer. Perhaps there is still a certain element of truth in it, but as people such as Geoffrey before, a Ukrainian by the name of Oleksiy was about to enhance my doubts.
Oleksiy has a fascinating story. Studied as a software engineer in his home country of Ukraine before finding work in Germany. Job cuts forced an end to his German adventure and so Oleksiy decided to move onto somewhere else. Purely out of the fact that a flight to Portugal was one of the cheapest, he decided to investigate and found that he fell in love with the life in a town called Esmoriz.
Here, he develops his own flight simulator that is sold around the world in stores and to train pilots. This is his passion as he is actually an amateur pilot himself.
Esmoriz is about a half hour train ride south of Oporto and lies on the coast. The coastline here is quite beautiful and, with the sea facing the west, hosts some amazing sunsets in the evenings. It is a small town such that there exists a tight-knit community there, and one that Oleksiy has become a part of.
This is where my hard-line opinion on only staying with born and bred locals begins to diminish. Oleksiy has been here for approximately four years. Nothing to be sneezed at, but not a great deal of his life either. But he’s been adopted by the town of Esmoriz to be every part as Portuguese and local here as the neighbours. And he loves the culture and people here such that he adopts every part of them and their life and it appears as if he has always lived there.
The first night he takes me to a beachside bar where he greets the owner with a smile and a handshake. He introduces me and I too get the honour of a handshake. Yet I get the impression that just about anyone in this bar could get a handshake with the owner, such is his openness.
We order a couple of glasses of the famed local port wine and enjoy conversation whilst sipping it and watching the sun burn the sky a warm orange as it sets over the Atlantic Ocean below. I hadn’t my camera on me at this stage, but I feel that I wouldn’t have taken a photograph even if I had. Moments like those are reserved for memories and the mere lens of a camera can not reproduce the full experience that was enjoyed on that evening.
Little did I know, but the night was only about to begin. Next we walk back along the beach to a Brazilian restaurant where we are to have dinner. Again, Oleksiy is greeted with a kind smile and a knowing handshake. I’m beginning to realise that he’s well known around these parts. The meal turns out to be spectacular but what follows was even more enjoyable.
As we go to pay for the bill and leave, the owner of the bar insists that we try some of his homemade elixir. Who knows what it was. This was one of the few places I had experienced where the Portuguese didn’t speak English, and Oleksiy couldn’t really understand what it was either. So we enjoy a shot of it.
And then a second.
And then the conversation begins to start up. Soon, the bar has been vacated by all diners and there remains myself and Oleksiy with the bar staff, enjoying conversation and drinks. One of the waiters actually spent a lot of time in France, so I had the opportunity to communicate with him. Drink after drink, of all sorts – beers, scotch and the strange elixir – continued to flow, free of charge and soon I was behind the bar controlling the music and enjoying the drinks. Eventually, in the early hours of the morning we stumble on home through a thick mist that resembled something straight out of a Stephen King novel.
The next day was a struggle. All sorts of stages of hangover proceeded, but I was determined to venture Oporto. Oleksiy came with me to show me around. By now he had already taught me a surprising amount of history and culture of Portugal and his knowledge of Oporto continued to amaze. On this particular day it took some time to get going though. Here’s the thing about Oleksiy; he loves to talk.
Which in ninety-eight percent of the cases is a great thing. But on a train ride with a horrid hangover, became quickly frustrating. Never mind, the first thing we do in Oporto is to enjoy a Portuguese coffee and Oleksiy introduces me to a Portuguese treat called Pastel de Nata. A tart pastry, this thing hits the spot and, in conjunction with the great coffee, almost immediately cures any recurring symptoms of the hangover from the night before.
Now, Oleksiy. Let the discussions commence!
And of course they did. All through the day, Oleksiy provided a superb tour of the city, pointing out historical monuments and interesting facts. The thing is, he could have been bullshitting for all I know, but I couldn’t call him out on it because I had absolutely no idea on it myself. Instead I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.
During the day he introduced me to another Portuguese piece of cuisine, the Francesinha. Oh, I look at photos of it even days after and it gives me a sick feeling in my stomach. There’s actually not that much wrong with it, and it didn’t taste too bad, it was just that there was so much of it, and there were a few elements that didn’t really sit well with me. Perhaps the hangover from the night before wasn’t completely cured after all.
As we walk the streets of Esmoriz on the return home, Oleksiy pauses at many of the restaurants and cafes to look inside and wave. The corresponding person quickly notices and waves enthusiastically back, accompanied by a broad smile. Sometimes they even take the time to come out and chat.
Oleksiy has taken to Portugal and Esmoriz like a duck to water. It’s hard to believe he came from anywhere else.
And so in a few days Oleksiy had further convinced me that perhaps it’s not necessary to Couchsurf with a born and bred local in order to experience local culture and elements of the local life. Like Geoffrey before him, he knew a great deal about the town that he was from through researching out of interest.
Sure, he couldn’t tell me what the primary schooling system is like there and he probably wouldn’t know much about the visas that Portuguese citizens can or can’t get. But he could tell me about paying taxes in Portugal or the mentality of the people.
Perhaps I should be considering more often the non-locals that appear on Couchsurfing.