In spite of hours spent researching, preparing, and sending inquiries, I was unable to secure a single place to stay in Georgia via Couchsurfing. Not in Tbilisi, not in Gori, not anywhere else. It was somewhat disappointing, especially after ‘surfing’ a lot on my Africa trip and hosting more than 50 people in Bangkok myself. With couchsurfing out of the picture, I decided to change strategies (and websites) and give Airbnb a try.
Airbnb allows you to book a shared room, a private room or an entire apartment from other private individuals. Like Couchsurfing it features a mutual feedback system and if you choose a shared or private room, you can also stay with local families to see and experience how they live. Unlike Couchsurfing, it isn’t free and it’s not so much a cultural as a commercial exchange.
My first Airbnb host in Georgia was a very welcoming, older couple. I assume their US-based, adult son Joe set up an account for them. Joe was handling e-mails and communications with guests – including a Skype conference call while I was there to answer any questions I might have.
His mother speaks basic English, is accustomed to dealing with foreign guests and runs a physiotherapy practice out of their downtown apartment. His dad… well, I’m not sure what his dad does. He did however invite me to a game of ‘Schachmatt’. In German that literally means ‘check mate’. I assumed that was the Georgian term for the game and not him trash talking. I happily took him up on the offer and spent an evening facing him across the board.
Staying with them was a bit like staying with my parents. I got pampered with an abundance of well-made, delicious food at any time of the day, from salads and curries to sweets and cake. Munching away at a plate of deliciously ripe peaches I also watched the world cup finals with them and their only other guest, a lady from Russia. Their hosting expertise unfortunately didn’t extend to football and so I was the only person cheering Germany in that match.
Having such a welcoming place as my first stop in Georgia did a lot to lessen my travel anxiety and cushion the initial ‘culture shock’. The price tag of ~28 USD a night seemed to be good value for money. It’s the kind of listing that seems like a safe recommendation for pretty much everyone. Probably explains why they already have more than 70 positive feedbacks on Airbnb.
My second host was Tamaz, a 42 year old, somewhat-fallen-from-grace, political journalist who’s currently ‘between jobs’ and lives with his parents. Listing an unused room (which is partially visible in the first picture of this article) for ~20 USD a night was his way of generating some additional income in the mean time.
While sipping Turkish coffee he showed me some of the work he had done – including an article about the former German terrorist group ‘Rote Armee Fraktion’ (RAF). Well familiar with the realities of communism, he was absolutely puzzled why people living in a country like Germany had any desire whatsoever for a communist regime.
His very favorable image of Germany was in line with what I heard from many other Georgians. They were at a loss as to why someone would ever leave a place that ‘offered such amazing study and work opportunities’.
Tamaz’ apartment was impressive. It felt like walking into a living museum, complete with with ornamented wallpapers and painted ceilings. A good part of the furniture seemed to pre-date at least one world war, with quite a few pieces from a time when Austria-Hungary was still a thing. Unfortunately the last time a cleaning lady saw that place could also be dated using European monarchies.
As Tamaz explained, the entire building was constructed by his great-grandfather who made a fortune with lemonade at the beginning of the last century. When the communists came to power, the family got disowned, but was allowed to keep a single apartment in their old house. Remaining units were occupied by other families. My host didn’t seem to be openly bitter or bothered by that.
The former capitalist mansion of Tamaz’ family is centrally located in Tbilisi’s Louis Pasteur road. It seemed a fitting location to become ill after consuming untreated dairy products on a recent hiking trip. Tamaz tried his best to help me and went to buy the Georgian cure-all: Borjomi-bottled mineral water. Beats vodka I guess.
Either thanks to that or due to a veteran-traveler immune system I was back on my feet within a day and off to visit Stalin’s birth town, Gori. There, Tamaz had arranged for a tour of the city with some of his distant relatives. His relatives also presented me with three bottles of Borjomi mineral water – except they had replaced the original contents with self-made Georgian wine.
Leaving Georgia behind, my next stop was Yerevan, Armenia. I had arranged for a last minute room with another Airbnb host: Kara. Where as Joe’s parents offered a family atmosphere and Tamaz set you up in a vintage room, Kara’s place had a bit of a hostel-like atmosphere. With up to five guests staying there at a time, I was sharing the room with travelers from Sweden, France and Iran.
At ~15 USD a night it was by far the cheapest Airbnb place I booked. However, it still came with the occasional (unannounced) meals, coffee, fruits and snacks. Provided amenities included a decent washing machine, a well-equipped kitchen (including a blender!) and a shower that alternated between winter-is-coming cold and the fiery heat of a thousand suns. This said, the place was clean, central and while interactions with the host were somewhat limited, it was an overall good deal. I decided to not lament the lack of immersion and cherish my reduced accommodation expenses.
In the end all three places had their pros and cons, but I’m happy with each of them in their own way. I managed to snap up some coupons as well (Airbnb offers bonuses for signing up as well as referring people), so the first few stays turned out to be particularly good deals.
It might sound counter-intuitive, but I came to prefer Couchsurfing as a host, and Airbnb as a guest. This guarantees the least amount of hassle and the lowest possible expectations by whoever you’re dealing with. A very convenient setup. The extra expenses (or loss of income) don’t amount to much, and considering the cost of your own time (to find, book and coordinate stays and guests), it works out to be a better deal.