Whenever we have talked about CouchSurfing on the site, people have remarked in the comments about how lucky we are that our experiences across the board have been unequivocally excellent. Although I will allow that there is inherently some element of uncertainty and risk when you agree to meet strangers from the internet in real life, I don’t think that our positive experiences are the result of chance. Heck, I don’t even think it’s because the world is predominantly made up of good people and that CouchSurfing has attracted an unusually high proportion of said individuals.

The truth is, Tony & I take CouchSurfing pretty seriously. If we’ve had good success with the people we’ve met through the site, it’s because we are really picky and put a lot of time and effort into selecting potential hosts. Maybe some Surfers just see the program as a means to a free bed, but we know that if we don’t choose our hosts wisely and simply fire off requests to anyone offering up a place to stay, we’re far less likely to enjoy the experience. To really make the most of the program, we approach every CouchSurfing situation as an opportunity to make a new friend, which means we make a considerable effort to thoroughly read profiles and only approach people we genuinely think we will be compatible with and enjoy meeting. On average, we send no more than three requests for any given city and I spend about 20 minutes crafting our initial inquiry. It’s a lot of work to put into something that might not work out or even elicit a response in return, but for us, the effort has absolutely been worth it; I’m sure our diligence plays no small part in why our CouchSurfing experiences go so well.

With all this said, Tony & I were especially excited to meet our host when we landed in Malaysian Borneo. From the moment we found Glorina’s profile, we knew there was no one else with whom we wanted to stay. Her smile lit up her photos and her profile exuded warmth and positivity. When we read that she was originally from the Philippines, we were convinced that she was someone we just had to meet.

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Within minutes of arriving in Kota Kinabalu, we knew we had made the right choice. Although Glorina does not drive, she had made arrangements with a friend so that she could come pick us up from the airport. As we took our first steps into Borneo, Glorina was there waiting for us and immediately swooped us up into a hug so warm, it rivaled the island’s own tropical heat. It was an excellent way to begin and a sign of things to come; I felt like I was being reunited with the Filipina mom I never knew I had.

With a local by your side, you always find the best things to see and do in a city… even when you find yourself in KK, a place with little to recommend it. Though we had landed in Borneo with visions of being surrounded by untamed jungle and rustic living, we found KK to be your standard Asian city complete with shopping malls, traffic, and the ubiquitous rubbish and pollution problems. It wasn’t much of a stretch to understand why most travelers spend as little time as possible there before departing for pretty much anywhere else in the province. Practically everyone who stays longer than one night has plans to tackle the nearby mighty Mount Kinabalu; obviously Tony and I had absolutely no interest in even attempting to climb the highest mountain in South East Asia in any capacity, so we had to find other ways to enjoy ourselves.

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Happily, Glorina was more than up to the challenge. With her as our guide, we uncovered the simple joys of day-to-day life as it is lived in her adopted home, the nearby town of Penampang. We took frequent trips to the center of town where we would wander through the incredible little market where inhabitants conduct all their important business, whether it’s grabbing a cup of tea and catching up on the latest gossip, getting a hair cut, or shopping for the ingredients that will make up the day’s meals.

For most of the week, the market is a sleepy affair, as if it is biding its time and gathering its strength so that come Thursday and Friday, it can spring to life. On these days, merchants from smaller surrounding towns bus in and set up abundant displays of their wares inside a maze made up of tents and awnings.

Unsurprisingly, we loved the produce section best of all. Everything was so colorful, and we were in awe of the many exotic, mysterious fruits we saw. We were so keen to identify and understand everything we were seeing that Glorina not only tirelessly answered our rapid-fire questions (“What’s this?” “Custard apple!” “But what’s this?” “Snake fruit!” “And this?” “That’s… a shoe.”), but was so delighted when we identified a fruit by its Filipino name (“We know this one! It’s a lanzone!”) that she then hectored several of the vendors into giving us free samples so we could know what all these new fruits tasted like. Careless of time, we spent several hours sampling unusual-looking items though, regrettably, not a bag of live grubs, which a local assured us would make Tony a real dynamo in the bedroom… Throughout it all, Glorina held my hand and led the way, surely causing not a few people to wonder why she had never mentioned that she had a daughter.  Together, we walked and gawked at the tables overflowing with brightly colored fruits, vegetables, and other edible offerings, many of them completely foreign to Tony and me. Because Penampang is even less of a tourist destination than KK, we were the only tourists browsing around and were as much a novelty to the many vendors as their goods were to us. Virtually everyone we encountered greeted us with bright smiles and would enthusiastically pose for photos and attempt to entice us over to their tables. Truly, if you ever need proof that Malaysians are a friendly and welcoming lot, just head to the markets!

Our few outings into the heart of KK proper were spent on visits to the hilariously outdated and somewhat bewildering Sabah Museum, attending screenings of the latest terrible blockbusters for just $2 a person only to spend hours afterwards sputtering with mirth as we tried to unravel their nonsensical plots, walks along the boardwalk where our cries of laughter carried out far into the South China Sea, and—finally!—a pretty epic evening belting out the biggest ballads in a karaoke room of our own. I have no idea how we managed to avoid doing this when we were actually in the Philippines (a colossal failure on our part, if you ask me!) where not one night went by without us being serenaded by the not-so-dulcet tones of an exuberant Pinoy, but I’m immensely glad we had the chance to rectify our omission. I can only assume our fellow karaoke patrons were overjoyed as well…

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But these moments in the city were really exceptions rather than the rule that dominated our time with Glorina, as the majority of our time was spent happily at home where we got to once more experience the wonderful hospitality for which Filipinos are famous. Despite having lived in Malaysia for many years now, in her bones, Glorina is a true Filipina mama, and that means that whenever we were at home, she was always trying to get us to eat!

Sometimes Tony & I have wondered if the reason we were generally less than impressed by food in the Philippines is because all the good chefs have migrated elsewhere. Staying with Glorina definitely added fuel to that fire. Despite her claims that she was the worst cook in her family, believe me, this lady knows how to cook. Her perspective might be a bit skewed because while were visiting, her son (who had just graduated from culinary school) was in Singapore doing an apprenticeship in the kitchens at the Marina Bay Sands… talk about setting the bar incredibly high! Food, however, always tells the truth, and both Tony & I agreed that if you can make a macaroni salad that features fruit in combination with Miracle Whip and is then garnished with flurries of grated cheese and make it more good than bad, you have skills!

When Tony and I decided to head to Borneo, I anticipated that our time there would be characterized by adventure, but I never expected it would take place in the culinary arena. However, Glorina welcomed me into her kitchen and even taught me some new dishes, which excited me to no end! With her assistance I finally conquered a food fear and learned how to make fresh pasta from scratch. I had always thought it would be daunting and difficult (not to mention extremely messy!), but the simple egg dough she taught me couldn’t have been easier.  What I loved about Glorina’s method is that it so closely mirrored my own approach to cooking as everything was done by taste and touch: letting my hands guide me, I eventually discovered the correct consistency of the dough on my own. If it was too dry, it didn’t hold together; too wet and it would get caught in the pasta maker. Under Glorina’s watchful eye and patient tutelage, I churned out three batches, each one a little more successful than the last.

To celebrate my triumph, Glorina headed to her outdoor kitchen and whipped my noodles up into an amazingly aromatic stir-fry that featured crunchy prawns, velvety pork, and a wonderfully smoky “wok flavor.” We accompanied it with pork bathed in a rich sauce infused with the flavors of Chinese five-spice, red beans, star anise, ginger and soy.

Pleased with my progress, Glorina invited me to join her in the kitchen whenever she cooked and taught me to whip up some of her favorite meals. Together, we conquered battered fried eggplant, pork liver with ginger, chicken soup infused with ginger and lemongrass, and a beautiful stir-fried veggie dish that featured fresh edible flowers. Best of all, every single dish was made with love and used ingredients that had been sourced from the local market. No matter how far we travel and how many incredible dishes we eat, food made at home with friends always tastes best!

To say thank you to Glorina for her generosity and for making us feel so welcome, we ended our stay with a visit to KK’s infamous Filipino market, a fitting venue for a farewell dinner if ever there was one! Down by the docks, the market is considered the city’s best outdoor eating venue and it is packed to the gills with vendors serving up fried and grilled treats, with a particular emphasis on fresh seafood. After browsing the myriad options, we decided on a plate of spicy chili crab, black pepper squid, and two grilled fish served with a pepper-laced dipping sauce. The atmosphere around us was raucous and rowdy, and we were surrounded by fellow diners enjoying great food and the cooling breeze floating in from the sea. The food was flavorful and cheap (our feast only set us back $12US!) and we were left with no questions in our minds as to the market’s popularity and renown. The competition wasn’t exactly tough, but this market was far and away our favorite amongst KK’s admittedly limited attractions; the company just made it all the sweeter.

Under normal circumstances, Kota Kinabalu would not be a place that would lure us into lingering but through the magic of CouchSurfing, when I look back on our time spent there, it is only with the greatest fondness. I think of the small moments that felt like anything but—the walks through the markets, the late nights spent singing, my hands and clothes dusted with flour and speckles of dough. I think of Glorina and her beautiful smile, and it brings one of my own to my face in turn. The more I travel, the more I truly believe what matters most is not where we spend our time, but with whom we choose to spend it. I know that when it comes to KK, we could not have chosen any better.

Author profile: Stephenie Harrison


In another life, I moved from Toronto, Canada to Nashville, TN to pursue my doctoral degree in Psychology. That chapter of my life is now finished, but I did earn the right to demand you call me Dr. Steph (though I respond just as well to plain old Steph). I am an avid reader whose book collection is rivaled only by my many pairs of cute shoes. I also like to knit, hold impromptu karaoke parties, and try new and unusual foods. Generally not all at the same time. I also really love to learn languages, which may explain why I took 3 years of Latin in highschool. I'm turning over a new leaf, so instead of looking forward, I'm going to work on enjoying the present, so the country I'm most looking forward to is whichever one we're in right now!

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Read comments (32)

  1. December 3, 2013 at 2:27 am
    Dec. 3, '13

    What a wonderful experience Steph. You know we CS quite a lot when we can because, as you proved here, seeing places with the guide of a local makes a massive difference. I too realized that the best traveling memories I have are related to the people we met (most of the time trough CS, including you two :) ) it’s what makes traveling special :)
    Franca recently posted..Hamburg’s New Lightastic Subway Station

    • December 7, 2013 at 10:14 am
      Dec. 7, '13

      Yes, I never really understood the whole “people are the places” mentality I had heard about in a backpacking documentary I watched until we actually got out here and started traveling and meeting people for ourselves. There are some places that we visited that I am sure we loved as fiercely as we did not for any inherent charms of these places themselves but simply because we loved the people we met there so much. Now I find I travel just as much for these local connections as I do to visit new places. I know you and Dale perfectly understand this philosophy!

  2. December 3, 2013 at 7:53 am
    Dec. 3, '13

    Glorina does have a beautiful smile! And all those dishes look and sound delicious – I love when the experience of a place is shaped by these kind of special memories.
    Emily recently posted..28 Days to Go: Wintry Weather

    • December 7, 2013 at 10:17 am
      Dec. 7, '13

      Some people you judge based on their handshakes, but you know everything you need to know about Glorina just from her smile!

  3. December 3, 2013 at 10:33 am
    Dec. 3, '13

    This is so awesome, guys. Sounds like it was almost like being back home with close friends and family. Hooray for CouchSurfing!
    Sim recently posted..Drywalling

    • December 7, 2013 at 10:19 am
      Dec. 7, '13

      Who would have ever thought that Tony & I would love CouchSurfing as much as we do! And yet, when we have experiences like this, you’re exactly right that it makes us feel like we are back at home surrounded by the best people. It definitely helps keep us from getting lonely (or killing one another!) while also helping us see parts of places we’d never uncover on our own.

  4. December 3, 2013 at 10:54 am
    Dec. 3, '13

    i love this post!
    Hogga recently posted..Why Everyone Should Go Eat a Pecker

    • December 7, 2013 at 10:22 am
      Dec. 7, '13

      Glad to hear it!

  5. December 3, 2013 at 12:09 pm
    Dec. 3, '13

    Haha I love Glorina! I want Filipino mom too! This looks like such a great experience (and Steph, I am starting to see how you’re passing for a local in so many countries… what is your background???)
    Rika | Cubicle Throwdown recently posted..Rainy Roatan Nights

    • December 7, 2013 at 10:26 am
      Dec. 7, '13

      I think we all want a Filipino mom… and even though not a day went by in the Philippines where someone didn’t ask me if my mom was Filipina, even I feel the lack in my own life.

      I am a mixed bag if ever there was one—my dad’s Canadian and his background traces to Eastern Europe and England, but my mother is originally from Trinidad… and her dad was Chinese. So I pretty much look like a local everywhere we go. The greatest irony of my life is that people will accept that I’m from anywhere in Asia but when I tell them I’m Canadian, they will not have it!

  6. December 3, 2013 at 4:29 pm
    Dec. 3, '13

    I love how HAPPY Glorina looks in all the photos. She must have been contagious to be around.
    I had a similar thought when I just flipped through these photos before reading… by her friendliness and closeness I assumed she was a relative! And then I’m reminded of a time I visited an “uncle” in Slovenia (he is my aunt’s uncle, and that aunt married by dad’s brother… so not a blood relative). I went with a friend of 100% Korean descent. His tiny village was actually too small to be called a village – it was just 25 homes. It was an unforgettable trip. There were cherry trees in his backyard and a castle on the hill, a small walk away. We would spend the evenings eating local sausage and cheese and testing out the neighbours’ homebrew. His neighbours, when they saw us, wondered who the heck those two girls were. Uncle Tony just laughed and said that my friend “really takes after her mother!”
    Colleen Brynn recently posted..Sola In Anguilla

    • December 7, 2013 at 10:32 am
      Dec. 7, '13

      Love your story and it just adds fuel to my personal belief that family is what we make of it and goes well beyond blood. We’ve met so many people on this trip who have shown us incredible kindness and intimacy even though they had no reason to do so other than the goodness of their hearts. None of these people have been related to us in any way, and yet I feel as close to them and as protective of them as if they were.

  7. December 3, 2013 at 5:43 pm
    Dec. 3, '13

    Glorina looks like such a wonderful, heartwarming person! I love her just from your photos and description. And the food sounds absolutely fantastic! :)
    Casey @ A Cruising Couple recently posted..Santa Teresa, Costa Rica: First Impressions of the Surf and Yoga Paradise

    • December 7, 2013 at 10:35 am
      Dec. 7, '13

      I expect that following this post Glorina will be inundated with a fresh flood of CS requests… and knowing her, she’ll probably accept them all with open arms! 😉

  8. Maureen Kuehn
    December 4, 2013 at 2:38 pm
    Dec. 4, '13

    I loved this article,it makes me want to be there,maybe when you get home you can teach me how to make noodles!!were wondering where you 2 are right now ?? Glad your down off the mountain and staying warm,write soon if you can

    • December 7, 2013 at 10:55 am
      Dec. 7, '13

      Since you taught me how to make a killer pie crust, the least I can do is teach you how to make noodles from scratch. I just hope I can remember how to do it (I think I will—Glorina was a great teacher!)…

      (P.S. Tony sent you guys a message on Facebook… we are alive and well!)

  9. December 4, 2013 at 6:51 pm
    Dec. 4, '13

    Glorina sounds like a fabulous second mama! I agree with you that people get out of couchsurfing what they put in. I also take my time in choosing a host, partially because I do it for the experience, like you, and partially because I want to avoid getting somewhere and not feeling comfortable, then having to make up an excuse to leave and find a hotel. Luckily, I haven’t had to do that, even though I keep my options open to it, and I’ve encountered nothing but gracious, generous hosts like Glorina. It’s the people and the culture that make a place special, even if there isn’t much in to see as far as tourist sites, and couchsurfing is a great way to make that possible. I always leave feeling like I got so much more than I gave (like cooking lessons and tours, etc.), but I try to always bring something to the table as well. So glad you had (and continue to have) a fabulous experience. I’m such an advocate of the site!
    Jessica J. Hill recently posted..I’m Going to Travel Colombia by Motorcycle!

    • December 7, 2013 at 8:27 pm
      Dec. 7, '13

      I completely agree that you get out of CouchSurfing what you put into it (that’s probably a good rule of thumb for most things in life!). We haven’t become besties with every single person we’ve stayed with, but we’ve never had a bad experience and I have to think that’s because we put so much effort into selecting our hosts in the first place. I hope they feel the same when it comes to us—I know that our many experiences as Surfers have definitely changed they way we will approach hosting should we ever have a home of our own one day.

  10. December 4, 2013 at 8:46 pm
    Dec. 4, '13

    Even despite your previous pleasant experiences, I was still skeptical of Couchsurfing. I’m such an introvert that I’d much rather have a private hotel room to retreat to at the end of the day. But this makes me want to sign up and go stay with Glorina immediately!
    Heather recently posted..Say What? The Best Chinglish from Two Years in China

    • December 7, 2013 at 8:45 pm
      Dec. 7, '13

      I cannot stress enough just how much of an introvert I am. A huge part of the reason why we don’t use CS more is probably because as much as I love it, I definitely need my own personal time and space and if we do it too much, I get stressed out. We’re just really mindful of this and space out our Surfing accordingly. We may only Surf once a month (actually a high estimate), but it means we have the energy and interest to really make those experiences count. One thing to remember is that we’ve rarely stayed with anyone for longer then 3 nights and we have always wound up in places where we have our own room. So I still get privacy and I’ve rarely felt overextended or stressed out when we’ve Surfed.

  11. December 9, 2013 at 3:33 pm
    Dec. 9, '13

    Oh man, how I miss snake fruit!!

    Kim and I have never tried couch surfing. I’m not really sure why, other than the initial awkwardness of meeting new people and having them show us around their city. I’m glad to hear you have had good experiences – and a great one with Glorina!
    Brian recently posted..Unwanted Advice: How To Book Hotel Rooms

    • December 10, 2013 at 11:05 pm
      Dec. 10, '13

      I do have to mentally prep myself to meet strangers and force myself into extrovert mode but it’s actually never been awkward and we’ve always come away from visiting these places with a much deeper understanding of them and their people. Traveling as a couple, it’s easy to fall into an impenetrable bubble where you only talk to one another for days on end so these interludes can be a nice way for us to break out of the bubble and expand our horizons. Hope you guys do get to give it a shot at some point; we’ve made a lot of great friends along the way (many of whom we continue to keep in touch with).

  12. December 9, 2013 at 10:36 pm
    Dec. 9, '13

    That’s awesome.

    I believe what you said about Filipino food. We have a lot of Filipino friends back home and I always remember meals and parties with them to have the best food – hence why I was so excited to go there. I think it’s just better when you’re getting a great homecooked meal rather than a restaurant in a tourist town. It’s kind of how I feel about a lot of the food here in Laos, too. I bet we’re just not getting exposure to the best this country has to offer.

    I will definitely consider your method for when (not if, I swear!) we try out couchsurfing, which we still have not attempted yet….
    Carmel recently posted..WAT TOOK YOU SO LONG

    • December 10, 2013 at 11:14 pm
      Dec. 10, '13

      I thought of you several time while writing this—I figured this exactly the kind of CS experience you would love to have! I figure cooking + markets = Carmel heaven! 😉

      So many Filipinos work in other parts of the world as chefs, and so I honestly believe that the people who have stayed behind maybe just aren’t that great and that’s why the food scene is so lackluster for the most part. Or maybe the home chefs are just incredible so people don’t bother eating out because it’s tastier and cheaper to eat at home. I’d definitely believe that because the few homecooked meals we had in the Philippines really were as good as any other country’s cuisine. If only the whole country dished up food as good as Glorina’s, I would have been in heaven.

      (Also, you are not the first person to remark on Laos’ somewhat lackluster dining scene. That’s a good thing for me to file away (and is a bit how we felt about Cambodia, to be honest).)

  13. December 11, 2013 at 2:42 am
    Dec. 11, '13

    We didn’t think much of Kota Kinabalu as a place either. We did meet the friendliest people during our trip to Malaysian Borneo though; a local couple we stayed with in Lahad Datu took us to a small market too and it was great. It sounds like you absolutely made the right decision to stay with Glorina; how sweet that she held your hand all the time and cooked with you too!
    Amy recently posted..Visiting Koh Tao

    • December 14, 2013 at 10:20 pm
      Dec. 14, '13

      Malaysians really are so hospitable and friendly—I was so glad to read that you had such a wonderful time during your time in the country. Although I find a lot of Malaysian cities can be kind of forgettable, it’s the people I remember and I think that’s the better tradeoff!

  14. December 12, 2013 at 6:29 am
    Dec. 12, '13

    Yay, so lovely to read this. Steve and I are massive couchsurifng fans too. And, like you, we take it pretty seriously. We hosted in London so know all to well what it’s like to receive twenty copy and paste requests every day. When you use it well, it can be such an amazing tool to meet like-minded people as this post so beautifully demonstrates.
    Victoria recently posted..A weekend by the beach in Bali

    • December 14, 2013 at 10:25 pm
      Dec. 14, '13

      Oh, I can only imagine what a nightmare it would be to have a couch up for grabs in London. There’s no way Nashville gets the same kind of traffic and we still had our fair share of requests to weed through in the weeks leading up to our own departure. But you’re right that you can really tell when someone has made the effort to write a thoughtful request. And it really is a wonderful way to meet lovely people whose paths one might otherwise not walk. Definitely one of our best decisions to sign up for this service, both as hosts and as surfers!

  15. December 12, 2013 at 10:43 pm
    Dec. 12, '13

    This is true for me, as well. The places in Argentina where I have the best memories are definitely the couchsurfing hosts that I connected well with. And some cities that I really enjoyed were tainted by strange company.

    People are the most important part of any trip! Also, if you get the chance to ship any of this delicious looking food to me, I would be endlessly grateful. Thanks. 😀
    Sally recently posted..The Guide: Teaching English in Korea

    • December 14, 2013 at 10:28 pm
      Dec. 14, '13

      Yup, time and time again we find that the places we love the most are the ones where we have had some kind of meaningful connection with the locals. Whether it’s CouchSurfing or becoming locals at a restaurant or stall and having the owner recognize us, when you really get to interact and get to know the people who populate the world around you, that’s really when the magic of traveling happens!

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