Arya Satya Nugraha
About two years ago, Dwi Rezeki Kirana Bangun received a phone call from her startled mother asking her to come home because a 30-something man from India, who claimed to be her daughter’s friend, had just knocked on the door and wanted a place to stay during his visit to Jakarta.
“It was my bad because I didn’t tell my parents in advance that I was going to host him,” said Dwi, 19.
Dwi and her Indian “friend” met on the website couchsurfing.org, a worldwide volunteer-based network that connects travelers with people in local communities for free accommodation and traveling tips.
Couch surfing was first thought up by American Casey Fenton in 1999. After working on the concept and website for five years, he officially launched it and ever since, it has been the go-to place for travelers looking for interesting and cheap travel options.
Although the concept of couch surfing — crashing on someone’s couch or floor instead of renting accommodation — is hardly new, it took some time for Indonesians to wrap their heads around the concept.
While the website’s statistics show no Indonesian had signed up in 2005, by April this year, around 30,000 Indonesians were registered — with the majority being between 18 and 24 years of age.
Indonesians first took note of couch surfing after it was mentioned in several popular travel books, such as “Keliling Eropa 6 Bulan Hanya 1,000 Dolar” (“Traveling Around Europe in 6 Months for Only $1,000”).
But still, it seems the concept of couch surfing has not been easily adopted by this country. Many young Indonesians still live under the same roof as their parents, which makes it harder to invite a stranger one has met over the Internet.
But some couch-surfing site users have their parents’ blessing, especially after they have experienced the hospitality of strangers themselves.
When architecture student Jessica Seriani, 21, went to Singapore with her family in August 2010, she was still a newbie to the couch-surfing community. She was not looking for a free place to stay, but rather for a local “companion” who could show her and her family around.
Keith Mok, a 23-year-old local, responded to her message and offered to be the guide for the family vacation. Jessica’s mother was overwhelmed by his friendliness and generosity, as he drove them around and even bought them tickets for several tourist attractions.
“My mother finally figured out what couch surfing is all about,” Jessica said.
About a month after the Singapore trip, Jessica received a request from a French medical student who was looking for a place where he and two friends could crash during their three-day stay in Jakarta.
Because of their positive experience in Singapore, the whole family gave their consent to host the European travelers. In fact they were all enthusiastic about welcoming guests from abroad into their home, Jessica said.
“Even my grandmother was pleased,” Jessica recalled. “Since Francois was a medical student, he helped her with her medicine every night before she went to bed.”
It is not only hosting travelers that can make for a memorable experience, but being a couch surfer in a stranger’s home can also be interesting.
Dwi once traveled alone to Singapore and Malaysia. In Penang, she crashed for free with fellow couch surfer Pierre.
“His apartment was modern-minimalist style with a nice interior, and from the veranda, you had a view of the sea,” Dwi said. “I don’t know how much I would have paid for a hotel with a view like this.”
Admittedly, she said she was a bit scared, but her worries were unfounded. Both Jessica and Dwi agree there is no place for fear if you really want to take full advantage of the opportunities provided by the couch-surfing community.
“There is a recommendation box on the profile of a couch-surfing member, and we can make an early assessment of hosts and surfers by viewing how many positive comments they have received,” Dwi said.
And just to avoid surprises along the way, if you still live with your parents, you should tell them in advance if you decide to offer a bed to a complete stranger.