I often wonder why I travel, and today the answer appeared to me crystal-clear: I travel to see and understand how humans live around the world. I travel in search for connection, to sense and remember that we are all one.
It was with my heart wide open that I left Kus and his family and friends in Cianjur (West Java, Indonesia) this morning, divided between the gratitude and joy of having crossed ways and the sadness of leaving without knowing if I will ever see them again. What were barely 48 hours spent together feel like a whole life. We are now family, linked forever.
The house of “bules”
Located in Cianjur (two hours ride from Jakarta if traffic allows), a huge village-like regional city, and surrounded with stunning rice paddies and mountains, “Bule Homestay”, Kus’ family house, longs to be a welcoming home where visitors can live the local Sundanese life for the time of their stay.
“Bule, bule!”, will shout out children as soon as they spot you. “Bule”, the word used all over Indonesia to refer to Westerners, means literally “albino”, and not only children are excited to approach “bules” for a chat or for a picture anytime they get a chance. Everyone will be eager to take pictures with you, looking for some form of interaction, and smiles will often be the only common language. It's part of the exchange: “Bule Homestay” is an open house for most of the day, and neighbours of all ages come and go, or stay to chat, drink tea and eat. Not in vain the word “sunda” is believed to derive from the Sanskrit prefix “su-”, meaning “goodness”, “light” or “purity”.
I won't use lines here explaining the diverse programs that Kus offers, which you can easily check on his website and social media feeds (Instagram, Facebook). There's plenty to do, from hikes to overnight stays in remote villages and beaches further away. How I wish I had stayed longer! However, the real thing was what happened in between: the heartfelt lessons on Sundanese, the local language, and the official Bahasa Indonesia, the endless hours playing cards, singing over Kus’ guitar, or sharing the delicious local dishes cooked and eaten together.
We have built so many walls with fear and distrust that it is not always easy to feel that connection. But sometimes you find people that can naturally communicate through the walls, and welcome foreigners, no matter from how far they come from or how different they may look. Indonesian people's smiling and welcoming character is a beautiful example of how we can build bridges that bring us together. This world, so much immersed in violence and otherness, is so much in need of that.
I keep finding myself at awe when I meet people that happen to be a personified bridge, with a certain kind of personality that pushes them to learn about the world, which often means learning English as well. I have learned to recognize them for their thirst to talk with foreigners and for their own dreams of exploring the world, which is often not easy to accomplish.
A teacher with a vision
Born and raised in Indonesia, Kus is one of this kind. An English teacher in a local school, he decided to set up a homestay in his family house a year ago, after some experience working in community tourism. He wanted to do things his way. “I want to share, you know, I do this for my family and for my friends, and for anyone wishing to work with me”, he explains.
Kus operates from his heart, with the help of a creative mind and the many hands of his family, friends and community neighbours that provide all the local skills and resources which guarantee an authentic and fulfilling experience. You can be sure you will be well looked after, their way.
The magic in the “team” is overwhelming: you can tell by the non-stop jokes and mutual care that they are actually family and lifelong friends. I too was traveling with my two cousins and lifelong friends, so the understanding was immediate.
It was thanks to “uncle” Chevy, a free soul that didn't stop surprising us with his smart tricks and artistic skills, Kus’ older brother Raimon, always attentive to details, and the younger Irfan, Roby, and Kiboy, that we enjoyed our time at most. Behind the scenes were Kus’ mother and father, centre pillars of the family, who took us in with open arms. To all of them, I am deeply grateful.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Inside, Kus has a vision, and you can tell by the spark in his eyes when he shares his ideas, that no matter how challenging, he will get it done.
The real thing
The word ‘homestay’ has been sadly abused, to the point that too often it means little more than ‘guesthouse’. If like me you're after authenticity and deep interaction with locals when you travel, here you are a rare chance of giving way to all your capacity of communicating, many times in the global human language of smiles, jokes and mutual recognition, while contributing to a noble mission.
Kus’ efforts to run his project honestly and rooted in strong values going from minimizing environmental impact, enhancing cultural interchange and setting up a working team based on equality will end up having a strong social impact and inspiring people around him. “We all partake in profit sharing and if needed are given generous financial help to support any problems (sickness or if we need to stay home and help our families) preventing work”, he says.
If by the end of your stay you feel anything close to what I did, you will find yourself thinking ways in which you can further contribute. Being it a young project that insists on following an alternative approach to tourism, Kus can very well use any feedback and ideas for improvement you may have.
Let me finish by sharing a note to myself: There's always so much that we can give. From thinking about it to actually doing it there's a small step that changes everything. I do hope one day Kus too will be able to see his dream of exploring the world come true, like you and I did. As he puts it, “Inshallah, one day I’ll do it”.