In True Malaysian Hospitality, This Man Has Hosted Over 420 Travellers In 4 Years!
Presumably, most people would be thinking of post-retirement vacations and the joys of doing absolutely nothing. But for this 57-year-old man, it's all about discovering his greatest passion - people.
Anthony Joseph, or fondly known as AJ, is a couchsurfing host. To date, he has hosted more than 420 people in less than four years.
I first came across AJ when I saw a video of him on YouTube. A couple of backpackers called the Budgeteers posted a video titled, 'HOW TO TRAVEL S.E ASIA ON $1000 - Ep.2 - KUALA LUMPUR' on YouTube and in it they shared their experiences of couchsurfing with AJ in Kuala Lumpur.
AJ's candor and laidback attitude was apparent in the video, and the comment section was brimming with people saying that they've really enjoyed staying with the man.
Here's the thing - while the concept of couchsurfing is well known in other parts of the world, it is still at its infant stage in Malaysia and it is not exactly common to see a man around AJ's age becoming a couchsurfing host here. Couchsurfing is a hospitality service for members to stay at someone's home (homestay), host travellers, without any monetary exchange between any of the parties.
So, I sat down with AJ a couple of weeks ago for a chat on how this journey began for him.
"It was actually a pure coincidence. I was on a holiday in Penang, having a drink, when I met two backpackers who were looking for a place to stay at in KL. That's how it started."
AJ saw one of them looking at a website, talking about not being able to find hosts in KL. AJ told the guy that he had a place with three rooms and invited him over. It was as simple as that.
"He stayed at my place for three days and on his last day, he said he wanted to show me something. It was the Couchsurfing website. I didn't even know such a thing existed until then," said AJ.
He thought about it a little, given the taboos associated with bringing strangers into homes and then his first couchsurfer went on to show him how couchsurfing works - the references and rules.
"It seemed legit and I was convinced. So, he got me registered in August 2013 and I have not looked back ever since," added AJ excitedly.
In just a matter of months, over a stream of couchsurfers pouring in, AJ realised how much he liked hosting and getting to know people from different parts of the world
"I got so excited about meeting so many interesting travellers from different countries, their culture - everything was so intriguing. I learned a lot of new things about my country too. I mean, I've lived here for a long time, but I didn't even know Pulau Kapas existed until a met a bunch of backpackers who told me about their trip there!" added AJ, laughingly.
He also got to sample all kinds of cuisine from around the world.
"Right as we speak, Babar, my Pakistani couchsurfer, is making breakfast for us - potato masala and paratha. The other day, Aki, a Japanese acro yoga trainer, made a delicious dish of mixed vegetables and chicken rice," said AJ.
Thanks to his warmth, generosity, and friendly personality, his home and hospitality have become very popular among backpacking couchsurfers
When asked why he thinks travellers enjoy staying with him, AJ's answer was simple.
"I'm nice and I like people. You should stay here for a day, then you'll know," he said jokingly.
"I like getting to know people, their interests, I also ask a lot of questions. People love it when they get to talk about themselves, and I love listening to them. So, it's a great combination," explained AJ.
Staying true to the concept of couchsurfing and what it stands for, AJ's couchsurfers say that he goes above and beyond to ensure that his guests are comfortable and enjoy their stay
"He always makes sure we are well-fed and never hungry. AJ is so fun to be with and in many ways treats us like his friends and not just his couchsurfers," said one of the travellers at AJ's house.
Couchsurfing is basically the best example of gift economy - there will be no monetary exchange between the couchsurfers and their hosts, or any expectations for future rewards.
This is perfect for AJ. "To me it's all about cultural exchange and the bond I've formed with these people that were once strangers. When I first came to know about couchsurfing, it seemed as simple as offering your couch and exchanging some pleasantries."
"But, I offer more than that. I give them my bed and end up sleeping on the couch most of the time because it really doesn't matter to me. What's important is that my guests are comfortable. For me, being a couchsurfing host is like having fun geography/cultural lessons at home!" said AJ.
AJ once drove all the way to the airport to pick up a couchsurfer who did not have money to travel to his house in Cheras. He has even bought bus tickets and helped out travellers who had lost their wallets during their stay.
How is this financially sustainable?
According to AJ, it doesn't cost much. There's of course the increased usage of electricity and water bill, but he says that it can't top the experiences he's gained from being a couchsurfing host.
"These boys are usually travelling on a budget. What I'll do is stock up my kitchen with basics like eggs and instant noodles, so that they can just cook at home. Other than that, there are not a lot of expenses that goes into this."
"It's not about the money, I help them in whatever way I can and they've returned the favour through interesting ways. I've had people drawing portraits of me, one guy even gave me a tattoo. I don't take money, I take a lot of love and hugs!" said AJ.
AJ also makes the effort to take his couchsurfers on mini KL city tours when he's free. "We would usually start around 12pm at Dataran Merdeka, just walk around, and in the evening, I'd take them to watch the sunset from the top most floor of the Traders Hotel."
"Most of the travellers that come to KL want to see two things - the Twin Towers and Batu Caves. So, if I'm busy, I would give them the directions and the city map so that they can take the public transportation to these places," said AJ, adding that his place is pretty near to the BTS LRT and KTM station, which makes it very convenient for travellers.
As someone who has at least six to seven travellers at a time in his house, AJ is pretty lenient with his couchsurfers. All he asks out of them, is to ensure that his house and most importantly, the kitchen area, is kept clean.
"I know some people may think it's a little odd that I leave strangers in my house all the time. But it all comes down to trust for me. Before I take them in, I would usually have a chat with them online, get to know them a little bit, and see if I'm comfortable taking them in," explained AJ.
What are some of the red signals to look out for when taking in couchsurfers?
Anyone with no profile photos, have hardly any information on their couchsurfing profile, or refuse to exchange contact details, is usually a major no-no for AJ.
In the past three years, AJ has hosted all kinds of travellers - from musicians, divers, tattoo artists, to someone who walked all the way from France, his home has been filled with a fascinating bunch of people
AJ explained that he loves it when his couchsurfers have interesting jobs or are on adventurous journeys.
"I'm currently hosting a Swedish guy, Sebastian, who studied yacht management. See, now that's so cool. I didn't even know there were courses for things like this."
"There have been a lot of musicians. Once, I hosted this guy who cycled all the way from Poland and another guy who walked from France. It took him six years to reach Malaysia," said AJ.
Note that AJ doesn't take in female couchsurfers out of respect for religious sensitivity in his neighbourhood.
What is the nicest thing a couchsurfer has done for you?
"A few weeks ago, my brother passed away. The travellers who were staying with me then were supposed to leave and carry on with their plans, but when they heard the news, they decided to stay with me.
"A few people who stayed with me previously even shortened their vacation and came back to KL just so that they could spend time with me. They all stayed for almost seven days - cooked, checked up on me constantly, and tried their best to cheer me up. I was so touched," said AJ.
Being a couchsurfing host has not only widened AJ's horizons, but it has also given him lasting friendships. AJ will be attending the wedding of a couchsurfer he hosted years ago in May.
AJ spoke about a couchsurfer who's buying him a ticket to China so that he could attend his wedding.
"He's Algerian, he met a girl in China during his travels, brought her back here to introduce her to me and now they're getting married. In July, I'm going to Netherlands. It's my first Europe trip and believe it or not, the ticket is a gift from one of my previous couchsurfers!" exclaimed AJ.
"You get back things that you cannot measure with money. That's the beauty of it. People come here as strangers and most part ways as friends. It's such an honor to be a part of that."
"AJ - connecting the world like Nokia, you know."
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