NORMAL, Ill. — As Ha Joo-Young ate a breakfast of thin Dutch pancakes with choices of fillings from bacon to strawberries on a Saturday morning, the 23-year-old South Korean said, “We are lucky today.”
Ha and his travelling companion, Jo Yong-Ju, 19, had spent the night at the home of Willy Hunter and Rebecca Houtsma in Normal, making the connection through a website for cyclists called “Warm Showers.”
The website describes the “Warm Showers Community” as “a free, worldwide hospitality exchange for touring cyclists.”
All hosts are expected to do is provide a place to stay, whether it’s a room with a bed, a couch or a place to camp.
But Hunter and Houtsma take being hosts a step further.
They provided both dinner and breakfast for the two college students who are riding across the country to raise awareness about “comfort women” who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military before and during World War II.
“For me, the meals are very important. It’s my way of being part of the adventure,” Houstma said. “For the 12 hours or so that we have them, they are our family.”
Before the cyclists left, she and her husband also gave them sandwiches, energy bars, Gatorade and homemade banana-chocolate chip muffins.
“I want to fill them with as many calories as I can,” she said.
Hunter said becoming part of Warm Showers was an idea that had been “percolating for the last few years.”
After becoming empty-nesters with their youngest child in college and space available, they decided the time was right, he said.
Ha and Jo are the third and fourth cyclists they have hosted. The others were another Korean cyclist and a 70-year-old man who rode from Seattle “doing a bucket list kind of thing,” said Hunter.
“I like people who are on adventures,” he said.
Michael Gorman of Bloomington has been a Warm Showers host for nearly two years.
The co-founder of the cycling advocacy group Bike BloNo first learned about it from a musician who was travelling by bicycle and Bike BloNo had invited to town in September 2015.
“I signed up that night or the next morning,” Gorman said.
Since then, he has hosted about 20 people.
“It’s a really interesting, unique way to meet people,” he said.
Jo and Ha have been finding places to stay through Warm Showers wherever possible along their route.
The concept seemed surprising to them at first, with Ha saying people in his country usually are not as welcoming to strangers.
“The kind of reception we have had in the United States is cheering us up very much,” said Jo. “It makes us more brave and comfortable and confident.”
The trip is the first time the young men have been to the United States.
“We’ve gone through 10 states and the scenery keeps changing,” said Jo. “It’s very impressive and beautiful.”
Warm Showers isn’t the only part of the “sharing economy” in which Hunter and Houtsma participate. They also are part of an international program in which people swap use of their recreational vehicles.
“Not many people from abroad want to swap in the Midwest,” said Hunter, but a couple from Wales will be using their RV later this month to see the total solar eclipse in southern Illinois and travel the Great Lakes area. Hunter and Houtsma used the couple’s Volkswagen camper while visiting Wales.
A person from France also has reserved their RV.
“The camper now has its own calendar,” Hunter said.
Gorman said he has used Airbnb, an online lodging program that includes private residences, but he “didn’t really have a connection.”
With Warm Showers, participants are “all cyclists, so you have that in common,” he said.
Hunter said, “Most people on CouchSurfing (another global network) and Warm Showers are not just looking for a free space to stay; they’re looking for adventure.”
“And they like meeting new people,” added Houtsma.