When we return home, we can put what we’ve learned — our newly acquired broader perspective — to work as citizens of a great nation confronted with unprecedented challenges. And when we do that, we make travel a political act. — Rick Steves, Travel as a Political Act
I want to tell all you travelers or soon-to-be travelers about something really important. It’s not new and it’s doesn’t rely on the latest technology. It doesn’t cost a lot and you can do it either in the US or overseas. You can do it alone or with somebody else. You’ll be richly rewarded, though, no matter how or where you do it.
It’s easy: You can become a SERVAS host or traveler — or both.
SERVAS was created in 1948, shortly after the end of World War II, by a Danish conscientious objector. He believed that it was possible to build stronger foundations for world peace by building a network that would bring concerned people from around the world together to meet and learn from each other — and to recognize that we all belong to one world family.
The word SERVAS itself is Esperanto for “serve” and it truly captures the spirit of international mutual service that characterizes the movement.
Tim and I first learned about SERVAS when we lived in Salem, Massachusetts. A neighbor came over one day and asked if we would be interested in hosting two fellows from Italy. Since we are nuts about Italy, we immediately said yes, but wanted to know more about how he happened to know two fellows from Italy who needed a place to stay. That’s when Bill told us about SERVAS.
He and his wife Marlene had been members for years, it seems, and they had traveled all over the world with SERVAS. They were US hosts, as well, and had people coming to stay later that week. So when they received the request from the Italians, they couldn’t accommodate all of them, but didn’t want to say no. We said yes and it was, as they say, the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Laurent and Roberto are still friends of ours nearly 10 years later and we see them whenever we get to Bella Italia. We also joined SERVAS.
Since joining, we have moved to Virginia, just outside of Richmond, and it’s not exactly in a tourist hotspot, so we don’t get a lot of travelers. We had a couple of young Danish fellows once who were en route to LA and Latin America. Last week, we hosted a couple from New Jersey, who were driving up from their winter digs in Florida. Turns out they’re very big in SERVAS, ex-officio board members, and we got bitten by the “international traveler” bug while listening to their stories of visits in over 100 countries.
So we’ll be trying it out in the UK this September and we’ll let you know how it goes. Here’s what the “brief history of SERVAS” reports:
Volunteers were first found in countries of northwestern Europe who gathered lists of people who could offer free hospitality to approved foreign travelers. It was hoped that, by traveling in the open-door style, people would build links between groups and individuals seeking a peaceful and just society.
A group of leaders from several pacifist organizations in England gave sound roots to the hospitality system, which was known by several names: Peacebuilders, Work-Study-Travel, and Open Doors. Meanwhile, a dedicated Gandhian and Quaker woman in California, “Grandma” Esther Harlan, created the even more extensive hospitality system in North America — using only correspondence to compile a roster of people identified as potential Peace Builders. Within a few years, the movement had taken root in a number of other countries.
Lists were circulated of those willing to open their doors to travelers within the system. Early US hosts included leaders in race relations, Quaker, Jewish, Protestant and Catholic leaders, leaders of cooperatives, peace leaders and village rehabilitation workers. Though a peace-oriented organization, it has never excluded non-pacifists; it has, in fact, welcomed travelers in uniform. From these humble beginnings, SERVAS has reached out to people all over the world, driven entirely by the efforts of concerned volunteers.
Today, SERVAS has hosts in more than 130 countries and has more than 14,000 member hosts and travelers on its books. And since 1973, SERVAS has been recognized as a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) registered with the UN’s Economic and Social Council.
The idea of SERVAS, boiled down to its basics, is this (and these are my words, not theirs): if you actually spend
time with people from other countries and exchange ideas and get to understand a little bit about their politics, religion and other points of view (and they, ours), we might be less likely to blow each other to smithereens in the next awful war.
So what exactly do you do as a SERVAS host? Pretty basic. First you agree to accept travelers regardless of age, race, creed, nationality or sexual orientation. You spend as much time as you can with your traveler, understanding that they probably want to go out and be tourists some time and you may have to go to work. You share ideas about your life, community and interests. You provide a minimum of two nights’ accommodations and make every effort to share at least one meal with them. No money is ever exchanged — they stay with you for free. They may want to reimburse you for food or offer to pay for a meal, and that’s okay. But accommodations and friendship are free.
This has been such a rewarding experience for me and Tim and we are very much looking forward to being on the other side — as international travelers — in a few months. I highly recommend that US readers go to the website at http://www.usservas.org/ to learn about fees and other specifics; readers in other countries should go to the link up top. This is not only a great way to travel, it’s also a great way to make friends around the world and gain a better understanding of what’s really going on out there, as opposed to just listening to the droning, divisive, fear-mongering media these days.
Pardon me if I sound a tad political. But go, do this and travel in peace.