P e a c e a n d U n d e r s t a n d i n g
T h r o u g h T r a v e l & H o s t i n g
by Maryellen Vander Sluis Napa, CA
We had amazing experiences with all of our hosts. Pat and Martita Rice, with the help of her grandson Andy, shared their experience of Belfast and the period of the Troubles which gave us an insight that would not have been possible in any other way. They also took us to hear traditional music and also had a friend who came to the home with bagpipes and played just for us.
Ian Hunter acted as our guide through Cambridge and took us to dine in New College, where his involvement as a senior student gives him privileges.
Sarah Couch and Hywel Edwards introduced us not only to the quaint and very charming village of Eynsham, just outside of Oxford, but also the garden at Rousham House designed by William Kent in the 1730s. That was a sight which we definitely would not have seen but will always remember.
In addition to our three Servas stays, we also spent a week sharing a holiday house in Ireland with Servas friends from Holland and we had dinner in Dublin with a host whom we had visited in 2004. In London we spent 5 nights with a couple who were our very first Servas first hosts 1995, and who had also stayed with us in California 2016. We have had so many long-lasting friendships that grew out of Servas!
by Catherine Stevens, Corvallis Oregon
This July I traveled around France and furthered my French language education with the help of the Servas Youth Language Experience (SYLE). I also learned a lot about myself and gained confidence traveling by around a foreign country by myself. All told, I visited over 20 different cities and villages within six of the twelve regions in France! I tried regional food, learned about the history and conquests of different regions, and had a chance to experience neighboring countries (language, food, people) depending on which countries bordered the area I was in.
I started my journey by staying with a family in Milly-la-Forêt, near Paris, where I was introduced to daily family life in France. This included learning about the local markets, grocery stores, and French cooking. I helped my host mom with make a fancy dessert for her retirement party: apple roses!
One of the day trips I took was with my host family’s son to a nearby town called Barbizon. There I saw a house from the 1800s where early Impressionist painters lived and paid their rent by painting on the walls of the house because they couldn’t make enough money selling their paintings.
Another trip I took was into the nearby Forest of Fontainebleau, where I found natural sand deposits and huge rock formations. It was such an unexpected landscape to see.
I quickly became used to traveling by train and bus. I was able to take a bus into Germany on one of my off days because I was near the border. France is an old enough country that they developed their buildings and roads before cars became popular. For this reason, many roads are very narrow. Oftentimes cars will park up on the sidewalk to make room for traffic to go down the road. I also saw busses sharing a one-lane street with traffic coming from the other direction. I was surprised the first time I saw it, and then I realized that the city wasn’t going to push back buildings that were hundreds of years old just to add another lane for cars.
My next host family was in Pontcharra, near Lyon, in the south-east of France. I enjoyed exploring the town and nearby cities by train. My favorite memory is going to Chambéry with my hosts to watch the World Cup semi-final game that France was in, and won! It was there that I tried what is now my new favorite type of sausage, Diot. It is specific to the Savoie department in France, which was evident when I couldn’t find it anywhere else in the country.
Watching the world cup with one of my host families in Chambéry
One of the most interesting realizations I had was that most intersections that are not T-shaped have a roundabout instead of standard intersections with stop lights. I also noticed that in the middle of many of the roundabouts is a statue. For example, the Arc de Triomphe is in the middle of a six-road intersection. So my theory is that when roads became more developed, and needed to intersect, roundabouts were implemented as a way to not have to remove these landmarks. I personally think they are better than intersections with stop lights because they force drivers to slow down and look around themselves at where others are, rather than relying on the color of the lights.
Spending the day on the Bretagne Coast
My third host family was in Plerneuf, near St. Brieuc, in the north-west of France. It was very convenient timing that this was my last location, and this was my only host family who had time to come with me to various coastal towns nearby. After a month of spending my days mostly by myself, it was a good contrast. Out of all the towns we visited, I was absolutely blown away by the beauty of Perros-Guirec.
My hosts and a pesto pasta dinner I made in Plerneuf
I learned that France used to be controlled by other countries, before it became one country. This means that various regions used to speak different languages. As it turns out, the Bretagne region (where I was staying) is one where some people still speak (and some schools still teach) the old language, Breton.
The new foods I tried were incredible. Of course, the French are famous for their pastries, but I also discovered apple and pear sorbet and savory foods such as new types of seafood, shellfish, sausage, Breton galette (savory crêpe), paté, and rillette (similar to paté). For my last host family, I made them one of my favorite dishes: pesto pasta with sautéed zucchini.
Catherine Stevens has been a Servas traveler since 2016. She is a college student in Oregon, USA and previously worked as a web developer. She enjoys baking, trying new recipes, and cycling.
"Spent a wonderful evening with Servas member from Istanbul at a gallery exhibition opening and traditional dinner. How fun!"
"Since my first independent trip at 16 I have continued to follow my passion for travel all over the world to more than 100 countries. My travel has been enriched by volunteering and supporting projects around the world: from toilet blocks and water tanks in Burmese orphanages and Batwa Pygmy schools to preschools, libraries, water wells and latrines in Cambodia. I have written travel articles in many magazines, particularly about the world through the eyes of women I have met. I have also published books of poetry for children and books of encouragement for parents. My interests include art, wine making, flower arranging, great movies, and literature. This past year I have travelled with my husband to many countries around the world and we were very fortunate to connect with many Servas members, particularly in New Zealand, Georgia, and the Middle East. We will be traveling for another year and are looking forward to meeting more wonderful new friends."
By Ksenija in California: USServas traveler since 2017
Phoenix member, Paula Cullison, writes about her 2018 travels on her website: www.paulacullison.com. See some of the images she shared from this trip below. Paula is also the founder and president of the Arizona Women's Partnership non-profit NGO, as well as a travel writer.
‘Oh the Places You’ll Go … Oh the People You’ll Meet’,
- notes Dr Seuss in one of his books. I decided on another trip to South America, since I felt a need to experience more of the people and the cultures of this continent and while I still remember some of my Spanish. Our South American Adventure was focused on Argentina, Uruguay and Chile, as I had been to Peru and Brazil years ago.
By from Hope Finckelstein, member since 1985, based in Anchorage, Alaska
We asked Hope if we could publish the story on her Letter of Introduction (LOI), that inspired us all when we read it several months ago. She heartily agreed:
"As a college student, I traveled Servas to Europe. Before I visited Freiburg I called ahead. When Otto the host answered, he asked me, "Are you a Jew?" Shocked and frightened, I almost hung up the phone but my gut told me not to. He explained he was delighted to me come and looked forward to sharing his Judaica library. That visit changed my life. Otto talked until 5 am sharing stories of his childhood, getting swept up in the Hitler youth movement and how he "never had better breakfasts" than when he was an American POW. Until that time, I equated "Nazis" with monsters. I couldn't imagine human beings, like myself. As I listened intently to this gentle, German grandfather offering his slice of history aside the best black forest cake ever my heart swelled with deep compassion. Human to human, we time traveled Servas and breathed peace. Since then, my family & I have enjoyed Servas hosts in Spain, Israel & Costa Rica."
Hope supplied this statement to go with the post:
"I’m sure Otto and his wife have passed, since this visit happened 35 years ago. This experience transformed me to be a global citizen. In this moment of global crisis, the Servas stories and relationships remind us of our solidarity with our international friends. Thank you Servas for facilitating global solidarity." - March 20th, 2020
by Richard Martin, Bakersville, NC
When I decided to go to Cuba, I immediately began to wonder whether there was a Servas organization and whether I might meet up with day hosts or even overnight hosts to help acclimate me to my exciting adventure. I contacted the National Secretary (and host) Michel Sanz. A few weeks later, he was waiting for me on a street corner with his 4-year-old daughter, Samila, as my taxi slowed to a crawl.
Michel and I instantly smiled as we recognized each other. He picked up one of my bags and we walked half a block and two flights of stairs to his small apartment. A bonus was the discovery that his two children were temporarily staying with him. My stay would be so cozy – and so friendly!
In the morning, Michel walked me to the local café, ordered us two espressos (75 cents each!), helped me exchange currency and gave me a short course on Havana’s sites, bus routes and taxi costs. Then he pointed the way to Servas in Cuba .
Michel primarily works as a travel guide in Cuba, most often with groups from France since he is multi-lingual, like almost all the people I befriended there. But now Michel had his hands-full caring for his two children. He was very apologetic that he couldn’t show me around. But lucky me! One of my life’s greatest pleasures is exploring and discovering the delights and surprises of a new city on my own – getting lost (and hopefully found again). This sense of joy was re-ignited again as I walked open-eyed into the core of the remarkable crumbling, restoring, 500-year-old city that is Havana.
Havana is clearly a city (overall population 2 million), but Old Havana is a place unto itself: compact, organically grown, walkable and safe. There are museums, including the Cuban Art Museum, the Museum of the Revolution and — no surprise! — the Museum of Rum. And then there is the famous three-mile waterside promenade, El Malecon, that leads to the “newer” neighborhood of Vedado and the must-do tour of the Hotel National and where you can get a glimpse of Havana’s glitzy and decadent side when American sugar-plantation and mine owners, bankers, and the Mob ruled Cuba prior to the surprising, spectacular revolution of 1961.
I thought of Cuba as a fairly small island nation, so it was a surprise to discover that the island is nearly 800 miles long! Its many climates, its geography, confounding economy and long tumultuous history has created a rich and diverse culture that was nothing short of amazing to me. Depending on the length and desired pace of one’s stay, there are options. One can easily spend a busy, stimulating, yet somewhat leisurely week in Havana. However, I’d recommend fleeing the city if you can, if only for a day trip here, an overnight there.
Having the leisure of spending an entire month in Cuba, I first traveled east and stayed 10 days in Ceinfuegos, the so-called “Pearl of the South”. I found many delights there and made wonderful friends. More laid-back than Havana, Cienfuegos is wonderfully walkable and beautifully situated alongside the Caribbean Sea.
En route to Cienfuegos with my tour group, we stopped at the Bay of Pigs and toured the museum there. The story of the revolution and the failed invasion and attempt to overthrow the Castro government by the CIA is very much the story of modern Cuba to this day. Although our guide put a decidedly pro-governmental spin on it, it is widely accepted that pre-Castro Cuba was country of corruption and decadence for the few, but abject poverty, squalor and a life that bordered on enslavement for the many. One does hear couched criticism from many younger Cubans regarding their lack of opportunity and their inability to travel abroad. But, overall, my sense is that the Cuban people are proud and of their country and satisfied with their lives. Not to overly-romanticize or ignore Cuba’s many shortfalls, but on the surface at least, it seemed the Cuban people are happier than people in the United States. I needed to see this with my own eyes since I could not have imagined it, considering what I had been told all my life about the misery inherent in their socialistic way of life. As Servas members know, traveling is education.
What called me to visit Cuba in the first place was its history and musical traditions, but another key interest for me was to discover its World Heritage sites, its organic farms and national parks. This quest led me west to Piñar del Rio region, where I stayed in the small town of Viñales for five nights in a comfortable casa particular at $10/night with one of the yummiest, most bountiful breakfast I’ve ever had for $5! My host family was caring and friendly, and treated me as though I was a member of their four-generation family. They arranged a horseback ride deep into the farming region and protected lands where I learned about their natural (“organic”) methods of growing crops from coffee to guavas to tobacco, and the bee-keeping practices that helped them eke out a living. The young men I met there told me that their land, the opportunity to do what they loved, and their ability to prosper and raise families was the direct result of the Revolution. Their grandparents had had nothing. Then the Castro government confiscated large holdings from the rich and gave them the 10 hectares that they use to make a living today.
I had so many experiences in Cuba that it is not an easy task to decide the highlights, but the Havana Jazz Festival was certainly one of them. Yet again, my Servas host Michel came to the rescue! Several weeks before I was to fly to Havana, I had heard that the legendary Havana Jazz Festival would coincide with my visit. I e-mailed Michel: “Is it possible to get tickets?” He replied yes, and he did: a front row seat tickets to the festival’s closing “exclusivo” closing concert by “El Comite" in the newly restored Jose Marti Theater in Old Havana. Cost? $20!
See: El Comite: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=151UE9o2Vro
Since returning from Cuba, I’ve compared notes and impressions with others who have visited. One friend told me that, as a single woman walking Old Havana, she suddenly realized how safe she had felt, that she wasn’t always looking around in caution. Indeed, I too had noticed this. No matter where I roamed, I felt generally safe: curiosity from those I met, but also an immediate sense of friendliness and welcome, almost without exception.
In fact, I had heard many times that Cuba is one of the safest countries in the world in which to travel. It’s true that Cuba is a so-called police-state, a term that conjures all sorts of disturbing and worrisome images. But the sense of safety may also have to do with the fact that private ownership of guns is illegal. Or with the fact that in such a culturally diverse country with a long history of struggle, the Cuban people have become more tolerant and accepting of one another than what’s found in so many other parts of the world.
In summing up my time in Cuba, this is what I’ve come up with: Cuba is close. Cuba is fascinating. Keep your eyes open, smile often, and you’ll be richly rewarded. It’ll feel easy; you’ll feel safe. It will be a memorable journey, a journey of a lifetime.
*Note: The Cuban government requires that homeowners be licensed and charge a taxable fee to have anyone other than a Cuban national stay with them overnight. This applies to Servas travelers from abroad. The average nightly rate in a casa particular (private home open to guests), even if the owner is a Servas host, averages $25/night in Havana, $10 in rural areas.
Blogger Conner Gorry owns and operates the now-closed English bookstore/coffee shop, Cuba Libre, in Havana, and provides this insight on daily life amidst the coronavirus. Here is an excerpt from her full posting:
“Cuba is doing a bang-up job of getting a handle on the coronavirus. Early, effective measures adapted from decades of successful infectious disease control; clear, comprehensive, daily communication from the highest ups; active screening of over 6 million and counting; treatment and tests for everyone needing them; isolation and quarantine centers throughout the island; and all manner of steps to assure food supply, defer taxes and licensing costs for private businesses, guarantee salaries (at least in part), and prioritizing the most vulnerable, including those with pre-existing conditions and the elderly – these measures are making an impact..
However, Cubans are extremely social and it’s so hard for us not to kiss friends cheek-to-cheek. We too have ‘stay at home’ and ‘social distancing’ orders, but many of my neighbors are out and about buying flowers and ice cream. I get it. You can’t live on bread, rum and good humor alone (though sometimes it seems like it here!). And most people have to work! So we cajole each other to maintain social distance because we know how hard it is to refrain from doing so ourselves.
I know the economic reality of this is hitting everywhere hard all around the world. But at least here, you will never be put out of your home. At least here, food, medicine, and utilities are subsidized, and education and healthcare are free.
Each morning, I wake to this nightmare that is our new “normal”, don my mask, pick out my pandemic-designated clothing for the day, change to my outdoor shoes and walk my dog, Toby.
Such is life in Cuba today.”
Mother’s Day 2020
A friend with whom I traveled in Cuba, who has many good friends there, told me of the deep sadness the Cuban people were feeling on Mother’s Day. It is a bigger holiday there than here, but stores are essentially closed, and one can’t buy a Mother’s Day card. Even the cemeteries are closed; no one can lay flowers their mother’s grave. But after 500 years of occupation by foreign invaders, the Cuban people have a remarkably indomitable spirit. For now, they are biding their time. I know that, surreal and troubling as it all is, they will soon rise and dance again.
by David Schwartz, Oakland CA
To call our stay with Eloi and Susanna in Catalona, Spain “memorable” would be a huge understatement. They didn’t have room to host us in their flat in Berga, so they offered us their country house – and a car to get there!
We were invited to a lunchtime gathering of friends on the grounds of a castle, with live musical accompaniment. Then a walk downhill to the medieval town center to behold the death-defying spectacle of “human towers” created by groups from all over the area, a local tradition. We spent our last morning hiking in the Pyrenees and unfurling their Catalonian flag atop a peak from which we could view a panorama of the region of our splendid stay.
by Mary Altier, La Selva Beach, CA
In 1994, we stayed with Servas hosts all over Brazil. When we realized our planned trip was in the middle of the World Cup, we changed our itinerary to make sure we weren't flying between cities on game days. We wanted to be with Brazilian families when their team was playing so we could share the experience —and we weren't even sure the planes would fly on game days! We shared the World Cup experience in many ways. When we were in simple homes, we packed onto the roofs with our host families, friends, relatives and neighbors of all ages to drink icy cold beer and eat snacks while cheering the Brazilian team, viewed on small televisions. During the final game, however, we happened to be on the other end of the spectrum, accommodations-wise. Our hosts lived in a penthouse overlooking the glorious muggy skies of Rio de Janeiro.
That was the night the Brazilian team won the final. We watched indoors but when the match ended, all of the windows and doors were thrown open so we could hear the entire city cheering as fireworks exploded like a thousand Fourths of July!
Julia (Yunja) Choi from Servas Korea is making YouTube videos for her Korean Cooking Lessons for Servas members in the time of Corona.
The first episode teaches you how to make KimBab, and the second video teaches you how to make a Rolled Omelet.
Spend time at home planning for your next adventure
By Kari Bodnarchuk Globe Correspondent,Updated April 2, 2020
US Servas was recently mentioned in a Boston Globe article. Below is an excerpt. Read the full article Read the full article HERE.
"Look into homestays. After this period of isolation, you’ll likely be more than ready to embrace the world and connect with other people. Local hosts worldwide take visitors into their homes for free, and provide safe, friendly environments for cultural exchange. Some hospitality groups are geared specifically to individual or women travelers — you stay with other women around the globe, for instance — while others cater to seniors, or gay or lesbian adventurers.
During my around-the-world, solo trip, I spent anywhere from two days to two weeks with more than 20 different host families, including a train conductor in New Zealand, students in Indonesia, a doctor in Malaysia, a retired teacher in Thailand, and a shoemaker in India.
These were, by far, some of the most profound experiences of my trip.
I arranged those homestays through Servas, a nonprofit, nondenominational, and nonpolitical peace organization. Started by American students in Denmark in 1949, Servas is active in more than 100 countries and aims to “build world peace, goodwill, and understanding” by getting people from different cultures and backgrounds together. Meet local hosts for a day or stay with them for up to two nights (or longer, if invited). To join Servas (www.usservas.org), pay a small annual fee and complete your interview remotely (through an online service). Then start connecting with other members through new virtual meetups and virtual dinners."