Interview with US Servas: Servas Fosters PeaceThrough Intercultural Exchange

How to become a concerned traveler, not just a tourist..

Servas travelers are warmly welcomed in more than 15,000 homes throughout the world.

You know by now that one of my underlying goals for this web site is to encourage intercultural exchanges, to make connections between people of different cultures which helps us all break down barriers between people and create more tolerance and understanding. Personally, I am a big advocate of traveling for the purpose of connecting with local residents to get an idea of their lifestyles and their philosophies.

SERVAS is an interesting organization that facilitates intercultural exchange by bringing together travelers who are interested in intercultural exchange as well as local hosts are willing to host these travelers (free of charge) or spend some time with them. Servas members are now represented in over 130 countries and it’s a great organization if you:

– would you like to visit foreign countries and take part in everyday life

– would you like people from other countries to join in your daily life for a short time

– want to try to overcome your prejudices to communicate with others

– believe that peace is possible if everyone truly wants.

Through an Internet search I was able to locate the US head office of Servas and I approached Carole Wagner, Office Manager, and Patrice Samara, Executive Director, at the New York head office of US Servas to shed more light on this interesting organization.

[Editor’s comment: please note that some of the information in this article is specific to Servas USA, while the general historical and philosophical underpinnings of this organization are applicable to all member country organizations. More specific membership information for each country can be obtained from the local country branch of Servas International.]

1. Please tell us about Servas, what kind of organization is it? What benefits does it offer to travelers?

US Servas is a nonprofit organization whose goal is to promote peace through
intercultural exchange. People can join as a traveler, as a host, or as both
a traveler and as a host. but you don’t have to be both. One can also become
a contributor to Servas.

Travelers can benefit by meeting and living with people in the country they
are traveling to. If you enjoy sharing good conversation with new people
and being part of a host family’s life, you will enjoy Servas.

Since no money goes to the host family, many people think, “Oh this a great
cheap way to travel “. That is not what we are. Our goal is peace, not
inexpensive travel. We are different than a lot of other similar groups in
that we interview all prospective travelers and do not approve those whose
attitudes and goals do not agree with Servas.

Our mission statement is: ” US Servas fosters a more just and peaceful world
by promoting appreciation of cultural differences through homestays and
experiences in the hosts communities.

We have hosts in over 130 countries and there are close to 15,000 hosts
worldwide. In the US we have 1,500 hosts.

2. When was it started and who created it? What is the philosophy behind Servas?

Servas was started in 1948 by Bob Luitweiler, a conscientious objector.
It was right after WWll and it originally had the name Peace Builders.
Bob established local groups in different countries to promote peace and to
make a change in society.

He built a hospitality system in Finland by going to Settlement Houses. In
Germany, he got people who were in labor movements to join. In Denmark, he
approached Folk High Schools, and in Britain he approached a Pacifist
service group that had community housing and worked with social outcasts to
bring them back into society. In the US he knew a woman Esther Harlan who was a Quaker, she had a large list of Quakers who became the first US Servas hosts.

3. How does Servas work, what countries can I visit and how many members are there?

Each country prepares its own host list. The list includes in addition
to the name and address of the host, their age and what languages they
speak. It lists their interests, what countries they have traveled to and
lived in and organizations they belong to. This helps the traveler to pick a
host who they have something in common with.

The traveler must contact the host, either by phone, letter or email if they have email, tell them when they are coming and ask if it is convenient for them to visit. Sometimes hosts will say no, either because they have family visiting, or just had a
Servas guest and need some time in between guests. They may also be going
on vacation themselves. Travelers should be aware that in July and
August Europeans go on vacation and you may have more difficulty finding a
host at that time.

4. Please tell us about some of the events that are organized by Servas.

Servas has an international conference every 3 years. US Servas has an
annual conference. This year it will be in Vancouver Canada, combined with
Servas Canada.

Many large cities have a monthly get-together of hosts, travelers and
friends, either in a restaurant or some member’s home; often everyone
contributes a favorite dish. This month in NYC, we will have a garden party
in a Brooklyn host’s garden.

5. What does being a “Servas Host” or being a “Day Host” entail?

A day host is someone who does not have room to accommodate a guest
overnight, but is happy to spend time with a traveler during the day,
sightseeing or having a meal. A regular host will put up the traveler for 3
days and 2 nights. Occasionally the host will invite the guest to stay
longer.

We discourage just a 1-night visit, as this does not enable the
host and traveler to really get to know each other. Host are not obligated
to give the guests meals but most do. If you were going to India or Africa,
or other poorer countries, it would be nice for the guest to contribute
toward the meals.

As a host in NYC, I usually spend time in the morning over breakfast, talking to my guest and helping them to navigate the subway system if necessary and making suggestions on things to do, if they don’t already have a list of what they want to do. I often invite them to visit the Fulton Fish Market early in the morning, since I live close by. This is not a usual tourist sight. I cook one dinner usually and suggest dinner in Chinatown for another meal. Sometimes they offer to cook for me. I have
some wonderful recopies given to me that were cooked for us in our home.

6. What suggestions do you have for someone trying the Servas concept for the first time?

If you were thinking of becoming a Servas traveler, I would say that you
should not plan on staying every night of your vacation with a Host. If you
can set up visits with hosts, you can certainly do that, but I feel that I
am listening and talking much of the time during a visit, so that I need
some down/quiet time after each visit. If you are a very quiet person and
uncomfortable in new social situations, Servas may not be for you.

A traveler must be open to new people and willing to join in with the host or
host family. Servas does not want travelers who plan just to use the host
home as a hotel. You will spend some time with your host, and how much time
depends upon your host’s schedule.

When planning your trip, contact more hosts than you will plan to be staying
with in case some are not available.

7. You personally have traveled through the Servas network. Please tell us about the countries, places and people you visited.

My husband and I have traveled with Servas to Germany, Switzerland, Iceland,
Vancouver / Canada and Bonaire in the Caribbean. We’ve also stayed with hosts
in the US. In Germany, we stayed with a couple that had a large house, so
we had our own bedroom and bathroom, which was nice. (You might sleep on a
mattress in a living room, as we did with another host.) She was a
wonderful cook and they took us around in their car to see some sights, and
we also went to visit another Servas host who was a wine merchant. We
enjoyed the visit very much.

In Iceland, we stayed with the main contact for Servas. I had called her for advice as to where to stay. Even though she was only a day host, she invited us to stay overnight when she heard I worked at the Servas office. She also took us around one entire day showing us all of Reykjavik. We had a wonderful dinner of boiled salmon; I never knew boiled salmon could taste so good.

When she came to NYC the following year, she and her husband stayed with us.
Her husband, who is a carpenter, fixed my dining room chair for me. We
remain good friends and keep in contact.

When my husband and I travel to the Caribbean, we always stay at an inn.
But since there are 7 hosts in Bonaire, I planned to visit them all as a day
host.

One lovely older couple invited us over the evening they had a party for
their 2-year-old grandson. We met their entire family. Not everyone spoke
English, but they were so hospitable. Julio asked me if I ever had eaten
iguana. I said no. He said he would catch one and then invite us over for
dinner. It was delicious, tasted like chicken.

Another host in Bonaire was planning a birthday party for an eighty-year-old
friend. He played in a Mariachi band. She invited us to the party. It was
difficult to find the place, so we picked up a local who drove with us to
the party. There were over 100 people there and the music and food were
great. I think we met half the people who lived on the island. If I had
not known Servas hosts I would never have had these experiences.

8. Please share with us your 3 favourite travel memories related to Servas.

On our trip to Switzerland we stayed with a host near Lake Lucerne. She
rented an old farmhouse on the side of a mountain overlooking Lake Lucerne.
It had the most beautiful view. I took lots of photos, especially sunsets.
We slept upstairs in the loft and had millet pillows, very comfortable. We
took a hike with her through the countryside, and she walked barefoot all the
way.

I remember her cat, Shacti, who was often left alone for a week at the
farmhouse, and she subsisted on mice. But she would not eat the gall
bladder. We were told by the host that she could count the tiny gall
bladders and know how many she had eaten. One day I observed the cat as she
caught a mouse and watched her carefully remove the tiny gall bladder. She
knew her mouse anatomy.

In Vancouver we stayed on the mainland with a great couple, our age, and
after our stay, we were planning to go to Victoria. They suggested we stay
with a Servas host, friends of theirs, who owned a B&B. But the host book
said that in May they did not take Servas guests, as it was the busy season
for their B&B. But we called them anyway and they said sure we can take you
but you have to make the bed for yourself and again when you leave for their
next “paying” guest. They had a wonderful dog, very friendly. I tend to
look for hosts with pets, as I love animals. It was a great visit, great
hosts.

My next memory comes from my hosting experience. I’ve been a host for over
15 years and have had many more hosting experiences than travel experiences.
I received a letter from 2 young men from Togo Africa. I had never even
heard of Togo before this. They planned to come to NYC and wanted to stay
with me. It was their first Servas experience. I was expecting them on a
Sunday evening and had a lamb dinner prepared. But they did not come. I
was disappointed. Monday evening we got a call from them, they were at the
Togo embassy in NYC and asked if we could pick them up. AL and I went to
pick them up and found out that Jean could not speak any English and Leon
only a little. I speak very little French, which was their native language.

This was my only visit where language was a problem. But we managed. I did
not get to learn very much about them and their country due to the language
problem. But in our attempts to communicate we had many misunderstandings.
For example, I have a cat, whose kitty litter is in the bathroom. So I
tried to tell them they should not close the door to the bathroom when they
were finished so the cat could get in to use the kitty litter. Well, the
next day, my husband said to me, they did not understand. Leon is in the
bathroom peeing with the door open. He must have thought we were very
strange.

But, Leon and Jean never went back to Togo. Due to many unforeseen
circumstances, they stayed in the US. Jean won the green card lottery and
Leon got Political asylum. I am still in close contact with Leon, and in
fact we were witnesses at his marriage to his fiancé from Togo. Now his
English is much better and we can communicate. We laugh over the bathroom
incident.

9. How do I become a member of US Servas? How much does it cost?

In order to join Servas USA, you need to fill out a Letter of Introduction,
which you can download from our web site. The letter has a space for you to answer some questions in an essay form. This is where you get to tell your host about yourself.

Spend some time filling this out as your essay will make you
stand out to your host and they will be excited to host you. Then you need 2
letters of recommendation from friends or coworkers. Then you will call an
interviewer (we have over 200 in the US) and meet for an interview. We
charge $85.00 annual fee plus a $25.00 deposit that allows you to get up to
5 countries host lists. The deposit is refunded when you return the books
after your trip.

{Editor’s note: membership prices and guidelines vary from country to country. For specific information please direct yourself to your national Servas branch, which can be located through Servas International.]

Thank you, Carole and Patrice, for your time, your information and for sharing your wonderful experiences.

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